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Cracked Stars Shining

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Later, it will seem strange that the person who instigated the entire thing was Remus Lupin. Quite unwittingly, of course, but it was his idea, after his friends in New York learned that their housesitter backed out. A couple, two men, one wizard and one Muggle, both professors at one of the universities there. They were due to leave for a semester's sabbatical at Oxford—and two weeks beforehand, their housesitter, full of apologies but lacking anyone to cover for her, took off for California.

At first Hermione declined, when Remus phoned. She'd never even been to the States; why would she want to go there by herself for six months? "Think it over," Remus had said in his mild way, and then Tonks had stolen the telephone from him.

"Go on, girl, do it! You don't have to stay the whole time; they have friends there who can go water the plants and get the mail. Take someone with you! Have a fling!"

"But I don't know anyone in New York," Hermione protested.

"Exactly," Tonks had said. "You don't know anyone, and no one knows you. No history. You're just a pretty girl having her summer in the city."

Hermione bit back an I'm not pretty.

"I don't have to stay the whole time?" she said.

"No. I'll give you a Portkey; you can come back when you wish. Just go have some fun." Tonks's voice had softened. "You deserve to have some fun, after all this. Why do you think Remus rang you?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It's a foggy July morning when Hermione meets Ginevra at Remus and Tonks's flat in North London. It's Ginevra now, not Ginny, not since last fall: "That's a child's name," Ginevra had said defiantly, standing in the rain in Sofia, Bulgaria, where Harry, Hermione, and Ron, on the hunt for Voldemort, had tracked a group of Death Eaters, and where Ginevra had tracked Harry, Hermione, and Ron. "It's a child's name, and I'm not a child, and if you fools think you're going on this ill-conceived quest without me, you can think again."

Hermione remembers looking at Harry and Ron, and thinking that the issue of a name was the least of the problems the appearance of Harry's ex-girlfriend and Ron's little sister would cause.

Tonks gives them each a Portkey in the form of a spectacularly ugly handbag, dull olive green with orange sequins. "This way there's not a chance you'll carry it around by accident—can you believe these hideous things?—but you should be able to find it easily. They're set to your parents' houses." She also gives them Muggle-style keys for the front door—"But Nigel spelled the locks to open for both of you, so Alohomora should suffice." She hugs them both. "Have a wonderful time. Be good—no, what am I saying? Be bad! Misbehave terribly!"

"Honestly, Tonks," Hermione says, though she can't help a smile. "I'll just be glad to have some time to read."

"Oh, come now. Misbehave just a little. Just so you can say you've done it."

Hermione wonders if what happened with Fred and George counts as misbehavior, and concludes that it does—while the activity itself might not, partaking in that activity with identical twins most certainly counts. But that's a minor infraction, in the scheme of things, especially now that she knows what it means to commit a major one. Something unforgivable. I've misbehaved more than you'll ever know, she thinks, then pushes the image out of her head. The nightmares are bad enough. She doesn't need to think about this during the day.

"We'll do our best," Ginevra says. "Ready, Mione?"

They hug Tonks, put their hands on their Portkeys and on their suitcases, and count softly to three. There's the familiar feeling of being pulled by one's belly button—

—and then they're in the quiet, shadowy room, somewhere they've never been.

Hermione hears Ginevra say, "Lumos," but she just goes around and turns on the lights instead.

"Wow," Ginevra breathes.

It's a gorgeous, airy flat, all creams and blues. It feels alive, oddly, in the way that old houses do, in the way that 12 Grimmauld Place did—but this house feels joyful, inviting, happy to have occupants to shelter and protect. Hermione rests her hand on its wall, and maybe she's mad, but it's as though the spirit of the house is smiling, telling her she's welcome.

They're standing in its foyer. There's a kitchen right in front of them, not enormous but big enough to have space enough to move around and still have room for a small table. The furniture in the living room is modern but comfortable-looking: a long, low, white couch; several overstuffed chairs; a telly; a coffee table as well as a proper dining table; and, of course, rows and rows of bookshelves. Hermione can't wait to explore them. But first they shove the curtains open, filling the flat with light; they open the windows. There's a little garden out back in the tiny fenced-in yard. It's perfect.

They use Mobili ("Mobilimpedimentia!") to levitate their luggage upstairs. There are two bedrooms: a larger one at the back with an enormous sleigh bed, and a smaller one at the front, with a smaller bed but bright with sun. There are ceiling-high bookshelves and a desk so old Jane Austen might have sat at it.

"I like the front room," says Hermione.

"Good," says Ginevra, "because I like the back." And she moves her suitcase into it, shucks off her shoes, and installs herself cross-legged in the middle of that huge bed, smiling and looking for all the world about eight years old. With her newly short hair, Ginevra looks a great deal different from the girl Hermione is accustomed to knowing—although judging by the various Weasley reactions when Hermione went out to Ottery St. Catchpole to deliver Crookshanks into their care, so does she.

She cut it a week after she got home. After the last battle, after Harry woke up, Hermione went back home to Northampton for the first time in more than a year. The last time she'd been at her parents' house was for the Christmas holidays her sixth year at Hogwarts; after that, the war had taken hold and hadn't let go until Hermione, on a soft, breezy May morning, had stood weak and gasping (but she had stood) and stared down at Voldemort's twisted and very, very dead body on the floor of what had been the Three Broomsticks. And even then it was only a partial release: The war hadn't ended for Hermione (or Ginevra, or Ron) until Harry, two weeks later, had woken up in his bed at St. Mungo's and asked for Chocolate Frogs.

They'd taken him back to the Burrow, where (despite his and Ron's decidedly unmarried state) he had slept in Ron's room—in some ways as though it were no different from any other visit in previous years, and in other ways completely different. Hermione stayed three weeks, until Harry was completely well and whizzing around out back on his Firebolt. And then the offer from the Tutshill Tornados came through, and Hermione felt she could leave without guilt. They were all safe; Harry would be doing what he loved best; both he and Ron would be living with the one they loved best; and if Hermione had to watch them snog one more time, she was going to put that Firebolt through one of their heads. And so home to Northampton she went—to the extent, at this point, that it could be called home.

She'd planned to do nothing but sleep once she got there, but she hadn't counted on the war: the nightmares. And so she spent her days and nights reading; eating supper and watching telly with her mother (her father was rarely home after the first token couple of days); and reacquainting herself with the use of things like washing machines and computers. While poking around on the World Wide Web (something taken for granted in the Muggle world but almost entirely new to her), she ran across a picture of a pretty actress with a chic cap of short curls. Hermione had tugged a hand through her own hair, printed out a picture of the actress, and the next morning Hermione went to a hair salon in town. It's the shortest her hair's ever been. It's not, of course, as stylish and chic as the actress's, but that's why she's a film star and Hermione isn't. She's just glad to have her hair under control and out of her face for the first time in her life.

Ginevra's hair is also newly short, but it doesn't look as though she got it professionally done; for that matter, it doesn't even look like a Molly Weasley special. It had been a long, loose, leonine mane (it always reminded Hermione of portraits of the young Queen Elizabeth I, with Ginevra's light hair and dark eyes); now, honestly, it just looks as though Ginevra took a pair of scissors to it, and not particularly carefully. Hermione understands the desire to get rid of vast quantities of hair, though Ginevra's was gorgeous and Hermione's was awful, so the motivations had to be slightly different. But it's a time-honored female way of marking transitions, an exterior symbol of an interior change. She just can't imagine why Ginevra didn't at least let her mother do it; if nothing else, the cut would have been even.

Hermione toes off her own shoes and flops down across the sleigh bed, with its acres of crisp white duvet. "What do you feel like doing?" she asks. "We should go to the grocer's at some point, but we don't have to do it now."

"Let's have a walk around the neighborhood," Ginevra suggests.

The street is as perfect as the flat: tree-lined, with a row of townhouses (including the one they step out of) on one side and a park on the other. They make note of their address: 325 East Tenth Street, number 1. They're between avenues A and B.

The park is Tompkins Square Park, and they walk through its stately greenery, which is populated by a large number of considerably less stately people. Dogs run in little penned-off areas set aside for them; a group of Hare Krishnas clang by (Hermione starts, but Ginevra doesn't, possibly because growing up in the wizarding world has accustomed her to large, noisy groups wearing robes); people lie on the grass and sleep and talk and kiss and read.

The other side of the park is less picturesque than the street where they're staying, but it's all interesting. They see old men playing dominoes, listen to raucous political debates (Hermione explains to Ginevra what a president is, and that the United States has one, and that he's neither very popular nor very bright), hear music float and pound from cars as they pass. There's the jangle of rock, the compelling beats of hip-hop, the spice of salsa, all combining with the sounds of the people on the streets to make a new, separate music. Ginevra looks overwhelmed. Hermione feels the energy like a tangible thing, so much of it that it seems to want to lift her into the air and let her fly.

They pass an HSBC bank, and Hermione remembers a practical concern: She needs to take money out. She drags Ginevra with her, and Ginevra cocks her head as Hermione inserts her card into one of the ATMs. She's got a good bit of money, from a variety of sources: Some of it is her savings, amassed carefully from years of birthday and Christmas gifts. Some of it she talked her parents out of: Long ago, before anyone except officials in the Ministry of Magic knew she was a wizard, her mother and father, back when they still spoke to each other and to her, set up an account to save for her university education...and another to pay for her wedding. Most of the university account was spent on Hogwarts, since university-level education doesn't exist in the wizarding world, but the wedding account remains untouched. She pleaded with her parents to let her use the money as she chose ("I'm never going to get married—the bloke I thought I'd end up with left me for another bloke!"), and finally her mother gave in. (If her father had an opinion on the matter, he wasn't home to tender it.)

And then there's the Gringotts vault opened up in her name—from the Ministry, "hazard pay."

Well, that's certainly one way to look at it.

Before Hermione left for the States, she Apparated into the nearly deserted Diagon Alley—rebuilding has started, but it's slow—and emptied the Gringotts vault, converting everything to pounds sterling and then going into Muggle London to deposit it into her HSBC account. It's much, much more than she'll need, but it's her money and she wants to have access to it.

Now, across the ocean in the East Village of New York City, Ginevra stares at the computerized screen as Hermione inputs her secret code. (It's Ron's birthday; she reminds herself to change that forthwith.) "How does that…that machine know your name?" Ginevra asks when Hermione's full name appears. Having never seen an ATM before, Ginevra has no idea that it's incredibly bad form to stare over someone's shoulder as they look at their accounts.

"It's connected to my Muggle bank," Hermione replies as she asks for a hundred dollars.

The money spins out into Hermione's hand. Ginevra takes one of the twenty-dollar bills and examines it. "So you give this to someone, and they give you your money?"

"No. You took Muggle Studies, silly. This *is* money."

"But it's just paper."

"That's how Muggles do things." Hermione puts the money into her wallet and gets her card back. She wonders how she'll explain credit cards. "They don't use gold except to wear."

"Oh." Bemused, Ginevra hands back the twenty. "But what if it gets stolen, or burned?"

"Gold can get stolen, too. Anyway, Muggles do more or less what wizards do: try to get it back."

It's got on towards lunchtime, and they find a café to have something to eat. It's full of people talking, eating, working—alive and vibrant the way Diagon Alley used to be before the war. Hermione has a plate of pasta with eggplant and mozzarella, and a glass of iced chai so spicy she can taste the cardamom and black pepper. It's all delicious.

Ginevra eats half a sandwich—not much, for the girl who usually finishes off all her own food and that on her neighbors' plates besides—and gets her own glass of chai after trying Hermione's. "So what are we doing now?" she asks when they're finished.

"We're going shopping," Hermione pronounces.

"For what?"

"For clothes."

Ginevra gives her a Look. Ginevra is very good at Looks. "Why? And since when have you cared about clothes?"

"I haven't had new clothes since my fifth year at Hogwarts. There have just been too many other things—life-and-death things—to pay attention to. But now that there aren't, necessarily—" Hermione shrugs. "We're in the most fashionable city in the world and we have the exchange rate on our side. I'm just suggesting that we put that to use, is all."

"Oh. Well, you go. I'll explore the neighborhood some more. Or something."

"No, you should come with me. Your mother gave me some money before we left. She wanted me to keep it as a surprise." This isn't exactly a lie: Molly Weasley had given her a bit of money, intended to cover food for Ginevra. Hermione hadn't wanted to take it, especially since the Weasleys were caring for Crookshanks during her absence, but Mrs. Weasley had insisted. Hermione did convert it into pounds during her stop at Gringotts before she left, but she hadn't decided what finally to do with it.

"There's enough for some new clothes and spending money," Hermione goes on, though this has branched definitively into the territory of lying, even with the exchange rate. But Ginevra, obviously, has only the faintest of concepts about how Muggle money works, and while she'll see the numbers on the tags, they'll mean nothing to her.

Hermione finds the papers in her bag: Before leaving England, she went online and printed out the addresses for some shops in New York.

She's been looking forward to this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

"It's strange," Ginevra says later, musingly, as they're looking through a rack of dresses at a store called Anthropologie. (The misspelling bothers Hermione; she can't see any good reason for it.) Hermione doesn't think she'll buy anything here; even with a favorable exchange rate, it just seems ridiculous to spend two hundred dollars on a cotton dress. "This is so different from shopping at Diagon Alley."

"Do you like Diagon Alley better?" Hermione asks.

Ginevra scrutinizes a blue-and-white striped dress with a sailboat motif emblazoned throughout. (Sailboats? Hermione thinks. Really, who thought that was a good idea?) "I don't know. I suppose it depends...Well, if you're in Madam Malkin's and you need something, she can show you precisely where it is and you don't have to search until you find it. But everyone knows what you buy. If you go into the apothecary and ask for something strange, everyone knows. If you buy your robes at the second-hand shop, everyone knows that, too." There's no extra inflection in Ginevra's voice when she says this, but Hermione can't help wondering if she's thinking back to her own several years of second-hand robes. "Here, I don't think anyone cares. If you want to buy ground-up newt's eyeballs—or whatever the Muggle equivalent might be—or a tarty dress, no one will look twice."

"Do you want to buy a tarty dress?" Hermione can't help asking. "There are some very cute boys in New York, after all."

Ginevra glares at her. "No. And I don't want anything with sailboats on, either." She returns the offending garment with perhaps more force than is strictly necessary.

"This shop's overpriced anyway," Hermione says. "Let's go somewhere else."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Once they get somewhere sailboat-free, Ginevra loosens up and delves into the shopping with an carnivorous enthusiasm similar, Hermione thinks, to her Quidditch playing. They find some sleeveless shirts that nicely set off Ginevra's light brown eyes and strong Chaser's shoulders—and some skirts and shorts that Hermione thinks would flatter Ginevra's curvaceous figure, but Ginevra shoots them all down, opting instead for two pairs of combat trousers, baggy and with lots of pockets, a pair of khakis, and a pair of jeans. All are intended for men, and in order to fit them over her hourglass hips, Ginevra has to get them so many sizes up that you can barely tell there's a girl under there. But Ginevra seems to like how they look, and when Hermione opines, "They seem a little loose," she just shrugs and says, "They won't fit otherwise." Which is true, but not the point Hermione was trying to make.

Hermione does buy a pair of the combat trousers—they seem very practical, and they are comfortable—though in something closer to her own size. Everything else, though, is ridiculously, unquestionably girly: A yellow dress with spaghetti straps and a low neck that sets off collarbones Hermione never realized she had. Another in gingham, which does make her look a little like something off the American prairie, but it's so cute that Hermione gets it nevertheless. Something in black—this is New York, after all—sleeveless, with a surplice neck and an empire waist. Some of the same shirts that Ginevra got, a pair of jeans, and two pairs of shorts: one canvas, the other denim. (She tries to talk Ginevra into some shorts, what with the heat, but Ginevra holds firm in stubborn Weasley tradition; she does, however, relent enough to agree to what are apparently known as capris.) New knickers—she's neither five nor eighty-five, and she's old enough to have things in pretty colors and with lace and that her mother didn't pick out. And, finally, shoes for them both: canvas trainers, red for Ginevra and blue for Hermione; and sandals, brown and oddly sensible for Ginevra (they look like gigantic, high-tech fisherman's shoes), and black for Hermione, strappy and with a heel high enough to be interesting but low enough to walk in.

Satisfied that they both now have some clothes that aren't falling apart, Hermione declares them done. For today. She informs Ginevra that more may be forthcoming, depending on what needs they may have as they make their way around New York.

Ginevra rolls her eyes, but doesn't actually seem to mind all that much.

It's fine enough outside that they walk back to the flat, rather than Apparating. (Ginevra's not licensed, of course, but Hermione and Harry taught her over the course of three weeks after she caught up with them, staying on the outskirts of Sofia until she could do it without splinching.) In other situations, they could use Mobili for their purchases, but that would attract some unwelcome stares here in Muggle New York City. So they carry them by hand, walking through the streets like any two young women who have gone shopping on a sunny summer's day.

They come across the amicable melee of Union Square, passing shoppers, protesters, and more dogs. There's a market going on, and they stop to peruse. Despite their location in the middle of the city, the food for sale—fruits, vegetables, bread, honey—smells earthy and fertile. Hermione looks over to see Ginevra leaning perilously close to a bushel of green apples, her eyes closed, breathing in the scent. Hermione sneaks in around her and takes three.

They buy apples, pears, spinach, pumpkin bread, cheerful red tomatoes bigger than one of Hermione's fists. They taste maple candy for the first time; it's pricey but so good that Hermione buys half a pound of it. She buys a bottle of maple syrup, too, bitingly sugary; and clover honey from a beekeeper who's driven down from the north. Scones and what Americans refer to as biscuits for their breakfast; blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, fresh and burstingly sweet when Hermione puts one in her mouth. A soft, braided bread that the baker—she's come in for the day from a few hours west of here, leaving her home before first light, she'll return around midnight—calls challah. She recommends it with butter and honey. There's a dairy farmer with a stall a few meters down. Hermione buys fresh, pale butter, churned yesterday, and some sinfully sharp cheese. The challah might be too sweet for that, so she buys a loaf of sourdough bread. A pot of jam made from peaches; she can already taste it against the tang of the bread.

Now, she thinks, I've finished.

"Good Lord," comments Ginevra, "I certainly hope so."

"Don't gripe: You'll be eating this, too. Do you want anything else?"

"I think you bought out most of the market, Mione."

Ginevra takes a few of the bags from her, and they set out in the direction of their flat, cutting through the square and all the people milling about, resting, reading, talking, arguing, living. They move to one side to let a woman through on the walk: She's in athletic clothes, running at a steady pace—and the expression on her face is one of such transcendent calm as Hermione has never seen. She smiles brief thanks at Hermione and Ginevra, and Hermione stands still for a moment, a little stunned at the force of that tranquility.

It turns out that she's not finished. They pass a sport shop, and Hermione drags Ginevra inside. "I need a running costume, please," she tells the shop assistant. It's more of a production than she anticipated—they measure her stride, question her regarding her present running regimen (nonexistent, as she's never done it before in her life), take her weight and height. They outfit her with shoes, a pair of running shorts, and a brassiere that costs considerably more than Hermione would have guessed. "Trust me on this one," the assistant says. "You don't want to go without a sports bra. You'll end up looking like one of those women in National Geographic with their boobs down to their belly buttons." Ginevra, who has been remarkably patient throughout this entire process, snorts with laughter.

Half an hour later, Hermione has everything. She has clothes for her body, food for her belly, and, she hopes, a way for her spirit to achieve something even vaguely approaching the encompassing peace that she saw on that woman's face.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It's still early enough when they get back to the flat—and their lunch was big enough—that Hermione decides to try a run for the first time, before supper. She hangs up the new dresses—they'll wrinkle otherwise—but leaves everything else in bags except for the running clothes. She removes the tags and changes quickly, then goes downstairs to wash the water bottle they gave her at the shop. She glances through the copy of Runner's World magazine that they gave her as well. She's not sure what a good distance is for a beginning runner, and she made this decision so impulsively—for perhaps the first time in her life—that she didn't have a chance to research it first. Perhaps the magazine will be helpful. The woman on the front cover is blond and smiling and exceedingly fit, wearing nothing but a bra (albeit a generously cut sport bra similar to the one Hermione has just put on—nevertheless, Hermione has a tee over hers) and a pair of tight running shorts that show off her sleekly muscular legs to good advantage. Hermione's not sure she'll get good advice from this magazine if it's intended for people like that—the shorts she bought come to midthigh, thank you very much—but the shop assistant had said that most runners subscribed to it.

She pages past an article with the headline "Training for a short race...or just a daily run." That sounds like what she's looking for. She doesn't want a marathon, just something to clear her head. She skims the article. It suggests that a short race is five kilometers, or—she calculates—about three miles. The article isn't very interesting, despite the glossy pictures of various athletic individuals—there's a lot about protein. Hermione could not be less interested in protein right now. It's rather a surprise to her, this impatience—she's usually the type to read everything (Hogwarts: A History, for example) before jumping into something new. But everything is new today—this city, this country, this continent, this flat, her clothes, the maple candy she bought at the market—and she just wants to run, to leave the old behind and run through the streets of this new city. She has a jolt of understanding about Slytherins and their snake: the desire to shed one's old skin and taste the air with something fresh and tender and new.

"I'll be back!" she calls to Ginevra, and steps outside.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

She does stop to stretch first—they were very clear at the shop about this necessity—but then she's off. It's getting into early evening, but still full daylight, the sun a rich buttery yellow, the air warm and velvety without smothering.

She becomes conscious of her body in a whole new way: Her feet in their new shoes as they strike the pavement. Her heart, pumping blood through her veins and arteries, rich with iron and oxygen, nourishing her cells as they work. Her lungs, working quickly, taking in air and expelling it, fueling her labor as she makes her way down Avenue B.

It's twenty blocks to a mile, she remembers reading, and she's still going strong after half of that. Avenue B turns into Clinton Street, narrower and quieter, lined with watchful, overhanging trees. The blocks stretch longer here, and she's not sure how to count them. She's panting when she gets to the intersection with Grand Street; it's crowded with shoppers perusing the grocers' outdoor displays, so she turns around, goes back up one block, and heads west on Broome Street, which is smaller but less packed with masses of humanity. She's definitely winded when she gets to Allen Street, and she stops to have some water and catch her breath. Then she turns north on Allen and soon finds herself a block from the flat. This doesn't feel quite far enough. She has some more water and walks the next few blocks up to Fourteenth Street, where she runs east, then circles south again and back to the flat. She collapses on the stoop, feeling exhausted but accomplished. She drinks the rest of her water and then Alohomoras herself inside for a bath.

She and Ginevra have bread and cheese and berries for dinner. Later, in bed, Hermione falls asleep immediately—the first time in months she's been able to do so.

She wakes up from a nightmare at around three in the morning and goes into the hall to use the loo and splash water on her face. As she's returning to her bedroom, she hears noise from Ginevra's room—it sounds, Hermione thinks, like what was probably coming from her own bedroom about ten minutes ago. She knocks on Ginevra's door, and when there's no answer, pushes it open, calls up a soft witchlight, and makes her way over to the bed to shake Ginevra gently.

"Ginevra. Gin. Wake up. You're having a bad dream."

Hermione always wakes up thrashing and fighting, but Ginevra's lying stone still. The only movement is her head, which whips back and forth on the pillow.

"Ginevra!" Hermione repeats, louder.

"No! No!" Ginevra says, and then wakes up. She stares at Hermione as though she's a stranger—and then, her breath coming in sharp pants, curls on her side into a ball as though making herself as small as possible.

Gingerly, Hermione puts her hand on Ginevra's shorn hair. "Gin, are you alright?"

There's no answer.

"Would you like me to bring you some water?"

"No." Ginevra's voice is muffled. "Would you...would you just stay, please?"

"Of course." Hermione climbs onto the enormous sleigh bed, and while Ginevra doesn't fall asleep, her breathing becomes significantly less panicked, and it's as though Hermione can feel her relax from three feet away.

Hermione doesn't want to tell anyone about her own nightmares—and, more specifically, what they may indicate—but she's read that it's good for people to talk about bad dreams. "Do you...do you want to tell me about it?" she asks.

"No," says Ginevra.

"Okay," Hermione says, because what else do you say to that?

She doesn't get back to sleep, and she's not sure that Ginevra does, either, but they pretend, at least, to rest peacefully for the remainder of the night.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Their first day in New York was sunny, with a pleasant, velvety warmth in the air. Their second day, when they venture out, feels like being smothered with a boiling-wet towel.

"Oh my God," gasps Ginevra. "It's England set on parboil."

They make it down to the Tenement Museum—barely—and afterwards, though there are still a number of things Hermione would like to see today, all they can think about is finding more air-conditioning. Hermione's about to suggest that they find someplace to unobtrusively Apparate back to the flat. But Ginevra says, "We should go in there." She nods toward a small sign lettered in plain black block caps—with flames around them. The sign reads Abyssus Abyssum Invocat.

"'Hell calls to hell,'" Hermione translates.

"I think it's a pub."

"That seems appropriate somehow. Especially in this weather. But will they let us into a pub here?"

Ginevra shrugs. "Why not?"

"The drinking age is twenty-one here."

Ginevra rolls her eyes, concisely expressing her opinion of American and Muggle laws both.

"Well," Hermione decides, "it's four in the afternoon; I don't think they'll be fanatical about asking for identification at this hour. And all I want is something with ice in anyway."

She pulls open the door—which looks like iron, and is correspondingly heavy—and the room they enter is blessedly dark and cool.

There aren't many people inside: a barman with a patch over his left eye; a pretty, dark-haired woman talking to him; two other men, one extraordinarily tall, both extraordinarily nice to look at, slouching on stools and arguing good-naturedly alternately with the barman, the woman, and each other. A few other people are scattered at tables; they all seem to be refugees from the heat. There's a song playing low on the jukebox: Screaming Jay Hawkins, "I Put a Spell on You." Seems appropriate, indeed.

The entire foursome turns and looks when Ginevra and Hermione come inside. It's a little intimidating, but no one stops them, and they take a table toward the back. "I'll get us drinks," Hermione says. "What do you want?"

Ginevra's eyes are closed in an ecstasy of climate control. "I don't care as long as it's cold."

Hermione goes back up to the front, conscious that she's being watched, and not sure why. Yes, her new dress is very cute—she's wearing the black one—but it's not that cute, and neither is she. But the dark-haired woman is examining her with interest—almost with recognition, though Hermione knows she's never seen this woman before. So is the shorter of the two men (who is not short—it's just that the other one is so inordinately tall), though his interest is clearly quite different.

Hermione ignores them both and says politely to the barman, "Good afternoon. May I have two Coca-Colas, please?"

The barman's smile is friendly, his features (despite the eyepatch) even and pleasant to look at. The dark-haired woman is still looking at her, and finally Hermione looks back in that way New Yorkers seem to.

The woman starts, as though she's been pulled out of a reverie. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare. You just look weirdly familiar."

"It's all right," Hermione says. "But I've never been to America before, so unless you've been to England, there's no way we could have met."

The woman shakes her head. "Never been to England. Are you here on vacation?"

Vacation. Holiday. Escape. Refuge. Whatever. "Something like that."

"I'm Faith," says the woman, putting out her hand, startling Hermione.

Americans really are friendlier, she thinks. She shakes the woman's hand and says, "Hermione. And that's my friend Ginevra, back at our table."

"Hermione and Ginevra," says the man who's been looking at her. "Those aren't names you hear every day."

"I was named after a character in The Winter's Tale."

"With all due respect to your parents," says the taller man, "that character seems like an odd choice to name your child after."

"You mean because she gets accused of adultery, dies, and then is magically resurrected?"

"Well, and there's the theory that the character was an analog for Anne Boleyn."

"I'm guessing my parents didn't know that. They're dentists; I think they were just trying to prove they were as erudite as anyone else."

The barman sets two glasses on the table. One is taller, and obviously contains Coca-Cola; the other is smaller, its contents clear but for the cucumber (Hermione is baffled) that garnishes it. "I'm sorry," she says to the barman, "but I didn't order this."

"I think you'll find that you like it better," he answers. "Try it, and if not, I'll bring you a Coke."

The other three are watching her with undue interest. Hermione gives them that look again (the New York look, she thinks) and tries the drink.

It tastes like it looks: crisp, clear, and cold. The cucumber slice, as unlikely as it may seem, is a perfect complement to what she realizes is a pungent gin. She glances back up and sees the barman smiling.

"This is really good," she admits. "What is it?"

"Hendrick's gin and tonic. With cucumber, the way it's supposed to be served. Do you want to keep it, or should I get you a Coke?"

"I'll keep it," she says. "Thank you." But honesty compels her to add: "I'm not twenty-one, though, and I think that's illegal here."

"I don't see any police. And after what you've been through, you've earned that and more."

Hermione's hand freezes on the glass and she stares back at the barman. "What are you talking about?"

"Your war," he says. "It's over. You should enjoy yourself, now that you can." He turns back to his bottles and glasses, and Hermione reaches into her bag for a twenty-dollar bill. Without looking back at her, the barman holds up his hand. "Put that away. Drag your friend over and sit with us, and I'll consider it payment."

Ginevra doesn't require dragging, but she does stand back a little. Hermione introduces her; the barman, it turns out, is Xander ("With an X," he specifies), the spectacularly tall man is Sam, and his brother, the one who's been looking at Hermione, is Dean. Ginevra shoehorns herself into the space between Hermione and Faith, which leaves Hermione talking to the two brothers.

Though Hermione has spent the better part of the past seven years in predominantly male company, she's discovering quickly that it's one thing to accustom oneself to boys (Harry and Ron) and quite another to be the focus of the attention of two men (Dean and Sam). Sam's attention, at least, seems fairly similar to what she's used to, though he's brainier than Harry and Ron; Dean, though, watches her in a way that she's seen men watch women but that she's never experienced for herself.

She's also never sat in a bar in New York City wearing a cute sundress and sandals, drinking a drink meant for adults, and she thinks that may make a difference.

As they talk, Hermione concludes that it wouldn't be fair to say that Sam is the smarter of the two. That's the role they both play, and it's true that Sam seems to be the more educated, but there's fierce intelligence burning in both of them. Sam is more open, but also more analytical; Dean is, behind his cultivated laziness, watchful (even wary) and observant. He looks relaxed; she suspects that he's not. And she wouldn't have thought of this prior to the war, but she suspects that he's armed, probably seriously. Probably they both are. She's not sure what gives her this idea, except that they have a level of vigilance that previously she's seen only on people who were prepared to fight for their lives.

"So how do the two of you know each other?" Dean asks. His eyes are green, visible even in this muted light, but less emerald (as Harry's are) than a leaf turning before the fall; his short, mussed hair (though Hermione suspects that it has been mussed quite deliberately) is a very dark blond, not quite a true brown as his brother's is. They do look alike, but it's subtle: something in the cheekbones, the lips, and the eyes, as well as in the intelligence and the matched intensity, and the way they seem to function entirely symbiotically, bickering, touching, finishing each other's sentences. It's rather like watching Fred and George, actually, and it makes Hermione smile.

"From school," she answers Dean. "Ginevra is—was—a year behind me."

Dean eats an olive from a small bowl that Xander's set out. Hermione has never seen this perfectly normal action look quite so pornographic before, but, then, it's difficult to look at Dean's lips without wanting to run one's thumb across them. Good God, she thinks, horrified, where did that come from? She pushes it immediately out of her mind. Just because there have been, er, developments in the relatively recent past, is no reason for her to become a pervert.

"You graduated?" Dean asks—blissfully unaware, she hopes, of her contemplations in his direction.

"No. I—I should have finished this past June, but I—" She pauses. She's never had to explain this before to anyone but her parents, and she did that by letter. "I left at the end of last year. Ginevra and I both did. Because of...events."

"The war that Xander mentioned," Sam says quietly.

"Yes. It's not something you would have heard about."

Faith interrupts. "Look, I don't mean to get all caring-and-oversharing here, but let's just put the cards on the table. You guys are totally witches, right?"

Ginevra nearly spits out her Coke.

"Yes," Hermione says. "Are you?"

"How do you know you're a witch?" Dean asks. "Are you sure you're just not really into pentagrams?"

"I'm quite sure, though I'm not clear what pentagrams have to do with it. I can demonstrate for you, if you like."

"Awesome!" says Faith. "And no, I'm not a witch—I'm something else. I'll explain after your demonstration."

"Put down your drink, please," Hermione says to Dean. He looks at her as if she's mad, and she repeats the request. He complies, though his face remains skeptical—and then she murmurs, "Wingardium leviosa," and he rises three feet in the air.

"Jesus fuck!" he bursts out, though he sounds more surprised than angry or frightened. After the initial shock seems to pass, he settles his hands in his pockets, looks around, and says, "Hey, Sammy, I'm taller."

"Yeah, because a witch levitated your sorry ass!"

Dean points at him. "Don't you go getting ideas."

Ginevra pulls out her wand, aims it, and repeats the charm. Gently, without a drop spilled, Dean's beer ascends next to him.

He takes it, raises it in Ginevra's direction, and drinks from it. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. My brothers tell me that a man should never be separated from his beer."

Hermione doesn't say, "Finite incantatem." She's started to lose the habit of speaking spells out loud, now that it's no longer necessary. She thinks with a pang of her wand sitting in its box back at the flat—beautiful and utterly useless to her now, but she can't bring herself to get rid of it. Dean floats back down to his stool and lands without a bump.

"Do you believe me now?" she asks.

"I'll never doubt again. Nor will I ever question a witch." He takes another drink and looks at her directly. "I'm guessing that little piece of work is the least of what you can do."

Hermione remembers the wave of power as it hit her, passing from Voldemort through Harry and into her. She didn't expect to survive it—and when she did, afterwards, during the two weeks that Harry was unconscious, when she couldn't even Accio her shoes in the morning, she concluded that the surge of alien, unnatural magic must have burned out her own.

It was better news that you might think.

And then Harry had woken up, and that surge, that wave, had hit her again.

Only this time it stayed, and now Hermione Granger's a girl with too much power and not enough nights without terrible dreams.

"I'm still figuring that out," she answers, which isn't much of an answer at all. She looks at Faith. "I don't mean to be impolite, but what are you? Now that we've given our demonstration."

"Just like I haven't heard about your war," Faith says, "you probably haven't heard about mine. I'm a Slayer."

"Not like the band," Dean interjects, and Sam elbows him. Dean elbows him back.

"As in, a person who slays things?" Ginevra asks.

"As in, a Slayer of vampires. And sometimes demons, and a bunch of other fugly-ass things that go bump in the night. And yes, vampires exist—"

"Oh, we know," Hermione says. "But they're not all bad. Weird, but not all bad."

Faith looks at her. "Have you ever met one?"

"Only briefly—at a Christmas party at school a couple of years ago. Not many of them live in England—Romania, mostly."

"How in the hell," Dean asks, "did you manage to meet a vampire at a Christmas party?"

"We were both invited."

"Just what kind of school did you go to?"

Hermione and Ginevra look at each other. "It's a long story," Ginevra finally answers.

Dean shrugs. "You want to tell us, we got time."

"Maybe you should put your own cards on the table, Winchester," Faith suggests.

"Oh. Yeah, sorry." He waves his hand at his brother and himself. "We're hunters. In the demon sense, not in the get-drunk-and-tie-a-deer-to-the-hood-of-the-car sense."

"Are there...many demons to be hunted?" Ginevra asks.

"There's kind of a main one that we're focusing on," Sam says. "But we hunt other things, too."

"If it's supernatural and it harms people, we go after it," Dean adds.

"So what falls under that category?" Hermione wants to know.

"You name it, we've probably hunted it. Ghosts, poltergeists, skin-walkers, wendigos."

"Pagan gods."

"Shtrigas."

"Killer trucks."

"Cannibal rednecks."

"Do I even want to know?" Ginevra asks.

"No," Sam says. "Definitely not."

"It's hotter than Satan's balls outside, and we got air-conditioning and a bar full of people with stories," Faith says. "What say we tell them?"

Over beer (the Winchesters), vodka and cranberry (Faith), another Hendrick's-and-tonic (Hermione), and Coke (Ginevra and Xander, because he's working), over spicy soup and fragrant dumplings ordered from across the street, over the course of the long afternoon and into the evening, they do.


 

Note: There is a DVD commentary for this chapter here.

Chapter Text

It's not much of a surprise when they find themselves at Abyssus again the next day.

Hermione got up that morning and went for a run before it got too hot; then she dragged Ginevra uptown to the Metropolitan Museum (during which trip there was a near-disaster with Ginevra and a taxicab that led to Hermione's explaining to Ginevra the function of traffic lights). They spent most of the day at the Met—you could spend years there, Hermione thinks—and then tried to go for a walk in Central Park afterwards, but the heat, unbroken from yesterday, was overwhelming. And so now they're here, at a little after five in the afternoon, seeking the sanctuary of climate control and Coke (Ginevra) and another Hendrick's-and-tonic (Hermione). Xander's not here yet; the barman on duty is someone (something?) they've never met before. He looks completely human, except for the part where he has flippers for feet.

"So?" Ginevra waggles her brows at Hermione.

"So, what?" Hermione takes a sip of her drink. It's a bit strong, and she passes her hand over it to melt the ice a little and water it down.

"So, Dean. Are you going to?"

"Am I going to what?"

"Don't be deliberately dense, Mione. It doesn't suit you."

"I don't think he's interested," Hermione says.

"You are being deliberately dense, right? You're not just blind?"

"I'm sure he's seen a lot better than me, Gin."

"Oh, for—" Ginevra spits out an expletive that sends Hermione's eyebrows into her hairline. But then Ginevra's mercurial face becomes serious. "Wait. Have you? Ever?"

Oh, gods and monsters, she knew it had to come up sometime. "Yes, but only once."

"With who? If it was Ron, I'll be revolted, but it would make sense."

"No, not Ron." God knows they danced around each other for long enough, but either not long enough for anything to happen, or too long.

"Really? Who, then? Do I know him?"

Hermione is about to say, "No, I met him at home." But then she looks at Ginevra's sweet, open face and guileless brown eyes—the Weasleys, for any other faults they have, are steadfastly honest to a one—and Hermione can't lie. "Yes."

"Well? Who was it?"

Hermione shakes her head.

"If I guess, will you tell me?" She doesn't wait for an answer. "Viktor Krum?"

"Ginny, I was fourteen!"

"Neville?"

"No." A mental image forms in Hermione's head, and, feeling as though she's just pictured a sibling naked, she forces it out. She hopes her appetite will come back one of these days.

"Lee Jordan?"

"No."

Ginevra proceeds through most of the boys they know, finally veering toward the ridiculous. "Professor Snape?"

"Don't be disgusting."

"Remus Lupin?"

"It'd be like shagging my uncle! And anyway Tonks would kill me."

"Bill? Now that would be disgusting, but at least it would get him away from that prat Fleur."

"Not Bill." Attractive though he may be, Bill is taken, taken, taken, and woe betide the person who crosses his part-veela wife.

"And not Ron, so none of my brothers…Mione, you're blushing." Hermione tries to keep her face expressionless. Ginevra's eyes narrow. "Was it one of my brothers?"

Hermione doesn't answer.

"Not Percy—speaking of prats."

"Not Percy," Hermione confirms. Horrible thought.

"Charlie?"

"No."

Ginevra looks more and more horrified by the second. "Fred? Or George?"

"Yes," says Hermione, burying her head in her hands.

"Which was it?"

Hermione mumbles a response.

"But you said only once—oh my god, Hermione!" Ginevra slams her glass down on the table. "Am I the only person in the entire wizarding world who hasn't shagged at least one of my brothers?"

This is, of course, exactly when Sam and Dean Winchester happen to walk into Abyssus. And while one might think it difficult to shock anyone in a bar whose clientèle routinely includes vampires, demons, witches, and mutants, Ginevra Weasley has a knack for accomplishing the next-to-impossible—not to mention, when provoked, a voice that could raise the dead, even over the twangs of "Love Me Two Times" from the jukebox.

"Louder, Ginevra," Hermione mutters. "I don't think they quite heard you on the next block."

But Ginevra's already up, pushing past the startled Sam and Dean to bolt outside. Hermione's head falls back into her hands. She has all this magic she doesn't know what to do with. She wonders if she could magic a hole right here in the floor and sink into it.

The table moves a bit as someone sits down. "I miss an episode of Jerry Springer?" she hears Dean ask.

She ignores him.

"Sam went out after Ginevra. I got you another drink. Looks like you could use it."

Hermione lifts her head. "I can't drink, because I'm *dead*. I died of embarrassment. Go put on some black clothes and mourn me."

"Please." Dean sprawls back and drinks from a pint of amber beer. "So you slept with one of her brothers. You think that's embarrassing, I got some stories that'd curl your hair."

"It's curly already. And it was more than one of her brothers."

"No disrespect to the kid, but that still seems like a fairly minor offense. You want to work your way down the family line, that's your business."

Hermione makes a face. "I think you just called me a slag. Thank you so very much. For your information, it occurred precisely one time—which was also the only occurrence of that particular behavior in my entire life. Since I'm dead of embarrassment, I don't mind admitting that fact."

"Let me know if I've got the math wrong here," Dean says, "but if you slept with more than one brother but have only done it once in your life—"

"Yes. That would imply exactly what you think."

"Right on," Dean says with some amount of admiration, raises the pint in her direction, and drinks from it again. "And here I thought you Brits were repressed."

Hermione drinks a bit too deeply from the fresh gin-and-tonic. She should melt the ice in this one, too, but doesn't bother. She looks right at Dean. "It was two days before the final battle. I knew I might well die, and I didn't want to die...well, without having had certain experiences. I've been friends with Ginevra's brother Ron for years, and in other circumstances it might have been with him. But he got together with our friend Harry—Ginevra's ex-boyfriend, I might add—so that put him off the map."

"Let me make sure I have this straight—no pun intended. Her ex-boyfriend hooked up with her brother?"

"Right. Harry broke up with her a little over a year ago because he was afraid that their relationship put her in danger. But I guess," Hermione adds archly, "he figured Ron to be either sturdier or more expendable."

"I can see how that might be a little strange for Ginevra," Dean says. "So you just picked two of the others?"

"I picked one. But I found it was a package deal." Dean raises an eyebrow. "Twins," Hermione explains reluctantly. "Identical. It turns out they do, in fact, do everything together."

If there were any heads that didn't turn at Ginevra's exit line, Dean's crow of laughter catches the rest. "Twins!" Dean exclaims. "Damn, when you start something, you start off right."

Hermione's able to laugh, finally. "No sense in doing anything halfway."

She and Dean clink glasses. "Well," he says, "I take back anything I ever said about the English." He looks at her with lazy warm-afternoon eyes. "Still, must not have been all that impressive, if you didn't feel like going and doing it again."

Boys, Hermione thinks, amused. "I was very busy. Defeating a Dark Lord, that sort of thing."

"Maybe you'll get a chance to fix that while you're on vacation." He's not quite smiling.

Hermione looks right back at him. "If the opportunity presents itself," she says, resting her arm on the back of the seat, her mild tone belying the fact that her heart has started to race in her chest.

They hold each other's eyes, and Hermione realizes that Ginevra was right. Oh God. What does she do now? She can't just throw herself into his lap—he'll think she really is a slag—but he's not moving, either. The only reason she was able to proposition Fred (and quite clumsily, at that) was because she was sure she'd be dead in two days. Now she can be relatively sure that she won't be—despite her embarrassment—and she has no idea how this works.

Dean Winchester reaches out and gently lays his hand over hers, where it's sitting haphazardly against her glass. He runs his thumb over her knuckles, and when she turns her hand over, she can feel that his fingers are callused and strong, much longer than her own. He kisses her palm and puts it against his face, and Hermione realizes that she's leaning forward, her left arm down now and resting on the table, her right hand taking in the warmth of his skin and the slight rasp of five-o'clock shadow. She could move it to the nape of his neck, her favorite place on men since she was old enough to notice them….

And that's when Sam reappears with Ginevra. Hermione drops her hand. Dean's expression doesn't change; he leans back and crosses his arms over his chest, looking for all the world as though he's just won a fight.

Ginevra sits down on the bench next to Hermione, and Sam drops into the chair next to his brother's. "Sorry I lost my temper," Ginevra says, looking uncharacteristically abashed.

"It's all right," Hermione says. "I'm sorry I kept it from you. I just…I wasn't sure you'd want to know."

Ginevra laughs and shakes her head. "I thought I did, but obviously I didn't. And I'm never going to think about this again. I'll stomp you in wizard chess tonight, and then I'll feel completely vindicated."

"What's wizard chess?" Sam asks, interested.

"You brought a set?" Hermione looks at Ginevra with some surprise.

"You know the Weasleys. We can't live without our chess. Sam, it's the best game in the world. You have to convince your pieces to conspire for you, and they fight one another on the board."

"Do you have to be a wizard to play? Or can—what was the word for regular people?"

"Wizards are regular people," Ginevra retorts, but she doesn't sound offended. "It's Muggles who are weird. Anyway, I don't see any reason why not. Anyone can talk to the pieces; I don't think magic has anything to do with it." She pauses. "Do you want me to teach you? I can Apparate back to the flat and get my set. It'll take me less than thirty seconds."

"That's a convenient talent," Dean observes.

"And illegal for me to exercise, although, actually, I don't know what the laws are in the States. I'll be back in a moment." And true to her word, she is, holding a small chess set in one hand. She nods to a table closer to the door. "Those people just left. Let's move over there: This can get violent." Subtlety doesn't tend to be a Weasley characteristic, but Hermione gives Ginevra credit: She's getting her chess game (with someone who might actually be a decent opponent) and leaving Dean and Hermione to their own devices.

There's a short silence, now that they've been abandoned. Hermione feels frozen—or, more accurately, as though she's in a sudden stasis, and she's not sure which way she'll fall.

"Your move," Dean drawls.

This is not the riskiest thing she's ever done. This is nowhere near the riskiest thing she's ever done. She's risked far more, and at terrible odds, and come out more or less whole.

Hermione takes a deep breath, slides out of the seat, walks around the table, and kisses him.

It's an awkward angle until Dean pulls her down into his lap. He's strong, and his hands on her back are sure but (which might come as a surprise, given the way he talks) undemanding. She traces the rim of his ear with one finger, lets her other hand rest on the solidity of his shoulder. She forgets where she is, lets herself fall into touch and heat and the smell of a man—

Until a brash female voice says, "Well, damn, that's sure not what I expected to see."

Then Hermione remembers that she's in public, that she has her hands on Dean Winchester, and that her thoughts are decidedly on the dirty side (because how can you look at Dean and not have thoughts decidedly on the dirty side?), and she wishes she were wearing more than this little red skirt and white tank top—in fact, she wishes she were wearing a giant sack, so that she could pull it over her head and never come out. "I'm going to die," she mumbles into Dean's shoulder.

"Thought you were already dead."

"I'm going to die again. Does that make you a necrophile?"

"Sweetheart," he says, "you did nothing wrong." He's rubbing her back, a strong steady hand moving slowly up and down. It feels nice. "All you did was tell your friend the truth and kiss me. It's not your fault Ginevra took the truth badly, and as for kissing me, well, I can't think of any reason why you shouldn't do that."

Hermione laughs and lifts her head. "I think you have a certain amount of bias there."

"Sure do. Still doesn't mean you have anything to be embarrassed about."

"I'm English," Hermione says, as though that explains everything.

Dean's expression alone is enough to convey what he thinks of that argument.

Hermione rests her hands on either side of Dean's jaw. He's looking at her like he knows exactly what he wants, but he's not moving. Hermione decides to ignore the other side of the room. She kisses him again, and it lasts for a while. His fingers tighten on her back, and he slides a hand up into her curls, pulling her closer, settling her on his thighs. Her breath is short when she finally rises and says, as though they've been sitting here doing nothing but discussing arithmancy, "Shouldn't we go say hello to Faith and Xander?"

Dean drops his head back. "You're acting like I can stand up right now."

"Tough demon hunter, taken down by a little English girl?"

"Damn right," Dean says, grinning that wicked grin. "Taken down, knocked down, dragged out—whatever word you want to use."

Hermione rolls her eyes and extends her arm. "Do you want a hand?"

Dean takes it and stands, but pulls her against him suddenly when he's on his feet. "I want whatever you want to give." His voice is low, and to Hermione it's sunlight and sex and everything she never knew she wanted so much.

Somehow she's got her hands on his hip and back. "Yes," Hermione says, meaning every letter of that concise word more than she's ever meant it in her life. "Yes." She takes a breath and releases it slowly. "And if we keep this up, we're never going to get over to Xander and Faith."

He kisses her again, short but hard. "Do you care? Because I don't." But he lets her go and they walk across the room. Their only point of contact is where his hand has settled at the small of her back, and though the touch is light, she can feel the weight of it like a promise.

Mercifully, Faith seems to feel that Hermione has now been sufficiently embarrassed, and the ensuing discussion centers on what everyone is doing for supper. "Come to our place," Faith says to Ginevra and Hermione. "We'll light things on fire for dinner."

"We couldn't possibly trouble you—" Hermione begins.

Faith shakes her head and smiles. The expression is affectionate, maybe a little bittersweet. "Oh, you English people. You won't be. We always have way more food than we know what to do with. We'll pass a few bakeries walking to the subway; you can get dessert if that'll clear your conscience."

The flipper-footed bartender volunteers to stay on until eleven, and Xander takes him up on it, saying that he'll come back from then until closing. Ginevra and Sam halt their lesson, and Ginevra freezes the pieces in position and packs up the set to take with her. Xander suggests grilled vegetables. Sam concurs; Dean makes a face and stops for steaks on their way. Sam picks up some wine, and Ginevra and Hermione detour into one of the bakeries.

The grill is in the tiny patio area of Faith's brownstone—she seems to have the entire thing, not just a flat like the one where Hermione and Ginevra are staying. It, too, feels sentient and contented, in an almost feline sort of way, like a mother cat gathering her kittens. Hermione hangs behind the group, and as she goes inside, she puts her hand on the frame of the front door and whispers, "Hello, house." And either she's definitively mad, or the spot underneath her palm warms in welcome.

Out back, they crowd about with glasses of the crisp, clean pinot grigio (except for Dean, who drinks Brooklyn Lager, and Ginevra, who's alcohol-free). Faith and Sam are dueling with barbeque tongs, and Ginevra is laughing her bright clear laugh, Dean's heckling Sam, and Hermione can't help cheering when Faith executes a perfect riposte and knocks the tongs out of his hand. Faith holds hers aloft with a shout of, "I am a golden god!" and Sam, as the vanquished, goes inside to wash the pair that got dropped.

There's a table, but they don't bother with it. Dean pulls Hermione into his lap. "As long as you promise not to get food on me," she says.

"Careful," says Sam. "He can barely eat without getting food on himself; I hate to think what he'd do to another person."

"Shut up, bitch," Dean says without rancor, and throws a piece of zucchini at Sam.

Sam retaliates with eggplant. "Stop throwing food at me, jerk."

"Both you bitches quit throwing vegetables!" Faith orders.

The temperature drops as the sun goes down, and the heat and humidity dissipate into a pleasant summer night. Xander lights citronella candles against bugs. When it comes time for dessert, Ginevra and Hermione find their bakery bags and arrange cannoli, lemon cookies, pignoli, amaretti, baci, and fruit tarts around the table. "Holy shit," says Faith. "I'm diabetic just looking at that."

"They had every kind of pastry in the world," Ginevra says. "We went a bit overboard."

"You'll hear no complaints from me about superfluous dessertage," says Xander, and takes one of everything.

Hermione is full, but the cannoli look too delicious not to try, and the woman behind the counter warned that they don't keep well overnight. "Do you want half of this?" she asks Ginevra, who, with a small mountain of lemon cookies on a plate in front of her, declines.

"I'll have the other half if it's gonna go to waste," Dean says.

"Purely out of altruism," says Hermione.

"Completely."

She hands him half and sits down in front of him, her back against his knees—then feels something fall onto her scalp. "You got pastry shell in my hair!"

Sam laughs. "Hey, I tried to warn you." Part of a lemon cookie goes flying in his direction from behind Hermione, who scoots out of the line of fire, gets up, and confiscates Dean's plate.

He protests—until she sits back down on his knees, breaks an amaretto in two, and says, "Open your mouth."

There apparently do exist occasions when Dean Winchester is quite capable of shutting up and doing as he's told.

She feeds him an amaretto and one of the baci. "Doesn't 'baci' mean 'kisses' in Italian?" Dean says in that lazy voice.

"Dude, I bet that's the only Italian word you know," Sam says.

Lightning-fast, Dean's got one of the pignoli in hand and about to be on its way through the air towards Sam. Just as quickly, Hermione has her fingers around his wrist, stopping him cold in midthrow. "I am not a food-fight human shield," she says.

Maybe it's her imagination, but she could swear that Dean and Faith exchange the briefest of glances. "You're stronger than you look," Dean says.

"Thanks? I think?"

He laughs and takes the plate from her. "It's a compliment. Girls that can kick my ass are hot." He disassembles the cannoli and holds a bite of it up to her. She takes it right from his hand.

He feeds her one piece after another, and she tastes not only the subtle creamy sweetness of the ricotta and mascarpone, but the slight salt of his skin, even a bit of lemon from what he must have been eating a few minutes ago. When she can't eat any more, she holds up a hand to stop him and swallows the last bite, then licks the remnants from his fingertips, slowly, swirling her tongue around them one by one until everything is gone. She hears Dean's indrawn breath, and in a rush of understanding knows why this feels like victory.

Because it is.

There's a cleared throat across the patio (Sam? Xander?), but this time Hermione's not embarrassed. (Surprised a little at her own behavior, maybe, but not embarrassed.) She settles back against Dean, and she can hear his quickened heartbeat. It's a slight shock when she realizes he's hard. "Rule, Britannia," he says quietly. His voice is husky.

"So," Ginevra breaks in, "who's going to walk me home? Because I'm guessing it won't be Mione."

Now Hermione's embarrassed. Though, she allows, Ginevra's complaint is not unjustified.

"We'll all go over to Abyssus," Faith answers her. "Except for Hermione and Dean. They'll stay here and do the dishes."

"I just bet they will," Ginevra says, not particularly under her breath.

"Whatever else they may do is their business alone," Faith says. "But Dean knows what happens in my house when the dishes don't get washed."

Dean holds up his hands. "No argument. I'm your dishwashing bitch."

There's a snort that Sam makes little effort to conceal.

They get up to see everyone to the door. The group leaves and the front door closes, and he and Hermione look at each other for a long moment.

Dean breaks the silence with, "We do actually need to wash the dishes. Faith wasn't kidding."

"Oh," says Hermione. "Well, if that's all." She floats the dishes from outside into the sink, then busies the soap and scrubbers with them.

Dean stares. "Holy shit. I guess you don't need dishwashers where you're from."

"In the wizarding world, no, not at all. They don't exist. It's best if we put everything away ourselves, though. This isn't my house and I don't know where everything goes, so my magic can't direct."

The dishes are clean, dry, and shelved in less than ten minutes; the broom and dustpan do a walk through the kitchen; and Hermione extinguishes the candles outside, then the patio light. Dean leaves lines of salt across the front and back thresholds, then comes up behind her, runs his hands down her arms and slides them onto her belly, and Hermione shivers even though she's not cold. "Are we finished?" she asks. It comes out as a whisper.

"Depends on what we're talking about," he answers, low and even. "Dishes, yeah. Other things, we haven't even started." He presses his lips to the back of her neck, just below the soft curls of her hair. She puts her hands over his and thinks, we're really going to do this, oh my God, we're really going to do this, and then gasps when his teeth scrape lightly over the tendon between her neck and shoulder. She turns around, and they're kissing again—and now it's just the two of them, alone, with the house to themselves and nowhere they need to be and nothing they need to do.

Well. There may be certain things they need to do.

Dean's hands are underneath her tank top, on her bare back, slightly rough from the calluses, and Hermione lets her own go exploring, running them up his forearms, over the hard lines of muscle, to the back of his neck to trace the soft skin at his hairline, and then under his T-shirt, where he's warm and sleek beneath her palms. She wants to look at all of him, to touch all of him, and I will, she thinks, I will.

"Is there somewhere," she manages, "where we can avoid leaving our clothes all over Faith's kitchen?"

She feels his laugh even before she hears it. "Upstairs. You want to go there?"

I wanted to go there three hours ago, Hermione thinks. She says aloud, "Yes. Please."

"Far be it from me to deny a request from a lady," he says, and leads her upstairs.

They go up two flights to the third floor. There's an open door to what looks like an office, and a closed door, which Dean opens and which leads to a bedroom. Hermione feels several things crash together inside her: arousal, anticipation, nervousness…and an encompassing, awful fear that she's going to do something terribly wrong and he will never want to look at her again.

"You have to tell me what to do," she blurts out, and immediately wants to die for the seventh or eighth time that day.

"How do you mean?" His hands are in her hair, his thumb running across the rim of her ear, and she wants to feel them everywhere.

"I mean…" She closes her eyes against his direct gaze. "I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm afraid I'll do something wrong."

"There aren't any wrong answers."

"I hate not knowing the next step. In anything. And I'm afraid I'll do something like accidentally stick my finger up your nose, and then I would absolutely have to die. Again."

"Sweetheart"—and he even sounds amused, the bastard—"I promise I won't let you stick your finger up my nose."

She's not certain this is reassuring.

He guides her over to the low wrought-iron sleigh bed, and she somehow winds up on top of him, with one of her legs between his. It's slow and sweet, just the two of them, unhurried. She kisses the declivity underneath his ear, runs her tongue carefully around the rim, sucks gently on his earlobe, and his breath goes in. They both seem to agree at more or less the same time that her shirt needs to come off, and she sits up and raises her arms and is half-naked in front of one of the most beautiful men she's ever seen. She didn't bother to wear a bra—she hasn't got enough on top to make that really necessary except, apparently, when she's running—and he clearly has no objection to this. She shudders as the roughened skin on his fingers brushes her nipples, and they harden under his touch. It's even better when he puts his mouth there.

"How about we take the rest of these off?" he suggests.

"You first," she bargains.

He seems to have no problem with this, either. She lets him up, and, completely unselfconsciously, he strips off his T-shirt and Hermione sits there a moment, temporarily stunned.

It's not that she hasn't seen some decent specimens of shirtless men. She lived in close quarters with two of them for nearly a year, after all.

It's just that this one puts the rest of them to shame.

He's amazingly fit, and she's leaned forward to run her fingers across his abs before she realizes what she's doing. He's two-meters-and-some of cornfed American boy, all smooth golden skin and fighter's confidence, with a clavicle she wants to lick and muscles whose precise dimensions she'd like to learn by touch. She stands up and unbuckles his belt, something she has always wanted to do to a man. The button on his jeans proves clumsier, so he does that, and a few seconds later he's naked. Hermione thinks that she could spend a while just looking at him, and hours doing nothing but touching him. She wonders if this is what it was like for the first woman, looking at the first man with surprise and delight at the realization that this gift—all of him—had been made specifically for her.

She unzips the skirt and pulls it down, and has occasion to be thankful that she finally bought some decent knickers. She refuses to entertain the idea that she put them on this morning with the hope that Dean Winchester would at some point see them. His hands move to her hips, underneath the lace, and now she's naked, too—bared completely.

He cups her head in both hands and kisses her again, hard and fierce, and she can feel all of him against her now: chest, hips, thighs, and, yes, cock. She kisses him back with the same hunger, drinking in the feel and smell of him—clean, and a little bit, oddly, peppery. She could spend some time licking that pepper off of him, too, she thinks.

When they wind up on the bed again, this time it's Hermione who leads them there, urging an uncomplaining Dean onto his back and sitting on his hips. She explores the planes of muscle now, the softness of his skin and the occasional contrast of coarse hair on it. She recalls a particularly memorable novel that Lavender brought in and that got passed around most of the girls' side of Gryffindor Tower her sixth year, and she uses her fingers and then her lips and tongue on his nipples, and his head arches back and he bites his lip. "You don't need me to tell you what to do," Dean says. "You're figuring it out just fine on your own."

It would be quite untrue to say that she didn't enjoy losing her virginity to Fred and George—they were affectionate, creative, and surprisingly gentle, and they seemed particularly pleased to be asked to perform that service. But the experience was overwhelming: the newness of it all, the two of them (a lot to absorb in even the most clothed of circumstances), the possibly apocalyptic situation. And there's still a lot that she didn't get to do, and that she would like to try.

She does not tell Dean Winchester that this is her maiden voyage—so to speak—in going down on a man. She nibbles her way down his body, cataloguing some scars that were definitely not obtained through surgeries or ordinary childhood mishaps; she runs her tongue around his navel, and he half laughs, half gasps as though it's both arousing and ticklish; and then she remembers a novel that Parvati brought in and that got passed around the girls' side of Gryffindor Tower, and she traces her fingers around (but not on) his cock and kisses the insides of his thighs. What comes out now is definitively a gasp.

She wasn't sure what sort of taste to expect, but finds that it's not unpleasant, and not dissimilar from the rest of him, just muted a bit. She can feel him straining not to thrust up into her mouth, and if she pulls back and glances over to the side, she can see his fingers clenched in the duvet cover. He does give some instruction here, but tersely. He takes one of her hands and guides it to his balls, showing her a sort of gentle exploration. His breath becomes even shorter and sharper when she does that, just lightly caresses the delicate hidden skin.

She wishes this didn't make her jaw hurt, because it's fun. There's power in it, in holding someone bigger and stronger than she is captive with just these little minute movements. But her jaw starts to complain, and then starts to complain loudly, and finally Hermione sits up, with some regret. "Sorry," she says. "Not that you would know, I imagine, but that's somewhat difficult on one's jaw."

Dean props himself up on his elbows. "I wouldn't?" His tone is light but impossible to read: He might have sucked the cocks of half the men in America, or he might never have seen one apart from his own.

Hermione encircles him lightly with her hand, stroking her fingers up and down casually. "Would you?"

He sits up all the way and settles her legs around his hips. "What do you think?"

She closes her grip a little, smiling at the resulting break in his breath. She looks at him directly. "I think you would," she says. She has no idea whether it's correct, but she wants the reaction. "I think you would, and you have, and you love it."

"I knew you were a smart girl," Dean says, and pushes her onto her back. He sprawls out alongside her, chin in one hand, the other languid on her belly. He's touching her so lightly that it's barely noticeable as his fingers dip lower each time, tracing the pale skin, going between her thighs, playing over her (but staying just outside where she wants them) until she's arching her hips to follow them. "What do you want me to do, Hermione?" he says in that low, steady voice.

She fixes him with an expression that she hopes conveys cool exasperation, but that she suspects shows only the truth: frustration and desire.

"I told you what I wanted," he continues. A callused finger brushes her outer lips but then moves gently away. "I could tell you some more; I'm pretty inexhaustible that way. But that'd be boring, because I already know what I want." He bends his head and licks her nipple until it hardens in his mouth. He starts to pull away, but her hand in his hair stops him. "So you can show me what you want," he says, and leans over to run his tongue around the other one until she gasps. "But you can't use that gift for words and tell me?" His eyes are amused.

Hermione hates him. She refuses to let him see her take a breath to get her words together, and they all rush out unplanned. "I want you to touch me, you bloody tease, and then I want you to"—she makes herself say it—"go down on me until I can't speak English anymore. Or Latin, or German, or French."

"I don't know, that's a tall order. English I can do, but I'm not sure I can knock out Latin."

She rolls her eyes.

"That's it? Just loss of language? You're not very demanding."

She rises on her elbows and looks right at him. She calls up her best Received Pronunciation, with its wide As, deep Os, and strong Ts, as though she's just stepped outside the gates from Cambridge. "And then, you unconscionable bastard, I want to be on top."

"'Unconscionable bastard.'" Dean repeats it as though relishing each syllable. "It sounds hot when you say it."

She can't keep up the act; she falls back again, laughing. "I meant every word."

"I have no doubt," he says, and she lets out a little cry as his steady, sure fingers find her clit.

They're every bit as skilled as she imagined, and when he adds his tongue, she throws her arm over her mouth so as not to wake up the entire street. But he pulls it down, settling her hand in his hair. "I want to hear you."

"Neighbors," she manages.

"Fuck 'em. Let 'em hear."

Then he returns to the task at hand (mouth?), and she does indeed forget that she speaks English. Or Latin, or German, or French, or her own name.

The first time she comes, it's a complete surprise—sudden, without a warning, an arc that courses through her body until she's crying out, her hands tight in his hair and shoulder. She expects him to stop, but he doesn't, and she realizes it's happening again, even more intensely, around his fingers and against his tongue. It feels amazing, powerful—like the first time she ever stood in the ocean, like the first time she flew, like the first time she did magic. She lets the waves crash against her, lets herself be lifted, lets this new power flow through her, shuddering out its conclusion until she's released.

She opens her eyes, and the first thing they land on are the marks on Dean's shoulder: five pinkening spots, each with a horrifying red mark in the middle. "Oh God," she says, "you're bleeding."

He sits up and glances at his shoulder, and looks…proud? "Five-star review."

"You're smirking!"

"Just pride in a job well done." He *is* smirking.

"You're not an unconscionable bastard," she says dryly. "Just unconscionably egotistical."

"You telling me the audience has a complaint?"

"No," she says, and kisses him. The taste on his lips is saltier now, and she spends a moment puzzled before realizing that the taste is her.

He pulls them both down so that he's on his back again and she's on top. He runs his hands from her thighs to her hips, up the length of her sides and back to her breasts. She shudders as her nipples are taken between precise fingers. "So you made a comment about my ancestry," he says, "and then you said you wanted to be on top. Now what I say is: you talk a good game, but can you play one?"

"What have you got for me to play with?" she retorts.

He rocks up gently against her, then nods in the direction of the nightstand to her right. "Reach into the top drawer and get what we need. Then we'll see what you've got and what I've got."

She stretches across the bed and opens the drawer as requested…only to stare at its contents in disbelief. "Good God, I hope you don't think this is required."

"Condoms? Yes, actually." Then he sits up and takes a look, and snorts with laughter. "No, that's not what I meant. That just means we're victims of Faith's sense of humor." He pushes back the sealed package containing a glittery purple sex toy as long and as thick as his forearm, and removes several of what they do in fact need. He guides her fingers in putting one on, and says, "Tell me you used one in your adventures with identical twins."

"Wizards have charms for this. We don't need them."

He raises his eyebrows. "You'll have to tell me more about that at some point." But in the meantime he directs her again to the drawer, from which she removes a bottle that could contain hand lotion but is instead labelled "Silk."

Indeed, the pale not-quite-liquid feels silky on her fingers, and even more so as she smoothes it onto Dean's cock. He exhales in pleasure. And then, gasping at the newness, she sinks down onto him.

It hurts a little at first—he's big, she isn't, and it's only her second time. She stays still a moment, acclimating herself. He slides his hands onto her thighs, her waist. "You OK, Hermione?" he asks. The banter is gone from his voice; it's gentle—soothing, even.

Her body makes the adjustment unconsciously, just a slight movement to center her—and there's a sudden shock of pleasure. He takes one of her hands and kisses her palm the way he did in Abyssus several hours ago, and she feels herself relax at the uncomplicated, undemanding touch. Her hips begin to rise and fall as if following a mind and a will of their own.

His face softens with sensation, but his eyes stay open, exploring her just as avidly as his hands do. He thumbs her clit gently as she moves, and she has a sudden memory of lying back with Fred inside her as George's fingers stroked her. She realizes that she's moving faster, taking Dean in her as far as he'll go, pushing herself against where he's touching her. She leans forward and rests her hands on his chest, which improves her leverage significantly; this time, when her hips circle back and down, he moans aloud. Deliberately, she slows down, making him thrust up, making him work for it, and he whispers, "You damn tease," with what sounds like the sincerest admiration.

They're both going slow now, slow and deep, and his fingers on her clit, too, are languid. She gasps in frustration. "Do that faster. Please."

"Thought we were slowing down. Didn't want to rush anything."

She mutters something uncomplimentary in Latin.

"Never heard anyone say, 'Harder, Dean, harder,' in Latin before."

"Actually, I called you a pig-dog." Which she's sure he did in fact understand—if the story he and Sam told in Abyssus is anything to go by, Dean's Latin is probably better than hers, out of sheer necessity.

He laughs. "That's a first, too."

She continues her slow, deep rhythm, and he continues to touch her lightly, tantalizingly, until she thinks she's going to lose her mind. Her body takes over, going faster and harder, and Dean takes a choked breath. "God, Hermione. Yeah, like that."

She can feel it when he comes: not just the gathering and releasing of his body, but the warmth inside her, too. His head is thrown back, his neck arched, his free hand tight on the curve of her hip. She wonders if she'll be bruised there tomorrow. And that thought—plus the fact that he keeps going after he's spent, surrendering himself as an object of her pleasure—makes the blood rush heated to her quim and clit. Her orgasm this time isn't quite as ferocious as the other two, but it's still intense, convulsing her muscles around his cock, shuddering through her until her shout—an exuberant, unexpected burst—follows his. She rides out the aftershocks, and then she collapses gracelessly down onto him.

He gets rid of the condom and settles her back again, and they kiss slowly and thoroughly. It's unhurried, less urgent than earlier—casual, familiar exploration now that the storm is over.

Someday she'll sleep with a man who holds her after they make love—the way it happens in films, with her head on his shoulder and his arms around her. Today is not that day. She rolls onto her belly, and though Dean doesn't do the things that leading men do, she feels the steady, sure presence of his hand on her back, tracing her spine and then just caressing her lightly, reminding her that he's there. A wave of exhaustion hits her—from three orgasms as well as a year's worth of sleep deprivation—and she falls asleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It's still dark when she wakes again the first time, and she turns over only to collide with Dean. Who doesn't seem to mind. They do it again, slow and sleepy, wordless, and Hermione is half dreaming when she comes, muffling her soft noises against Dean's shoulder. The room is bright with muted sunlight by the time she wakes again.

Dean is still fast asleep, one hand on her hip, the other underneath his pillow. It occurs to her to wonder whether he's got a weapon under there. When she moves out from underneath his hand, he doesn't wake up, and she thinks she may be able to make a clean getaway. She remembers Katie Bell talking about the walk of shame (one highly useful fact from Hogwarts: A History was the bit about the lack of enchantment on the staircase to the boys' dormitory—Hermione took advantage of this on only the most platonic of occasions, but other girls applied the knowledge to a variety of circumstances). Hermione is briefly thankful that the only living room she has to walk through is the one downstairs, which is probably empty at this hour, and in any case nowhere near as populated as the Gryffindor common room tended to be.

She dresses quickly, though she can't bring herself to put last night's underwear back on, and it winds up in a pocket of her skirt despite her horror over being, it appears, the sort of woman to tuck last night's underwear into the pocket of her skirt. She makes her way quietly down the two flights of stairs—

—And realizes her living-room theory was entirely inaccurate.

Not only are Faith and Xander at the table, but so are Ginevra, Sam, and someone she doesn't recognize. Ginevra's in her same clothes from last night, so Hermione guesses that she must have stayed over—the house is certainly big enough to hold one more without strain. A cheer goes up when Hermione reaches the bottom of the staircase, and she puts her hands over her face.

Walk of shame, indeed.

"Ginevra," says Faith, "I think you bet that Hermione would come down first, and"—she looks at Xander—"I think you called the time."

"She never sleeps this late!" Ginevra exclaims.

"I suspect she was pretty worn out," Faith says, and hands over sums of money to Ginevra and Xander.

"You were wagering on me?" Hermione says, horror mounting.

Laughing, Sam hands her a cup of tea—milk, no sugar, just the way she likes it. "Welcome to the Henhouse."

"Thank you. I didn't think I could die of embarrassment again after last night, but it seems that I can."

"Oh, honey, you're not doing anything any of us haven't done a million times. Except maybe for Ginevra," Faith says, and Ginevra looks suddenly down at the pristine white tablecloth. "Eat some breakfast. We have everything."

And they do: coffee cake, bacon, sausages, waffles, a variety of fruit, juices, even bangers and mash. Everyone at the table rearranges, and Hermione realizes that there are two empty seats. Next to each other.

"I don't think we've met," says a blond man. He's clearly English, going by his accent—but if he's from the East End, then Hermione's from Lisbon. (And if that hair is real, then Hermione is Mad-Eye Moody.) "I'm Spike."

"Hermione Granger," she says, shakes his hand, and sits down. She collects a little bit of everything, realizing that she's hungrier than she thought. A workout will do that, she thinks, and hides her smile behind her teacup.

Now that the wagers have been resolved, conversation is comfortingly normal—Faith and Spike argue about baseball (it reminds Hermione of Harry and Ron arguing about Quidditch), Sam and Xander are both reading the paper and taking turns ranting about politics, and Ginevra waggles her eyebrows suggestively in Hermione's direction. Hermione ignores her and eats more coffee cake.

She's taken the editorial page from Xander when another cheer goes up. It's Dean, of course—sauntering shirtless down the stairs. Even wearing yesterday's jeans, with his hair erupting in all directions, he still looks just as delicious as he did last night. Unfortunately, they're in public, and Hermione is utterly unfamiliar with morning-after etiquette. (With Fred and George, they basically woke up and prepared to die. This experience seems not entirely relevant here.)

Dean's carrying something, and Hermione almost spits out her tea when he tosses the package containing the purple…whatever-it-was…onto the table in front of Faith. "Believe you misplaced this," he says, and drops into the chair next to Hermione's. Sam hands him a cup of coffee, black, and Dean promptly begins stealing Hermione's cantelope and eating it.

"What, couldn't you figure out how to use it?" Faith retorts.

"That little thing? Not worth opening the package for something so small. Pass the coffee cake, bitch," he says to Sam.

"Get it yourself, jerk." But Sam passes it anyway. Dean takes a piece, as well as some blackberries from Hermione.

"There's an entire plate of those right next to your elbow," she points out.

"They taste better off your plate. Morning." He kisses her, and tastes like Sulawesi and berries.

Hermione suspects that it's Ginevra who throws the grape in their direction when the kiss continues for more than a few moments.

"No porn at the breakfast table unless it's on the breakfast table and I'm involved," Faith says. "So, what's everyone up to today?"

Hermione wants to go to the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. (Ginevra makes a face.) Xander has to deal with a vendor, he says, and looks at Spike. "Mind being around for that one? I'm going to try tact, but if that doesn't work—"

"Not a problem. I find that threats are frequently effective."

"I have homework," Faith says. "I hate this fucking stats class. Sam, can you lend me part of your brain?"

"Sure. But I don't get it, Faith. You got an A in calculus, and that's a lot more difficult than statistics—or at least I thought so."

"But calc was kind of cool, even if I had to take that precalc class first. Power series, dude! That shit was interesting. But I wouldn't even be taking stats if I didn't have to for urban studies. Stop laughing, Kansas"—the last part in Dean's direction, though both Winchesters are from Kansas.

"I just wouldn't have guessed, a few years back, that the Faith Lehane I met during a bar fight upstate would be into higher math."

"Well, hell, a few years back, I wouldn't have even guessed that I'd ever graduate high school, much less go to college. But here I am. Anyway, so Sam, I'm borrowing your brain for stats. Dean, what are you up to?"

"Thought I'd find us a case."

Sam looks at him. "I thought we were lying low for a while—trying to go a few weeks without getting arrested."

"That doesn't mean we can't take stuff—just means we have to be a little more careful about what we take."

The rest of the conversation seems to be completely silent, yet it continues without pausing. Hermione thinks she could write the transcript based on expressions alone: This is a bad idea. We'll be careful. We should wait a while. Evil doesn't stop just because we do. Someone else can do this. We have a responsibility. Fine. Fine. Jerk. Bitch.

Hermione's been on various sides of the same conversation herself, more than once.

After breakfast, Hermione's expecting that they'll go and likely never see these people again, which is unfortunate not just because she thoroughly enjoyed Dean's company, but because she's started to like all of them. But Faith says, "So you guys should come over tomorrow night. It's Tudors night at the Henhouse. There'll be cheese."

"Tudors?" Hermione says.

"Oh, right, wizards. It's totally the trashiest TV show ever. It's about Henry the Eighth and his court, except that it's a giant soap opera, not anything with, like, educational value. We save up a bunch of episodes on Tivo, and then we watch them and eat food." She pauses. "Do you know what Tivo is?"

"Who's Henry the Eighth?" asks Ginevra.

The entire table stares.

Sam recovers first. "He was a king, in England, in the 1500s."

"A Muggle, right?"

"Uh, yeah, right. At least as far as anyone knows. He was a king, and he had six wives and beheaded two of them."

"At the same time?" Ginevra asks.

Sam seems unsure whether to be amused or appalled. His face displays a bit of both. "No, not at the same time."

Ginevra appears disappointed.

Sam says to Faith, "Maybe this will have educational value after all."

"Educational value and naked people. Every TV show should be like that." She looks at Hermione and Ginevra. "So, tomorrow?"

"Yes," Hermione says, and feels herself starting to smile. "Tomorrow."

Chapter Text

Today is just as hot as the past two, and Hermione is disgusting with sweat, and pink from the sun and heat, when she gets back from her run. Ginevra goes outside for a second, gasps, and flees back inside. In her head, Hermione composes an ode to Remus's friends, thanking them for the various air-conditioning units installed around the flat. She's never had it before—her parents' house doesn't have it, and, of course, Hogwarts didn't—but she now understands its complete necessity in certain circumstances.

"We're surrounded by two rivers and an ocean," Ginevra says. "There has to be somewhere we can go swimming."

"I don't think we'd want to swim in either of the rivers. And do you even have a bathing costume?"

"I'd go in my clothes. Mione, this is ridiculous. How do people live like this?"

"I think this is why Americans have climate control, and we don't."

Hermione boots up the creaky desktop computer, navigates to Google, and enters beaches "new york city". She gets a surprising number of results. They can get to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach on the subway. (Hermione's not going to try to Apparate to either, since she has only the faintest sense of where they actually are and where Apparition would take them.) Rockaway Beach sounds cleaner and less crowded, though she's read about Coney Island in so many different books set in New York that she does want to see it at some point.

"Right, then," she says to Ginevra, "we have our beach."

Hermione doesn't have any proper swimming clothes, but the canvas shorts were inexpensive enough that she doesn't mind risking them to the ocean. She pulls them on with a sleeveless shirt and her sports bra—God knows it covers more skin than most bikini tops—and they find two towels that look as though they've seen better days. On their way to the train, Hermione pulls them into a pharmacy for sunglasses and sunscreen—they're both so pale, she thinks, that they may in fact reflect light back into the stratosphere. Hermione's are conservative, with tortoise-shell frames; Ginevra's are bright green, cat's-eye-shaped, with rhinestones decorating the corners. Hermione feels strangely relieved: The nightmares and odd clothing choices may still be present, but somewhere the real, ebullient Ginevra is there, and fighting her way back out.

They descend into the underground station at Fourteenth Street and First Avenue. Hermione buys their tickets—in reality, little plastic cards—and demonstrates to Ginevra how to slide them through the turnstiles. The Weasley horde has taken the Tube in London a few times, to get to King's Cross, so Ginevra isn't entirely unfamiliar with this process. They make it onto the L train without disaster.

Ginevra isn't especially impressed by the subway. "It's rather dirty, don't you think?"

"Five million people ride it every day." Hermione read this in a guidebook. "I expect it would be hard to keep clean." Though it is, she can't help but notice, significantly less clean than the London tube.

"Five *million*?" Ginevra exclaims. "That's impossible!"

"There are eight million people in New York City. That's just Muggles—not even including wizards. They have to get around somehow."

They switch to the A train at Eighth Avenue. Hermione marshals Ginevra through the station, pulling her along even when she stops to observe an amateur preacher. "Come along, Ginevra, he's just a crackpot."

"I didn't like what he was saying about homosexuals."

"He probably doesn't have all his mental faculties. Really, there are so many people here, some of them are bound to be crazy."

"He still shouldn't talk like that," Ginevra mutters, but she follows Hermione to the stairs labeled A—Downtown and Brooklyn.

Once they're on the train, Ginevra perks back up, watching with amusement as a man wearing a hat made of duct tape tries to convert everyone in the carriage to Zoroastrianism. Hermione's not sure Ginevra even knows what Zoroastrianism is, but that doesn't seem to hinder her enjoyment of the spectacle. Although, Hermione's guessing, most of the captive audience are not Zoroastrians and have no intention of becoming so, they bear the evangelist with fortitude, watching him or ignoring him as they so choose, but letting him say his piece.

It's a good lesson, Hermione thinks.

After a while, the train goes aboveground, and they look out the windows as they pass houses, schools, highways, and graveyards. They listen to the other people on the train, who speak as though they're in private: They learn about one woman's divorce (caught her husband with male prostitutes!) and another's job (boring and underpaid). A group of teenagers a few years younger than Hermione and Ginevra board, discussing sex in slang Hermione can barely understand, though they seem to be speaking English.

The most spectacular part, though, is when they go over the bridge. The train has been running along ground level, and then suddenly Ginevra says, "Mione, look!" and they're going up a gentle grade, with water on both sides. Even this close to the city, the water is perfectly blue, with breakers cresting white, lapping against the bridge pilings and the shore. The beaches are empty of humans but full of clear tide pools and endless numbers of birds. She knows, intellectually, that this is New York City, home to nine million people (eight million Muggles and, depending on which estimate you believe, about a million wizards who stay off the radar entirely), one of the most solidly urbanized areas on the planet, and yet she's watching sea birds splash through the surf as though there are no humans for miles around.

They exit the train at Beach 90th Street, walk three blocks and cross a highway, and there's the Atlantic Ocean, as endless from this coast as it is from their own. She and Ginevra drop their towels onto the sand and stand looking out across the water as though, if they study it hard enough, they'll be able to see Devon and Wales on the other side.

Hermione had never guessed that she'd see surfers in New York City—she associates them with California, with her father's old Beach Boys records—but there are dozens of them, far enough out in the water to be simply specks among the crests. They skim the surface brazenly, elegantly, in the shelter of the waves, then tumble into the water only to emerge laughing, calling to one another.

Hermione and Ginevra shuck off their shoes and run into the sea.

* * * * * * * * * *

It's only much later that Hermione thinks to look at her watch. "Blast, Ginevra, we have to get back! Faith's expecting us at eight, and it's five thirty already." It took them about an hour and a half to get here, they're tired enough that it's probably best to take the train, and they'll also need to clean up once they're back.

Ginevra sighs, stands, and stretches. Even in rolled-up combat trousers, she garners glances from the men around them: the curves of her hips and breasts, the lines of muscle in her back, the lush red of her hair, the fine pale skin of her belly that shows itself as she lifts her hands towards the sky, utterly unaware of her surroundings.

And then she becomes aware, and immediately drops her arms and glares at anyone stupid enough to be caught looking. Which makes no sense at all—Ginevra Weasley has never been known to lack for or object to male attention. But the men flush with embarrassment and find other things to look at, in the face of that glare.

They walk back to the station and catch the next train. They're sleepy, blushing with sun despite Hermione's careful regimen of sunscreen. They've make it barely two stops from the beach when Ginevra dozes off on Hermione's shoulder. Her face is relaxed, unguarded, and she looks for all the world like the bright, curious twelve-year-old Hermione once knew. None of them look like that anymore. Hermione stays deliberately still and lets Ginevra sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

They both have to shower, and there's only the one bathroom; they also need to pick up something to take with them to Faith's. (Faith says it isn't necessary, but Hermione was not raised by wolves.) Nevertheless, despite the long train ride, they're on time: At five to eight, they've Apparated to the spot behind the trash cans in an alley down the block from where Faith lives.

"Girls!" Faith greets them delightedly. "I heard these weird popping noises a few minutes ago. Was that your disappearing-reappearing-wizard thing?"

"Apparition," Hermione says, though she suspects that Faith may well know that and just enjoy teasing. "And yes, it makes a sort of cracking sound."

"Not like anyone in this city will notice—if it's not a gunshot, no one cares, and even then. You brought food? You totally didn't have to do that."

"My mother, despite her lack of magical ability, would Apparate here and disown me if I did not."

"English people," Faith says again in that affectionate, bittersweet way. "You guys just can't stop being proper."

"Oh, clearly," says Ginevra. "When people think of the Weasley family, 'proper' is without doubt the first word that comes to mind."

"You," Faith informs her, "have a smart mouth." But it sounds like praise, not admonishment.

She ushers them inside, arranges the fruit and flowers on the counter, then says, "So we were going to grill chicken, but the wind picked up—hope that means we'll get some fucking rain—and the grill is kind of having issues."

Grilled chicken sounds good. Hermione says, "Because the wind keeps putting out the fire, you mean?"

"Right," Faith says.

"Oh, well, if that's all, I can take care of that."

"She can," Ginevra adds. "It's something to see."

"Do you have a jar?" Hermione asks Faith. "The size doesn't matter, but it needs to have a lid."

Faith rummages through a cupboard and emerges with a jelly jar and accompanying lid. "This OK?"

"That should be fine." Hermione puts an Unbreakable charm on it, just to be safe, then creates the bluebell flames that she's been known for since her first year at Hogwarts. "Waterproof and windproof," she says to Faith. "Where's your grill?"

Faith examines the jar, with the flames dancing lazily inside. "Waterproof? For real?"

"For real," Hermione echoes, aware of how ridiculous the slang must sound in her mouth.

"That's handy. Man. Talk to Dean when he and Sam get back; they could really use this for salt-and-burnings."

"They're not coming to dinner?" Ginevra asks.

"No. Dean found them a case up in Connecticut, so they took off yesterday afternoon. Seriously, though, portable waterproof fire—that's probably Dean's dream come true."

Hermione wills herself not to be disappointed that Dean's not there; it about half works.

She goes out back with Xander and coaxes some bluebell flame onto the coals, keeping the amount small so that she doesn't start a giant conflagration on Faith's porch. The flames bubble up happily, and Hermione puts some back in the bottle. "A little lower," Xander directs. "OK, that's good. We want it hot enough to cook, but not so hot that it'll burn the chicken. Wow, that's one of the cooler things I've ever seen."

"Thank you. They really do have all sorts of uses." Hermione screws the lid back on the jar.

"Can we keep that?" Xander asks. "It's always good to have some fire on hand."

Regretfully, she shakes her head. "You wouldn't be able to control it, and because it's waterproof, you wouldn't be able to put it out." She sees him start to speak, and adds, "And it isn't like an electrical fire, either—an extinguisher wouldn't have any effect on it."

"Alas," Xander says. "Well, you'll just have to come back, then."

They leave the grill to heat up and go back inside, where Faith hands them each an ear of corn. Xander immediately starts tearing the husk off of his; Ginevra, on the other hand, looks blankly at the corn and then back up at Faith. "Are we meant to eat this?" she asks.

The ensuing silence is nearly as shocked as the one that followed her question about Henry VIII.

"You've seriously never had corn on the cob?" Faith asks.

"No. We kept pigs for a short time when I was a child, and we fed them ears of corn, but we never ate it ourselves."

"Not knowing about Henry the Eighth, yeah, that's weird, but you also grew up a wizard and probably know all kinds of shit that I've never heard of. But corn on the cob? That's...that's, like, the best thing about summer! Well," she adds, "that and all the hot gay guys in Chelsea going running without shirts on. And baseball." She takes Ginevra's ear of corn and demonstrates stripping off the husk. "You do this, break off the stalks at the end, and take off the tassels—the corn silk inside the husk," she explains at another blank look from Ginevra. "I figure two each should do it. Spike's coming over as soon as it gets dark, and Vern'll be here soon, so do two each for them, too." Meanwhile, Faith busies herself with setting out a truly extraordinary amount and variety of cheeses.

Vern turns out to be Veronica, Faith's roommate and fellow student, a tiny, slender, and adorable blond girl from California. She's friendly and inquisitive, and doesn't blink at the wizard bit—though, Hermione thinks, one would learn not to blink at a great deal, in this household.

They manage to get the table set and the food on its way to preparation, so that dinner is nearly ready when Spike bangs on the door a little before nine o'clock. It's late for dinner, but the cheese and accompanying fruit have kept them all content. Faith takes the corn out of a pot of boiling water and explains the absolute necessity of salt and butter. They pile into the living room, and Faith works a series of remote controls to turn on the television. Ginevra is staring at the remotes with no small amount of fascination, and Hermione wonders if they ever formed part of Mr. Weasley's eclectic collection of Muggle objects.

Hermione and Spike give Ginevra a brief overview of the Tudor period, and then Spike, Faith, and Xander explain where that falls into the progress they've made in the program so far. (Not very far, it sounds—King Henry has only just made Mary Boleyn his mistress, and there have been no overtures towards Anne.)

Ginevra takes a salty, buttery bite of the corn and makes a noise so pleased it's almost pornographic. "Merlin's balls," she says, "this is the best food ever."

Hermione tries it, too, and while she's not quite given to the same depths of profanity as Ginevra, she has to admit that fresh corn with salt and butter really is quite good.

"What'd I tell you?" Faith says. "That and the gay boys. Best thing about summer." She brandishes a remote. "Everyone ready?"

They finish their dinners and get through two episodes, then break for vanilla ice cream with fresh raspberries. Faith may be a Muggle, Hermione thinks, but her blissful, omnivorous love of food would have fit right in at Hogwarts. They're about three-quarters of the way through the third episode when suddenly Faith jams a finger onto a remote, silencing the telly. She looks up as though song has begun to emanate from the heavens.

"Rain!" she exclaims, and bolts outside into the street, where thunder hails her like a queen.

As though this occurrence is not unusual in the slightest, Xander gets up, too, and goes to stand in the front door. Faith is out on the walk, head back, dark hair loose and wild around her shoulders. The temperature feels as though it's dropped by fifteen degrees at least.

She walks over to the bottom of the stoop and grins up at Xander. "Come on down, big boy, the water's fine."

He prevaricates.

"Aw, what? You scared you'll melt like the Wicked Witch?" And with that, Faith unceremoniously hops up the stairs and pulls her boyfriend out into the downpour.

He looks entirely unsurprised by this turn of events.

After that, it's only a matter of minutes before the rest of them end up out in the rain, too.

It's cool on Hermione's sun-pinkened skin, the water and the soft air. She tosses her shoes up near the door and then imitates Faith, head back, letting the drops fall on her closed eyelids. She opens her mouth to taste the sweetness of the fresh water, listens as it falls on streets and houses and cars, as though the city has gone quiet to welcome the storm. They've needed this for days, and here it is; Hermione feels like a plant, her skin soaking up the raindrops like food.

The black car coming up the street very nearly camouflages itself in the darkness and rain, but it can't hide completely. Faith seems to recognize it, because she breaks out of Xander's arms and runs over to where it's being parallel-parked down the block. She shakes her hair from her face and leans down to gesture at the person in the passenger seat. When the door opens and an impressively tall person emerges, Hermione realizes that it's Dean and Sam.

They're immediately accosted by the people in the rain—Faith, Ginevra, Hermione, and Xander. Spike has attempted to stay safely just inside the front door of the house, but Vern drags him out. He can't have put up much resistance, given that he's about a head and a half taller than she is. Hermione hangs back, unsure what she should say to Dean—she hasn't seen or talked to him since their very eventful evening a few days ago, and she so doesn't want this to be awkward, but she really doesn't know what to say.

He solves the problem for her by putting his amulet inside his shirt—to keep it from getting wet, Hermione guesses—and running his hands up her rain-slick arms. She can't help it; her own hands gravitate to his body as though she's a compass and he's true north. But then she pulls back: "I'll get you all wet."

"Think the water falling from the sky has that taken care of, sweetheart."

"You don't mind?"

"Not as long as you're around to dry me off."

Ginevra, Faith, Xander, and Sam are stomping in puddles and chasing one another—or, more accurately, Ginevra and Faith are stomping in puddles and chasing Xander and Sam while Vern and Spike maintain a running commentary from the sidelines—at least until Faith jumps on Spike's back.

Dean and Hermione go inside.

The house is bizarrely quiet—it seems almost not to know what to do with itself, without the crowd of people inside. Hermione pats one of its walls consolingly, and she swears she can feel the house laugh, somehow, even though its structure remains as still and solid as always.

"I thought you and Sam were in Connecticut," she says to Dean.

"We were. The job didn't take long—abandoned church, hauntings, stupid-ass teenagers going in there horny and coming out crazy, insane dead preacher, body buried in the churchyard. It was far enough in the middle of nowhere that we were able to salt and burn during the day, which was a nice change from skulking around in the middle of the night. I miss anything around here?"

"Corn on the cob," Hermione replies as they go upstairs. "And raspberries."

"Aw, seriously? Damn!"

"I'd never had it before," she says. "Corn like that, I mean."

"How have you lived your life," Dean asks, "without having corn on the cob?"

"That was more or less Faith's reaction. It's not something people eat in England—it's fed to pigs."

"Lucky pigs," he says, and closes the door to the third-floor bedroom behind them. "Now, let's get these wet clothes off of you," he suggests, and they do, along with his, although he was outside for only a couple of minutes and isn't particularly wet.

His skin is warm and dry—he really wasn't outside for long—and it feels wonderful against Hermione's. She wasn't cold outside—the temperature drop was only just enough to take the edge off the heat—but the climate-controlled interior of the house is definitely chilly, and Hermione shivers contentedly against Dean. He nudges her down onto the bed and she goes willingly, complacently, letting him wrap the two of them up in a cotton blanket. She settles a leg over his hip and they kiss lazily, slow and warm. She traces that sublime declivity at the back of his neck, below his hairline, deciding that, later, she'll lick the sweat from there. But later. There's no hurry.

He settles on top and she lets him, winding her leg around his, listening to his pleased sigh. He's got her head in both his hands, hers are on his back, between his shoulder blades, describing the play of the muscles along his spine, a line of fluid strength, as they move together.

There's a female shriek from outside, and they both start—but then it's followed by a distinctly Faith-originated "Bitch!" and a guffaw, dorky, unrestrained, and happy, that's clearly Sam. Then there's a timbre that's obviously Spike, though Hermione can't make out the words, and then Dean settles himself back against the curves and planes of her body, and she stops paying attention. The others don't need her concern right now.

That's all they do for a while, just kiss, touch, casual exploration. It's not that late and Hermione's full of good food and outside they're getting the rain they need and their friends are playing in it. No reason to rush. This feels too nice to rush. She exposes her throat for his lips and tongue, arches up languidly as he kisses her there, licks the hollow at the base of her throat, licks the rest of the rainwater from her skin. Licks her nipples, but not with intent—just because they're there and it will feel good. It does, and she murmurs his name.

She should have done this long ago, she thinks—not with Dean Winchester specifically (not that she'd have complained), and perhaps not naked, but with some attractive nice boy. Clothes or no clothes. She was too young when Viktor first came along, and by the time she wasn't too young, he was back in Bulgaria and they'd slipped comfortably into friendship. It would feel sort of incestuous at this point, though she really doesn't have much of a leg to stand on there. But in any case, she should have known well before now how much fun this is, how good it feels, the wonderment of someone else's lips and skin and breath and pulse against your own. (Yes, of course she learned that with Fred and George, but it was something of a crash course.)

Hermione on top, now, and she traces the contours of his stomach first with her finger and then with her mouth. The cut of his hip is the perfect path for her tongue, and it makes him gasp, as if she's half arousing, half tickling. He's hard but not urgently so—just enjoying the time, the same way she is. Suddenly he rolls them back over again so that she's on her back with his weight on top of her, and she can't help the noise that comes out—one moment she was floating, just mindlessly enjoying, and then there was the fierce heat of his body, the whole hard length of him stretched out on top of her, and she thinks she nearly just came, simply from that.

Dean cups one side of her head in an incongruously elegant hand and says into the ear on the other side, low but conversational, "I'm going to fuck you tonight. How do you feel about that?"

"Anticipatory," she replies, and he seems to laugh despite himself.

"First you break out the Latin, then the six-syllable words. Going to bed with you is a bigger challenge than the New York Times crossword puzzle." She laughs, a little breathlessly. He goes on, "I'm going to fuck you a few different times, a few different ways. And I'll make you come on my fingers, with my mouth, on my cock. First on my fingers, because I want to watch your face when it happens. Want to see that composure break, tease you with my fingertips"—he runs them over her breasts, drawing her nipples between them hard enough that her breath quickens but not hard enough to hurt—"until you're gasping my name. Then with my mouth"—licking delicately around the rim of her ear—"because I know you can go again. I'll lick you up like nectar and then kiss you so that you know how good you taste. I'll kiss you until you've licked all your juices off my tongue. Kiss you until you've had a few minutes to rest, and then I'll sink into you, slowly, let you feel every inch of it, kiss you some more, let you moan into my mouth." He takes her earlobe between his lips, and she does moan. "I'll lick the sweat off your neck and you'll arch up against me—probably won't even realize you're doing it, you'll just know that it's what feels good. You'll be trying to push me into you, trying to go faster, and I'll just take your wrists"—and he pulls them above her head and gathers them in one hand in a hold that's loose but sure. She does arch up then, arches up to see how serious he is about this, and he doesn't let go. "You'll have to go as slow as I want to, until I say differently. You'll try to bite back the sounds you want to make, but it won't work, and you'll be gasping in my ear, all that vocabulary but the only word that wants to come out is 'please.'" He kisses her hard, and she does, she tries to bite back the little noises in the back of her throat, but can't, and they come out, nonverbal and pleading. He kisses one corner of her mouth, the other, both eyelids. "What do you think about that?"

She opens her eyes and smiles at him, showing teeth, then pushes herself up and sinks them into his shoulder. "I think you're all talk."

"Oh, you do, huh?" He rolls off her but doesn't let her wrists go. "Then maybe a demonstration is what you need. Or a lesson."

"And just what am I to learn?"

He bites her, this time, at the point where her shoulder meets her arm, but gently, barely hard enough to leave a mark, and then follows teeth with a slow tongue. Another noise comes up; she's helpless to stop it. "That was a preview," he says, and his fingers slide down her belly to stroke against her clit. Her body moves despite herself, with no input from her brain, seeking that touch, but Dean shakes his head and presses her hips back down to the mattress. "You're not driving here, baby. For once." He traces her navel with his tongue, grazing his teeth over the pale flesh of her belly. Keeping one hand firmly on her hip, he starts stroking her clit again with the fingers of the other, rubbing lightly in tight concentric circles.

She's shuddering underneath it but can't do anything to urge him on, has to lie there and let liquid heat start to flood through her body. "God, Dean." This is a voice she doesn't recognize: almost a whimper.

"How does that feel?" His voice is mild. "Tell me how it feels, Hermione."

A gasp breaks free from her throat; her head arches back against the pillow. He kisses the underside of her jaw, lets his touch between her legs go lighter, loosens the circles he's drawing. She turns her head to glare at him. "It feels good. You rotter."

"That's my girl," he says, and a full cry—startled, pleasured—escapes as he sinks two fingers inside her. "I need both hands for this," he tells her. "But I don't know if I can trust you to keep yours where they are. Can I? Or do I need to hold them?" He presses them down into the pillow, just to make the point.

"I—oh, God," she gasps, and that's a third finger. It almost hurts, but her interior muscles are clenching around him—she's close, so close, if he'd just go a little harder, a little faster.

"Can I?" he repeats. "I know you're a good girl, but you still seem to love breaking the rules, and that's not what this is about."

"I won't move—ah!" as his fingers move inside her, rub up against a place that sends shock waves sounding through her body. "I won't move. Dean, please."

He kisses her mouth quickly, gently, and lets go of her wrists. "Since you asked so nicely. Don't move them. Hold on to the headboard if you have to."

That's an excellent suggestion. The headboard is beautiful, old and solid, made of curlicued wrought-iron, and Hermione wraps each hand around a bar.

He uses the free hand to tease her nipples again, moving in the same rhythm he's moving his fingers in and out of her, using his tongue, too. He kisses her again, and when his thumb slides over her clit, she feels herself start to shudder, body gathering for its climax, and she does moan into his mouth.

He pulls back, stilling the hand on her breast, slowing the motion of his fingers so that they're barely moving at all, just enough to remind her they're there, just enough to be frustrating. "You weren't just planning on coming before I say you can, right?"

She closes her eyes, has to work to get her words together. She's never been blown apart like this, never—even when she thought she was dying—been without the ability to put together her next sentence. "I wasn't...I wasn't aware that I had to ask permission."

He stretches out alongside her, licks the delicate skin on the underside of her arm, and she shivers. "Mmm. You don't have to ask. I'll tell you."

"Dean, I—I want to."

"Want to what, sweetheart?"

She fixes him with another glare. "You know."

"If you can't ask for it—and I know you've more than got the words to do that—I'm not sure you're ready to have it."

"I can't say that out loud!"

"You told me in no uncertain terms just a couple of nights ago that you wanted me to go down on you. How is this any different?"

It's not. Not really. And yet it is. He moves to kiss her again, little nibbling kisses to her lips while he's still doing things to her most secret parts to make her gasp. "I know you can do it, baby girl," he says softly. "You're not asking for anything I don't want to give you."

"May I close my eyes when I say it?"

"I'd rather you were looking at me, but if that's the only way you can do it, then okay."

She's never been one to take the easy way out.

She forces herself to look at him, even though she can feel herself blushing so fiercely her face turns hot. "I...I want to come, Dean. Please. I want you to make me."

"Good girl," he says, and cups her face again to kiss her long and thorough. His thumb moves fast and tight on her clit, his fingers strong and deliberate as they press in and out, in and out, and she's moving with them, crying out around his kisses, her own hands gripping the iron bars. It's like being fucked, but with the precision of those beautiful hands, the capable flat wrists, the broad palms. And she does it then, she comes, hard and sweet, shuddering out her orgasm until she's boneless, spent, a pile of sweaty and satisfied girl lying sprawled on the sheets.

Carefully, he slides his fingers out of her, and she pulls her arms back down. It's when he begins to lick his fingers that she stares—and then stares again when he traces one around her lips. "Go ahead," he encourages her in that same gentle voice that could, she thinks, convince her to do anything. "You should know how good you taste."

And because he can, in fact, apparently convince her to do anything, she opens her mouth. She has a visceral reaction of disgust—she has no idea why, except that there's a strange, lizardy part of her brain that's convinced she has no reason to want to know what her own juices taste like—but it's actually not unpleasant, salty and starchy, a little bit oddly metallic. He kisses her again and then gathers her against him, rubbing her back, settling her head into his shoulder.

He is, she realizes, very hard.

She's a little bit shaky, and she grounds herself against the solidity and warmth of his body. "You OK, sweetheart?" he asks.

She thinks, does an inventory. The unfamiliar territory of what just happened isn't so much frightening as just...new. "Brilliant," she says. "Just...lie here a moment with me?"

He does, and her heartbeat returns to something approaching normal, and she listens as his slows down, too.

He is not, however, any less aroused—she can feel that quite clearly. She moves so that she's on top of him, draping her legs around his hips, and his hands move to her arse. She smiles, raises her eyebrows at him.

He raises his right back. "Tell me what you want, Hermione," he says in that same tone, but now that she's not desperately close to orgasm, it's slightly less effective.

She wriggles against him, feeling his body respond—and thinking that maybe he didn't mean for it to. "The better question, I think, is what you want," she says, rolling to the side to take him in her hand. The resulting sigh goes a long way towards providing an answer. "I find condoms very strange," she adds. "Would you object if we did this the wizard way?"

"I'm not a wizard," Dean says.

"Right. But I am. There are a few different ways to go about this, but the easiest is for me to spell myself so that anything—er—originating from you will have no effect on me, and then for me to do the same to you, to protect you against me."

"I somehow doubt that I'm in much danger from you."

"No, likely not. But it's only fair, and anyway better safe than sorry. May I have your permission to use the charm on you?"

"You're sure you can do it right?" She's about to be offended, but he starts laughing, and then, in response to what's no doubt her perplexed expression, adds, "I'm sorry, it's just the look you got on your face."

"Of course I can do it correctly," she informs him. "How else do you think my sixth-year cohort in Gryffindor managed to avoid unwed parenthood?" She and Padma had done the research for the charm after Megan Jones in Hufflepuff got into trouble during their fifth year. They'd taught it to their respective houses and to the Puffs, and Hermione had given it to Daphne Greengrass to give to the Slytherins. (Less out of charity, Hermione and Padma had agreed, than out of the desire to keep Slytherins from reproducing.) God, Padma. Hermione can't think about that right now.

"Go ahead," Dean tells her. "But I have to say, when Screaming Jay Hawkins sang about 'I put a spell on you,' I don't think this was what he had in mind."

"How many children did he have?" Hermione retorts. "Now be quiet for a moment; I do need to be able to concentrate."

It's not a difficult charm—one of the main reasons Hermione and Padma selected it from the several they discovered over the course of a few days poring over the library stacks and a copy of Every Witch's Family Companion filched from the twins' mother. The entire procedure takes about a minute—thirty seconds for Dean, thirty seconds for Hermione. She closes her eyes and takes a second to pray for Padma—but a few more seconds to pray for Parvati.

Because it's worse to be left behind.

Then, determinedly, she pushes them from her mind and turns back to Dean. "Done," she says. "Let the perversity ensue."

It's less intense now, but no less enjoyable. Dean's on top, and she lets her hands wander and explore him: the planes and points of his shoulders, the smooth lines of muscle in his back. He kisses her as they move together, though she breaks it every so often to let her noises escape. His hands find hers, and she realizes that he's got her pinned, and she doesn't care. He'll let her up if she wants. Which she doesn't. He nudges her head to the side, and she follows his direction, letting him lick her neck, her ear; tell her how good she feels, how beautiful she looks like this (he must be lying, but she could almost believe it), what he wants to do to and with her.

Her climax is a slow surprise, like a wave gathering momentum as it approaches the shore. After, Dean lies sprawled against her, a sweaty, pleasant weight. Contentedly, he kisses her throat, her cheek, her forehead, her hair, and she murmurs happy nonverbal approval. He moves onto his back, and she drifts into sleep with her head on his arm, his hand settled lightly on her shoulder.

It occurs to her as she's falling into dreams that he still owes her one: He promised his fingers, his cock, and his mouth, and he delivered on only two of the three. Hermione smiles to herself. She'll collect in the morning.

* * * * * * * * *

She tries to make herself stop, tries to hold one arm back with the other, tries to redirect the knife toward herself, but she can't: It keeps plunging down, and Ron's screaming, and then the screaming turns to a rattling gurgle and stops altogether. He's dead, and she knows it, but even so, that part of her holding the knife brings it down again, and then a third time, nearly severing Ron's head from his neck. There's so much blood, and even though Ron's body is still, blue eyes open but unseeing, Hermione can still hear screams. She thinks they're echoes until she realizes that they're hers.

"Damn it, Hermione! Wake up!"

It's Ron's mouth moving, but it's not his voice. He sits up abruptly and reaches for her. A demon. She's killed him, and he's been possessed. She fights him as hard as she can, but his arms are like iron around her—

"Hermione! Wake up!"

Her eyes open so suddenly that it feels like a slam. That's not Ron; that's Dean, holding her arms at her sides as she struggles. She goes limp when she realizes she's awake—when she realizes it's just another dream—and he lets her go. She's breathing in gasps, nearly sobs, and he sits her up, settles her against his chest, and wraps a sheet around them both. He strokes her hair and rubs her arms but doesn't say anything.

"I'm sorry," she says when she has her breath back and her voice more or less under control.

"Nothing to be sorry for."

"Right, I'm sure every girl you sleep with wakes you up screaming and trying to beat the snot out of you."

He doesn't respond directly, asking instead, "You want to tell me what it was about?"

Hermione shakes her head. "They're all more or less the same. Just different characters. I'm sorry I tried to hit you."

"It's OK. You didn't know what you were doing. You been having these long?"

"Since Voldemort. Well, since two weeks after Voldemort."

"Which was when your friend woke up, and you got your freaky mind powers back."

"That sounds like something out of a science fiction novel," she says, laughing a little despite herself. "It's just magic."

"'Just magic.' You know, there aren't many people who would say it like that."

She shrugs. "When everyone around you can do it, it's really not so freaky, as you term it. It's the same as...oh, I don't know, the fact that everyone around you can see and hear. Just something that you take for granted."

"But for those two weeks you didn't." There's a pause. "Was that good or bad news?"

She hadn't brought up this part in the Great Paranormal Storytelling Session.

"It was a shock," Hermione says. "One comes to rely on magic for everything—doing the washing-up, for example. But I recovered from the shock more quickly than you might think. And after that—" She pauses. It feels horrible, ungrateful to say this, the rejection of such a gift. "After that it was a relief."

This is the first time she's said this out loud.

"Even though you loved it when you were younger?" he asks. She told them this part of her story: the unusual things she'd always been able to do, the joy that had slowly blossomed as she'd read about Hogwarts and dared to think that there might be a place for her in the world.

"Even so. When I was younger, I loved that I could do all these things most other people couldn't. I loved that I had this world completely separate from my parents'. I loved that more and more as I got older. Then the war started, and it wasn't a gift anymore. It was a weapon."

"A weapon can't be a gift?"

"For some people. Not for me. Oh, don't get me wrong. I used it. But when everything was over, to have it disappear…that was OK. I was done. Or I thought I was."

"Your parents are—what's the word—Muggles, right?"

"Right. Dentists. Completely average."

"So if you lost your magic forever, you'd just go back and have a normal life."

Hermione lets herself lean back into him. "I started thinking again about applying to Cambridge. To read history there. That was what I wanted to do when I grew up, when I was a child: teach history and wear very official-looking robes. I got the robes, anyway. It's ridiculous, isn't it? I receive this tremendous gift, and all I want to do is attend university like everyone else."

"Makes complete sense to me," Dean says. "You didn't ask to fight evil wizard lords with stupid names and have your friend be in a coma. You just wanted to live your life, be brainy, teach history. Wear robes."

"Sam went to university for a while," Hermione says. Her mind is still logy from sleep and nightmare; she's only now putting this together. Of course. Sam Winchester just wanted to live his life, be brainy, study whatever he was studying.

"For a little over three years."

Hermione turns so that she's looking at Dean. "You never had that option, did you?"

"College wouldn't have been the place for me. Can't sit still, hate to read anything that doesn't involve killing demons."

"I don't mean university—college—specifically. I mean a normal life. No demons. Literally or figuratively."

"'Lit'rally.'" Dean mimics her pronunciation, clipping the second syllable as the English do. "It sounds so elegant when you say it."

"Thank you. And you didn't answer my question."

He shrugs. "That was never the life I wanted. If I could give that to Sam, I would, but this is what I'm good at. What I know."

"Right," says Hermione. "What you know."

"But you could still do that," Dean says. "Go to college or whatever. I mean, just because you can do spells and levitate people into the air, doesn't mean that you have to, or that you can't do other stuff. Why not just say 'the hell with it all' and go wear robes and read giant books?"

"I could. I could claim that I was homeschooled or some such, take their placement exams, act as if that's the strangest thing about me. But I'm...changed. It's not just the extra power. I'm not the same person I was a few years ago. A few months ago, even. I don't think I can go to Muggle university and pretend that I'm the same as they are." She can't tell him about the evil that pervades the dreams, the evil she's afraid now pervades herself. Harry was protected by the ancient magic of his mother's sacrifice; Hermione had only her own mind, and for once, that hadn't been sufficient. It would be bad enough simply to dream these horrible things, but it's worse to dream that she's the one doing them.

"And your friend isn't changed?"

"He woke up, and it was as if nothing had happened." Harry Potter, Hermione thinks with some degree of envy. Forever escaping by the skin of his teeth. "The last thing he remembered was eating lunch with Ron and me the day before the final battle. He didn't know that we'd fought it and won. That was nearly three months ago, and he still hasn't remembered anything else. It's not clear that he ever will. But apart from that, Harry's the same as he was before—same personality, same magic. He just lacks about twenty-four hours' worth of memories."

Dean moves them both so that they're lying down again. She curls up with her head on his shoulder, and though he doesn't seem to be much of a cuddler, he lets her stay, settling an arm around her and tracing his fingers lightly over her scalp. "I don't think you survive something like that without being changed. Maybe your friend doesn't remember anything now, but dollars to doughnuts he will later, and it's gonna suck a lot worse for having festered in there so long. I wouldn't feel too jealous of him."

"I just want to be able to sleep," Hermione says. "That's what I envy. Harry can sleep. There have been only one or two nights when I haven't woken up with nightmares."

"You didn't a few nights ago," Dean points out helpfully, and though she recognizes it as another redirect, she appreciates it.

"I didn't sleep much that night, period."

"Wonder why that was."

"I'm sure I have no idea."

They're both quiet, and she starts to fall asleep again. "I'm sorry I woke you up," she says through a yawn.

"'Sokay. Not the first time it's happened." He kisses the top of her head. "Go to sleep, Hermione. I'll keep you safe. It's what I do."

"I know," she says, and falls asleep.

Chapter Text

The room is golden and brilliant with sun when Hermione wakes up again several hours later. The storm has blown over; the sky is the achingly clear blue of early morning. She's surprised that the room is so bright—and then she rolls onto her back and sees that it has skylights. She can't believe she didn't notice them before—but, then, it was night the last time she was here, and she wasn't exactly thinking about architectural features.

One of Dean's arms is flung over his head like a study for a painting; the other remains lightly curled around her. She stretches, catlike, and feels warm and safe, the nightmare gone with the rain.

She gets out of bed as carefully as she can, but this time without the intention of escape; she just needs to use the loo. Then, she thinks, she'll come back and sleep for another hour or two; then she'll wake up and remind Dean of his promise from the night before. That, she thinks, will be a fine way to start a fine day. She can see a dressing gown hanging on the inside of the closet door; she wraps it around herself, goes to the loo, finds mouthwash and gargles with it, and comes back. Dean still appears to be asleep, but when she climbs back in bed, he rolls over and slings an arm across her belly. With some amusement, she revises the opinion that he's not a cuddler; rather, his superego seems to believe that it's not manly (or some other such bollocks), but his id is gleefully free of this inhibition. She settles her own arm around his shoulders, traces her fingers desultorily across the smooth skin of his back.

The first time her fingertips run over a scar, she doesn't think much of it, but after the third and fourth, she looks.

He's got some marks from various hunts, obviously battle scars: Their sizes and shapes vary, as the things that made them would have. These on his back are different: They're small, circular, and regularly shaped. Fight scars would of necessity be on his front, and even if he at some point got stabbed or shot in the back or hit by—she tries to think of something—flying shrapnel, or some such, the marks would not be so uniform. Or round.

The answer comes to her like a bat to the head. Her stomach heaves, and she sucks in a breath, sits up, presses her hand to her mouth to keep it down. Dean wakes up immediately, going from mostly asleep to completely conscious in less than a second. "Hermione. You OK?"

She takes another deep breath, lets it out. Her stomach relearns its relationship to gravity. Rage wraps around her like a cloak, like fuel; she can feel the anger kindling in her spine. She's felt this way twice in her life: when she saw Umbridge's sentence (in all senses of the word) cut into the back of Harry's hand, and when she stared Voldemort in the eyes ten weeks ago. The first time she couldn't do anything about the violation. The second time she could. Now she can't—if Dean's skin is anything to go by, it occurred years, maybe even decades ago—and she feels the helpless anger building, trying to find an outlet, a release, a subject—

"Hermione," Dean says carefully, "whatever you're doing, you might want to stop."

The line of her thoughts breaks, and she looks at him. "What?"

"If you throw off any more heat, you're going to set the bed on fire. And I'd be alright with that in a metaphorical sense, but I'd like to avoid it in the literal, if possible."

She lays her hand on the bottom sheet, and recoils at the temperature. It feels as though it's just come out of the dryer—hotter, even. She forces herself to tamp down the rage, to let the heat dissipate. "Stones of Salazar," she whispers. "This is new."

Dean's eyebrows are raised. "Want to tell me what just happened?"

"Who put those scars on your back?" she says by way of answer.

"No one. They're from chicken pox. I had it when I was a kid."

She feels the cotton under her thighs start to heat up again, breathes deeply and imagines the anger as a force leaving her body, something inky and black that she's breathing out, leaving herself empty and clean. Just one more legacy of being connected to Voldemort by the transitive property, one more thing she has to figure out how to deal with. When she's calmer, she says, "If you don't want to tell me, that's your prerogative, but do me the credit of not insulting my intelligence."

He stares at her, eyes and mouth hard. Once she might have looked away, but now she doesn't.

"It's not your business," he says after a long, tight, silent moment.

And he's correct, of course. It isn't. She lets out another breath, looks down at the oceanic blue of the sheets, which, she realizes, she has clenched in a fist. "I'm sorry," she says. "You're right. It isn't my business. For whatever it's worth, it's an evil thing to happen, and I'm sorry that it did. And since you asked, this heat phenomenon is new, but it seems to occur when I'm angry."

She gets out of bed, dresses, and leaves the room without a word. She doesn't want to finish things like this, but she doesn't trust her voice not to shake—with fury, with tears.

She descends one flight of stairs, then pauses on the second-floor landing. Her shoes and bag are downstairs, where she left them last night. She has two options, neither ideal: go into the living room and risk inquests from the assembled masses, or Accio everything and risk braining someone.

"Hermione." Dean's voice comes down to her from the third floor.

She looks up at him. He looks down at her.

"Come back up," he says, finally.

She does. He's dressed now, jeans and a gray T-shirt, though still barefoot. Much as she likes his body, it's a relief: She doesn't want to risk laying eyes on those horrible methodical scars again and setting something—such as Faith's house—on fire.

She leans on one side of the doorframe. He leans on the other. It's not quite a standoff.

Hermione says, "My friend Harry—Ginevra's ex-boyfriend—has scarring on the back of his right hand. It's in the shape of letters, which read 'I must not tell lies.'"

"Okay," Dean says. It's not exactly an interrogative, but it's not a conclusion, either.

"He didn't put them there himself. Or, rather, he did, but not of his own volition: The sociopathic bint who was our Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in our fifth year had this quill—wizards write with quills and ink, I don't know whether I told you that. But this particular quill would cause anything you wrote to be cut into the skin of your hand. Harry told people that Voldemort was back, which was true. Umbridge, our teacher, didn't believe him, or claimed not to, and made him write lines as punishment: 'I must not tell lies.' When he wasn't telling lies at all, and people died because no one would listen."

The wood against her back is getting warm. She stands up straight, away from it, closes her eyes, lets the anger run through her and then out.

"There wasn't anything I could do," Hermione continues. "I made up some Murtlap essence—it heals cuts and wounds—and it helped with the pain, at least, but she made him do the lines so often that the scars are still there. Harry was trying to warn people that they were in danger, and now, for the rest of his life, his own skin will say that he's lying."

There's a pause.

"It wasn't chicken pox," Dean says.

"I know." And she asks because she has to, because he and Sam said so little about him that night that she has no idea what kind of man he really was: "Was it your father?"

Dean starts, as though he's surprised by the question. "No. God, no. He was...He wasn't like that."

"Good," Hermione says. That's something, at least. She leans back against the doorframe again. This time it's cool to the touch.

Dean reaches across the width of the doorway and runs his fingertips through the hair at her temples. "I could go for some breakfast," he says. "Maybe waffles."

"Waffles," agrees Hermione. She sets her hand on his hip and they stand like that for a moment, touching at only those two small points. "With maple syrup," she says.

* * * * * * * * *

Over the next fortnight, they do the things that people seem to do in New York in the summer: Hermione, Ginevra, Faith, Vern, and Xander go swimming at a pool in the West Village (Faith has an astonishing collection of inflatable pool toys, which make them the most popular people there, at least in the opinion of everyone under the age of seven). Everyone except Dean and Spike goes to hear the New York Philharmonic play in Central Park. The park is as beautiful and wooded as all the books say, and the Philharmonic as sublime. (Ginevra falls asleep halfway through; she apparently prefers the Weird Sisters to Ravel.) They grocery-shop at the various greenmarkets, and everyone from the Henhouse (Faith's) and the Cockhouse (Spike's, in Chelsea, which he shares with Xander) comes over for dinner. Faith introduces Hermione and Ginevra to Mary's Dairy, a small, bright shop with ice cream so good it sparks an internal debate in Hermione regarding whether she'd prefer Dean go down on her or feed her cappuccino Kahlua ice cream.

She decides she would like both, preferably sequentially. Concurrently, if it were possible.

Faith goes to class; Xander and Spike wrangle vendors and drunks at Abyssus; Sam and Dean go on hunts and come back covered with various amounts of blood, dirt, and ectoplasm. (Hermione finds a store in Chinatown that sells Murtlap tentacles, and instructs the Winchesters in their use.) A series of transatlantic birds—terns, herons, gulls, geese—appear on their front stoop, bearing a series of increasingly distressed epistles from Molly Weasley and the occasional letter from Harry, Ron, Remus, Neville, and Tonks. (Remus and Harry, when he's not at Grimmauld Place, will email; computers are utterly foreign to the others, as well as to Ginevra.) When they come home to find the fifth letter in so many days, Hermione says to Ginevra, "You know she'll force a Portkey out of Tonks or Kingsley if you don't write her back."

Ginevra sighs and looks down at the letter. "They're all about going back to school next year."

It's crept into late July; if Hogwarts were still standing, school would be starting in about six weeks.

"Where does she want you to go?" Hermione asks.

"Beauxbatons. They're offering all their empty places to Hogwarts students, and it seems they've reserved one for me. Being the former girlfriend of the Boy Who Lived as I am."

"Are you going to take it?"

"Are you mad? I'd rather be Transfigured into a toad than set foot in the place that produced Phlegm."

"Have you told your mother that?"

"Oh, she adores Phlegm now. And, yes, Fleur remained with Bill after his accident, and I have to give her credit for that. But she's still a stupid prat and I don't want to go to her stupid school."

"So why don't you ask your mother to look into another school?"

Ginevra stares at Hermione as though she's barmy. "Because I don't want to go to another school."

Hermione does the math in her head. "Your seventeenth birthday is in about three weeks."

Ginevra sighs, nods.

"What are you trying to do, wait her out until then?"

Ginevra looks around as though searching for a better answer, but finally gives up and says, "Yes."

"Ginevra, you have to answer her. Put her off, tell her you'll think about school if it's not Beauxbatons."

"I'm not going back to school, Hermione. Any school."

"It doesn't matter. The point is that it will take her some time to come up with alternatives, and that puts you all the closer to your birthday. But if you don't answer her, she's going to think you're dead, and she's going to Portkey here and cause a scene on our front stoop and possibly drag you home to England."

Ginevra's mouth flattens into a single line, but she acquiesces, "When you put it like that..."

There are no quills in the flat, so Hermione introduces Ginevra to the wonders of the ball-point pen (Ginevra is fascinated, and examines it from all angles before setting it to paper), and the brent goose waits patiently, pecking at leftover sourdough, as Ginevra composes her response to her mother. She will, it says, consider (but only consider, nothing more) going back to school if it is somewhere other than Beauxbatons or Durmstrang (despite its new admissions policy). And she has no access to wizarding research materials here in New York, so Molly will need to look into this. Hermione says hello; pet Crookshanks for us; love, Ginevra.

"Good," Hermione says. "This will occupy her for a while."

"I just feel a little guilty about lying," Ginevra says.

"Ginevra, do I need to remind you that you ran away from home to Bulgaria—Bulgaria!—to join a war? Taking Charlie's broom and your father's cherished Muggle money? And would you prefer to lie, or to be sent to Beauxbatons?"

"I remember when Hermione Granger would have lectured me to tell the truth at all costs," Ginevra mutters, but seals the letter.

"I remember when Hermione Granger didn't unintentionally set fires with her brain," Hermione retorts. "Come on, or the goose will leave."

* * * * * * * * *

A few days later, Hermione wakes up from a dream about that next-to-last day in Hogsmeade. Even after she's conscious, the faces still swim across her vision: Bellatrix Lestrange, dead; Pansy Parkinson, dead, and so bloody as to be unrecognizable; Luna crumpled on the floor; Harry screaming under Cruciatus.

She sits up in bed for several minutes while her breathing slows. She gulps from the glass of water on the nightstand, assures herself that it's months later and she's in New York City and everything is over. When she's steady enough to walk, she stumbles downstairs to find a note in Ginevra's hieroglyphic-like handwriting:


Coney Is. w/ gang. See you Abyssus later? L, G

 

She was invited but politely declined, begging heat and sun sensitivity. But really she just wants a few hours to herself. She loves Ginevra's company, is obviously enjoying the time spent with Dean, is discovering how much she likes Faith, Sam, and Xander—but sometimes she just wants a few hours when the only voice rattling around in her head is her own. And after the dream she just had, she's not sure she's fit to be around humanity for a while.

Despite the heat, Hermione makes herself tea, and eats porridge with cinnamon and raisins. She loves porridge. Her mother used to make it for her this way when she was small. She remembers eating it at the breakfast table with both her parents, back when they still talked to each other. That was a long time ago.

She eats, reads, writes a letter to Remus and Tonks. She hasn't called home since she arrived, and she knows she should. It's late afternoon now in England, and her parents will still be at work. She'll go for a run and then call later, when they—or at least her mother—will be home.

It isn't as bad outside as it could be, but it's bad enough that Hermione does something very brazen and American and goes out in just her running shorts and sports bra (her claims about heat and sun not being 100 percent truthful). Granted, the heavily engineered bra covers more than most bathing suit tops (and even a few shirts), but it's still just a bra, and nice girls do not run through the streets of New York City in just a bra.

Nice girls also do not lose their virginity to identical twins, and she's reasonably sure that nice girls do not go to bed with Dean Winchester. Or the other way around.

She Accios a T-shirt, looks at it, and then puts it back in the drawer.

She goes through Tompkins Square Park, stopping at the dog run to watch the terriers chase the Great Danes, then continues east. It's cooler by the river, and she follows the waterfront as long as she can, then cuts inward to the streets, winding around the mountainous supports for the thundering Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, down to the old seaport and the Financial District, its glass buildings gleaming in the sunlight, its streets teeming with businesspeople and tourists. She feels herself being looked at, and turns to glare, but the expression falls away when she realizes that the observation is appreciative.

How strange. She's sweaty and in running clothes, and it's not as if she was so pretty to begin with.

She heads back uptown, dodging shoppers and more tourists, then east on Delancey and up Essex until it turns into Avenue A. She's about to turn the northwest corner of the park, completing her circle, when she sees a familiar figure on the opposite corner.

Well, so her day isn't solitary anymore, and that's just fine.

She waits for a taxi to run the red light, then crosses Tenth Street. "You're not at Coney Island?" she says.

"Real life's enough of a freak show for me." Dean slides his hand around her sweaty waist and up her slick back, and kisses her.

It's delicious, but she pushes him back. "I'm disgusting. I'll get"—she gestures vaguely to encompass the nastiness accumulated during a five-mile run in late-morning heat—"all over you."

"I should be so lucky."

"I'm serious! I smell!"

"No, you don't. Not bad, anyway." He licks sweat off her neck. "And you're all flushed from the heat…."

She shivers, but wriggles away. "At least let me go inside and have a shower. Then you can molest me as much as you wish."

"You make it sound so pathological."

"Molesting me when I'm revolting after my run? That probably is pathological."

He rolls his eyes. "Fine. Go in and get clean. I'll be collecting on that molestation, by the way."

She rolls her eyes back and Alohomoras them both into the apartment. She installs Dean in the living room, then goes upstairs to shower.

She's not even surprised when, thirty seconds after she's turned the water on, an impressive amount of naked man ducks around the curtain and takes the body wash out of her hands. "I wouldn't want you to miss a spot," he says, shrugging innocently.

"How altruistic of you."

"I live to serve." He opens the body wash and sniffs. "Good, I won't be smelling like lilac for the rest of the day. What is this?"

"Bergamot. It's what they put in Earl Grey tea."

He pours some out and begins to wash her with it. He has incredibly beautiful hands, she thinks as she watches them wander her skin. He and Sam both do. She spends a moment imagining the two brothers touching her, honey-gold and cinnamon against her pale pink, long fingers soothing and demanding and coaxing, maybe one at her back and the other at her front, all that affection and rivalry and intensity with her at its nexus. Then there's a gentle but insistent bite at the place where her shoulder meets her neck, and she gasps and is back with Dean again, just Dean, that's enough and that's plenty.

Most of him is rough-and-tumble, sometimes unaffectedly (his speech and style of dress), sometimes deliberately (his hair, on which she suspects he spends much more time than he'll admit), but his hands are incongruously elegant, as though, during the creation process, something got crossed on the assembly lines and Dean Winchester got an artist's or composer's hands, and some poor aesthete got the square palms and blunt fingers you'd expect on a fighter and hunter. They're rarely free of motion: Even when the rest of him is still, his hands are absently playing with his ring, tormenting pens, drumming their own rhythm on whatever surface is convenient.

And right now they're covering her with the sharp scent of bergamot, rubbing shampoo into her scalp, turning her to rinse. No one's bathed her since she was very young, and she finds that she likes it, the warmth and the good smells and the comfortable intimacy. The next time she's facing him, she reaches up and kisses him as the water cascades over them both. His hands settle between her shoulder blades and in the small of her back, and she wonders whether it's risky—slippery tile and whatnot—to just have sex right here, wet and slick and warm.

She concludes that it probably is, and pulls away with some regret to return the favor and wash him. He sighs dramatically, but doesn't protest, and she feels his shoulders and back loosen. She slows down and does this carefully, bathing not just his shoulders and chest and back (forcing down her gorge and deliberating ignoring the marks) but running the washcloth up and down each leg, over his feet, down and around each arm (kissing his palms as she does); tracing a finger up the back of his neck; washing his hair (despite the slightly awkward angle); kissing him again under the spray as she rinses him off. His eyes are closed, his face as unguarded as sleep. He's lost five years and, she thinks, a couple hundred kilos of invisible weights.

When she's done, he pulls her close to him, but that's all, just close, with her head tucked under his chin. She knows it's a waste of water, but she can't bring herself to break away just yet. It's only when the temperature starts to cool that she turns off the faucets, Accios towels, and dries them both.

Back in her room, she rubs bergamot lotion into her skin and he lies naked on her bed, watching. She gets up to put the bottle away, and turns back around to realize that he's fallen asleep. The light through the curtains is diffuse, drawing hazy patterns on his skin, and she lets him rest. She puts on clothes because she can't quite stomach the idea of calling home in the nude, and goes downstairs for the phone.

It's later than she realized, into the afternoon now—it was a long run and a long shower—but not late enough for her mother to have gone to bed. Her father, of course, is not home. "He just stepped out," her mother offers, but Hermione knows better by this time. He didn't just step out to fetch takeaway for dinner; it's not even that he's gone round to the pub for a pint with his mates. It's that he's not home yet, he won't be for some time, and his whereabouts are anyone's guess, although Hermione has a few. One, in particular.

She gives her mother a sanitized version of how her trip has been, telling her a little about the people she and Ginevra have met. They're Americans, Hermione says; Muggles (she's not going to try to explain the Slayer bit), very nice, they live here, she goes to university (took a few years off after secondary school because of family issues, says Hermione) and he owns a (Hermione edits herself) restaurant. She barely knows what to say to herself about Dean at this point, much less how to explain him to her mother (who hasn't had any context for Hermione's life in years), so she doesn't bring him up at all.

She's just getting off the phone as he comes downstairs, sleepy and smiling, wearing jeans but nothing else. "Your accent's out in full force," he says as she clicks shut the mobile her mother sent her here with.

"I was talking to my mum. I didn't realize it changed."

"Not drastically, but it's definitely stronger now. Why'd you let me sleep so long?"

"It wasn't long—twenty minutes, maybe. And you looked as though you needed it."

He makes room for himself on the sofa, head in her lap. "How are the parents?"

She shrugs. "My mum is my mum. Same as always. My father wasn't home." She traces his hairline; his hair is considerably more rough-and-tumble than usual, in disarray from being washed and then slept on. "Did you sleep well?"

"Would have been better if you'd been there with me naked, but"—he gives an elaboratedly martyred shrug—"apart from that it was alright."

Her fingertips touch the curve of his ear, his throat, his collarbones and the point of his shoulder. "In that case you might not have slept at all."

"We could always do an experiment and find out."

His lasciviousness is interrupted when her stomach growls.

"Or," he adds, "we could go to Chinatown and eat something weird for lunch."

"This is going to sound odd," she says, "and possibly boring, but—I had sort of wanted to sit around and do nothing today. Maybe take lunch outside and eat it in the park if I was feeling really adventurous. So, um, do you want to make sandwiches and take them into the park and sit there and be boring with me?"

The expression on his face is completely unreadable, but then he sits up and kisses her: lips, forehead, eyelids. "What kind of sandwiches?" he says.

* * * * * * * * *

They wind up staying in the park the rest of the afternoon. They eat—nothing complicated, just the sandwiches ("You don't have peanut butter?" Dean says, scandalized, and puts on a shirt to go to the corner shop and buy some) and soda and some fruit. When Hermione kisses Dean afterwards, she licks sweetness off his lips. It's only when someone wolf-whistles at them that Hermione pulls away and curls up with her head on Dean's belly.

He asks about Hogwarts, and she tells him. She tells him about crossing the lake that first time, the vast glassy water with the bright stars overhead. "I was so nervous," she says. "Nervous and scared. I tried to act like I already knew about everything, so that I would feel less nervous, but it didn't really help. It was….Nothing I'd read—and I'd read everything I could get my hands on—could have prepared me for that. We crossed the lake in these tiny little boats, four per. Mine was Harry and Ron and Neville and me. Neville lost his toad before we pushed off, but he found it on the other side—or it found him, really. Neville is forever losing things. We crossed the lake and landed onshore and went into a castle. A real, live castle, with turrets and vaulted ceilings and towers and secrets and mysteries." She tells him about the Great Hall, lit by its thousands of floating candles and the ceiling that mirrored the sky outside. The candlelight glinting off the golden settings on the tables. "Like being in a cathedral," she says after a moment, "only like coming home, too. Like coming home to the place you never knew you belonged."

"It sounds like something out of a fairy tale," he says.

"It is. Was. Fairy tale is especially accurate now, I suppose. Hogwarts is mostly gone, and I don't—I don't know how you rebuild something like that. I don't think you can." She shakes her head, hoping to shake off some of the melancholy. "But parts of it aren't like a fairy tale, not at all. I don't think giant squids live in the moats of fairy-tale castles."

"Giant squids?" Dean repeats.

"Just the one. Well, as far as anyone knows. They don't exactly stand up and let you count them."

"You've seen it?"

"Of course. It comes into the shallows to sun itself. It also seems to like toast."

Dean laughs and laughs, dislodging her head, providing no explanation except to say that giant squids are inherently funny, and a giant squid eating toast and sunning itself in the middle of England is even more inherently funny.

She sits up and sings him the Hogwarts song, surprising herself when she remembers every word though she hasn't sung it since her first year. But it's not one of those songs you forget once you've heard it, though she does, in honor of Albus Dumbledore, make up the tune as she goes. Dean keeps interrupting in disbelief.

"'Scabby knees'?"

"That's how the song goes! '…Our heads could do with filling with some interesting stuff, for now they're bare and full of air, dead flies—'"

"'Dead flies'?!"

"I swear those are the words! '…and bits of fluff, so teach us things worth knowing, bring back what we've forgot. Just do your best, we'll do the rest, and learn until our brains all rot.'"

"It's a zombie fight song!"

"I beg your pardon!"

"Rotting brains? Dead flies? Come on, it's totally a zombie fight song!"

She's not sure whether to be amused or insulted. Maybe she's a little of both. "It's a very venerable song! Helga Hufflepuff wrote it more than a thousand years ago!"

"Aren't most school songs more 'go, team, fight' and less 'get the dead flies out of our brains'?"

"Welcome to the wizarding world," Hermione says, finally amused despite herself. "It's like the rest of the world, only cracked and with magic."

"Cracked is right," Dean mutters. "Teaching their children about rotting brains."

She resettles herself with her head where it was earlier. In the heat, she can smell his clean sweat, his natural peppery scent coming through even underneath the bergamot. It's a long, lazy afternoon; they alternate between talking, kissing (enough that at one point Hermione is ready to say, "Sod this," and take Dean inside and to bed), and dozing off. It's slothful and lovely and ridiculous and the exact opposite of boring. After a while, evening starts to roll in: The commuters arrive home from work, and the dogs come out with their owners. Dean befriends a pit bull and some sort of enormous, gregarious terrier; Hermione meets an adorable pug puppy that she wants to put in her pocket and take home. Dean glances up at the sky. "It's probably getting close to six," he says. "The gang should be back soon. Want to head over to Abyssus and meet up?"

Actually, Hermione thinks, I want to take you upstairs and do lascivious things to your person, and then we can go wherever you like. But she says, "Sure. Let's just throw all this away, and let me get my bag from inside."

They collect the various wrappings and carriers and take them into the apartment. No sooner are they inside with the door locked than Dean has Hermione up against the hallway wall. She yelps in surprise, then slides her hands into his back pockets to encourage him. "I could fuck you right here," he growls, hand navigating easily underneath her long sun dress. "Right here against the wall, hard and fast, with our clothes still on. Would you let me do that?"

"Yes," she says, her voice steady and strong. "Yes, Dean. Anything."

He doesn't fuck her—more's the pity—but rather yanks down her knickers and touches her with sure, urgent fingers. Then he drops to his knees, and she kicks the knickers off the rest of the way. He gathers the length of her dress, ties it in a knot (oh well, it's cotton—it'll reshape in the wash), and runs his hands up her thighs before settling his tongue between them.

His fingers are ticklish on her hips and belly, and (midshudder as he licks her right there) she grabs his wrists to hold them still. She's expecting that he'll pull away, but instead he looks up at her almost appraisingly. She looks back and, remembering his hands on her wrists, she doesn't drop her grip but tightens it instead.

He does pull, slowly, less like a struggle than like a test. She doesn't give. There's another pause. Then he leans to one side, then the other, and kisses the knuckles on both her hands. Then he returns his lips to her most private and secret of places. Dizzy with arousal, she can barely keep her eyes open, but she can't stand to close them, either—can't stand not to watch the checked strength in his back and shoulders, not to look at her small hands (her fingers don't meet when they circle his wrists) as they hold his firmly where she wants them. She pictures them as though from a couple of meters away—the girl (woman), her thighs parted, trembling on unsteady legs but with her hands certain and commanding on her lover's; the man, with power and intelligence and predatory instincts like a jungle cat's, on his knees in front of her like a supplicant, like a willing slave. That's when she comes, and she realizes that the sounds she's making are his name, over and over again.

When she can think again, she crouches down on the floor in front of him and pushes him to his back to return the favor. He goes uncomplainingly. She didn't realize how close he was; it doesn't take him more than a minute to climax, his fingers clenched in hers hard enough to hurt as his body shudders through it and his throat lets escape a harsh, vulnerable moan he'll probably never admit to.

Hermione unties the improvised knot in her dress, doesn't bother trying to find her knickers (they'll surface—she hopes), and lies down next to Dean, head on his shoulder. He kisses her first hard, then slow and thorough, and Hermione has to remind herself that a nap would be a bad idea as they're on the floor of the front hall and Ginevra could Apparate in literally on top of them.

They get cleaned up (which for Hermione involves a complete change of clothes, her dress being in utter disgrace and her knickers, it turns out, underneath the dining table) and walk down to Abyssus in the evening sunlight.

The pub is doing brisk business, even at this relatively early hour. Flipper (the man with the unconventional feet) is behind the bar; he motions towards the back room, where they find Xander, who's going over account ledgers, and Faith, who's glaring at her statistics textbook. They're the only ones here; the back room, catering as it does to creatures nocturnal by nature and preference, doesn't typically get going until nearly midnight.

"What happened to Sam and Ginevra?" Dean asks. "Did y'all not go to Coney Island?"

"For a while," says Faith, "but the sun got to me, so Xan and I took off early. Sam called from the train a little while ago; they're going to stop by Union Square and pick up some stuff for dinner. He said he called you, but"—she waggles her eyebrows—"you didn't pick up."

Hermione's about to get embarrassed; Dean just rolls his eyes.

It's not too much later when Sam and Ginevra come in. Sam collapses next to Dean. Ginevra, Hermione notices, looks strangely indignant.

"Dude," Sam says to his brother, "I have newfound sympathy for you. Any trouble I ever got into—I totally get now where you were coming from."

"What happened?" Dean asks. The expression on his face doesn't seem to know whether to be amusement or concern.

Ginevra stalks over to Sam's side and crosses her arms. "That man was saying all these horrible things, and no one was doing anything—"

Sam rubs his eyes. "Ginevra picked a fight with a religious fanatic."

Faith closes her book and looks up, interested. Xander's ledgers stay open, but he seems to be listening nevertheless.

"I did not! I merely pointed out some logical flaws in his argument."

"But that's just it, Ginevra—there is no logic where those people are concerned. They're just bigots—"

"And they need to know that it's not acceptable to stand in a public park and say things like that! And anyway there's no one named Steve in the Bible. If he's going to quote something, he should at least cite it correctly."

"I'm missing the connection here," Xander says. "The guy was claiming that there's someone named Steve in the Bible, and you took exception?"

"He said that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and then he said all these terrible things about how gay people spread AIDS, and how gay people are sodomites and going to hell, and he used the word 'faggot' as if it were a comma, and everyone just sat there as though this were completely reasonable."

"Because implying that he had sex with sheep is the epitome of reasonable discourse," Sam mutters, and Faith snorts with laughter.

"Only after he started his diatribe about how we should be like sheep! I simply pointed out that he seemed fixated upon barnyard animals, and perhaps his shame over his unspeakable love for livestock led him to hate those who express their own love in legal and perfectly appropriate ways."

Sam's head is on the table, but Hermione can't help noticing that his shoulders are shaking.

"He disagreed with that assessment," Ginevra continues, "and then he made a comment about my hair—and something that didn't make any sense about eating a carpet—to which Sam took exception. And, Sam, I appreciate the chivalry, but you should let people fight their own battles, particularly when they have a gay brother and you don't." She looks archly at Dean. "At least, that seems a reasonable assumption."

Dean raises his glass to Ginevra. Sam doesn't raise his head from the table.

"And anyway," Ginevra adds, "I'm the one whose boyfriend dumped her for her own brother. If I don't hate gay people, then no one has an excuse! Anyway, I then had a revelation about why this wanker might hate homosexuals so much, and I told him what it was. The people around us seemed to find it sensible, but he did not."

"One can only guess why," Sam says from the table.

"I merely stated that perhaps I had been incorrect about his love for sheep. Perhaps he loved human women—but his own woman found him dissatisfactory and departed for the arms of another woman. After all," Ginevra adds innocently, "any woman, wizard or Muggle, may go into a shop and purchase lovely apparati. As for men, well"—she shrugs—"they must rely upon the kindness of nature, and perhaps nature had not been so kind in that regard. It was certainly not kind in regards to his face, which looked rather as if his neck had vomited. A woman would certainly have been an improvement. Really, anyone would have been an improvement."

Dean's laughing so hard, there are tears streaming down his face. Sam has his arms over his head.

Ginevra goes on, "That was when I apparently exceeded the limits of that tosser's vocabulary, and he opted for a form of confrontation at which he believed himself more adept."

"He tried to take a swing at her," Sam translates, looking up for the first time in several minutes.

"And I guess you took exception to that, Sam?" Xander says.

"I did. But you might imagine my surprise and embarrassment when a girl whom I outweigh by a hundred pounds quite competently shoved me out of the way—for the second time—and proceeded to not only block the punch but return it with one of her own that put the guy on the ground. Let me add that this asshat weighed about 250 and was somewhere in height between Dean and me."

Faith drops her mechanical pencil onto the table, and the sound is oddly quelling, like a siren or a bell. "I think it's time for that little discussion that's been needing to happen."

"I didn't get in trouble," Ginevra says grumpily. "So don't lecture me. I didn't even get arrested."

Hermione expects Sam to retort, but he doesn't. He's looking at Faith, and the conversation between her, Sam, Dean, and Xander appears complicated and entirely inaudible.

Finally Faith leans back and looks first at Ginevra, then at Hermione. "Girls," she announces, "you're Slayers. Welcome to the sisterhood. Badge and decoder rings coming right up."

"You mean like you are?" says Hermione at the same time Ginevra says, with uncharacteristic malice, "I'm not a slayer of anything."

"Think back about two years," Faith says, almost gently. "In the spring. One day you were suddenly stronger than you had been. Faster. Not just physically, but mentally, too."

There's a long silence. No one speaks; it's as though no one moves.

Ginevra puts her hand over her mouth. It breaks the stillness in the air. "I was so much better at Quidditch," she whispers. "I just—I stopped playing Seeker because Harry came back, and I just assumed that Chaser had gotten easier because I had more experience."

"You have to throw the Quaffle when you're a Chaser, Gin," Hermione says. Suddenly the pieces start coming together—she may not like the sense this is making, but she can't deny that it makes a great deal of sense, in retrospect. "One-handed. You have to be fast and precise to be a Seeker, but Chaser requires more strength."

Ginevra shakes her head. To Hermione's surprise, her eyes fill with tears.

"You wouldn't get that strength simply from playing Seeker," Hermione goes on. "You'd have to build it up. Or something would have to give it to you."

Sam and Dean look at each other lightning-fast.

"I'm not sure I entirely follow how the game is played," Sam says, "but how big are these fields?"

"Pitches," answers Ginevra, "and they're five hundred feet by a hundred and eighty feet. The goalposts are fifty feet off the ground."

"And how big is this thing that you're throwing?"

Ginevra sketches out a Quaffle's dimensions with her hands.

"So you're saying that you throw something the size of a basketball one-handed around a five-hundred-foot-long field while flying at the same time?" Dean surmises.

"I don't know what a basketball is," Ginevra replies faintly. "But that's what Quidditch players do. It's not an exceptional talent."

"But you suddenly got a lot better at it really quickly," Dean says.

Ginevra nods and looks down at the table.

"Ladies," Faith interrupts, "this isn't a punishment. It's more ability, just like being a wizard."

"It's just unexpected news," Hermione says. "And I confess I don't remember suddenly becoming stronger. Are you sure it's not just Ginevra?"

"I'm sure," Faith replies in that same almost-gentle voice. "I could tell the second the two of you walked in here. I obviously didn't want to march over to you and be like, 'Hey! Welcome to America! Let's go off some vampires!' but I have a—I guess you could call it a sixth sense, these days."

"I have all this power from Voldemort, but I think that's something separate. That's magic—it's not physical strength. You were able to tell that we were witches—is it possible that you mistook one for the other?"

"I know Slayers and I know witches," Faith says, "and no. It'd be like mistaking stripes for polka dots. They feel completely different."

Dean rubs between his eyes in the way that Hermione's learning he does when he's about to say something he'd really rather keep quiet. "I don't mean to be a walking, talking Penthouse forum here, Granger, but I can attest firsthand—Sam, shut the fuck up, I don't want to hear it—that you're stronger than average. You're stronger than I am; you just don't know it yet."

"You're a head taller than I am, and about four stone heavier," Hermione says. "There's no way I'm stronger than you are."

His expression is steady. "I don't think you want to talk about this right now."

Faith's eyebrows are raised. "I'd sure be interested in hearing."

"I bet you would, Lehane. Tough luck."

"I didn't ask for this." Hermione can barely get the words out. She wraps her arms around herself. "Everything from Voldemort, and now this. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it."

"It's a gift," says Faith. "I'll be the first to tell you it can be misused, but it's a gift. You can do good with it, or you can put it aside and not do anything with it—it's up to you. It's like the universe said, 'Hey, Hermione Granger, have a little bit extra.'"

I didn't want anything extra, Hermione thinks. I've already got enough extra to last me several lifetimes, and it gives me nightmares about killing my friends. She composes herself and says as politely as she can manage, "I need some time to think about this," and Disapparates back to the flat on Tompkins Square.

Chapter Text

She sits in her window and watches the street as night closes in. The dog-walkers and families recede, and the young take over—dressed sharply, occasionally colorfully, with angular makeup on the women and angular hair on everyone. She watches them cross the park, going from apartment to apartment and bar to bar. They're her age, maybe a little older, but she feels lifetimes removed from them.

It's completely dark—as dark as New York City ever gets, anyway—when Hermione's mobile beeps. Startled, she Summons it from the dresser and looks at the recent text message, from Faith:


im on ur st00p
eatin sum f00dz

Faith writes like this sometimes; Hermione still hasn't figured out why.

She Apparates outside, where Faith is indeed eating what looks like a mixture of dried berries.

"I know that disappearing-reappearing-wizard thing is just what you guys do, but I don't think it's ever going to not weird me out." She holds out the bag to Hermione, and Hermione takes some dried cherries and what appear to be blueberries.

"Where is everyone?" Hermione asks.

"Back at the Henhouse. I wanted to make sure you were OK."

I'm fine, Hermione is about to say with equanimity, just started by the news. But her calm disappears, and what comes out, barely audibly, is: "I don't know what's happening to me."

"Baby girl," Faith says, sounding startlingly and disturbingly like Dean for a moment, "this doesn't make you any different from how you've been the past two years. It just means you're working with better information."

"I can set things on fire," Hermione blurts out.

Faith seems unruffled by the statement. "Could you not do that before?" she asks.

"If I performed an 'Incendio' spell, yes. But it didn't happen without warning, and it didn't happen just because I got angry. Dean had to tell me the first time it happened. I didn't even know. I could have burned the house down."

Faith looks as though she's thinking this over; then she says, "Should I be grateful that my house is still standing?"

"To Dean, not me. He was the one who noticed it. I've learned to control it since then," Hermione adds hastily.

Faith quirks an eyebrow at her, but doesn't pursue the line of questioning. "So what did you get from Lord Stinky Cheese, exactly? Besides the fact that you don't need a wand, and the ability to pull a full-on Carrie."

"I don't...I'm still not sure. I didn't realize at first that anything had changed—once everything came back, that is—and then I did an 'Aguamenti' spell at the Burrow and flooded the kitchen."

"Aguamenti?"

"It fills a container with water. I was trying to fill a glass. Instead I washed all the furniture out of the room. That was when I first realized that something might be different."

"And then the fire stuff?"

Hermione shakes her head. "No," she says quietly. "That was later. Then the dreams."

"What kind of dreams?"

Hermione shakes her head again, and doesn't answer.

"I understand not wanting to talk about it. God knows, if anyone gets that, it's me. But I think—if you're getting these since Lord Cheesy Poof, and they're not just your typical bad-shit-went-down-and-brain-still-trying-to-figure-it-out dreams, they're probably important."

"I know," Hermione says. "That's what I'm afraid of."

Faith waits.

Hermione stares across the street at the darkened basketball courts, at a couple on the sidewalk. "I dream that I'm killing my friends," she finally says. "I try to keep myself from doing it, and I can't, and then I try to kill myself, and I can't. It's as though I'm him, stuck forever in some kind of half-life."

"Go over with me again what happened when you killed Voldiemold."

"I didn't actually kill him. Harry did. For a variety of reasons, Harry was the only person who could, but we weren't sure he'd be able to sustain an attack against Voldemort, especially not as ragged as Harry was at the time. Harry's mother sacrificed herself to save him from Voldemort, when Harry was just a baby, and her sacrifice created a—well, I suppose a magical shield, for lack of a better phrase. But even with that, there was an issue of strength. Voldemort was old, and strong, and, as much as I hate to say it, highly intelligent. So essentially I acted as a backup power source. I expected that, even if Voldemort didn't kill me outright, that expenditure of energy would kill me—that I'd be drained of life."

"But instead you got Voldie's power."

"I think I got more than that," Hermione says. "I think I got...him, too."

"But Harry, he's exactly the same as he was before, right?"

"Right. And he remembers nothing about the duel."

"He was unconscious for two weeks, and you didn't have any magic then, right?"

"I thought it had been burned out of me during the duel. There was this...surge, at the end—I think it was Voldemort's last attempt to overpower Harry. It hurt—God, worse than being Crucioed. It hurt so much I couldn't move, and then Harry managed to get out the Killing Curse, and I just—I tried to force every last bit of life I had into giving it the strength to work. And afterwards I just assumed I'd exhausted myself, permanently. Then Harry woke up, and it came back, and then I realized how much it had come back."

"How did you feel, after the duel? I mean, apart from being relieved that you killed the stupid fuck. You were conscious, right?"

"I was conscious, but weak. I could barely stand—I made it about five feet, and Neville carried me the rest of the way."

"Here's my theory," Faith says. "I think that, if you and Harry had been just any two people, you would have died. That evil dude was powerful, and if you hadn't been backing Harry up, Harry probably would have lost. But because of the mojo that Harry got from his mom, and because you had the extra oomph from being a slayer, you both survived. I'm guessing that the power from Cornvolio did burn out something in Harry, and that's probably why he can't remember anything."

"Then how come I can? I remember the entire thing."

"I'm not an expert on magic here, just on Slayers. I'd guess that it's probably different to have that kind of magic pass through you versus having it decide to set up shop in you. And maybe Harry's mom-mojo kept him alive, but it didn't necessarily protect from the other effects of the magic. Whereas you have a strong mind, and you had Slayer mojo backing you up. Just a guess, though—I'd want to run everything by Wills for a real opinion." She looks at Hermione directly, and while the intelligence in her eyes isn't a surprise, it's still a little startling to see it, level and considering, underneath the brashness and bravado. "For what it's worth," Faith continues, "I don't think you got anything evil from Lord Goldilocks. What I think you got is a lot of power you don't know what to do with, and you're afraid that you'll do the same things he did with it. Which is so unlikely, I don't even have the words, but I can understand feeling that way."

"I just—how can I use something with such an evil origin?"

Faith draws up her knees, puts her arms over them, puts her chin on her arms. "I ever tell you how I got my house?" she asks, apparently out of nowhere.

Hermione tries to remember Faith's story. She'd moved to New York to go to university, she'd said, and shortly afterwards had bought the house, which was in fairly dire condition, and fixed it up. The way she'd described her family—a neglectful mother and uncertain paternity—didn't lend itself to the existence of family money, but, then, it was always possible that Faith's mother had been the black sheep of a wealthy family, or that Faith herself had invented a computer game or some such. Though Faith probably would have brought that up.

"I don't know," Hermione says, after thinking a few minutes. "I think I assumed you must have inherited money from a long-lost relative, or something."

Faith shakes her head. "No. I mean, yes, it was inherited money, but not from anyone who was related to me. I don't know if you remember anything I said about the mayor of my town?"

"Your mentor, when you were..." Hermione's not sure how to phrase it tactfully.

"During my days on the dark side of the Force. It's OK; you can say it. Anyway, he'd been around a good long time, and for whatever other faults he had, the dude knew about money. When he died, he left it to me. I couldn't do anything with it for a while—being in a coma and then in jail makes it kind of difficult to shop—but once everything was over, there it all was. I was ready to give it all to some kind of charity—abused kids, or battered women, or whatever. I figured they deserved it a lot more than I did. Buffy's the one that talked me out of getting rid of it all. I still gave half of it away—abused kids and battered women and everything, and I set Dawn up in college, except she doesn't know that."

"But there was enough left...?"

"There was more than enough left for the house, and renovations, and my classes. Anyway, my point with all of this is, yeah, the money didn't come from the greatest of sources, but it can still be used to do good things. I rent the basement at Abyssus from Xander, and we've got a training center for the baby Slayers set up down there. The Watchers Council gave me some of the cash for that, but not much, and we can get a lot nicer stuff if I use my money than if all we had was what they send us. I can spend my free time training the Slayers because I don't have to work three jobs just to pay my rent. And it's selfish of me, but fuck it—I love my house."

"I like your house, too," Hermione says. "It's—it feels nice. As though it's alive, a little, and friendly."

Faith laughs delightedly. "Seriously? You can feel that, too?"

"Really? So I'm not mad?"

"Not about my house being alive, anyway. Why do you think I wanted it? It was in shitty shape, and I could have afforded nicer, or at least something that wasn't an ex–crack house. But I put my hand on the wall, and it was like I could hear it begging me to buy it and fix it up and make it into a real house again. I thought maybe I was crazy, but if I've learned one thing, it's to listen to my instincts, so I bought it and renovated it from the ground up."

"Do you think all houses have spirits?" Hermione asks. "The flat I'm staying in seems to have one, too, although it feels different from yours. But it's as though—when we got there, it was happy not to be empty anymore."

"I don't know about all houses," Faith says, "but old ones do, definitely. I don't know if it's something that's just part of being a house, or if it's, like, an accumulation of the spirits of all the people who have ever lived in it, like everybody leaves an impression of themselves behind, maybe. But I know they're there." Faith sits up and stretches, twisting her spine sinuously as she presses her hands upward. "So how are you feeling? Better enough to come over to my place? Everyone's there."

Hermione is, she realizes, feeling better. "Yes," she says, "that would be nice."

"Rock." Faith stands up. "Can you disappear-reappear us there?"

"No. It requires a certain amount of magical energy, which even now I'm not sure that I have, to Apparate more than one person. If you were a wizard and for some reason couldn't Apparate yourself, I could use Side-Along-Apparition and borrow energy from you, but since you're not, I'd Splinch us both, and it would be very unpleasant."

"Yeah, I like my arms and legs where they are. Alright, subway it is."

* * * * * * * * * *

At Faith's, everyone's sprawled out on the furniture as though this is any arbitrary night, with no considerations of greater import than where to obtain supper. Faith mixes her a Hendrick's-and-tonic (an advantage to being partnered with a pub owner, Hermione thinks, must be a tremendously well-stocked bar at home as well as at work), and Hermione sinks onto the love seat next to Ginevra. Sam's sitting on the floor right nearby, back against the arm; Dean's in the recliner across the room.

She takes a sip of the drink, melts the ice a little (Faith, like her partner, pours with a heavy hand), and says to Faith, "I meant to ask you earlier: Was this something we were born with? Why did no one tell us?"

"You were born with the potential," says Faith. "But probably no one around you knew, and the ancient dudes who originally set it up did it so that only one Slayer existed at a time. Then Buff and Willow said fuck that, and Will did a spell that made all the potential Slayers everywhere into actual Slayers."

Hermione tries to wrap her mind around that. "All of them? How many?"

"Thousands. That girl has mojo. I don't mean to diss you, but as much as you have—and you're packing a lot—she's got more."

Hermione shakes her head. "You're not...dissing me." The American slang feels bizarre in her mouth. "It's rather a relief to hear that I'm not the biggest freak in the world."

"And I'm going to guess you never tried to destroy it, either," Faith says. "Anyway, like I said earlier, it would have been a little over two years ago, in the spring."

"I remember it," Ginevra says suddenly. "It was—" She blushes and looks down at her lap. "It was the day I got my period for the first time. Er, sorry, Sam and Dean and Xander. Anyway, I went to bed, and had all these lovely dreams about Quidditch—I dreamed I was flying higher and faster than I'd ever gone before, and I caught the Snitch and it came to life in my hand. And there was...I can't explain it, because it doesn't make any sense. But it was as if I'd been asked if I wanted to be able to do that all the time. And I said that of course I did. And I woke up and I had my period, and I was also suddenly really, really good at Quidditch." She shrugs. "I just thought that something like that happened to everyone when their period started, and with me it was Quidditch because that's what I liked best. I figured that you would probably have gotten smarter, Hermione—like you need that—when it happened to you, and with other girls it would be whatever was important to them."

"But you didn't think it was strange, to suddenly wake up with these new skills?" Hermione asks.

"It was the timing. It wasn't as if we were kept well-informed about anything; I knew what a period was, of course, but the fact that my stomach felt like it was going to fall out and I couldn't drink milk for five days without getting sick? No one told me that was going to happen. I just thought that this was something that came along with it, too. Like an apology from the universe for making us go through it every month."

"But nothing like that happened to me," Hermione says. "The closest thing, I suppose, occurred one time when I was sick that spring. It wasn't anything very serious, just grippe and stress. I had some strange dreams, and in one of them, someone asked me if I wanted to be well, if I wanted to be stronger. Which naturally I did—everything was so horrible with Umbridge, and Harry was going through such terrible things, and I didn't want to be sick—I didn't have time to be sick. I woke up the next morning feeling better."

"There you go," says Faith.

"That doesn't seem very mystical."

"Please," interjects Ginevra. "Mine was about Quidditch!"

"It kind of makes sense to me," Faith says. "Neither of you are very mystical people. I mean, yeah, you do magic, but it's very practical. If someone showed up in, I don't know, robes and a crown and shit, and was all, 'Here is mystical power from ancient people in the desert!' would you have believed it?"

"I'd assume I'd been reading too many novels," replies Hermione. "Or that I was mad. As it is, I'm starting to think that I am."

"How many miles a day do you run?" asks Sam, seemingly out of nowhere.

"It depends," Hermione answers, startled. "I covered about eight kilometers today"—she does the figures in her head—"about five miles."

"And what was your running regimen like in England?"

"I didn't have one. I've only been doing it since I've been here."

"So about three weeks, then. And you're doing five miles comfortably, in hot weather. Did you row or bike or do anything like that back in England?"

She shakes her head. "No. I was fairly sedentary."

"I started running when I was fourteen," Sam tells her, "and at that point I had been training to hunt since I could walk. The first time I went out, I tried to do a full mile and nearly died. Remember that?" he asks Dean.

"Yeah. Jesus. You were curled up like you'd been shot, and Dad was howling because we had to go after that skunk ape. God, did that thing smell."

"You have to have a certain amount of endurance for distance running," Sam says to Hermione, "and most people would need to build that up. I did. You didn't."

"How much more evidence do you need?" Faith asks her. "Maybe you don't believe in mystical shit, but let me tell you, that means dick to the actual mystical shit."

Dean snorts.

"Shut up, my philosophy is deep."

Hermione takes another sip from the drink, relishing the cool, clean taste, and closes her eyes, resting her head on the back of the sofa. "So what now? Do I have to go kill vampires?" They discussed this that first evening, the possibility of different species of vampires, just as there are apparently different species of demons: the bizarre but mostly harmless vampires such as Sanguini, and the soulless almost-demons that Slayers hunt. (And then Spike and another man, named Angel, who seem to be in a category by themselves.)

"You don't have to do anything." Faith's voice has that bizarre gentleness in it again. "You already killed Lord Moldy Pants. I feel like that exempts you from vamp duty for, like, ever, unless you decide you want to do it. Anyway, even if you wanted to do it, you'd need to train first—it's not like you'd just be going out and doing it tonight. Slayer or not, no one's going up against any supernatural evil unprepared."

Hermione opens her eyes to see Ginevra looking intently at Faith. "What does training entail?" Ginevra asks.

"Learning to fight. To listen to your instincts. Learning how vamps and demons fight. Learning some mystical shit. Playing with shiny things."

Ginevra's gaze doesn't waver. "What sorts of shiny things?"

"Knives. Stakes. Crossbows. Rocket launchers."

"Who does the training?"

"Duh, silly. Me."

Ginevra draws her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. Her eyes are speculative.

Hermione thinks she's just witnessed what's known as a paradigm shift.

* * * * * * * * * *

After that, the evening is more or less like any other. Faith makes Hermione another Hendrick's-and-tonic; Dean has some variety of beer; Ginevra has Coke; and, interestingly, so does Sam. He's old enough to drink in this country—not that the age restriction seems to matter to this group—but around Ginevra, it appears, he doesn't. Hermione invents a reason to get up; when she comes back, rather than returning to the sofa, she arranges herself on and around Dean. He wraps a hand around her hip, the tips of his fingers resting on her belly.

"So what'd you guys do today?" Faith asks, sprawled on the floor with her head in Xander's lap. "I mean, those of us who didn't go to Coney Island or start public brawls with Bible-thumping whackjobs."

Hermione feels the movement when Dean shrugs. "Pretty much a whole lot of nothing on my end. Sat in the park with Hermione."

"That's it?" Sam says from across the room.

"Talked to some dogs. Oh, and learned the Hogwarts school song. That is some fucked-up shit."

Ginevra's expression is one of argument—Hermione guesses she'll have an ally in defending the admittedly unconventional Hogwarts anthem—while Sam's is more...perplexed, Hermione thinks. It may be her imagination, but she thinks Sam and Faith just exchanged very brief glances. She wonders what they're silently communicating now, and why they can't just say it out loud.

Ginevra protests, "It is not—as you so crudely put it—fucked up! Helga Hufflepuff wrote it!"

Dean laughs. "So I've been told."

"That's all you did? Just sit in the park?" Faith asks.

"It was too hot to do anything else. Well, almost anything."

Sam snorts. Hermione feels herself blushing, but less than she might have a few days ago. It's just her and Dean and these people who are, she's realizing, becoming her friends. Everyone knows that she and Dean are sleeping together, and no one cares except in the most abstractly approving sort of way.

When you've had your face plastered on the front cover of Witch Weekly, accused of breaking the heart of the Boy Who Lived (and that, Hermione thinks, is worth a snort or seven), it's quite appealing—and novel—when no one cares about your sex life except insofar as it may be making you happy.

She puts her drink on the floor, tucks her feet underneath her, and settles herself more comfortably against Dean.

Paradigm shift, she thinks.

Chapter Text

Relatively early, Hermione makes her excuses and Apparates back to the flat. She kisses Dean good night (and is almost convinced to stay over, but she holds firm) and leaves Ginevra and Sam trading increasingly nonsensical palindromes. "If you want to show up tomorrow," Faith says, "we'll be in the basement at Abyssus. Ten a.m."

"Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog!" Ginevra announces, and Hermione Disapparates, laughing.

She sleeps peacefully and alone that night, for a solid eight hours. The only dream she remembers is something vague about riding in the infamous and legendary Weasley flying car—which she never did, but she heard enough about it for her imagination to fill in the details. She wakes up feeling as though she's been soaring.

Ginevra's nowhere to be found, and when Hermione pads into the kitchen, she finds another note:


Training. Ring F's mobile if u want to come.

Right now she just wants breakfast. She wishes she had a newspaper to read, but she has no desire to put on the clothes that going out to buy one at the corner would require. Instead she reads a novel by a Muggle author about World War II and comic books. Once she gets past the initial ten-page thesis about comics, it's a surprisingly engrossing read, and it's past noon by the time she looks up again.

She remembers Faith's words. Vampires kill people—at least Faith's variety do—and she's been given this gift to stop them. That bitter voice is still there—she really could do without all these gifts that the universe seems to want to bestow—but Hermione did not grow up a coward. And she most certainly did not grow up to let people get hurt when she has the power to stop it.

When she can, for once, maybe get there before the bad things happen.

She Accios running clothes and puts them on. She runs the half mile to Abyssus as a warm-up, then rings Faith from outside.

Faith doesn't sound surprised to hear from her. "Go on and poof inside. I'll show you how to get downstairs."

* * * * * * * * * *

There are more people down there than she'd expected. It's not just Faith and Ginevra, but also Spike, Dean, and several other girls. Women, she realizes. A few of them appear as young as twelve, but a few others are in their thirties, perhaps even closer to forty.

"A fine afternoon to you, Miss Granger," Spike says, sounding considerably more Oxfordian than East End.

"To you as well." She looks at Dean. "What are you doing here?"

"Now that's the greeting every man wants," he says, but he doesn't sound especially put out.

"I'm sorry. I'm just confused. I thought only girls could be Slayers."

"You thought correctly," Spike says. "We're here to be the bad guys."

"If you're going to fight vampires, you might as well learn on the real thing," Faith adds. "Or on Dean, who's a good learning experience in a bunch of different ways."

Dean rolls his eyes. This time, rather than blushing, Hermione does, too.

* * * * * * * * *

Most of the others, Hermione discovers, are a lot farther along than she and Ginevra are. Not surprising, she admits to herself, since the other Slayers have been training for a while now, whereas she and Ginevra are just starting.

Faith starts them on simple hand-to-hand, which Ginevra, a natural athlete as well as experienced at tussling with six older brothers, picks up much more quickly than Hermione does. Then Hermione remembers her own advantage, and does a Full Body Bind on Faith in their next spar. She undoes the spell immediately, and Faith looks consideringly at Hermione, then at Ginevra. "Can you do that?" she asks.

"I'd need my wand," Ginevra replies.

She looks back at Hermione. "And you don't need it at all?"

Hermione shakes her head. "Not anymore."

"I wonder," Faith murmurs, almost to herself. Then, louder, "Hey, Spike, get over here!"

Petrificus works on vampires, they discover, and Hermione can attest that magic works on other supernatural creatures—werewolves, for instance.

"The question is demons," Faith says.

"My guess is that it would work on the meat suit, but the demon itself would be able to get out," says Dean. "Same as if the person being possessed got knocked unconscious. On the original form—who the hell knows?"

Faith looks at Spike. "What demons do we know here?"

"Other than ourselves? I'm sure we can find one or two who'd be willing to let baby Slayer witches put a spell on them."

* * * * * * * * *

Certain demons, Hermione learns, are more or less earthbound and tend to wear their true form wherever they go. Spellwork is erratic on them—what's effective seems to vary by species, and, of course, it's difficult to find test subjects among species who are typically hostile to humans. The Full Body Bind works on Vachekanayas, for example (though, oddly, they retain the ability to talk)—but Vaches are by nature peaceable, so it's unlikely that they'll ever have to fight one. Hellbound demons (the kind that tend to possess people) rarely wear their true forms aboveground, so while spellwork may be effective on the bodies they possess (meat suits, as Dean rather disgustingly persists in calling them), it just means they have to find another body. Which can be expedient, but isn't a longterm solution. So Faith decides that Hermione should learn hand-to-hand just as thoroughly as Ginevra does—which is annoying, because Hermione hates how comparatively slowly she seems to be picking it up.

Meanwhile, Molly Weasley has not given up on her daughter's education, and elegant parchment brochures from magical schools in Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands arrive by tern to their front door. Hermione looks them over, though she's already familiar with most of the schools from her reading; Ginevra ignores them entirely, and writes back to her mother that none of them seem right for her.

Mrs. Weasley is not stupid, and has to know that Ginevra is just pacing her until she turns seventeen. The brochures arrive in greater quantities, but receive no more attention than before.

One afternoon after training, the Slayers, Spike, and Dean are about to go to Chinatown for dumplings, but Xander pulls Hermione aside. She motions for Faith to take them without her—they always go to the same place, so she'll find them easily.

"Ginevra has a birthday coming up, right?" Xander says.

"On the eleventh. Faith and I were going to make her supper and a cake, and perhaps go to Abyssus afterwards."

"All of that is of the good. But I have an addition to the evening's festivities." At Hermione's inquiring look, Xander goes on, "There's a Quidditch league that plays in Van Cortlandt Park."

"Are you serious?"

"Completely. I checked it out with our friend Giles. I went up there to have a look, but he said they put a kind of masking device on the games, so I couldn't see anything."

"A Disillusionment charm. They do that at the Quidditch World Cup as well, to keep Muggles from seeing anything. Xander, are you sure?"

"If Giles says it's so, generally it's so, but Dean said he'd drive us up there tonight—they play on Saturdays and practice Tuesdays and Thursdays. I couldn't find a place to buy her a broom—I'm sure they exist, Giles just didn't happen to know of one—but he did hook me up with a guy who has one he's willing to lend. He's in Woodside, in Queens—we can go out tomorrow."

Unexpectedly, unrehearsedly, Hermione throws her arms around Xander, who starts and then hugs her back. "Oh my God, Xander, thank you! You didn't have to...you haven't even known us very long. You didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"Not troubling. I talk to Giles every few days anyway, and he's got more random connections than any of us can imagine. It just seemed like something Ginevra would like."

"Are you mad? She'll love it!" She hugs Xander again, and then they catch up with the crowd and stuff themselves with dumplings.

* * * * * * * * *

Van Cortlandt Park, Hermione learns, is in the northern Bronx, about ten miles from Faith's house and about eleven from where Hermione and Ginevra are staying. It's vast and wooded, home to a golf course and a substantial wildlife refuge. The Quidditch team practices and plays on the golf course, protected by a Disillusionment charm that makes the course look extra dark and creepy.

She's going to have to work on a way to allow the others to see the pitch, when they come up here on Ginevra's birthday. Conventional wisdom is that there isn't a way to allow Muggles to see through a Disillusionment charm, not without undoing it completely. That seems entirely too simplistic. Hermione makes a note to contemplate possible solutions over the next few days.

But she doesn't have anything ready for tonight, so unfortunately Dean and Xander can't see anything. But it's there, brightly lit, with players whizzing around it on brooms, calling to one another in American accents that seem, for the first time since Hermione's been here, odd. The posts and stands aren't as high as on a regulation pitch—only about three meters off the ground—but they do have to be portable, and even with the Disillusionment, one doesn't wish to press one's luck.

Dean looks around at what, to him, must be an ominously dark park. "Is it there?" he asks. "Or are we all insane?"

"It's there. People are flying—I think they're doing a scrimmage. Oh! That man almost fell off his broom! Well, they'll be glad to have Ginevra, that's for certain. Xander, are you sure it's alright if she just appears and wants to play?"

"Giles said it's pretty much a pick-up league—not very formal. He said it would be fine."

"She'll love this," Hermione says softly. "She'll absolutely love it."

***************

The next day, Xander, Sam, and Hermione take the cheerful, rattling 7 train out to Woodside, a cheerful, rattling neighborhood with subway and commuter trains running through and above it. The sidewalks are nearly as full as those in Manhattan, as the residents buy the evening's groceries, stop into the bakeshop, stop into one of a multitude of Irish pubs (not Irish-themed, but Irish, complete with football jerseys and accents).

Xander consults directions printed from an email, then leads them onto a quieter, tree-lined side street. There are enormous brick apartment buildings on one side and an unbroken line of row houses, all neatly maintained, with tiny, immaculate front yards, on the other. He consults the directions again, and leads Hermione and Sam halfway down the block to one particular row house.

He knocks, and a well-kept man in his sixties answers almost immediately. He's handsome now, and, Hermione thinks, would have been devastatingly so as a younger man. "You must be Mr. Harris," he says in the sort of accent one hears in film adaptations of Maeve Binchy novels.

"Xander," says Xander. "And these are my friends Sam Winchester and Hermione Granger. Hermione's the Quidditch expert; we're the token Muggles."

"Come in, Miss Granger, token Muggles. I'm Colm Daley. I brought down Aisling's broom this morning; let me just go fetch it for you."

"I didn't realize it belonged to someone else," Hermione says. "Someone who might want to use it, I mean. We don't have to—"

Mr. Daley shakes his head, slowly. "Our Aisling, I'm afraid, is no longer with us. She made a brave, foolish choice because it was the right thing to do—as did you, Miss Granger, if I am not mistaken—but she did not have your luck or your skill."

"Oh God." Hermione covers her mouth with her hand. "Mr. Daley. I'm so sorry."

He smiles, briefly. "She brought down three Death Eaters—former Aurors—before they got her. When I say she didn't have your skill, it's only because few in an era do." He leaves the room, inviting no further comment. When he returns, Hermione's jaw drops.

It's a Firebolt.

"My son and his wife hoped that this might distract Aisling from everything else taking place at the time. She adored it—brought it with her when her parents sent her here."

"What position did she play?" Sam asks. Hermione has no idea whether he knows a Bludger from a Chaser, but she loves him for asking.

"Beater. A fine strong girl she was."

"I can't— We can't take—" Hermione starts.

Mr. Daley cuts her off, gently. "I'd never hear the end of it if Aisling knew her beautiful Firebolt was sitting in my attic unused. And she'd be doubly chuffed to know one of the Hogwarts Four would be flying it."

"Hogwarts Four?" Hermione says before she can stop herself.

"Oh, come, now, you can't tell me you haven't heard the phrase."

"I haven't," Hermione says, with complete honesty. "I moved back into my parents' house when the war ended—they're Muggles—and then I came here. I haven't been keeping up with the wizarding world." She knew that the four of them had come to some fame—it was inevitable, with what happened. But she didn't know that they had acquired their own dedicated epithet. "Anyway, that's not important. Are you sure it's alright for us to take this?"

"Of course." He sets the box, tied neatly with ribbon, into Hermione's arms. "Fly it well, Miss Granger."

"It's not for me. I'm hopeless at Quidditch. It's for my friend Ginevra."

"Ah. Young Miss Weasley. A formidable player, if the papers are anything to go by."

"In this case they are. She's quite good. She plays Chaser."

"Then I think she'll find this quite to her liking."

"She will. She'll be delighted, Mr. Daley, I can't tell you how much."

He walks them to the door, and the urge that overtakes Hermione is unconquerable: She switches the box to one arm and hugs Mr. Daley with the other. He's still for a moment, as if in startlement, and then he hugs her back.

**************

They take Ginevra out for dinner rather than cooking—which with this group is messy, if delicious, and can take hours—and then, afterwards, Faith says, "We've got a surprise for you, Red."

"Is it dessert?"

"If I told you that, it wouldn't be a surprise, now, would it?"

Ginevra won't let Faith blindfold her, but she promises to keep her eyes closed until Faith says she can open them. "You have to give me your word," Faith says, with some skepticism. "If you peek too soon, it'll ruin the surprise."

"I swear on my wand and on the sword of Godric Gryffindor."

Faith looks to Hermione for a translation.

"She won't open her eyes," Hermione says.

They put Ginevra in the front seat of the Impala, and then step back for a conference. "I'll do the spell now," Hermione says. "That way you'll all be able to see everything as soon as she does."

"It'll last?" Dean asks.

"It will last until the Disillusionment charm is broken. So yes, it will last until we get to the park." She goes around to each of them and murmurs the words.

"Should I feel any different?" Faith asks when she's finished.

"No. You're not any different; you're just able to see better."

"I didn't recognize any of the words," Sam says. "Most of your spells seem to come from Latin, but unless I'm mistaken, that didn't sound Latinate at all."

"It wasn't. It's a Sanskrit incantation to open the inner eye."

"You just happened to have picked up some Sanskrit?" Dean says, but she thinks he's swallowing a smile.

She answers completely deadpan. "Only very rudimentary. But it's amazing what you can find in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library." That part, at least, is true.

"How did you get in?" Sam asks. "I've been wanting to, but there's that whole problem with having traceable ID."

"If a Disillusionment charm can conceal an entire Quidditch pitch," Hermione says, "you may be sure it can conceal one witch sneaking past a security guard."

"Are we going or what?" Ginevra yells from the car. "I'm sitting here with my eyes closed and I feel like a wanker!"

Ginevra manages to keep her eyes closed all the way up to the Bronx, only complaining occasionally. They park on the street, and everyone but Ginevra gets out to conference. Dean opens the boot, where the Firebolt is happily coexisting with the Winchester arsenal.

"Hold this for a moment, please?" Hermione says to Faith, handing over her most recent investment, a sleek gray courier's bag she bought from a streetside vendor. She opens the bag, removes the broom from the boot, and inserts it carefully into the bag.

The rest of the group collectively stares.

"Wizard space," Hermione explains. "Ginevra's mother taught me the charm."

"Damn," says Faith, respectfully.

They allow Ginevra out of the car and make their way towards the golf course. Hermione thinks she sees Ginevra look up a couple of times—as though she's glimpsed a particularly high-flying Quidditch player—but then shake her head, as though she thinks she's imagining things.

But they get closer, and the light from multiple Lumos spells and then the goalposts become visible through the trees.

Ginevra stops in her tracks. "Is it...it's..."

"A Quidditch pitch," Hermione says. "That's right."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive. Go have a look, if you don't believe me."

Ginevra takes off through the woods, fast enough that even Sam, with his long legs, is racing to keep up.

"It is!" Ginevra says when Hermione catches up with her. "Mione, it is! I didn't think they played Quidditch in New York!"

It's just the one team this time, practicing. A woman on a Nimbus drops out of the air and flies over to them. "Hey," she says in an accent that's all Bronx. "You guys here to play?"

Ginevra looks longingly at the pitch, but then shakes her head resolutely. "No. Just...just to watch this time."

"You sure you don't want to play?" Faith asks.

Ginevra spares her an annoyed glare. "I've no broom."

Hermione pulls the Firebolt from her bag, and Ginevra's jaw drops.

"Nice," says the woman on the Nimbus, with admiration.

"Where...how..." Ginevra is so rarely speechless that Hermione can't help but enjoy the rare spectacle.

"Consider it an extended loan," Xander says. "From a friend."

Ginevra crouches on the ground to open the box. She runs her fingers down the broom reverently, and Hermione is reminded of Harry with his own Firebolt. Ginevra looks up at Xander. "This isn't yours, is it?"

He shakes his head. "Nope. All I'd be able to do with it is sweep floors. Our friend Giles put me in touch with the owner. He"—Hermione watches Xander edit himself—"doesn't use it anymore."

"Who could have something like this and not use it?" Ginevra smiles at Xander. It's a brilliant smile, one Hermione hasn't seen in far too long. "Did you arrange this for my birthday?"

"No," Hermione says. "The Firebolt quite serendipitously tumbled out of the sky this morning and landed right in my bag."

Ginevra tries another glare, but can't sustain it. "Thank you," she says. "This is the best birthday present I've ever had." She stands and holds out her hand. "Wingardium leviosa!" The broom comes right to her, so easily that she might have been flying it for years.

"So?" says the woman on her Nimbus. About Faith's age, she's got dreadlocks and lovely brown eyes. "You joining us or what?" Her tone is brusque but friendly in that way people in big cities are.

"Bloody right I am," Ginevra replies.

She hops on the broom and rises to eye level with the other woman, who introduces herself as Nikkya. Ginevra's pause is nearly imperceptible before she says, "I'm Jenny. Jenny Prewett. I usually play Chaser, but I can stand in as Seeker if you need one." Then they're off.

"Jenny Prewett?" Dean says when they're out of earshot.

"She went by Ginny until about a year ago. Jenny doesn't sound too dissimilar, especially shouted across a Quidditch pitch. And Prewett is her mother's maiden name."

No one comments further. This group, more than most people, understands the need for alternate identities.

**************

Ginevra's out of practice, but even rusty, a Hogwarts Chaser is still fearsome. She comes down from the pitch sweaty and laughing, her hair a mess, and Nikkya, dismounting from her Nimbus, says, "So you'll be at the game Saturday night, right?"

"Can't keep me away."

"Good. We're playing Brooklyn. They won't know what hit 'em. Give me your email; that way I can let you know if the time changes or anything."

"I, er, don't have email."

Nikkya looks vaguely shocked, but says, "OK, your phone number, then."

The closest thing Ginevra has to that is the number for the flat on Thompson Square Park, and Hermione has to tell it to her.

"I guess you guys in the UK really don't do technology, do you?" Nikkya says.

Ginevra shrugs. "Why bother with that computer thing when you can just owl?"

Nikkya laughs. "I've got family in London. We get the craziest mail from them—it's always these giant birds, and you have to feed them."

They chat a few minutes—Nikkya was born and raised in the Bronx, but her family is Anguillian by descent. Apparently Anguillian wizards are mad for Quidditch, and her entire family plays in various leagues around the city. Hermione wonders whether she might have known any of Nikkya's London relatives at Hogwarts, but no one asks—with the war deaths as recent and as numerous as they are, it's safer not to.

Reluctantly, Ginevra relinquishes the Firebolt for Hermione to put in her bag, and they walk back to the car with several of the team members who are parked near them. Some are clearly wizard-born and raised, but others seem to live mainly as Muggles—Nikkya works on Wall Street, another is a teacher in the city schools, another a policeman, another a subway engineer, another an editor in a Muggle book publishing firm.

"I'm hungry again," Ginevra says once they've said their good-byes to the other team members. "And thirsty."

"What do you feel like eating?" Sam asks.

Ginevra shakes back her hair, which has grown out from mangled to merely shaggy. "Everything," she says, and sounds both greedy and satisfied.

****************

The next morning, while they eat breakfast, Ginevra writes a series of letters. Most are short thank-yous for presents: Harry, Ron, Bill and Fleur, Remus and Tonks, the twins (whose gift did not explode upon arrival, which Hermione thinks is worth a thank-you note in and of itself), Neville, Charlie, Kingsley, even Percy.

Then there's the letter to her parents.

This would best be done by Floo—more personal than writing but less so than an interpersonal confrontation. But there's no Floo network in the States as far as they can tell, and Ginevra refuses to Portkey home for this, so she writes.

Hermione rather dreads the response.

The purpose of Ginevra's letter is ostensibly to thank her parents for their gift—a vast selection of sweets from Delico's Delicacies, the candy shop that recently opened in Diagon Alley; a surprisingly chic handbag in forest green, knitted, of course, by Mrs. Weasley; and, even more surprisingly, a not insubstantial amount of pounds sterling that they must have had changed at Gringotts. But the real purpose of Ginevra's writing, of course, is to tell them that she has no intention of returning to school—being of age, now, to make that decision for herself. She finally enlists Hermione's help with the letter, with the argument that Hermione has already had to write its equivalent to her own parents. Hermione's mother, though, has never been a fraction as formidable as Molly Weasley, and her father's involvement in her life has had a directly inverse relationship with her age. She informed them, largely, so that her mother wouldn't worry. It's simply not the same as defying the will of the redoubtable Weasley matriarch.

In the end, they draft the letter several times, enough that they have to ring Faith and tell her they'll be late for training. After two hours of strategizing, writing, and rewriting, they get it, if not right, then at least less wrong. Ginevra finally sighs and puts the pen down, and seals the letter into an envelope. They collect all the various missives and take them to the wizarding post office—in reality, an utterly unremarkable annex to its Muggle counterpart, a perfect execution of hiding in plain sight.

The postal clerk arranges the letters by destination: Those to London go on the leg of one heron; the postal clerk fastens them in the order they'll be delivered, and dispatches the bird on its long journey. He attaches the others to a series of smaller birds; the letter to Ginevra's parents goes last. He walks to the back window, and the gull lifts off his arm into the air. Standing utterly still, Ginevra watches it until it disappears into the hazy August sky; then her shoulders relax (or collapse, it's a matter of interpretation) and she says, "Well, that's done."

They leave the post office and start towards Abyssus. Ginevra's face is blank, and Hermione fights the urge to put her arms around her; Ginevra is prickly enough by nature, and lately in particular, that Hermione's not sure it would be a good idea. "You're free," she says tentatively.

"I know," Ginevra answers after a moment. "Funny how it feels less blissful than I thought it would."

That, Hermione thinks, could more or less sum up the past few months for everyone they know.

******************

That night, after she and Ginevra have cleaned up, they go for a walk. Though it's unreasonable to expect a reply from Ginevra's parents in this short a time—even if they wrote back immediately, the bird would still be over the ocean—they're both tacitly waiting for one, and they're both on edge, especially Ginevra. So while normally they'd invite their friends and the other Slayers along, this time they excuse themselves and just head home after training.

They go west and decide to have dinner in a Tibetan restaurant. It's dark inside, quiet and cool, with soft stringed music playing in the background, and it feels like a refuge from the world.

They're both less anxious after having eaten, and they continue their walk. They pass St. Mark's Bookshop at Third Avenue, and Ginevra asks, "Have you ever been in here?"

"A few times. It's a good shop. Do you want to go in?"

It's not a huge shop, but the stock is exquisitely selected. Hermione can spend hours here. She abandons Ginevra to peruse the poetry, history, religion, fiction, and philosophy sections, and then the enormous selection of art and photography books that are spread out on a table towards the front. She leafs through a book of David Hockney collages that she'd love to own, but it costs nearly a hundred dollars, and even with the exchange rate she can't justify that. She begins to read what appears to be the story of the 9/11 attacks in graphic novel form; it's fascinating, but she tears up within the first ten pages (God, all those innocent people who just thought they were going to work that day...) and has to put it down. But the book underneath it, she discovers, is even more fascinating, and in a completely different way.

"Good God, Mione," Ginevra says, peering over her shoulder a few minutes later. She's carrying a sack with the shop's logo on it; she must have already been up to the register while Hermione was distracted. "Why in the world are you looking at that?"

"It's rather interesting." Her own breath, Hermione realizes, is short.

Ginevra stares at the exposed pages. The man on the verso side is wearing thick leather cuffs fastened to a wall by finely forged chains that appear delicate—yet also appear to be holding his weight. A woman stands behind him, close and intimate (loving, even), her hand resting gently on his shoulder. The man's hands—with strong, elegant fingers that remind Hermione of Dean's—are loose; he's neither clenching at his bonds nor trying to escape them. His eyes are closed, his head dropped back as he leans toward the woman, into her touch, into that closeness and intimacy.

"He's tied up," Ginevra says, with revulsion.

"Well, chained, I think, technically."

Ginevra doesn't seem to appreciate the distinction. "How could anyone even want to do that to someone?"

"If someone wanted it done to them." It's not a concept that would even have occurred to Hermione a few months ago, but she remembers Dean on his knees, kissing her restraining hands, remembers his steady hold on her wrists, and she feels she understands a great deal more now.

"But why? To force someone...?" Ginevra doesn't finish her sentence.

"But that's just it, Ginevra; no one's forced at all. Look at his hands, the way his head's thrown back like that. He wants to be there."

"But what if he changes his mind?"

"Then I imagine he just says so."

"I still think it's disgusting," Ginevra pronounces, sounding bizarrely like her brother Percy, and stalks outside.

Hermione finds a fresh copy of the book and buys it. It's more expensive than the Hockney, but she can't bring herself to care. "What did you get?" Hermione asks Ginevra after joining her outside.

She's doubly surprised when Ginevra begins to blush.

"Well, what? Clearly it was something interesting."

"Nothing." The sack from the shop is larger than the new green handbag, but the handbag was, after all, made by Molly Weasley, and the books fit inside neatly.

Hermione can't imagine what on earth Ginevra—brash Weasley daughter that she is—would want to hide from her. "Did you buy pornography?" she asks. It seems unlikely, given Ginevra's reaction to what Hermione was looking at, but it's the only thing she can think of that might elicit a response like this.

"Shut it." Ginevra refuses to look at her.

"You did buy pornography! There's no reason to be embarrassed about it; I just bought that dirty photography book I was looking at."

"You did not!"

"I did."

"Oh, God, are you going to take that home and try everything out on Dean? No, forget I asked—I don't want to know!"

"Everything," Hermione says. "Twice. And then I'll record it and make you watch over breakfast."

"You will not. Tosser."

"Isn't that something you call boys, not girls?"

"Whatever." Ginevra's voice is still sulky.

It's been a difficult day all around. Hermione tries to think of something that will pacify Ginevra. "Faith said there's a place near here that serves nothing but milkshakes," she suggests. "Let's go get milkshakes."

Ginevra's face lightens, and Hermione breathes an internal sigh of relief. "Really?"

"That's what Faith told me. It's on Saint Mark's, farther back toward Second Avenue. I hope they have butterscotch."

They don't, but they have something similar—something called dulce de leche, which sounds far more exotic, all those delicious Ls rolling off the tongue. Ginevra gets a green tea milkshake, which Hermione hadn't known was possible; it's equally tasty, and convinces her that you can get anything in New York City if you look hard enough (or if you don't look at all—it will just find you). They drink their milkshakes happily, and don't discuss their purchases.

*************

It's Ginevra's father, not her mother, who pens the reply to her letter. Hermione wonders how the parents arrived at this decision, or whether Molly Weasley was simply too upset to do it.


Dear Ginevra,

It was with some distress—but, I must admit, little surprise—that your mother and I received your letter. As you say, you are of age, and the decision regarding your education is your own.

You should know that neither your mother nor I care what degree you do or do not have. We were concerned when Fred and George left school, as we did not know what other options they had, but they have—obviously—been quite successful with the shop, and that path seems to have been the best one for them.

Our concern is that one learns a great deal in the sixth year—in particular, the ability to perform spells silently. You may have learned some of this during the war, but it's not the same as learning from a thorough and skillful teacher. Yes, the war is over, and yes, You-Know-Who is dead, but that does not mean that the world is completely free of danger and that you should be living in it on your own and unprepared. In an ideal world, you would finish seven years of education (though, of course, in an ideal world, this war would never have happened, and you'd be contentedly preparing to go back to Hogwarts); in this imperfect world, I would settle uncomplainingly for six. The seventh year is important, of course, but the sixth is by far the most crucial.

Please reconsider, Ginevra. Your mother has looked into schools in the States, if you wish to remain there. Oddly, there is no wizarding school in New York, but there is one not terribly far away in Salem, Massachusetts, and they would be delighted to take you as a sixth-year student (a "junior," in their terminology) in September.

We love you, of course, no matter what you decide. We love you and we want you to be safe.

Love,

Dad


If Hermione's father had sent her a letter like that, she thinks, the course of wizarding history might well have gone differently. But Ginevra's answer doesn't change.

Chapter Text

One morning about a fortnight after Ginevra's birthday, Hermione arrives and discovers, to her surprise, that Sam has joined them. He's been noticeably absent, despite the fact that he knows how to fight and would probably be a good teacher. But he's been utterly uninvolved.

Faith gets the other Slayers started with Spike, but tells Ginevra and Hermione to stay behind. "Today, girls," she says, "is a day for things that go boom."

"Are we exploding things?" Ginevra asks, interested.

"Something almost as good," Dean says. "Shooting them."

**************

It transpires that a friend of Dean and Sam's father owns a firing range on the far west side of Manhattan. It's close enough to the river to be a considerable distance from the subway, so they take the Impala, parking down the block from what looks like a warehouse.

The man who meets them is about Dean's height, with a thick New York accent and a gold band embedded in the fourth finger of his left hand. He has an Italian last name and the girth of a muscular fiftysomething man whose wife feeds him well. He's jocular with the Winchesters, chivalrous with Ginevra and Hermione in the way men of that generation tend to be. Then they get down to business, and he asks, "You need? Or are you carrying?"

"We've got enough in the trunk for a small-scale civil war," Sam says, "but we need something that will fit their hands."

The man nods. "I've got a Sig would be good. It's not one of those whompers you boys carry—small enough that a woman can handle it, no problem."

"With respect, Mario, we need more than lady guns for these two," says Dean.

The man smacks him on the back of the head, but lightly. "You think I'd give the Winchesters' girls purse guns? This is a Sig P229 nine-millimeter. Police carry it; INS, or whatever they're calling themselves this week; Coast Guard. It just doesn't scream, 'I need to show off the size of my dick,' is all. Um, begging your pardon, girls."

Given how many older brothers Ginevra grew up with, Hermione has to think she's heard far, far worse.

Mario takes them into an office, then disappears and returns with two holstered pistols. He removes them to reveal precise lines, grips made of hard black, gleaming metal barrels. "Go on, pick them up," he says to Ginevra and Hermione. "They're not loaded; you can't do any harm."

Tentatively, Hermione lifts one. She's never held a gun before—in her country, no civilized Muggle would consider owning such a thing, and wizards, of course, barely know what they are—but her hand unconsciously adjusts itself to its angles, palm around the grip. True to Mario's word, the size is right. It takes Ginevra another moment—her hands are smaller, more adjustment required—but then she nods.

"I don't want to give you anything smaller than that," Mario says, "because you don't want to learn on anything less than law-enforcement standard. But there are lady cops your size who carry these. Now put them back."

The girls slide the pistols back into their holsters. Hermione finds herself oddly disturbed by how alien it doesn't feel. Mario hands a small box to Dean and another to Sam—bullets, Hermione realizes. She's never seen them outside of films or the telly.

Mario takes four sets of ear protectors from a shelf on the wall and leads the four of them to adjacent stalls on the actual range. By apparently tacit agreement, Sam goes into one with Ginevra and Dean into the other with Hermione. He demonstrates the grip, then hands the gun to her. She copies him; he adjusts her fingers slightly, then nods. He has her repeat it several times; then tells her to set it down. He shows her how to load the magazine, then empties it and gives it to her to do. It's not difficult. Hermione realizes as she slides the clip into the pistol per Dean's instructions that she's holding a loaded gun for the first time. It's a weapon, with no purpose but to hurt or kill.

She sets it down as cautiously as possible. She can feel her breathing quicken, and she tries to slow it, with mixed success. She checks for heat, but there's none. She's not angry. She's scared.

"Granger?" Dean says carefully.

She crosses her arms over her chest. "This won't make any sense to you."

"Try me."

"Handguns are illegal where I'm from. Most police officers don't even carry them, and certainly no civilians do. Only criminals. People who intend to do harm."

"It's a tool. Like anything else. It has a purpose it serves."

She shakes her head. "No. It's a weapon. It serves one purpose: to kill." She thinks of the dreams she's been having. "I don't want to hurt anyone, Dean."

"Your wand? That wasn't a weapon?"

"Yes!" Her voice is louder than she intended. "Yes, it was a weapon, only now I don't need it anymore, because I'm the weapon! I killed with it and I was glad I did and now you're handing me another tool to hurt people with!"

Dean takes the cartridge out of the gun and puts the bullets back in their box. There, Hermione thinks. Now he knows. He knows how dangerous I am, and maybe it's a thrill to shag someone like that, but you shouldn't give them loaded firearms.

He holsters the pistol and takes gun, ammunition, and Hermione up to the front. "We'll be back in a little bit," he tells the man at the counter, and Hermione looks at him in surprise.

"You want me to keep this out for you?"

"Yeah, if you don't mind. Thanks."

They go outside, and Dean turns them west, towards the river. They sit on the grass, and Hermione stares at the murky water, at the palisades of New Jersey, sprawl turning to parkland as you look north. It's bright out today, and the sun gleams off the glass and metal of the tall buildings on both sides of the Hudson.

"You offed Lord Moldy Cheese," Dean says. "Sounds to me like you did the world a favor."

"We did," Hermione agrees. "But I'm not talking about him. And it's questionable as to whether he was even a person anymore, really, by the end: When you split your soul into seven parts to try to defy nature, it's unclear how much humanity remains you."

"The hor— horcs, or whatever."

"Horcruxes. One of them was Hogwarts itself, which is why it was destroyed. And you have to commit one murder for each horcrux—so they're predicated on the fact that the maker will have very little humanity to start with. And when he died, I think Voldemort had none, by any definition."

"So what's the problem?" Dean says. "You killed one person, and he wasn't even really a person."

Hermione shakes her head. "No. There were more than that. I spent a year being chased by Death Eaters, Dean. Do you really think we got away from that without taking any lives?"

"Ginevra too?"

"No. She... By the time she caught up with us, we'd already been through a series of fights, and we— There had already been some deaths. So Harry and Ron and I made an agreement, after Ginevra found us, that we'd do everything we could to keep her from having to do that. We'd already done it. It—well, I suppose it mattered a little less to us."

"But it still makes a difference, if they're human," Dean allows. "Demons, strigas, revenants, all those—they're different on the conscience."

"Have you killed humans?"

"These batshit cannibal rednecks kidnapped Sam. They had him in a cage and were going to eat him. I don't regret it."

"The first time—" Hermione takes a breath and starts again. "The first person I killed, I didn't even intend to. We were being pursued through woods, and I turned around and did a Reducto spell, thinking I would put a huge crater in between them and us. Except that I was running, and my aim wasn't on, and I not only made a large hole in the ground but also felled an oak tree—a big, old one—right onto one of the Death Eaters. It crushed him." She shudders, remembering, and thanking whatever higher power that it was too dark and she too panicked to get a good look at the carnage.

"What would they have done if they'd caught you?"

"They'd have taken Harry to Voldemort—they were under orders. They'd probably have just killed Ron and me."

"So I don't see the moral dilemma there, either."

"It's not a moral dilemma—it's the fact that I never wanted to do it in the first place. I vomited for hours afterward, once we were safe. By the end, that didn't happen anymore. I grew accustomed to it. How can any decent person grow accustomed to killing?"

Dean doesn't answer; there is no answer to that.

"And then—God—I was happy to kill Bellatrix. That cunt. That evil, vicious cunt."

Dean's eyebrows go up.

Hermione's used that word perhaps five times in her life, all of them in reference to Bellatrix Lestrange.

"Who was she?" Dean asks.

This was another piece that Hermione wasn't about to discuss in public—even Ginevra doesn't know the full details. But Dean seems to be laboring under the delusion that Hermione can be trusted with weapons, so, she thinks, she'll tell him. Tell him and see what he thinks about that.

"She was a Death Eater. Obviously." Hermione stops, tries to think of how to tell the rest of the story. "It was during the Battle of Hogsmeade. One of the last of the war. The school had been destroyed two days before, and the fighting had moved to town because it was the only place with any kind of shelter. I found her in a basement room at the Hog's Head—one of the inns in town. She'd warded it well; she didn't expect to be found. It took me an hour to get past her wards. It wasn't that they were so complex, but I wanted to dismantle them without her knowing. So that she wouldn't know I was coming. It took me longer to do that—longer than if I'd just broken through them—and by the time I found her—"

Hermione's never said this part out loud before, though she's thought about it nearly every day for the past three months. "By the time I got there, Luna—my friend—and Padma—another girl I knew—were already dead. I spent too much time on the wards, and I got there too late. And Bellatrix had Neville and Harry under Cruciatus."

At Dean's blank look, Hermione explains, "It's a torture curse. The pain is so unbearable that if you use it on someone for long enough, they'll go insane. Bellatrix used it on my friend Neville's parents, and that was when he was a baby, and Neville's my age and his parents still don't know who he is. The Dark Lord wanted Harry alive, but evidently Harry did not need to be sane to be of use to him."

Hermione's voice starts to break, and she pushes it back under control before continuing. "Bellatrix had grown overconfident, and she made a mistake: She was standing with her back to the door. I was lucky. She'd thought her wards strong enough that the basement would be impenetrable. I performed a silent Petrificus from the door. That didn't kill her," Hermione adds. "You saw me do one on Faith the first day of training. It doesn't hurt; it just freezes the person."

She breathes in, out, forces herself to go on. "I walked over to her, turned her around, and introduced myself as the Mudblood bitch. That was how she liked to refer to me: Ron and Ginevra were the weasels, and I was the Mudblood bitch. I told her who I was, in case she had forgot, and then I informed her that I was going to kill her—which, in case the logic escaped her, meant that she was going to die at the hands of a middle-class Mudblood half her age. I slapped her—because she'd had that coming for years—and then used the killing curse." And Bellatrix, powerful enough to have fended off Dumbledore, had crumpled to the dirty floor.

Ultimately, it had seemed anticlimactic. There was no blood, no screaming, just the lifeless form of a once-beautiful woman.

"The killing curse is considered Unforgivable," Hermione explains. "The punishment for using it is a life sentence in Azkaban—prison. It's an evil thing to do."

"I told you about the cannibal rednecks," Dean says. "I said I don't regret that, and I don't. I don't see how this is different."

"I had her restrained, Dean. She was under a Full Body Bind. There was no reason to do what I did."

"What are the chances of getting out of the Full Body Bind?"

Hermione gives it some thought. "It depends on how good one's silent spellwork is," she answers after a moment's pause. "If the person under Petrificus has a strong ability in performing spells nonverbally, then it would be difficult—he or she would still not be able to access his or her wand—but, theoretically, possible."

"And how good was Bellatrix?"

"I don't know about her skills in silent magic specifically, but she was a formidable witch."

"You see where I'm going with this."

"You're arguing that she could have gotten away. Yes, it's possible. But I could have done a number of things that I didn't: taken her wand away, knocked her unconscious, and so on. I didn't. I didn't even think to do any of that. I just wanted her dead. The Ministry, no doubt, would say that I should have maintained the Petrificus and summoned the authorities. Not that they'd ever done a bloody thing where the Death Eaters were concerned."

"You've got to be fucking kidding."

"About their not doing anything? No, I'm quite serious. About their likely opinions on my actions? The Killing Curse exists only to harm—that's what defines the Unforgivable Curses. Cruciatus—what Bellatrix was using—that's the second of the Unforgivables. The third is Imperius—it gives the caster complete control over the subject's actions."

"But your government never found out."

"They're not my government," Hermione says, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "I had no say in putting those idiots in charge. Anyway, no, no one ever found out. I burned the body, and Harry and Neville kept the secret, to the extent that they remember it. Frequently people don't, when they're under Cruciatus. Officially Bellatrix is considered missing.

"She killed Sirius and Luna." It comes out unbidden. "Luna Lovegood never hurt anyone in her life. She was kind to even the most awful people. And Padma—she could be irritating, but she was brave, in the end. She and her sister, their parents took them out of school and were planning to move to Mumbai to keep the girls safe. Padma and Parvati ran away from home to come fight. And Sirius was Harry's godfather. He was put in prison for a crime that he didn't commit, and he didn't live to be exonerated because that cunt killed him. Because of Bellatrix, he didn't live to be free. I've always been told that the Unforgivable Curses don't work unless you have enough evil intent to put behind them. I suppose that makes me evil. Well, she was evil, too. She was evil, and I'm glad she's dead."

There's a directness to Dean's gaze that might be unsettling if, Hermione realizes, she hadn't spent the past seven years in the company of someone else with equally direct, intense green eyes. Dean's are closer to hazel than Harry's are, but the unswerving focus is the same. Dean doesn't touch her, but his steady, fierce attention is as unmistakable as a hand on her skin. "That's not evil," he says. "What you did, that's not evil. Being angry because someone killed your friends and was torturing two more and made your one friend's parents go crazy and killed your friend Harry's godfather is not evil. Maybe you didn't consciously think through the situation, but you were in battle, Hermione. You didn't have time. If you'd let her live, there was a chance she'd have gotten away."

"Again," Hermione says. "She'd already escaped from Azkaban once."

"And once more I say: I don't see that you had any other options. And I have seen a hell of a lot of evil, ever since I was four years old and evil burned down my house and killed my mom, and what you did was not it. You got rid of some evil, and those wizard people should be giving you awards, however you did it."

Hermione thinks of the others—of Pansy Parkinson, whom she'd despised, but who Hermione wouldn't have said deserved to die from having her skull bashed in. At least, not until Pansy had aimed a killing curse at Ginevra.

Hermione forces the image from her mind and leans against Dean's shoulder. He settles an arm around her, and even though it's hot out, his warmth feels good.

"Since your friend Harry is living with Ginevra's brother now, I'm guessing he did come out of it OK? What about the other person she used that curse on?"

"Neville? Yes, ultimately he was fine. Harry too. Cruciatus doesn't cause permanent physical damage—despite what it feels like at the time—and they weren't under long enough for it to affect their minds."

"I think your conscience can rest safely," Dean says quietly. "I'm sure your friends Neville and Harry—not to mention Harry's boyfriend—would agree."

"I'm sure they would," Hermione says. "I just wish...I wish I could have gotten there in time. In time for Luna and Padma. Anyway, now you've heard my sordid tale. Do you really trust me with that gun?"

Dean doesn't need to say, "Are you out of your mind?" The words are more than plain on his face. "I wouldn't have handed it to you in the first place if I didn't. That's not even a question. The question is what you want to do. Because I'm with Faith: You killed your big bad. The way it sounds to me, you and your friend Harry saved your people. You don't owe Slaying to anyone. If you don't want to do this, I'll drive you home right now, and God knows I wouldn't think less of you."

Hermione thinks of the pistol, an expensive piece of precise and deadly engineering. Engineered to kill; nothing else.

Her wand is vine wood with a dragon heartstring core. It occurs to her for the first time that something had to die in order for it to exist.

"I would think less of myself," she says, and gently extracts herself from Dean's arm to stand up.

************************

The next morning, when Ginevra and Hermione conclude their warm-up run down to Abyssus, they find Xander waiting for them on the bench outside. It's unusual to see it on the sidewalk at this hour; typically it doesn't go out until the evening, to be used by smokers. He's drinking iced coffee; next to him are two sweating bottles of Gatorade. Though they haven't run very far, it's hot enough that cold liquid is welcome.

"And something else," he says after handing them the drinks. "Some light reading." And he produces two copies of a barkeeper's handbook.

They both look at him perplexedly. "I realize I've been spending a lot of time at your pub," Hermione says, "but I didn't think it was that bad."

He laughs. "Consider this job training."

"For Slaying?" asks Ginevra.

"For bartending. At Abyssus."

"You're offering us jobs?"

"It's actually slave labor, and I'll be selling you later to a man known as Frankie the Eye. But in the meantime, you should study up."

"But we're not even old enough to drink in this country," Ginevra says. "Though you allow Mione," she adds, not quite petulantly.

"Isn't it illegal for us to work in the States—especially since, as far as your government knows, we're not even here? And Ginevra doesn't legally exist in the Muggle world."

"You only have to be eighteen to serve, which Hermione is. But in any case, it'll be strictly under the table—like seventy-five percent of the bar and restaurant jobs in this city—and we keep Abyssus off the official radars. Demon clientèle, arsenal in the basement, that sort of thing."

"The money would be nice," Hermione admits. "But wouldn't you want someone more imposing than we are?"

"If a fight breaks out, there's nothing as good as a pair of Slayers behind the bar." He explains, "The story is that two people are leaving—Mina's pregnant and won't be able to stay on her feet much longer, and Flipper's moving to Portland—and it seems like the two of you are planning to stick around a while."

Ginevra and Hermione look at each other. They haven't talked about it yet, but. It's late August. They have the apartment through December. And they have friends and lovers (at least in Hermione's case) and a Quidditch team and Slayer training and now, it seems, jobs.

"If you're sure," Hermione says. "But we'll be here only until New Year's, at the latest."

"Let me worry about that. You just get memorizing on the vast and wonderful assortment of ways for customers to inebriate themselves."

Ginevra salutes.

"Thank you," Hermione says.

"Not a problem," answers Xander. "I need the staff." And then he adds, obscurely, "And I like seeing people happy."

Once they're inside, when he's out of earshot, Ginevra mutters, "Brilliant. Now I have to learn how to shoot a crossbow and mix cocktails. I thought this was supposed to be a holiday."

"And all the time you're spending with Sam is just so arduous?"

Ginevra glares at her.

"He doesn't have anything to do with those mysterious books you bought, does he?"

Ginevra elbows her, hard. "Ow!" Hermione yelps, but Ginevra doesn't apologize.

*******************

That night, they're eating supper and, per Xander's instructions, studying their bartending manuals, when Ginevra looks up from the pages. "How long are we intending to stay, Mione?"

"In New York, you mean?"

Ginevra nods, with a little bit of where-else-you-idiot impatience on her face.

"The apartment's ours until January first. I think—well, since we may have a means of supporting ourselves, I think I'm planning to stay until then. If you want to go back earlier, though, I won't feel abandoned. I know it's a long time."

Ginevra shakes her head, smiling slightly. "I was actually going to ask, if you weren't planning on staying through December, whether it would be alright if I did."

They meet each other's eyes, and it occurs to Hermione that Sam, Dean, Faith, and Xander aren't the only ones who have wordless conversations. Then she and Ginevra go back to their books.

"Dean probably told you how they're staying for a while, right?" Ginevra adds after a moment, taking a handful of raspberries from the bowl.

Hermione looks up again. She schools her expression into disinterested curiosity. "No. I didn't know they had a tenure in mind. Did you talk to Faith?"

Ginevra shakes her head. "Sam. They were originally only going to stay a few weeks, until the furor from their adventures in jail died down. But apparently Faith asked a friend of hers to access—I don't know what they're called in the Muggle world. The national records of criminals—like that ones that Aurors keep. Who they're chasing, and why."

The FBI database, Hermione translates, and wonders who Faith knows that was able to get into that. "This is one of the biggest cities on the planet—and certainly the biggest in the States. Wouldn't they want to hide somewhere fewer people are likely to see them?"

"I don't know. I think it's easier, in some ways, to hide in a big place. A man Sam's size would stand out in a small-town grocery, for example. But there are a lot of tall men in New York. Anyway, Faith talked them into it once she saw what her friend found. And Sam also said that they want to get better at working in cities."

Now that makes sense: In a city, you can't just salt and burn any grave you might wish. There are always people about. She remembers Dean saying, grimly, that first night, "We got our asses handed to us in Chicago and San Francisco," but he hadn't gone into any detail, had just said that he hated hunts in urban areas. Too much room for error, too many people at risk. But cities are old and crowded, Hermione thinks, and likely to be home to many a ghost—not to mention demons, enjoying the plenitude of ripe pickings.

"You might look happier at the news," Ginevra adds dryly, "given the amount of time you've been spending with Dean."

"I am," Hermione says. "I am. It's just...I don't know."

Ginevra laughs and gets up to retrieve another soda from the refrigerator. (They have discovered two things since their arrival: First, that Ginevra is a fiend for Coca-Cola, and second, that Summoning items from a refrigerator can lead to an enormous mess.) "Well, I know," she says, "even if you and your vastly proportioned brain haven't got it figured out yet."

Chapter Text

Ginevra's first game is that Saturday; they all go. Xander calls in a favor from another pub-owning friend to cover at Abyssus so that he can take the evening off; Sam, who has been working at a bookshop belonging to a friend of one of Faith's professors, doesn't ride up with them, but takes the subway from the shop and meets them at the last stop on the 4 line, conveniently located across the street from the park. Even Dean, who's working at a couple of rough places on the far West Side in the same unofficial way that Hermione and Ginevra are working for Xander, manages to clear his schedule for the evening. It's an Event.

The Van Cortlandt team dons T-shirts decorated with a screen-printed image of a figure on a broom flying above the treetops; the Brooklyn jerseys feature a similar figure soaring over that borough's famous bridge. The teams call lazy insults back and forth at each other, but there's no particular rancor: The members of both seem mostly to know one another, and Hermione learns that Nikkya's brother plays for Brooklyn. (Their parents and other siblings have come to the game, but, Nikkya reports, maintain a studied neutrality in terms of whom they support.)

Hermione and Ginevra have explained the game to their friends as best they can, but it's no substitute for seeing the real thing. The other two first-string Chasers are Nikkya and the book editor, who appears shy but who on the pitch is nearly as aggressive as Ginevra. The Beaters are the policeman and the teacher (this somehow seems appropriate), the Keeper a subway engineer, and the Seeker a tiny fourteen-year-old in a hijab and glasses that must be magically affixed; it's the only explanation for their staying power throughout her incredible acrobatics of flight.

"Holy shit," Faith exclaims the first time she sees Ginevra execute an especially showy dodge, hanging halfway off her broom while slamming the Quaffle towards the goalposts. Faith repeats the exclamation, fervently and in unison with Sam, when Ginevra's shot proves true.

The Brooklyn players are good, but, Hermione thinks with a bit of pride she's happy to see again, they don't have a Hogwarts-trained Chaser (and Slayer) on their side. The five of them cheer loudly for Ginevra—careful, of course, to use her pseudonym—and the Bronx team wins handily. They shake hands with the other team—Nikkya and her brother tussle in the lineup, but it's good-natured—and two people who look like the Seeker's parents pass out Gatorade and orange slices.

Ginevra rounds everyone up for introductions—they chatted with some of the team members at the last practice, but names were never properly exchanged. "This is Sam," Ginevra says, as ebullient as Hermione's ever seen her, "and his brother Dean, and Faith and Xander—he owns a pub on Rivington Street, it's brill except there are never any fights"—Hermione sees Xander stifling a laugh—"and, obviously, Hermione, who I've known for a million years and is the entire reason I'm here."

Nikkya smiles, appearing drawn in by Ginevra's enthusiasm. "It's nice to meet you, Sam, brother Dean, Faith, Xander who owns the brill pub with no fights, and..." She trails off, and Hermione sees the pieces fall together in her mind. "And Hermione whom Jenny has known for a million years. I bet your hair looks a lot different when it's long." She looks at Ginevra. "And I bet I know where you learned that fancy hanging move."

Ginevra covers her face with her hands. "Oh my God, I'm such a dunce."

Nikkya shakes her head. "No. Not at all. I'm glad to meet you both. Though, if I'm remembering the pictures from the Daily Prophet correctly, I'm wondering if there isn't another name you'd prefer over 'Jenny.'"

Ginevra sighs. "Ginevra. Ginevra Weasley. How did you get the Prophet over here?"

"We got a subscription via owl. I have to say I don't have much use for that rag most of the time, but since we don't get the WWN over here and my family in London couldn't always write to us, sometimes it was the only way to know what was going on." She looks at Ginevra again, and Hermione can suddenly picture her at her Wall Street job: precise, evaluating, and not easily impressed. "Weasley," Nikkya says. "Did you know Angelina Johnson?"

"Of course. She dated my brother Fred." Which, Hermione thinks, is perhaps the blandest possible way to refer to Angelina—yes, it's true that she once attended a Yule Ball with one of the twins, but Hermione's main memories of the woman are considerably less happy and more recent than that one.

"She's my first cousin," Nikkya says. "Her mom is my mom's sister. Lucius Malfoy and his cronies rounded up their entire family during their little homage to the Third Reich."

Hermione doubts Ginevra knows what the Third Reich was, but she's sure that Ginevra remembers breaking into that prison as vividly as she does. It was in Poland, near the Russian and Lithuanian borders; God only knew how Malfoy and his henchpeople had gotten their hands on an abandoned fourteenth-century jail, although for all Hermione knew the land had been in some pureblood family since the dawn of time. They'd heard about the Death Eater abductions of halfblood families—which Angelina's was not, but apparently pureblood status was somehow weakened by the presence of dark skin. Or some such Death Eater abortion of logic.

At any rate, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginevra had known about the abductions, as everyone did, but had not heard anything further (and had been too caught up in the search for the Horcruxes to investigate what seemed like a symptom rather than a cause). But they'd heard rumors during a research setdown in Prague—and they'd heard more than rumors two weeks later in Berlin. They'd heard enough to be able to track the abductors over the border and across Poland. Hermione had never been more thankful for her stolen Auror's spellbooks.

Ron, not Hermione, had been the one to kill Lucius Malfoy. She's still rather envious. Draco, who is possibly Teflon-coated, escaped; he's now considered missing, but whether that means "missing" like Bellatrix Lestrange or missing as in he's moved to Argentina and gotten plastic surgery, Hermione has no idea.

"Angelina was much improved, the last I heard," Hermione says carefully.

"It's unlikely that she'll get her sight back," Nikkya says. "Don't look like that!" she adds quickly. "Angelina's alive. And my aunt is alive, and their whole family. Do you know what that's worth?"

"Yes," says Ginevra, her family scarred but miraculously intact. "I know. You know that Angelina killed two of the Death Eaters that were guarding that place, right?"

"That's what my aunt and uncle were told," Nikkya says. "But we were never sure whether it was true, or whether the Ministry was just saying it to make them feel better about Angelina's being blind."

"It's true," Ginevra says, "shockingly enough for something coming out of the Ministry. She disarmed one of the guards without magic—they'd taken all the prisoners' wands away—got his wand, and brought the better part of a roof down on him with a Reducto spell. She— It was because she stopped to do that, that Lucius Malfoy was able to catch up to her and do...what he did. But she's the reason that a lot of the other people were able to escape."

"It's good—" Nikkya starts, and pauses. "It's good to know that that's actually true." She takes a determined breath, releases it. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for this to turn into war stories hour. You probably came to this country just to get away from that. Anyway, thanks—well, you know, for my family being alive. Both of you." She smiles briefly but genuinely at Ginevra. "And thanks for playing a fully kick-ass game of Quidditch tonight and helping us wipe the pitch with Brooklyn. See you at practice Tuesday?"

"You know it."

They get to the Impala and Ginevra puts the Firebolt in the boot, but rather than opening the door and seating herself in the car, Ginevra leans against it, heavily. "Merlin," she says, "I need a shot of Firewhiskey."

"I'm not sure I can order that from my distributor," Xander says. "But I have many other things just as liver-impairing." There's no discussion of age; perhaps liberating a Death Eater concentration camp serves to make up for a few years.

"So is that what it's like in England for you?" Sam asks Ginevra.

"I didn't much leave the Burrow after everything ended," she answers.

"And I didn't leave my parents' house," Hermione says. "But if Ron's reports about trying to go anywhere in the wizarding world are any indication, one encounters that about every ten minutes, only with less tact and more tears."

"Angelina should get the Order of Merlin, you know," Ginevra says. "If they ever get that sorted out."

"I agree. But don't say that too loudly: They'll be after us, you know."

"And we can tell them precisely where to stick their Order, and how deep," Ginevra says with some relish.

*****************************

Now that school has started again (for New York Muggle children, at least, if not for Ginevra and Hermione), the training schedules have been rearranged—and lightened. They have some early-morning sessions, some in the evening, and a long Saturday afternoon session that ritually ends with a trip to the bakery for cupcakes. (Every week, Dean says, "Oh God, not cupcakes again," and makes some comment about how girly they all are, and every week he comes along and eats five.)

It's a busy schedule but not, Hermione finds, grueling: She's accustomed to being busy, accustomed to having things that take up her time. And, she realizes, accustomed to learning. That's what she's missed most since leaving Hogwarts at the end of her sixth year: learning every day. This is a different kind of learning, true, but she likes putting drinks together the same way she liked putting potions together (and Xander is a much more agreeable teacher than Severus Snape), and she can feel her muscles getting stronger, her body becoming more coordinated and efficient from running and training. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, she likes the time spent at Abyssus: She comes to learn the names of many of the people (and vampires, and demons, and mutants, and so on) who frequent the place. It's as much a social center as, Hermione thinks, a bizarre sort of community center for the paranormal in New York City: its own clearinghouse of otherworldly gossip and news, frequently mixed together and indistinguishable. Sam and Dean have a friend in the Midwest who calls them with leads, but they get just as many, if not more, merely from keeping an ear to the door of the back room at Abyssus.

Nikkya comes periodically after work, sometimes with finance colleagues, sometimes with Sarah (the book editor on the Quidditch team and, it turns out, her best friend), sometimes with a brother or sister, sometimes with her husband, a nice-looking Muggle man she's known since she was fourteen. The jukebox at first attempts to serenade her with "Jenny from the Block," prompting a kick; after that, it's DJ Spooky's "Objects Unknown," and she laughs and pats it, explaining that the song is about UFOs in the Bronx.

About three weeks after the job offer, about a week past the Labor Day holiday (which, as far as Hermione can tell, Americans celebrate by having sales at their shops and barbequing things), Xander deems Hermione and Ginevra fit to tend bar on their own, and gives them a Wednesday night shift. It's not the slowest night of the week, but it's by no means the bedlam that occurs on Fridays and Saturdays.

Faith sits at the end of the bar with a book and a notebook; she's at the beginning of a new semester, with the reviled statistics class (and its exam, which she passed neatly with an 88 percent score) behind her, and she's taking a battery of classes that she seems genuinely excited about. The book she's got right now is about the settlement movement of the nineteenth century. Spike's not far away, hunting and pecking at a laptop; it's a word processing document, but Hermione can't tell precisely what the contents are, and Spike has been very cagey about the entire thing. There are a couple of humanoid earthbound demons and some assorted mutants, according to Faith, in various places around the bar; it's not late enough for any of the back room's clientèle to have arrived, so it's not open yet. It's a decently sized crowd but a mellow one, and they're tipping well; Hermione really can't complain.

"We're almost out of Chopin and Stoli vanilla," Ginevra says.

"There's nothing down below?" Hermione asks. Xander usually keeps a backup stock in the cabinets below the register.

"Not for the Chopin. And we'll probably go through another bottle of the Stoli before the end of the night. Do you want to go down, or shall I?"

Hermione takes the keys to the basement from their hook underneath the bar. The lower floor, in addition to serving as training center and informal armory, is also home to a large storage room that contains more conventional supplies. "I'll go," she says. "Can you keep things under control?"

"I'll try to keep any fights from breaking out," Ginevra says dryly, still hoping for a barroom brawl.

Hermione glances at the stock, notes that they'll likely run out of Jameson soon as well, and heads downstairs. They're going to need to increase their weekly order for the Chopin—it's become unexpectedly popular, and they're nearly out—but they have plenty of the Jameson and Stolichnaya. Hermione goes back upstairs with one bottle of each.

She clears the landing and sees that a small crowd has gathered around Faith's stool, whose neighbor is now occupied. Its occupant is a woman in what appears to be expensive S&M gear. Her sleek brown hair has a chic bluish-purple wash.

So, Hermione realizes with a start, does her skin.

She ducks under the snug, sets down the bottles, and goes over to the group. Spike has his arm slung around the woman, who is eating sushi and haughtily tolerating him. "Hermione," says Spike, "meet King Lyr."

"I'm sorry?"

The woman picks up a piece of sushi and examines it. "The accompaniment of raw fish with cheese is execrable." She drops the Philadelphia roll back onto the platter with distaste. "Any supporters of such filth should be annihilated and their limbs burned outside the city gates."

"How right you are, ducks," Spike says agreeably. "Hermione, this is Illyria, late of the Primordium Age, formerly of the citadel Vahla ha'nesh, Old One, sometime defender of the universe, general badass, and sushi aficionado. Illyria, meet Hermione, late of England, formerly of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Slayer, witch, bartender, sometime defender of the universe, general badass, and priestess of the divine mysteries of the Hendrick's and tonic."

Illyria deigns to extend her hand. Amused despite herself, Hermione shakes it. "Would you like something to drink?" she asks.

Illyria inclines her head. "I will accept Lagavulin."

As it gets later, the crowds start to come in: the East Midtown office types who have taken the subway down, the locals who will be setting up camp for the evening. Hermione is vastly entertained by the erstwhile demon king in her slender woman's body; the erstwhile demon king, meanwhile, observes her human surroundings with what appears to be a combination of contentment and superiority. Or perhaps contentment at her superiority.

When they have a moment, Ginevra comes over and fills Hermione in on Illyria's story. "She was living in Los Angeles," Ginevra explains (and perhaps a few years ago, the idea of a former demon king living in California might have seemed inalterably weird, but now it just seems like one more place a former demon king might choose to reside). "They had their own war out there," Ginevra goes on. "She was— If I understood Faith correctly, Illyria's powers had been limited and she was earthbound in a more or less human body. But something in their last battle changed her, and now she can move between the worlds and dimensions again. So she's been wandering around, now that she can, and she came by to visit Spike and Faith."

Hermione and Ginevra look at each other for a moment.

"We have the strangest friends," Hermione says after a pause, and Ginevra laughs.

Illyria and Faith go to one of the back tables and have what appears to be a fairly intensive conference; Faith's explaining something, and Illyria's nodding, face creased in an expression of comprehension that utterly lacks condescension. Whatever they're talking about, they seem to come to an agreement, and then both come back over to the bar so casually they might have been discussing football scores or the stock market. A little while later, Ginevra goes on break, and Hermione glances over to see her sitting next to Illyria, chess set out, making motions that suggest she's explaining the game.

Faith looks over, too, then back at Hermione. "Now I bet that's a worthy opponent," she says.

Ginevra comes back after the fifteen minutes are up. The crowd's not bad, Hermione thinks; she can handle things for a while. "Go back to your game."

"My break's over," Ginevra says.

"I can take over for a while. It's really not bad. Seriously," she adds. "I'll call you if it gets zooey, but how many chances will you have to play wizard chess with a demon king?"

"Well, when you put it that way. Are you sure, Mione?"

"I said I'll tell you if it gets out of control. Go on."

Ginevra does, and Faith looks up again. "You sure?" she says to Hermione.

"I've abandoned her enough times to spend time with Dean that I think she's owed. And as I said: How many opportunities does one have to play chess with a demon king?"

"In this social group, probably more than you'd think. But yeah, generally not your average members of the chess club. You want me to come back and give you a hand?"

"Really, it's alright. If I need help, I'll shout. And you have homework."

"I do." Faith sighs exaggeratedly, though Hermione gets the idea she doesn't mind her studying at all, as long as it's not statistics.

The crowd thickens, and after a while Hermione does take Faith up on her offer to come help behind the bar, and they work together companionably. Ginevra and Illyria finish their game, and Ginevra puts the set back behind the bar. "Who won?" Hermione asks.

"She did," Ginevra says, with appreciation. "I suppose commanding demon hordes does require a certain knowledge of strategy."

Xander drops by for a while—he's been out with some friends Hermione hasn't met, but he apparently can't resist the urge to check up on his protegees. Faith jumps off her stool, goes over to him, and, with an utter lack of shame, licks him right underneath his jaw. "You has a flavor!" she informs him.

Xander wraps his arms around her and laughs, tucking her head under his chin. "Faith," he says, "you know I love you, right?"

"Like a fat kid loves cake!" Faith concurs.

"That's right. But, baby, you have to lay off Icanhascheezburger."

She pulls back and glares at him. "My lolcats, you cannot has them!"

Hermione has absolutely no idea what they're talking about, but this seems to be a conversation they've had before.

Faith forgives him, and they come back over to where Illyria's sitting. Xander and Illyria have a chat, Illyria has another Lagavulin, and then Illyria announces that she must be going, as she has a commitment on the Akashic Plane. "I have enjoyed your game of symbolized warfare," she informs Ginevra. "You are almost a rival worthy of consideration."

Ginevra looks as though she's trying to decide whether to be offended; she seems to opt, as Hermione has, for amusement instead.

As Illyria clears a swathe through the crowd on her way to the door, Faith calls out to her, "Remember what we talked about!"

Illyria replies with asperity, "You doubt my ability to recall basic topics of conversation?"

"I owe you one," Faith says.

"Naturally," Illyria agrees.

"What do you owe her for?" Ginevra wants to know.

"She's looking into some things for me, stuff she might have better access to than a human would."

Which isn't much of an answer, Hermione thinks, but then a group of hipsters gathers at the bar, clamoring for Pabst (the appeal is utterly lost on Hermione), and she doesn't think about it again.

*******************

On nights when they're both working, and when he and Sam are in town, Hermione and Dean have fallen into the habit of meeting at Abyssus after closing. Dean's usually coming from the Meatpacking District, and the time it takes him to get to the Lower East Side from there gives Hermione a chance to do some basic cleanup. Xander has a service that will come during the day to handle the floors (generally awful) and the bathrooms (always worse), but she does need to get the most egregious of the offenses taken care of so that the place doesn't retain the smell.

After their first few shifts, Ginevra and Hermione don't always work together—there's also Xander and a couple of other people who work for him regularly. If Ginevra and Hermione are working together on a night Dean comes round, Ginevra usually Apparates home (after an escalating series of obscene commentary), and Dean and Hermione either walk (if they're going to Hermione's) or take a cab (if they're going to Faith's). If Xander's there, the trajectory varies—sometimes he goes to Faith's, but more often he goes to his own place in Chelsea, which he and Spike share. Hermione is given to understand that Spike has owned it for decades, having bought it back when no one with any resources or sense would live in that neighborhood. Just as Faith doesn't need to take Vern (and now the Winchesters) as housemate, neither does Spike need to share with Xander. But Faith, it seems, is not yet prepared to set up house with Xander, and both her home and Spike's are big for just one person.

Dean, despite his perhaps unholy love for his car, doesn't tend to drive on these nights—parking in Manhattan seems to be a precious commodity second only to the Philosopher's Stone or the Holy Grail. In other circumstances, Hermione might be wary of walking through a big city at five o'clock in the morning, but they're a witch and a hunter, and any unfortunate trying to take them on is the one really deserving of pity. And the neighborhood, its residents enmeshed in dreams, feels peaceful rather than ominous. There are usually a few early-morning delivery trucks out—bakeries, newsstands, delis—the occasional dedicated (or insomniac) jogger, and, even on weekdays, people stumbling home after a evening's celebrations.

They both work the night after Illyria's visit, and walk back to Hermione's flat through the sleeping streets of the East Village. Ginevra was off; she stopped by for a while with Nikkya and Sarah, on their way to eat Ethiopian food. (Ginevra was excited about the prospect of a cuisine wherein eating with the fingers is not just acceptable but more or less required.) But she dissembled when Hermione asked her whether she had plans later, and—as Hermione's getting used to doing with Ginevra lately—she just left it alone.

As she and Dean walk home, the sky is a soft early-morning indigo, not yet light, but beginning to leave dark behind. Hermione tells him about the group of Tacuez demons in the back room playing drinking games (Tacuez respiration being odiferous in the best of circumstances, and exponentially worse when they're drunk); Dean grouses about the enormous bachelorette party from Long Island who decided they wanted a walk on the wild side at a leather bar. Hermione is sympathetic, and careful not to be too amused that Dean is working at a leather bar—but the tips are, apparently, quite good, and Xander knows the owner.

When they get to the flat, Ginevra is still awake, wearing a pair of ridiculous pyjama bottoms with sheep on, and a gray hooded sweatshirt that swamps her. Hermione doesn't remember seeing it before; she must have lifted it from Bill or Ron. "Wotcher," she says from where she's got her head buried in the refrigerator, and Hermione smiles, thinking of Tonks.

"Is this breakfast or supper?" Hermione asks.

Ginevra glances up at the clock. "I had supper with Nikkya and Sarah at least eight hours ago, so...breakfast? I don't know. Anyway, I haven't been home long, and I'm hungry." She returns to her contemplation of their available food. "Want anything?"

"Just a shower. Well, a glass of water might be nice."

Ginevra takes out the pitcher and pours a glass for Hermione—and then, unasked, for Dean. The sweatshirt, Hermione sees, has a fleur-de-lis on the front; she wonders whether Fleur might have picked it out for Bill, in which case she'd like to congratulate Ginevra for stealing it.

"Do you want to shower before I get in?" Hermione asks her.

"No, you go ahead. I'm not tired yet. I'm going to watch some Muggle telly for a while. They have the most fascinating programs at this hour." She kisses Hermione's cheek, and then—hard to say whose surprise is greater—stands up on tiptoe and kisses Dean's, too. Then she takes out crackers, cheese, and an assortment of berries; wanders into the living room; flips on the telly; and is immediately engrossed in Jerry Springer and someone's affair with her own father-in-law. Hermione cringes to think of what Ginevra must be concluding about Muggle life, if vampire-slaying and Jerry Springer are establishing themselves as her norms.

Hermione offers Dean the first shower, but he declines—she had Tacuez demons, and he just had annoying not-yet-marrieds from the suburbs. Normally they'd just share, but that can get noisy, and Ginevra's still awake and could probably do without the soundtrack. Gratefully, Hermione washes off the smell. She wishes it were possible to ban Tacuez demons, but apart from their indescribable stench, they don't cause much trouble. Fifteen minutes later she smells like bergamot and her herbal shampoo, and she wraps a towel around herself and goes in to tell Dean that it's his turn. She's thinking he'll probably have fallen asleep—

Except that he hasn't, and he's found reading material, and it's the dirty book she bought at St. Mark's.

"Where did you find that?" she snaps, closing the bedroom door.

"Lying on the bed." He looks up at her, grinning as though he's just won an argument. She remembers: She left it on her bedside table, having been rather too...distracted...to put it away.

She can't believe she could have been so stupid.

"Give that to me," she says.

He seems disinclined to move from where he's installed himself on the bed, leaning against the headboard, feet bare. When she reaches for the book, he holds it away. "This is very interesting literature. You're not going to interrupt me in the middle of it, are you?"

She presents what she hopes is a Minerva McGonagall–quality glare.

Unruffled, he continues, "Why don't you put on that lotion that you use—or better yet, let me do it for you—and then you can sit down and tell me why the most frugal, sensible girl I know spent"—he lifts the book and makes a show of checking—"a hundred twenty-five dollars on a picture book about sex. And some pretty creative sex, too. There's some stuff in here even I haven't tried."

She keeps glaring.

He sets the book down, gets up, and hands her the lotion. "I'm going to shower," he says, and kisses her temple, her eyebrow, her forehead. "While I'm doing that, you think over whether there's anything in that book you might want to do a personal reinactment of."

He disappears into the corridor before she can reply.

She stands motionless in the middle of the room. She cannot believe that he found that—or, more accurately, that she left it out where someone could find it. He'll think she's a pervert, or a nymphomaniac, or both.

Except that he made that "personal reinactment" comment.

She doesn't know what to think. She's possibly never been more embarrassed in her life. Nice girls in New York City may in fact go running in their sports bras, but she is fairly sure that nice girls anywhere do not buy expensive books of people tying one another up, and touching themselves (she blushes at the mere memory of that photograph—speaking of personal reinactments...), and touching their partners (sometimes more than one partner at a time), and generally doing all kinds of things that one doesn't discuss, much less photograph and compile and publish in book form.

She hears the shower start.

She makes a decision, and goes out in the corridor and knocks on the bathroom door. "It's Hermione," she says.

"Come on in."

She does. Dean is hidden behind the shower curtain. She takes a deep breath.

"Do you think I'm a pervert?" she asks without preamble.

"No. At least not in any kind of bad way."

"Or a nymphomaniac?"

He laughs. "No. I think you're completely normal there."

She sits on the closed lid of the toilet and wraps her towel around herself. "Even though I bought that book?"

"I was surprised, because you're usually so careful with your money, but I don't think it makes you a pervert or a nympho. You should ask Faith sometime about some of the stuff she's got. It's shit I never even thought of, much less tried."

Since she doesn't have to look at him, she feels she can finally ask what she's been wondering more or less since she met all these people. "Did you ever sleep with Faith?"

"Yeah, a long time ago. Why?"

"I was just wondering, from some of the things she's said."

"Well, part of it's that, but part of it's Faith, and she just says that kind of stuff because she's herself."

"Were you together?"

"Jesus, no. We'd have killed each other. That's why she's good with Xander—he kinda chills her out, I think, and she needs that. Hand me a towel?"

"You're finished?"

"I'm a guy; we don't need to ponder the state of the cosmos while we shower." He pushes aside the curtain, shakes the water from his hair, and steps out to take the towel Hermione hands him. "So I'm guessing you didn't have time to go through and pick out some things."

"No. I didn't even put my lotion on."

Dean takes it from her, and it's only then that Hermione realizes she carried it in with her. "Let me do that. Stand up."

She does, and he sits. He takes her arms one at a time, spreads the bergamot gently over them; squeezes some more onto his hand, rubs it over her belly and breasts (parts she usually ignores when she does this after a bath); then more, over her thighs and legs. He finishes and closes the bottle, sets it next to the sink, pulls her onto his lap, kisses her, bare skin against bare skin, and he's hard, she can feel it.

"Not in here," she gasps when she can breathe.

Then she ruins the moment by yawning.

They go to bed and have sleepy, affectionate sex as the sky brightens. It's full daylight when they're done, and Hermione, curled up against Dean, falls asleep in the morning sun as it filters through the curtains. Her last thought is a smug one: that he forgot to ask about the book again.

*****************************

When Hermione wakes up several hours later, Dean is already awake. He's sitting up in bed with the book across his lap. Of course. She apparently forgot that he has the single-mindedness of a rat terrier when it comes to certain things, and it should be no surprise that dirty books are one of them.

Then she wakes up all the way and gets a better look—"Where did you get Post-Its?" she asks, horrified. He's used them to mark pages throughout.

"Desk drawer. Since we got distracted last night—nice move, by the way—I figured I'd get started."

"It wasn't intentional," she mutters.

"Why don't you sit up, and you can tell me what you think about some of the ones I found."

"I have to brush my teeth," she says, and Accios her dressing gown to go and do so.

When she comes back, Dean hasn't moved. He holds out his arm, and she gives up, hangs the dressing gown back where it belongs, and sits down next to him, his arm heavy and warm around her. She arranges the bedclothes around them and leafs through to see what Dean's marked.

"I, uh, I liked that one, too," she says when she sees that he put a sticky on the photograph of the woman by herself. She's blushing harder than she can ever remember doing.

"What did you like about it?"

"I just liked it."

He doesn't grace that with a reply, just looks at her.

She huddles down to bury her face in the nearest available skin. She can't answer a question like that if she can see him. "The expression on her face. I...I imagined what it felt like. How it must have felt really good. How...how good it would feel if I were doing it." She takes a breath. If she has to answer, so does he. "What did you like about it?"

She also forgot that he has no shame. He replies without embarrassment, "More or less the same things. And I thought that I wouldn't mind seeing you like that."

She's startled enough to look up. "Really? Why?"

"Beautiful woman lost in her own pleasure? Hmm, let me think: Yes. And," he adds, low, "I like seeing you come. Hearing you. I'd like to see and hear that when you're not thinking about anything else or anybody else, when all you're thinking about is how good it feels. You always gasp a little bit before you come, like you're surprised by it, and then you cry out and it's like—it sounds like you just won, like you took something that was yours by right. I could watch that all day." Her mouth finds his and his hand finds her hair, and they kiss hard and long. "So," Dean says when they finally pull away, "that's what I liked about it."

She turns a few more pages, comes to the picture that Ginevra saw: the woman with the chained man, the picture that convinced her to buy the book, really. She pauses there, but it's not one of the pages Dean marked. She goes to turn the page—but his hand covers hers, stopping her. "Any special reason you took some extra time to look at that?"

"I liked it," she whispers.

"What about it?"

She takes a breath, determined not to hide her face this time. She's an adult; she can talk about this. She takes another breath just to be sure. "How much he trusts her. She could do anything, and he knows that it'll be something he wants, and she knows it, too."

"The chains don't freak you out?"

"No. Look at him. He clearly wants that, wants to be there, wants her to do that to him."

"But the fact that he wants that doesn't freak you out?"

"No. I mean, I don't particularly want to be chained, myself. But it looks...it's natural to them, I think." After a pause, she says, "But this wasn't one of the ones you liked."

He shrugs. "Chains aren't really my thing. Don't get me wrong, I've tied up a couple of girls who wanted to be—I've got no objection to that. It's just the chains that don't do it for me."

"Is there anything you haven't done?" Hermione asks, mostly rhetorically, but Dean promptly replies, "Necrophilia."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Necrophilia. I've never had sex with anyone dead. Or undead, at least not to the best of my knowledge."

"Well, that's a relief. I always prefer that my lovers be attracted to the living. Is that it?"

"I've never chained anybody or been chained, obviously. I've never pissed or shit on anyone, nor has anyone done that to me, and I don't have any plans to change that."

"Oh, disgusting! Do people really do that?"

"Some of them. Not very many, thank God. Let me think. I've never gagged anyone, and also don't have any desire for anyone to do that to me. I've been with a couple of girls who wanted to be spanked, so I've done that, but only with my hand, not with any...implements."

Hermione raises her eyebrows. "Implements?"

"Paddles or whatever. And I've never been spanked during sex. I blindfolded a girl who liked that—and she really, really liked that—but never wanted to do it myself."

"Blindfold," Hermione says thoughtfully. "That's interesting. I don't know that I would have thought of that. You wouldn't want to do it?"

"I like to be able to see."

"But I think it would be...I think there would be a sense of anticipation, not knowing what's coming, but trusting the person enough to let them do it. Like in the picture—trusting someone to have that power."

"Then I guess I've never trusted anyone that much." He continues, "I've never done anything with a furry—"

"And here I was concerned that you had a secret fetish for livestock."

"I've never done that, either, and have no plans to, but that's not what I meant. You don't know what a furry is?"

"Er, I suppose not, if it's nothing to do with animals."

"It is, sort of, but probably not like you think. Furries—well, they're people. They dress up as animals and have sex with each other."

The best response Hermione can find is, "Why?"

"Who knows why people get into the crazy things that they're into? I mean, there are dudes out there who want women to put them in diapers. Also never done that, don't want to, in case there was any question."

"Diapers? As in, nappies? The things that babies wear?"

"Yup. And they drink from bottles, and the rest of it. Like they're babies, basically."

"That...I don't even understand why anyone would want to do that."

"I've said it before and I'll say it again: Demons I get. People are weird."

"So, going by what you omitted in your list, I'm guessing that you have slept with more than one person at a time."

"Yeah, I've done that."

"And should I assume that you have, in fact, slept with a man? Or men?"

He clears his throat, but doesn't reply.

She sits up, turns so that she's facing him. "So you have," she says, flashing back to the first time they went to bed together, and her questions then. "Did you enjoy it?"

He looks back down at the book. "Let's move on."

"Oh, no, this is terribly interesting." She repeats her question: "Did you enjoy it?"

"I did," he says finally, not looking at her. "Yes."

She moves the book aside and settles in his lap, her knees on either side of his thighs. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about. You know that my two best male friends are a couple. It's just another way to love."

"Yeah, but they're gay."

"I don't think you could really say that. They're in a gay relationship, to be sure, but I don't think either could be strictly defined as homosexual. And even if they were, one hundred percent, what would that have to do with it?"

"They're gay guys. Of course they have sex with men. I'm not gay."

Hermione laughs; it's probably completely inappropriate in this situation, but she can't help it. Dean looks at her sharply. "I'm sorry," she says. "It's just...obviously you're not. And I think it's much stranger to spank someone than it is for two men to sleep together."

"Hey, those girls enjoyed it. A lot." He adds, "I guess it's probably too much to hope that you've been with another woman."

Hermione snorts. "So it's unacceptable for you to have sex with a man, but desirable for me to have done so with a woman?"

"That's different—it's totally hot."

"And the idea of you and another man isn't?" It's out of her mouth before she realizes.

His ears turn pink, but he recovers enough to say, "You never answered my question about you and another woman."

"Oh, that. No, I've never shagged a girl, and I doubt that I ever will."

"A man can dream," Dean says, and pulls her down so that she's sitting. "So I doubt I'll be spanking you."

"No, likely not. But"—she steels herself to say it—"I'd like to tie you."

He runs a hand up her spine. "Really."

She feels herself blushing, and looks down. "I know you said you had done that to women, but I wasn't sure whether anyone had ever done it to you."

"Outside the context of a job gone wrong, no."

"Only if you wanted it, of course. But...I would."

He doesn't answer for several moments. When he finally says, "I would let you," he says it quietly.

"Good." She closes the book, leaving a number of Post-Its still in place. He holds her for a while in his lap, silently, until Hermione says, "I'm famished. Let's put something on and have whatever meal this is."

Chapter Text

There are some weeks, Hermione thinks, that just aren't worth the hours they're made up of. The week before her birthday, unfortunately, turns into one of them.

It starts off pleasantly enough, what with an impromptu visit from a demon king, Ginevra's mood better than it has been in months, maybe even years, and enjoyable time with Dean, not to mention their particularly enlightening conversation. There has been no forward movement on the most intriguing topic of discussion, but Hermione is prepared to exercise patience. It will, she thinks, be worth the wait.

They have another session at the firing range (Mario is as friendly and as burly as before); Ginevra somehow manages an arrangement wherein she will be paid handsomely to walk Nikkya's and Sarah's dogs while they're at work during the day; Faith is happy with her classes; and business at Abyssus is good. Everything, really, is good.

And then the owls arrive on Friday.

They have a six a.m. training session Friday morning; Ginevra, Dean, and Faith go to meet Sam for breakfast afterward, but Hermione begs off in favor of a nap. She sleeps for a couple of hours, then wakes to find a goose pecking at her window, a letter tied to its leg. She motions it downstairs, finds some food for it, and opens the letter.

It's several pages long and from Neville, dated five days ago—she suspects that she probably wrote it and then forgot to send it for a while. She makes herself some tea and porridge, and goes to sit on the front stoop to read.

Neville's letters are a delight: His awkwardness conceals a gentle dry wit that comes out unhindered in writing. He's living in Bath at the moment: His grandmother left him the flat in London, but he's stepped back from the wizarding world for a while (and with the fortune he inherited from Augusta, he has the resources to step back for as long as he might like). He's been working part-time in a Muggle-run greenhouse, and enjoying it a surprising amount, though he, like Ron, will never quite get over the pureblood's utter confusion at nonwizarding society. (It's not bigotry, in their cases, just severe culture shock.) But Neville does seem to be getting over that, if the fact that he's dating a nice Muggle boy named Christopher is any indication.

He's not completely disconnected from the wizarding world, though, and provides a variety of gossip of the sort that Harry tends to be too high-minded to discuss, and Ron too forgetful. He's also been round to visit Fred and George the past few times he's been up from Bath. They've moved from the flat above their shop in Diagon Alley, into a larger one in a mostly wizarding block of Brixton. They own the new place outright, and Neville reports that they've been doing considerable work to it: widening doorways, evening out old crooked floors, arranging furniture with great care and precision.

She writes Neville back, fills him in on Ginevra's Quidditch matches, on the fact that they've met Angelina's first cousin, on some of the more colorful characters from Abyssus. She finally breaks down and says that she's been seeing a Muggle—she almost writes "boy," but it's so inaccurate that she can't force herself to form the letters, and she writes "man" instead, as strange as it seems. She doesn't feel old enough to be seeing a man, though she is, and she doesn't feel too young to be seeing—and doing any number of other things with—the particular man in question.

(Ginevra, on the other hand, is another story. Hermione has no idea what's going on there, and Ginevra's not exactly forthcoming with information. Needless to say, Hermione does not bring this up in her letter to Neville.)

I don't know when I'm coming back, she writes in response to one of his questions.

Not anytime in the immediate future, I know that. We have the flat only through December, so I have to return before January—and I suppose, since I am planning to stay that long, I will probably have to go back to my parents' for some winter clothes. I don't even have any real desire to go back to England at all at this point, though I am hoping that will change once I'm here a little longer—perhaps I'll start to miss home. Certainly it needs to change, as I don't see any other options in the long-term.

She's just signing and sealing the letter when another bird appears with another letter. She recognizes Harry's distinctive spiky handwriting on the envelope. She goes inside for some bread and water for the bird, then addresses her missive to Neville and ties it to the creature's leg. It gives her a friendly honk, then flaps up into the air. She settles back against the stair railing, expecting one of Harry's typical Quidditch-heavy letters, with occasional Weasley family and might-as-well-be-family news (Charlie has a new girlfriend, Tonks nearly blew up the kitchen again), as well as Ministry scuttlebutt from Ron (now working for the Department of Magical Transportation) and Mr. Weasley, and the usual thinly veiled queries about Ginevra's love life, which Hermione steadfastly ignores.

Dear Hermione,

I'm sorry to write with bad news, and I wish there was a good way to say it, but there isn't. Parvati killed herself yesterday. She mixed aconite and belladonna into butterbeer and drank it in her bedroom. Nobody's saying whether or not she left a note—even though it was obviously a suicide, it's still technically under Auror jurisdiction because of Parvati's involvement in the war, so not much has got out. Even Tonks isn't saying anything—I guess she could get sacked if she did. But the reason for it seems pretty obvious even without a note.

If you could let Ginny know, I'd be incredibly grateful. I haven't heard anything about a funeral, but if I do—if the family has one—I'll owl you.

I'll try to write with something happier later in the week.

Harry
Hermione wasn't great friends with Parvati, but they were roommates for six years, and there's an unavoidable intimacy that comes from spending that much time with someone day in and day out. Hermione found Parvati irritating a lot of the time, especially in tandem with Lavender Brown (who married Anthony Goldstein less than a month after the war ended—Hermione hadn't even been aware they much knew each other). But both Padma and Parvati fought bravely—contradicting the belief that Gryffindor had the monopoly on courage—and it had been mere chance that had sent Padma with Neville, Luna, and Harry into the Hog's Head in search of Antonin Dolohov and Fenrir Greyback, only to find, fatally, Bellatrix Lestrange; while Parvati had gone in the other direction with Terry Boot, Hannah Abbott, and Susan Bones, on the hunt for the Carrows, and had lived.

It was chance, and fate, and luck, and Parvati had never forgiven herself for it, and if Hermione had been faster, they'd both still be alive.

Hermione's still sitting out on the stoop—it could be ten minutes or three hours later—when Ginevra returns with Faith, Dean, and Sam. "We came to drag you out of bed!" she announces from the end of the walk.

"Or throw Dean in with you," Faith adds, then takes another look at Hermione. "Hey, you okay?"

"Bad news from home," Hermione says quietly.

Ginevra's eyes land on the letters sitting next to Hermione's teacup. "Can I?"

Hermione hands her the one from Harry. Ginevra scans it, and her indrawn breath is enough to let Hermione know when she's read the news. "Oh, Merlin. Oh, no." She sets the letter back where it was lying. "She never forgave herself for being alive," Ginevra says. "I guess...I thought maybe she would recover, being around her parents. Or not recover—maybe you can't recover from something like that—but at least...get better." It's warm out, but she crosses her arms, hugging herself as though she's cold. "But think about...like with Fred and George. There are a million of us—not just two like Padma and Parvati—but if something were to happen to one of the twins, I don't think the other one would survive it."

There's a silence.

Then Ginevra says, "Let me see that letter again."

Hermione gives it to her.

"That useless, half-brained wanker," Ginevra says after another read. "Is he categorically incapable of giving me any news directly? You lived with Parvati. You were there when whatever happened with Bellatrix Lestrange took place—and I'll never believe, by the way, that she's 'missing.' Why in the name of Salazar's wrinkly bollocks did Harry think you should have to be the one to give me the news?"

Hermione shakes her head. It's Potter logic. Hermione accepted the fact a long time ago that it's comprehensible about three-quarters of the time, and completely barmy the rest.

Ginevra folds the letter and shoves it into her pocket. "Come on. We're going to do what the situation calls for."

Eyebrows rise on Faith, Dean, and Sam all three.

"I don't have it in me to do a Howler right now, Ginevra," Hermione says.

"Then just watch, and I'll do one. You can't tell me he doesn't deserve it. Of all the mad, self-centered things to do. I'll tell Mum to send him one, too. The brain-deficient git. Are you coming?"

It'll be a sight to see, that's for sure, if Hermione can just manage to stand up. "Let me go in and put away my teacup and the letter from Neville. Who isn't a brain-deficient git. I'll be back in a moment."

Faith follows her into the house, though, as Hermione washes the cup and puts it in the drainer. "You don't have to go along for this, you know," she says. "I'll make your excuses if you just want to go upstairs and crawl into bed."

"No. I'll go. A Howler from a Weasley really is a work of art whose creation should be witnessed. Just let me..." She trails off and puts her hands on the counter for balance.

Faith comes up quietly and puts her arm around Hermione. It's not unwelcome but still startling, and Hermione realizes that it's probably the first time Faith's ever touched her. Faith's not particularly big—about Hermione's height—but she radiates enough fierceness and strength to make up at least fifteen additional centimeters. Hermione lets herself lean for a moment, lets Faith support her weight, then stands up again and smooths her clothes.

"You sure you're OK?" Faith asks.

"I'll be fine," says Hermione. "Let's go."

"'I'll be fine.' The motto of the English." But there's as much affection in Faith's voice as exasperation, and she doesn't press the matter.

They walk up to the post office on Fourteenth Street, Ginevra stalking in the lead. Dean drops back, side by side with Hermione, and doesn't say anything, but he puts her arm through his and it's oddly reassuring. They make their way to the door to the wizarding annex (the sign is Disillusioned to read "staff only" to Muggles), and Ginevra goes up to the counter and announces, "Good morning. I would like to send a Howler, please."

"Domestic or international?"

"International. England."

"Recipient's address?"

"He could be in one of two places."

"That's not a problem. The bird will go to both."

Ginevra gives the clerk the Grimmauld Place address (now that the war's over, it's no longer Unplottable, just thoroughly warded) and the address of Harry's flat in Tutshill.

"Recipient's name?"

"Harry Potter."

Conversation around the room comes to a conspicuous halt.

"Will that be a problem?" Ginevra asks the clerk icily.

"Uh, no, miss, not at all. Sender's name?"

"Ginevra Weasley."

At this point, no one's even pretending not to be listening.

The clerk hands her a red envelope. "Go through that door, and Maria'll take you to a recording room. Your friends can go in too, if you want."

"I just shout into the envelope?" Ginevra asks.

"You don't have to shout. The Howler will amplify on its own. But, yup, that's all you do. Very easy."

They go through to the recording room, which is only slightly bigger than a wardrobe. "Just seal the envelope and bring it out when you're done," the woman tells Ginevra, and closes the door.

Ginevra opens the envelope, holds it in front of her, and takes a breath.

"Harry, you unbelievable sodding arsehole, I read the letter you sent Hermione, and I want to know what in the name of Godric's gold-plated bell end you were thinking asking her to pass on news like that. Leaving aside your apparent inability ever to give me news directly, did it occur to you that Hermione knew the Patils much better than I did? Parvati was her roommate, you poxy blighter. She lived with her for six years. Would you have wanted to pass on the news of Seamus's death? Dean's? If I had just written you and casually asked you to tell Ron about it? Of course you wouldn't, but I wouldn't have done that to you, because I am not a complete clueless bleeding knob jockey!

"On a separate topic, while I have your attention, I'd like to ask that you kindly cease what you seem to believe are discreet inquiries about my love life to everyone we bloody know! Stop harassing Ron, Hermione, Neville, and my bloomin' mother, for the love of buggering fuck. It's none of your business who I may or may not be seeing, and it's not up to anyone we know to serve as your own personal version of the Daily Prophet in order to give you information you lost the right to have when you started—let me remind you—shagging my brother and neglecting to tell me about it.

"I hope you get this letter right in the middle of a Quidditch match, and I hope it's so loud it makes you fall off your broom right on your arse, since that's where your head seems to be located these days."

Pause.

"Ron, give Mum a kiss for me. Cheerio."

She seals the envelope.

Faith applauds.

*****************

 

Hermione hasn't eaten since five o'clock this morning, so they stop at a bakery on the way back. Dean and Faith have coffee; Sam, Ginevra, and Hermione share a pot of black tea; Hermione inhales a scone and then gets another. After two scones and a substantial tea infusion, she feels, if not completely improved, at least improved enough to walk the rest of the way home.

There's another bird on the front stoop.

It's the approximate size of a small automobile.

"Did we just walk into a Hitchcock movie?" Dean says.

There's a letter tied to its leg.

There is also shit all over the stoop. Literally.

"Oh God!" Ginevra exclaims when they get closer. It appears to be in response not to the bird feces but to the several skeletons that are also adorning the steps.

"OK," Faith says, "at least our mailmen don't shit all over the steps and leave skeletons everywhere. At least not most of the time."

Hermione squints. "Rats?"

Dean walks forward, then leans down and picks something up off the ground. He shakes his head. "This one was Fifi. 353 East Tenth."

"Oh bugger me sideways," says Ginevra.

"Wait," says Hermione. "Was that the obnoxious Pomeranian that kept getting out?" Ginevra nods, and Hermione buries her face in her hands. It's not disgust; it's denial.

The bird honks.

"Do you want to get the letter," Ginevra asks, "or shall I?"

Hermione fielded the one about Parvati. She feels very little guilt when she says, "You can."

Ginevra must be too big for the bird to consider her edible, because it's surprisingly well-behaved as she detaches the letter from its leg. Now that the envelope is in the light, Hermione can see that it's quite official-looking: gold, with a platinum trim. Then she sees that it's actually two envelopes fastened to each other. One has her name on it; the other bears Ginevra's.

"Are they wedding invitations?" Hermione asks. Tonks and Remus, maybe? Though she can't imagine them ever using something so pompous—and they'd certainly have better selection in birds.

"No," Ginevra replies slowly. "They're from the Ministry." She hands Hermione the envelope with her full name on it, written in swirly black calligraphy. "Shall we?"

They do—

—and the sound of coronets fills the air.

Even Faith jumps. Hermione drops the envelope in startlement.

A piece of parchment unfolds itself and rises from the ground. "Will Miss Granger and Miss Weasley please consent to go inside and away from the presence of Muggles," it commands in stentorian tones.

Hermione looks over at Faith, Dean, and Sam, who all have comically similar expressions of shock on their faces. "You can all come, too," she says, "but we really should take this off the sidewalk."

They go inside and set the letters on the dining table. As one, the missives extend themselves and proclaim, "The honorable Rufus Barnabas Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic, respectfully greets Miss Hermione Granger and Miss Ginevra Weasley on this fourteenth day of September, in the year two thousand and seven." There's a pause, as if the pieces of parchment are somehow clearing their sheepskin throats. "By virtue of the authority vested by law in the Minister of Magic, the Order of Merlin, emblem of the highest wizarding ideals and virtues, is bestowed in the name of the Ministry of Magic to demonstrate the gratitude of all wizarding kind for acts of fortitude and courage in furthering the preservation of the race. Hermione Jean Granger, Harry James Potter, Ginevra Molly Weasley, and Ronald Bilius Weasley distinguished themselves by acts of gallantry and intrepidity in pursuing and assisting in the defeat of"—Hermione could swear that the parchment pauses—"Tom Marvolo Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort, and his followers. Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley, and Mr. Weasley embarked on a yearlong search for a series of Horcruxes made by Riddle. After having located and destroyed each Horcrux, Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley, and Mr. Weasley began an extensive search for Riddle himself. This search culminated at the Battle of Hogsmeade and the subsequent confrontation between Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, and Riddle, and resulted in Riddle's defeat and death. The courageous actions of these young people, despite their tender ages, helped bring about the downfall of Tom Riddle and ensure the freedom of wizards everywhere. The extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor of Miss Granger, Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley, and Mr. Weasley are in keeping with the highest traditions of the wizarding world and reflect great credit upon themselves, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Ministry of Magic, and wizardkind as a whole."

There's a silence.

"The medal of the Order of Merlin will be given on Saturday, the twenty-second of September. The Ministry of Magic anticipates your presence."

The parchments reverse themselves and lie flat on the table, and Hermione sees that there is a space on each to specify the number of guests they will be bringing.

"Accio pen," says Hermione, and begins writing at the top of one page.

Dear Ministry of Magic:

Ginevra Weasley and Hermione Granger, "assistants" in the defeat of Lord Voldemort, will be in New York on September 22. We anticipate having no plans to leave.


Ginevra takes the pen from her.


We invite the Ministry (except for the Aurors and Weasleys) to take the Order of Merlin and insert it somewhere dark and damp. If you're having trouble finding volunteers, we suggest Dolores Umbridge.
With utmost sincerity and all due respect,

Ginevra M. Weasley


She hands the pen back.


Hermione Granger

 

PS: Your bird shat all over our front stoop and ate our neighbor's Pomeranian. Expect a substantial bill for damages, and for a new dog.
With relish, Hermione folds the letter and puts it back in its envelope. The enormous bird, having evidently been instructed to wait for a reply, is still on the stoop—having refrained, she hopes, from consuming anyone else's pets. She ties the letter to its leg, and it hoists itself into flight, nearly braining her with one enormous wing.

She goes back inside. The second piece of parchment is still on the table. She levitates it, and then it bursts into blue flame, burning quick and hot until it wafts down to the floor, nothing more than dry white ash.

Everyone stands there contemplating it for a few moments.

"So," Faith says. "You've yelled at someone on another continent, your neighbor's dog got eaten by a giant bird, and you told your government to go fuck themselves. What's on the agenda for the rest of the day?"

It's on the tip of Hermione's tongue to excuse herself and go upstairs and hide in bed. But she'll just lie there and think about Padma, and Parvati, and Luna, and Sirius, and Dumbledore—all the lost—and ruminating obsessively over what she could have done differently.

"I thought I'd get a haircut," Hermione says. "It's getting a little...multidirectional."

"How short?" Faith asks.

Hermione shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe—" She holds her thumb and forefinger a couple of centimeters apart.

"Can I shave it?" Faith asks.

Hermione's taken aback. "I don't want to look like an egg."

"No, no, we'll leave like a quarter of an inch, half an inch. It'll look supercute. Plus, I know it's technically fall, but we're due for at least one more hot spell, and it'll be great in the heat. You'll totally look like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta, or Sinead O'Connor before she was crazy."

Hermione shakes her head. "I don't know either of those people."

"Got a computer?"

She boots up the old desktop, and Faith types the names into Google. The women are lovely, fine-featured, one with remarkably full, sensuous lips and the other with enormous eyes and a fairy's face. In both cases their shorn hair just serves to focus the viewer on a sort of beauty that long hair might only distract from.

There's no way that Hermione has those kinds of looks, but it'll be an interesting experiment, and anyway hair does grow back.

"Why not?" she says. "Do you have something to cut it with?"

"I have clippers, back at my house. If I tell you where they are, would you mind poofing there and getting them?"

When Hermione returns a few minutes later, Faith arranges her in a kitchen chair, then spreads a towel around her shoulders. The clippers vibrate gently against her scalp, tickling a little bit, and she sees regrown curls falling down onto the hardwood. It doesn't take that long; her hair hasn't grown out much.

Faith brushes her shoulders clean. "So? Get up and see what you think."

Hermione looks up warily, but Ginevra's smiling, and Dean's expression is unquestionably approving. "It's not bad?" she tries.

"No," says Ginevra, "it's good. Like those pictures Faith showed us."

Hermione stands and looks in the hallway mirror. The woman—and it's a woman, not a girl—gazes back at her directly, intently, unconcealed by the curtain or cap of hair behind which most women find it necessary to hide. Her brown eyes are level; the lines of her neck are clean and strong.

Dean comes up behind her, wraps his arms around her shoulders. "What do you think?"

"I think I should have shaved my head a long time ago." She reaches up to rub at an itch, where a clipping escaped Faith's ministrations. "And I think I should shower to wash all these off."

"You might need help with that," Dean says. "There are a lot of those. You wouldn't want to miss one."

"Obviously," Hermione agrees. "That would be a great tragedy."

Ginevra rolls her eyes. "And that is our cue to leave. I could use a good spar. Let's go to Abyssus and hit each other with sticks."

"Sure!" says Faith, at the same time Sam murmurs an excuse.

"Come on, Sam," Ginevra says. "It'll be fun. Other men pay good money to watch girls with big sticks. You can even participate."

He shakes his head. "I...I can't. I'll meet up with you guys later." And he's out of the flat so fast, he might as well have Apparated.

Dean and Faith share a lightning-fast glance; then Faith leaves with Ginevra.

"What was that about?" Hermione asks Dean when they're alone.

He shrugs and says, "Sam. Women. Issues," and Hermione's sharp enough to know when she's getting a brush-off for an reply. She doesn't push, though—today is the kind of day where you don't push for an answer, because you just might get one.

"What about that shower?" she says, and Dean's face opens into a grin.

Upstairs, Dean rubs shampoo onto her shorn head; the feeling of his fingers in the short hair, so close to her scalp, is new and immediate, as though the exposure has heightened her sensitivity. Once the bristles are rinsed off and they've spent some time washing each other, she pulls his head down with one hand, leans back against the tiled wall and curves the other hand around the perfect muscles of his arse, pushing him into her. He lifts her at the same time she wraps her legs around him.

It's rough, fast, it even hurts a little, but she doesn't care. "Harder," she tells him. She bites at his shoulder, drags her nails down his back. "Do it like you mean it."

He kisses her and it's almost like a fight. She slides her fingers through his hair, keeps the other on his arse, pushing him, urging him. She sinks her teeth into his upper arm, and the sound that comes from him is louder than a gasp, harsher than a moan.

"I want to see you come," she whispers, and he shudders.

But he doesn't come.

He pulls back, out of her, looks at her for a moment. "Let's do this in a bed," he suggests.

He dries both of them, and they walk naked to her bedroom. Dean settles her on the bed, kneels in front of her to smooth her bergamot lotion over her arms, legs, breasts, belly. He flips the top closed, runs his hands over her thighs, up her sides, plays his fingers over her nipples as she watches. She tries to pull him back up to her—she wants it rough like in the shower, like they're two strangers in some anonymous room—but he resists, takes her hands, presses them gently but firmly into the mattress.

He addresses his lips to her breasts, and it sends the usual tingling shocks down her body to pool between her legs. He leans her back until she's lying down; then he kisses her inner thighs and lifts her legs. She realizes what he's doing, and settles them over his shoulders as he directs. She cries out at the first touch of his tongue.

He brings her up only to pull back, does it again, again until she's gasping for breath. His tongue flicks nimbly at her clit, and she doesn't have a headboard to grasp or his shoulders to dig her fingers into, so she pulls the sheets into her hands, twisting them in her fists as her head rolls from side to side, as her body moves without any input from her brain, responding only to his mouth and his fingers and the precise, prolonged pleasure they're giving.

"Please, Dean," she manages, and apparently that's all that was required: He sucks her clit into his mouth and drives a third finger inside her, and she clenches around him in orgasm, moaning something that might be his name.

He climbs up and kisses her, and she doesn't even object, just licks the taste of herself from his tongue. He's cradling her head in both hands when he pushes into her, and she arches against him but it's languid now, her urgency gone. He rolls them onto their sides, and this is new—slower, more intimate. She settles a leg over his hip and they move together. Her head is on one of his arms; the other is around her, keeping her tucked against him. One of her hands is on his side; the other rests between them. He licks at her fingers, then takes two into his mouth, swirling his tongue around them as he sucks them farther in. She imagines him doing the same thing to a cock—on his knees, maybe, with a man's hands in his hair—and the image makes her shudder, push him deeper inside her.

He comes whispering filthy tenderness to her: how beautiful she looks like this, how good her quim (though that's not the word he uses) feels around his cock, how many times he wants to make her come, how good she tastes, how much he wants her. She's so close she's vibrating with it, and he slides his hand to where she's wet and slippery with both his slickness and her own, and her climax is immediate, pushing her over the edge until she's boneless and sated.

He gathers her to him, chest against her back, and she realizes that she's exhausted—drained despite her nap, from sex and grief and anger. "I'm sorry," she says, yawning, on the edge of sleep, her eyelids closing despite herself.

"It's OK. Go to sleep. You've had a hell of a day."

"You don't have to stay," she says, and she hears the slur of tiredness in her words—she's not sure she's even comprehensible.

"I'll stay for a while," he says, and then her eyes are closed, and she's asleep, tucked warm in her bed and in his arms.

***********************

 

She wakes to motion: He's moving behind her, kissing her temple, her ear, the back of her neck, the newly exposed crown of her head.

"Time's it?" she murmurs, turning over.

"About five. I have to go; I told Manuel I'd do six to two at the Den."

He rolls onto his back and pulls her with him, and she settles her head in the crook of his arm. "Is that the one in the Meatpacking District?"

"Yeah, on Gansevoort. About as far west as you can get without falling in the Hudson. You wanna come meet me when I get off? Walk me home, make sure no one steals my lunch money?"

She laughs, stretches her arm across his chest. "I somehow don't think you're in much danger of that."

"Hey, you can never be too careful." He extricates himself, but leans back down to kiss her and winds up sprawled across the bed, lazily exploring her with one hand as she sighs contentedly into his mouth.

Resolutely, he pulls himself back up. "I am going to work. You are staying in bed and reading something girly. What are you reading?"

Hermione nods towards the desk. "My copy of Pride and Prejudice should be right there."

He finds the battered book, looks at it, hands it to her. "Have you read it before?"

"Only about a million times. I reread it several times a year. And whenever I'm in a bad mood."

"You want water, food, tea, whatever, before I go?"

She shakes her head. "No. Just my book."

"You've got to eat something later, though. The last thing you had were those biscuits this morning."

"Scones. And thank you, Dad, I will be sure to have supper."

"I'm kinky, but not so kinky that you need to be calling me Daddy."

"How about Father?" Hermione makes her speech as plummy and as upper-class as possible. "Oh, Father, I've been so terribly naughty. Won't you punish me?"

Dean pauses in getting dressed. "Baby," he says, "there is nothing I'd like more."

She arranges a pillow beneath her head, opens her book. "Tragic that you have to go to work, then."

He buttons his jeans, slides his belt around his hips and his T-shirt over his head. Then he drops back down to the bed and kisses her again, hard. "I'll be using the time to come up with all kinds of interesting things to do to English girls."

"And I," Hermione says, "will use the time to come up with all kinds of interesting things to do to American boys. Especially ones who don't know how to behave themselves."

"I'll be looking forward to that." He kisses her again, stands back up. "Eat something. I mean it."

"Yes, Father," she says in that Windsor Castle accent.

"God help me, you keep talking like that, I'll never get out of here."

She laughs and picks up her book again. "Go to work. I'll see you at two."

****************************

 

She reads in bed for a while, falls back asleep, dreams of Padma on a dirty cellar floor and Parvati on a bed in a house she's never seen, and wakes up gasping, nearly sobbing. She gets up, puts on clothes, goes for a run. The evening air is crisp, and it clears her head.

When she gets back, Ginevra's home, and she, Sam, Faith, and Nikkya are making an enormous and delicious-smelling mess in the kitchen. She hates to admit that Dean was right, but she probably does need to eat.

"If I take a shower," she asks, "will there still be food left?"

"We are making Giant Flaming Chicken," Nikkya announces. "It is an arcane and esoteric specialty of the Thaxton family." She adds, "That is to say, it consists of whatever the hell the Thaxton family has in their refrigerator and cupboards at any given time. And there's always some left over. No matter how unlikely it may seem."

"It sounds magical," says Hermione.

"I actually don't think so. I think it's just the sheer epic grandeur of my mom's cooking. Anyway, go shower—there'll definitely be food, if we've even managed to sit down by then."

****************************

 

The Giant Flaming Chicken contains all sorts of unlikely items (if no actual flames): black beans, yellow corn, carrots, Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, pine nuts, and, of course, chicken. And probably some other things, but no one can exactly remember. It's like chili mixed with pasta sauce mixed with some kind of stew. It really is good.

They eat, and harass one another, and Sam teaches them how to play Snap (non-exploding). Around eleven, a yawning Nikkya, up since five o'clock because of a conference call to New Delhi, says she needs to Apparate home before she's so tired she Splinches. Sam, too, says that he should be getting back: He has to open tomorrow. He and Faith help clean up, then head back uptown to Faith's house.

"Anything you want to share about you and Sam?" Hermione asks Ginevra as they're putting away the last of the dishes.

"No," Ginevra replies, as though Hermione has asked nothing more than whether she'd like the first shower or the last cupcake. Well, the latter may not be entirely accurate: Ginevra would never turn down the last cupcake.

"I'm not going to give you any grief about the age difference," Hermione says. "Look at Dean and me. Remus and Tonks. Bill and Fleur, for that matter."

Ginevra shrugs lightly. Ginevra never shrugs lightly. Ginevra makes faces and raises her eyebrows and rolls her eyes and swears like the younger sister of six brothers, but she does not shrug lightly unless she's trying to shrug something off.

Hermione smiles, and watches the last of the dishes settle themselves into the cabinets.

****************************

 

At a quarter to two, Ginevra's sitting in front of the telly watching something awful—there's a judge, a real one, it would seem, who likes yelling at people. Hermione really, really hopes that Ginevra's not under the impression all Muggles are either demon hunters or criminals. Or both.

"I'm going to Apparate over to meet Dean," she tells Ginevra. "We'll probably just come back here."

"It's started raining," Ginevra tells her. "Take a brolly."

Since she won't be able to Apparate back with Dean, of course. Bollocks. Hermione does as directed.

The Den is on Gansevoort between Washington Street and the West Side Highway—in other words, as Dean says, about as far west as you can get without falling in the Hudson. The street is ugly and rather smelly—they do, in fact, still pack meat here—but at this hour on a Friday night, with one of the most popular gay bars in the city on this block, it's reasonably well populated. Hermione Apparates next to one of the loading docks—no one's much concerned with those at this hour—and finds the unmarked door that leads to the enormous, cavernous Den.

She's not sure what the bouncer wants to throw her out for first: the fact that she's underage, or the fact that she's a girl. But when she says, politely, "I'm here to see Dean Winchester," the employee's demeanor changes entirely.

"You must be Hermione. He said you'd be coming by. Follow me." And so, her flowered tank top and woman's body conspicuous among all the leather and oiled muscle, she does.

Dean has a quick conversation with the other bartender, then ducks out from behind the bar, kisses her cheek, and settles his hand in the small of her back. Hermione hears someone at the bar say, "Well, I guess that answers that question."

Another person responds, "You think maybe she's his sister? She's kind of dykey," at which point Hermione bursts out laughing.

"Did you just hear that conversation?" she asks Dean.

He shakes his head. "No. But your hearing is probably better than mine, what with the Slayer bit. Anything interesting?"

"Evidently there had been some discussion among the clientèle regarding your sexual orientation. You'll be relieved to know that you're now considered heterosexual. I, however, apparently look like a lesbian."

"With that haircut? Well, yeah. But you know my opinion on that subject."

"You and every other heterosexual man on Earth, it seems."

"Can we help that it's hot?"

Hermione snorts, and then they're outside. It's still raining.

"Damn, I guess we're not walking," Dean says. "We can probably get a cab over closer to Ninth Avenue."

They piece their way down the sidewalks and across the cobblestone streets. Hermione watches a number of expensively dressed Muggle women trying to navigate the cobblestones in their high heels.

"Not that I'll ever complain if you decide to wear a pair of those shoes and nothing else," Dean says, "but why in the name of God would you wear those if you know you're going to be walking around in the rain on uneven pavement?"

Hermione tries to come up with a good reason, can't, and finally says, "Stupidity?"

Fourteenth Street is completely stopped—Hermione has decided that New York City traffic is a magical entity unto itself, as that can be the only plausible explanation for the frequent middle-of-the-night jams—and they'd probably have better luck locating the Holy Grail than they're having with taxicabs. "Bugger it," Hermione says. "Let's just take the tube." They walk one block over to Eighth Avenue and wait for the L train.

The platform is nearly as crowded as the street outside. Dean leans against one of the metal pillars and Hermione leans against Dean. A few meters down from where they're standing, a man is playing the guitar and singing. It's nothing Hermione recognizes at first, but then the song melts into "All You Need Is Love," by the Beatles. She remembers being very small, in the car with both her parents, singing along to the radio with her mother's pretty alto and her father's completely off-key tenor. (Unfortunately, Hermione has inherited the latter rather than the former.) She taps along on Dean's arm to the tune, restraining herself from singing along. No one needs to suffer through that.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
It's easy.

Nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
It's easy.

The man launches into the famous chorus—and Hermione realizes it's not just one person singing. She looks up, looks around, and, remarkably, several hundred New Yorkers, none of them meeting eyes with one another, are singing along, too.

Hermione can't help herself. She joins in.

*****************

 

When they get back to the flat on Tompkins Square, Ginevra's moved on to Jerry Springer. From what Hermione can gather, the woman on the left has been having an affair with her sister's husband, the man seated in the center, and on nationwide American television they have confessed to the sister, the woman on the right. Currently the woman on the right is hitting the woman on the left with her handbag, and security is attempting—perhaps lackadaisically—to break up the fight.

"Ginevra," Hermione says when the program breaks for adverts, "you realize this is not representative of Muggles as a whole, right?"

"Or of Americans?" Dean adds.

"Well, of course," Ginevra says. "No more than Weasleys are representative of wizardkind or of the English. I don't think most English people, wizard or Muggle, have a family ghoul."

"You have a family ghoul?" Dean asks. "How? Why?"

"I don't know; he's always been there. He doesn't do very much, mainly just makes noise. He lives in the attic." Then the adverts end, and Ginevra is once again riveted to the telly.

Since Ginevra's home and awake, Hermione sends Dean into the shower by himself to wash off the smell of bar. Contentedly, she undresses, climbs into bed, and picks up Pride and Prejudice again. The Netherfield ball. She smiles. It's not quite her favorite chapter—that's when Lydia runs off—but she does love this part.

"That book looks like it's about to fall apart," Dean observes when he returns.

"It's my third copy of it; I'll probably have to buy another soon."

"Third?" he says, settling himself next to her in bed, slinging his arm across her thighs. "Seriously, how many times have you read it?"

"I don't think I could even count. I was eight the first time; I've reread it several times every year since."

"So you already know everything that happens," Dean objects.

"Of course. That isn't the point."

"Read some of it. Out loud."

She marks her place in the book and looks down at his bare shoulders and back, his contented expression. She runs her fingers through his short, soft hair. "I don't think you'd like it."

"Why not?"

"All it's about is rich English people in the 1800s falling in love, or not, and getting married, or not. That's all Jane Austen writes about, really."

"Well," Dean says reasonably, "I won't know if I like it if you won't read it."

"All right," says Hermione, and flips back to the beginning. She doesn't mind starting over again; as she said, that isn't the point. Her fingers continue their light caress across his scalp, the nape of his neck. "I've at least got the accent for it. But don't blame me if you think it's boring."

She begins with the famous first line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Dean snorts.

Hermione continues,

However little-known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

And on through the end of the first chapter. Dean's arm is getting heavier, and she can tell that he's falling asleep, but when she reads the description of Mrs. Bennet—"a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper"—he laughs a little and says, "I've met some people like that."

"Exactly," says Hermione. "That's why people read Jane Austen: because all she talks about are rich English people, but everyone still knows someone like those she describes."

"So keep going," he says, and she does.

Three chapters later, he's completely asleep. She stops reading, and he doesn't wake up to object. She puts the book on the bedside table, turns off the light, and wriggles down to lie on her side, molding her back against his chest, settling his arm so that it's around her.

He was four when their mother died. He would have some memories of her, however hazy and inexact they might be, but Hermione's never heard anything from him about the famous, dead Mary Winchester. Like Harry's parents, she thinks—remembered mainly for the manner of their deaths.

She wonders whether, somewhere, there's a memory of a female voice reading to him, if that's why he's sleeping so deeply and peacefully.

Or maybe Jane Austen is just a potent soporific if you're American and male. She has no idea. She settles his arm more securely around her and closes her eyes.

************************

 

It's 4:12 a.m. Hermione knows this because something wakes her, and she can see the clock.

She hears the noise again. It's a mobile phone. Dean groans and turns over. "What the fuck, they couldn't have waited until it was at least light outside?" He finds his mobile—but then, Hermione sees, merely stares at it blankly. It's not ringing. "I think it's yours," he says.

"Accio mobile," she mumbles, then is suddenly awake. Oh, God, did something happen to Ginevra? No, she's right here in the flat. What if it's Harry or Ron? No, no, it can't be—she'd be hearing by owl (or in person), not by telephone.

It's her parents' number. Her heart nearly stops.

"Mum?"

The voice that replies is her father's.

"Dad. Is everything alright?"

"Yes, Jeannie, everything's just fine." Jeannie. He hasn't called her that since she was a child.

"Are you sure?"

"Well. Your mother and I have some news. She wanted me to tell you."

Hermione drops back against her pillow as her heart begins to slow down. Her parents have been talking of retirement for some time. They couldn't have waited a few hours to tell her?

"Dad, do you know what time it is here?"

"Five hours ahead, right?"

"No. Five hours behind. It's four o'clock in the morning."

Her father apologizes. It may even be genuine. Then he tells her the news, and she climbs over Dean—praying that Ginevra has finally gone to bed—puts on her dressing gown, and goes downstairs.

*****************************

 

She's wrapped herself in a throw blanket and Scourgified the stoop, and is sitting on the steps, watching the light peer over the eastern sky. When the conversation is over, she clenches a fist around the mobile, wanting to throw it as hard as she can. There's a lamppost just a few feet away; she could hit it. But it would break the mobile, and she'd just have to buy a new one. So instead she sets it carefully next to her on the step and lifts up her feet to rest her forehead on her knees.

Her chest feels as though it's going to split apart if she lets it. If she were to cry, though, it would be out of anger, not sadness. It's not a surprise. Her mother will be happier. They'll both be happier.

It's strangely quiet out, even for this hour. There should be the noises of taxicabs, buses, dustbin lorries, drunk NYU students. Instead it's as though East Tenth Street is its own little valley, where sound doesn't travel.

She wants to drive a stake through her father's heart, both because it would kill him and because it seems appropriate somehow.

If some errant tears escape her, the dark, silent street won't say anything.

She's still sitting there when the front door opens. It's Dean, wearing his jeans and T-shirt, hair haphazard. He sits down beside her, close enough to touch but without actual contact. "Tell me your parents didn't pick today to drop some kind of bomb on you."

"Oh, yes. Yes, they did."

"Because you needed more bad news today? Or I'm assuming it was bad, anyway, since you're sitting here staring at the park instead of back upstairs in bed."

"I don't..." She pauses. "I don't know that it's bad news, precisely." He doesn't ask, but she tells him anyway. "My parents are getting divorced."

"Shit, Hermione, I'm sorry."

She shakes her head. "It wasn't much of a surprise. The surprise, really, was that my dad had the stones to tell me. Except that, well, he didn't—my mother made him tell me. So no surprise there after all."

"Did he say why?"

"He's been having an affair. With that poxy bint of a hygienist, just like I thought. For ten years. Ten years, and he couldn't be man enough to admit to it until now. I almost wonder if my mother caught them, and that's the only reason anything came of it. If he wouldn't have just kept it up until one woman or the other got tired of him. My father's going to leave their practice," she adds. "They'd been talking about retiring anyway, so I suspect they'll just sell it. And the house. They're selling our house. I don't know why I say 'our house.' I haven't stayed in it for more than a few days since my third year at Hogwarts. They want me to come home and sort through my things before the move."

"When do they want you to go?"

"As soon as possible, my father said."

"Do you need to fly? Or can you disappear-reappear that far?"

"I don't need to fly, and yes, it's possible to Apparate that far, though it requires a great deal of skill. I'd just use a Portkey, though—our friend Tonks made one for Ginevra and one for me." She explains what a Portkey is, how they're made, how they're used.

"So you can just go back later today."

She shakes her head. "I told him I wasn't going."

It's one of the few times she's seen Dean genuinely surprised. "Why?"

"My actual words may have been more along the lines of, 'Go stuff yourself and your slag of a hygienist, too'"—Dean's bark of laughter seems more from shock than amusement—"but that was the general idea. I told him to put my things in boxes and put them in storage, and I'd see about them the next time I was in England. Which is a lie. If there's a memorial for Parvati, I'll go back for that, but I certainly won't be seeing my parents while I'm there."

She lets out a breath and leans against Dean's shoulder. He smells like her bergamot bath wash—but, first and foremost, he smells like himself, clean and peppery. "It's cold out here," he says in a gentler voice than she'd thought him capable of.

He stands and holds out a hand, and she follows him back into the house. Upstairs, she divests herself of gown and blanket, and he divests himself of clothing, and he tucks her into him. There's a pause, and he asks, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Who are you, she thinks, and what did you do with Dean?

"No," she says. "I just want to stake my father through the heart. And then hex him. Tarantallegra, maybe. Or Bat-Bogey. That one's really repulsive. It increases one's nasal mucous to bat-size, gives it wings, and causes it to attack one's face."

He laughs, kisses the top of her head. "That's my girl."

They're quiet after that, and a while later, she feels him relax, hears his breathing become shallow and even as he sleeps. She stays awake, lies in his arms, watches the sun rise over the city.

*****************************

She and Dean are eating breakfast—it is revealed that he makes excellent pancakes—when Ginevra wanders downstairs the next morning. She wakes up immediately, her eyes brightening, when she sees food. "Pancakes! I demand some." She takes an enormous stack, covers it in obscene amounts of butter and syrup, and sits down to eat what Hermione's fairly sure will be the entire thing. She's been much more herself lately when it comes to food.

After three pancakes—half the stack—are gone, Ginevra looks up from her plate for the first time. "Did I hear someone's mobile late last night?"

"It was mine. Sorry, Gin, I didn't mean to wake you."

"It didn't; I was reading. Who in Merlin's name was it?"

"My dad." Ginevra raises her eyebrows—everyone knows that Hermione's father never writes anymore or, by extension, rings—and Hermione goes on, since she'll have to tell her sometime, "They're getting divorced."

Ginevra seems to be processing several concepts at once. What comes out of her mouth is, "He had to tell you that at four in the morning?"

"That was my thought," Dean says.

"He forgot about the time difference. Because he's a stupid clot."

Ginevra knows about Hermione's theories regarding the hygienist, and she, too, is more disgusted than surprised. "I'm sorry, Mione. All that bad news in one day."

"Well, at least I got it all over with at once, right?"

Dean knocks emphatically on the wooden table.

"So your birthday's Wednesday," Ginevra says a while later. "What do you want to do for it?"

Hermione shakes her head. "I don't know. Nothing too involved. This doesn't feel much like a week to celebrate."

"You have to do something!" Ginevra exclaims, horrified.

"You can all take me to Abyssus and get me lashed, how's that? I could use it after all this."

Ginevra narrows her eyes, but doesn't protest out loud. Still, birthdays are practically holy days in the Weasley family, and God only knows what Ginevra will come up with.

They go to the Saturday training session. It's a hand-to-hand day, which Hermione hates, and she's working with Spike, who almost always puts her on the ground. They're more or less evenly matched in terms of strength, but he's far older and has many, many more years' experience fighting Slayers than she has fighting vampires.

Dean's mobile goes off during the session, and when they break for bananas and Gatorade, he tells her it was Sam: They've got a job up in Westchester, at a college. "Haunting," he says. "Doesn't sound too bad. We should be back in a couple of days. Definitely before your birthday."

"I meant what I said about my birthday."

"About us getting you smashed? I'm counting on it."

She glares, but not particularly hard. "What kind of haunting?" she asks.

"A girl who killed herself in her dorm a few years back." Hermione tests herself for a reaction to that, finds none. A tragedy, yes, but nothing to do with her. "Sam and I need to haul, get there while there's still some daylight."

He talks to Faith; then Hermione walks him upstairs and outside. He kisses her without regard for her sweaty state—or perhaps, she thinks, remembering that hot day when the others had gone to Coney Island, because of it.

"We'll be back before your birthday," Dean says. "It'll be—what's that word—debaucherous." His tone is somewhere between threat and promise.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Hermione answers, but she smiles when she says it. Then he goes to pick up Sam, and she goes back to the training room to let Spike knock her down again.

****************

 

Ginevra has another game tonight, this one in Staten Island. Since Sam and Dean are gone with the Impala, there's no one to drive, and Ginevra excuses the local Muggles from this match: She and Hermione can Apparate (Nikkya gave Ginevra specific enough information that they should be able to do it, despite never having been there before), but navigating public transit to where they're going is just an exercise in masochism.

They meet up with Nikkya and her husband, Cristian, who drove there together. Hermione performs the incantation on Cristian, as she has since the last game, since learning that the Muggle Cristian had never, in the more-than-decade he and Nikkya have known each other, seen his wife play. "I still can't believe it," he says as Nikkya and Ginevra conference with the rest of their teammates. "Nik explained it to me, but it's just—you don't really understand until you see it."

"I read about Quidditch before I ever saw a game," Hermione agrees, "and even so, it was nothing like what I'd expected." Because there's no context for it: If you live a Muggle life in a Muggle world, how can you possibly envision groups of wizards flying around many meters in the air and playing a bizarre version of football on broomsticks?

They sit on the stands and watch as the game starts. Cristian brought what seem to be fritters: one variety made with corn and cheese, another made with pumpkin, and another that are almost like turnovers, but stuffed with ground beef. Hermione has one of each; they're all entirely different from anything she's ever had before, but delicious. Then she has a second of the beef kind, because Cristian insists that his mother, whose recipe it is, would be grossly offended to learn that someone had taken just one of her pastelillos.

At the half, Van Cortlandt Park is ahead, and Ginevra and Nikkya fly up to the stands to bandy insults about the other team. "They're the only team full of Republicans in the entire league," Nikkya says, rolling her eyes, then translates for Hermione, "Like the Conservative Party, basically."

They're on their way back down to the pitch when Hermione catches sight of a familiar face on the other side of the stands. It's Colm Daley, sitting by himself. He waves cordially enough—but then the game starts again, and Hermione is distracted. When she looks over again a few minutes later, he's gone.

The Van Cortlandt team wins, once more, handily. "I should hope," sniffs Nikkya after the round of hand-shaking. "I mean, Staten Island. Really."

They stop by Abyssus for a round afterwards—Dogfish Head for Nikkya and Cristian, Magic Hat for Sarah, Coke for Ginevra, and for Hermione, too, out of sympathy. "It's Hermione's birthday on Wednesday!" Ginevra announces. "Public drunkenness for everyone!"

Hermione sees Nikkya trying not to laugh. "Some of us have to work on Thursday, Ginevra," she says. "We can't all be English ladies of leisure."

"We have to work Thursday, too," Ginevra points out. "Just not until the evening."

"Well, we can't all be hip young Englishwomen working at a Lower East Side bar, how's that?"

"Because 'hip' is the first word everyone would use to describe me," Hermione says.

"With your new haircut? You're like the saner heterosexual love baby of Sinead O'Connor and Ani DiFranco. Anyway," Nikkya says, "we'll come by. Just probably without the public drunkenness part."

***************************

 

Monday night, Xander's at Abyssus, Sam and Dean are still in Westchester, and Veronica's off taking pictures on Long Island, so after class, Faith, house empty, shows up on Hermione and Ginevra's doorstep, demanding food. It's easy to stretch a pasta sauce for two to feed three—particularly if the cook has inherited her mother's talent for conjuring sauces out of her wand. Three become five when Sam and Dean arrive from Westchester and, having found Faith's place empty, show up in search of people. And, because they are incapable of going more than twenty minutes without eating, supper.

"How was the ghost?" Faith asks. Ginevra glances at the brothers, then hands Faith second and third bags of pasta for the pot.

"Most retarded haunting ever," Dean says, and drops, sprawling, into one of the kitchen chairs. Sam leans against the wall behind him. "This fucking Goth chick killed herself a few years back. Except I guess she didn't get the reception she wanted, because she kept haunting her old dorm room and—I swear to God I'm not making this up—playing the Cure at three hundred decibels."

"You lie!" exclaims Faith.

Sam shakes his head. "Nope. All true. And not even the good albums."

Dean interrupts, "The words 'good' and 'Cure albums' shouldn't be in the same sentence, unless you're saying 'It's a good thing that asshat burned all his Cure albums.'"

"Yeah, talk to me when you get rid of that Skid Row tape that's in the car."

"Skid Row was awesome!"

Sam shakes his head. "There's no hope for you, Dean." He looks at Hermione. "You're sleeping with someone who listens to Skid Row. You should know that."

"They're a music group?"

Faith laughs; Dean looks horrified; Sam gives an exaggerated sigh of resignation.

"So, the haunting," Ginevra reminds them.

"Oh," says Dean. "Yeah, anyway, from what they told us, she'd be quiet for a few weeks at a time, and then—usually during finals, the start of school, times when people are really stressed out anyway—she'd start wandering around reciting poetry, and the music would be so loud that everyone would have to move out. A bunch of people actually wound up with hearing damage because of it."

"She sounds like the American version of Moaning Myrtle," Ginevra says to Hermione.

"Myrtle didn't commit suicide, but this one does sound just as annoying," Hermione agrees. She explains to Sam, Dean, and Faith, "Moaning Myrtle was one of the Hogwarts ghosts. She haunted a toilet in the second-floor bathroom."

"You're shitting me," Dean says, and Faith and Ginevra simultaneously burst out laughing. "I didn't mean it like that!"

"Probably for the first time in your life," Sam says.

"Bite me. For real, though. She haunted a toilet?"

"And periodically got flushed out into the lake," says Hermione. "Which, in my opinion, was a strong argument against swimming in that lake. Anyway, more or less all she did was cry and moan and splash water about."

"No one exorcised her?"

Ginevra shrugs. "She was harmless, really. She even helped Harry during the Triwizard Tournament. Though one must overlook her little voyeurism habit."

"It's a pity no one ever knew to put rock salt around the prefects' bathroom," Hermione says. "She developed that crush on Draco Malfoy during my sixth year, too. I just want to know whether she expanded out to the boys' toilets, or whether Draco was lurking in the girls'."

Ginevra says something under her breath. Sam glances almost imperceptibly at her.

"Who's Draco Malfoy?" Faith asks.

"One of the Death Eaters," Hermione explains. "Came from a whole family of them. Bellatrix Lestrange was one of his aunts," she adds, to Dean. "At a certain point, nearly all the old wizarding families are related to one another. Draco was a vile little retromingent excuse for a human being—though I suppose I shouldn't say 'was,' since he's considered missing rather than dead."

"He's dead," says Ginevra softly, with uncharacteristic venom.

Startled, Hermione looks at her. "Did they find his body? I hadn't heard."

"He's dead," Ginevra repeats. "I just know." She turns back to the sauce.

"Did you have some kind of psychic link with Draco Malfoy that I'm not aware of?"

Ginevra turns again, and Hermione feels herself take two steps back at the unrestrained rage in her eyes. "I don't know, Hermione." That low, malevolent voice again. "Does rape create a psychic link?"

Ginevra's shorn hair. The too-big clothes. The bizarre eating habits. The careful meter-and-a-half distance between her and everyone else. The nightmares. It all makes a sudden and horrible sense.

The greatest witch of my age, Hermione thinks numbly, and I couldn't even put together something so obvious about my best friend.

"When?" Hermione whispers.

"After the Battle of Hogsmeade, when we were searching for bodies. You and Harry and Ron went off towards Dervish and Banges, and Neville and I went to search the houses by the train station. We split up after we crossed the tracks, and agreed to meet back in an hour. Malfoy found me about thirty minutes later. I was in the cellar of one of the houses. He'd got an invisibility cloak somehow; I assume that's how he escaped from the camp in Poland, and how he'd stayed out of sight—literally—after that." Ginevra wraps her arms around herself. Hermione takes a step towards her, but Ginevra nails her with such a ferocious glare that she freezes where she is. "Malfoy was looking for Ron, because Ron killed Lucius. But he wasn't disappointed to find me. If he couldn't kill Ron, the next best thing, of course, would be to rape and murder Ron's sister. Except that Neville...Neville walked in on it. I didn't meet him at the tracks, and he came looking for me. He put Malfoy in a Full Body Bind, got me out from the Imperius, then Crucioed him and killed him."

A year ago, this would have been shocking to hear. Now it just makes a horrible kind of sense. Cruciatus would be the worst thing Neville could think to do to someone—and it had been used upon him, by one of Malfoy's relatives, earlier in the day.

Ginevra continues in that alien voice, "We burned the body. We didn't know what else to do."

Like Harry, Neville, and me with Bellatrix, Hermione thinks. We didn't know what else to do, either.

"Why didn't you tell me?" It's possibly the most inappropriate question to ask right now, but it's all Hermione can think. I'm your best friend. I love you. Why didn't you tell me?

"I didn't want anyone to know," Ginevra says almost inaudibly. "It was bad enough that Neville of all people saw Draco Malfoy fucking me, but Ron would never forgive himself. He'd think it was his fault. And what could I say? I didn't even struggle. I'd my back to the door, and he came up behind me and hit me with Imperius. I'd had enough Defense classes to keep my mind, but not enough to be able to actively resist." She takes a breath that turns into a sob midway through, but her expression is still so fierce that none of them ventures toward her. "So I knew what was happening, but I couldn't do anything about it. I think that's worse, somehow. If I'm going to have to give Draco Malfoy a blow job, I'd prefer not to have rational thought while I'm doing it."

Hermione can feel tears streaming down her face, but she feels as though she's the one under Petrificus—as though she can't speak, can't move, can only stand here and stare. Faith is standing closest to Ginevra, but she doesn't move, either. Dean just looks sick. Sam is standing straight, his fingers curled around the top of Dean's chair as though it's the only thing keeping him from going over to Ginevra.

But he doesn't look surprised, Hermione realizes. Faith and Dean both look—and Hermione feels—shocked, and like they want to go kill something. A lot. Over and over again. Sam just looks like he wants to comfort Ginevra—more sadness than anger. Grief. Because he's already been through that initial wash of fury.

Because he already knew.

Ginevra takes a breath and turns off the burner underneath the pot of water. "Please leave," she says with deliberate calm. "All of you. Sam, you may stay if you really want to, but please go out into the hall."

Without a word, Sam walks out of the kitchen and sits down on the floor in the hall. He's facing the other direction, back against the wall that separates the kitchen from the entryway, and out of Ginevra's line of sight. But close enough to turn and look at her in one movement.

Hermione can't look at any of them. How could she have been so stupid? She doesn't Apparate, walks through the front door like a Muggle and out onto the sidewalk. She can feel the heat radiating from her body, and she stands still a moment, tries to release it, pictures the heat and anger and grief as a black stream leaving her eyes, ears, mouth. It doesn't completely work, but it's successful enough to let her move through the city without setting it on fire.

She starts walking west, and knows where she's going.

*****************

 

Left kneecap. Right kneecap. Intestines. Right shoulder. Not the left shoulder--she doesn't want to accidentally hit the heart, make this end too quickly. Genitals. Finally she aims for the center of the face--picturing Draco Malfoy's ubiquitous sneer—and sends a bullet right where the nose would be.

Then she pulls another target forward, and does it all again.

She varies the pattern, starting between paper-Draco's legs, then the gut (several times) and then the kneecaps. She goes through several rounds of this before the rest of the white-hot rage begins to dissipate, replaced by something steadier and colder. She sets down the gun and leans against the stall wall. Through the glass window in the door, she sees Faith.

Hermione removes the cartridge from the Sig, opens the door, lets Faith in, and takes off the ear protectors. Faith looks through the stack of bullet-riddled targets. "You're an excellent shot," she says after a moment, "so I'm guessing that you meant to gut-shoot all these."

"I can't do it in real life."

Faith looks at the targets again, then puts them down. "The death curse—what you used on Moldy Shorts—it's instantaneous, right?"

"That's right."

"So that psychotic asshat Ginevra was talking about—"

"Didn't suffer when he died, no. But Neville tortured him first. Cruciatus is the most one can make a person suffer without killing him or her—and even then. Well. It's debatable."

"I guess that's better than nothing."

"It wasn't enough."

"Shit, I'm not usually a fan of bringing anyone or anything back from the dead, but I think I'd make an exception here. Resurrect his sorry ass, kill him a few extra times. Slow, fast, whatever. Make him clean the toilets at Times Square, too. Or just lick the subway platforms. All twelve lines, uptown and downtown. And out to Queens."

"So you think it's alright to just...to torture someone?"

"No, not generally. And it's not like we have the option here anyway. But there was a time in my life when, someone did something like that to one of my loved ones and then died, I'd have looked up their remaining relatives and exacted my revenge on them."

Hermione shakes her head. "Draco's parents were both killed in the war, and he was an only child. I killed one of his aunts already, and the other is a decent person. So there aren't any relatives to look up." She closes her eyes. "God, I can't believe I'm even considering that as an option. What's happening to me?"

"You're furious, and for a damn good reason. And you went to a firing range and shot at paper targets and got rid of some of it without hurting anybody."

"I just spent an hour fantasizing about the slowest and most painful way to shoot someone to death. I was picturing him bleeding and dying." It's as if her skin has its own memory of the semiautomatic's cold planes. She feels the fingers of her left hand curl involuntarily around the ghost shape, wanting the real thing.

"Just about every chick I've ever met," Faith says, "seems to think there's something wrong with them if they get pissed off. Like they should just smile and stay calm no matter what kind of shit gets thrown in their face. Fuck that. Fuck that twice. If Sam had come here and shot things after what just happened, everyone would think that was normal. So you have tits and a cunt. Big fucking deal." Faith leans back against the wall, looks at Hermione with her steady brown eyes, ancient in her young face. "Look," she says, "I'm the last person who's going to open up the caring-and-sharing here, but I'm also Catholic, and we know a little something about guilt. So what I'm curious about is how much of this is about that dead douchebag in England, and how much of this is about you."

"It's not about me," Hermione says. "Nothing happened to me. I survived the war without even getting injured, and the worst I can say is that I'm now possibly the most powerful witch in the world. Poor me, poor me. And meanwhile my best friend was put under mind control and raped, and I couldn't stop thinking about myself for five seconds to figure it out. Or she didn't trust me enough to tell me. I'm not sure which is worse."

"Did you ever think," Faith says, "that maybe Ginevra thought you had enough on your plate?"

"I didn't have anything like that!"

"You were chasing an evil wizard lord for a year. Then you fought with him and wiped out your magic, and your friend was in a coma, and then your magic came back in this weird, fucked-up way. You had to fight Dr. Evil Pants, and she didn't. Did you ever think that Ginevra might feel guilty about that?"

"God," Hermione says. "Why? It's not as if that had been my life goal. It's just—I was reasonably sure that I'd be able to keep Harry from dying. I don't think Ginevra would have been able to do that, strong as she is."

"You're looking at this way too logically. Like I said, I know a little something about guilt. It doesn't always make much sense."

"And why could she tell Sam"—Hermione's voice nearly breaks—"but not me? She's known him two months. I've known her seven years."

"I think that's your answer."

Hermione looks at Faith blankly.

"Sam's not involved. He doesn't know her brother, or the dickwad's father, or the dickwad, or the guy who walked in on the whole thing. And, Jesus, it's not like Sam doesn't have some dark secrets of his own, that maybe it's easier for him to talk about with someone who wasn't there." At what's probably another blank look, Faith adds, "There's a lot that all of us didn't say, that first night. Me, you, Ginevra, Sam, Dean. Hell, Xander too. It's not my place to tell Sam's stories, but they're there."

"We tried to keep her innocent," Hermione says. "We made—the three of us, Harry, Ron, and me—we made an agreement that we'd do everything we could to keep her from having to kill anyone. We'd already done it; we hoped perhaps she wouldn't have to. But what was the point? We couldn't protect her."

"Does she know about that agreement?"

"Are you mad? Of course not. She'd probably have gone and killed a Death Eater just to show us up." Hermione sighs, rubs her eyes. "I just wish she could trust me. That's all."

"Oh God," Faith says, "I'm totally about to open up the caring-and-sharing. Tell anyone, and I'll post on the Internet that you write off your sheep as an entertainment expense." And then, with preternatural quickness, she steps across the stall and hugs Hermione. "She does trust you, you emotionally retarded English person. She trusts you with her life and then some. She needed someone who wasn't connected to the situation. You did, too, with Dean, I bet."

Hermione thinks of Bellatrix Lestrange: Dean knows about that, and Ginevra doesn't.

"You're right," Hermione says quietly. "I'm a hypocrite."

Faith shakes her, and then hugs her again. "No, you moron, you're human. Come on, give that gun back to Mario, and let's get out of here."

Hermione acquiesces, and she turns in the Sig and the remaining ammunition to Mario, who's engrossed in an issue of The Utne Reader at the front counter. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach has lessened a little.

"I hate to ask this of you," Hermione says when they're back outside, in the cool semidarkness of a New York evening, "but would it be alright if I stayed at your house tonight?"

In the dim light, the best approximation she can guess of Faith's expression is rueful. "You know you're always welcome at my place. But I really think you should go back home. Let Ginevra know you don't hate her."

"Of course I don't."

"We're talking about a girl who kept a rape secret out of shame. You know you don't, but Ginevra doesn't. Go home, watch some Springer, talk. Damn it, I hate being the voice of reason." Faith takes Hermione's arm. It's so Dean-like a gesture that Hermione almost laughs. "Hell of a week to have your birthday," Faith adds as they make their way down the sidewalk.

"Oh, sod that," Hermione says. "My birthday is canceled."

Chapter Text


...that knows it's neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning
—Adrienne Rich

 

Faith walks Hermione as far as the corner of East Tenth and Avenue A, then comes to a halt and drops her hands on Hermione's shoulders. "You know your mission, young one."

"Talking," Hermione says with distaste.

"You make it sound like I just told you to go eat slugs."

"I think I would prefer that, actually."

"I'm not gonna hug you again," Faith informs her. "Because then word would get out, and I would have to, like, go listen to Johnny Cash and get in a bar fight to restore my reputation. And I promised Xander I wouldn't get in any more bar fights."

"I would hate for you to have to break that promise."

"Me, too." Pause. "Oh, fuck it." She hugs Hermione. "Go. Talk. Share. Care. Oh my God, I'm turning into a purple dinosaur!" She turns around and stomps up Avenue A, singing loudly and without any grasp of key whatsoever, "I fell into a burning ring of fire! I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher!"

When people stare, Faith just sings louder.

Hermione walks a few meters down the block, towards the flat. She could Apparate in; it would be much quicker.

She slows her pace a little.

But, however slow her steps, it isn't far, and inevitably they take her to the front door. She spends several minutes staring at it. Perhaps it will give her some insight.

It doesn't. It's just a door.

She squares her shoulders, Alohomoras the lock, and walks into the foyer.

Sam and Ginevra are sprawled on the kitchen floor, a chessboard between them, the dismantled remains of three containers of gelato sitting nearby. Ginevra's been buying it from a particular store on the Upper West Side—Hermione's not sure why, since it's not especially convenient to anywhere they go, but she isn't complaining. Still, she hadn't realized there was quite this much in the freezer. "Was" being the key verb tense: The containers are all completely empty.

Sam and Ginevra both look up when Hermione comes in, and the expression on Ginevra's face is—apprehension? Guilt? The apprehension she understands. God knows she understands that, hence her silent conversation with the front door. She's not sure about the guilt. At this point, it could be any number of things.

Sam's eyes flick from Hermione to Ginevra and back, but his face stays unreadable. She suspects that, like Dean, he's well schooled in giving nothing away. "Hey, Hermione," he says. "Ginevra, what do you say we finish this game tomorrow?"

She looks at the board and then at Hermione, and nods.

Sam gets to his feet, and Hermione re-realizes how tall he is, something that's often buried under layers of cotton and self-effacement. He extends his hand to help Ginevra up, too.

She doesn't need the help, Hermione knows.

She takes it anyway.

"Um, so I have a thing I need to do," Sam tells them. "A big thing."

"Rotter," Ginevra says, but it's with affection. "There isn't any thing."

"There is a thing. It's a thing that absolutely has to be done right this minute, and I just remembered it."

Ginevra crosses her arms. "We're going to finish that game tomorrow. I was winning."

"Of course we will. And you were not. I was just...encountering tactical difficulties."

"No, you were losing. I'll walk you out."

Ginevra and Sam disappear out onto the stoop, but Ginevra is back a few seconds later. She closes the front door behind her, and she and Hermione look at each other for a few extremely awkward moments. It's not a stare-down. It's just that no one knows what to say.

"I killed Bellatrix Lestrange," Hermione blurts out.

"So she's not missing after all."

"Officially, yes, and she always will be. But she's dead."

"I figured she had to be. If Bellatrix were still alive, we'd know. Not one for subtlety, that woman."

She was capable of some remarkably subtle magic—her wards were expertly crafted—but in discussing her personality, no one could call Bellatrix Lestrange subtle without severely perjuring him- or herself.

"It was during the Battle of Hogsmeade," Hermione says. "We burned the body. That's why no one ever found it."

"Who's we?"

"Harry, Neville, and me."

"So they knew after all. I asked Harry, but he wouldn't give me a straight answer."

"To be fair, I'm not sure how much of it he remembers. He knows that she's dead—we used a joint Incendio spell to dispose of the body. But he'd been under Crucio, and he was only about half conscious when it—when I did it."

"That bitch Crucioed him?"

"Him and Neville. They'd gone with Padma and Luna, after Greyback and Dolohov. They chased Greyback and Dolohov into the cellar of the Hog's Head, fought them and won, and then Bellatrix cornered them down there. Harry said—" Hermione breaks off. This is another part she's never said out loud before. "Harry told me later that she put all four of them under Petrificus—she was able to cast it like a net, it sounds—and just...and killed Padma and Luna straightaway."

"Killing Curse?" Ginevra asks calmly.

"And then used Cruciatus on Harry and Neville. I think she planned to toy with them for a while—gloat about her victory over her enemies' sons. After Tonks and I caught Rodolphus and Rabastan—Harry and I hadn't agreed on a meeting point or anything like that. We hadn't time before the battle started. But it didn't seem right that they weren't back yet. Then you, Ron, and Remus came back with Wormtail, and Tonks started questioning him."

"I wondered where you went. I assumed it was back into the battle."

Hermione shakes her head. "Not exactly. My priorities clearly weren't what the Ministry thinks they were. I didn't go back into the fighting. I went to find my friends."

"Our friends," Ginevra says. "Our friends. And you found them."

"Ironically, it was Bellatrix's wards that gave her away. They were masterpieces—I hate to give her that much credit, but it's true. I basically ran through town throwing Revelatio and Vivilluminati spells at every building I passed. To reveal any standing wards and any life within. Of course, the vast majority of all the wards had been destroyed, so when I found them on the Hog's Head—and when I could sense humans inside, even if I didn't know who they were—it was a clue that something was not right."

Hermione tells Ginevra the rest of the story: how long it took her to dismantle the wards, what she said to Bellatrix, how she killed her.

"A middle-class Mudblood half her age," Ginevra repeats. There's a small smile on her face. "I wish I'd seen that."

"It was a good moment," Hermione admits. "But it wasn't enough. It doesn't make up for the fact that Luna and Padma died. And Parvati now, too."

Ginevra's briefly silent. "Wait," she says. "You said that Bellatrix killed Luna and Padma right out. As soon as she found them. Yes?"

"Going from what Harry told me."

"Hermione, they were dead as soon as she walked in the room. It wouldn't have mattered if you'd torn through the wards. She'd have known you were coming—and Luna and Padma still would have been dead, and you and Neville and Harry too."

"But—"

"No. Think about the timing. Perhaps this is a horrible thing to say, but there's no way anyone could have saved Luna and Padma. They were probably dead when you and Tonks were still fighting Rabastan and Rodolphus. And can you tell me with any honesty that you'd have wished Tonks, even as skilled as she is, on her own against two people who escaped from Azkaban twice?"

And perhaps this, too, is a horrible thing to say, but if Hermione had to choose between keeping alive Luna—as much as she misses her—and the Patils, or keeping brilliant, irrepressible Tonks in the world to trip over things and blow up kitchens and guard wizardkind with her life and make Remus Lupin happy for the first time since Sirius died?

She supposes that, effectively, she made her decision.

She feels something shift inside her: from the ferocious heated rage of being trapped in a situation one can't control, to the steadier, open-eyed grief of having made a terrible choice. There was no good answer in that situation. I don't know what else I could have done, Hermione thinks, and the sentence bears the immediate weight of truth.

She looks back at Ginevra.

There's no way to say this gently.

"I'm sorry I didn't figure it out," Hermione says.

Ginevra shakes her head. "No. Don't be. I'm sorry— I wish I had known how to tell you."

"It's not exactly the kind of thing that lends itself to supper conversation."

"No, it really isn't. And—I mean, God, Hermione. Draco Malfoy."

"Did you really believe I'd think less of you?"

"I thought less of me."

"You shouldn't— No. It's not your fault he was a cowardly, sociopathic dungheap."

"What does 'retromingent' mean, anyway?"

Hermione tells her, and Ginevra starts laughing, almost reluctantly. "Even when you insult someone, Mione, you still have a better vocabulary than anyone else."

"You never told anyone before today?" Hermione asks her.

"Sam," Ginevra admits.

"But no one in your family, not Tonks or anyone like that?"

"No. As if I'm going to tell an Auror that a wanker like Draco got the better of me."

"Ginevra, you can't seriously think Tonks would—"

"Maybe not. But she's still an Auror. He wouldn't have been able to do that to her."

"If he came up behind her and used a spell to control her mind? She's an Auror; she's not superhuman. Frank and Alice Longbottom were Aurors. It's a qualification, not some kind of hexproof shield."

Ginevra takes out her wand and directs the gelato containers and silverware into the sink. Hermione watches them float. "How much gelato did you two eat, anyway?"

"All of the lemon and raspberry, and the black cherry was mostly full."

"How are you not vomiting?"

Ginevra shrugs. "I like gelato."

"Clearly." The scrub brushes go to work on the containers—they're useful for storing leftovers—and Hermione adds after another pause, "I'm sorry it happened, Ginevra."

Ginevra sighs, and the faucet turns on to rinse the soap from the tubs. "So am I," she says.

*****************

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they both have nightmares that night. This time, it's Ginevra who wakes up Hermione and crawls into the other side of the double bed. As always, just the presence of another person helps, and Hermione falls back asleep with the scent of Molly Weasley's homemade peppermint soap drifting into her dreams. Despite the bad start, she sleeps well the rest of the night.

They wake to a brent goose pecking on the window. It has obviously just touched down from its transatlantic flight, and is in want of sustenance. Ginevra grunts and turns over. Hermione pulls herself out of bed to go downstairs, find the bird something to eat, and take delivery of the two letters it's carrying.

They're both from Harry, in separate envelopes: one addressed to Hermione and the other to Ginevra. Hermione makes tea and decides to wait until Ginevra's awake to read them. She's reasonably sure what their contents are, and it's the kind of thing that will be far more amusing as a group effort.

The telephone rings just before ten. It's Nikkya: There's a Muggle golf tournament on the course at Van Cortlandt Park tonight. It's expected to run late, so Quidditch practice is canceled.

The sound from the ringer wakes up Ginevra, who wanders downstairs a few minutes later, rubbing her eyes. "Hoozat?"

"Nikkya. There's a Muggle tournament on the golf course tonight, so your practice is canceled."

"Oh. Izzere breakfass?"

Ginevra becomes much more comprehensible once some waffles are in her stomach. "Hmm. Well, maybe I'll go to training tonight instead. I'll feel like a slug if I don't do something. I'll ring Faith after breakfast."

"We got letters from Harry," Hermione tells her.

"Really? Where? Did he admit to being a tremendous git?"

"There are two of them, so that's what I'm going to guess. But I haven't opened mine yet."

"So open it! Where's mine?"

Hermione opens one letter and Ginevra the other. They contain, as Hermione suspected, abject apologies—and genuine ones, too, it seems. Harry has a good heart. He just doesn't think sometimes.

There's also information about Parvati's memorial service. It's next Saturday—the same day as the Order of Merlin ceremony. The ceremony, Harry says, is at ten a.m.; Parvati's memorial is at three in the afternoon. Ginevra looks up from her letter. "So we could, if we wanted, go to both."

"I'm certainly not going to the Ministry ceremony."

Ginevra shakes her head. "Me either." She puts down the letter. "I'd like to go to Parvati's, though."

"So would I."

"And you could stop by your parents' and get some winter clothes."

"I'm not going to my parents'. I'm not even going to tell them I'm in England. Would your mum mind terribly if I stayed with you for a day or so?"

"Are you out of your mind? She'd be delighted. But are you sure? It's going to get cold here—the winters are like the winters in Scotland."

"I'll buy a coat and some long trousers secondhand. I don't like most of the clothes that are at my parents' anyway. They're several years old—the ones that survived a year living outdoors and chasing Death Eaters, that is."

"I can see what my brothers have," Ginevra says. "But it'll all be big on you."

"Really, Ginevra, it's alright. Anyway, I'll write Harry and tell him we're coming. And you should probably let him know you're speaking to him again."

"I wasn't ever not speaking to him," Ginevra protests. "I just thought he should know he was acting like a tosser."

Hermione understands that there is in fact a distinction here, but perhaps you have to grow up with six siblings to understand it.

Hermione doesn't usually go to Tuesday training, either—with Ginevra off playing Quidditch, it's become her night to herself. Sometimes she'll take a shift for Xander, if he needs her, but she prefers to spend it reading, watching the occasional bit of telly if something good is on (Hermione does not share Ginevra's love for daytime talk shows and reality TV), going for walks.

They ring Faith to let her know they're coming. "Awesome! Actually it's a good thing you let me know—we're not meeting at Abyssus tonight."

"Oh, where are we meeting?"

"My place. We'll kit up, then walk to Grand Central, to take the Metro-North up to Woodlawn Cemetery. We're going patrolling."

"Really?!" This has been discussed at great length, but they've not gone out yet.

"There's a nest of new vamps. I think they'll be good for you guys to practice on—they're not very strong yet, but they're still vampires. You into that?"

"Yes," Hermione says, "we would be."

"Boo-yah. My place, ten thirty."

Hermione rings off just as a gull flaps down onto the windowsill. She opens the window, gives the bird some bread, and takes the letter, which is addressed in Tonks's handwriting. "From Tonks," she tells Ginevra.

My dearest expatriates,

You're legends!

When Cadfus (Scrimgeour's new assistant—I hate to speak ill of family, but he makes prewar Percy look positively unbuttoned)—took delivery of your letter, he sent it immediately to the Aurors, as though unable to believe that the luminaries Hermione Granger and Ginevra Weasley could be responsible for a such a feat of snark and pique. Clearly Cadfus has never met the two of you.

Kingsley and I were laughing so hard, we were in tears—and you should know that, in all the years I have been working with Kingsley, this was the first time I have been witness to that particular phenomenon. I Flooed Remus to tell him about it, and Kingsley, in the background, expressed a wish that everyone in the Ministry—Dolores Umbridge especially—might be able to read your treatise. Remus asked me to Apparate home at dinnertime, at which point he took us out into Muggle London and introduced me to a marvelous device that can duplicate a piece of paper—or parchment, as the case may be—one hundred times in about a minute.

Needless to say, I made five hundred copies.

I gave two hundred to Fred and George; Remus took seventy-five; I owled seventy-five each to Harry and Neville, gave seventy-five to Kingsley, and distributed the remaining seventy-five myself. I had some help from Arthur and Ron, but don't go repeating that. They're plastered all over the Ministry, and, from what Harry and Neville tell me, over most of the rest of wizarding Britain as well. Dolores apparently has not yet figured out why all her colleagues are snickering more than usual when they see her. I like to think that Minerva McGonagall is looking down from whatever domain she's currently keeping in line, and laughing despite herself.

On a more serious note: Are either of you planning to attend Parvati Patil's memorial service? Remus and I are both going, and if you need a place to stay while you're here, you're both, of course, welcome with us. We will not be attending the Order of Merlin ceremony, in case there was any doubt—though, in the interest of not getting sacked, I couldn't RSVP quite so colorfully as you did.

Love and explosions,
Tonks


They write Tonks back to let her know they're coming to Parvati's service—but not the Ministry ceremony—and they also take her up on the offer of a place to stay. Her flat isn't enormous, but there's an extra bedroom—Tonks had a flatmate for a while, but Tonks effectively moved her out and moved Remus in, and they use the second bedroom as an office and guest room.

"Will your mum be offended that we're not staying at the Burrow?" Hermione asks as Ginevra seals the envelope.

"Probably," Ginevra admits. "I may have to do a night there as penance, especially since I'm not back in school the way she'd like me to be."

"I'll come with you," Hermione says. "I think I'm going to collect Crookshanks anyway."

"And take him back here?"

"We're going to be here until January—no reason to burden your family with him."

"I don't think one cat will overburden my mum after all seven of us."

"Likely not. But there's no sense in her taking care of him when I can do it myself."

"You may have to fight her for him. She's wanted a cat for ages."

Ginevra goes back upstairs to take a shower, and in her absence Hermione places another call: this one to Xander. She asks him whether there's a shift available at Abyssus tomorrow—the night of her birthday.

"I totally get this week's lack of celebratory birthdayness," Xander says. "But are you sure you want to work?"

"It's either that or sit in the flat and stare at the wall—or fend off Ginevra when she decides we need to go out and do God-knows-what."

"We've got two behind the bar and one in the back room...." Xander trails off.

"Xander, I will wash glasses and sweep the floors. You don't even have to pay me. I just want to be away from the flat."

Xander sighs. "Alright. If you really want to. If you change your mind—like I said, I've got people lined up. You don't have to come in. Or if you get there and want to leave, that's no problem."

"I very much doubt I'll do either of those things," Hermione says, "but I appreciate the consideration. Will I see you at Faith's this evening?"

— • —

At Faith's, they rendezvous with the woman herself as well as two of the girls who have been training with them: Ayesha and Caroline, university students who can do this midweek late-night since they don't have class tomorrow. Hermione spells two crossbows, a double-headed axe, a scythe, and innumerable stakes into two rucksacks. Faith sighs happily. "I love being friends with witches."

Carrying their miniature arsenal, they walk the half mile up to Grand Central and board a Harlem Line train to the Woodlawn station. Hermione stops them when they get to the cemetery gates. "I have an idea. There's a spell I know that might be helpful here." She explains Disillusionment and its various uses.

"Will vamps be able to see through that?" Faith asks.

"So far every spell I've attempted on Spike has worked. I don't think a Killing Curse would work on vampires—they're dead already—but there's no reason to think they'd be able to see through a Disillusionment charm. At the very least, we'll be no worse off than before."

"Hell," says Faith, "let's try it. Any advantage is a good one."

"I'll warn you that it will feel strange," Hermione tells them. "It won't hurt, but if you think it's going to slow you down, tell me and I'll remove the charm."

She pronounces the words and sees Faith and the other two Muggle Slayers shudder. "God," Faith says, "that's fucking weird. Like someone just poured a glass of ice water on me."

"What do you think?" Hermione asks. "Do you want to keep it, or shall I lift it?"

Ayesha and Caroline both vote to have it lifted—probably for the best, since as Muggles and untried Slayers they're fighting at a disadvantage anyway and don't need the distraction of the cold—but Faith keeps it. "Whatever I can use, man," she says. Ginevra and Hermione, having experienced the charm many times by now, keep it as well.

They stick as close as possible to bushes, trees, headstones, since, without an immediate background, they're perfectly visible. They distribute the weapons—the crossbows to Ayesha and Caroline, the axe to Faith, the scythe to Ginevra. "You," Faith says to Hermione, "just torch as many of the fuckers as you can. And both of you, if anything goes wrong, poof the hell out of here. These vamps are all pretty new, but you still never know what weird shit can go down." Faith gives everyone two stakes, and they make their way into the cemetery.

The first one wanders onto the path about a hundred feet later, so clueless that Hermione almost feels guilty about killing it. At least, until she sees the ugly ridges of its face and it tries to go after Ginevra, who beheads it with an effortless sweep of the scythe.

"Nice one!" says Faith, and high-fives her.

A few minutes later, two more try for stealth, but Faith dispatches one with an elbow to the groin and then a stake; Ayesha fells the other with the crossbow, then retrieves the quarrel and does a little hip-shaking victory dance.

That's when six of them appear out of the bushes.

Hermione still can't cast in a net the way Bellatrix Lestrange apparently could—she reminds herself to work on that. In the meantime, she's able to hit three of the vampires with Incendio while Ayesha, Caroline, and Ginevra stake the others. The novices are sweaty but jubilant, and this time Ginevra and Caroline join Ayesha in the victory dance.

"Just so you know," Faith says, "it's not usually this easy."

"Well, obviously you're not going to start us with the master vampires," Ginevra says. "Still—this is fun!"

"Let's head a little further in," Faith suggests. "Hermione, this time use a stake, if you can. Even if it's not your usual MO, you should know how to do it."

They get ambushed by three, and this time it's a real fight—these are less new than the others they've encountered so far. Everyone's too close together for Hermione to use Incendio, but she's about to fire off a Petrificus—until Faith shouts, "Stake, Granger, stake! I'm right behind you!"

The vampire—a male, about Dean's height and size—aims a kick at her, but she's able to turn so that it hits her hip and not her stomach, and she rolls with the force and rights herself. She has the stake in hand before she realizes—she's not sure whether she reached for it or Summoned it. "Try again, wanker," she tells the vampire. It calls her something not worth repeating; she'd really like to use a Stunning spell here if nothing else, but she remembers Faith's instructions and forbears. The vampire aims a punch at her face; she seizes it by the wrist, throws it to the ground, and drives the stake through its chest.

She can feel the stake go in—in that respect it must be no different from stabbing a human, and Hermione feels a second's sudden, profound nausea. But then the pressure disappears, and what a moment before was a solid, corporeal body is now a gathering of vaguely human-shaped dust—and then nothing.

"Merlin's stones," Hermione says.

But then there's another leaping over one of the graves, and this time Hermione does compromise between Faith's instructions and her own instincts: She aims a Stupefy, and as the vampire is lying stunned on the ground, she runs faster than she knew was possible to plant her foot on its chest and a stake through its heart. There's no sickness this time, just the knowledge that she's rid the world of something evil.

Caroline and Ginevra stake the other two, and the five of them look around at one another once the fight is over. When they've determined that everyone is present, accounted for, and uninjured, Ayesha, Caroline, and Ginevra start the victory dance, and this time Hermione joins in. Faith laughs. "Let's hit a couple more spots, and then we can be out of here." Ginevra decides she wants to try the crossbow, so she trades Ayesha for the scythe.

Ayesha stakes one straightaway as it's coming out of a grave—there's no battle at all—and Ginevra takes one down from about twenty-five meters with a crossbow quarrel. This part of the cemetery is too wooded to use Incendio safely, but Hermione uses Petrificus and then stakes at her leisure. "Easy way out, Granger!" Faith yells.

Hermione directs an obscene gesture at her; but for the next vampire, she uses no magic at all, just the force of the chase and her own body, her own musculature, to send the stake through the place where its heart once was.

"Alright," Faith says once the skirmish is over. "I think we've gotten most of the nest. Let's head back?"

They do, staking, scything, and burning a few latecomers on the way. At the gates, Hermione lifts the Disillusionment charm and spells the weaponry back into the rucksacks. She hands them to Faith and Ginevra, and stretches, feeling a new and heady energy coursing through her body. She could jump out of her skin, there's so much—it's not jitters, more like electricity, potential, fuel that wants to be burned. She crosses her arms, hugs herself, stretches again, tries to release some of it, but it's not going anywhere.

Faith, standing next to Hermione, glances at her. "You're running hot," she comments.

Hermione realizes she's throwing off heat, and she immediately steps away—God. Can she do anything without the risk of sending someone to a fiery grave?

"It's not bad," Faith says. "You're not going to set me on fire or anything. You're just idling high."

"Is this normal?" Hermione asks. "I don't mean the elevated temperature; I mean...the energy. There's so much of it; it's as though it's spilling out of me, and I don't know how to get rid of it."

"Everybody feels something after Slaying. It varies from person to person: I go out patrolling on my own, I come back and make Xander Harris a very happy man. Buff always wanted to eat, which on the one hand I get because you expend so many calories, but I seriously think the girl was repressing something there, too. Anyway, yeah, it's normal. Just make a booty call to that green-eyed, pointy-eared, bowlegged Kansas boy you've been seeing, and take care of it."

Ayesha and Caroline snicker. Hermione says, "Make a what?"

"A booty call. You can't tell me that wizards don't have them. Booty owls, or whatever."

"Now there's a disturbing image," Ginevra says.

"Seriously. You've never heard of this? All you do is just call up the object of your affections and be like"—her voice drops—"'Hey, baby, what are youuuuu doin'?' And they'll be like"—dropping back to that low voice, waggling her eyebrows—"'Nuttin', baby. What are youuuuu doin'?' And then you go to their place or they go to yours, and you have yourself some booty. Nothing to it. You got your phone?"

"I can't do that!"

"Why the hell not?"

"I can't treat Dean as though...as though he's some kind of sex object!"

"Please. Do you know who we're talking about? It's not like he's going to mind. And it's not like you haven't boinked him a hundred thousand times before. How is this different?"

"I've not just rung him up and demanded it!"

Faith rolls her eyes. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Did I bring my phone?" She searches her pockets, finds it, and flicks it open. She dials; there's a pause, and then Faith says, "Yo. You home? I'm giving you a booty call from a graveyard....No, not for myself, asshat, don't get all uncomfortable on me. It's for Hermione, so she can see how it's done....Yeah, we just finished up at Woodlawn. Totally no big, and the Slayerettes kicked serious fangy ass....I'm gonna take the other girls for ice cream—I mean, unless they need to be placing some booty calls of their own—and then probably go molest Harris....Alright, I'll send her to the Henhouse. You can thank me later with gifts of clothing, weapons, or jewelry." She clicks the phone shut. "See how easy that was?"

Hermione covers her face with her hands. "I think you just acted as my pimp."

"Hey, it's hard out here for a pimp. Anyway, you can Apparate on back to my place. The sex object in question is already there. Rest of you want to come along for ice cream, or do you have calls you need to be making?"

Ayesha looks speculative. "I'm pretty sure my girlfriend's home. I'll come down with y'all on the train, though—she's on the 4 in Brooklyn, so I can just take the subway from Grand Central."

Caroline shakes her head ruefully. "I caught my boyfriend with my roommate two weeks ago. Ice cream for me."

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry," Faith says, and the others express similar sympathies.

"I think I'm going to be having ice cream for a while, for a number of reasons," says Ginevra. "So I'll come with you and Caroline."

"Excellent. Granger, why are you still even here?"

"I hate you," Hermione informs her.

"Hate me? I was just instrumental in getting you laid! Now poof it on out of here before Dean decides to start without you."

"I still hate you. Caroline, I recommend the cappuccino Kahlua." And then she does, in fact, Apparate back to the front steps of Faith's house on East Thirtieth Street. She stares at the door for a few moments, then reminds herself that she's already had one staring contest this week with a door, and the door won. She spells the lock and goes inside.

The vestibule and kitchen are dark, but there's light farther inside the house. She hears "Granger?" from the living room, and there's background noise—telly—that's suddenly silenced. Dean. She wonders why everyone is calling her by her last name all of a sudden.

He gets up and comes towards the kitchen as she's heading to the living room. They meet in the middle, near the staircase, and look at each other in the half-light as though they're strangers. He's wearing jeans and a T-shirt that looks gray, but, then, anything looks gray in this light. He's barefoot; that seems to be his preference when he's inside, or when other people aren't about.

Her hands are trembling—not with nervousness or fear, but with this energy that seems to be running with the blood in her veins, that she can feel sparking everywhere. She's hot, alight with it. She runs her palms under his shirt, up his chest where he's warm, too, and pushes him back against the wall. He catches her head in his own hands and it's a hard kiss—not a fight as it was in the shower a few days ago, but fierce, thorough, as fiery as she is. She pushes the shirt upward, and he pulls it off. She's got one hand on the back of his head, the other around the nape of his neck, and she presses her hips into his. She can feel him aroused, rising to meet her.

He breaks the kiss, pushes her back a little to unbutton her jeans. She undoes his and wraps her fingers around his cock, smiling into the resulting gasp. He's got a finger on her clit, but the angle's wrong with her trousers still on, and she toes off shoes and socks in order to pull jeans and knickers down and off. She does the same to him and then readdresses herself to his cock, running her thumb across the head, letting him watch her lick her palm and then stroke up and down the shaft, trailing her fingers through the new slickness that he produces, sliding her hand easy and hot back and forth, over the foreskin, turning her wrist to rub the underside, just beneath the glans, and she hears a bitten-off "God!"

She guides him over, back, up the stairs to the first-floor landing. It's slightly awkward, clinched as they are, but they manage. They get to the landing and she pushes him down to sit, and then sinks onto his cock, knees on either side of his hips, open to him and to the pleasure and release she needs. He lets out a sigh that's almost a groan. She rises, falls, rises, falls, working herself on him as he moves beneath her. She's close already, just from this, and she feels that energy crackling, gathering within her body. She takes one of Dean's hands and moves it between her legs. He circles her clit as they kiss; he swallows the sounds she's making. It's the steady, gentle stroking; it's the hard thrusts as she's meeting them; and she comes with what's nearly a shout, shuddering through her orgasm as her interior muscles ripple around him, draw him farther inside.

He makes a satisfied murmur, and she knows he's thinking it's his turn now—he'll push her onto her back, maybe, and fuck her on the carpet. He's close, too; she can tell from his breathing, from the tension in his body; all he needs are a few more good thrusts deep inside her, and he'll climax well and hard.

In one unbroken motion, she lifts herself off him and stands up.

"Granger!" he protests.

She shakes her head, smiles, stretches. The satisfaction from the orgasm is running through her body—combined with the residual euphoria from slaying, it's like a drug, a stimulant that's hit her bloodstream and she'll never be the same.

Obviously this first time was just to take the edge off.

She smiles at him. "You weren't planning to come before I say you can, were you?"

He collapses onto his back. "If I'd known my words were going to be used against me..."

"Anything you say can and will be used against you. Isn't that what your bobbies say?" She extends a hand to help him up, and he takes it, shaking his head. "I need to wash Woodlawn Cemetery off my face," she tells him. "In the meantime you collect our clothing, as I somehow don't think Faith will want to see my knickers in her hallway."

"You kidding? She'd keep 'em as a badge of honor."

"Then let's not encourage her. I'll wash up down here." Remembering Faith's words, she adds, "Don't start without me."

He pushes her against the wall of the landing, kissing her, biting the tendon at the base of her neck. "I'll be ready," he says, and then turns to begin reassembling the clothing that's been discarded onto the hardwood.

She washes her hands and face in the downstairs bathroom; she does the best she can under her arms, but it's cursory. Oh well, it's not as if Dean seems to mind. She's reasonably sure no one else is home; nevertheless, she Apparates up to the third floor rather than risk appearing in the altogether to Veronica or (she would have to promptly die of embarrassment, for a variety of reasons) Sam.

She opens the door to Dean's room. Her clothes are folded neatly on the back of the desk chair; his are on the desk. Dean, meanwhile, is sprawled out on the bed, lazily stroking himself with one indolent hand.

"Oh my!" she exclaims. Once the shock dissipates, she can't help thinking that it really is delicious to watch: his long fingers curled around the flushed skin of his cock, the expression of contented arousal on his face as his eyelids close and then open again.

She pulls herself out of the near-hyponosis of his breathing, of the slow, deliberate rhythm. "You started without me!"

"You pull that stunt in the hall and then go powder your face? With all due respect, Hermione, what did you expect me to do?"

She closes the door and leans against the frame. "I told you precisely what not to do. You didn't listen."

He gasps a little, throat arching, as his fingers pass over the head. "So come on over here and help out."

"You expect me to assist you in something I directly asked you not to do?"

"Actually, you didn't ask. You told me." He's nearly breathless, but he still manages a smirk.

She crosses the room and seizes his wrist. "Stop that."

He opens his eyes. The green is darker than usual—warm, just the slightest bit mocking. Much like his voice. "Make up your mind, Hermione. You going to help out, or punish me, or just stand there and look aggravated?"

He is possibly the most provoking person Hermione has ever met.

"Turn over," she tells him.

He raises his eyebrows.

So provoking.

"I know you heard me," she adds.

Ostentatiously, he rolls onto his belly, settling his head on his forearms. His hips are moving on the duvet, almost imperceptibly, but enough that Hermione can see it. She slaps him on the bottom, lightly. "I said stop."

There's a pause.

"That's it?" Dean says. "Because I gotta tell you, I thought the English were the world champions here, but that's all you can give me?"

"You are so provoking," Hermione informs him.

He doesn't reply, but his body begins moving again, luxuriously, against the crisp grey lawn of the duvet cover.

She slaps him again, harder. This time it leaves a pink mark on the perfect smooth skin of his arse.

He rolls onto his side, facing her. "At least do it like you mean it." She pushes him back onto his belly and aims another slap at his bum. He's undeterred. "You were out killing vampires earlier, and this is the best you can do?"

She's still not sure of her own strength, so she doesn't hit him as hard as she can. But she spanks him hard enough that the pink mark turns definitively red. "Like that," he says. His voice has dropped; it's almost a whisper.

She does it again, and once more, and his eyes fall closed. He's nowhere close to sleep, though—she gives him another, and he gasps and bites his lip.

He's beautiful like this, stretched out before her, the exquisite lines of his shoulders and back delineated, his perfect round arse pinkened by her small hand. She remembers telling him that spanking, as a sexual practice, seemed stranger than the fact of two men sleeping together; she supposes that's still true, but, then, the idea two men sleeping together doesn't strike her as at all strange. So it's not much of a comparison.

She gives him another, then several more, and his back arches; his hands are fists in the linen. She stops, leans down to kiss him, gently, between his shoulder blades. She runs her hand over the curve of his bottom, letting it lie for a moment and absorb the heat from the spanking.

Maybe this is enough. (Maybe it was too much?) She's about to ask, when he reaches up, finds one of the pillows, and pulls it down to tuck under his hips. Why in the world—

Oh.

She supposes that means it's alright to keep going.

She strokes his hair, sets her hand on the back of his neck, leans down to say quietly, "That wasn't sufficient, was it?"

After a still, silent moment, he shakes his head.

"You need more?"

He nods.

"That's a question you need to answer in words, Dean." As much for her, she thinks, as for him—this is completely uncharted territory for Hermione, and to some degree for Dean, and she needs to hear him say it if they're going to travel deeper into this place neither of them has been.

"Yes," he says, and adds, "Please."

She kisses his shoulder. "You said please. That's good."

"Thank you." His voice is back to that near-whisper.

She answers by spanking him once, twice, three times, then steadily. After seven or eight, he lets out a choked gasp that's almost a moan, and she stops again. "That wasn't an orgasm, was it?"

"No." His voice is still very soft.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Are you completely sure?"

He breathes in, out. "You said...you said not until you say I can."

She rests her fingers lightly on his arm and remembers the picture in her book: the man and the woman, his body leaning back into hers, into her hand, with absolute trust. Hermione's not sure she'll ever be worthy of that kind of trust.

She makes up her mind to try. She kisses Dean's shoulder again, lays her cheek against it. "That's right," she tells him. "Very good."

And then she slaps his bottom again, and over and over until her hand is red, burning from impact. She hears his breath go in every time her palm lands, sees his eyes close again at one point, but he doesn't say anything. She'd think he was passive except for his hands—still tight in the cloth of the duvet cover—and his face, which conveys arousal, still, but also something like surprise.

She stops when her right hand goes from hot to hurting. She shifts position and rubs his bum gently with her left. He shudders but doesn't move. He must be about to explode at this point, Hermione thinks. She'll lie next to him, suck him if he's comfortable on his back, have him go onto his side and use her hands if not. She's about to lean down and hug him as best she can from this angle when he says, "May I get up?"

"Yes, of course." She moves over so that he can sit up, swing his legs off the bed, stand.

She isn't sure what she's expecting. That he'll pull her up with him. That he'll walk into the hallway and head for the loo. That he'll want some lotion for the skin that's been abused—or for some other, more nefarious purpose. She does not expect him to go over to the desk, pick up his jeans, remove the belt from its loops, and hand it to her.

Oh.

He arranges himself on the bed again. His expression is not one of expectation, but he's clearly waiting. She stares at the doubled-over strip of leather in her hands, wishing she had some context, any at all, for this.

She puts it on the duvet; then she does, in fact, lie down next to him, curled up on her side, looking at him. "Dean," she whispers, "I can't...I can't use that on you."

"Even if I ask you to?"

"I could hurt you. Injure you, I mean, not just cause a little pain."

"May I touch you?" he asks, and that, more than anything else that has happened since they've been up here, tells her that they're in another country.

"Yes," she says.

He turns to face her, trails his fingers through her short hair, then rests his hand for a moment on her cheek, cupping the side of her face. "You could," he finally says. "But you won't."

"How do you know? I don't know how strong I am, really. I could do it without meaning to."

"You won't," he says. "But if it makes you feel better, I'll know if it gets to the point where it could do some damage, and I'll tell you."

"Promise me."

"I promise. Can I kiss you?"

Another country.

Hermione kisses him, wrapping her arms around him as best she can with the bizarre angle. She strokes his hair some more, touches his face, kisses his eyelids. "You're doing so well," she tells him, then lets go.

"Thank you." His voice is back to a murmur, and she knows he's surrendered again.

It's awkward, is her first thought. This isn't a motion she'd accustomed to, and certainly not an implement she's ever used before. She almost apologizes for her incompetence after the first stroke, but then remembers that she doesn't apologize in this situation.

The next one is better.

The third draws an audible gasp out of Dean. He covers his eyes, burying his face in the crook of his arm, but she moves it away. "Look at me," she says gently. "Or we don't do this."

His sigh is another shudder. He does what she says.

Dean cries out after the fifth. It's not a cry of pain.

She stops after the tenth. "Have you had enough? Or do you need more?"

She sees that his hands are loose on the duvet. They're shaking.

"More," he says. She can barely hear him. "Please."

"You need to be sure, Dean."

With effort, he opens his eyes. "I am sure," he says.

It's noisier now, the sounds of leather on skin as well as those coming out of Dean. He gasps after each one, hands tightening and then uncurling again. It must hurt—on its own and as a follow-up to everything else—but she can also see him rocking down, farther than force would necessitate. At fifteen she stops to rub his buttocks, now thoroughly red and throwing off unbelievable heat, and he says her name.

"Yes?"

His eyes blink open in surprise, and she realizes he probably doesn't know he said it.

That's flattering, somehow.

At twenty he says, "I...Enough. Please. If you...if you think so."

She caresses his hair with her free hand. "Yes, I think so." She remembers another photo from that same series in her book, and she holds the belt in front of him. "Kiss it, love. Then we're finished."

Eyes open, he does. She rolls it up and puts it on the floor. Then she slides down next to him on the bed, gathers him against her. His entire body is trembling, not just his hands, but he's still impossibly hard.

"Nox," she murmurs, and the lights extinguish themselves. As carefully as she can, she draws her leg over his hip and sheathes him inside her, where she is wet and slick again. He rolls to his back, pulling her on top of him, but she hears a hiss of pain that's not linked to pleasure. "I imagine that might not be very comfortable," she ventures.

"Not particularly," he admits, in a tone that's closer to his normal one. He settles them onto their sides again; she realizes he's probably not in much of a mindset to be on top.

They rock back and forth together, quiet and warm. They kiss through most of it, and it doesn't take him long to climax—long, intense, with his face pressed into her shoulder and his hands urgent on her arse and the small of her back. "Use your mouth," she tells him, and even though he's just come inside her, he doesn't argue, just licks his way down her body to find her clit with his tongue, her quim with his fingers. He must be tasting himself on her, in her, but he doesn't seem to care. His tongue is nimble, precise, and she's moaning his name when she comes around the three fingers he's working in and out.

She kisses his forehead, his eyelids again. They fall asleep tangled together, his head on her breast, his arm across her belly, both of hers wrapped tightly around his back.

********************

 

Sunlight. Bright. Blue sky pretty. Wait. Outside? No, skylight. Mmm. Warm bed. But hungry. Food. Mmm, breakfast. Tea.

Hermione wakes up all the way and contemplates that it is, in fact, possible to be shagged stupid.

It's late morning. Dean's not in bed with her. Pancakes. She hopes he's making pancakes.

She stands up, stretches, scratches the back of her neck. She wrinkles her nose. She needs a shower, before anything else. No one else is staying on the third floor—it consists of a bedroom, a bathroom, and an office—but she still peeks out around the door before bolting across the hall and into the bath.

She scrubs sex and graveyard dirt from her skin, then—bless you, Faith—stands on the bathmat and rubs some sort of lotion over herself, neck to feet. It smells fresh and clean, a little like oranges and a little, oddly, like her bergamot. She wraps the towel around herself and goes back into the bedroom.

Her shirt from yesterday is disgusting; looking at it in the light of the morning, she doesn't know how Dean could stand to touch it. She wraps her knickers in it (pushing down the interior voice that's calling her a slag) and picks up her jeans. They're not at their best, but they're wearable. If it didn't involve walking through the house topless, she'd go borrow a shirt from Faith, but she doesn't even know whether Faith has returned from Xander's. There's a blue button-down of Dean's lying on the desk. It's a presumption of intimacy that she doesn't necessarily want to make, but it's either that or go without (and if she were to do so and encounter Sam or Xander, death would be the only feasible option). She puts on the shirt, buttons it up, rolls the sleeves so they're not covering her hands. The fabric is a heavy but often-washed cotton, faded and soft against her skin.

She refuses to smell it—that's ridiculous—and walks downstairs rather than risk Apparating on top of someone.

Faith's sitting at the dining table, hair in a messy bun with a pencil through it, clothes haphazard, reading the Wall Street Journal. She grins up at Hermione. "Good morning, sunshine."

"Good morning," Hermione answers warily.

"There's tea under the cozy if you want some. It's darjeeling, because we're not savages. You know where everything is."

Hermione does. She finds a cup, takes the carton of milk from the refrigerator.

"So?" Faith continues. "Inquiring minds are dying to know. How was your first slay-and-lay?"

Hermione feels herself flushing, but she gives a straightforward answer. "Good." She pauses, thinks, adds, "Different."

"Yeah," Faith says, "I kind of gathered that from Dean, who's currently out emoting on my front stoop."

Hermione's head jerks up of its own accord. "What did he say?"

"Nothing, though I have to confess I'm getting more and more curious. Were live chickens involved?"

Hermione can't help a laugh. "No. No live chickens or any other kind of animal."

"Except for the two of you, of course."

"Naturally."

Hermione looks sidewise at the front door.

Faith makes a show of rustling her paper, taking a drink of her tea. "I'm just going to go back to my stock market analysis now. Oh, shit, I forgot to say: Happy birthday!"

"Thank you. Did you in fact go to Xander's last night?"

"Yup, and Harris is an exceedingly happy man. He'll sleep until the afternoon, though, and I wake up at seven and that's it for the day. So I came back home a while ago." Faith shakes the broadsheets again. "OK, now I'm really going back to my paper. By the way," she adds from behind the headlines, "nice shirt."

Hermione flees outside.

True to Faith's word, Dean is sitting outside, back to the house, leaning against the railing. Despite herself, Hermione's first thought is, I can't believe he can sit comfortably. She does not, of course, say this out loud.

"Good morning?" she tries from the doorway.

"Hey, Hermione." He doesn't turn around.

Paralyzed, she stands at the threshold of the house, hugging her teacup in both hands. She knew this was a bad idea. He's angry, and how could he not be? She just brazenly rang him up and demanded that he sleep with her, and now he's angry at being treated like a sex object, as any reasonable person would be. Faith's advice is generally good, and yes, she knows Dean much better than Hermione does, but Faith is happy and in love and in the sort of relationship where you can, in fact, simply ring up the other person and inform him that it's time for him to satisfy your needs. She has this, and in her happiness, has assumed that everyone in the world has the same privileges. No. It doesn't work like that. Xander knows that Faith sees him as something other than a body—they've known each other so long that the understanding doesn't need to be spoken. This is not the case with Dean, and now Hermione's bollocksed the whole thing up, as she always does when it's something you can't read out of a book, and she's behaved abominably, the way men have behaved towards women for centuries and she really ought to know better. Her firmest belief is that everyone has the right to respect, and here she's treated like an object, a toy, this person whom she holds in high regard. How could she have even imagined that it would be acceptable to simply phone someone and tell him that he's going to have sex with her? That's disgusting. The actions of an oppressor.

From the doorway, she blurts out, "I'm sorry I objectified you. You have every right to be furious at my behavior, but I really am sorry."

This time he turns around. She's ready for anger on his face.

She's not ready for bewilderment.

"Did what to me?"

"Objectified you! I treated you like a sex object and you probably feel angry and resentful, like any normal person would, and I read Audre Lorde and The Beauty Myth and Sexual Politics and some of Andrea Dworkin's writings, even though she rather makes me want to roll my eyes, and I should know better. Also, I stole your shirt because mine is filthy and I didn't think Faith was home or else I would have borrowed one of hers, and you can have it back, just not right now because I'm on the front stoop and the entire block doesn't need to see that— Why are you laughing?"

When Dean has collected himself, he holds out an arm and tucks her into him. "It looks better on you anyway."

"Oh. Thank you."

He kisses the crown of her head. "Happy birthday, by the way. You sure you don't want to do anything for it?"

"I asked Xander to give me a shift at Abyssus. Well, harassed him into it."

"You're working on your birthday?"

"You've never worked on yours?"

"That's different."

"Not really. Anyway, I'm working six to two. And I am sorry I behaved as though you were a sex object."

"Baby, I think every man dreams of being a beautiful woman's sex object."

She looks up at him; he's not quite smiling, but his eyes are amused.

"You're not angry?"

"Why would I be?"

"I just told you!"

He shakes his head. "I'm glad that your universe and mine meet up with each other, but I'm still trying to figure out which planet you're actually from."

Hermione ignores that. "So if you're not angry," she says, "then why were you sitting out here...emoting?"

"Nothing to do with you, sweetheart."

She knows this isn't true, at least not completely, but she's not sure how much or what part, or how to ask. "I think you're lying," she says, but leaves it at that.

Dean pulls her into his lap, settles her head against the soft part of his shoulder. "Hermione Granger," he says, "what am I going to do with you?"

"Right this minute?"

She feels the huff of his laugh. "No, not right this minute. We might get arrested for that." He traces the line of her vertebrae through the cloth. "I just mean...we can't stay here forever. You have to go back to England. Sam and I have a demon to kill."

Hermione's been trying not to think about those eventualities, and mostly succeeding.

"Do we have to talk about this now?" she asks.

"No," Dean says. "In fact, I can't believe I even brought it up."

"Breakfast sounds much more pleasant," she suggests.

"I agree completely."

They cajole Faith into making omelets. She's hungry, too, so not much cajoling is required.

It's a far more agreeable way to pass the rest of the morning.

***************************

 

Hermione hates to admit it, but Xander was correct: Abyssus has a full staff this evening, and her presence isn't necessary. But it's still better than sitting in the flat.

Ginevra comes by around eight o'clock and asks plaintively if Hermione is certain about this whole canceled-birthday business.

"Ginevra, it just seems wrong. Celebrating the same week that someone we know killed herself?"

Ginevra sighs. "I suppose you're right. But...you can't simply not celebrate it. That would be wrong, too!"

"How about this: One month from today, we will declare a birthday do-over. On whatever day the nineteenth of October is, we will gather as many of us as we can and go out and do something embarrassing that you can all tease me about until we're old. Is that an acceptable compromise?"

Ginevra narrows her eyes. "Promise?"

"Promise."

"Alright. But I won't forget. October nineteenth is your new birthday, at least for this year. And we'll be celebrating it."

"I'd expect no less. Meanwhile, you should make other plans for the evening. Perhaps you might investigate whether Sam is free."

Hermione receives, as she predicted, a glare, but Ginevra doesn't make a direct protest.

Spike comes in shortly after dark. He seats himself, as always, at the end of the bar, and removes his laptop from its sleek leather case. Hermione goes over to see what he'd like to drink—and because she has time, questions him about the mysterious project.

"Nothing important," he tells her at first—his usual response.

"If it's so unimportant," Hermione retorts, "then why do I see you working on it nearly ever time I'm here?"

"A pint of the Southern Tier Unearthly, please."

"Not until you tell me what you're working on."

He stares at her. She stares back. She shrugs. "If you don't wish to tell me, you may of course draw the pint yourself. You do, after all, own the pub."

"You, Miss Granger, have a stubborn streak several miles wide."

"You're not the first to say so."

"It's a book," he finally says.

"About what?"

"A historical novel. Set in London in the 1850s."

"That sounds fascinating," Hermione says, and means it. "And just think, your research has already been done."

"Unfortunately, not entirely," he tells her. "One does forget a great deal over a century's time."

"Why are you keeping it a secret?" she wants to know. "I'd love to read some of it, when you get to that point."

He shrugs. "It's a rather poncy thing to do, writing a historical novel, isn't it?"

"I don't think so. Look at James Michener, Umberto Eco, James Clavell, Robert Graves. They have all written historical novels—very well-regarded ones—and are quite male as far as I know."

Spike sniffs. "Michener. A hack."

"And Umberto Eco and Robert Graves?"

"You do have a point," he acquiesces.

She fetches him the appropriately named beer and returns. "What made you decide to start writing?"

"I suppose because I was there. Who can tell a story like an eyewitness? For that matter, maybe you ought to consider writing a book. You've been witness to—and participant in—some incredible things."

"Who in the world would believe all that?"

He smiles. "So you'd publish it as fiction."

"I'd get excommunicated from the wizarding world, but at this point they can all go stuff themselves anyway, except for Ginevra and her family, and a few others. But, really, I'm not much creative. I can read a book and discuss it, but I could never write one."

"Have you tried?"

She has to admit that she has not.

"Then how do you know?"

"It's not like baking a cake or knitting a hat—one doesn't simply sit down one afternoon and write a book!"

"Not unless one is Jack Kerouac and under the influence of a great many controlled substances. You're absolutely correct. But one does simply sit down one afternoon and begin a book, and, God willing, one sits down on another afternoon and completes it."

She's about to argue again, but then a clump of businessmen appear, demanding scotch, and the conversation is over.

***********************

 

Dean materializes promptly at two, per implicit tradition. He worked four to midnight at the Den, and he fills her in on some gossip—it seems that Hermione's appearance settled a number of wagers, and a great deal of money changed hands over the fact that the full-lipped, muscular, green-eyed bartender is seeing a girl.

"We ought to send Xander in for you one night. No, better—Spike. Set all the nosy parkers on their ears."

Their walk to East Tenth Street is leisurely, and they stop for falafel on the way—at nearly any hour, it is possible to find falafel for sale in the East Village. Still, it's not much of a surprise to find the downstairs lights on when they get back to Hermione's—Ginevra's sleep hours still haven't regularized themselves. But when they walk into the flat, no one calls out, so Hermione figures someone must have left it on in kind anticipation of their late return. They tread quietly across the foyer and hallway to the staircase—the house is old and the stairs make creaky noises of complaint whenever one of the heavy Winchesters treads on them—

—and Dean stops so short that Hermione nearly runs into him.

She can see that he's about to take a breath and say something—something likely unconsidered and incendiary—and she grabs him around the wrist. He lets his breath out and they look at each other.

The television is on, but the screen is blank, as happens when a DVD player is left idle for long enough to shut itself down. As happens when its viewer(s) might fall asleep watching a movie. As has, apparently, happened to Sam and Ginevra, who are fast asleep together on the sofa.

Ginevra, despite her lack of height, is not fragile: curvaceous and strong, she's closer in build to the twins and her mother than she is to Ron or her father. But, nestled against the breadth of Sam, she's tiny, delicate by comparison. One of his enormous hands cradles her head; the other rests on her back, spanning her nearly from side to side. Hermione can see her shoulders moving slightly as she breathes—steadily, evenly, peacefully. Ginevra's got one small hand curled on Sam's chest, resting over his heart, and Hermione thinks of the only picture she's seen of the Winchester parents—the only picture that may exist—and of Mary Winchester's protective, possessive hand over that same place on her husband. There are two weapons lying equally harmoniously on the end table: Ginevra's wand, oak wood with a dragon heartstring core, and a throwing knife that must be Sam's, as Hermione has never seen it before. It's an exquisite piece of craftsmanship, Hermione can tell even from a few meters away: the hilt is a wrought iron, banded with silver inlays in a holly pattern. It's beautiful; she reminds herself to ask to see it sometime.

She doesn't drop her grip on Dean's wrist, and they pass as quietly as they can. Dean looks like he wants to start yelling, but, mercifully, he doesn't. It's not until they're safely upstairs—and Hermione's let go of him—that his litany of "what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck" becomes audible.

"You can't tell me you didn't see that coming," Hermione says.

"I saw her in that damn hoodie, and I should have known, but I kept telling myself that it was it was just a loan—maybe she was cold, whatever."

"Hoodie? Do you mean the sweatshirt with the fleur-de-lis on it?"

"Yeah. It's one of Sam's."

Well, that explains that. "I hadn't realized. I assumed it belonged to one of her brothers. One of them has a wife named Fleur; I thought perhaps Ginevra had stolen it from him."

They make their way into the shower to wash off sweat and spilled beer. Hermione waits until they're naked under the spray together before pointing out, "You realize that the age difference between the two of them is less than the difference between you and me."

Dean winces and replies, "Yeah, but those are some pretty important years. I just—I don't know, Granger," Dean continues as she washes his back. "Sam's luck with women is pretty spectacularly crappy. And I don't even mean Madison—I mean that there's something out there that pins the women in his life to the ceiling and sets them on fire."

Hermione sighs. She should be tremendously concerned about this, she thinks. She should be agreeing with Dean, maybe even owling a Weasley brother or six. At least waking up Ginevra and Sam from their cozy little tableau downstairs. But she can't make herself do any of those things.

"I'm not discounting that," she finally says. "But Ginevra's not helpless."

"Neither was Jess—"

Hermione shakes her head. "Ginevra is a slayer and a witch. To the best of anyone's knowledge, Jess was neither of those things. Ginevra has been in battle. She knows Sam's history—and she also knows something about what it's like to have an evil being stalking the person you love. If this is what she wants, that's her decision. Sam makes her happy. He makes her feel safe and he makes her feel happy. I wish—I wish she were a few years older or he a few years younger, but I'm hardly one to lecture in this situation, wouldn't you say?"

"I'm not going to get put in jail for fucking you," Dean mutters.

"Not unless this state has retained some of the more atavistic United States sodomy laws," Hermione agrees, laughing as a coughing fit overtakes Dean.

"But you haven't let me—I mean, we haven't—"

Hermione raises her eyebrows. "I should think there are certain things in which we've engaged quite frequently."

"But that's not *sodomy*!"

"Legally it may be. Though I don't know the laws in New York State. In any case, Ginevra is of legal age to consent—but I very much doubt that will be an issue for a good long time."

This time it's Dean who raises his eyebrows.

"After we did our patrolling, I went right to you. Ginevra went for ice cream. There's a reason for that."

They finish their shower, but before Hermione can Summon the towels, Dean puts a hand on Hermione's hip to keep her from moving, then drops to his knees, intent clear.

"What are you doing? You'll kill your knees on this tile!"

"Committing sodomy."

He does, and skillfully, and Hermione muffles her cries in the crook of her arm. Finally they dry off and go into her room, where she returns the favor—not on her knees (she doesn't particularly enjoy that position), but stretched out in front of a recumbent Dean. The sound he makes when she closes her mouth over the head of his cock is the same cry she heard—intense, shocky pleasure—as she whipped him with the belt.

She draws it out, teasing, until he's gasping under the touch of her hands and mouth. She thinks about making him ask, but decides that would be cruel. Instead she does it harder, faster, and he comes the same way she did, face buried in his arm in order to keep quiet. It about half works.

Afterward, lying on her belly with Dean's arm around her, Hermione is almost asleep when she hears him say, "I'm sorry you got one more piece of crappy news on your birthday."

"Ginevra and Sam, you mean? No, that's good. It's the only good news I've received all week."

Chapter Text

It's not light that awakens her; not noise. It's a smell. The smell, she realizes after a perplexed moment, of burnt pancakes.

She rubs her eyes, rolls over, realizes she's in bed alone. She isn't sure whether to be apprehensive. She hopes that Dean is the author of the blackened pancakes, and that Sam and Ginevra came to their senses at some point during the night and moved off the sofa.

She glances at the bedside table for a look at the clock. There's a folded piece of paper standing crease-up in front of it. Someone has written something on the side facing her—no, that's a drawing, not letters. It's a stick-figure person with tiny spikes for hair—she assumes that's meant to indicate her present coiffure—holding a book. The book is labeled, in Dean's angular handwriting, Giant book from 1740 that no one else is smart enough to read.

She opens it to see Downstairs. B'fast. As signature, it bears another illustration, this one an approximation of the Impala leaving flames in its path.

If it were possible to modify the Impala in such a way as to cause it to leave flaming tire-tracks, Hermione knows, Dean would have done it years ago.

She washes her face, brushes her teeth, tugs on a shirt and a pair of combats, which appear to be her only clean trousers. Life has been rather too dramatic lately to allow for mundanities such as laundry, but she really needs to do some.

From the top of the stairs, she hears voices. When she's halfway down, they resolve themselves into words—and into an argument. She freezes on the step.

"...not your business, Dean."

"For fuck's sake, this is past the point of arguing about whose business it is. This is dangerous. You have to know that."

"And in whose bed did you sleep last night?"

"That's different and you know it."

"Because she's just a cheap fuck like all the rest of them?"

Hermione doesn't breathe.

Silence downstairs.

Ginevra says, "Sam," three letters containing paragraphs of reproach.

After another silence, Sam says, "I'm sorry, Dean. I didn't mean it like that."

"I'm not sure how else you can mean it. Jesus, Sam, do you know what happens to the women you get involved with?"

"I think the more pertinent question"—Ginevra, voice icy—"is whether I know. And I do. I know about your mother, and I know about Jessica, and I know about Madison, and I know what happened—and what almost happened—when Sam was possessed and kidnapped your friend Jo."

"So is this some kind of thrill for you? Flirting with danger, or whatever?"

"Go fuck yourself," Ginevra replies evenly.

There's another silence as tense as the others.

In a moment, Ginevra says, her tone gentler, "I've been jilted once for my own good. The end result was that the person who jilted me took up with my brother."

"And you fought in the war anyway," Dean says. "Despite that person's better efforts."

"Because I chose to."

"And even with—with what happened to you, you want to jump in a second time?"

"I would do it again, Dean. Knowing what I know, I would do it again. And yes, that includes being raped, which I assume is what you're referring to. I have some idea of what I'm risking in this situation, and my answer is still yes."

This seems a good time, Hermione thinks, to stand up and walk downstairs. She doesn't attempt to mask the noise.

Three pairs of eyes are fixed on her when she comes into the kitchen. The smell is stronger; she can see a frying pan on an unlit burner on the cooker.

"She tracked us to Bulgaria," Hermione says without preamble. "From her family's home in Devon, that's two thousand, seven hundred kilometers—about seventeen hundred miles. That's the distance from here to the Rocky Mountains, only with seven or eight international borders and the English Channel in between, as well as the constant need to evade Death Eaters. We did everything we could to eliminate any traces of our path, but Ginevra found us anyway. If Sam is what she wants, I don't think there's anything any of us can do to withstand that force of will."

"Any of us except Sam," Dean says.

"I made my choice." Sam's voice is mild, but he doesn't look away from Dean.

"Yeah," Dean says, "I'm clear on that." He sighs. "Sorry I was an asshole to you, Ginevra."

"Dean," Ginevra says, and she's smiling a little, "I'm the youngest sister of six older brothers. I have some idea how they work, as a category. You lack tact, but so does my entire family. I can't fault you for caring about Sam and wanting what's best for him."

Dean leans against the counter and rubs his eyes. "Good morning, Hermione. How much of that did you happen to hear?"

"Everything past the bit where I'm a cheap fuck."

"I'm sorry I said that," Sam tells her, sounding as though he means it.

It's not a day to start another fight—and she can't blame Sam for speaking the truth. Dean's shagged half the women in the Western Hemisphere and some number of the men, too. Hermione's just one name on a long, long list. "We all say unconsidered things when we're angry," Hermione says to Sam. "I'll forgive you in an hour or so."

There's another silence, only marginally less tense than the ones that have come before it.

Ginevra takes out her wand, points it at the frying pan, and says, "Scourgify." Then she looks up at the three others. "I'm going to Pick Me Up for breakfast. Sam, you should join me. Hermione and Dean, perhaps you should make pancakes. There's still loads of batter. The bowl's in the refrigerator."

"And you say I've got no tact," Dean mutters, but without rancor.

"I merely made a suggestion for our common benefit," Ginevra replies. "Hermione, we should talk later about our plans. I told Tonks we'd ring, or owl if it was too late, and I should owl Mum as well."

"And Harry and Ron," Hermione adds. "I'm not working today, so I'll be home."

"Good, so we'll talk later on. Enjoy the pancakes."

Once they've left, Hermione turns to take the butter and pancake batter from where they must have been put when the argument started. She goes over to the cooker to light it again.

Dean's arms come around her from behind before she has the chance. He takes the bowl from her hands and sets it on the counter. "What Sam said, it wasn't true."

Hermione doesn't shake him off, but she lights the burner and drops a pat of butter into the pan. "You don't need to lie to me."

"I'm not. I wouldn't, not about that."

"Perhaps it's best if it's true anyway. As you say, I have to go back to England. You and Sam have to kill the demon. Let's just say that that's what it is, and then no one need be disappointed when it ends."

Dean drops his arms, and she hears him step back. "If that's how you want to play it."

The butter is starting to burn. She turns off the cooker. "I don't see any better way." She Scourgifies the pan, again, and returns it to the cupboard; she covers the bowl and returns it to its space in the refrigerator. "I'm not hungry anymore. I'm going to go for a run."

"I can't think of anything more appropriate," Dean says. He leaves a few minutes later.

Outside, the city is crisp with early autumn and bright with sun.

It doesn't help.

**************************

 

Ginevra returns just as Hermione is dressing after showering from her run. She's by herself; she's smiling.

"Good breakfast?" Hermione asks.

"Very. Dean left?"

"A little while ago."

Ginevra seems to make some calculations in her head, then says, "Did you make pancakes after all?"

"No. I realized I wasn't hungry."

Ginevra gives her a Look, but doesn't press. "I'm not working again until Wednesday," she says, "so I'm not pressed for time. Though I may decide that thirty-six hours with my family is plenty, and come back well before then."

"Tuesday," says Hermione.

"The Portkey will take us to my parents', but we can Floo to Remus and Tonks's from there. I'm so used to Apparating everywhere that it'll be a shock to be back where the Ministry can Trace me."

"Why don't you just take the test, while you're there? Go in with your dad or Ron?"

"Because then I would have to set foot in the Ministry of Magic, and I refuse to give those wasters the pleasure."

"Your father and brother number among those wasters," Hermione reminds her.

"Yes, and I love them despite their flaws. Anyroad, do you want to go tomorrow morning? That way we have an excuse to escape the Burrow, since we don't want to inconvenience Remus and Tonks by getting there too late."

"That sounds good. Let's say around nine?"

They both pack, but not much—it's only a few days. "I think I have some formal robes at home that I can wear to the service," Ginevra says, holding up a pair of jeans, sniffing them for cleanliness, and then throwing them into her rucksack.

"I hadn't even got around to thinking of that," Hermione says. "I don't think I have anything fit for wearing to a memorial."

"You and Tonks are about the same size—when she's in her natural state, I mean. Borrow from her?"

"We're already staying with her; I hate to impose. Maybe I could Disillusion myself and go to my parents' house while they're at work?" Hermione muses.

Ginevra rolls her eyes. "Don't be a wally. Have you seen the amount of clothing Tonks owns—and I mean for everyday, not for disguises. I doubt she'll miss one outfit or one set of robes."

"Well, alright. If you don't think she'll mind."

Ginevra doesn't bother verbalizing a response to that concern.

"So are you going to practice tonight? Or is the golf tournament still on?"

"It's still on, but tonight's the last night, so we'll be able to play next week. I'm meeting Nikkya and Sarah for supper, if you want to come along. Unless you're seeing Dean tonight?"

Hermione makes a face. "I doubt it. I'm not sure he's speaking to me." She tells Ginevra about their earlier conversation.

"That's it?" Ginevra says when Hermione has finished confessing.

"Yes, that's what happened."

"God, the two of you. Pillocks the both. He's working this evening, right?"

"I think so."

"So you wear something attractive—and revealing, if possible—meet him when he gets off work, try to be nice, and offer sexual favors."

"I think that's a bit too simplistic."

"He's a man, Hermione. They're not enormously complex. Even the complex ones."

"And you'd know because...?"

"I just would," Ginevra sniffs. "That's all."

"You're terrible at being mysterious, you know."

Ginevra ignores her. They finish packing; then Hermione rings Tonks's flat on the telephone that Remus keeps. His mother was either a Muggle or Muggle-born—Hermione can't remember which—and Remus has lived in and out of various worlds for so long that he never quite lost his Muggle ties in the way that Ted Tonks, for example, did. Thus Remus has a telephone and a television—via which Tonks has discovered a love of action films, no doubt to her partner's dismay—and knows about things like photocopiers.

It's late afternoon in London; Tonks may or may not be home. Her work hours are highly unpredictable now—after the war ended, she and Kingsley essentially raised their middle fingers at the Ministry and informed the higher-ups that if they wanted to keep either as Aurors, they'd give them their own offices and the freedom to work whatever hours they pleased. Nymphadora Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt are not people you want to lose from your side, and even the Ministry brass were smart enough to recognize that. But it does mean that no one ever knows when Tonks will be home.

She's not there, but Remus is. It's not as strange as it used to be to address him by his first name and accept as common fact that he's living unmarried with a woman Hermione counts as a friend (and a woman closer to Hermione's age than to his own), but she's still not a hundred percent accustomed to it. But Remus is his usual kind, dry-humored self, and it dispels the potential awkwardness. He says that the flat is, in fact, connected to the Floo Network, so it won't be a problem for Hermione and Ginevra to get there from the Burrow. "Adora's very much looking forward to seeing you both. She even offered to cook supper tomorrow night."

"I hope you disabused her of that idea—er, I mean, she shouldn't go to all that trouble."

Remus laughs in a way she's never heard before, and Hermione wonders if this is what he sounded like before the wars, when Sirius was still alive and free. (No one has stated directly that they were together, but Hermione can't imagine anyone is deluded enough to think that they weren't.) It's odd to think that, as Remus ages, he becomes closer to the person he was as a young man—cocreator of the Marauders' Map, friend of the merry prankster James Potter, lover of the handsome and careless Sirius Black. A person Hermione has never really seen.

"Never fear, I convinced her that I'd cook or we'd get takeaway. We've already rebuilt the kitchen once."

They agree that Hermione and Ginevra will Floo to London; then Hermione rings off. The rest of the day is slow: Hermione reads for a while, then goes with Ginevra to meet Nikkya and Sarah. They go for Indian food, which Hermione hasn't had since she's been in New York, and she eagerly devours the saag paneer. Ginevra looks suspicious at first (Indian food is one of the few things the English wizarding world lacks), but she is quickly converted.

Afterward they stop by Abyssus, where Faith and Nikkya embark on what becomes a heated darts competition. At one point there's an outburst in the back, and Hermione sees Ginevra look over with interest—she's still hoping for a fight one of these days—but it dissolves into drunken hugging and a torrent of "I love you, man!"

Ginevra shakes her head disgustedly.

Cristian and his brothers arrive not long later, having spent the rest of the evening engaging in male bonding. They are reluctant to reveal what this may entail; Nikkya just rolls her eyes. Then one of Cristian's brothers insinuates himself into the dart game, and when he makes a derogatory comment about female throwing ability, the gauntlet is immediately thrown down by every woman there. Hermione is about to stand up and take her turn, when Ginevra looks pointedly at the clock behind the bar and says, "Don't you have somewhere to be?"

It's one thirty.

Faith leaves Nikkya to throw for her and comes over to say, "Is this about how you and Dean are both as retarded as each other?"

Hermione doesn't dignify that with a reply.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Go deal with him. Between the sexual-awakening angst and the emo-pants, I'm not sure what I want to throw him out of the house for first. By the way, he's at Cock tonight, not the Den. Second Avenue, between First and Second."

As far as Hermione can tell, Dean's sexuality has been thoroughly awake for quite some time, but she's not about to get into an argument—especially not with Faith, of all people—on this point. "You're right," she tells Ginevra. "I do need to leave."

"I was about to demand details on the sexual-awakening angst, but then I realized I'd have to Scourgify my brain afterward, and that would be unpleasant," Ginevra replies as Hermione starts towards the door. "Try to be nice!" she calls as an afterthought.

Hermione responds with two upraised fingers.

Second Avenue between First and Second streets isn't far from here—less than a kilometer, about half a mile. It's a fine night, and that part of the East Village is too crowded for Hermione to be able to Apparate unobtrusively, so she just walks.

The bouncer here doesn't know her, and there is clearly no way on Earth Hermione's getting in. She doesn't want to risk Apparating inside, since she's never been and thus might Splinch at worst, or appear out of the ether in a cage with some go-go boy at best. Or maybe vice-versa. It's hard to decide which would be the more embarrassing.

Deciding to wait, she moves aside. "Oh, come on, Rico—let the baby dyke in!" a man says; he's part of a group standing outside smoking.

"The jailbait, you mean?"

Hermione thinks she understands the term correctly—and if so, even if she were underage, there's probably not a roomful of men anywhere in the world less likely to be lured into prison by her charms.

"Honey, I don't think she's looking to hook up in this bar," another man tells the bouncer.

"Really, it's alright," Hermione says. "I appreciate the support, but I'm just waiting for someone."

"That accent! Rico, you can resist that accent? You truly have no heart!"

Even the tattooed, musclebound Rico is, at this point, starting to look amused, and she suspects that another few minutes would win him over, but Dean comes through the door before it happens. He bumps fists with Rico—and then sees Hermione standing a few feet away.

"Hi," he says.

"Hi," Hermione replies.

She hates the stiltedness—they've never been awkward around each other, not even the morning after that first night.

"Ohhh, the baby dyke belongs to you!" one of the members of the Greek chorus of clubgoers says happily.

Rico raises his eyebrows at Dean. "The jailbait belongs to you?"

"I may be too young to drink in your faux-Puritan nation, but I am well of age to shag in both your country and mine, thank you," Hermione informs him.

There's a barely concealed snort from Dean, and laughter from the smokers. Rico holds up his hands in concession and turns to check an ID.

"Can we go somewhere without an audience?" Dean says after another overlengthy pause.

They start up Second Avenue, dodging a bachelor party and what seems to be the entire first-year class of New York University, circled around one of their number who is presently being sick on the pavement. There's plenty of street noise, but still no conversation.

"I don't know whether I came to apologize," Hermione blurts out, "because I don't know what the situation calls for. But I'd prefer not to leave for England tomorrow morning with you angry at me."

"For the second time in as many days, Hermione, I'm not angry."

"Then I'd prefer not to leave for England tomorrow morning with this unpleasantness still present. Is that better? It's just semantics anyway."

"What do you want me to say?"

"Well, you could start by telling me what in the bloody name of Helga's hairy hide is the matter with you!"

"Nothing."

"Oh, for God's sake." Hermione makes a sharp turn to the right and begins to march down East Sixth Street. "If you're going to be like this, my time is better spent sleeping. Good night."

"Your man treatin' you bad, sexy?" someone, clearly drunk, calls from a stoop. "Come here and I'll give you something better. My face, your ass—"

Too irritated to think, Hermione turns around. "If I wanted your opinion or your sexual favors," she informs the commentator, "I'd right well ask for them. Until then, best acquaint your microscopic penis with your dominant hand, unless you've already rubbed all the skin off. Or in smaller words: Go fuck yourself."

The man stands up. "You dumb cunt—"

Hermione's not frightened. She can take him with either strength or magic, and plans to perhaps use both—except that Dean is closer to the man than she is, and knocks him down with one efficient blow. "Learn some respect, asshole," he says, and bodily throws the man back onto his stoop. Hermione slings a Sponge-Knees Curse in his direction. It will wear off in a couple of days, but it will be dreadfully inconvenient until then.

The man mumbles and then passes out. Hermione and Dean look at each other.

"It wasn't necessary for you to commit assault and battery," Hermione says. "I was perfectly capable of handling him myself."

"No shit. But that's not the point. The point is that you don't talk to a woman like that, and specifically no one talks to you like that."

They look at each other again for another silent moment.

"I have to be awake and dressed and ready to withstand the Weasley family in not quite seven hours," Hermione goes on. "Did you want to say something or just stand on the pavement all night?"

Dean rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Jesus, you're irritating when you want to be."

"The feeling is assuredly mutual," she snaps, and starts to turn east towards home.

"You want an answer or not?"

"Do you actually intend to provide one?"

"God give me strength," Dean mutters. "Alright, look. I've been having sex pretty regularly since I was fourteen years old." Hermione feels her eyebrows go up, and he shrugs. "What can I say, I got started early. So that's been fourteen years, and by now, anything I haven't done, it's probably by choice, not lack of opportunity. Except for the really fucked-up things like sex with a giant squid, which I have to say no one's ever offered. But what—what happened the other night, that was as new to me as it was to you. And there was kind of a reason for that."

"Dean, are you saying that you didn't want to do that? Because I thought...I asked, and I thought you said yes in no uncertain terms. I tried to talk you out of...escalating it. If it wasn't something you wanted—"

"No. It was. That's the screwiest part. It was something I wanted, and I have no idea why, or what the Christ that says about me, but it was. And then about a day later, you want to go and act like nothing happened. So, whatever. If all you want is just a cock, well, there are about four million guys in this city with one of those. You should go find one of them."

Now it's Hermione who presses her hands into her eyes. She does not speak Dean. Faith may speak Dean, but there is no way Hermione is pulling her into translate for this particular issue, so Hermione's on her own here. Elementary Dean. She wishes it were possible to take a class.

After a few moments of what's no doubt highly inaccurate translation, Hermione says, "I don't want, as you so crudely term it, just a cock. Since you seem to need it said aloud—the respective gender stereotypes here notwithstanding—what Sam said wasn't true for me, either. But what you said—you yourself, Dean, so don't put this on me—was also true. I do have to go back to England. You and Sam do have a demon to kill. So let's say I get attached to you, and then what? I go back home; you go back on the road. Isn't it less painful if we don't make more of it than it can be?"

He doesn't respond immediately, then says, "You're here through the end of December, right?"

"Er, right. The people we're housesitting for return on the first of January."

"So that's a little over three months from now. I don't know exactly how long Sam and I are here—that's true—but Hendrickson's still got a bug up his ass about us, about me in particular, and it seems like when he gets bugs up his ass, they tend to breed. We're not lacking for work—hell, Boston and New York alone have more ghosts than anyone can contend with. I just figure—life's short, and it sucks a lot of the time. The future—well, it is whatever it's going to be. So enjoy what you can in the present, you know?"

Hermione takes a step towards him. "You make it sound so easy."

"It is. Girls make everything difficult."

They're close enough to touch now, and Dean's hand drops to her hip. It's still going to be painful, she thinks. Three months will pass quickly, and then her life—whatever it's to be—will reclaim her, and his will do the same for him.

She pushes the thought out of her head. Three months. She has three months, about ninety days, and she'll make of that as much as she can. "Come home with me," she says, and he does.

Chapter Text

It is not unusual
that the old bury the young
though it is an abomination
—Nikki Giovanni

 

The Burrow is unchanged, and Hermione isn't sure why that seems as strange as it does. She hasn't been gone all that long, barely long enough for the season to change; there's no reason to expect anything else to change, either, in that span of time.

Except that she can't help feeling that she, herself, has changed, and unalterably, and not just because of the war.

Molly Weasley sweeps up her daughter in one of her epic hugs, lengthy and heartfelt enough that Ginevra finally squawks, "Mum! Air!" Then Mrs. Weasley does much the same to Hermione, but Hermione is, at least, able to breathe through it.

Mr. Weasley isn't home from work yet, and various Weasley sons will be coming home later tonight or tomorrow, so at the moment it's just the three of them and Fleur. She and Ginevra greet each other stiffly; then Fleur looks at Hermione and says, "'Ermione, do you 'ave a moment?"

"Yes, of course," Hermione says, surprised.

"Come upztairs with me; I 'ave somezing you might wish to see."

Ginevra raises her eyebrows, and even Mrs. Weasley looks puzzled. "I'll just put some tea on while the two of you have a chat," she temporizes.

When was the last time Fleur Delacour wanted to have a chat with Hermione Granger?

She follows Fleur up the stairs to Bill's old room, where several trunks indicate that this is where he and Fleur are staying. Fleur closes the door, then flicks her wand towards three of the trunks, which obligingly pop open. "I 'ave 'eard zat you are in need of clothing," Fleur says.

"I just need a few things for winter; I was planning to do some shopping when I return to New York."

Fleur points again at each trunk, and the contents begin to stack themselves neatly on top of the bed. "Naturally," she says, "you will want some new things. But, if you will forgive ze intrusion, it is my underztanding zat most of your winter clothing is at your parents' house, and zat you have ztrong reasons for wishing not to return zere, yes?" Her face is inquiring but not prying, as though she merely wants to ascertain that she has the facts correct.

"That's right," Hermione answers slowly. "My father was having an affair."

"Insupportable," Fleur mutters. "C'est complètement inacceptable, le père d'une famille." She looks back at Hermione. "I am a little taller zan you, but we should be able to wear ze same shirts and jumpers, and my sister Gabrielle is your 'eight exactly. Ze trunk she sent arrived only a few meenutes before you did, so I 'ave not 'ad time to look through it entirely. But Gabrielle 'as excellent taste." Fleur glances at the bed. "Zey seem to be all unpacked. Go, see if zzere is anyzing you like."

"Fleur...I can't...I don't understand."

Fleur shrugs. "What is zere to underztand? Gabrielle and I 'ave more clothes zan we will ever wear. I would not want to return to my parents' house either, in your situation. Am I correct in thinking zat you are living mostly among Muggles, at ze moment?"

Hermione's a bit thrown off by the topic change. Notwithstanding the great gifts for diplomacy that everyone says the French possess, Fleur has inherited very little of her nation's alleged tact. "Um, yes, mostly. And the wizards we know seem to live in both worlds—they're a little less divided in the States. But, Fleur, I can't take your clothes—"

"You are not taking them; Gabrielle and I are giving them. Anyway, as I was saying, we patronize both weezard and Muggle shops, so we 'ave many articles of Muggle clothing." She pauses. "Actual Muggle clothing, not ze things zat Monsieur Weasley believes to be Muggle clothing. So you may wear zem in public wizout embarrassment." She takes something from the bed and holds it up. "Zees, for example. If I may be so bold, I also hear zat you are seeing a man?"

Hermione blushes—she'd forgot that there really are no secrets in this family—and says, "Yes, that's right."

Fleur shakes out the garment, which reveals itself as a black dress. "It comes to just above ze knee, three-quarter sleeves. Gabrielle bought it at ze Alexander McQueen shop in Paris, but never wore it for some reason. Oh, and I believe she intended zees shoes to match. Accio." Fleur holds up a pair of black leather slingback heels. "Yes, I zink so. Here, try zem on."

"Fleur, really, I can't—"

"Don't be silly. You will freeze if you 'ave no winter clothing. Go, put it on. Then I will give you ze coat to try with it. Here, I will turn my back, if you are modest." And, handing dress and shoes to Hermione, Fleur does.

Poleaxed, Hermione stares at the silky fabric draped over her arm. She lifts up the shoes: Christian somebody-or-other. Hermione has never, in the nearly four years she has known Fleur, understood the girl, and this is no change.

"Are you going to try on ze dress, or just ztand zere all day?" demands Fleur, back still turned.

"Right, right. I'm sorry." Hermione doffs her jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, and settles the dress around herself. The fabric is soft and whispery against her skin. "I'm, uh, decent."

Fleur turns around. "Oh, it is wonderful! See, does Gabrielle not have ze most flawless taste?" She makes numerous tiny adjustments to the way the dress falls. "Now, put ze shoes on, too."

Hermione has to sit down for this. They're close to three inches. They fit, but she knows without a doubt she won't be able to walk more than a few feet in them. "They're gorgeous, but I'll never be able to go anywhere in them."

"So who says zey haf to leave your bedroom?" Fleur retorts—and then, to Hermione's delight, looks scandalized. "I am sorry—I do not presume to know ze nature of your relationship with thees man."

Hermione remembers Dean's commentary on the women picking their way across the rain-slick cobblestones of the Meatpacking District. "Oh, I think he'll appreciate them."

Fleur's smile is wicked and entirely pleased.

**********************

 

Hermione—plus a number of pieces of clothing—and Ginevra Floo to Remus and Tonks's at around six, as arranged. They're staying over tonight and tomorrow, then back—all of them—Sunday, when Mrs. Weasley is insisting on a Great Gathering of Weasleys and Assorted Others. Hermione (an Assorted Other, though very nearly a Weasley by sheer dint of time spent with them all) isn't sure she'll be up to this after Saturday's memorial service, but Molly is terribly excited about the entire thing, and Hermione tells herself she need only make a brief appearance, enough to stay hello, and then she can go corral Harry and some Firewhiskey. They're not Weasleys (biologically, anyway); they can go hide and drink.

They emerge from Tonks's fireplace, and she greets them with typical lack of restraint, throwing her arms first around Ginevra and then around Hermione. Her hair is a lush purple, and she's wearing a T-shirt to match, with low-slung jeans, exposing a sliver of pale midriff, and some sort of oxford shoe with flames on—purple, of course. Remus, smiling behind her, is dressed considerably more conservatively, in khaki trousers and a white button-down shirt. Both appear on the new side, which says that Tonks has forced him into shopping—or has preemptively done it herself.

After everyone is greeted and they have been shown around the flat—small but bright, in a mixed wizarding and Muggle section of Kentish Town—Tonks installs the girls in the guest room. She cocks a violet eyebrow at Hermione's suitcase, far larger than what you'd expect for a two-day overnight. "Fleur...inundated me with clothing," Hermione explains. "I didn't really have time to sort through it all, so I just packed a random assortment and figured I'd end up with something to wear tomorrow."

"That was good of her," Tonks says. "Was she doing a closet-cleaning, or what was the occasion?"

"She was being...nice," Ginevra says with such utter disbelief that Hermione can't help but laugh.

"It does happen, you know," Tonks says. "Through your mum, I've seen a lot of Fleur since the war ended, and, well—she'll surprise you."

"I just wasn't expecting an entire high-fashion wardrobe," says Hermione.

"Coming from Fleur Delacour? I'd expect no less," Tonks replies. "Let's see it."

Hermione opens her valise and lets Tonks rifle through the new things. Naturally, her eyes and hands land first on the high-heeled shoes. "Oh, my. Christian Louboutin?"

"Someone you've heard of?"

"My mother may have been disinherited, but she's still a Black. As if I wouldn't know a pair of couture shoes when I see them." Tonks examines them. "Gorgeous, though I wouldn't be able to go more than a step without toppling onto the ground."

"Oh, I don't think Dean will be making her walk very far. Or at all," Ginevra says, not especially under her breath.

"Dean...Hermione, is there something I should know?"

Hermione glares at Ginevra. "So I take it you've told everyone all about Sam, then?"

Tonks crosses her arms. "I'm waiting."

"Hermione has a boyfriend," Ginevra says, sounding about eight years old.

"I do not!"

"Oh, so that's why he's at the flat every other night, is it?"

"I hate you so much."

Tonks appears to be praying for fortitude. "I know I told you have to have a summer fling. But apparently I...didn't mean it as much as I thought."

"Will you be explaining that display on the sofa two nights ago?" Hermione says to Ginevra.

"Stop, stop, I can't take it!" Tonks begs. "I don't want details, just the very basic facts of the situation! Ginevra, who is this boy and what were you doing on the sofa with him? No details!"

"His name is Sam," Ginevra mutters. "And he's not a boy. And we fell asleep watching some ridiculous Muggle talking picture."

"Not a boy?" That eyebrow arching again—for a moment, without any transformative magic, Tonks is the very image of Andromeda Black.

Ginevra seems to realize the hole she's stepped into. "He's not as old as Hermione's!"

"We're not talking about Hermione yet. Also, Hermione is older than you are. What precisely do you mean by 'not a boy'?"

"He'stwentyfour," Ginevra says, very quickly.

"I'm sorry," Tonks says, "I don't think I heard you correctly. I thought you just said that you are seeing a man who is twenty-four years old."

"Hermione's is twenty-eight!"

"I repeat: We're not discussing Hermione. Now, could you clarify this issue for me, please?"

"So you admit that you're seeing him?" Hermione says to Ginevra, womanfully resisting the urge to poke out her tongue.

"I hate you right now."

"You're the one who got us into this conversation. I was perfectly happy to show Tonks my new clothes without any innuendo regarding what I might do with them later."

"And anyway, Tonks, Remus is forty and you're twenty-five!" Ginevra says.

Tonks's lips quirk. "Thirty-eight, darling, thirty-eight. He'd be dreadfully offended that you're so quick to put him over the hill."

Hermione can see Ginevra restraining herself from rolling her eyes. "Fine. He's thirty-eight and you're twenty-five. It's still thirteen years."

"You're absolutely correct," Tonks says, "as Remus himself noted on many occasions before coming to his senses. I should like to point out, however, that I was an adult—and an Auror—when I took up with Remus."

"I'm seventeen," Ginevra says fiercely. "I could buy a house if I wanted; I could get married; I can live apart from my parents. I fought in a war. I'm an adult."

The expression on Tonks's face is strangely sad, and quickly masked. "Everything you say is true," she allows. "Much as I think the rest of us might wish it weren't. Do you need me to teach you the charms? Because they certainly didn't instruct us in them when I was at Hogwarts."

"I know them," says Ginevra at the same time Hermione rushes out with, "PadmaandIfiguredthemout."

"Padma Patil?" Tonks says.

Hermione nods. "After Megan Jones and Wayne Hopkins had...their problem. We didn't want that to happen to anyone in our houses."

Tonks laughs—but it, too, is a little sad. "Trust a Gryffindor and a Ravenclaw." She shakes off the sadness as deliberately as a dog shakes off water, and turns back to Ginevra. "You're sure you know them? Thoroughly?"

"Yes! And anyway it's...not an issue. Really not an issue."

Tonks looks skeptical but, unfortunately, Hermione knows that Ginevra's telling the truth.

Then Tonks fixes her Auror's stare back on Hermione. "Now you. Twenty-eight? That's older than I am!"

"Nine years is less than thirteen," Hermione can't help observing.

"Cheeky wench. Yes, it's true. And I obviously don't need to ask whether you know the charms."

Hermione doesn't reply, just looks directly at Tonks, holding back a smile.

"And now I need to Obliviate myself! Oh, God, I can never have children! This is bad enough, and the two of you aren't even related to me! Well, except for Ginevra, in some kind of bizarre distant-cousin Pureblood sort of way."

"Did I mention that they're both Muggles?" Hermione says.

Tonks laughs. "The two of you and Neville. And Kingsley, too, I hear, though he's famously tight-lipped. I don't even know whether it's a man or a woman. They're both coming to supper tonight—Neville and Kingsley, that is, not Kingsley and his secret paramour. And Fred and George too. Did I tell you?"

Hermione tells herself that she will not turn red. She will not, she will not.

Ginevra, to her credit, doesn't even glance in her direction.

"No," Hermione says, "you didn't. Anyone else?"

"Harry and Ron. Millicent, maybe, although she gets touchy in large groups of Gryffindors."

"Still?" Hermione says. "After everything? Does it matter anymore?"

"I keep telling her that, and she keeps agreeing with me, and she and Tracey will have Remus and me round for a lovely supper, and then Millicent will be conveniently engaged anytime there might be Gryffindors—other than Remus, anyway—about."

"Are she and Tracey...?" Ginevra makes a vague hand-flapping gesture and trails off.

"Yes. Finally! I thought I was going to have to knock their heads together."

"Well, it's hard to blame Millicent," Hermione says. "After everything with Pansy..." In her head, Hermione sees Pansy again, bloody and dead. For once, there were no magical means involved: A stone statue to the head, aimed correctly, is just as effective as a Killing Curse, even if one has been Expelliarmused. Hermione wishes she didn't know this firsthand.

She pushes the memory from her mind.

"Yes, but Pansy was batfuck insane, and Tracey isn't," Ginevra pronounces, and Tonks snorts with laughter.

"Tell them they should come," Hermione says. "It would be nice to see Millicent especially."

"Now tell me truthfully," Ginevra says, "four years ago, would you ever have thought you'd be saying that?"

"No," Hermione admits. "But, then, I never thought I'd be living in New York for six months, working in a pub, and...dating a demon hunter."

"Ha! So you admit it!"

"Gods and monsters, Ginevra, and you say I'm caught up in semantics. No, he's not my boyfriend. Dean Winchester isn't anyone's boyfriend, least of all mine. But it's fair to say that we're dating."

"Among other things," Ginevra says, and Tonks claps her hands over her ears and sings "The Wizard in the Tree, Three Apples Had He."

*************************

 

Fred and George arrive first, around six thirty, after closing the shop for the day. Neville's close behind them, bearing flowers for Tonks and wine for the meal and unrestrained delight at seeing everyone. Then Harry and Ron—more wine, and hugs for Hermione and Ginevra, and a film on DVD that Harry passes to Tonks with the promise that it contains many explosions. Kingsley does come, but alone. Finally Tonks owls Millicent—Hermione isn't sure what she threatens, but it's dire enough that Millicent and Tracey are there fifteen minutes later. They open the wine and order Thai food. Everyone ignores the dining chairs and table, and instead sits on the sofa and floor.

"I hear you've been doing some improvements to your new flat," Tonks says to Fred and George, narrowly avoiding disaster involving her plate and Remus's wineglass.

"We've done some work," Fred says.

"Had the builders in once or twice," adds George.

"When do the rest of us get to see it?" Ginevra asks. "You didn't even bother to tell me that you were buying a flat until the deed was done."

Fred and George look at each other. "You'll see it," says Fred.

"In good time," says George.

"Sometime in the next century, maybe?" suggests their sister.

"In the next century," George says. "The improvements are almost finished. Well. Except for the very last one."

"But," continues Fred, "that one can't happen until all the rest are in place."

"And just what is this final improvement?" Tonks asks.

"Not what, but who," says George.

"We think you'll find this person very agreeable," adds Fred.

"You didn't tell me you had someone moving in with you!" Ron objects.

"We didn't want to say anything until the plans were completely in place," says Fred.

"And we didn't want Mum getting wind of it."

"Why not?" asks Ginevra. "Is it someone she doesn't like?"

"Oh, no," George replies, "she likes this person."

"Is it Lee? Why wouldn't you want Mum to hear about that? She loves Lee."

Fred shakes his head. "It's not Mr. Jordan. He's in Paris, by the way."

"Cutting a swathe through the Frenchwomen," says George. "Making quite a name for himself, from what we hear."

"If it's someone Mum will like," Ron says through a mouthful of basil chicken, "what's the problem?"

"There, dear brother, is the rub. And I'm afraid we must be silent on that particular topic."

"Until the deed has been done."

"You're both thoroughly vexing," Ginevra tells them.

The twins give her identical grins, then reach for their Singhas at the same time.

"What about your renovations, Harry?" Neville asks. "How are they going?"

Harry shakes his head. "They're not. It's that rotting portrait, still."

"Even after Kingsley and Tonks blasted at it?"

"Even after," Kingsley says, dignified despite the fact that he's sitting on the floor and eating fried dumplings with his fingers. "We tried everything. That woman is...dedicated."

"I'll say." Ron, also drinking a Singha. "Dedicated to screaming at everyone who comes in the front door."

"So what are you going to do?" Ginevra asks. "Can you just knock the wall down?"

Harry shakes his head. "No. I had the builders in to look, and they said the wall bears too much weight—even if I could somehow manage to prop up the ceiling magically, the structure wouldn't be sound when rebuilt. I'm almost thinking I'm just going to have to tear the house down—start over anew."

"I don't have great love for that house," Remus says, "but it really is an architectural treasure."

"I don't want to tear it down. It's...well, I'm sorry for being maudlin, but I haven't got much left of Sirius, and that's..."

"He's written all over that house," Tonks says. "But I'm with you, Harry. No architecture is worth living with that harridan on a daily basis."

"Wait, Harry," says Hermione, "I hadn't heard. There's nothing you can do about Mrs. Black and that ruddy portrait in the front hall?"

He shakes his head. "Not that I've been able to find. Kingsley and Tonks did their best. I had Bill try, too. There's no spell that'll take her down."

There's a contemplative silence. Then Hermione says, "Do you know where she's buried?"

*****************************

 

"You're not serious," Fred says when Hermione and Ginevra have finished explaining.

"We've got up to some inadvisable mischief in our time," says George, "but we've never dug up a corpse."

"It's grotesque," Remus says thoughtfully, "but it makes a certain degree of sense. A number of cultures believe that only through the burning of the body is the spirit released. I hadn't heard of pouring salt on first, but I've also never researched this in any great detail."

"But Dumbledore was in his portrait all of last year," Tracey says, "and his body was burned."

"I doubt anyone salted it first," Tonks says.

"And I've always thought that Hogwarts possessed its own peculiar magic," adds Remus. "I've always wondered whether, somehow, its headmasters—and headmistresses, in Professor McGonagall's case—bound themselves to it while they were still alive, so that no matter how the body was disposed of, the spirit would remain."

"So we need to pray that Mrs. Black didn't suss out that type of magic for herself, and bind herself to Grimmauld Place," Hermione says.

"Well," says Harry, "then in that case, I tear the place down and hire your ghost-hunting boyfriend to come and clean the grounds. Which is more or less what I was planning to do before, only without the ghost-hunting boyfriend."

"Excuse us," says Fred, "but I'm not sure we heard you right."

"We could swear that you just implied that Miss Granger is seeing some ghost-hunting American bloke."

"He's not my boyfriend," Hermione mutters.

"Then we could swear," George rephrases, indomitable, "that Harry just implied that you're shagging some ghost-hunting American bloke."

"Please pardon me, but I haven't consumed nearly enough alcohol to hear the answer to that," Remus says, then gets up and goes into the kitchen. Hermione hears the faucet go on, even though Remus could easily do the washing-up with magic.

"Why don't you ask Ginevra about her ghost-hunting American bloke?" Hermione suggests. "And especially how old he is."

The twins, Ron, and Harry swivel as one to stare at Ginevra, who gives Hermione a death glare before staring right back at all of them. "It's none of your business," she says. "Any of you."

"Oh, but I beg to differ," replies George. "When our baby sister takes up with some ghost hunter of an advanced age, I make it my business."

"His name is Sam," Ginevra says. "He's from Kansas—it's in the middle of the country. He's the smartest person I've ever met—well, except for Hermione, it's a tie, I suppose. And that's all you need to know."

"I don't think so," says Fred. "George, I think a visit to New York might be in order. Meet this American of advanced age from Kansas, let him know what's what and how he should be treating our sister."

"Barge into my holiday, and I'll tell everyone about the time you got caught in the Hufflepuff common room and just who you got caught with and what you were doing. Do anything to Sam, and you'll sing soprano the rest of your lives."

There's a silence in Tonks's living room.

"So," Harry says, "not to distract anyone with a reasonable topic of discussion, but when do we salt and burn Mrs. Black?"

************************

 

Much later, Kingsley, Neville, Fred, and George have gone home, and the rest of them are lazy with wine and food, sprawled out in various poses around the living room. Tonks has her head in Remus's lap; he's stroking her hair absently, the way people do when they're so comfortable together that they do things like that without even noticing. Tracey's still on the floor, sitting propped against the sofa; Millicent is propped against her. Hermione has a sudden and completely ridiculous moment of wishing that Dean were here to hold her like that, or that his head were in her lap, her fingers playing in his hair. She dredges up great determination and puts all that nonsense out of her mind.

"Do you think they're together?" Ginevra says quietly, from where she's curled up in a chair that looks like a large beanbag.

"I wish I knew," Harry says. He and Ron are on the sofa, not overtly affectionate (they rarely are, even among friends), but sitting pressed shoulder to shoulder, comfortable. "But I can't even pretend to know what comes next."

"To the well-organized mind..." Hermione starts.

"Death is but the next great adventure," Harry finishes. "I think about that a lot, but—I don't know. I don't know if I really believe Dumbledore on that one."

"I like to think that I do," Remus says, voice quiet but still startling. "Life is—or it can be, anyway—nasty, brutish, and short."

"That's a harsh way of describing it," says Tracey. "Do you really think that?"

"No," Remus answers. "At least not all the time. That phrase was written by Thomas Hobbes—a Muggle, at least as far as we know, who lived long before any of us. But my point is, I think it's a very hopeful idea that there's something else—another adventure."

A while later, as the rest of the visitors are leaving, Tracey says in parting, "I'm bringing a flask tomorrow. I recommend you all do the same."

"Trace, good God," Millicent says. "To a funeral service?"

"Liss, it's going to be awful. I don't see any reason why we all shouldn't be pissed for it." Millicent still looks appalled, and Tracey holds up her hands. "Just a suggestion; no one has to bring along anything they don't wish to."

Tonks kisses her cheek, laughs, though it sounds sniffly. "Tracey, one can always trust you for the practical solution to a problem."

If, before bed, Tonks hugs them harder than usual, neither Hermione nor Ginevra remarks on it.

****************************

 

Tracey's right: It is awful, and Hermione should have brought a flask. She'd invest in narcotics right now, if she had the sources and thought it would help. What comfort can you give two parents who, in the span of less than a year, have lost both their children? There are no words for that, no comfort, just the sheer overwhelming fact of tragedy.

Immediately afterward, she finds Tracey and pulls her aside. "Whatever you've got in there, give me some."

"I'm nearly out—"

"I can fix that," Hermione says grimly. Thanks to her year of (effectively) homelessness, Hermione knows every food-related charm in the world. She still hasn't managed to make milkweed into chocolate cake, but she can, at least, make more milkweed out of an extant supply (or more chocolate cake, though, sadly, that ability was rarely required during her travels). She takes Tracey's flask and holds her hand over it, and a moment later it's full again.

"Whoa," says Tracey. "Did you really just refill this with Lagavulin?"

"Perhaps not quite that quality, but a decent facsimile."

"Cheers," Tracey says, and hands her the flask. Hermione takes several restorative gulps. "Better?"

"Maybe not better, but less bad."

Ginevra comes over. "Share."

Hermione sees Xenophilius Lovegood—another whose grief she can't imagine—and goes to say hello. He's vastly bizarre, but she's always liked him, perhaps because there's so much of Luna in Xeno. He looks better than he did at Luna's service some months ago, but that's not saying much. The Quibbler remains on hiatus—but not officially shut down, so she retains hope.

"Mr. Lovegood," she says, and he hugs her gently. He feels frail now, an old man rather than a father at eccentric middle age.

"Miss Granger. How nice to see you. You're looking well."

"Thank you. You are, too." It's a white lie, she reasons. And he is looking better.

"And I hear you're in New York at the moment?"

"Not permanently. Ginevra Weasley and I are flat-sitting for two of Remus Lupin's friends."

They chat about New York for a few minutes—he and his late wife honeymooned there, it turns out. He speaks of her without grief; it's wistful, more like, as though she's an absent friend whom he'll one day see again. Dumbledore's words echo in her head once more. Maybe, to Xeno Lovegood, his wife is in fact an absent friend with whom he'll one day be reunited.

Still. To be left without your wife and child. Maybe it's part of the maturing process, and Hermione is simply too young to understand, but to her, Luna and Padma and Parvati and McGonagall and all the rest are gone. She doesn't know what comes next—an adventure, or just the end, or something else entirely—but she's not holding out hope on seeing anyone again who isn't presently alive.

Mr. Lovegood is saying, "I am compiling the next issue of the Quibbler—it seems time to recommence publication—and I was wondering whether I might have your permission to reproduce your recent letter."

"My recent letter?" Hermione repeats, confused.

"To the Ministry of Magic. Expressing your regrets regarding the Order of Merlin."

It feels doubly blasphemous to laugh, so Hermione covers her mouth and swallows it. "Regrets. That's a...diplomatic way of phrasing it."

"My dear Luna did manage to teach me some tact, bless her."

Hermione supposes that, by comparison with her father, Luna Lovegood really would have been tactful.

"But it wasn't my letter only; Ginevra wrote half and I wrote half."

"I have spoken to Miss Weasley, and she has kindly given her permission pending yours."

"Of course you may print it," Hermione says. She feels her mouth twitching, and covers it again. "I appreciate your asking, though. At the risk of indiscretion—well, certain others did not."

"Diplomacy fails us all on occasion."

For it to fail, Hermione thinks, you have to have it in the first place, which Tonks—as much as Hermione loves her—doesn't.

Ginevra comes over then. She greets Mr. Lovegood, who excuses himself, but before departing, says to Hermione, "If it wouldn't be an intrusion, I should like to write you. I haven't seen New York in several decades; perhaps you might tell me about it."

"I'd like that," Hermione says. "And if you wouldn't mind, could you send me that issue of the Quibbler?"

"Naturally. To the both of you." And then he disappears, quite literally.

"I think we're going," Ginevra says. "I'm exhausted, and there isn't enough alcohol in the world for this."

"I should pay my respects to Mr. and Mrs. Patil. Save some of that alcohol so that I can make more."

Greeting the Patils is necessary, and as horrible as Hermione anticipated. When she leaves them in the company of their families, she's shaking, barely holding herself in one piece. They go back to Tonks's flat, and Remus makes them toast and tea. Hermione's not particularly hungry, but the comfort is in the ritual. They're morose, nearly silent except for the occasional "pass the sugar." Finally Hermione can't take it anymore: No group containing Harry Potter, Nymphadora Tonks, Ginevra Weasley, Ron Weasley, and Tracey Davis should ever be quiet. "Harry," she says, "how do you feel about carrying out our project tonight?"

"With Mrs. Black, you mean? Are you sure you're up to that?"

"I will feel enormously improved," Hermione replies, "if I have the excuse to set something on fire, especially if it is in the service of desecrating the grave of someone detestable."

"Right," says Harry, wide-eyed. "Well. When do you want to go?"

"We should wait until later. And I'd like to consult an expert before we do anything."

"Oh?" says Ginevra, eyebrows up. "Are you ringing Dean?"

"Purely to ask his professional opinion."

"Uh-huh," responds Ginevra, not bothering to conceal her contempt for this explanation.

Hermione ignores her, goes into the bedroom where they're staying, and digs her mobile out of her rucksack. She lies down on the bed and dials.

"Hermione?"

"Hello, Dean. Yes, it's me."

"Are you back in the U.S.?"

"No, I'm in London. How are things in New York?"

"Fine, when we left. We're in Delaware now."

"What's in Delaware?"

"The armpit of America, as far as I can tell. We're after some swamp monster that's been eating cattle."

"A swamp monster?"

"Yeah, glamorous job, right? I think I've still got slime in my hair from yesterday, and we're going to go out and do it all again later. I'll let you know the tentacle count once I get a better look. How are things going over there?"

"The service was earlier today. It was as awful as you'd expect. Ugh, don't let's talk about that. Actually, I have something far more interesting on which I'd like your opinion."

"Is it about what I want to do to you when you're back? Because I haven't had my mouth on any part of you in like two days"—Hermione hears a howl of protest in the background, which she assumes came from a currently-wishing-he-were-deaf Sam—"and that's just wrong."

"I think it's been less than two days. Are you so insatiable that you can't go thirty-six hours without?"

"Well, I can, since you're on the other side of the damn Atlantic, but that doesn't mean I like it."

Surely I'm not your only option, Dean, she thinks, but doesn't say. "Well," she says, "I'll be back by Tuesday, and you will have an immediate invitation to place your mouth wherever you like." Hermione blushes as soon as the words are out of her mouth—what kind of bint says that?—but she doesn't take them back.

"Why did you have to go and say something like that? I won't be able to think about anything else."

"You underestimate the charms of the Delaware swamp monster, no doubt. One look at it, and I'm sure all you'll think about will be tentacles."

"Between you and the tentacles, I'll take you any day."

"Thank you, I think."

"No problem. So if you're not polling me about which picture in your book we should reenact next, what are you polling me about?"

"When salting and burning," Hermione says, "must one use rock salt, or will any kind of salt do?"

Silence from the other end of the line.

"Dean?"

"Hermione, did you just ask me how to salt and burn someone?"

"Yes, that's right. I'm sorry; I hope you don't mind. It's just that you and Sam are the only people I know who are familiar with that practice."

"Baby," Dean says, "I could not be prouder unless you called to tell me you'd just bought a '67 Impala. Who are you salting and burning, or is it any of my business?"

She gives the briefest explanation she can of Mrs. Black.

"Man, so she just yells at everybody who walks in the house?"

"More or less. Sometimes she seems to sleep and one can sneak by, but she hates anyone who's not a Pureblood. The portrait is stuck quite fast to the wall, but I'm hoping that if we disinter and burn her remains, it'll break the spell that binds the picture in place."

"You'll probably want to torch the portrait, too, just to be safe. Can you do that without taking down the house?"

"I can do it with bluebell flames; they're easy to control. Anyway, so do I need to buy rock salt?"

"No, any kind of salt will work—we just use rock salt because we can pack it in the shotgun."

Ginevra pokes her head into the room. "Are you talking to Dean? Is Sam with him?"

"Ginevra's here," Hermione tells Dean. "I think she wants to talk to Sam."

Dean sighs long-sufferingly; then Hermione hears him say, "Hey Sammy, you want to know how awesome a brother I am?" To Hermione, he says, "Call me and report back after you salt and burn the bitch, alright?"

"We'll go around midnight, I think, so we should be back before it's too late your time. I'll call you then?"

She tells Dean good-bye and hands the mobile to Ginevra. "Remember, don't shout."

Ginevra gives her a withering look. "I've seen the rest of you on your mobiles, thank you." But as Hermione's leaving the room, she hears Ginevra say, "Are you quite sure you can hear me?"

"She's talking to Sam," Hermione tells everyone when she's back in the sitting room. "Anyway, from what Dean said, common table salt should work. The only difficult bit will be salting the portrait when it's still on the wall." She pauses, thinks. "I suppose we could just mix up a saltwater solution and spray it—I don't see any reason that wouldn't work."

"What about saline solution?" Harry says slowly. "The stuff I put on my contacts isn't anything more than salt and water."

"You got contacts?" Hermione says.

"Just for games. I don't love them, but they're a lot easier than dealing with my glasses, even with Fixing and Unbreakable charms. All of that's back at the flat in Tutshill, but I could Apparate and get the saline solution—or there's a Muggle chemist not far from here, I think."

They have a proper supper a little later, and then Floo Fred and George to see whether they're interested in coming along to take on Mrs. Black.

"Are you barmy?"

"Of course we'll be there."

"Torch the mad old bitch!"

They meet at Grimmauld Place at midnight. They have everything they need: several kilos of salt (much more than they need, but it never hurts to be careful); two bottles of saline solution; and two jars, spelled with Unbreakable Charms, that hold Hermione's bluebell flames. She hands one to Remus and keeps the other herself.

"You're sure you know where you're going?" Hermione says to Harry.

He nods. "Sirius told me about this place, and I've gone a couple of times."

Tonks adds, "And my mum snuck me there once or twice, to see it."

"As soon as the bones are burning," Hermione says, "Harry will Apparate back to Grimmauld Place and we'll start on the painting. Does everyone know what to do?"

Everyone murmurs and nods in confirmation. Fred, Tonks, and Remus Apparate with Harry to the mausoleum near Aldersgate where the Black family have been entombing their dead since London was little more than a Roman military camp. Hermione, George, Ron, and Ginevra go into the house to wait for Harry to appear.

"So Remus knows how to control those things?" George says to Hermione.

"I'm by no means the first person to use bluebell flames," she answers. "I've just found myself needing them more often than most do."

"Should we get started and spray her?" Ron asks. "You said we want to burn the painting as soon as Harry gets here."

Hermione sighs. "You're right. I just know she's going to start screaming, so I was putting it off."

"Since you get to actually light the fire," George says, "let me at least soak her."

"With pleasure." Hermione shakes one of the bottles of saline solution, then hands it to him.

George opens it and shouts with far too much glee, "Hey, you daft cunt!" Then he opens the bottle and begins to splash the liquid all over the portrait.

"HORRID DISRESPECTFUL BOY! THE NOBLE AND MOST ANCIENT HOUSE OF BLACK IS DISGRACED BY YOUR PRESENCE IN THIS HOUSE!"

"I should hope so," says George, aiming right for her eye. "I can't think of a more deserving bunch."

"MUDBLOOD! FILTH! FOULING THE WORLD WITH HER UNNATURAL WAYS! PUNISHMENT WILL COME TO THOSE WHO COMMIT SUCH CRIMES AGAINST NATURE!"

"Hermione," says Ginevra, "I think Mrs. Black just called you a lesbian."

"Lately, she needs to get in line."

"DIRTY DISGUSTING—"

"You're not offended?" says Ron.

"No. It's the haircut; everyone thinks that. But in New York, it's not an insult."

"GO BACK TO AMERICA, VILE MUDBLOOD!"

George aims for her mouth, and Hermione swears she hears Mrs. Black spitting.

"—LOW-CLASS FAMILY FULL OF BLOOD-TRAITOR CHILDREN!"

"Too bad she won't be around to see who's moving in with us," George says. "I bet she'd be ever so pleased about that one."

"At least give us a clue about this mysterious person," Ginevra says. "I'm dying to know."

"You'll find out, Gin-Gin, all in good time."

"I hate it when you call me that."

He grins at her, then splashes Mrs. Black a few more times.

"FILTHY—"

"Merlin, she really gets repetitive," says George. "For your sake, Ron, I hope this works."

There's a crack, and then Harry is standing in the foyer with them. "The bones are burning. It's possibly the worst thing I've ever smelled. I think you can go ahead."

"Good," says Hermione. "She was tiresome before she even started."

George opens the second bottle of saline solution and throws some more onto the portrait. Then Hermione carefully directs the flames onto it.

She hopes that Mrs. Black doesn't start screaming in pain—not out of a sense of compassion (noise aside, the woman is in fact dead, and cannot feel pain), but because it will distract her, and she needs to concentrate in order to avoid burning down Harry's house. This will all be a loss if Grimmauld Place goes up in flames.

But Mrs. Black doesn't even seem to notice—the portrait, it seems, feels nothing. And then the blue fire consumes the painting, and the corridor goes abruptly silent.

Hermione waits until the canvas is entirely ash before returning the flames to the jar. The frame, though scorched, remains, but it shouldn't be an obstacle now that the portrait is gone.

They all stare at it for a few moments.

"Well?" says Ginevra. "Shall we give it a go?"

"The metal's probably hot," Hermione replies. "Let's wait a few minutes."

"Even if I still can't get the damn thing down," Harry says, "I'll just cover it up with a tapestry or something. At least she won't be shouting at everyone who walks in the door."

A short while later, Tonks, Remus, and Fred Apparate back to the house. "It's done," Remus says. "And may I just say, that's an odor I hope never to encounter again."

Tonks shudders. "I'll be taking a really, really long shower tonight."

Remus looks at the blackened picture frame. "Has anyone tried to remove it yet?"

Hermione shakes her head. "No. I thought it best to let the heat dissipate."

Harry holds a hand close to the metal. "Not bad," he says. "Accio oven cloths."

Two of them zip up from the kitchen. He puts one on each hand and, carefully, pulls the frame away from the wall.

It goes easily.

"Sod me for the queen's bog," says Fred.

***********************

 

Hermione tries Dean while Ginevra's in the shower—after Tonks and Remus have scrubbed themselves thoroughly—but just gets his answerphone. She leaves a message telling him of their success, then turns the mobile off.

Ginevra falls asleep quickly, but Hermione stays relentlessly awake, staring at the ceiling. Finally, after a couple of hours of this, she gives up and goes out into the sitting room. She's brought Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God with her; perhaps she'll raid Tonks's tea stash and read for a while. She engages in the former, and then settles on the sofa to commence the latter.

She's most of the way through the book when she hears footsteps, and looks up to see Remus. He's not her teacher anymore, and so it shouldn't be strange to see him in pyjama trousers and a Weird Sisters T-shirt that looks suspiciously like it belongs to Tonks, but it is.

"Insomnia?" he says.

"It's gone away, mostly, over the past few months, but it seems to be back tonight."

"There's an epidemic of that, I think," Remus says. "It's a wonder any of us sleep at all." He goes into the kitchen. "I was going to make myself some tea, to take back to bed. Do you need some more?"

"Yes, please, if you're making."

He comes in and takes her cup. She hears him rinse it; then, "Milk? Sugar?"

"Just milk, please. Not too much."

She hears water running into what she presumes is the kettle, then he comes back into the sitting room. "I didn't know the Patil sisters well," he says after a moment, "though Padma was one of my brighter students. After you, of course."

"Thank you."

"Not a compliment per se, just fact. Parvati, though, was somewhat difficult to separate from Lavender Brown."

"It was so strange how soon after the war ended that Lavender got married," Hermione muses. "I hadn't even realized she and Anthony Goldstein really knew much of each other."

"War brings strange partnerships," Remus says. "Evelyn and Catherine Bones, for example—the parents of your classmate Susan. If anyone had told me those two would end up married and with an intelligent, capable daughter, I'd have said they'd gone round the bend."

"Really?" says Hermione. "I don't know much about Susan's parents, though as far as I know they were reasonably happy—or still together, at least."

"That's correct, to the best of my knowledge. They were married quite suddenly, but it seems to have worked out."

"I wonder if Lavender and Anthony will have children," Hermione says. "What a strange thought. Though I suppose, to the children, it won't seem strange at all—just as with Susan and her parents."

The kettle starts to whistle, and Remus goes in and removes it from the heat. He returns in a moment with a cup of tea—but the liquid is a pale greenish amber color, not the dark caramel shade of black tea with milk. "Chamomile," he says at Hermione's puzzled expression. "Folk wisdom holds that it helps one sleep."

"Does it?"

He holds his own cup so that she can see it. "I certainly hope so." He rests his hand gently on her head for a moment. In another life, she thinks, if the world were different, if the world were fair, Harry would have grown up with this man as his uncle, as a steady, sane presence in his life, and it's odd that now, of all times, she feels a knot of emptiness in her stomach for everything Harry lost.

"Try to sleep," Remus says. "The world frequently looks better in the morning."

********************

 

In the morning, the dead are still dead—that has not changed—but it's light outside, at least. It's even sunny, the air bright and crisp, quite unlike London's reputation for this time of year. Hermione still hasn't slept much—she faded out on the sofa at some point last night, and woke up once to Tonks's settling a blanket around her, and then again, for the final time, when the rest of the household awoke and it was difficult to remain asleep through the ambient noise.

"We're due at the Burrow at one o'clock," Tonks says. "Molly won't rest if she can't celebrate the return—however temporary—of her daughter and almost-daughter."

"Did it ever occur to her," Ginevra says, "that rather than celebrating, we might instead wish to stay in and drink firewhiskey?"

"We all have certain foibles that must be forgiven—among them my own penchant for knocking things over and causing fire damage to kitchens," Tonks says ruefully. "I think this must be counted on your mother's admirably short list of those foibles."

"It's not like I've been gone forever. It's been less than three months; I was off at Hogwarts for longer stretches of time than this."

"But a war hadn't occurred, and you hadn't run off to Bulgaria to fight in it," Tonks points out. "I think that recalibrates everything." She looks at Hermione. "Speaking of mums, were you planning on visiting yours this trip?"

Hermione shakes her head, looks down at the tabletop. "I haven't talked to her in weeks. She doesn't know I'm here."

Tonks's eyebrows—magenta today—elevate. "Really."

"I've been...out of touch with my parents since they announced the separation."

"And they haven't rung or written?"

"My dad hasn't, but that's nothing new. Mum has left me several messages," Hermione admits, "but I haven't returned them."

"Oh," Tonks says. "Well." But, surprisingly, she doesn't press.

**************************

 

Hermione and Ginevra gather their things, and they Floo to the Burrow. Mrs. Weasley is elbow-deep in food preparation; Remus starts to help, while Tonks goes outside and begins cheerfully degnoming the garden. "Oi, you little buggers! Don't think you can escape the wrath of Tonks!"

Hermione could stay in here, enmeshed in the bizarre tension between Ginevra and her mother, or she could go outside and throw gnomes about.

She opts for the gnomes.

Clearly, Remus is a much better person than she is.

Bill and Fleur are here, of course; the twins Apparate from London later on; Ron and Harry arrive soon after. Charlie has managed to get a Portkey from Bucharest to spend the afternoon; even Percy, on tentative good terms with the family, Apparates in. And, of course, there are multitudes of other Weasley relatives, near and distant, as well as some neighbors and some older witches and wizards who must be friends of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley.

Hermione greets various and sundry, meets a variety of aunts and uncles, is told time and again that she's a hero, and finally has to escape out into the garden before anyone else thanks her for saving the world. It's not that she's not glad Voldemort's dead; of course she is. But how does one respond to being thanked for that? Somehow "cheers, mate, not a problem" doesn't quite seem to cover it.

"Psst," she hears from one of the far rows. "Hermione!"

She looks, but doesn't see anything; then part of Harry's head appears. "I have firewhiskey!" he says.

She clambers underneath the invisibility cloak with him. Logically, there's no way they should both still fit underneath it, but they've both become champions at expanding spells, and the fabric drapes to enclose the two of them. Harry hands her the bottle, and Hermione takes a grateful drink. "Where's Ron?"

"They're his family. He can deal with them."

Hermione laughs. "Harry, you just blithely threw your boyfriend under the bus?"

"I'll make it up to him later. Don't ask for details unless you really want them. They're having some kind of family confab anyway; he and Ginevra both disappeared."

"So what are you out here hiding from?"

"The next person to call me the savior of wizarding Britain, or the like."

"Really, how does one respond to that? 'All in a day's work'?"

"And it feels particularly pointless since I still can't remember anything about it. If I'm going to be the savior of wizarding Britain, I'd at least like to know how I did it."

"You still don't remember?"

"Nothing more than I did before. I mean, I know what you and Ron and Ginevra and Neville and Tonks and Remus and everyone have told me, but I don't remember any of it for myself. I trust that you're all telling me the truth—that I did in fact defeat Voldemort, and it wasn't, oh, Terry Boot who stepped in for me at the last minute—"

Hermione laughs. "No. No, Harry, it was you. I don't even know where Terry Boot was."

They pass the bottle back and forth companionably, talking occasionally but not needing to fill the silence if the words don't come. It occurs to Hermione to wonder why everyone—including herself—always assumed she'd end up with Ron: They barely spent any time together outside of Harry's presence, and especially as they grew older, were increasingly awkward on the few occasions that they did. She's always been comfortable with Harry, and though she's never been interested in him like that, she wonders why everyone always assumed Ron and not him.

"This bloke that Ginevra's seeing—"

"Harry, please don't put me in the middle of this. Anything you want to say about him, you should say to Ginevra, not me."

"I was only going to ask if he treats her well."

"Oh. Yes. Yes, he does. Very well."

"Alright," Harry says. "Yes. Well. Then. That's good."

There's a pause.

"Harry," says Hermione carefully, "you're not engaging in anything foolish like maintaining feelings for Ginevra, are you?"

Harry's silence suffices as answer.

"Oh, Harry," Hermione says, but she can't make herself do it with heat. "You're an idiot."

"Undoubtedly."

"Does Ron know about this?"

"Are you mad? Of course not. What would I say: 'So, mate, I love you and I'd like to make a go of it for the rest of our lives if we can manage it, but I'm also still a little bit in love with your sister and I probably always will be. That won't pose a problem, will it?'"

Hermione puts her arm through Harry's, rests her head against the solidity of his shoulder.

"I wish love made sense," Harry adds after a moment.

Hermione thinks of Tonks and Remus, and Remus and Sirius, and Ginevra and Sam, and Sam and the ghost of Jessica, and Dean and the ghosts of their family. "So do I," she answers after another moment.

There erupts quite a lot of shouting from inside the Burrow.

"Is it that Weasleys are by nature more dramatic?" Hermione asks Harry. "Or is it just that there are more of them?"

Hermione hears running footsteps through the garden, and then Ginevra's voice: "I know you're out here underneath that bloody cloak, you blighters. Now tell me where you are, or I'll go back inside and tell the whole group you've run off, and you'll have several hundred Weasleys looking for you."

Harry twitches a corner of the cloak. "Over here," he says resignedly.

Ginevra slides underneath next to Hermione, putting Hermione in between Ginevra and Harry. It's oddly comforting, the three of them warm under the cloak on a cool autumn day; Hermione can almost pretend it's herself, Harry, and Ron, back at Hogwarts, sneaking into Hogsmeade or any number of other places they weren't supposed to go, in the days and years before the world went mad.

Ginevra takes the bottle from Harry, then glares at it. "We need more."

"I'll take the cloak and get another," Harry says. "Stay quiet; you're far enough back that I don't think anyone will see you."

There's a short silence after Harry leaves. Then Ginevra says, "I hate them all a little bit."

Hermione starts. "Your family?"

"They're all lecturing me about school—not Ron or the twins so much, but Bill and even Charlie, and of course Percy's the worst. And my parents. They keep telling me I'm young, that I don't know the kinds of magic I'll need, that I don't know when I'll need silent magic, and I just want to scream at them that they have no idea what I've seen and what I know. And, of course, the reason they don't know is that I've chosen not to tell them, and how stupid is it that I hate them for a choice that I consciously made?"

"Maybe it would make you feel better," Hermione ventures. "To tell them, I mean."

Ginevra shakes her head. "It would kill Ron. It's not his fault that Draco Malfoy was a sociopathic fuck, but he would see it as his fault."

"So you're just going to keep it a secret your whole life? Ginevra...I don't know, admittedly I've never been faced with a choice like that, but it just doesn't seem healthy, to force it inside."

"You know. Sam knows. Dean and Faith both know, which means that Xander probably knows as well. It's not as though no one in the world knows."

No, Hermione thinks, but no one did until earlier this week.

Harry returns with a full bottle and seats himself next to them again—on Hermione's other side, she notices, away from Ginevra. They arrange the cloak over themselves and have several restorative sips each from the firewhiskey. "I overheard a little of what's going on now," Harry says. "Remus is trying to calm your mum down."

"She knew what my answer was," says Ginevra. "I don't know why she feels she needs to pull out the dramatics now, when there are dozens of people around."

"I think you just answered your own question," Harry says wryly.

They sit for a while, not speaking, enjoying the closeness of one another and the briskness of a fall afternoon-turning-evening. Then there are footsteps through the garden, and they exchange nervous glances—though why should they, Hermione thinks, they're invisible, after all—and huddle a little closer together. It's so much like being back at Hogwarts, first or second year, just with a different Weasley in attendance, that Hermione almost laughs.

It's Tonks. She prowls through the garden once, twice, then comes to a stop in the middle of it. "Granger, Potter, Weasley!" she calls. "I know you're out here under that cloak. Show yourselves, or I'll call up a wind and blow the blasted thing off you. Do it now, and I won't even tell Molly about that firewhiskey you stole."

They sigh, exchange glances that are now resigned. Harry pulls the cloak off them. "We're over here."

"Ah. Brilliant." Tonks makes her way across the rows, trips over the pumpkins, rights herself, and plops down facing them. "Remus has brokered a truce," she says. "I've been sent as a diplomatic envoy." She must catch something in one of their faces, because she adds, laughing, "I know, it's a desperate situation when I'm the person sent to further the cause of diplomacy. Nevertheless, here I am. Ginevra, would you like to hear the terms your parents offer?"

"I'm not going back to school," Ginevra says defiantly.

"You have made them—and indeed anyone within a five-county radius—well aware of that fact. So, here's the compromise. They will stop badgering you about it."

Ginevra raises her eyebrows, looking interested perhaps despite herself.

"In return, you will agree to work with a teacher in New York. You'll be working one-on-one, and you'll be doing mainly Charms, Transfiguration, and Defense Against the Dark Arts—no History of Magic, no Divination, no Care of Magical Creatures, no Herbology, and probably no Potions, unless your teacher is somehow able to locate a laboratory. So your training should be complete, or nearly so, by the time you return to England, and you'll never hear about it from your parents again."

Ginevra narrows her eyes. "Who's the teacher?"

"As it happens, a schoolfriend of mine moved to New York shortly after we finished Hogwarts. She'd been teaching full-time, but she had a baby about a year ago and has been staying home with him. I think she'd welcome the chance to leave the house a few times a week, and I think you'll like her a great deal. With your permission, I'll owl her tomorrow."

"I don't have the money to pay a private teacher," Ginevra says, "and I'm not going to ask my parents to pay for that."

"Happily, that won't be necessary. The Ministry, in a shocking feat of intelligent thinking, has created a War Survivors Education Fund, to help offset educational expenses for Hogwarts students who must now go to school abroad. The private tutoring would count, and I should be able to get the paperwork done for you."

Ginevra and Tonks stare each other down for a moment; then Ginevra relents. "Alright," she says. "But I have to like the teacher. I won't work with her otherwise."

"Of course not. But I really think you will. Now will you come inside and sign the treaty agreement?" Ginevra stares, and Tonks grins and continues, "I think sitting down with your parents and eating some mince pie might be an acceptable substitute for a signature." Tonks rises, dusts off her robes, and holds down a hand. "Shall we?"

***********************

 

Peace is declared, mince pies are consumed, and the various family members and neighbors trickle home. Yawning, Hermione lifts Crookshanks into her lap, scratching behind his ears as he purrs. "I was thinking of taking him back with me tomorrow," she says to Mrs. Weasley.

"Really, Hermione, I'm happy to keep him for as long as you're gone."

"It's such a lot of bother, though, and we'll be in New York through December."

To her surprise, Mrs. Weasley starts laughing. "Dear Hermione, I raised seven children, two of whom were Fred and George. Do you really think one well-behaved cat could attempt to compete with that level of bother?"

Hermione laughs and rubs Crookshanks's belly. "Well, when you put it like that. I just miss him terribly."

"Ginny has her Portkey; borrow it and come visit him whenever you like. I remember Remus's saying something about one of his friends being allergic, though, so it's probably best that you don't have him in the flat."

Hermione sleeps that night in Percy's old bedroom, lying on her side, Crookshanks stretched out warm against her back. It's late morning when she wakes up. A couple of hours later, she and Ginevra gather their things to return to New York. She kisses Crookshanks and nuzzles his head, and informs herself firmly that she's not going to cry over leaving her cat. He's in good hands with Mrs. Weasley, who will be able to pay him more attention than Hermione will anyway.

She's still a little sniffly when she and Ginevra set the Portkey between them. Less than ten seconds later, they're back on East Tenth Street, and it's hard to believe they've been gone only three days.

They unpack—Hermione has some difficulty finding space for all her new clothes from Fleur—and settle in. Hermione turns on the computer and checks her email. There's not much—mostly messages concerning how she might enlarge her penis—but there is one from a sender marked "john bonham."

She opens it.

baby—

sorry i missed you when you called. sam & i were elbow-deep in tentacles. 16 of them, btw, in case you were wondering.

monster's still not dead—and managed to whack my idiot brother with one of the 16—so we're here in the armpit probably until tuesday or wednesday, or whenever the damn swamp thing decides to kick it. i'll be so happy to get the hell out of this godforsaken state, you have no idea.

in the meantime, why don't you look at your book and decide on some activities for us when we get back.

d

 

They have supper with Faith and Xander, and fill them in on the less awful parts of their trip home. "I can't believe you salted and burned someone," Faith says when they tell her about Mrs. Black. "Dean'll be so proud."

"He already knows," Hermione says. "I wanted to consult a professional."

Later, Faith has homework, and Ginevra and Spike settle in for a round of chess. Hermione's about to engage in some serious vegetation with some mindless telly, but as she watches Ginevra and Spike begin their game, she suddenly has a better idea. "I'll be back in a moment," she tells Faith.

She has a little bit of money on her. She goes round to the Duane Reade chemist on Lexington Avenue and buys an unassuming spiral-bound notebook and two unassuming ballpoint pens. She returns to Faith's house and to her position on the sofa, and then stops, transfixed and intimidated by the seemingly endless white pages with their neat blue lines. Where do I even begin? she thinks, tracing nonsense doodles at the top of the page.

Well, she tells herself, begin at the beginning, and you can always revise.

When I was eleven years old, two strangers appeared at my parents' door and informed us all that I was a witch and would need to go off to a magical boarding school in Scotland to learn what to do about it. They were not mad; in fact, they were quite correct, and I started that boarding school the following September.

It is perhaps telling of what my later life became, that this is by no means the strangest thing that has ever happened to me.

 

*********************

 

Once the words start, they don't stop, and she writes for nearly all of the following day, breaking only to go to her shift at Abyssus at eight o'clock.

"You've created a monster," she tells Spike, who's at his usual place with his usual laptop.

"I get that a lot. What this time?"

"The writing. I started yesterday, and I can't stop."

He looks up at her and smiles. It's not mocking or flirtatious, just a smile—his real one, she thinks. "It does tend to happen like that," he says. "My advice is, don't fight it."

"I don't think one can fight it," Hermione says. "Or at least I can't. I've filled half a notebook already."

Customers come and go, but it's a Tuesday, not terribly busy. She doesn't write—it is too busy for that—but she does think. What to tell next in her story? And, really, is it her story after all? Because she isn't sure she wants to write all that, remember all that. Maybe she'll write some and remember some, and make up the rest. People do that—use their own experiences, but fiction, too. She doesn't have to tell everything exactly as it happened.

She's taking advantage of a slow moment, arranging her stock, thinking about what she's going to write next, when someone says from behind her, "I'll have a pint of the Dogfish Head, unless you've got a better suggestion."

She's starting to think she'd know that voice anywhere.

She turns around and he's right there, smile brilliant, looking rumpled but no worse for the swamp-monster wear. She must be possessed, she thinks; she has to be, because she stands up on the ledge, leans across the bar, and kisses him, hard, in front of God and man and demon and mutant and whoever else may be frequenting Abyssus this evening.

"Hey," he says, tracing the curve of her ear, kissing her again.

That's when the realization she's been avoiding crashes right down upon her head.

Chapter Text

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

—Mary Oliver

Never, Hermione thinks, has a shift gone so slowly as do the hours between the time Dean appeared at Abyssus and the time the bar closes. And that's only closing; there's still the till to be counted and the cleaning to be done. Hermione sighs. There's no use lamenting it; lamentations won't make the minutes progress more quickly.

At three o'clock, there are only about ten people in the entire place—back room and front, Xander reports—and he suggests that if they start cleaning up, the customers may take the hint and leave, allowing them to close early. "Are you sure?" Hermione asks. "You won't lose business?"

Xander shakes his head. "We're barely doing any. We can't just throw everybody out, but we can hint unsubtly."

The remaining customers do in fact get the picture, and Abyssus is empty by three thirty. Hermione, per Dean's request, text-messages him to let him know they've closed for the night; he's there at three forty-five; and Xander locks the doors at four. He hails a taxi to take him to Chelsea (Faith has an early class tomorrow); Hermione and Dean walk up Essex to Avenue A, which will take them to Hermione's flat. He wraps an arm around her shoulders, and she's settled her own around his waist before she realizes that, barring that first eventful night in which they made such a spectacle of themselves at Abyssus, they've never shown any display of affection in public.

He fills her in on the final end of the multitentacled swamp monster: They discovered that chlorine bleach is highly toxic to that particular species of...thing (Hermione decides not to contemplate the idea that there is more than one species of...thing), and they disposed of it using a Supersoaker and Chlorox.

"So I'm to understand that hunting is best accomplished using household goods?" Hermione asks, amused. "Table salt and chlorine bleach?"

"Hey, if it works, we don't turn up our noses at it. I'd buy the whole damn laundry aisle at Wal-mart if it'd kill these damn things."

She tells him about Ginevra's argument with her parents, and its eventual resolution. "We haven't heard from Tonks yet, but we only just returned yesterday, so she may not have received a reply from her friend."

"And she can teach Ginevra everything else she needs?"

"It won't be the equivalent of two years at Hogwarts, but, according to Tonks, this woman can at least teach Ginevra the remaining rudiments of the spellwork she'd have learned. Ginevra never really learned silent magic or any of the more complex charms or Transfigurations—if they weren't necessary for self-defense, basic survival, or battling Death Eaters, none of us had time for them."

"You're never going to go back?" Dean asks.

"I don't know. Not to any of the traditional wizarding academies, I know that much. There's some advanced-level Potions work I'd like to learn, but unless I'm somehow able to locate a fully equipped laboratory here in the city, there's no way for me to do that."

"What about college? Studying history, wearing robes, that kind of thing. You really don't think you'll ever do that?"

"Maybe," she allows. "My time wearing robes, I think, has passed—I really do prefer Muggle clothing—but, yes, I could apply to Oxford or Cambridge."

"You said you could tell them you were homeschooled or something."

"Right. Unconventional, but people do it, certainly."

"Or you could take the SATs, go somewhere here in the U.S."

"There are some excellent history departments here in the States—Columbia's is quite good, though they focus more on their graduate students than on their undergraduates, I believe. Yes, it's possible."

"But you don't sound very excited about it."

"I suppose I'm having a midlife crisis, only twenty years too early."

He kisses the side of her head, smiles at her. "Well, you've always been precocious, right?"

"All my life," she admits. "Much good it has done me."

"I think saving the world counts as good," Dean says.

They walk up the steps to her front door, and she spells open the lock and turns on the lights. As soon as the door's shut, Dean turns, pulls her close, kisses her.

She's been waiting four days for this.

It's slow, thorough, and, God, if Ginevra weren't living here, too, she'd just pull him over to the stairs and have her way with him there. But Ginevra does live here, and with regret Hermione leans back and says, "Perhaps we should move this out of the common areas."

"Right, that sheltered, impressionable little girl you live with." Then he yawns.

"Should I be insulted?"

"No!" Another yawn. "Crap."

"You have a nubile, willing woman eagerly awaiting the naughty things you'll do to her, and you're yawning?"

"I've been chasing the Swamp Thing for four days! They're nocturnal!"

She laughs, stands for a moment with her head against his chest. It's nice to just smell him and listen to his heartbeat.

Good Lord, she's getting sentimental in her old age.

"I forgive you," she says. "As long as you don't have plans for tomorrow morning. Or afternoon."

"None at all," he replies, grin wicked and brilliant.

Upstairs, they undress each other, and Hermione lets her hands wander over Dean's body, refamiliarizing herself with its planes and angles. They get into bed, but their good-night kiss becomes extensive, and by its end, Dean's fingers have found their way between her legs as she arches up against the touch.

"I thought you were tired," she gasps.

"Not too tired for this," he says, and lowers his mouth to one of her breasts. "Unless you want me to stop?"

"No! But I want..."

"Want what?"

"You."

"You've got me, baby. Anything more specific?"

"I want your..."

"My what?"

"You are so infuriating," she tells him.

He laughs, kisses her lightly, keeps stroking her with teasing fingertips. "I can't give you anything if I don't know what you want."

"Oh, you know very well," she says crossly.

"Not if you won't tell me."

But from his very tone of voice, of course, she knows that he knows.

"I—oh, God!—I hate you."

"Just tell me," he says, low, patient, "and I'm sure I'll be happy to do whatever it is."

"Why do you always make me say it?"

He kisses his way from her jaw to her collarbone. "Because I love hearing you ask for dirty, dirty things in that beautiful accent."

"You're the one with the accent," she tells him, "not me."

He shrugs amiably. "Maybe. But I still like hearing you." He strokes her a little harder, a little faster, until she cries out—and then he pulls his fingers away.

"I really hate you," she mutters.

"All you've got to do is ask."

"Alright, fine. I would like for you to perform penetrative vaginal copulation upon me."

He starts laughing, pulls her on top of him. "I guess I deserved that."

"You most assuredly deserved that."

She always feels a little bit clumsy doing it this way; though the result is always more than worth a moment's awkwardness, she can't escape the fear that she's going to do something terribly embarrassing such as miss. (That has yet to occur, but logic does not play a part here.) She sinks down onto him—and does not miss—and they both sigh with pleasure.

He keeps stroking her as she moves on him, and it doesn't take long for her—and it doesn't take long for him, after that.

As she's lying in drowsy satisfaction, he says, "So you did go through that book of yours and pick out some things, right?"

"No," she admits. "I forgot."

"Forgot? How is that even possible?"

"I was writing! And then I had to work."

"All day?"

"Yes," she says, "actually. I started writing when I got up this morning, and only stopped to eat, and when I had to go to Abyssus."

"What are you writing?"

"A novel," she says, surprising herself. "I think."

"No kidding? About what?"

"About, well, myself. Except, well, not."

"Are you going to let anybody read it?"

"Maybe," she says. "Once I have more of it written."

"I'd like to read it—I mean, if you ever decide to let people."

"I didn't think you liked to read."

"No one I know ever wrote a book before. I don't think my dad's journal counts."

"It's not a book yet," she says. "Nowhere close."

"But it will be." It's a statement, not a question.

She pauses, thinks. "Yes," she says, and she finds that it's a statement and not a question. "It will be."

"So," he says, "since you forgot to pick out anything, I think I get to set the agenda for tomorrow. Or later today, technically."

"And just what will that agenda include?"

"I have some ideas. But I may need some visual aids to help me out a little. Anyway, I'll take care of that in the morning."

"Incorrigible," she says, but she's smiling.

There's an expansive lightness in her chest that she decides to interpret as contentment. It feels larger and deeper than mere contentment, but it's also nearly five o'clock in the morning and not the time to try to delineate the specificities and eccentricities of the human heart. She kisses Dean lightly on the lips, then closes her eyes.

*********************

 

When she wakes up, the sun is bright through the windowpanes, and Dean—of course—is already awake and looking at the infamous book. There are, at least, no Post-its this time.

He sees her move and stretch, and pauses in his perusal. He runs his fingers through the bristle on her scalp, and she rubs her eyes. "You're already reading that?"

"I don't know if 'reading' is exactly the right word...."

She sits up and settles against his shoulder. She's warm and slow and sleepy. She takes the book out of his hands so that both of his arms can rest around her.

"You sure you're awake?" he asks.

"No."

He arranges her so that they're both lying down, her head resting on the soft part of his shoulder. "Go back to sleep. It's not even ten yet."

She does.

********************

 

She wakes up again a couple of hours later, if the angle of the sunlight is anything to go by. Dean's asleep on his back, one arm around her, the other flung out to one side. She runs her fingertips gently over his skin: chest, belly, the parts of his collarbone and scalp that she can reach from where she's lying on her side. He blinks and is quickly awake, and she wishes she knew of a way to wake him slowly, to let him enjoy the lassitude of drowsy half-sleep instead of the sudden urgency of hyperalertness, even when there's nothing wrong.

"Sleep well?" he asks, and she nods.

They lie there together for a while. There aren't a whole lot of words, but the silence is contented. Hermione doesn't feel like getting up, but she's awake now—awake to enjoy of the warmth of the sunlight on the blankets and of Dean so close to her. There are certain things, now, that she feels she's beginning to understand.

Dean's stomach growls.

She looks up at him, amused. "Hungry?"

"I could eat."

"Can you ever not?"

"Sometimes! Uh, occasionally. If I'm sick or something."

"I suppose breakfast would be a good idea," Hermione admits. "But I'm so comfortable; I don't want to move."

"So don't. If I put clothes on and go downstairs and get something, is Ginevra going to be all scandalized?"

"I doubt it. Just be prepared for mockery."

"I live with Sam," Dean says. "It's not like I'm not used to it." He rises, slides his jeans over his hips. "I'll be back in a minute."

It's more than a minute, and Hermione picks up the book and begins idly leafing through it. As usual, some of the images make her heart beat faster; others just puzzle her. (For example, the woman wearing knee-high boots who's being enthusiastically—and apparently enjoyably—taken by a man wearing a Bill Clinton mask. Why in the name of God...?)

Dean returns after a short while, bearing a tray laden with toast, jam, and a pot of tea. She looks longingly at the tea, and Dean laughs. "Yeah, yeah, I know your tea-loving English ways." She sits up, he pours her a cup, and she drinks blissfully before turning to demand toast. Her mother always told her not to eat in bed: It would result in crumbs in the sheets. Maybe that's her parents' problem, she thinks: too much concern with crumbs, and not enough with sitting together and eating toast. That's what washing machines are for, after all.

And if she and Dean engage in other activities that result in crumbs on themselves, well. That's what showers are for.

"Was Ginevra downstairs?" Hermione asks once Dean's settled next to her.

There's an odd look on his face. "Yes," he says. "Along with Sam."

It's nearly noon; if Sam's not working today, it's not unreasonable that he might come over for dinner. She says as much to Dean.

He shakes his head. "I don't think so. He was barefoot and his hair was a mess. I mean, more than usual. And he turned bright red when he saw me."

"Holy Helga." Hermione's not sure whether to be scandalized or congratulatory. Perhaps she's a little of both. "But...Ginevra had Quidditch practice last night. She wouldn't have got back until nearly midnight."

"We didn't get back until around four," Dean says. "He could have gotten here before we did. I mean, they could have called each other, but I didn't think Ginevra really knew how to use the phone."

"She used my mobile when we were in London."

Dean's mouth quirks. "Yeah, I remember that. Sam kept telling her that yes, he really could hear her."

"Her family are all rather disastrous on the telephone. Ron and her father are even worse. I know that when Nikkya asked for the number, I had to give it to her, but there's nothing to say that Ginevra couldn't have learned since then."

"It's just...I know they're, like, pair-bonded and everything," Dean says. "Sam really doesn't do it any other way. But she's still seventeen."

"I don't think that's an issue," Hermione says. "Despite what may seem like strong circumstantial evidence to the contrary." Dean raises an eyebrow, and she shrugs. "There are things girls say to each other that I think even brothers may not, and going from that, I'd be very surprised if that has occurred."

"You think they were here when we got home last night?" Dean asks.

Hermione recollects. "The lights were off downstairs when we came in. I wasn't paying attention—you were distracting me ever so thoroughly"—Dean looks pleased—"so I don't remember whether the door to her room was open, or whether there was a light on. But they could have simply turned off the downstairs lights before...retiring."

"Especially if they didn't want us to suspect anything."

"That would certainly be in character for Ginevra."

"Yeah, Sam too. Remind me what higher power thought it would be a good idea to match those two up?"

"Loki?"

Dean doesn't disagree. They sit companionably for a while and eat toast—resulting in a respectably minimal number of crumbs in the bed, thank you—and drink tea. When they're finished, Dean puts the tray on the floor, and Hermione observes, "You're still wearing your jeans."

"What was I thinking?"

He shimmies out of them, and she arranges herself against him, warm against his chest and in his lap. "I believe some homework is in order," she tells him. "Our schooling, I'm afraid, has been sadly neglected."

"Well," says Dean, "we better get on that. Don't want to be hauled in for truancy or have to go to summer school or something."

"That depends," says Hermione, picking up the book and opening it across her thighs, over the sheet and blanket. "What would be the lessons and who would be instructing? I imagine that certain subjects taught by certain teachers might be...illuminating regardless of season."

"If you would be there wearing a schoolgirl outfit," Dean says, "I would go to school seven days a week, all year round."

She laughs. "I wore robes to school, I'm sorry to say. Only a habit would be less revealing than Hogwarts robes."

"Then I'd just have to spend some time getting you out of them."

On the page after Bill Clinton's equally lecherous avatar is a pretty South Asian woman, lying on her stomach, leaning on her elbows, looking unsmilingly but somehow cheerfully into the camera. On her right forearm is a white cast covered in signatures.

"Huh," says Dean after looking at it for a moment. "I'm not sure it's all that sexy, but it's kind of cool how she's like, 'Love me, love my cast.'"

"Say she has a boyfriend or a husband—or a girlfriend or a wife, for that matter," says Hermione. "It's not as though she's going to stop having sex just because she broke her wrist, or whatever the injury was. Or at least I hope she's not going to."

"I hope you never break any bones," Dean says, "but I'd still think you were hot even if you had an entire leg in one of those things. Though it would make sex kind of complicated."

"I have faith in your ability to improvise," Hermione tells him, and turns the page.

The next picture is hard to make out—it's composed largely of shadow—but it's obviously of a couple, a tattooed man and a red-haired woman, in a clinch in what appears to be the backseat of a car.

"I can't believe we haven't done that," Dean says.

"Wouldn't it be rather uncomfortable? Cramped?"

"Baby, there is nothing like it. Cramped or not."

Hermione looks around at the rumpled, comfortable bed and tries to compare it to the interior of an automobile. "I think I really do prefer inside. In a bed."

"The occasional staircase sex aside."

"There were extenuating circumstances."

"You've still got to try it in the Impala at least once, though. In the woods, got music on..." He sighs—nostalgically, it sounds.

"It seems you've done this a great deal."

"I grew up in motel rooms with my father and my little brother. Where else was I going to get laid but in the car?"

Hermione laughs, but there's a twinge behind it. Her father may have behaved atrociously in the recent past, but he was a good father when she was young, and her mother was a good mother before her misery over her husband's affair took all her attention. And Hermione has never wanted for anything, ever: She grew up with her own bedroom—her own bathroom, even. She slept in a canopy bed with a pink duvet, she studied and read curled up in the seat in her bay window, and she kept her clothing in a beautiful restored-antique mahogany armoire. There was a glass-fronted cabinet in her bathroom, fluffy white towels, and a clawfoot tub that she liked to soak in for hours while reading a book, even as a very little girl. Until she went off to Hogwarts, she'd lived in precisely one place her entire life: Her parents' house—which will soon be sold—was built a year before she was born, and her mother and father brought her home from the hospital to it.

"Hey," Dean says gently, "where'd that brain of yours go?"

She shakes herself out of her reverie. "Nowhere. I was just trying to work out the physical logistics of shagging in the back of a car." She turns the page. This time the photograph is clear, in cool silvery blues and greens, and all that's visible are a person's—a woman's, going by their size and shape—hands and feet, cuffed neatly to a single slender metal bar.

"Huh," Dean says. "That looks...awkward."

"She has pretty feet," says Hermione.

Dean laughs. "You notice the weirdest things sometimes. Yeah, I guess she does. But I think—it's hard to tell because all you can see are her hands and feet in the air—she's on her back. Doesn't it seem like it would be hard to balance like that?"

"Perhaps someone's holding her that way—down below where the photo cuts off, where we can't see."

"Maybe. But your arms and legs would still get tired after a while."

Hermione turns the page again. This time it's a group of young women in a play pool, some naked, some in bikinis. Some are blowing bubbles; some appear to be kissing. The photo was taken from above—almost as though there was a camera on the ceiling—and there are so many limbs that it's difficult to delineate them all, but there are at least eight women in the pool.

Dean looks down at her hopefully. "Please?"

"No," she says, firm but amused.

"But...look at how much fun they're having."

"I am very happy for them, and wish them much of it. However, I will not be participating."

"Please?" he repeats.

"Dean, do you have some sort of bizarre fantasy about women in what amounts to an enormous bathtub?"

"Is there an even slightly heterosexual man on the planet who doesn't?"

"Dean!"

"Think about it mathematically. Men think two women together is hot. Take"—he squints—"one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine—oh, wait, that's two, she's sitting on her lap—dude, ten women, and put them together wet and naked, and that's, like, every guy's fantasy, exponentially."

"I think you exaggerate." Hermione hopes he exaggerates.

"Ask any guy who isn't a hundred percent gay—and hell, gay guys probably just fantasize about a bunch of men in a tub. Any guy who denies it, is either lying or has the IQ of a houseplant."

She shakes her head and turns the page. Men really are a bizarre subcategory of the human race.

The next photo is in black and white. It's of a woman in sexy shoes not unlike the ones Fleur gave Hermione. The woman's bum is in the air, her face in a pillow, and she's holding a third shoe. Masturbating with it, in point of fact, with the shoe's stiletto heel penetrating her anus.

"What the fuck," Dean says.

Hermione can't come up with any better summary. She turns the page.

Another color photo, in greens and grays like the one of the cuffed woman, but this one presents a man. Or the thighs and midsection of a man, at any rate, with his erect penis on display—and then, positioned above it, a black dildo harnessed to his hips.

"You know," says Dean, "every guy wants their dick bigger, but I don't think I ever met anybody who wanted to have two."

"I can't even imagine what one would do with them. Oh, no, actually, I can, though I have no interest in ever trying it."

Hermione turns the page again. People are very strange.

The next photo is refreshingly unaccessorized: a young woman with long brown hair and generous breasts, clad only in a bikini bottom, sprawled in the passenger seat of what looks like a Japanese car, her skin glowing in the sun as she touches herself, eyes closed and face beatific in an ecstasy that belies any awareness of a world outside of herself and her pleasure.

Dean's fingers find a nipple, and Hermione rests her head on his collarbone, sighs as he plays it lightly. "That," he says, "is what I'd like to see." He pauses. "Different car, though. Nothing sexy about a Honda."

"I think most men's eyes would have stopped at the girl."

"What can I say, she deserves an environment worthy of her. So. Would you do it in the car? There's a lot of space in the front seat of the Impala. Stretch out across it, put your feet in the window."

"No," Hermione whispers. "Bed. Or in the bath."

He closes the book, kisses the back of her neck. "Tell me how you do it."

"I can't...I can't talk about that."

"Why not? Everybody does it. And like I said before, anybody who says they don't? Is lying."

"But they don't talk about it."

"Some people do. You want me to go first? I'll tell you how I do it. I'm not embarrassed about it. Hell, you've seen me doing it."

She pulls her knees up, hides her face in them. Nods.

"Don't hide," he says softly. "Nothing to hide from. You want to watch? Or just listen?" He uncurls her from herself, settles her back against him.

"Watch." She still can't bring her voice up to full strength. This is something that people may do, yes, but it's not something girls talk about. Nevertheless, she had four roommates, and she's under very few illusions.

"Okay. But it's not a one-sided thing. If you get to watch, so do I, when I'm done."

It's fair. Only fair.

And yet.

"It might not work," she says. "I might not be able to...you know."

"So if it doesn't work, we know we tried, and we do something else. But you should at least try. You never know."

"Alright," she agrees. "I'll try."

He moves to lie on his back, arranges her so that she's curled up against his side, one arm around her, hand on her bare shoulder, the other hand on...himself. He's not even half hard, but as his hand encircles his cock and begins to slowly stroke, she watches it lengthen, harden, fill with blood and want.

She puts her hand on his chest, runs her fingertips lightly over his skin, and he sighs.

"The past couple of years," he says, "I've been on the road with Sam, and it's pretty close quarters. We always share rooms, so I do this in the shower. It's fun—all wet and slick—but it's got to be pretty quick. No time to draw it out."

"What do you think about?" Her voice is barely audible; she can't believe she just asked that.

"Whatever'll get me off the fastest. Ten girls in a pool."

Hermione can't help laughing.

"I think about getting head—which I think is pretty much what every other guy in the world thinks about when they're jerking off." She watches his hand move slowly, in its own lazy, determined rhythm, and she feels him shudder as his thumb passes over the head. "Usually I'm standing, the woman's on her knees in front of me—not any particular woman, generally, but sometimes Angelina Jolie. And, uh, and Johnny Depp, once." And then—only now, after everything else he's said—he blushes bright red.

"Well, I should think. He's the most beautiful man on the planet."

"But he's a man, baby. You don't seem to get that. Anyway. I've usually got my hands in their hair, and they're going slow and hard." He breathes in, almost a gasp. "I have to keep from making noise when I come. Won't ever hear the end of it from Sam if I do. Bite my lip, the side of my hand—it's hard to keep it all in, though."

"Do you want me to do that? Be on my knees, I mean. Because I don't really like it."

He looks at her, motion stilling. "I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. I hope you know that."

"But if it's what you think about..."

"It's a fantasy. It's not real, and anyway, it's not like that's every time." He starts moving again, and his hips arch up into it. Hermione reaches down and covers his hand with hers. The movement is languorous, the pressure light. His eyes are warm. "You want to drive? Mmm, that's good. Just like that, not too fast. I don't want to come for a while." He pulls her down to him and they kiss, long and slow, and Hermione realizes they're following the rhythm set by her hand. When they separate, Dean says, "It's different now, though, since we're at Faith's. I'm up on the third floor, the only person up there. And that house, the walls are so thick, I can play Metallica as loud as I want it, and Sam can play his emo crap as loud as he wants it, and neither of us has to want to kill the other one. So if I take my time, draw it out, make noise, it's not a problem. As long as I wash my own sheets," he adds.

"Is it very different now that you're at Faith's?" She rubs lightly underneath the head of his cock, and his eyes close. The sound of pleasure that comes out is low but distinct.

"Yeah, a lot different. For one thing, I met you pretty soon after we got here, and, uh, let's just say that some of the things I think about got a lot more specific."

She raises her head in surprise. "Really?"

"God, yeah. I think about you going down on me that one time at your house during the summer, after we'd been at the park. I imagine you riding me—think about what you look like when you come, how your cheeks and neck turn pink—"

"They do?"

"Just a little. It doesn't make you look bad. It's pretty. So, yeah, that, sometimes your nipples in my mouth—oh, God, turn your hand like that again." She does, and he says, "Feels good. Feels really good. Sometimes I think about fucking you on the stairs. And, um, sometimes I think about what happened after that."

It takes her a moment, and then she understands. "About...about when I...spanked you."

"Yeah, that. I don't know, maybe it makes me fucked up—I mean, more than I already was—but if I think about that right at the end, I come so hard, you have no idea."

"I don't think it makes you fucked up," she says. The profanity feels strange in her mouth, but she wants to echo his phrasing. "Or if it does, then I'm fucked up, too, because I enjoyed doing it."

It's his turn to look surprised. "Really?"

"The...the belt startled me: I'd never done anything like that before, and I didn't want to injure you. But I enjoyed it because you did, and I wish you wouldn't think badly of yourself for it. And I also liked"—she takes a breath, then says it, because it's only fair now that Dean has said so much—"I liked the power. I don't know what that says about me," she adds.

"Hermione, you like being in charge of everything. Why should sex be any different?" He even looks amused, the git.

"But I never want to make you do anything you don't want."

"You remember who"—he takes the breath, this time—"who went and got that belt, right?"

She nods.

"So I don't think there's any way you could be accused of making me do something I didn't want to do."

She kisses him again. It's another long, slow one, and when they break apart, she takes her hand away. "Let me see you finish," she says.

She props herself up on one elbow and lets her other hand wander over his body: his chest and belly, his nipples, the bow of his lips. He takes them into his mouth, and she hears a sound come from both of them at the same time. "Baby," he says after another few moments, voice hoarse, "I need my other hand."

She leans up so that he can take his arm out from under her. He reaches down, but he doesn't wrap the other hand around his cock; rather, he skims his fingers over his bollocks, up and down and up again, and arches into his own touch. Then he pulls his legs up so that his feet are flat against the bed, and—she stares—his fingers travel even farther, and she could swear...

"What are you doing?"

"Not—God—not as much as I'd like, since I'm guessing you don't have any lube."

She shakes her head.

"So just rubbing my finger over...that place. You know."

Apparently there are some body parts taboo even to Dean Winchester.

"If you had lubrication, what would you be doing?"

"I'd have one of my fingers inside. Maybe two. It's less awkward when somebody else is doing it, but it still feels really good."

"It does? To have something...up there?"

"Fucking amazing."

"It doesn't hurt?"

"A little the first few times, and it hurts if you do it wrong. If you do it right? So damn good. Why do you think gay guys all over the world fuck each other that way? They wouldn't do it if it felt bad."

She concedes the point.

Both of his hands are busy, and he turns his head to the side, closes his eyes, gasps. His fingers return from his nether regions and start caressing his bollocks again, and she watches the shiver go through him. She bites his shoulder, not hard, and knows that the resulting moan was unplanned. "Do that again. Harder. Please."

She bites him again, then runs her tongue over the spot; does that on his shoulder and—lightly, so as to avoid leaving marks—up his throat. She kisses his mouth, briefly, then moves down and scrapes her teeth over his nipple, follows with lips and tongue. She hears her name escape him, and she sits up to see him come, right hand moving sharply on his cock, neck arched, eyes closed. She'd have thought it would be dirty, shameful, like watching a bad pornographic film, but it's not, and she understands, now, why he'd want to watch her do this: There's a raw sensuality to it, watching someone focused on and lost in nothing but pleasure. Semen coats his hand, spills onto his belly, and he collapses, sprawling, back onto the sheets. He's smiling a little bit.

She leans forward and licks at the viscous liquid near his navel, and his breath goes in. She looks up, and he's watching her with intense eyes.

"Was that alright?" she ventures.

He laughs, and his head falls back onto the pillow. "Are you kidding? I'll be fantasizing about that for the rest of my life."

She Summons the box of tissues from her desk, and they both clean him up. Then she settles herself alongside him, head tucked underneath his chin, leg over his hips. Relaxed and warm, he wraps his arms around her. "Now," he says, "that wasn't so bad, was it?"

She forces herself to be honest, to say it out loud. "No. It was...it was good. I liked watching you."

"So you can understand how I might like watching you."

She nods.

"So why don't you tell me about it," he suggests, "and we can get to the showing later."

It's probably a good thing her head is where it is, she thinks; she isn't sure she could talk about this and also look at him.

"I had roommates all six years I was at Hogwarts," she begins, "and for a long time it just didn't occur to me to...do that. As I said, it wasn't something we discussed, and I suppose I simply wasn't precocious in that particular way. Then one night during my fourth year, I woke up at some ungodly hour because I heard noise from Lavender's bed. The beds at Hogwarts have curtains around them, so I couldn't see what was happening, and I had actually sat up to get out of bed and ask whether she was sick. Except then I heard, er, other noises that made it clear she wasn't sick. And then she said Blaise Zabini's name. Honestly, I think that was more traumatic to me than anything else."

"Someone you didn't like?"

"He was good-looking," Hermione allows. "But what an incredible prat. Anyway, I couldn't...it was hard to stop thinking about it. I went to the library and looked up a variety of silencing and motion-suppressing charms."

"I take it your roommate didn't know those?"

"Either she didn't know them, or she knew them but performed them incorrectly, which wouldn't surprise me. What?" Hermione says, when Dean laughs.

"Nothing. Just...you're an intellectual snob even when you're talking about masturbation."

"I am not an intellectual snob! Well, alright, maybe a little. But if you'd ever met Lavender, you'd agree. And I didn't want anyone to hear me the way I'd heard her—how dreadfully embarrassing. So I learned the charms, and then I...tried them out."

"And?"

"It was strange the first time. Like trying to tickle yourself—it just doesn't work. But then it...did."

"So what do you think about? Johnny Depp? Angelina Jolie?"

"Not Angelina Jolie. Not women in general—I tried once, to see whether I might be lesbian or bisexual, but it seems that I'm not. Johnny Depp regularly." She closes her eyes, like an ostrich with its head in the sand. "I used to think about Harry and Ron a lot. Together. The three of us, I mean."

"Harry and Ron—your friends who're a couple?"

She nods. "It was before they became a couple. I used to imagine the three of us...doing that. Ron...going down on Harry. While I would watch. Or Harry...doing that to me, while Ron...penetrated him. Oh, God, I can't believe I'm admitting this!" She buries her face in Dean's shoulder.

"Baby," he says, stroking gently up and down her spine, "there's nothing wrong with it."

"It's...I don't know, invasive! My two best friends!"

"But the two people you were most comfortable with, right?"

"Right," Hermione says.

"So why wouldn't it be about them? If you're going to go there, let it be with the people you trust, you know?"

"True. But I stopped doing that when they became a couple. It seemed voyeuristic, somehow."

"So what was it after that?"

"When we were travelling together, I had next to no privacy—none of us did—and I was so exhausted all the time that I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had the energy to do...that."

"But now you have a room to yourself, and you get plenty of rest...."

"Fred and George sometimes," she says, burying her face again. "And. Um. And you."

"Fred and George are the twins, right?"

"Right."

"Identical twins! Who wouldn't think about that every time they had the chance?" He kisses the top of her head. "So what do you think about us doing?"

"I also think about that time this summer—when we had just come back from the park. You were in front of me...."

He continues when she trails off. "I was going down on you. And you had your hands around my wrists."

"I think about that," she whispers. "What your mouth felt like. How you were kneeling in front of me—giving yourself to me. And what we would have looked like from a meter or two away. I think about...your mouth on me a lot. Sometimes I think about us on the stairs at Faith's."

Dean laughs. "See, here's where we differ, because I think about that, and I think I've never been so sexually frustrated in my whole damn life."

"I'm sorry about that," Hermione says, even though she's not, really. "But it was very enjoyable for me."

"So where do you do it?" Dean asks her. "Just in bed?"

"My fifth year, I was made a prefect—they're students who are meant to assist in maintaining order and discipline."

"I know you look on the outside like you'd be good at that," Dean says, "but it seems like you got into a fair bit of trouble."

"I was generally smart enough not to get caught. Anyway, one of the privileges that came with the title was access to the prefects' bathroom on the fifth floor. It was beautiful: The tub was the size of a small swimming pool, and there were about a hundred taps, and everything was made of white marble. There was even a chandelier overhead."

Dean whistles softly. "I wish I'd gone to your school."

"Hogwarts was very beautiful," Hermione acknowledges. "I would lock myself in the prefects' bathroom, make sure that Moaning Myrtle was nowhere about, and run the tub full of bergamot bubble bath—that's how I came to use it. And I'd...do it in there, in the water."

"I wouldn't have minded seeing that," Dean says. "Maybe you can let me see now."

"You have to swear you won't laugh."

"I can promise that laughing is the last thing I will feel like doing."

They move so that Dean's propped up on the pillows, and Hermione's propped up on Dean. She moves one of his hands onto her breast. "It's like this," she says, and reaches between her legs to touch herself.

She begins with her middle finger, running it gently over her clit. She's already wet, that's not a problem, and she keeps going, slowly, letting the sparks ignite underneath her fingertip and burn through her belly and thighs. "It was nice in the prefects' bathroom," she tells Dean, "because I could just lie there, ignore the rest of the world. So much of my fifth year was so awful, but I could put it aside for a while, even if it was just for fifteen or twenty minutes. I'd think of Harry and Ron—Harry hadn't started seeing Ginevra yet, so I didn't feel badly about it—or sometimes of Oliver Wood; he was the Quidditch captain for Gryffindor, and quite fit. Sometimes Viktor, even though I hadn't seen him in a long time."

She begins to use her index and ring fingers, too, and her shudder and gasp are involuntary. "Kiss my neck," she says, "please," and he does. Her eyes close. It feels so good—as incredible as Dean is in bed, no one will ever know her body and responses the way she does, and when she wants to draw it out, to tease herself, she doesn't have to say that, can just lighten her touch, move her hand more languidly.

"You make it last," Dean says.

"When I can. I don't always have the time, or the energy."

"I could watch you like this every day," he says. "You were worried that I'd laugh, but I could sit here with you for hours, watch you touch yourself, listen to the sounds you're making. Watch you get lost in it."

She remembers being in the prefects' bathroom at Hogwarts, remembers the rare occasions that her room was empty and she could put a few precautionary charms on her bed curtains and have some time to herself. (It was a surprisingly good break from studying; one had to develop some sort of reward system, after all, while writing those interminable Potions essays.) She was confident enough in her silencing charms that she could do this when her roommates were asleep in the room, but, of course, being alone was preferable.

She remembers the warmth of the bathwater and the tranquil white silence of the marble walls of the room. Any sounds she made would echo, and, oddly, she never tried to bite them back when she was there: The soft stone seemed to welcome them, somehow, as if to say that the room was her temporary refuge, and it was pleased to serve as shelter for whatever she wanted or needed to do.

She moves her right hand faster, and takes her left to slowly press two fingers inside herself. She arches, whimpers, as Dean murmurs, "Oh, yeah."

He's got both hands on her breasts now, and that plus the heat of his mouth on her throat is almost too much for her to take in; it's an overload, and she's swimming in it, drowning in it. Three fingers inside now, and her cry is sharp, urgent.

Her touch is perfect on her clit, and she can feel the muscles of her cunt begin to tighten around her fingers. Her right hand is moving faster, the pressure just a little harder, hard enough to send her over the edge until she's coming, in waves, gasping. And just when she thinks she's finished, Dean's fingers are there, rubbing her little bundle of nerves until she's doing it again, this time with cries high and desperate.

She can't speak when she's done—can barely breathe—and she curls into Dean, who settles them flat on the bed again and wraps himself around her. She's shaky but drowsy from her orgasms, and safe in Dean's arms. She weaves in and out of sleep, listening to him tell her how beautiful she looked, how sexy, how he's honored that she let him see that.

She's got things to do today: They're going out patrolling this evening, and she and Ginevra will likely hear from Tonks today regarding Ginevra's teacher. But, for now, the world can wait. Hermione turns over, puts her arms around Dean, and says, "Don't let's get up yet."

Chapter Text


Inveniemus viam aut faciemus.
—Hannibal

 

 

It's midafternoon when Dean and Hermione finally dress and go downstairs. Sam isn't there, but Ginevra is, and Hermione sees a parchment envelope sitting on the kitchen counter. Ginevra's name is written on the front, in Tonks's cheery scrawl.

"You heard from her!" Hermione exclaims.

Ginevra flips off the telly and comes into the kitchen. "Her friend said she'd do it. Her name's Niamh, and she lives in Brooklyn. I'm to start lessons tomorrow, but"—Ginevra looks proud—"I rang her, and she's going to come to Abyssus tonight so we can have a chat."

"So you did learn to work the telephone," Hermione says.

"I knew there had to be some way Sam got here," Dean mutters, and Ginevra looks up at the ceiling as though it's suddenly fascinating.

"So you're skipping patrolling tonight?" Hermione asks Ginevra.

"I shouldn't have to. Niamh's coming at seven, and it won't even be full dark then."

"And she didn't mind meeting you in a bar?" Dean asks, amused.

"No," says Ginevra. "She said she'd heard of it."

"May I meet her?" says Hermione.

"Of course. Sam wants to be there, too, and I'd bet you a Galleon that Faith will appear unexpectedly. Just to sit at the bar and study, of course."

"Of course," says Dean. "She won't be checking this person out at all."

"Not at all," Ginevra agrees.

Dean has things to take care of this afternoon, he says, but as he and Hermione leave the flat to head towards Faith's (Hermione plans to walk him home, then Apparate back), Dean says, "So, seven, right?"

"You're coming, too?"

Dean shrugs. "How do I feel about my brother dating a seventeen-year-old? I'm not a hundred percent in favor of it, which he knows. But I like the actual seventeen-year-old, and there's no way she's just going to meet some random magical person and take lessons from her without us checking her out first."

Hermione laughs, takes his arm. It feels good to do that. "You understand that, despite your misgivings, you're giving them tacit approval."

"She makes Sam happy, and that goes a long way," Dean admits. "It's just...she couldn't be even two years older? A year?"

"Shall I remind you again about the greater age difference between you and me?"

"No, because then I'll feel like a dirty old man."

"You're not a dirty old man," Hermione says. "Merely dirty. And a man."

"And that makes me feel so much better." They turn onto Second Avenue, busy despite the off hour, and Dean goes on, "Here's what I don't get, though. Ginevra was...attacked by a man, and when we met y'all, she was clearly wary of guys—I don't know if you remember, but when we were all at Abyssus that first time, she got in between you and Faith and pretty much didn't move."

Hermione thinks back. "You're right, now that I recall it. I'm surprised you remember that."

"I just thought it was weird. She didn't seem shy at all around you and Faith, but she kept herself away from Sam, Xander, and me, even though Xander is like the least threatening dude on the planet, and practically every girl we meet decides Sam is her best friend. That changed, obviously, but I still don't get why a girl who'd been assaulted by a man would decide to date Gigantor. Wouldn't she be freaked out, being around a six-foot-five-inch guy after everything she's been through?"

"You never met Draco Malfoy," Hermione says slowly, "but if you had, I think it would make more sense to you. He was very slender, very blond, very effete, very upper-class, and very British. About as physically different from Sam as it's possible to be, and yet still be of the same gender—not to mention the differences in personality. Also, Draco didn't physically overpower her. If he'd tried, she probably would have won—which I'm sure he knew. Plus," Hermione adds, "I've never seen Ginevra fight Sam, but I've seen her fight you and Spike—not to mention Faith—and despite her size and his training, I still think she'd be the stronger there."

"Slayer," Dean acknowledges. "That's a good point. You don't know how strong you are. My guess is that Ginevra does."

"She's also been tangling with six brothers for her entire life, and I imagine that would help as well."

"I kind of have to feel bad for any guy who tries to pick on his little sister, and then discovers that she's become a Slayer."

"Oh, I think that's why she went from being Fred and George's annoyance to being their ally. They know when to switch tactics."

Hermione deposits Dean on Thirtieth Street, then Apparates back to the flat on Tompkins Square Park to do some washing-up and some writing. At six thirty, she changes into decent jeans and a pretty grey turtleneck that's among her inheritance from Fleur and Gabrielle, and they pop—literally—over to Abyssus.

Not only is Faith there—ostensibly doing homework, of course—but so is Xander, though Hermione's reasonably sure he wasn't originally on shift tonight. Veronica's at the bar drinking something pink. Nikkya and Sarah are at a table, and Nikkya's dressed to the nines in Wall Street chic, sleek and slightly intimidating. Sam and Dean come through the door not long later, followed by Spike, at a run underneath a thick blanket.

Ginevra stares. "What in the name of Salazar's hairy arsehole—"

"Thank you so much for that image," Sam mutters, but drops into the seat next to her anyway.

"—are all of you doing here?"

Faith closes her book and swivels on her bar stool. "Now," she says, "I'm kind of new at this whole family thing, what with my mom of ill repute and unknown paternity and all, but I'm pretty sure—"

"That if your friend was in a war, and now someone you don't know is coming to teach her magic—" Veronica continues.

"You check them out to make sure that they're someone your friend should be spending time with," Nikkya finishes.

A few minutes later, the front door opens to admit a woman dressed in head-to-toe black, her pale blond hair gathered into playful buns on either side of her head, blue eyes friendly behind black-framed glasses. She could have stepped straight out of the offices of a Brooklyn literary magazine.

She glances around the bar, then heads straight for where they're all sitting. "You must be Ginevra," she says.

"Hi," Ginevra says. "I am. How did you know?"

"As if I couldn't spot a Weasley at fifty paces. You're the spitting image of Bill and Charlie. Charlie was my year at Hogwarts; Bill was Head Boy my fifth year, and I know him professionally as well." She takes in everyone sitting around Ginevra. "I see there's an auxiliary. I'm Niamh Southway. I know you're Hermione Granger—" She looks at Dean, whose mouth is open no doubt for some variety of commentary. "Do you know what Hillary Clinton looks like?"

"Yeah, obviously," Dean says. "And that's relevant...?"

"You'd recognize Hillary the way wizards recognize Hermione." She greets Xander, then adds, "Hermione and Ginevra, what would you like? The rest of you are on your own."

"Hillary Clinton?" Hermione blurts out.

"Luckily for the wizarding world, you're far more attractive. Now, what would you like?"

"Hendrick's and tonic," Hermione says. "Um. Please."

Faith, looking entertained, says, "Why don't we go into the back room? It's way too early for the regulars to be back there, so we'll have it to ourselves."

"The famous back room!" Niamh exclaims. "I've always wanted to see it."

"You've heard of it?" Xander asks.

"Any witch or wizard worth their salt has," says Niamh. "But I've been home with a baby for the past year—and I was on bed rest for quite some time before that—so my social life has suffered, as you might imagine."

"I really don't think she's evil," Hermione says under her breath to Dean.

"I don't either," he says, "but a united front never hurts."

Niamh takes a sip of He'Brew RIPA, and sighs in ecstasy. "I haven't had beer in nearly two years," she says. "I'm happy to report that it's as good as I remembered."

"Two years?" says Dean, horrified.

"I was pregnant, then breastfeeding—oh, don't look so scandalized. Put a woman's breasts in a bikini, and it's sexy. Put one in front of a baby, and it's freakish and weird. Explain that one to me." She takes another sip of beer, then puts it down and looks at Ginevra. "Adora told me a little bit about what you need to learn, but I'd rather hear from you. Tell me how far you got at Hogwarts, and then what you learned during your year of living dangerously."

Ginevra goes over what she learned through the end of her fifth year; Hermione fills in a few blanks. Then they both describe the unconventional methods by which Ginevra learned to Apparate.

"But you know how to do it?" Niamh confirms.

"Yes. I'm not licensed, but who cares about that."

"You can take the test here in the States, and then apply for an International Apparition License—it costs a few extra dollars, but you don't have to take the test again. That way you'll be clear when you're back in the UK."

"I've been unlicensed this long," Ginevra says. "I don't see why it really matters."

After a pause, Niamh says, "The problem with living without a license—without a net—is that after a while, you start thinking that's the only way to live. It's not any way to live, especially not at your age."

There's a dry, only-just-this-side-of-derisive snort from Dean.

Niamh doesn't turn to face him, but says, "I don't know your story, but that's true whether you're a cute little redheaded English girl or an American badass in a leather jacket. Ginevra, do you have any interest in potions work, or would you prefer to skip that?"

Ginevra shrugs. "As long as it's not Severus Snape giving the lessons, it's fine with me."

Niamh shakes her head. "Good old Snape. I should have figured he'd never leave."

He's buried there, Hermione thinks. He certainly won't be leaving anytime soon. What she says is: "Do you know of a potions laboratory in the city? There's some advanced-level work I was never able to do, but I haven't been able to find a facility."

"I've got a friend in the chemistry department at Fordham; if you don't mind going up to the Bronx, I'm sure he'd be glad to let you use his. Remind me, and I'll give you his email address."

"Are you sure?" says Hermione. "He won't mind? I can pay lab fees, it's no trouble—"

"Hillary Clinton," Niamh says, looking amused, "but cuter. He won't mind."

Hermione can't believe it—so much she wants to do. She can finally get to work on the nonperishable Blood-Replenishing Potion she's been wanting to perfect—dead useful for all the Slayers, and for Sam and Dean. Strengthening Solution, too. It's always good to have Fire Protection Potion on hand, and some Invigoration Draught, and Pepperup Potion, now that fall's here....

Dean interrupts her thoughts with a murmured, "You look disturbingly excited."

"Dean, I can finally get the Blood-Replenishing Potion right! I had it, but I could never manage a nonperishable version—oh, but I think I know what I need to do...." And of course she doesn't have her notebook right now—well, she'll just have to remember, and write it down when she gets home. But just imagine! A potions laboratory at her disposal!

"So were you in the war?" Faith is asking Niamh when Hermione emerges from her potions-related euphoria.

"Yes," Niamh says, "although not like Hermione and Ginevra were. I was in training as an Unspeakable—" She must see the perplexed expressions on all the Muggle faces, because she explains, "Wizarding slang for people who work in the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic. But then the bulk of my department was destroyed in a battle—"

"Er, sorry about that," Hermione mumbles.

"I was going to add that it wasn't a moment too soon, as a great many of the senior Unspeakables had been turned to Voldemort's side anyway. I got taken in as—I suppose you could say as something of an auxiliary Auror, working on codebreaking and cursebreaking, and on tracking, when they needed me, and teaching the new recruits."

"How old is your baby?" Hermione asks; the Battle of the Department of Mysteries was only a couple of years ago.

"Thirteen months."

"God," says Nikkya, "so you were pregnant during most of that."

"Well, less of it than would have been ideal. Bevan—my son—was born ten weeks early. Lesson learned: Fighting a war does not tend to be conducive to healthy pregnancy."

"One of my nieces was premature," Nikkya says. "About twelve weeks. She's fine now—grew up into a healthy little girl—but it was pretty scary for all of us, and especially for my sister and her husband."

"I'm glad she's alright," Niamh says. "It was terrible for us, too. Bevan had a number of developmental delays—common for children born that early. We spent most of the first six months in the hospital, or at least so it felt. I didn't think anything could make the war take second place, but it turned out something could."

"You didn't go back?" Dean says, eyebrow up.

"No," says Niamh. "I had a sick child. I opted to be a parent rather than a soldier." There's a tense, hard silence. Sam sees the look on Dean's face, and lays a hand on his brother's arm. Niamh adds, "I was able to do codebreaking remotely, but I sometimes think I should have gone back after Bevan was born. What are one or two lives, after all, compared to a whole society? The right side won without me, so I suppose I wasn't crucial, but so many of my friends died, and I always wonder if I could have stopped it if I'd been there."

"I wasn't in your war," Sam says, hand still steady on the red chambray of Dean's button-down, "but you could say we've got one of our own, and I think everybody walks around with guilt over choices they made. It's a situation where all you get are bad choices."

"For what it's worth," Faith says to Niamh, "I would have done what you did."

"Thanks. And damn it, I leave the house and Bevan's totally happy with his grandmother and I swear I'm not going to get all freaked out and obsessed about my kid, and here I am!"

"I think that's what mums are supposed to do," Ginevra says. "Or at least that's what mine does. She has a clock that tells her where we all are at any given time. 'Mortal peril' is one of the options."

"You're making that up," Dean says.

Ginevra shakes her head.

"She's not," Hermione says. "I've seen it. For that matter, I'm on it."

"I made this agreement with myself and my husband," Niamh says, "that I'd leave Bevan with Marguerite a certain number of times per week and learn how to act like a human being again, and it sounds as though you made an agreement with your family, Ginevra, that you'd learn a certain amount of magic and then they'd shut up at you. Do I understand correctly?"

"That's right," Ginevra says.

"So what do you think?" She looks around at the assembled group. "I have experience teaching Charms, Transfigurations, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, as well as cursebreaking and tracking—and under far less pleasant circumstances, might I add. Are you sufficiently convinced that I'm not evil? Or do you have esoteric rituals you need to perform on me first?"

"All in favor of not evil," says Ginevra, "raise your hand."

She puts her own hand in the air.

Everyone else's follow.

"Let the record show," says Xander, "that a panel of experts have declared Ms. Southway not of the evil persuasion."

"Also," Nikkya says, "I like your glasses."

"So," says Faith, "now that that's settled, I was thinking it's time for another Tudors marathon this Friday. Maybe Weeds, too, if anyone's into that." She looks over at Niamh. "Want to come? Bring the kid; we promise not to eat him."

Niamh laughs. "I appreciate the invitation, but I have a date," she says. At Faith's raised eyebrow, Niamh continues, "With my husband. To a restaurant. With menus. And grown-ups."

"Awesome! Where are you going?"

"Le Bernardin."

"Nice," says Faith, with respect. "Xan took me there for my birthday last year. The sea urchin was so good, I almost had an orgasm at the table. Don't give me that look, Sam—if you'd had it, you'd have done it, too, but messier!" By this time, Niamh is clearly holding back laughter, and Faith finally blushes. "Uh, sorry. You kind of can't take me anywhere."

"Except to Le Bernardin, apparently," Niamh says. "I'll be sure to get the sea urchin if it's on the menu."

"Your husband will thank you for it." To Ginevra: "Alright, alright, I'll shut up now!"

They stay in the back room for another hour or so, chatting, until the regulars start to trickle and then stream in through the rear door. "I should head home," Niamh admits. "I'm getting twitchy and obsessed."

She Apparates out of the back room—none of the denizens so much as blink—and the rest of them go to Hermione and Ginevra's flat, where they crowd into the sitting room and consume vast quantities of pasta for supper. "Get your energy up, girls," Faith says. "We've got a lot of ground to cover tonight."

"Where are we going?" Ginevra asks.

"Greenwood Cemetery, in Brooklyn. Somebody's been raising zombies."

"Dude!" Dean says, honestly offended. "You got zombies, and you didn't let us in on it?"

"The girls've never dealt with zombies before, and you have. Plus, Hermione can torch them, and that will be awesome."

"We've dealt with Inferi," Hermione says. "I think it's the same thing."

"Dead people under somebody's control?"

"Dark wizards, in this case. The Death Eaters used them as guards at their camps."

"See?" Dean says. "They've done it. So we can come too."

"Slayers only," Faith says. "Go find your own zombies."

***************************

 

In the small hours of the morning, washing unbelievably smelly zombie parts off her skin, Hermione decides that she truly doesn't understand the obsession boys have with them. Werewolves have power; vampires possess erotic appeal (under certain interpretations) and eternal life; but zombies are brainless, and they stink.

Dispatching the zombies themselves wasn't difficult—Faith, Ginevra, and the other Slayers beheaded some, and Hermione burned the rest. Difficult, no; disgusting, yes. They tracked the raiser into one of the mausoleums, and then took him back to Abyssus, where he's currently tied to a chair in the basement. They're all going home to shower in shifts; Hermione let Ginevra go ahead of her, since Ginevra, wielding a machete, was close enough to get...remnants on herself, while Hermione was far enough away to avoid the worst of it. Someone from the organization in England of which Faith is not officially a part is coming to collect the raiser and, Hermione assumes, conduct their own version of Magical Law Enforcement; unfortunately, they're Muggles, and despite access to a private jet, it will nevertheless take them a certain amount of time to get here. So Ginevra, Ayesha, and Caroline, joined recently by Spike and Xander, are back at Abyssus helping Faith serve as temporary prison guards.

Hermione Apparates back, and into the middle of a Chinese-vs.-Thai-vs.-falafel-vs.-pizza argument. Falafel wins, and Xander volunteers to go pick it up. Everyone is much happier after consuming a falafel sandwich or three.

It's some hour of the actual morning by the time Faith's mobile rings. It's probably light outside, though it's impossible to tell from down here. "Buff," Faith says into her mobile. "You at JFK?...Oh, bonus! Alright, somebody'll come let you in."

"I'll go," says Xander.

"I'll go with you," says Hermione. "I've been sitting a while."

Upstairs, Xander puts his hand on the iron-bound door as though taking a reading—which, she thinks, it's entirely likely that he is. Whatever he discerns, it's apparently sufficient, because he opens the door and enthusiastically hugs the tiny redhead and cool blonde that result.

"Buffy Summers," the blonde says to Hermione. "You must be one of the Slayerettes."

"I feel as though that should come with a costume involving high heels and tights," says Hermione. They shake hands, and Hermione turns to the redhead.

In a flash, she understands what Remus means when he talks about hackles going up. Hermione steps back. The redhead steps back. They stare at each other for a few moments.

It's not evil. It's merely enough raw power to drown in.

"You're not evil, right?" the redhead says. "Because I could probably beat you, but we'd wind up destroying most of the neighborhood, and I hate to start off my mornings with rampant terror and destruction. Plus if you're friends with Faith, then you're probably interesting, and the world needs more interesting people. But most evil people are actually kind of boring—'Look at the world! Let me destroy it! Destroy destroy destroy!'—and I don't think Faith and Xander would be friends with somebody boring or evil, and especially not both, so I'm hoping that you're interesting and not evil and we won't have to have a death match and level the Lower East Side?"

Hermione thinks she got all that. "I'm not evil," she says. "At least no more so than most people. And I don't think you're evil. Just really, really powerful."

"I was kind of evil for a little while, but it was a long time ago and I got over it," the redhead says apologetically. And, Hermione thinks, it probably says something about her world that when Xander and Buffy don't blink at that explanation, Hermione's willing to accept it.

Hermione introduces herself; the tiny redhead is Willow. When they shake hands, it's a little like getting an electric shock.

"I didn't think they made any more like me," Willow says amiably as Xander closes the door and they start towards the stairs.

"I'm not sure whether I was...made like this," Hermione says, "or whether it was...well, siphoned into me, I suppose, for lack of a better phrase. Anyway, it's a long story."

"The best ones always are," says Buffy with a slight but sympathetic smile, and Hermione tries to remember everything she's heard about this woman. Died twice, brought back twice, once by ordinary CPR and once by a magical ritual that even Faith is reluctant to discuss. Lost her virginity to her vampire boyfriend (the first of two), who promptly lost his soul. (Hermione wonders if the general lack of concern about the age difference between herself and Dean, and between Ginevra and Sam, stems from the fact that this group tends to measure in centuries rather than individual years.) "How was your first close encounter of the zombie kind?" Buffy goes on.

"They smell dreadful."

"I hate zombies," Buffy agrees. "They're brainless, they eat brains, they're always controlled by people who view capes as a valid fashion choice, and they leave...parts all over you. But guys think they're really, really cool."

"I'd just like to state the for the record," says Xander, "that I have made unceasing efforts to live my life in a zombie-free environment."

Buffy kisses him on the cheek. "And that's why we love you, Xander. So where is this moron? Downstairs?"

"Being resoundingly glared at by Faith."

"What can the Tribunal do to him, really, after that?"

"Is there no one to dispense justice in the States?" Hermione asks.

Buffy shakes her head. "The Watchers' Council pretty much cut and run out of the US after Sunnydale went down—literally—and it's not like we can just take him down to the local precinct. They've probably seen weirder, but it's human weird, not zombie-raising weird, you know?"

"Everything's pretty much locally run here," Willow adds. "Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's bad. Like in Chicago, they have a whole council of wizards, but they tend to view beheading as a perfectly reasonable crime-stopping measure."

"Beheading?" says Hermione, in disbelief.

Xander nods. "That's why we fly in the cavalry from England, not Illinois."

Xander opens the door to the downstairs, and they start down—first him, then Buffy, then Willow, then Hermione. Hermione hears Faith's affectionate "Buff babe!"—and then Buffy freezes on her step and Hermione and Willow nearly bowl themselves and her over.

She picks up the pace again and hugs Faith, and Hermione sees Spike standing on the other side of the room, arms crossed over his chest, eyes level but unwelcoming. "Spike," Buffy says evenly when she pulls back from Faith.

"Buffy. You're looking well."

"Thank you."

Hermione knew that Buffy had had a second vampire lover. She just hadn't known who it was.

Buffy breaks away from the intense, awkward (or just intensely awkward) moment and walks over to the bound prisoner. "Do you know who I am?"

"You're the Slayer," he breathes.

"Hey!" Faith objects.

The raiser—dressed, just as Buffy might have predicted, in a cape over polyester trousers—bows his head. "Slayer, I have dreamed of this day. I am not worthy. Take me to your stronghold so that I may prove myself a man deserving of you."

"My stronghold?" Buffy says. "You mean my apartment? Because, let me tell you, that's so not happening. And not just because I haven't dusted in a while."

"Slayer, I have raised the dead in your honor!"

"Oh my fucking God," Faith says. "This asshat raised a bunch of zombies because he's a fanboy?"

Buffy looks at Faith. "I really can't leave him here?"

"Babe, I'd take him off your hands if I could, but we've got nothing. It's not something he should die for, but we don't have anywhere to put him, and he can't be running around loose trying to raise zombies from every graveyard in New York City to impress The Slayer."

Buffy sighs. "Calling John Hinkley, Junior. Fine, I'll take him. But how are we going to get him to the car? It's light outside; people are walking around and stuff, and I think even people in New York City would notice us carrying a tied-up guy and stuffing him into the backseat."

Imperius is out, for several reasons. Hermione stays quiet.

"I could just knock him in the head with something," Ayesha volunteers.

"As satisfying as I would personally find that," Buffy says, "probably not so good in practice."

"I have an idea." Hermione goes over to the prisoner. She says a small, fierce mental Accio, and the zombie-raiser cries out. "That was a Summoning spell," she tells him. "It's generally used only for objects"—she Summons a bottle of water—"but it can be used for other things as well. Such as your fingernails, which is what I just did."

"Ow," says Buffy, rubbing one hand with the other.

"I approve," says Spike, with admiration.

"If you go outside and get into Buffy's car quietly," Hermione continues, "I will not need to use that again. If you cause a scene, I will use it not only on your fingernails, but on any other part of your body, internal or external, that might strike my fancy. Do you understand?"

He nods quickly.

"Good. Silencio." Hermione looks at Buffy. "That was a Silencing charm. Willow, once you're in the car—or whenever you decide you wish to lift it—just say 'finite incantatem.'"

Willow mouths the words, nods, then says, "You're a little scary. We should talk more when Buffy and I don't have to take some stupid Slayer-obsessed zombie-raiser back to England."

"You're a little scary, too. And I'd like that."

Good-bye hugs are exchanged, Buffy and Spike nod with exceeding civility at each other, and the group gets the zombie-raiser up and out. The car—in reality, a Mercedes limousine—pulls away from the kerb, and they watch it turn at Ludlow Street on its way to the Brooklyn Bridge, over the East River to JFK airport.

They head back inside, and Faith yawns, leaning against the bar. She rubs her eyes, then looks up at Hermione. "You've got a ruthless streak in you. I don't think I would have necessarily guessed that."

"I wouldn't have actually pulled his fingernails out," says Hermione, feeling a little sick. "I would have just done a Full Body Bind." She sighs, admits, "But I did use something similar against two Death Eaters, when we were looking for the third Horcrux."

"You remember what Sam said?"

"About what?"

"When Niamh was talking about staying with her baby. He said that war is a situation where all you get are bad choices. That doesn't make it right; it just makes it true."

"We couldn't have defeated Voldemort without the Horcruxes," Ginevra says quietly from behind Hermione. "It's Unforgivable to put someone under Imperius, even though we could have gotten the information much less painfully. And Death Eaters train as Occlumenses, so Legilimency was out—we tried. However, it's not Unforgivable to perform a Summoning charm on someone's thumbnails or molars."

"I'm not making a moral judgment," says Faith. "I wasn't there, and I'm the last person who should do that anyway. But I think Sam was right. On a happier subject," she continues, "I have class at eleven, and I had not planned on staying up all night with that fucktard, and if I don't get a bagel and lox and a shitload of coffee, bad things are gonna happen. Who's coming?"

"I told Niamh I'd meet her at noon," Ginevra mutters. "I hadn't planned on staying up all night with that...what was the word you used, Faith?"

"Fucktard. Abbreviated form of 'fucking retard.' Highly useful, if somewhat offensive. And you could have gone home, Ginevra—we'd have covered."

Ginevra shakes her head. "No. That's not how it works. And anyway, now I want a bagel, too. What's lox?"

"Oh, you poor, benighted child."

Hermione's stomach is still feeling mildly temperamental, but she decides she really ought to find out what lox really is; she's seen so many signs for it. "Spike, shall I bring you back anything?" she asks. Now that it's light out, he's stuck here for the day.

"Thanks, love, but I've had my daily. Though if one of you could fetch my laptop, I'd be much obliged."

"Sure," says Faith, "Harris or I can swing by and get it."

They collect their things from downstairs and get ready to go. Spike stops Hermione as she's going down the steps. "I'd like to echo what Faith said just now, and what Sam said last night. Despite what the current pontiff believes, morality is a relative thing."

"Imperius would have been the better option," Hermione says. "But there are...extenuating reasons not to use that. Apart from its being Unforgivable."

"Ginevra," Spike says. "Faith told me, with her permission. In case issues arise during training."

"If she hadn't been here, I'd have used that. Easier on everyone."

"Including, ironically, the zombie wanker." He kisses her cheek with cool lips. "Now, go have a bagel and lox. They're almost as good as deep-fried onions."

***********************

 

They have their bagels (lox is a type of smoked salmon, and delicious), then split up in various directions: Faith uptown, to class; Ginevra to Brooklyn, to meet Niamh; Ayesha and Caroline back to their dorms; Hermione back to her flat, to take a nap.

"So I'll see you guys bright and early tomorrow morning, right?" Faith says cheerfully.

"Oh Merlin," says Ginevra. "I have Quidditch practice tonight; I don't think I can do six a.m. training tomorrow on top of all this."

"Wimp," says Faith. "Hermione?"

"I'll be there. Masochist that I am."

"So tomorrow night, seven? Ginevra, tell Nikkya at practice tonight; Sarah too, if she wants to come."

"Sarah's going out of town this weekend, but I'll tell Nikkya. She's disturbingly preoccupied with the man who plays the king that chops his wives' heads off."

"Well, because he's hot. Why do you think all those women married him in the first place?"

"He was distinctly unattractive towards the end of his life," Hermione points out. "I think money and power had more to do with it."

Faith waves her hand. "Details. Hermione, can you bring an appetizer? Doesn't have to be anything complicated. Ginevra, dessert?"

"Dessert! Pie," Ginevra decides.

"I swear to God, you and Dean share a pie-obsessed brain. Now I have to go to class."

"I'm off to have a lovely nap," says Hermione.

"Bitch," says Faith, but with fondness.

****************************

 

Hermione sleeps for a while, gets some writing done. In the early afternoon, Nikkya calls the house: She's leaving work early with grippe, and begs regrets to Faith. Faith assigned her cheese, so when Hermione goes to the Union Square market to get vegetables for her appetizer, she picks up some cheese from one of the dairy stalls as well.

She Apparates to Faith's at seven. She hasn't seen Ginevra since this morning, but Faith reports that Ginevra was planning to meet up with Sam when she returned from Brooklyn, and they were going to conduct some sort of dessert onslaught.

Dean's there; Veronica; Xander; Spike will be along once it gets dark enough. Hermione arranges her vegetables, and Faith forces Dean to eat some of them. They lay out the cheese with some crackers. Faith pours wine.

At twenty after seven, Ginevra and Sam still have not arrived.

"That's weird," says Faith. "Sam's usually crazy punctual."

"It's Friday on the subway, though," Veronica points out. "Something always goes wrong."

Dean tries Sam's mobile. It goes directly to voice mail—but if he's underground, that's to be expected.

"Well, if it's just a naked crackhead on the tracks or something, they should have them cleared out pretty soon," Faith says philosophically.

Seven thirty. Dean tries again, with the same result. "Ginevra doesn't have a cell, does she?" he asks Hermione.

"No. When she talked to Sam from England, she used mine."

Seven forty-five. Voice mail, yet again.

"If some miserable bastard jumped during evening rush hour," says Faith, "I hope they get what's coming to them in the afterlife."

"Even if there was a jumper, though, they should be out by now," Dean says.

"Not necessarily. If their train got caught between stations, it could be a couple of hours."

At five minutes to eight, the door opens and Sam comes through it. Dean looks visibly relieved—but something is clearly not right with Sam. He's alone, for one thing; he's pale; and he doesn't look at any of them as he starts up the stairs. "Dean," he says, "I need to talk to you."

"Yeah, OK." Dean starts to follow.

"Sam, are you alright?" Faith asks. "What's going on?"

He doesn't answer.

Sam's reached the second-floor landing, Dean a few steps behind him, when there's a loud crack, and Ginevra appears in the middle of the sitting room. Hermione stares; it's unconscionably rude to Apparate into someone's home without their express permission. They always go to the alley, then walk to the front door and knock first.

"SAMUEL PAYSON WINCHESTER!" Ginevra shouts, loudly enough that Faith winces and Dean stops on the stairs and rubs his ears.

Sam doesn't turn around. "Ginevra, go home." His voice goes past calm; it's completely flat.

"Sod that for your grandmother's snotrag. You will not walk away from me."

"Ginevra, I said, go home. You don't belong in this."

"Shove it up your arsehole. I have never walked away from a fight in my life, and if you think I'm walking away from this, you don't know me as well as you think you do."

"Sam," Faith says, "what happened? Are you OK?"

"Nothing happened," Sam says, without affect.

"Now that's a steaming pile of horse shite," says Ginevra. "I was right there, Sam. Do you want me to just ignore what I heard?"

"Yes," says Sam. "I want you to ignore it, and I want you to get the fuck out of here."

"You bloody coward," Ginevra spits, and this time Sam turns around. But Ginevra, rather than speaking to him, addresses the people in the sitting room. "Everyone, while in—"

From Sam: "Ginevra!"

She pays no attention. "While in the dessert aisle of the grocer—"

"Ginevra, for God's sake, shut—"

"We were approached by a demon."

The room goes silent.

"Sam," Dean says, voice deep, determined and terrified at once, "what the hell happened?"

Ginevra answers. "A man walked up to us while we were standing in front of the chocolates. He was about my father's age, of unremarkable appearance, dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt. His eyes were yellow."

"Motherfucker," Faith says softly at the same time Dean says, "Oh my God."

"Ginevra, no." Sam again, but now it's a plea. "Please don't get mixed up in this. Please. You know what happened to Jessica. Please."

"The existence of this demon is not news to you, Samuel," she says. "If you didn't want me mixed up in this, you should have thought of that before getting involved with me. I love you, and I'm already mixed, and I'm not letting a demon with bad skin and ugly eyes have you, and that's all there is to it." She addresses the group again. "The demon had two things to say. One, that he believes he has a set of tasks he'd like Sam to carry out for him. Two, that Sam's magical abilities are a gift from this demon."

"What," Dean says, low.

But Ginevra said...Well, no, Ginevra didn't say: Hermione referred to both Dean and Sam as Muggles, and Ginevra didn't contradict her. "Sam, you have magical ability?" Hermione says, before realizing that it's out loud.

"No, Hermione," Sam says, still from the stairs. "It's not like yours and Ginevra's. It's demonic. It's demonic, and the demon has some kind of fucked-up plan for me and for the other kids like me, and, God, this was all such a mistake—Ginevra, I'm so sorry, I should never—"

Hermione walks over to the bottom of the staircase. "What do you mean, the other kids like you?"

"There are other kids who have powers, too," Dean says. "Precognition, telekinesis, mind control, whatever you call that electro-hands thing. Our dad...our dad knew about it."

"What precisely can you do, Sam?" Hermione asks. This can't be right, she thinks. It can't be. There is no way on this earth that gentle Sam Winchester is demonic—it's just not possible.

Sam sits down on the stairs, resting his head on the wall, eyes closed. "I get visions. Usually in dreams, but sometimes when I'm awake, too. I moved a cabinet once, but I've never been able to do anything like that again."

"What are your visions about?"

"People dying. We can...sometimes we've been able to figure out when and where, and do something about it. Other times...not. I had dreams about Jessica's death months before it happened. I didn't know what they were. I thought they were just nightmares. Our dad—our dad did a bunch of research into it. Basically the demon wants me, and the other kids like me, as soldiers in some kind of demon war. We could all turn evil, me included. The powers are a part of that."

"Wait," says Faith, "I just want to be sure, since we haven't really talked about this for a while. You've been able to see the future—and save people because of it—and you moved a piece of furniture to get to Dean when that nutjob kid was trying to kill him. Have you had other visions, or mojo, or whatever?"

"That's the only kind of visions I've had," Sam says, "and the only time I've ever been able to move something. There's been other weird stuff—that kid Andy, the one with the mind control, wasn't able to affect me, and a couple of times I've been able to sense ghosts."

"This is the first I've heard about the psychic mojo," Veronica says, "so sorry if I'm behind here. But how did your dad find out what the demon wanted?"

Dean and Sam look at each other. Then Dean shakes his head. "We don't know. It's not in his journal. He just told me, right before he died."

"I don't see how any of this is very different from what Ginevra and I can do," Hermione says.

"Well, it's a gift from a fucking demon, for one thing!" Sam bursts out.

"And you know that from who?" Xander says.

"From the fucking demon!"

"Has it occurred to you," says Hermione, "that a demon might lie?"

"Christ, obviously," says Dean. "But our dad knew—"

"The only thing those abilities have ever done is save people's lives," Faith interrupts. "And I'm sorry, but what the fuck kind of idiot demon announces his plans to kill somebody's girlfriend six months before he actually does it?"

"The resistance to mind control sounds like Occlumency," says Hermione. "It's something that most people have to train for, but it's possible that you built it up on your own, or were born with a natural propensity for it."

"What about the ghosts?" Sam persists.

"I saw my best friend for a year," Veronica says quietly. "After she was murdered. She kept me from getting on a bus that crashed. I don't have any psychic or magical powers at all. But she was there."

Ideas are swirling in Hermione's head. "Sam," she says, "you say you've met other people with abilities—besides Ginevra and me, I mean?"

"A few," he says. "Not many."

"How did they feel about them? Had they been contacted by the demon?"

"Andy hadn't. He didn't seem bothered by any of it. His brother had, though: The demon gave him the 'plans' speech, and promised that he'd make Ansem powerful, a leader in his army, all of that."

"How did Ansem respond?

"He ate it right up," says Dean.

"And the others?" Hermione asks.

Sam goes on, "We don't know about Scott, because Gordon—another hunter, who, thank God, is in jail now—killed him. Ava—we don't know what happened to Ava. She disappeared, and it...it didn't look good. I don't think she'd had any contact with the demon before that, but there was sulfur on the scene of her disappearance, and her fiancé had been murdered. And the powers had definitely scared her. And Max—well, he'd been through a lot."

"He was goddamn crazy," says Dean. "But not because of the demon."

"Tyrants throughout history," Hermione says, "have maintained control by keeping their subjects isolated and afraid. Your father was told—by whatever or whomever—that your abilities were dangerous, and something to be frightened and ashamed of. This served to keep him from communicating with anyone else who might have them, and I suspect it has done the same for you and Dean. Ava disappeared after your contact with her, eliminating her as an ally. The demon contacted Ansem and made him promises of power, ensuring that he would remain on the demon's side. And you said that Max was already unstable, so the demon's work was done for him."

"What are you saying?" Dean asks.

"I'm saying that Sam—and all of these other people you mentioned—were likely born with magical talent, the same as Ginevra and me. But Ginevra was born into a family of wizards, and even though I wasn't, I was placed on the Ministry registries at birth, and my parents were contacted when I got to the age when my abilities would start to manifest. I received training in a community of people like me. There was nothing to be scared of." She takes a breath and continues. "The United States magical community is infamous for its disorganization—you've heard me say this. And that was compounded by the fact that your family moved so much after your mother's death. The demon's tactics wouldn't have succeeded with Ginevra and me, for example, because we were connected to other people like us. We knew that there was nothing wrong with what we could do—but we also knew that it didn't make us chosen people, or anything like what the demon told Ansem. You didn't have those resources."

"Perfect demon fodder," says Faith. "That makes a hell of a lot of sense."

"And," says Hermione, "do you really think an evil being wouldn't give its eyeteeth for an army of scared, isolated people with extraordinary powers? What better group to have under its control?"

"But what about all our dad's research?" Sam says. "God knows I fought with the guy about everything, but he knew what he was talking about when it came to the supernatural."

"You think a demon wouldn't know how to plant misinformation?" Ginevra retorts.

"Your dad also thought vampires were extinct," Faith adds, gently. "And that you can cure lycanthropy by killing the sire. Look, I bought the party line on this because your dad knew a lot about a lot. And I didn't know any witches except for Willow, and she's kind of the exception to a whole lot of rules. But, Sam, I'm really starting to think that Hermione's right. You, and those other kids, were born with mojo. That's something a demon wants, and because of your situations, it was able to keep you under its thumb."

"But the things I can do—and that the other kids could do—aren't necessarily the same as what Hermione and Ginevra can do," Sam says. "I can't fly on a broom."

"You've never tried," Ginevra points out.

"Andy's mind control, the visions, what Scott Carey could do with his hands—that's not anything like what you guys can do."

Faith's shaking her head. "Actually, that mind control bit sounds a lot like how Hermione and Ginevra describe Imperius."

"But it wasn't just control—Andy made people want to do what he said. He made Dean give him the Impala!"

Dean looks embarrassed.

"Imperius, when it's successful, works the same way," says Ginevra. "It wasn't completely successful on me because I'd been trained to resist it. Most people haven't."

Hermione remembers Professor McGonagall's words describing Sybil Trelawney. "And true Seers are rare," she says, "but they're well documented throughout wizarding history. It's true that Ginevra and I don't have those gifts, but they certainly exist."

"But that electro-hands thing, that doesn't," Sam protests.

"No," Hermione allows. "But, on the other hand, neither do my newfound capacities for heat transference. There's no history anywhere in the wizarding world—at least not that I've read—"

"And she's read it all," Ginevra says, just a touch removed from sarcastically.

"Not all," says Hermione, "but a lot. And I've never heard of another wizard who's had an ability similar to that. And for that matter, let me add that I did not have that capacity until after the battle with Voldemort. Much of the power that I now possess didn't manifest until then. I had great intellectual abilities—that's always been true—but I didn't have any more raw power than anyone else. Or at least I didn't think I did. I'll never know whether the additional power was always in me, and I simply had never accessed it until then, or whether it was somehow transferred to me from Voldemort."

"You really think that?" Sam says. "That it came from him?"

"I don't know," Hermione answers, "and there's no way of finding out. But ultimately I don't believe it matters. It's simple capability; it doesn't have moral force one way or the other. I choose what to do with it."

"And every Slayer's got a little bit of demon in her," says Faith. "People have known that since the very beginning. Sam, for what it's worth, I agree with Hermione: I think you were born with what you've got, just like she and Ginevra were. But I also agree that it doesn't matter all that much. You make the choices."

Dean sighs. "I hate to speak ill of my dad, after everything he did. But he wasn't—kind of surprisingly, given what he did for a living—he wasn't all that good with things he didn't know. We know a psychic, but Dad never really knew anybody who could do more than that."

"Well," says Sam, "there was the witch we lived next door to in Atlanta."

Dean snorts. "Oh, man, I forgot about that. Who turned you into a girl for three days after you trampled her roses, and Dad barged over there armed for bear, waving around the Malleus Maleficarum."

"I bet that went well," says Faith.

"She laughed and turned the hose on him. Sam was a girl for seventy-two hours, and then he changed back." Dean pauses, admits, "There was no harm done. But Dad wasn't a big fan of witches after that."

"I'm sure that if your father met Hermione and me," Ginevra says, "he'd think we came in very pretty English packages. Underneath which, I've no doubt, he'd believe we were thoroughly evil. Sam, if you believe I'm evil, we need to have a talk."

Sam looks up at her. "I don't believe you're evil, Ginevra," he says. "You know that."

Ginevra goes over to the stairs, nudges Sam away from the wall, and sits down next to him. Dean takes his other side, and Hermione watches Sam surrender, head in hands. Hesitantly, Dean sets a hand on his back, and Sam doesn't protest, even draws a little bit closer to his brother. Sam's bigger than Dean, but Hermione can't help thinking that she's watching a younger Sam and a younger Dean, when more or less all they had in the world was each other.

"So what now?" Sam says after a few moments. "OK, I'm not a demon. But I've still got this...whatever-it-is that I don't know how to use."

"We find you a teacher," says Ginevra. "Like we did for me. If it's alright with you, I'll talk to Tonks."

Sam nods.

"And meanwhile," says Faith, "the rest of us summon this son of a bitch and kill the fuck out of it. I'm sorry, but this has gone on long enough. Maybe in demon time twenty-five years isn't that long, but it's too long for some asshole to be terrorizing people I care about."

"Faith, you know where the Colt is, right?" Dean says.

"I refuse to believe that there's only one way to kill this thing. That there's only one way to kill anything."

"Lehane, you're out of your goddamn mind."

"I think she's right," Sam says. "Dean, it's obviously tracking us, and it wants us to know it's here. I don't think we have a lot of time."

"So we pack it up and go somewhere else. Sam, what the hell, you know better—"

"So the next person we love who gets slashed through the abdomen and burned to death: Would you prefer that to be Ginevra? Or Hermione?"

"Neither! For Christ's sake! That's why we need to get the fuck out of here!"

"No, Dean. It doesn't matter where we go; if the demon wants us, it'll find us. And we're in a better position here, with allies, than we would be on the road by ourselves. I say we put Bobby on it—"

"And if it's OK with the two of you," Faith adds, "I'd like to bring in Giles and Willow. I'm also going to get Willow back here to redo the wards on this house and on Abyssus, and to put them on Hermione and Ginevra's place."

"Fordham's got one of the best demonology collections in the US, in their archive vaults," says Xander. "Georgetown's is even better. That's about a four-hour drive—less, if Dean's at the wheel."

"And I was very surprised by what I found in the Archives and Manuscripts Department at the New York Public Library," says Hermione. "That Sanskrit incantation was completely unknown to me."

"Can you get me into all of those places?" Sam asks.

"Better: I can teach you to get yourself in."

"You all are fucking suicidal," Dean says, but he doesn't argue anymore.

"No," says Faith. "I'm just doing my job. I was literally put on this earth for the exact purpose of fighting evil. I stormed the goddamn hellmouth with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds, Dean, and the continued existence of, oh, say, the world should tell you that we won. What the hell kind of Slayer am I, if I let evil hunt down my friends? We've got a vampire, three Slayers, a whole mess of witches, and a PI. We've got your training and Sam's. We've got Illyria wandering around the Otherworld. We've got Giles, who can get into the Vatican archives, and Willow, who can pretty much do anything. We have Ginevra's sheer fucking force of will. We have Hermione's brain and ability to light things on fire. We've got the combined knowledge in this room. "

"And with all that," Dean says, "we still don't have another way to kill the demon."

"We'll find a way," says Hermione. "Or we'll make one."

Chapter Text

When Spike appears around nine, he looks at the assembled masses, the decimated food, the multiple empty wine bottles, and the lack of beautiful people playing English royalty on television, and says, "What'd I miss?"

Dean looks at Sam. "Do you want to sum up? Or should I?"

It's Faith, though, who gives the overview of the demon encounter in the grocery, and the consequences.

"Good," Spike says, taking an Old Rasputin out of the refrigerator. "It's about time." He sits down and says, "Which grocery was it, out of curiosity?"

"The big one," says Ginevra.

Sam appears to be swallowing a smile. "The Whole Foods," he says. "At Columbus Circle."

"Shit, I should have fucking guessed," says Faith.

"I've been calling the TimeWarner Center the devil's playground for as long as it's been open," says Xander. "While I never exactly thought I'd be taking myself literally, I also can't say I'm that surprised."

"What is this place?" asks Hermione.

"It's a building—a mall—on Columbus Circle, across from the southwest corner of Central Park," Faith explains. "Yeah, the Whole Foods is nice, but I get the heebie-jeebies whenever I go in that place. I just assumed it was the inherent wrongness of having a mall in the middle of Manhattan. But apparently it actually is a demon hangout."

"Plus they union-bust," says Veronica. "Satanic all around, if you ask me."

Faith pours more wine, and something suddenly occurs to Hermione. "You know, Sam, those times I placed the charm on you to allow you to see Ginevra's Quidditch games, it must have been quite unnecessary. I feel so silly."

"So you think I can see through that stuff?"

"Well, if you're a wizard, you can. You know what? Let's do a test. I can't believe I didn't think of this earlier." Hermione gets up, goes into the kitchen, and quickly scans the countertops. She casts a Disillusionment charm on the sugar bowl, then pushes it far back on the counter, against the wall. "Dean," she calls. "Come in here, please."

She hears him get up—followed by a vocalized whipcrack noise from someone else at the table. "Shut the fuck up, Lehane," he mutters, then comes into the kitchen.

"Try to find the sugar bowl," Hermione tells him.

He looks around the kitchen, then back at her. "Is it actually in here?"

"It's here, and it's not invisible. Not exactly."

He appears dubious, but he looks again. He finally finds it, but it takes a few minutes, and he has to locate it by touch. He pulls it forward and stares at the stoneware. "That was fucking weird. It was like it blended in with the wallpaper, but then when I pulled it out, it was the same color as my hands."

"Good. That means the charm is working." She takes the bowl from him and puts it back. "Sam," Hermione calls. "Come in here and find the sugar bowl."

Sam, followed by Ginevra, enters the kitchen, glances around, walks right toward the bowl, and palms it in one of his huge hands. "OK."

"You didn't have trouble seeing that?" Dean says.

"No. Should I have?"

Hermione nods at the space where the bowl had been. "Put it back."

He does, and she lifts the charm. Dean stares again. "Alright, that was even fucking weirder."

"Disillusionment works in one of two ways," Hermione explains. "It either causes Muggles to see something else entirely—during Ginevra's Quidditch games, for example, a Muggle sees only dark and ominous woods—or it causes objects to blend into their background, as the sugar bowl did. It does not make them invisible—Dean found the bowl—but it makes seeing the object more difficult."

"Camouflage," says Dean.

"Exactly."

They go back to the table, and Ginevra says ruminatively, "Now, what will be really interesting is when Sam gets a wand."

Faith, eating gelato directly from a container she's sharing with Veronica, points at Dean with her spoon. "Say it and I'll stake you."

Dean holds up his hands. "What?" But, of course, he's smirking.

"Where does one even get a wand here?" Hermione wonders.

"Kansas, I mean it!"

"I didn't say anything!"

"But you thought it really loudly!"

Ignoring Dean and Faith, Ginevra looks across the table at Hermione. "Do you have your mobile?"

"Somewhere. Do you want it?"

"Just for a moment."

Hermione Summons her courier's bag, looks through it, then hands the mobile to Ginevra. To Hermione's surprise, Ginevra dials a number from memory. "Oi, Nikkya, it's Ginevra. Do you have a moment to answer a random question?...You sound sick; are you alright?...Oh no! Well, I won't keep you. We were just wondering where people buy wands in the States....Really? That's interesting. I've never heard of that....Huh....Well, that would figure....Right, of course....No, not typically, but sometimes....Now go to bed and feel better. We still have to beat North Jersey hollow tomorrow!...Cheerio, love." She snaps the mobile shut and hands it back.

"I think we need to get you one of your own," Hermione says. "Just think, you'll be the first Weasley in history to own a telephone!"

"Ron has one at the flat in Tutshill."

"Only because Harry had it installed. And Harry mainly installed it because my parents weren't connected to the Floo network. Your father would be so proud."

"Are you mad? My father would never find out, because he'd break it. Anyway, Nikkya said that she inherited her wand: Her great-grandmother died a year or so before she was born, and the wand passed to the next grandchild, which was Nikkya. She also said that her sister and two of her brothers made their own. Her youngest sister's was bought new, because she requested it as a Christmas gift, but their parents had to take her by Portkey to New Orleans to get it."

"So I guess we're going to New Orleans?" Dean says.

Ginevra shakes her head. "No. Nikkya said there was a storm there a couple of years ago that did a lot of damage?"

"Hurricane Katrina," Sam says. "It practically destroyed the city."

"According to Nikkya, the wandmaker's shop was ruined in the storm. He was very old, so he just retired rather than rebuilding it."

"That's it for the entire US?" Faith says.

Ginevra nods. "And the English wandmaker is close to retirement—honestly, not to sound cold-blooded, but I'd be surprised if he lives much longer. Fred and George see him in Diagon Alley occasionally, and they say he's very frail. The shop is officially closed—I think he's trying to train his apprentices as much as he can while he's still alive."

"So what does that mean for Sam?" Dean asks.

"There's Gregorovitch," says Hermione, "but he's in Sofia. I've heard rumors of a shop in Mexico City, and another in Kyoto, but no one seems to be very sure."

"And they're expensive," Ginevra adds. "My brother Ron's first wand was a hand-me-down from Charlie—my parents couldn't afford a new one that year."

The idea comes in a flash, but Hermione tries to choose her words carefully. "Sam, are you set on having a new one?"

"No. I mean, up until about twenty minutes ago it never occurred to me that I would need a wand in the first place. Dean, I swear to God if you say what you look like you're about to..."

Ignoring Dean, Hermione goes on, "I ask because I have mine here with me, and I don't need it anymore. You might not want a hand-me-down, and I'll certainly understand if you don't. I kept it because it means a lot to me, and it's not the sort of thing you throw away, but I would be happy to give it to you if you choose it and if it chooses you."

"I can't take that from you—" Sam starts.

Hermione shakes her head. "I can't use it, and to be perfectly frank it makes me sad to see it sitting in the box all the time. But as I said, I understand if you want one that's new—without a history."

"I don't think having a history makes something bad," Sam says. "These houses, for instance. They feel strong precisely because of their history."

"And you used yours to defeat Voldie's Schwartz," Faith adds. "That sounds like good history to me."

"I can Apparate and get it," Hermione says. "But I should warn you first that it may not work for you. As Mr. Ollivander tells everyone, the wand chooses the wizard—Dean, be quiet. I tried several before I found the one that was right for me." She hears the beginning of a snicker, and sends out a preemptive elbow. "And, second, if this wand does in fact work for you, it's bound to you—it's yours until it's broken or until you die. It's ancient, powerful magic that not even the wandmakers themselves entirely understand. So, please, Sam, don't accept this under any sense of obligation.. We'll get you to Gregorovitch; we'll figure out how Nikkya's brothers and sister made their wands. Don't think that you have to do this because it's the only choice."

"We have our own Dark Lord to defeat," Sam says. "If your wand has already taken one down, that seems like a good precedent."

She Apparates back to the flat on Tompkins Square Park. Her wand is in its grey velvet-lined box, the one Mr. Ollivander handed her on her first trip to Diagon Alley what seems like a lifetime ago. She takes it from the bookshelf where it's been lying since she arrived here in July, and opens the box, stroking a finger down the dark wood. She's always loved the varying colors of the vine, the rings of history and age. She's always believed that wands are alive, a little (rather like houses, now that she thinks about it), and she whispers, "Will you let me give you a new home? It breaks my heart to see you put away like this. You should have an owner who can carry you with him every day. We just discovered that my friend Sam—Ginevra's, well, I suppose you could call him her boyfriend at this point—is a wizard. He's Dean's brother—you know who Dean is—and he grew up isolated, completely untrained, and if you like him, could you take care of him the way you took care of me for so long? He'll take care of you in return, I know it."

She lets herself have a few moments of tears—it's the right thing to do, if it works, but it's also closing the door on a part of her life, irrevocably. Then she dries them, and rinses her face with warm water—if Sam sees that she's been crying, he'll balk. She Apparates back to Faith's with a deliberately even expression on her face.

She sets the box in front of Sam. "This is it," she says. "Eleven inches, vine wood with a dragon heartstring core." She pauses, looks up at Ginevra. "Maybe we ought to try this outside."

"Good idea," says Ginevra, turning to explain to the group, "The results can be...unpredictable."

They go out into Faith's small backyard, crowding around the flagstone patio. Sam looks down at the box in his hands, then back up at Hermione. "So, um, what do I do with it?"

"Just take it out, give it a wave," says Ginevra. "Dean, shut up. Don't think I won't hex you."

"Should I hold it in any particular way?"

"However feels comfortable," says Hermione.

"How will I know if it...bonds with me, or whatever?"

"Trust me," says Ginevra, "you'll know. And you'll know if it doesn't."

Sam picks up the wand, and Ginevra takes the box. It's strange seeing her wand in his enormous hand, Hermione thinks; the wand always looked big to her, but it's dwarfed by his fingers. "It feels warm," he says, looking up, bemused.

That's a good sign. But Hermione says only, "Well, try it. Wave it about."

Looking dubious—and not a little self-conscious—Sam points it upward and swishes it in a circle.

The yard is suddenly awash with blue and silver light. It shimmers and sparkles, lighting up the yard and their faces, glowing iridescent against Sam's skin, as though the night has suddenly bloomed with a thousand new stars.

"Holy shit," breathes Dean.

"I guess that means it worked," Sam says, laying the wand across one of his palms and staring at it. "Did it do that for you?"

"Something similar, though the sparks were more of a red-bronze. But yes, it definitely worked just now." She feels the smile breaking across her face, doesn't try to stop it. "Congratulations, Sam. You're a wizard. There's no doubt."

**********************

 

She sleeps alone that night, leaving Sam and Dean to each other. The next morning is for telephone calls: one from Faith, saying that Willow's already on her way back, and one to Tonks, regarding the possibility of finding another teacher. Tonks is working from home, and they speak for a while. Ginevra stays in the room, adding pieces of information every now and then, but Hermione does the talking.

Sam's situation is more complicated than Ginevra's: First, Sam needs someone who can work with his abilities as a Seer, and that narrows the pool considerably. Second, this needs to be done without the involvement of the Ministry or the American Magical Association. Tonks can get into the registries of teachers—that's not difficult—but there's the question of how to pay whomever they find. It's unlikely that the Winchesters have the funds to pay for the amount and intensity of instruction that Sam's going to need, and keeping this quiet excludes Sam from any random scholarships or discretionary funds that may exist.

"And I assume he'll need to stay in the States," Tonks says.

Hermione can't imagine Sam leaving Dean (and can't imagine Dean letting him again)—and she also doesn't want to think about trying to get either of them past an immigration checkpoint. Sam's record isn't as colorful as his brother's, but it's still pretty bloody bad. "Yes," she tells Tonks. "I don't think it would be possible for him to leave."

"So he needs someone who can work with an adult, someone who can work with an utter beginner, and someone who can help him learn to control the Divination. That'll probably prove the most difficult. Does the person need to be in New York?"

"Not necessarily, but he and Dean have friends here, and I think he could stay here for a while if necessary. Other places might be more difficult for them to have any sort of livelihood." Because that becomes difficult when you can't work legally, Hermione says to herself.

"May I meet him?"

"I don't think I can bring him to England."

"Of course not. I'll come there—I kept an extra Portkey in case of emergency. Is now a good time?"

"It's a good time for me, but—" She puts her hand over the receiver and says to Ginevra, "Do you know where Sam's about today?"

"He's working at the bookshop until six."

Hermione repeats this to Tonks.

"Well, I'll invite myself anyway. I haven't seen your flat, and it'll be nice to see you and Ginevra when we're not mourning someone."

"Come," says Hermione. "We'll have a cup of tea. And you can see the neighborhood, too."

"Brilliant. Let me just arrange my hair, and I'll be there in a few minutes."

Thirty seconds later, Nymphadora Tonks, resplendent in a crimson Mohawk, a necklace of staggeringly enormous and garishly sparkling rhinestones, a hooded sweatshirt that rivals any of Sam's for dodgy appearance, a black skirt of astonishing brevity, and red sequined combat boots (matching her hair) with the Union Jack on the toes, is standing in the front hallway.

"Girls! Is the tea ready?"

"Even Hermione can't boil water that quickly!" Ginevra protests.

Tonks pokes out her tongue, and Hermione goes into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

"What do you think of this hairstyle?" Tonks asks. "Remus doesn't like it, but I rather do."

"The deep red is nice with your coloring, actually. He's a bloke; don't listen to him." A more subtle piece of sparkle catches Hermione's eye, and she stares. "Tonks! Is that a diamond?"

It's almost unconscious, Hermione thinks, the way Tonks twists the bands on the fourth finger of her left hand. She looks down at them, smiling with quite uncharacteristic diffidence. "A diamond, yes. And a band, too."

The diamond is small but almost defiantly bright, the band a gleaming white gold. "Did you and Remus get married?" Hermione gasps.

Ginevra stalks over and pulls Tonks's hand closer to eye level. "Oh, very lovely ring. And this occurred in the four days since we saw you last?"

Tonks's blush nearly matches her hair color. "About a month ago."

Hermione doesn't know whether to burst forth with exuberant congratulations or indignant demands as to how in God's name Tonks and Remus had the nerve to get married a month ago and not tell anyone. Both smash together in her mouth and finally come out as rush of, "Oh my God! Congratulations! And just when were you planning on letting the rest of us know, you blighters! Honestly, I'd send you a Howler if I weren't so happy for you!"

The kettle whistles, and Hermione pours boiling water into the teapot. She sets it on the table, along with cups and milk and sugar, and they sit down. Tonks looks down at the rings again, running a fingertip over the diamond. "We'd wanted to do it, but we were rather preoccupied with other things during the war. And then I woke up one morning and there was a jewelry box next to my head. We got married that day, in front of a Muggle judge. My parents and Kingsley were witnesses."

"But why didn't you tell anyone?" Ginevra persists.

"There's been so much grief," Tonks says. "Other people have lost so much. Rajiv and Madhavi and Xeno lost their children, and they're not the only ones. It seemed like...an obscenity, to boast of our own happiness in the face of that. So we decided to wait a while to let most people know—wait until things are happier again."

Hermione shakes her head. "Don't wait. The war is over. Owl everyone you know and put glitter on the parchment."

"Have a party," Ginevra adds. "A proper wedding reception. Wear the froufiest, whitest frock you can possibly find."

"A misrepresentation of that magnitude might cause the sky to fall," Tonks says wryly.

"You tart!" Ginevra says, laughing, and Hermione pours the tea.

"It occurs to me," says Tonks, "that Niamh may be able to help us find someone who can teach Sam. She may know someone, and even if not, she may know someone who knows someone. Would Sam be amenable to her knowing the situation?"

"If I'm going to be studying with her for the next three months," Ginevra says, "she'll likely find out anyway. I should ring him anyway, to tell him to meet us tonight; I'll ask him about Niamh, too."

Ginevra calls Sam on the land line ("A Weasley on the telephone," Tonks says, "I never thought I'd see the day") and asks him to meet them at their flat when he's finished with work. She asks about Niamh, and from Ginevra's reactions, it seems that he assents.

Ginevra rings off and sits back down with Hermione and Tonks. "He'll meet us here," she says, "probably about half six. And he said that it's fine if Niamh is here."

They have tea, and scones that Hermione bought at the Union Square market; then Tonks rings Niamh and she agrees to meet them at the flat in two hours, as long as it's alright for her to bring Bevan. Which of course it is.

"Since we have a while," Tonks says once she's off the phone, "why don't you show me the neighborhood? You can tell me all about these American boys and everything else, and I'll tell you all about who's shagging whom at the Ministry, and you'll lose your appetite for the next three days."

Tonks loves the East Village—unsurprisingly, as it's one of the few places on earth where even more creative hairstyles than hers may be found—and they walk and admire coiffures. They take her through the park, and down past Houston Street, into the Lower East Side, to walk her by Abyssus, though it's too early for it to be open.

Tonks reads the sign and raises her startlingly red eyebrows. "Abyssus Abyssum Invocat?"

"I'm reasonably certain the name was intentional," Hermione says. "Our friend owns it. We work there," she admits.

Tonks is, rather than disapproving, vastly amused. "Hermione Granger and Ginevra Weasley working in a pub in New York City. Now that is something I never contemplated as a possible reality." She pauses, looks back at Abyssus, narrows her eyes. She takes her wand out of her boot, hides it discreetly in the sleeve of her sweatshirt, and murmurs a few words under her breath. "My God," she says with admiration, "the wards they have on this place. Have you checked them?"

"No," Hermione admits. "Faith mentioned last night that Abyssus had them, but to be honest, I had never even thought to check." If Willow can channel that power into wards, Hermione thinks, they must be masterworks indeed.

"They're perfectly benign," Tonks says, "though"—her mouth quirks—"they do seem to encourage officers of the law to cross to the other side of the street."

"If you see what's in the basement, you'll understand the reasons for that." Hermione murmurs the reveal spells.

Tonks looks at her appraisingly. "I didn't think they taught those at Hogwarts."

"Oh. Er, they don't. I learned them on my own, last year. We ran into some nasty Death Eater wards in a few different places." She doesn't mention using them against Bellatrix.

"Have you ever given any thought to becoming an Auror?"

"That was always Harry's dream, not mine."

Tonks shrugs. "Dreams change. Look what Harry's doing now."

"True. I hadn't thought about it, really. But I don't know— Please don't take this the wrong way, Tonks, but I don't know that I'd ever want to be affiliated with the Ministry."

"I can certainly understand that. I've managed to arrange my job so that I can largely ignore them—and I imagine that they'd make any concessions you wanted, if Hermione Granger decided she wanted to work for them. Anyway, just a thought, if you ever grow tired of your demon hunter."

"Oh, honestly, Tonks. Now let me look at these wards."

They're intricate, subtle work—Hermione follows their lines with outright admiration. Having seen them and their construction, she feels slightly less bad about not having looked for them outright—they're done in such a way as to be undetectable to anyone who doesn't know they're there (or who doesn't know an Auror's spells). And even with the wards revealed, Hermione's not sure she could dismantle them. She's glad Willow's coming back, both because Hermione would like to talk shop, and because Willow's apparently going to be warding her flat, and Hermione's not sure she could put together something this elegant and yet this powerful. Hermione also spares a moment to be thankful that Willow recovered from whatever her evil phase entailed. If the Death Eaters had had someone like this on their side during the war, the outcome would likely have been quite different.

"Amazing, aren't they?" says Tonks when Hermione is finished looking.

"You may yet get to meet the person who did them," says Hermione. "She's on her way here, but she's flying."

"In an airplane?" Tonks sounds shocked.

It's getting close to the time when Niamh and Bevan are supposed to arrive at the flat, and they start back towards Tompkins Square Park. "So will we be seeing this demon hunter?" Tonks asks with what she probably intends as deceptive innocence.

Hermione retaliates with deliberate obtuseness. "We're meeting Sam later tonight. You know that."

Tonks elbows her. "Obviously I know that. I meant, are we going to be seeing the demon hunter you've been shagging the entire time you've been here?"

"Tonks!"

"Do I misstate the situation?"

"No," Hermione admits. "And I don't know whether we'll be seeing him. I'm pretty sure he's working tonight, but if Sam told him about this, he'll likely skip it to be here."

"He doesn't have any magical ability, though, does he?"

"No. But he's very protective of Sam, and particularly when it comes to this. They thought for so long that Sam's abilities were of"—Hermione thinks, edits her phrasing—"Dark origin; I think Dean is still somewhat in shock to find out that they're not."

"Do you think there's any reason to believe that his abilities are anything other than those of an ordinary wizard?" Tonks asks.

"No," says Ginevra. "He can't control the visions, but that's true of all untrained Seers, I think."

"And the ability to move objects has manifested only in a stressful situation, but that's common with Muggle-born wizards. It happened to Harry, and it certainly happened to me." Hermione laughs. "I can still remember the look on Becky Houston's face in primary school when all the blackboard erasers started clapping themselves over her head. I didn't even mean to do it, but she never made fun of my hair again."

"You couldn't teach him, could you, Tonks?" Ginevra asks, voice hopeful.

Tonks shakes her head. "No. It's not my strong point, and he should have someone on his own continent. Even with a Portkey, it's not the same as having someone who's near you."

Niamh and Bevan are running a little bit late: "I'm so sorry! Some idiot thought it would be a good idea to run naked on the tracks!"

"Ugh!" says Ginevra.

"It was a sight I could live without seeing again," Niamh agrees. "Adora!"

They hug, and Tonks coos over Bevan, and then Niamh sees the ring and shrieks, and there's a second round of I-can't-believe-you-went-and-got-married-without-telling-anyone-you-great-git.

"Alright, alright!" Tonks says. "We'll have a party, and I'll wear something ridiculous—but not white—and I'll ask Molly to perform an Expanding Charm on our flat, and you can all come!"

"Excellent," says Ginevra. "I'll be awaiting the invitation."

They have lunch, and more tea, and then fill Niamh in on Sam's situation. She listens, seems to be thinking. "I do know some people," she says. "I'd prefer to talk to Sam himself before I make any recommendations one way or another, but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to find somebody. The main issue is payment, but I'm sure they can work something out."

Shortly after five o'clock, Niamh's mobile rings: her husband, leaving the office in Chelsea where he does graphic design. He's coming to pick up Bevan, and appears at their front door ten minutes later, having Apparated into a little-trodden corner of the park. He's of Asian descent, well-dressed in a crisp-oxford-with-jeans way; American, if his accent is anything to go by.

"Sorry to throw him at you after you've been at work all day," Niamh says. "I just suspect that this may run late, and won't be conducive to keeping a toddler entertained."

"No big. We'll do guy things. Watch action movies. Drink beer."

"You do that," Niamh says, laughing, and kisses her husband. He heads out to the subway rather than subjecting Bevan to the somewhat jarring experience of Side-along Apparition.

Not long later, there's another knock on the door, and Ginevra goes to answer it, clearly expecting an out-of-work-early Sam. But it's Dean, with a look of such wariness and readiness that he might as well have a rock salt–loaded gun over his shoulder. He greets Niamh and kisses Hermione's temple, but his attention is on Tonks, and it's clear that, for the moment, the world has been redivided into Winchesters and Everyone Else.

"I'm Dean," he says. "Sam's my brother. You must be the person from the magical council."

"My name is Tonks, and though I'm here on exceedingly unofficial business, yes, technically, I do work for the Ministry as an Auror."

"Want to explain what that is?"

"My, aren't you the snarly alpha male," says Tonks, plopping into one of the sitting-room chairs and managing not to knock it over. "Aurors battle the Dark Arts—and recently, specifically, the Death Eaters. We gather intelligence and use it to locate Dark wizards and either defeat them or bring them to justice."

"You're a hunter," Dean says with a certain amount of respect.

"I suppose you could term it that way. Dark wizards only, though—no demons or animals."

"You don't look like a hunter," Dean says.

"I thought you said you were never going to question a witch again," Hermione tells him.

"That was a statement," Dean says, "not a question."

"Oh, now you get pedantic about grammar."

"Is this better?" Dean's voice says in an incongruously English accent, and he, Hermione, Niamh, and Ginevra all stare at where his avatar is currently sitting with demurely crossed legs.

"Jesus Christ!" Dean exclaims. "What the hell!" If he had a gun full of rock salt, Hermione thinks, he probably would have just used it.

Another second, and Tonks is back to herself again. "I'm a Metamorphmagus," she tells him. "I can assume any appearance I like."

"The last thing I met that could do what you just did killed a bunch of innocent people while wearing my face."

"First of all," Tonks says, "I'm not a thing. Secondly, I don't kill innocent people, though I have killed some Dark wizards, a few of whom were my relatives. I could have lived without those experiences, but I don't regret them. Thirdly, my abilities are relatively rare, but I assure you that they--like your brother's—are well documented throughout wizarding history." She cycles through several different hair colors, and Dean seems to be watching with fascination despite himself. "I'm sorry if I startled you," Tonks adds. "I don't usually go so far as to completely take on another person's appearance, but obviously I can do it."

"But this," Dean says, nodding at her, "this is what you naturally look like?"

"Well, this hair color didn't spring forth naturally from my follicles, as you might guess, but yes, the rest of me is organically grown."

Dean shakes his head, laughing a little. "I really should know better than to mess with witches."

"Sam's still at work?" Hermione says to him.

"He was going to try to leave early, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to." He doesn't sit so much as collapse onto the sofa. "I gotta tell you, this has been a weird-ass couple of days."

Now that Dean has established to himself that Tonks isn't evil, the two of them and Niamh start trading hunting stories. ("So, this one time when Dad and I were hunting Big Hoot—no, seriously, it's this giant owl in New Mexico that eats chickens and sometimes people...." "So, Kingsley and I were tracking this embecilic Malfoy, and we were told that we'd find him in a particular field—we expected to find him sleeping, not putting the livestock to various unholy uses....")

Sam comes in at five minutes until six, looking just as wary as Dean, though less confrontational. Tonks introduces herself, repeats the overview of who she is and what she does. "I think it would be best if Niamh and I could talk to Sam privately. Is there anywhere we can go?"

"My room's pretty big," says Ginevra. "Up the stairs, on the right."

Dean looks like he wants to follow, but settles for pacing the sitting room instead. "I can't take the tension," Ginevra says after a moment. "I'm going to out to buy loads of ice cream, and then I'm going to come back and the two of you are going to help me eat it. No, you two stay here," she adds when Dean starts to get up. "Just try not to have sex on any of the furniture."

Dean stares, then rubs his eyes and laughs. "Just when I think you're all sweet and innocent and English and redheaded..."

"English and redheaded? Yes. Sweet and innocent? Hardly. I'll be back in a few minutes."

The front door closes, and Hermione goes tentatively to sit next to Dean, laying her hand on his arm the same way she might touch a skittish horse. He pulls her into his lap, though, and they sit for a moment. She's not sure what she expects him to say, but what comes out is, "Distract me."

"Oh? And how might I do that?"

He leans them back against the arm of the sofa and settles her head on his shoulder. "I'm sure you can guess my first choice, but that's probably kind of inappropriate what with Sam and Niamh and your friend...Thonks?"

"Tonks."

"Right, Tonks. Anyway, with them upstairs. I don't know. Tell me a crazy wizard story. A funny one."

Hermione thinks. She knows a lot of crazy wizard stories, but many of them are not funny in the slightest. Then she casts her mind back to her second year. "I'll tell you about the time I almost turned myself into a cat. I was in the infirmary nearly two months getting rid of the fur and the ears." She does, and he settles—something in the lull of the female voice, perhaps, or in their stillness in the quiet flat. "Tell me another one," he says when she's done, and so she tells him about Nearly Headless Nick's Deathday party, going into great and lurid detail about the revolting food and the Headless Hunt.

"I still can't believe how ghosts just live at your school, like they're any other people."

"I don't know if they're still there, after everything that happened—but yes, they did." She shrugs. "Why not? They were harmless."

"I guess that's it," Dean says. "Ghosts, in my experience, aren't harmless."

"I don't know why these are different. Maybe it's that they chose to be ghosts? In any case, they don't seem particularly embittered about it."

"I guess not, if they have Deathday parties and ghost clubs and everything."

"Tell me a crazy hunting story," Hermione says. "A funny one."

"A lot of the hunting stories aren't funny."

"A lot of the wizard stories aren't funny, either, especially lately."

"Point taken." Dean thinks for a moment, then says, "I'll tell you about the time Sam got turned into a girl."

"You mentioned that. How did that transpire, exactly?"

"The woman lived next door to us—I think I said that. Sam was maybe twelve at the time, and he and his friends rolled her house."

Hermione pictures a young Sam rolling a house down a street. That can't be right. "They did what?"

"Toilet-papered it." Hermione's expression must still be blank, because Dean adds, "I guess this is an American thing. You take a bunch of toilet paper—unused—and cover someone's front yard with it: trees, bushes, their mailbox, cars, even the house itself if you can."

"Why on earth would one be possessed to do such a thing?"

"Because you're twelve and there's nothing else to do? You usually do it to people you don't like—people at school, or your teachers, or neighbors, in Sam's case. Except you try to be smart enough not to get caught."

"So she turned them all into girls?"

"The others she just yelled at and sent home to their parents. But Sam was the ringleader—"

"Sam? Really?"

"Oh, yeah. Don't let the dimples and the books fool you; he was a little hellion. So he was the ringleader, and somehow she knew Dad was a hunter, so she decided to mess with him. Sam freaked out and locked himself in our room and refused to open the door—I slept on the couch for three days—and like I said, Dad went over there in a tizzy. She just laughed her ass off and sprayed him with the hose and told him to wait seventy-two hours, and to tell Sam not to trample her roses again. I may have done some stupid stuff, but I've never been dumb enough to wreck a woman's rose garden. Anyway, true to her word, three days later Sam was back to his normal self—well, normal for him, anyway—and she and Dad more or less called a truce. And Sam stayed away from her roses. Out of her yard at all, for that matter."

Hermione's snorting with laughter—she knows it's inelegant, but she can't help herself—but stops to ask, "Was Sam terribly traumatized by the experience?"

"Well, girls are kind of traumatic anyway when you're twelve, and then to be turned into one? That's gotta be bizarre. Too bad, really—if he'd been a few years older, he probably could have had some fun with it. I know I would have."

"Really? You'd want to be female for a time?"

"I wouldn't mind. I've always wanted to know what having breasts would be like. What? It's true! Only for a day or two, though. That whole period thing—I wouldn't want to have to deal with that."

"So essentially you'd like to have breasts and less body hair, and then return to your normal self."

Dean thinks it over. "Yeah," he says, "basically. Can you do that?"

"I wouldn't have a clue how to go about it."

Dean gives an exaggerated sigh of disappointment.

"One could mimic the effect with Polyjuice Potion—what I used to try to pose as Millicent—but you'd have to take the form of a particular person, not just the female version of your normal self, and it lasts only about an hour. And it's spectacularly complicated to brew."

"But you could do it."

"Am I going to regret bringing this up?"

"You've never wanted to be a guy for a day or two? Just to see how it is?"

"It's not something I ever gave much thought to. Well, how's this: If you can find lacewing flies stewed twenty-one days, leeches, powdered bicorn horn, knotgrass, fluxweed picked at the full moon, shredded boomslang skin, and a copy of Moste Potente Potions—as well as a bit of the person you'd like to turn into, with their full knowledge and consent—then I will brew it."

"Will you write those down?"

"I will regret bringing this up, won't I?"

Whatever Dean's about to say is interrupted by the buzz of Hermione's mobile. It's Faith, who sings, "I'm standing here outside your door!"

"It's open," says Hermione, and now it is.

"Dudes!...Uh, should I come back another time?" Willow is with her, treading shyly behind.

Hermione disentangles herself from Dean. "No. We're actually waiting for Ginevra to return with ice cream, and for Sam, Niamh, and Tonks to come down from upstairs." She and Dean explain the night's agenda.

"Well, shit," says Faith. "So Niamh thinks she might know somebody?"

"From the sound of it, yes. But they're still upstairs talking with Sam."

"Damn. Wills, you mind hanging out here for a while? This is kind of a Thing. There'll be ice cream."

"I can hang out. Especially for ice cream. Also, Hermione, Faith wanted me to ward your apartment. Is that OK? Or would you rather do it?"

"I saw your wards on Abyssus," Hermione says. "If you're willing, I'd rather you did it."

"I don't mind. Let me tell you what I'm thinking of." She goes into some detail on spelling the doors and the windows against intrusion, on warding the interior (the "sanctum") of the house, on setting alarm spells, on warding against fire. "There's also some runework I'd like to do—I know you don't own the place, but maybe in pencil?"

"I know runes pretty thoroughly," Hermione says. "That part, at least, I can help with."

"You know runes?" Dean says from the sofa.

"I took several years of Ancient Runes at Hogwarts, and I've used them as wards while...travelling."

Willow takes out a legal pad and starts drawing the ward designs and rune charms; Hermione looks over her shoulder, but changes very little besides adding various rune phrases. Ginevra returns with a half-gallon each of dulce de leche and chocolate, as well as caramel syrup; Hermione and Willow each have some, then return to their drafting.

It's not long before Tonks, Niamh, and Sam descend the stairs. Sam looks—Hermione can't put a word on it. Shaken. Not happy, but—hopeful, maybe? He sits down next to Dean, and Ginevra moves to his other side. It's as though he has two pillars, one big and rough and American, raised as a warrior, the other small and ferocious and English, raised as a baby sister but become a warrior by choice. As pillars go, Hermione thinks, these aren't bad ones to have.

Faith introduces herself to Tonks, and Willow to Tonks and Niamh, and Tonks looks around the room. "You all look as though I'm about to pronounce a death sentence," she says. "The news is good."

"What is it?" Dean asks without inflection.

"Mainly what I'm given to understand you already know. Sam's a wizard; every ability he's shown is well documented as traditional magic. The Divination is unusual, yes, but more common than, for example, my ability to change form. There's nothing Dark about him—I say this since I'm told this was an issue."

Willow looks at Sam, then Dean, then Tonks. "Sam? Dark?"

"It's part of the whole Thing," Faith says.

"But that's so patently ridiculous," says Willow. "He doesn't feel any Darker than any of the rest of you—and none of you feel Dark at all." She seems to see the perplexed expressions on everyone's faces, and adds, "You all can feel Dark and Light, right? Like Dark just feels...Dark. Evil. Bad and unfun-ness all in one big black unfun place. And Light just feels like the person standing there. I can feel the fire in Hermione, and the strength in Faith....Am I really the only person getting this? Is it like when I'm dancing one way and I think I'm doing it right, but then somebody tells me that you're not supposed to waltz to rap music?"

"Wills, baby," Faith says, "you are one of a kind. But no, I don't think you're waltzing to Jay-Z here."

"Oh good. That might be unfortunate. Sam, you've been inside Abyssus, right?"

Looking a little startled, Sam says, "Sure, of course."

"OK. So you're not Dark. I drew the wards for it, and I know what can and can't get in. It's warded against fire—the entire block and the four surrounding it are. And against law enforcement, unless they're specifically called by someone. Demons are not banned—that would clear the back room entirely, and probably keep the Slayers out too—but anyone possessed by a demon is. And finally, the wards very clearly ban anyone bearing ill will, whether general or specific, to anyone inside. Evil is by its very nature ill will, even if it has no specific target at the time. All that, plus there are iron bars across the front door."

There's a silence in the room.

"You know," Faith says, "I feel like I probably could have saved all of us a lot of time if I'd had the brains to put that together a couple of years ago."

"I still don't get how Sam wound up with all this stuff, though," says Dean. "I mean, I don't have it. Dad didn't. Our mom didn't, at least as far as I know."

"That doesn't mean anything," says Tonks. "One meets a great number of wizards who have Muggle parents and siblings. Hermione, for example. My father, for another. Now, once magic is present in a lineage, it tends to remain—any children of Sam's will likely have magical talent, whereas any children of yours likely will not. Unfortunately the wizarding world doesn't have a great deal of use for sciences such as genetics and biology, so we have no idea why this works as it does. It's clearly nature, though, and not nurture—again, look at Hermione."

"But you can find him a teacher," Dean says. "Regardless."

"I have one person in particular in mind," says Niamh. "She's mostly retired from teaching, but I think she'd take Sam on given the unusual circumstances. She's one of the most gifted Seers I've ever met. And she's here in New York, on the Upper West Side. I'll call her first thing tomorrow."

"How long is the training going to take?" Dean asks.

Niamh shakes her head. "That I don't know. In England, wizarding children go to school for seven years, but they also learn a great deal of historical and theoretical material that Sam can skip. The teacher would be the person to determine that, though." After a pause, she adds, "I wouldn't count on anything less than a year, however, and it may well be longer. Sam's got a lot to learn."

"You'll live with me," Faith says, as though it's an obvious and preordained fact.

"No, Faith, I couldn't—" Sam starts.

"Sam," Faith interrupts in a tone of great forebearance, "don't be an asshat. You'll live in the Henhouse with me and Vern, and Dean will too if he wants, and you'll clean the kitchen with wizard mojo like Hermione did, and you'll try not to blow up the place with your Jedi mind powers, and then you'll totally be able to kill evil things with your brain, and that will be awesome. Are we clear?"

"As crystal," he says, and Faith grins, joyful and bright.

Chapter Text

Niamh and Tonks both go home around ten: Niamh to Brooklyn, via Apparition, and Tonks to London, via Portkey. "I'll call Des first thing tomorrow," Niamh says, "and I'll call you, Sam, as soon as I've talked to her."

"Give Remus our best," Ginevra tells Tonks. "And tell him we think he's a rotter for marrying our friend Tonks without informing us."

Ginevra's Quidditch game is in Saddle River, New Jersey, at eleven, which means that she has to rush to get into her gear to Apparate to Nikkya's; they're driving, since none of them have been there before. "Don't worry about going," she tells everyone. "You'd have to spend the rest of the evening in New Jersey, and I'm not sure I'd wish that fate on anyone."

"Have you ever even been to New Jersey?" Faith asks.

"No," says Ginevra haughtily. "But Samuel and I watched a series of Muggle talking pictures set there, and it seems to be populated with people who smoke drugs and sometimes trigger the apocalypse."

"Sam, what did you show her?" Faith sounds mildly alarmed.

"Just Clerks and Dogma. Oh, and Chasing Amy."

"Great," says Dean. "So now she'll think that Americans—and nonmagical people—all either belong on Jerry Springer, or are Jay and Silent Bob."

"I don't know," Faith says. "It doesn't sound that far off to me."

Ginevra departs for the Bronx; Willow, with Hermione observing, finishes the wards, and then leaves for Thirtieth Street with Sam and Faith. Dean stays.

"I've said it before," he says once the flat is empty, "and I'll say it again: This has been a weird-ass couple of days."

"Let's do something normal, then," says Hermione.

"I don't think I even remember normal."

"Well," says Hermione, "neither do I, but I've read a lot of books about it."

"So what do you suggest, Miss Wise in the Ways of Normal?"

"I suggest that we go on a date."

Dean blinks. "Haven't we..."

"No," says Hermione, "not really. We see a great deal of each other—and I don't mean just in bed—but I don't think I've ever had supper with you at an actual restaurant. Ginevra's birthday doesn't count."

Dean blinks again. "I don't think I know how to go on a date."

"It's not as if I have extensive experience, either. The closest I ever got was with Viktor at the Yule Ball, and I was fourteen at the time. Oh, and with Cormac McLaggen, I suppose, but..." Hermione makes a face, remembering. "Happily, I don't count that as representative." She crosses her arms, leans against the hallway wall. "Unless, of course, you're too nervous to go. In that case, we can do something else."

"No," Dean says, sounding only slightly defensive. "Let's do it. But, um, where?"

Hermione tries to remember the various options in the neighborhood; there are so many. "I suppose Angelika is out," she ruminates, explaining to Dean, "It's vegan."

He looks predictably horrified.

"Cafe Charbon," she decides. "It's a couple of blocks over from Abyssus."

"Is that the French place?"

Hermione nods.

"I don't know, Hermione, French food?"

"Dean," she says. "One of their favorite national dishes is steak frites—steak with French fries. What's not to like?"

"Don't you have to drink wine?" Dean asks suspiciously.

"A rich red wine does go nicely with steak, it's true." She shrugs. "But if you're afraid to try something new..."

"OK, you're, like, using psychological techniques on me."

"Are they working?"

"Yes," he admits.

"Good," she says. "So shall we go?"

"Don't girls primp and stuff before they go on dates?"

"Let's not stretch the bounds of reality here," Hermione says.

They walk down to Charbon. At this hour on a Saturday night, the sidewalks are teeming with people. School seems to have been in session long enough, however, for the New York University first-years to have learned to drink without getting sick (or at least to do it somewhere other than the thoroughfare of First Avenue).

"Jesus, snails?!" Dean says in an undertone once they're there and seated.

"You've never had them?"

"Hermione! Snails! No!"

"Oh, but they're quite good. It's too bad you've never tried them."

"Sorry that I never thought it'd be a good idea to eat gastropods!"

"You'll fight a sixteen-tentacled swamp creature, but the idea of an escargot with butter and garlic is too much for you?"

"I was fighting it, not eating it!"

"Well," says Hermione, "I'm going to order them, because I haven't had them in ages. If your constitution is too delicate for them..."

"OK, now you're just blackmailing me."

Hermione shrugs and returns her attention to the menu. "I was merely stating a fact. If the idea of trying them makes you nervous, you needn't do it."

He gives her a dirty look from behind his own menu.

"Don't give me that look if you expect to sleep in my bed at any point during the next week," she says serenely.

He mutters something under his breath.

"I'm sorry, would you care to repeat that?"

"You're an impossible woman."

"So I've been told. The pumpkin risotto looks quite good; what do you think?"

"I think if I have to eat snails, I at least get to have steak."

"Who said you had to eat snails?" she replies, unruffled.

"You—" he starts, then shakes his head, leans across the table, and kisses her. Laughing, she kisses him back.

Their waitress is somewhere between Hermione and Faith in age, slender, blond, and pretty. Her smile for Dean is open, inviting, her glance at Hermione perfunctory. Hermione's eyes want to roll; she keeps them steady and watches to see what Dean will do. Any man would return that smile, she thinks; what man would resist, or could?

Instead (to Hermione's surprise on several levels) Dean nods politely, orders a bottle of Vaqueyras (to Hermione's even greater surprise) with decent pronunciation (Hermione has to fight to keep her eyebrows where they are); then he looks at her and says, "Baby, if you're getting snails, you've got to order them yourself. I can't be responsible for bringing those to the table."

"The escargot, please," Hermione says, accent as crisp as she can make it.

She thinks it's not her imagination that the waitress looks disappointed.

"Gastropods," Dean says, shaking his head, once the waitress is gone.

"You're going to try them, you know."

"I know. And I don't know how you talk me into these things."

I called you chicken, Hermione thinks, entertained, and it worked.

She wonders how often Sam has used the same tactic to convince Dean to do something inadvisable or unlikely.

The wine and the first course come. Cafe Charbon, it appears, serves escargots removed from the shell—slightly disappointing, as she was looking forward to the expression on Dean's face when a dozen snails, complete with shells, appeared on the table. But, admittedly, they require much less effort to eat when they're served without. Hermione plucks one of the escargots from the ceramic plate they've been baked in and consumes it happily. Dean looks at her as though she's just eaten a deep-fried rat.

She licks the butter and garlic from her fingers. If she does it more slowly than necessary, it's only to relish the flavor, not because of the way it makes Dean's eyes widen. Not at all. "My apologies," Hermione says, "did I upset your delicate constitution?"

He gives her another dirty look. "How the hell do I eat these damn things?"

"If you wish to be mannerly about it, simply use your leftmost fork. If you don't wish to be mannerly about it, use your fingers as I just did."

"That really tasted good?"

"They're a marvelously salty vehicle for butter and garlic. I don't understand the widespread objection to them."

"They're snails," Dean says.

"You eat catfish, don't you?"

"I've had it a few times, I guess. Why?"

"They're bottom-feeders. How is that different?"

"Fine." He reaches for the plate, then seems to have second thoughts, and picks up his fork. Then he pauses again.

As encouragement, she eats a second one, with her fingers.

With the same expression she imagines he wears when battling a particularly slimy creature, Dean stabs one of the escargots and eats it quickly. She has a third and waits for his reaction.

"That wasn't bad," he admits after a moment.

"I told you," she says, and eats a fourth.

This time he's the one who licks her fingers, thoroughly enough that the sixtyish woman at the next table clears her throat.

The woman's male companion then proceeds to pick up her hand and kiss her palm with ardence belying his age.

Hermione hides a smile and looks back towards Dean.

"Dude," he says. "I ate a snail."

"Would you like another?"

He has five; she has seven. With a pang, she remembers eating them with her parents on their holidays in France.

She really had forgot how good they are.

After supper, she's sleepy with red wine and drama and the late hour, and they take a taxi back to her flat, even though it's a distance she'd usually walk without a second thought—or, of course, just Apparate. It's a short drive, and they don't engage in any of the activities in which people are reputed to engage in New York City taxis—much to the driver's relief, Hermione is sure. Instead, she settles herself against Dean and feels his lips touch the top of her head, and she smiles nonsensically into his shoulder.

Clearly the wine had more of an effect on her than she'd thought.

"So does that count as a date?" Dean asks.

"I think so," says Hermione. "At least as I understand them."

"We did everything we were supposed to do?"

"Well," she replies, "maybe not everything. At least not yet."

"So that's on the agenda too?"

"It doesn't have to be. I mean, if you don't want to. But it's not...not on the agenda. In a classical sense, I mean. It's...customarily acceptable but not obligatory. I think. You understand that I don't know what I'm doing, either. Oh my God, Dean, why are you letting me keep talking?"

"Because I like hearing you talk. And because you're funny."

"I'm glad I'm such a source of amusement to you," she says sourly.

He kisses the top of her head again. "Among many other things. And I certainly wouldn't mind putting it on the agenda."

"Oh good."

Back at the flat, upstairs, Dean detours into the bathroom. Hermione uses the time to undress as quickly as she can, fold her clothes, find Fleur's shoes, put them on, and stretch out on her bed with a book, as though this is how she always reads Le Rouge et le Noir.

Dean comes back in, stops, stares, and says, "I think every fantasy I ever had just came true."

"I had no idea you entertained a fetish for women reading Stendhal."

"Baby, you can read whatever you please as long as you're wearing those shoes while you do it."

With great precision, Hermione marks her place in the book, then sets it aside. "Well? Are you going to undress and join me, or just stand there and stare at me all night?"

"Tempting as that is," he says. He sits down on the bed. "Want to do it for me?"

She shakes her head. "I'd prefer to watch."

He removes his boots and socks. "Stand up," she tells him.

"Bossy," he says.

It doesn't sting, the way he says it. "All my life," she replies, puts her hands behind her head, and crosses one leg over the other.

Dean stares for another moment, then clears his throat and unbuttons his blue oxford. Hermione recognizes it as the one she wore the morning after—well. The morning after that most eventful evening.

"Come here," she says when the oxford is hanging on the back of her desk chair. Dean does, and she sits up.

"Change your mind about helping?"

"No." She can't go another minute without touching him. She keeps her hands over his clothes, though, running them across his belly, up his torso, touching skin only when she traces fingers over his biceps, down the hard lines of his forearms. She takes his hand, kisses his palm, sucks his index finger into her mouth. His eyes close, and she sees him bite his lip. Like a wanton, she presses her other hand over the front of his jeans. He's already erect, and he gasps a little at the pressure. "Is that for me?" she whispers.

He opens his eyes. "All for you," he answers in a voice that matches hers. "Only for you."

She can't go another minute without kissing him, either, and she does that too. The angle is awkward—she's sitting and he's tall—but she doesn't care. One of his hands starts towards her breasts, though, and she pulls back. "The rest of your clothes," she says.

He obeys, and strips off his undershirt. She takes it from his hand, spends a moment outlining the revealed musculature with touch, now that there's nothing in the way. Neither of them are exactly breathing evenly.

He steps back, unbuttons his jeans, and pushes them down over his hips, revealing black boxer-briefs—her favorite underwear on men, she's decided. His erection, though still covered, is plainly visible in the contours of the fabric, and he makes a sound that's an outright whimper when she runs her hand over it, passing her thumb over the head. She tugs on the waistband and they both take them off him, and the sight of him naked—beautiful and bared for her—makes her throat as dry as it did that first time, almost three months ago now.

She licks him for a while, listening with enjoyment to his gasps when she takes his cock into her mouth and when she sends her fingers exploring the surrounding regions. After a few minutes he pulls back, laughing a little. "Baby, my knees are about to give out."

In lieu of a reply, she pushes him back a couple of steps, then slides off the bed and onto her own knees. "Don't fall," she tells him, and returns to what she was doing.

"But—oh God—baby, you don't like doing it—fuck!—like this."

She pulls back, looks up, wraps her hand around him. "It's not something I'd like to do every day, no. But right now? Yes. Do you want me to stop?"

"God, no."

His hands find her head, but there's no pressure—it's almost as though he's using her for balance, more like. He's talking, voice hoarse, but not forming full sentences mostly, just series of words and fragments: "Like that, baby...oh yeah...again...with your tongue"—(shudder)—"so hot. Hermione...You asked me what...what I think about...and it's this...your mouth on my cock...so good...And then my tongue on your clit, so—God, please, like that—I can hear you and feel you and smell you when you come...Could fuck you for days. Would you like that?"

She pulls back again, runs her tongue over her lips, looks up at him. "Yes."

He moves his hands to her arms and nudges her up to stand. She stumbles on the heels, steadies herself against Dean. "I'm not used to these," she whispers, feeling a little as though she's broken character—a moment ago she was holding him captive with hands and mouth, on her knees but still in control; now she's just Hermione, and she can't wear high heels to save her life.

"They're incredibly sexy on you," he says, and kisses her, his tongue against her own, tasting himself on her. "Let me just look at you for a second in 'em, and then you can sit down, or take them off if you want."

"I'll keep them on," she says. "As long as I don't have to stand for more than a few minutes."

He steps back and looks at her, and she's self-conscious for a moment, on display like this. His eyes are nothing but appreciative, though, and the arch of his cock is a second testament to that. He closes the distance between them and wraps his arms around her, kisses her temples. "My beautiful girl," he says, running a hand up and down her spine. "I know those aren't your usual, but thanks for wearing them for me."

"I'm glad you like them."

"'Like' doesn't even begin to cover it." He urges her down to sit on the edge of the bed, and now he's the one kneeling. He kisses her knee, works his way in via the soft flesh of her thigh, pressing openmouthed kisses to the pale, tender skin until he's licking at the delicate pinkness of her cunt, at the tiny swollen bit that forms of the center of her pleasure.

Hands under her knees, he guides her legs over his shoulders, and maybe it's shocking, maybe brazen, maybe a little dirty, but she watches: watches his tongue as it finds her; his eyes, fallen closed again; his shoulders, broad and strong; his hands as they wander her thighs and hips. She leans back on her right hand—has to in order to stay upright, and she wants to be able to see him and what he's doing—but she caresses his head with her left, stroking his hair, his neck, his ear.

She hadn't realized she was saying anything, but then she hears the words coming out of her mouth: his name and "please," mainly.

He doesn't use his fingers this time, just lips and tongue, slow and insistent until she's shuddering against them, until he outlines her pussy with his tongue and then encourages her clit with short, fast flicks, and she's over the edge, her hand clenching in his hair, his name nearly a sob as she gasps it.

Dean settles her legs gently back on the bed, then looks up at her. "Ideally," he says, "I'd bend you over that George Washington desk right now."

She catches her breath, lets her hands wander his shoulders and arms. "I wouldn't mind, but as I said, I can't stand in these things."

He grins at her. "Got an idea." He turns the desk chair so that its back is at a right angle to the desk, then takes one of the pillows from the bed and folds it in half on the seat. "Kneel on that, with your elbows on the desk."

"That sounds like something out of a dirty schoolgirl film."

"You say it like it's a bad thing."

"You really want to look at me like that?"

"Well, let's see. I get to see your ass—perfect—and those shoes. From the side, I can see your breasts, and your nipples, because they're hard. And once I've got you like that, I can reach right around and touch them. The back of your neck's right there for me to kiss. And it's deeper this way—it should feel better for you, too." He pulls her up again, presses her hips against his. He's still incredibly hard. "What do you say?"

"Well," Hermione says, "you did eat snails at my behest."

She arranges herself on the pillow, leaning on the desk with her elbow. She looks back at Dean, and wishes she had that loose, straight sort of long hair to flick over her shoulder for emphasis.

"You have no idea what you look like," he says, voice gone rough.

"Good or bad?"

"Good. So good. Fucking amazing." He does kiss the back of her neck then, traces the curve of her spine with his hand until he's cupping her arse. "Mmm, call me dirty, but with that desk, it's like you're my hot student who's just failed a test—"

She jerks upright, indignant. "I have never failed an examination in my life!"

He laughs, kisses her mouth, keeps stroking her back. "Alright, alright. Something vaguely within the stretch of reality, then. Maybe you've been sneaking out—I know you did that."

"Yes," she admits.

"But I don't think you've been sneaking out to go on noble quests or whatever. At least not all the time. I think you've been sneaking out to meet some boy."

"As entertaining as it would have made my school years," Hermione says, "I never did that."

"That's tragic, baby. If you're sneaking out to go on noble and dangerous quests, you should at least bust out for fun too once in a while."

"Alright," says Hermione. "So let's say that I did. Whom was I meeting, during these illicit rendezvous?"

"I think you need to be telling me that, Miss Granger."

She leans forward again, arches her back, knowing he's watching. "I don't see how that's in the slightest way your business."

His hand pauses on her arse. "It's my business because you broke the rules, Miss Granger, and there are consequences for that."

"Fine," she says. "I sneaked out to meet a boy."

"And who was this boy?"

"An older boy."

"An older boy. Are you sure that was a good idea?"

"No. But I certainly had a lovely time with him. Not that it's any of your business."

"Of course. And was this somebody from school?"

"No," she says, then adds with relish, "He's an American."

"An older, American boy. Where did you meet him?"

"He came to pick me up."

"In a car?"

"No," she says. "On his motorcycle."

There's a sharp sting of not-pain on her arse, and Hermione's pulled in two directions at once, with a sudden shock of wetness between her thighs, and also sheer surprise. She turns around. "You spanked me!"

Dean runs his hand over that spot, soothing, then moves to rub lightly over her clit, making her shiver. "We can do it this way," he says, "or you can come back tomorrow for detention. But detention'll go on your record, you know, and you wouldn't want that."

She sits up again, looks at him directly. "Come here for a moment, please?"

He does, and she presses herself against him, nudging his arms into place around her. "Not too hard," she whispers. "And if I want to stop..."

"Baby, of course," he says. "We don't have to do this to begin with."

"I want to try it," she says. "Just...not too hard."

He kisses her, strokes her temples and her neck. "It's your first offense," he says. "And you're a student in good standing."

It doesn't hurt, precisely, when he spanks her; instead it's a sting, like the few times he's bitten her when they've been in bed together. It's sharp, unexpected, and she wants him to do it again because the sensation is unpredictable each time.

"Are you sorry?" he asks, palm cracking, curving around her.

She shudders, bites her lip, then looks back at him. "No."

He gives her two more, and she tries not to push back into them.

"Are you going to do it again?"

"Probably."

Two more, harder, and she gasps. He strokes over that spot. "I don't know what to do with you, if you can't tell me you won't sneak out with this boy again. Maybe you need more."

"Maybe," she agrees.

He gives her more, several—and then, without warning, slides his fingers between her thighs, where her clit is swollen and ready for him. Another woman—a lesser woman—might beg, but Hermione Granger does not, though she does push against his fingers, hoping he'll get the idea.

He pulls her up against him, and she can feel how hard he is. If he would just press forward, just a little bit, he'd be inside her—

His hand comes to touch her again, this time from the front, fingertips teasing and gentle where she's sensitive and slick. "You like that? Like being bent over and spanked?"

She refuses to answer that.

She almost expects him to be angry, but instead his voice is amused. "It's OK, baby, you don't have to say it out loud. I know just the same."

You don't know anything, she wants to tell him—out of obstinacy, out of indignation—but the fact is that he does, and she's kneeling here quivering underneath his hands because of it.

He moves his hands up to run his thumbs over her nipples while he kisses her shoulders and the back of her neck. He bites gently at her earlobe—and then he's pulling her back, positioning her, moving her so that she can feel his cock bare fractions of inches from where she wants it. She spreads her legs as much as she can on the chair, reaches behind herself to push his hips towards her—but he takes her wrists in his hands, holds them still against her belly. "When I say," he murmurs to her. "Not until then."

She pulls against his hold. He strokes the undersides of her wrists and says, "You can break my grip if you want to. You know that. Do you really want to?"

She pauses, looks down, shakes her head.

He kisses the curve of her jaw. "Good."

He's inside her with one hard thrust, and there's no way for her to muffle her cry; it echoes about the room. He's going slow, slow and deliberate, and no matter how much she wriggles, no matter how much she presses back towards him, he refuses to speed up, just keeps to that maddeningly regular rhythm. He lets her right hand go, and he'd drop her left one as well, but she laces her fingers with his as his other hand goes back to her clit, which he strokes at that same even, unbreaking pace. She drops her head against his shoulder and hears herself panting—a please almost escapes her, but she reminds herself strictly that she does not beg.

She might ask, perhaps, but not beg.

He's whispering to her, but she's barely taking in the words. He's moving three fingers over her clit, up and down, up and down; his cock is deep inside her; and she can feel him pressed up against her bottom where it's warm from the spanking. She can hear pleading, helpless noises escaping her throat, and finally she moans, "Dean, please," when everything—the pleasure, tantalizing but not enough to send her over the edge—is too much.

"Please what?"

"Don't make me ask for it."

He sucks on the tendon of her shoulder, and she shivers. "You want to come?"

"Yes—oh, God, Dean. God. I need...harder. Faster."

His next thrust is harder, deeper, and she cries out again. "That's right," he says softly. "Come for me, baby. Let me hear you."

His fingers move more quickly, more insistently, and that and his voice are all she needs. It rolls through her, and she can feel herself climaxing in shuddering waves around his cock, can hear her own gasping whimpers as he coaxes the last of it from her. Her fingers clench—around his hand, on his hip—and she's riding out the aftershocks when she feels him come hot and urgent inside her, sinking his teeth into her shoulder to stifle his own sounds.

They stand there a moment, breathing as though they've just run a race; then she feels him disengage from her. He steps back, she hears him pick something up, and then he's cleaning her up, very gently, with what she realizes is his undershirt. (That, she thinks, will need to go in the wash.) Then there's another pause, and she feels him carefully unfasten the shoes from her feet. She looks down to see him place them on the floor, next to each other, safely underneath the chair. Then there's a nudge to the backs of her knees, and he picks her up—easily, as though she's a delicate waiflet and not a healthy girl from the Midlands who enjoys three meals a day—and carries her the few feet to the bed, where he tucks them both into the bedclothes. Their kiss is long, languorous, not quite sleepy, but getting there.

"Just so you know," he says, "the only American boy you should be sneaking out with is me."

Well, now she's awake again.

"Oh?" she says. "So you may sneak out with whomever you please, but I must limit myself to you?"

"When I said 'only for you,'" he answers, tone indecipherable, "I meant it."

"You were talking about your penis!"

"In case you hadn't noticed, it's attached to the rest of me."

She props herself up on his chest so that she's looking down at him; she needs to be able to see him for this. "What are you saying, Dean?"

"Please don't make me say this out loud."

"No, I rather think it needs to be said, since you brought this up, and since you spanked me for making a joke about seeing another man."

He takes her head in both his hands, expression affectionate and maybe a little bit exasperated. "I haven't been with anyone else since I met you, Hermione," he says. "That includes the time when you went back to England, and when Sam and I were in Connecticut and Delaware. I haven't wanted to be. I don't think...Neither of us know where we're going to be in three months, am I right?"

Reluctantly, she nods.

"So I don't think either of us can make any promises for the future. I can promise right now, at least, but if you aren't on the same page as that, then you need to tell me." He runs a thumb across her eyebrow. "I'd rather know something that's maybe kind of crappy than walk around believing something that's not true."

She escapes his hands and buries her face in the soft place above the crook of his arm. "It's true," she says into the sweaty skin. "About the same page and everything."

He lifts her head again, still gentle. "I think that's the kind of thing you need to be looking at me when you say it."

She steels herself—she has done so much worse than this, why is this so hard?—and says, "It's true. The page, I mean. And no one else." Then she hides her face again.

He strokes the back of her head, fingers light in her short hair. She can feel him laughing a little. "I thought girls were supposed to be good at this stuff."

She raises her head to say, "I'm from the nation whose queen invented the phrase 'Close your eyes and think of England,'" then puts it immediately back down.

"I hope you've gotten past that, at least."

She tucks her head under his chin and lets him hold her. "Our civilization has advanced a little since the days of Queen Victoria."

She's going to get her heart broken; she's sure of it. There's no other way this can end. But she'd rather take the risk—the certainty, she thinks, let's not mince words—of heartbreak rather than dance safely at the perimeter until it's too late; she did that with Ron, and look how it ended. It's a calculated risk, she thinks, and if she's going to be hurt for love, at least it will be someone worth loving.

There, she thinks. She used the word; she said it; though it's been true for a while. And maybe he doesn't feel the same way—there's a big difference between not having sex with other people and being in love—but right now she can live with that.

She stays awake, listens to him fall asleep, feels that expansive lightness open in her heart.

Chapter Text

They're awakened the next morning by the energetic voice of a woman singing about how she's crazy in love.

Hermione hits the alarm, wondering why she set it, but the noise doesn't stop. "It must be your phone, baby," Dean mutters from where he's sprawled next to her, arm across her belly.

Hermione Summons her own mobile, but it's still and silent. "No, I think it's yours," she says, and then calls it over as well.

"That little bitch," Dean says, and opens it to answer. "Sammy, what the fuck is this ringtone?...Yeah, you wait. I will kill you in your sleep. I will pee in your bed. I will set pictures of clowns as your desktop background....Oh, shit, really?" And Dean's voice instantly changes from sleepily irritable to awake and alert. "Yeah, what time is it now?...Oh, OK....Yeah, the Impala's up by Faith's—Thirty-first and Second, on the street. I don't know what parking's like on the Upper West Side, though....She did?...That's a little fucked up....But I thought when people had visions it was about, I don't know, people dying and stuff, not whether we'd take the car or the subway!...Yeah, yeah, yeah. Alright, I'll meet you at Faith's at two....I don't know, I'll check....Yeah, I'll see you then. And I meant it about the clowns, you asshole." He rings off and drops the mobile onto the floor. "Fuck."

"What happened? Is everything alright?"

"Sam talked to Niamh, and to the teacher, too. She wants him to come over today. Wants us to come over today. Uh, what are you doing this afternoon?"

"I didn't have specific plans. Why?"

"Sam says he didn't even mention you, but the teacher asked whether you and Ginevra would be there."

"Of course," says Hermione. "If you want me to be, that is. I don't want to intrude upon your and Sam's affairs." She pauses, retraces a step. "What do you mean, Sam didn't mention us?"

"When Niamh said that this lady was really good at her job, I guess she wasn't joking."

"What time do we need to be there?"

"Two thirty. And apparently we're driving: She told Sam that her neighbors are away for the weekend and lent her their parking space. Psychics are goddamn weird."

"Your brother is one," Hermione reminds him.

"You've met my brother. You've heard the shit he listens to."

"I like the Arcade Fire!" Hermione protests. "I bought the CD right after I moved back h—back to my parents' house this summer. It was the first CD I'd bought in years."

"So what you're saying is, I'm doomed to spend my time with people who'd rather listen to emo kids complaining about their skinny ties than real music."

"I'd be glad to switch to Toscanini or Vaughn Williams if you'd like."

"I'm fine with either of those. Just not Brahms."

Hermione rolls onto her side and looks up at him. "Not Brahms?"

"Puts me to sleep." He looks at her, and adds, "Give me some credit. I know who the fuck Toscanini is."

Hermione stops the "how?" that wants to come out, and rephrases: "I wouldn't have guessed you'd like that."

"Well, it's not my preferred, obviously." His voice changes, goes a little softer. "Used to be, you could check out records from the library. I mean, I guess you still can, only it'd be CDs now. Anyway, I used to— Sam and I would do that. When he was little. I didn't know anything about that kind of stuff, but the librarians usually did. I just wanted— I don't know, it seemed like a good thing for him to hear. So that he'd grow up smart. So we watched that crazy-ass Disney movie, the one with the dancing hippos that's kind of like being on drugs?"

"Fantasia," Hermione says. She wants to put her arms around him, but doesn't.

"Right, that. And listened to the whole damn Ring cycle—took a while, that shit's long. I don't know, it was never really my thing, but now Sam likes it, and he got a brain out of it. It was too late for me, obviously."

"No," Hermione says. It comes out fiercer than she'd intended. "That's the role you play, that Sam supplies the brains and you the brawn, despite the clear physical differences that would dictate logically otherwise. I've watched you do it since the day I met you. You're both excellent at your parts, but that doesn't make them bloody true."

"Baby, you're sweet to say so, but—"

"You built an electromagnetic frequency detector out of a cassette player, Dean. They don't perform remotely the same functions, but you nevertheless made one from the other. That requires a great deal of intelligence, not to mention practical skill. And," she continues, "you'll agree that I am somewhat more intelligent than the average person?"

"And modest too."

"Just answer the question."

"Yeah," says Dean. "Of course."

"So you can see how my standards for intellect in others would be higher than the average person's."

"But—"

"Dean, can you really imagine me choosing to spend my time with stupid people?"

He laughs. "No, no, I can't. You've got me there."

She looks at him with raised eyebrows. Predictably, he looks away, but she's nevertheless satisfied that she's made her point.

They dress and go downstairs, where Ginevra's already awake and eating breakfast—and where an assortment of letters are sitting on the table. She's reading one, and her eyebrows have nearly reached her hairline.

"Who's that from?" Hermione asks.

"This one's from Mum. The others are from Tonks, Harry, and Neville. It seems that Fred and George's mysterious third flatmate finally arrived."

"Good Lord, it's about time. Who is it?"

"Angelina Johnson."

"So that's why they were doing all the work on the flat," Hermione says. "So that she'd have an easier time of it. I don't understand all the secrecy, then. Your mum loves Angelina, and I'd like to think the world advanced enough that no one cares overmuch about a young woman taking two young men as flatmates—or, one hopes, about a group of people of different races living together."

"It's not anything to do with race," Ginevra says after a moment, "or even about who's a boy and who's a girl. It's more to do with the number of bedrooms."

Neville described the flat in one of his letters; Hermione thinks back. "I'm relatively certain Neville said there were three."

"There are," says Ginevra. "But according to my mum, they're using the third bedroom as a study. There's a kind of Muggle book you can get where the words are printed so that you can touch them and read that way?"

"Braille," says Dean.

"Well, Angelina's learning that, so they have a desk and bookshelves set up in there for her. But it's clear that no one's sleeping in there."

"Then where...?" Hermione trails off.

"Well, that is the question, isn't it," replies Ginevra. "And none of them are telling."

"Ginevra," says Hermione, "are you telling me that Angelina Johnson, Nikkya Thaxton's cousin, is living in a menage-à-trois with the twins?"

Ginevra's face screws up in horror. "I can't even contemplate it."

Hermione should resist. She can't. "Well, it's not as if I can blame her, really."

Dean snorts.

"You're horrible! I hate you!"

Laughing, Hermione goes to put the kettle on. "How's your mum taking the news?"

"She's properly horrified, of course. Angelina's family, too, from what Harry said."

"Good for Angelina," Hermione says. "I must remember to buy them a lovely housewarming gift." She looks at Dean. "What's appropriate, do you think, for a group of people newly embarking on an unconventionally numbered relationship?"

"We don't know that!" Ginevra objects, looking traumatized.

"Am I ever the wrong person to ask," says Dean. "I dunno, a game of Twister?"

"Now I'm traumatized, too," says Hermione, and Ginevra laughs.

"There's a note from Mr. Lovegood," Ginevra says. "With a copy of the Quibbler inside. He ran our letter to the Ministry." Ginevra hands her the envelope.

The note from Xeno is brief but friendly, wishing them the best in New York and adding that he'd be delighted to send a copy of his paper every month. It's not the type of paper Hermione will ever rely on for news, but the Quibbler is so endearingly ridiculous, and a reminder, a pleasant one, of Luna (her funny eyes, her odd mixture of astuteness and obtuseness) and of the life that Hermione once lived. She unfolds it over the counter while the water heats, and she turns the pages and leans back against Dean and tells him about Blibbering Humdingers, and Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and Nargles, and Umgubular Slashkilters. She realizes, belatedly, that there are tears on her face—but she's smiling, too.

When the water boils, she makes him a cup of darjeeling along with her own, and he doesn't object.

After breakfast, Hermione walks Dean back uptown so that he can shower and change clothes and, she's sure, confab with Sam before they go to meet the teacher. Hermione and Ginevra will Apparate to Faith's at two, they agree, and everyone will drive from there.

"Thanks for coming along for this," Dean says. "I know it's kind of a pain in the ass."

"It isn't," says Hermione. "Not at all. And you came along when Ginevra met Niamh; the least I can do is return the favor."

Shortly after she gets back to the flat, the house phone rings: It's Xander, calling for both of them. "What with all the demon-researching," he says, "I'm going to guess the two of you are going to want to cut your hours back."

"It would be good," Hermione admits. "But will you be able to find replacements so quickly?"

"With NYU back in session? I don't think it'll be a problem. That's forty thousand broke students in one small area. If you can still do tomorrow, Monday, and maybe Tuesday, that'd be great, but I should be able to cover everything else by midweek."

She asks him to keep her for a couple of shifts per week—she doesn't want to be without an income entirely—but the new hours are half or less of what they once were. She's going to need the time, she suspects, for all the research this is going to require.

At two o'clock, Hermione and Ginevra Apparate to their usual alleyway on Faith's block, and meet the assembled masses at the house. It's the girls, the Winchesters, and Faith, in full mother-hen mode; Sam says that Niamh will meet them at the teacher's flat.

"I had Vern run a check on her," says Faith, "and Willow too, and everything looks OK there. Of course, it sounds like you guys have files that even Willow can't get into."

"I'm sure she could," says Hermione, "but they're in England and nothing's online, so she can't do it from here." She reminds herself to have a talk with Willow: They need to put together a research strategy for the next weeks.

It's a Sunday afternoon, so traffic is light, and it's less than twenty minutes before they're on the Upper West Side, being conducted into a underground car park by a uniformed guard at the teacher's apartment building, which is gated and cloistered around an expansive, pretty courtyard filled with trees, flowers, and walkways. It's like a small, quiet private park.

"Mrs. Morganstern is expecting you," a doorman tells them. He's similarly uniformed, with an accent not much different from Hermione's own. "You may go up to the seventeenth floor using one of the elevators on the left."

They all crowd into it, and Faith says to Sam, "Dude, your teacher's place is fucking swank."

Who lives in a place like this? Hermione wonders. Someone who has come from money, for whom this is normal, just the everyday trappings of life. Faith's house is beautiful—but she also rebuilt more or less from the ground up after buying it at auction and then throwing out several drug addicts.

The seventeenth floor turns out to be the uppermost one. They consult the sign across from the elevator, and turn right in the direction of flats 17A–L.

They don't need to knock. The door to 17H is already open, and a woman stands in the threshold waiting for them.

"Come in!" she declaims in an accent that could match Mario's for thickness. She's wearing a lime green sweater of a shade so vibrant it hurts Hermione's eyes, with velvet trousers. Her glasses hang from a gold chain around her neck. She's a well-preserved sixty-five, with long, lustrous black hair that's obviously not her natural color, at least not anymore. "I'm Desiree Morganstern. Three Slayers"—Slayahs—"and two hunters"—huntahs. "Never thought I'd see the day! Did ya find the place OK?"

The entrance hall is narrow, but furnished with a Louis XIV sofa and several Chagalls that are quite likely original, if Hermione is any judge. "They're real, sweetheart," Mrs. Morganstern says as she leads them into the flat, and Hermione nearly loses her footing in shock. Surely she didn't say that out loud...? "My Mortie, God rest his soul, was quite a collector"—cullectah. "No, honey, you didn't say it out loud, don't worry. You got better manners"—betta mannahs—"than that."

The corridor opens into a round sitting room that's large and high-ceilinged but surprisingly cozy, with chairs and a sofa covered in a pattern so floral it makes Hermione want to sneeze. The room is washed with afternoon sun, and the high, wide windows display an enviable view of the Hudson River. Niamh's already there, sitting with a cup of tea; everyone else arranges themselves around the room, and Mrs. Morganstern brings out a tray of biscuits that look homemade. She pours more tea into delicate porcelain cups, which she hands to each of them.

"Now," she says, settling into one of the chairs, "Sam, tell me a little bit more about what you need to learn."

"You have experience teaching?" Dean asks.

His tone is just this side of confrontational, but Mrs. Morganstern either doesn't notice (unlikely, Hermione thinks) or doesn't care (probable). She pats Dean on the knee. "You remind me of my Mortie. He was a tiger"—tigah—"too, all snarl and fight, arrrr, when he thought he needed to be, but just a big pussycat on the inside."

Sam coughs. Niamh is laughing outright. Dean's ears turn red.

"Anyway," Mrs. Morganstern continues, "like I told Sam on the phone, I taught magic starting when I was twenty-two. I graduated from Teachers College and then got a certificate in magical teaching from Salem Institute. Most of the schools here in New York are part-time, so about half my students were private clients. One-on-one works better for Seers anyway."

"But Niamh said that you'd mostly retired," says Ginevra.

"You get to be my age, you can't be running around after eleven-year-olds when they're trying to Transfigure your ottomans into otters"—ottahs. "But I still take some students—Seers, mainly—and Sam's situation...well, I couldn't just let him wander around clueless and untrained, now, could I?" She turns back to Dean. "Oh, don't you worry about that, doll. You ever worked on a Mercedes?"

"Um, I'm sorry?"

"I got a Mercedes S600. Bought it new last year. I love it, it doesn't need much work, but you could come in and tune it up, check the oil now and then, and I'd be much appreciative. Sam, you know Library of Congress categorization?"

"Uh, yeah, some. I mean, it's not that difficult, and I worked in the library at Stanford for three years."

"Good. I got some books could stand organizing. You do my books, Dean'll check out my car, I'd consider us even."

"For private tutoring?" Dean says. "Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but I can tune up a car in my sleep, and I don't think—"

"Sonny, you got a chip on your shoulder the size of your—well, never mind that." She gestures at the room around them. "It look to you like I'm hurting for money?" Dean doesn't answer, and Mrs. Morganstern goes on, "I didn't think so. My father—God rest his soul—left me some very nice investments, and my Mortie made sure I don't want for anything. I don't need your money to pay my electric bill, Dean Winchester"—Winchestah—"but I can't tune up my own car, and it'll be good to have a nice strong man to get my books in order and change my lightbulbs now and again." She pats Dean's knee again. "Now are we clear, or you need to snarl some more?"

"No, ma'am," he says, and he actually sounds abashed.

"Good. Where were we—Sam, we were going to talk about what you need to learn."

Sam and Mrs. Morganstern talk for a while, with occasional contributions from the others, and finally she nods and says, "Alright, I think I know how we need to attack this. It's gonna be slow going at first, on account of you got your demon to deal with—boys, come on, you think so loudly, I'm surprised they can't hear you in Brooklyn. And, Sam, you got a lot to learn, I won't lie to you." She looks at him, then at Dean. "It's gonna be at least a year, probably closer to two, and that's just the basics. Can you do that?"

"We'll do whatever we have to," Dean says.

"Sam's gonna have to stay here in the city," Mrs. Morganstern says, and her eyes are sympathetic. "He can't be on the road while he's studying."

"Like I said"—Dean's looking at the teacher, but Hermione can't help thinking he's speaking mostly to Sam—"we'll do whatever we have to."

Mrs. Morganstern pats his knee again; then she looks over at Sam. "My afternoon's free," she says. "I got no problem getting started now if you want to. Get some progress made before you start your research."

"I'd like that," Sam says.

"Then if you'll excuse us," Mrs. Morganstern says to the rest of them, "it's been lovely to meet you all, but Sam and I got some work to do."

They finish their tea, and Mrs. Morganstern says to Ginevra, "I reserved you a table at Edgar's, on Eighty-fourth. You can wait for Sam there; you don't have to hide out in the hallway."

Ginevra stares.

"Loudest thinkers I ever heard, all of you. Anyway, it's a great place, they know me, and they're expecting you. Do yourself a favor and try the pumpkin cheesecake. I'll send Sam there when we're done. Unless for some reason you want to sit out in the hall?"

"No," Ginevra says. "Um, no. I'm sure the cafe is very nice."

"It is. And you." Mrs. Morganstern looks at Hermione. "Do yourself a favor and call your mother."

"I don't—I wasn't even thinking of her," Hermione says. Her heart is loud in her ears.

"You didn't have to. I raised four daughters. I can read girls, and you've got a hole right there"—she presses a finger gently over Hermione's heart—"where your mother should be. Whatever happened, whoever's fault it was—you've got pretty good blocks up now, so I can't tell—just get over it and call her. You're hurting more like this than if you just talked to her."

Outside, Dean rubs his eyes and says, "Witches. Man, you're all scary in your own unique and special ways."

"That's right, tiger," Faith says, grinning.

"I really hate you," he mutters.

"No, you don't," Hermione tells him. "Inside, you're nothing but a big pussycat."

"I really, really hate you. Both of you."

"Watch who you say that to, tiger," Faith tells him, "or I suspect you'll never get laid again."

"I'm going up to that cafe," says Ginevra. "I'll see you all whenever Sam's done."

"I'm going to go read my dad's journal and beat my head against the wall for a while," says Dean.

"And I guess I'm going to ring my mum," Hermione concludes, bemused.

********************

 

It's shortly after four, New York time; shortly after nine in Northampton. Hermione plumps the pillows on her bed, takes a deep breath, and, for the first time in more than a month, presses 2 on her speed-dial.

Chapter Text

At nine o'clock promptly Monday morning, Hermione is at the front entrance of the main branch of the New York Public Library, on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. Its lions loom watchful and protective, vigilant stone guardians on the steps, and she takes that as a positive omen.

It's not difficult to sneak into the Manuscripts and Archives Department. The demonology collection isn't enormous—she's going to need to go up to Fordham later in the week, perhaps assisted by Niamh's friend (which reminds her, she also needs to email him regarding access to the potions laboratory)—but the NYPL's selection is well chosen, and she sits in the stacks and pores over manuscripts so old and powerful that they feel like living things unto themselves.

It's like being back at Hogwarts again, in a good way, solitary and studious, and the twinge she feels is bittersweet but not painful, nostalgia instead of sadness.

At one o'clock, she meets Sam outside—he's just come from another three hours with Mrs. Morganstern. He's brought sandwiches, and they sit on the steps, surrounded by tourists, students, and office workers, utterly inconspicuous among the crowd, and have lunch. "How did it go—oh, bless you," she says when he hands her a paper mug of tea. It's not particularly good tea—Americans do not seem to be choosy about these things—but it's tea all the same.

"It was good. Desiree—well, she's a kick. She had me trying to transform a pincushion into a hedgehog."

Hermione laughs. "I remember that. Did you manage it?"

Sam shakes his head. "I wound up with a kind of sad hedgehog/pincushion hybrid."

"Most people do, the first time," Hermione says. "There were a number of pincushions awkwardly running about my first-year Transfiguration classroom."

They finish lunch, Hermione Disillusions Sam, and they go back into the Manuscripts and Archives Department. It's a research day for everyone: Dean, Willow, and Faith are back at Faith's, going through John Winchester's journal and, it sounds, spending a great deal of time on the telephone to Faith and Willow's friend Giles in England, trying to figure out precisely what sort of demon they're after. Hermione's focusing mainly on how to kill demons—not exorcism, but annihilation. She knows that it can be done—Samuel Colt created a gun and bullets for that purpose, and she can't believe that his method is the only one. As Faith says, there's never just one way to kill anything, and Faith would know.

"Did he make the gun for a clientele?" Hermione asks Sam as they're sitting in the stacks. "Or was it for himself?"

"As far as I can tell, it was for himself. He saw a need; he filled it. But I don't think he ever intended to sell it."

"The person we should be talking to is Illyria," Hermione says. "She must know demons like none of the rest of us do."

Sam sighs. "Yeah, that's the problem. Faith's giving it a few more days, but...Illyria seems to have dropped off the map."

"What do you mean?"

"Faith tried summoning her pretty much right after the Yellow-Eyed Demon showed up. And when that didn't work, she tried Illyria's cell phone—demon gods have cell phones, apparently. Faith said that Illyria always answers when Faith calls—or summons—unless she just can't hear her."

"Do you think Illyria's alright?" Hermione asks, concerned.

"Faith didn't seem worried about that—she just said that, depending on what dimension Illyria's in, it might be hard to find her. Illyria's off looking for something, but Faith won't say what. I guess it's fairly hard to find, though."

"That's unfortunate," says Hermione. "Illyria's a resource we could really use."

They go back to their research, but Hermione can't help turning everything over in her head. She's heard of summoning demons, but only in novels and films, where it's treated like a bad idea but not like a situation where you might simply not receive an answer. Very bizarre.

At supper that night, she asks Faith about it. Faith sighs. "I was gonna give it another day or two, but what the fuck. Yeah, I tried getting in touch with Illyria; no luck. I should also say that she's off on a mission for me—among other things—so it's probably my fault she's AWOL."

"Well, that mixed with the whole demon-god part," says Xander. "I don't think they exactly like to be tied down to the suburban life."

"What kind of mission you got her on?" Dean asks.

"Some info she and I both wanted. I can't really say more than that."

Hermione says, "Doesn't this bode ill for any attempts we make to summon this demon? If Faith can't summon a friend, are we sure to be able to summon an enemy?"

"That's a good point," says Willow. "I'll start looking into ways to force-summon a demon."

"Could we do that with Illyria?" Ginevra wants to know.

"It seems kind of rude to summarily yank one's friend from one dimension to another," Willow points out.

"I don't see King Lyr taking well to that," Spike agrees. "Plus we don't know how to do it or how much damage it would cause—keep in mind that Illyria's still got a human body, and on a permanent basis, as far as we know."

"For the Yellow-Eyed Demon, though," Dean says.

"Oh, summon the shit out of that bastard, no matter what it takes," Faith tells them.

That night, Hermione receives an email from Niamh's friend at Fordham, promising use of the potions laboratory whenever she'd like it, and offering the contact information for a colleague in the library who can grant them access to the demonology collection. Hermione calls first thing Tuesday morning, right when the library opens, and five minutes later, she's ringing off with an appointment for eleven o'clock.

She and Sam take Metro-North—Fordham's main campus is inconveniently far from the subway, but not far from the commuter train. The university is situated squarely in the middle of the vast urban spread of the Bronx, but inside its gates are acres of grey Gothic buildings and meticulously maintained green lawns, bright in the sunshine.

"It seems odd to me," Hermione says once she and Sam are ensconced in the demonology section, tucked away on one of the library's lower levels, "that Samuel Colt would be the only gunmaker to attempt to manufacture that sort of weapon."

Sam looks up from a medieval treatise on blessed knives. "Why's that?"

"It stands to reason, from a capitalistic standpoint if nothing else. I know you said he didn't intend the gun for sale," she adds, "but word clearly got out about it, and it would surprise me to find out that, first, Colt was the only gunmaker to be aware of the need, and second, that no one else thought to make a similar gun for sale."

"That's not something you can just put together on an assembly line," Sam says.

"I didn't say it would be an inexpensive product, only that I'd be surprised if there hadn't been a market for it."

"Then why haven't we ever heard about it?"

Hermione shrugs. "As you say, this isn't something that can be assembled on a mass-production line, so if I'm right—and of course I may not be—very few of them may actually exist. And their owners may not know, at this point, what the weapons can do—they may simply believe it's a rare specimen of antique gun."

"God knows it happens often enough," Sam allows. "People have something in their houses, and no idea what it actually is. So do you think that's what we should be looking for?"

"It's a guess," Hermione admits, "without anything to substantiate it, so no. I think we're better off trying to find any way we can to kill this thing. But if you know anyone who might be in a position to be acquainted with other guns and gunmakers..."

"Our friend Bobby," says Sam. "I'll see if he's heard anything, but I think he'd have passed it on to us if he had."

They don't come up with anything substantial in today's research—but it's a big collection, and they've come nowhere near to testing its extent. Hermione's trying not to be discouraged—and she suspects that Sam is too—but it's difficult.

The library's open until midnight, but Faith begins sending increasingly rude text messages around eight, and they finally cave and go home for dinner at nine. (On our way, Sam texts back. Don't have aneurysm.)

"It's only been a couple of days," Sam says—as much for his own benefit, Hermione thinks, as for hers—as they stand on the platform at the Fordham station and wait for the next Manhattan-bound train. "We can't expect to find all the answers in just a day or two."

They catch the train and walk to Faith's from Grand Central. Dean's standing in the kitchen doorway, glaring and nursing a pint of Brooklyn Lager. "Find anything?" he says to Hermione and his brother in lieu of hello.

"Not so you'd notice," Sam says. "What's up?"

"Well, we found something."

"Dean," Faith says. It sounds like a warning, though he's said nothing at all incendiary.

"What? They should know. Might as well know now. We found out who the demon is."

Sam stops and looks at him. "What do you mean, who the demon is?"

"I mean, there are different demons—we know that—and different demon hierarchies. Bobby and I found the summoning ritual Dad used to call this one after the accident. It's Azazel, Sam."

Sam stares. He's not moving at all. "Dean, are you sure?"

"I'd bet the Impala on it. Azazel, Sammy, that's the one who's been stalking our family. The biggest, baddest demon of them all." Now Dean looks over at Hermione. "You know what that is?" She can tell—she's not sure how—that he's not entirely sober. He's not slurring his speech, but it's louder than usual, more confrontational. And she's seen him confrontational before a few times, but this is different, angrier.

She walks past him, on her way into the sitting room. "I know who Azazel is."

"And that's it? You're just gonna walk into the living room and sit on the couch like it doesn't matter who the fuck this demon is?"

"I like knowing my opponent," she says, "and you've had too much to drink."

He follows her into the sitting room. "Why are you getting into this, anyway?" he says, ignoring a conjoint "Dean!" from Faith and Sam. "No one asked you to. It's not your fight."

"If that argument held sway with me," she replies, "I'd not have spent the past several years of my life the way I did."

"So you fought that war just because you're nosy, too?"

She's about to tell him in anatomically precise detail where he can go stuff himself—and then there's something, maybe in his face, maybe just in the situation, that makes her think of Harry, several years ago, when he was receiving nightly visitations from Voldemort in his head and shouting at everyone rather than saying anything. She's still angry, but, more, there's a kernel of sadness, and it's not just for Dean.

"Perhaps you find it helpful to pick fights," she says, "rather than admit that you're scared."

There's an unsuccessfully concealed snort from Faith.

"Oh, give me a fucking—" Dean starts.

"And I'd be glad to verbally spar with you," Hermione continues, "when you're sober. In the meantime, I am going to Apparate home, have a bath, and go to bed."

"Hermione," Sam starts.

"Sam, I'll meet you in front of the Fordham library at ten. Please be sure your brother drinks sufficient water that he is not indisposed tomorrow. Good night, everyone."

She's been home only a few minutes when a text message arrives from Faith: dean's in ma kitchen, eatin ma f00dz, bein contrite.

Hermione responds, I don't blame him for being upset, even for drinking. Just don't wish to wrangle drunk angry Dean. Am selfish.

Faith's response: shit no, u just have sense, drunk ppl r dumb. tmw = we learn how 2 kick demony ass, y/y?

***********************

 

"I did make him drink water," Sam says when they meet in front of the library the next day.

"Did it help?"

"He was still asleep when I left, but I think he'll be fine. Mainly he's embarrassed. He'll have to stew and snarl for a while before he apologizes, so you should just know, while he finishes up with that, that he is in fact sorry."

She shakes her head. "It's hard to be angry. What you found out yesterday was a shock. I think, under the circumstances, I might have done much the same."

"Probably not picked a fight, though," Sam says.

"Probably not," she allows. "I'm also female, and thus capable of expressing emotion without needing the guise of anger or alcohol. That doesn't excuse it," she adds. "It's just an observation on gendered behavior in our culture."

Sam laughs and rubs his face with his hand. "You know, of all the things I ever considered happening in the near future, I don't think I ever thought I'd see Dean dating a girl who used phrases like 'gendered behavior.'"

"I know this is out of character for him." It comes out more quietly than Hermione intends.

Sam looks as though he's about to say something; then he stops and studies her again. "I say that," he replies, slowly, "but actually, the one girl I know Dean was really with—Cassie—seemed a good bit like you in a lot of ways."

"He's mentioned her a couple of times," says Hermione, "but it's not something we've ever discussed."

"Well, then I may have overstepped my bounds here. I only met her once, after they broke up—they met while I was at Stanford and Dean and I were...out of touch. But she was really smart, didn't put up with any bullshit from Dean. Curly hair." Sam's smiling a little. "So, really, it's not out of character for Dean. It's just out of character for how Dean likes the world to see him most of the time."

Once they're back in the stacks, Sam says, "Willow's working on ways to force-summon a demon. Buffy's apparently got some connections to the Catholic Church—I guess through the Watchers Council—so Faith and Dean are trying to find out everything they can about Azazel."

They immerse themselves in the old books and manuscripts, and don't come up for several hours. It's past noon when Hermione says, "Sam, do you know anything about Sarah Winchester?"

"As in the Winchester Mystery House?"

"As in the widow of the rifle manufacturer."

"Same person," says Sam. "Yeah, sure."

"What's the Winchester Mystery House?"

"It's in northern California. Jess dragged me there once, because of the name. Basically, somebody told Sarah Winchester that if she kept adding on to the house, it would confuse the angry spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles. She did it, and now it's this huge crazy old place filled with dead ends and hidden passageways."

"That makes a certain amount of sense," says Hermione, "based on what I just found. According to this, Sarah Winchester heard about the gun Samuel Colt made, and wanted one for herself."

"I've never heard of a gun that could kill a ghost, though. The Colt could kill anything, but that was presuming that 'anything' was alive."

"What about vampires?"

"That's sort of a weird subset of 'alive,' I guess," Sam acknowledges. "Maybe that should be revised to 'anything corporeal.'"

"But in any case," says Hermione, "for our purposes—"

"The Colt'll work on a demon. We know that. The issue is, did Sarah Winchester manage to get her own gun made?"

Hermione looks back down at the letter, written by an Anglican dean at Yale Divinity School to a Jesuit professor at Fordham University. The handwriting is faded and spidery, but the content is clear enough.

"Two of them," Hermione says, handing Sam the letter. "She wanted backup."

Sam raises his eyebrows as he reads. "She thought the idea of the Colt was a great one," Sam says slowly, "but she thought the limited ammunition was bad design. Well, I can't disagree with her there....So what do you...Oh, blessed iron. That's easy enough to get hold of."

Hermione points to a paragraph in the letter. The writer, despite his clergyman's humility, is nearly bragging. "The Winchester family was from New Haven, and had traditionally given very generously to Yale University. When Sarah died, she left most of her possessions to her niece, but she left the rifles to an organization she thought would know what to do with them."

"The Divinity School at Yale," Sam says.

"This letter is dated 1922," Hermione goes on, "so while it's likely that the rifles are still there, it's not a guarantee."

"And even if they are still at Yale," says Sam, "God knows where. I mean, demon-killing rifles aren't exactly the kind of thing every university has a ready-made place for in its library collections."

"Let's go online," Hermione suggests, "and look at the various divisions of the Yale libraries. It's an old university—by American standards, anyway—and a wealthy one, and I imagine there are a number of places items such as those rifles could be tucked away."

"The Web site's not going to tell us where they are."

"No, but at least we'll be able to narrow down the list. As I said, Yale is old and wealthy—and I'd be surprised if their security systems weren't top-notch. If it's all the same to you, I'd rather burglarize only a few divisions, as opposed to the entire university."

Sam ducks his head, but she catches him in a smile. "We really found it," he says.

"Well, nearly. We still have to find out precisely where the rifles are located—and, of course, we still don't have a way to force the demon to appear. But we have more than we did yesterday."

"Much more," Sam agrees.

They resurface out of the archives and find an unoccupied computer on the first floor of the library. They're near the copy center and the reserves desk, so they have to keep their voices down, discussing breaking-and-entering and theft as they are.

"The art gallery there is enormous," Sam says. "Who knows but that somebody could have thrown these in as decorative arts or something."

"I'd feel blasphemous breaking into a museum," Hermione whispers back. "But if it's necessary..."

"We'll give them back," Sam promises.

Hermione takes her eyes from the computer screen and looks at him. "Really?"

"Well, yeah. They don't belong to us."

"But if they're just gathering dust in a storage room somewhere? Of course they don't belong to you, but they're meant to destroy evil. Isn't that a better use for them than sitting behind glass as museum pieces?"

Sam stares at her, and she stares back.

"Dean won't like that idea," he says, finally.

"We'll deal with that when we must," Hermione replies. "We have to find the rifles first, anyway."

They continue browsing. "Rare Book and Manuscript Library?" Sam says after a while.

"Maybe. They're not books or manuscripts, but that might be the safest place for them."

"There's also the general Manuscripts and Archives collection," Sam says.

"I'd imagine these would be in the more secure collection, though—oh." Hermione stops. "Sam. Divinity Library Special Collections."

Sam snorts. "Well, these are certainly special."

"I say we start there."

Now, of course, they just have to figure out how.

****************************

 

They leave early—their business at Fordham is finished. Hermione rings Faith, makes plans to gather everyone for supper that evening; rings Ginevra, who's with Niamh today, to tell her about them; and then goes for a run. They've been so busy that it's been a few days, and her legs feel creaky, cranky, out of practice.

She comes home to a flat that's still empty. She showers and is just getting dressed when there's a knock at the front door. It's five thirty, half an hour before she's due at Faith's. Hermione looks down from her window to see Dean on the front stoop. She calls a "come in" at him, and Alohomoras the lock.

He comes upstairs, but, oddly, stays at the threshold of her room. "I, uh, I wanted to say that, um..."

She picks up the silver chain that was a Christmas gift from her parents several years ago. She looks at it for a moment, then tries to put it on. She fumbles the clasp—only semideliberately—and goes over, hands it to him, and turns around to let him fasten it.

He does, and something about their position, perhaps the lack of eye contact, seems to allow his words to come more freely. "I'm sorry about yesterday," he says to the back of her neck. "You shouldn't have had to deal with that. I get it if you're pissed off at me." He settles the chain back on her neck, lays it perhaps overly carefully in place.

She turns around. He meets her eyes for a moment, then looks past her at some unidentified point on the wall.

"I'm not angry," she tells him. "I understand that you're worried and frightened—no, Dean, don't argue, you are, and there's nothing wrong with it. You'd be mad not to be. Sam and I have good news, though. That's why we wanted everyone in one place tonight."

"Yeah?" He looks back at her. "What is it?"

She's not sure whether she should tell him—it's Sam's news, too, after all. Oh, bollocks it all. "We discovered that there are more guns like the Colt. Two of them, commissioned by Sarah Winchester sometime probably in the late nineteenth—"

"Wait. Hermione. Slow down. What are you telling me?"

"Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, commissioned the manufacture of two rifles that would kill any entity. She was terrified of the supernatural, and when somehow she heard about Samuel Colt's invention, she wanted something like it for herself."

Dean stares at her, then crosses his arms and paces across the room. "That can't be right."

"They're somewhere in the holdings at Yale University. She left them to the divinity school there when she died. That's the trouble: We don't know precisely where they are, and there are several possibilities."

"Is there any ammo left for them?"

"They require rounds of blessed iron. That's all. They're not limited to specific ammunition the way the Colt was."

Dean stops pacing, but his arms are still crossed. "Granger, this can't be true."

"It is, according to a letter we found from a dean of the Yale Divinity School to a professor at Fordham. Of course, the letter was dated 1922—the year of her death—so we don't have one-hundred-percent assurance that the guns are there. But it would be surprising if they were not. Artifacts such as that don't tend to move much."

"I don't believe it," Dean tells her, though it sounds less like an accusation and more as though he's trying to convince himself. "I don't. If it existed, we would have found it. Dad would have found it. Bobby would have found it."

"Not necessarily. The rifles went directly to the university after Sarah Winchester's death. It's possible that she didn't tell anyone of their existence. She had no children, and the guns were commissioned after her husband's death. She was terribly paranoid, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she concealed all knowledge of the rifles—her secret weapon, as it were."

Dean scrubs at his face. "OK. So say these do actually exist. How do we get hold of them?"

"Well, that's the rub," Hermione admits. "We burglarize the archival collections at Yale until we find them."

"I'd guess their security's pretty good?"

"Among the best, I'd imagine."

Of a sudden, he starts laughing. He crosses the room and hugs her, still laughing, kissing her forehead and temples. "Well, that's normal, then. These damn things exist—but we don't know where, and we've got to break into a bunch of high-security places to find them. I was starting to be afraid that the news would be too good, and then the apocalypse would happen, and generally it'd be like every other time we get good news."

Hermione laughs, too, and kisses the indention between his collarbones. They stand like that for a few moments, until Dean says, "I really am sorry about last night."

"As I said, I'm not angry. But," she adds, "don't do it again."

"I won't," he says into her hair.

Chapter Text

The noodle slaps Faith in the face, striking the area alongside her nose and leaving a light line of red sauce. She slurps it into her mouth, then says, "I feel like you go to a special kind of hell if you burglarize a divinity school."

"You have tomato sauce next to your nose," Ginevra points out helpfully.

"Sexy." Faith picks up her serviette and wipes the sauce away. "Seriously. Doesn't it feel kind of blasphemous?"

"I'd have trouble breaking into the museum," Hermione says. "Art theft is a terrible crime. But somehow I feel less guilty about the divinity school."

"And I really think we start there," says Sam. "There are other places the rifles could be, but I think the Divinity School Special Collections is the most likely."

"And it'd be a lot better if we got this right the first time," says Willow. "It's going to be hard enough bypassing their security once; after we do it, they're going to tighten up and it'll be doubly hard to do it again."

"But you think you can do it?" Dean asks.

Willow nods. "I can disable their security systems remotely, and monitor the building while you guys are in it, to make sure no one comes in after you. But I can only buy you a certain amount of time; Yale's computer security is excellent, and it probably won't take them long to notice they've been hacked. You guys need to know where you're going, and you need to be out ASAP."

"Unfortunately," says Sam, "that's kind of the problem."

"You're not going anywhere near the place, Hairboy," Faith tells him. "All wanted felons are staying the fuck away from this mess."

"Faith, it's our family—"

"And if I am arrested by the New Haven police department," interrupts Hermione, "I can Apparate away instantly. So can Ginevra. You and Dean, on the other hand, will be extradited and charged with murder."

"If it helps," says Faith, "I have to stay out of this one, too. I'm mostly clear legally, but not so clear that I can afford to get caught stealing priceless supernatural artifacts."

"So Hermione and Ginevra are just going to bust in and steal these things?" says Dean.

"Do you have a better suggestion?" asks Ginevra with deceptive innocence; Dean apparently knows better than to respond.

"Just Summoning them won't work?" says Sam.

Hermione shakes her head. "Not if the rifles are locked away anywhere. It would work in that the guns would make their way to us, but they'd break out of whatever container they're in and then take the most direct route towards us—which might entail going through walls. It would cause an enormous disturbance and almost certainly alert the authorities to our presence."

"So there's not an easy way to go about this, is what you're saying," Dean sums up.

"Not really," Hermione admits. "But we do have some advantages. We can borrow Harry's Invisibility Cloak—it's very useful for endeavors such as this. We can Alohomora the locks."

"It would be useful to know what kind of security they have," muses Willow. "Whether it's simple motion detectors, or something more complicated like infrared. Most motion detectors pick up changes in light—generally by producing a beam, and sending out an alarm if that beam is interrupted. If you're wearing something that makes you invisible, light will go through it, and a motion detector wouldn't pick up anything. Infrared will pick up body heat, though, and I'm guessing the Invisibility Cloak doesn't affect that?"

"We've never tested it," says Hermione, "but my guess would be no."

"It probably depends on what they think they're sitting on," Sam points out. "If they know what those rifles can do, it stands to reason that they'd have high-end security on the collection, much higher than usual even for a library with archival collections. If they just think they've got two guns left to them by some crazy old lady eighty-five years ago, they probably haven't got anything more than a standard motion detector."

"If it's a question of body heat," says Spike, "I'm your vampire."

"That's an excellent point," Hermione says. "A vampire underneath an Invisibility Cloak would evade both light- and heat-based security systems."

"Your friend won't mind lending it to you?" Spike asks.

"We may have to bribe him with Chocolate Frogs," says Ginevra, "but we can come by those easily enough."

"I'll owl him and ask," says Hermione. "One of us can Portkey back to get it, so that's not an issue."

Willow says, "Let me see what I can find out about their security—it wouldn't hurt to know, even if Spike can go in under that cape."

"Cloak!" Hermione and Ginevra protest simultaneously.

Willow's mouth quirks, but she says, "Right, cloak. Anyway. I'll look into the security, and also the floor plans for the Special Collections department—whoever goes in should know where they're going. Cloak," she adds, with special emphasis, "or not."

"And there's still the issue of summoning the demon itself," Sam says.

"As far as that goes," Willow says slowly, "I have a few ideas. But I don't know whether you're going to like them."

"Let's hear 'em," Dean says, "and we'll decide."

"Just don't get mad," she says, looking down at the tabletop.

"We might disagree with you," Xander tells her, "but no one's going to get mad."

"You might," Willow replies, "but OK. Um. So, I don't know how much all of you guys know about this, but a few years ago, after Tara—my girlfriend—died, I got a little...evil."

"You mentioned it," says Hermione, "but I don't know any details."

"There's not a lot of detail that's really relevant here," Willow says, "but I, um, kind of—" She pauses, looks down again, then finishes in a hurry, "Ikindofalmostdestroyedtheworld." She looks back up, brown eyes wide and regretful. "Xander stopped me, so, um, obviously, I didn't. But it was kind of close and I regret it now and Giles had to take me to England and I went through kind of magic rehab and I had to learn not to be evil and also had to grieve for Tara and I still really miss her and I don't want to destroy the world again—or, you know, almost destroy the world—but I think that the way to get the Yellow-Eyed Demon here—and I know that's not his real name, but I'm Wiccan and we believe in the power of names and I don't think it's a good idea to use his—is for me to go a little...demony and out-demon him. If that makes sense."

There's a silence.

Willow looks back down at the table. "I knew you'd be mad."

Faith lays a hand over hers. "Baby," she says, with affection, "we're not mad. We're just still parsing that sentence, is all."

Sam looks across the table at Willow. "When you say 'go a little demony,' what exactly do you mean?"

"Just what I said."

Dean opens his mouth, closes it, looks at Sam.

Sam persists, patiently, "You mean you get possessed?"

"No." Willow shakes her head. "I mean...I become a demon, kind of. Not all the way, but my eyes go black and I get a little...demony. Like I said. Guys, it's not like I haven't been approached by demons before. I've gotten offers from D'Hoffryn. It's not that much of a stretch. But as far as Giles and I have been able to tell, the only way to force a demon to appear is to pull rank."

Dean's eyebrows go up. "And you think you can pull rank on Azazel?"

"Yes," says Willow, simply.

"Christ on a rubber crutch," he says, but he doesn't argue, and that, Hermione thinks, says it all.

*******************

 

Hermione owls Harry the next morning; meanwhile, Willow's looking into refinements on the force-summoning. Sam's with Mrs. Morganstern today, so they're not all together again until supper. A tern arrives just as Hermione is taking the lasagna from the oven; Ginevra gives it something to eat and it flaps away. "From Harry," she says, holding up the envelope.

Hermione sets the pan on the cooker top and takes the envelope from Ginevra. Harry, as predicted, is agreeable regarding the loan of the Invisibility Cloak—he doesn't even ask for a bribe, but she'll raid Delico's Delicacies for him anyway, she decides. It's a short note, but he does say that Molly Weasley has calmed down a bit regarding her twin sons' new living arrangements—and has she heard that Tonks and Remus got married without telling anyone?!

"So I think I've got it," Willow says as they all dive into the lasagna.

"Which part?" Dean asks.

"The demon-summoning part. I really wish I could talk to Illyria about this—no source like a primary source, you know?—but I think Giles and I have figured it out."

"So how many chickens do we gotta sacrifice?" Faith asks, somehow managing to—yet again—get tomato sauce on her face, even though it's perfectly simple to eat lasagna without any mess at all.

"No chickens. Silly."

"Any goats?"

"No goats, either. Giles and I have the ritual down—I can do that, no big. But I want to try it out on a lower-ranked demon before we try this one, and I'm going to need Hermione and Ginevra, and Xander, too."

"You know me," says Xander. "You need a demon sacrifice, I'm your guy."

"No sacrifices!" says Willow. "Hermione and Ginevra, I need you both for power—to literally summon this thing."

"You mean, like I'd Summon a spoon or my shoes?" asks Ginevra.

"On your end, yes. I'll be chanting and, OK, maybe pouring some blood around—but not too much!—and lighting some candles, but I need a lot of power, more than I've got on my own, and you guys have that. Basically I'll be siphoning off you."

"Will, I'm about as magical as a turnip," says Xander. "You know that. I really don't think I can contribute."

"Xander," Willow says with affection, "just because you don't have Jedi mind powers, doesn't mean you're not magical."

"That's right," says Faith, with no small amount of satisfaction.

"It's not the big mojo part that I need you for," Willow goes on. "At least not directly. You're the one who convinced me the apocalypse was a bad idea. I need you there in case I suddenly decide that looks good again."

Faith sets down her wineglass and looks at Willow. "How much of a chance do you think there is?"

"I don't know," Willow admits. "I mean, this time around, no one shot my girlfriend. But I also haven't gone all black-eyed and demony since that happened, and I don't know if being demony has its own kinds of influences that have nothing to do with what's going on in my life at the time. Like, maybe it's less grieving and more demony stuff that made me want to destroy the world, you know? Or maybe you don't know—I don't know. Anyway, that's why Xander should be there, just in case."

"So when do we do this?" Xander says. "I'll get out my demon-ritual suit."

"You don't have a demon-ritual suit," says Willow.

"It's his birthday suit," says Faith. "Oh, wait, wrong ritual."

Ginevra throws a serviette at her.

"What's everybody up to tomorrow?" Faith asks. "No time like the present, you know?"

"I have a lesson with Desiree until one, but I could probably cancel," Sam answers. "She's been very understanding about the demon thing. I also have a shift at the bookstore, though, and it's kind of late to find a sub."

"I, uh, actually have to go out to Staten Island tomorrow," Dean says.

"In the name of God," says Faith, "why?"

"Imp infestation at a jewelry store. Ellen put the guy in touch with me—it doesn't sound that serious, but I said I'd take care of it."

"Why didn't you tell me?" asks Sam. Hermione can't precisely read his tone. Surprise, she thinks. And, yes, there it is: hurt. "I'd have gone with you."

"It's just imps, Sam," Dean says, looking uncomfortable. "I've dealt with 'em before, and there's no reason for you to interrupt what you're doing for something little like this."

"Is this going to become a regular thing?" Sam asks, voice perfectly level.

"Is what going to become a regular thing?"

"You just taking off to play the great avenger without telling me?"

"Oh, that's fucking rich, coming from you! They're imps, Sam! They're annoying but easy to kill, and I'll be done in three hours. If I'd asked you about it, you'd have bitched that you had other stuff to do."

"And you know that," Sam says in the same even tone, "from asking me?"

"I know that from living with you all your life—well, all but three years of it—asshole!"

"So now you're an expert on psychology, too?"

"No," snaps Dean, "just in the many, many ways that you're a dick."

"Excuse me," Sam says, getting up. "I'm going home. Thank you for the lasagna, Hermione. It was really good."

Hermione realizes she just witnessed a fight over, basically, nothing.

"So," Faith says, breaking the silence. "I guess tomorrow doesn't work after all, huh?"

Dean sighs and rubs his eyes. "Is this my week for pissing people off?"

Faith pats him on the shoulder. "You haven't pissed me off."

"Yet," Dean says morosely.

"I'll speak with him," Ginevra says. "But I think what just happened had more to do with the situation right now than with you."

Once again, Hermione thinks of Harry, how it was easier for him—for all of them—to be angry than to be afraid. Mrs. Morganstern was right, Hermione thinks: Dean is, at least on the outside, fire and snarl, initiating conflict before anyone else can do it for him; Sam, though, is all icy calm, smooth and unrevealing. He probably would have made an excellent lawyer, she acknowledges: Where Dean charges in, Sam lies in predatory wait for his opponent to make an error.

"I do have to go out to Staten Island tomorrow," Dean says, "with or without Sam. I told the guy I would, and it sounds like the imps are about to destroy his business."

"Hate those things," says Faith. "Makes sense that they'd infest a jewelry store, though. They love anything shiny."

"Well, how about Saturday?" Willow proposes. "I just really feel like we need to do a dry run of the ritual first—the guns won't help us if we can't get the demon here."

"Let's say Sunday instead," suggests Faith. "We'll meet tomorrow afternoon and plan, and then do the summoning Sunday, and that way you won't have to miss your game, Ginevra."

"That'd be better for me, too," Dean adds. "I told Manuel I'd work tonight."

"I'll talk to Sam," volunteers Faith. "He'll probably have calmed down a little by the morning."

**********************

 

Thus, at two o'clock Sunday afternoon, they're in the training room at Abyssus, armed with their respective weapons of choice. Willow has set up a makeshift altar on cement blocks. The altar—really a wide plank of wood—contains several candles, unlit, and a small bowl of something dark and viscous that Hermione insists to herself is not blood. The bandage on Willow's arm, however, serves as a potent contradiction to this line of belief.

The location was Faith's suggestion: She had steel reinforcements installed into the walls and ceiling when she took it over for the trainees, and this way they're neither using anyone's home nor risking some civilian happening upon the scene outdoors. They've gathered Faith herself, of course; Willow; Xander; Sam and Dean; Hermione; Ginevra; and Spike. Hermione had been perplexed when Faith suggested yesterday that Spike be there, but it makes a great deal of sense: Vampires, containing a demon as they already do, cannot be possessed by another one. Faith added that it's difficult to possess a Slayer—the demonic basis of their powers as well as the strength of will and mind that tend to come with them—but not impossible. Most demons don't consider it worth the effort, but who knows but this one might try it simply for the challenge. At any rate, it's good to have someone here who is impermeable to demons.

"Everybody ready?" Faith says, looking around. Willow is sitting on her knees in front of the altar; Hermione and Ginevra are facing her from the other side. Sam and Dean are standing towards the back, with Faith; Spike and Xander are on the opposite side.

"I'm ready," says Willow. She turns to Hermione and Ginevra. "You guys?"

They nod.

"Let's summon this bitch," Dean says.

Hermione really wishes he wouldn't use that word so much.

Willow moves her hand over the row of candles, and they flash obediently into flame. Without flinching or even blinking, she picks up the bowl and pours its contents in careful circles around the base of each candle. Hermione smells sharp iron—it's definitely blood—and the diffident, decorative flickers are suddenly several inches high and unnaturally bright. She reaches to her left and takes Hermione's hand, then to her right and takes Ginevra's; then Hermione and Ginevra clasp each other's, linking them all in the three-point circle with the wood, blood, and flame in their center. Willow closes her eyes and begins to speak in fluid Latin.

When she opens them again, the inky black of the pupils is startling against her pale skin.

That's the cue.

Hermione closes her own eyes and imagines her own power flowing through her, flowing through and out and into Willow. She imagines the fierce pull of an Accio, the force of a Reducto, the heat of her fire all passing through her skin and into Willow's body.

"Fuck me," Spike says, reverently, and Hermione opens her eyes.

The man sitting in the middle of the room is short, slightly overweight, of unremarkable appearance except for his eyes, which match Willow's. He looks around, clearly confused, and then his eyes land on Willow and widen with delight. "Miss Rosenberg! What an unexpected pleasure! Oh, man, wait until I tell the guys about this. What can I do for you? Vengeance? Smiting? Maybe some freelance torture or assassination? I'm your demon!"

Sam and Dean, wearing identical expressions of bemusement, begin the exorcism as planned, and a few minutes later, the demon, protesting loudly, is dispatched back from whence it at some point came.

Willow sits back heavily and shakes her head as if clearing it; when she opens her eyes this time, they're back to their customary brown. "I hate it when demons recognize me," she says.

"Where am I?" a short, slightly overweight, blue-eyed man of unremarkable appearance says from the floor.

*****************

 

"So obviously we'll be killing the demon when we do this for real," Faith says. They're in the back room, upstairs at Abyssus. The formerly demon-possessed man left in a taxi after having a restorative ginger ale: They were able to convinced him that he'd suffered a fainting spell on the pavement and they'd brought him into their establishment to get him off the street. He seemed no worse for the wear, just a little shaken up to find himself in a strange place, and he declined Faith's offer to escort him home. Hermione had thought she'd need to Obliviate him, but it turned out not to be necessary: Supporting the wizarding theory that Muggles see what they want to see, the man had allowed himself to be hustled upstairs and given ginger ale, and he hadn't seemed to notice the altar or the odd fact that he was apparently carried down a flight of stairs while unconscious (were the fainting story true).

"But the next step is to get the Invisibility Cloak, I'd think," says Sam.

"The Tornados aren't travelling this week," Hermione says, "so we can get it from Harry any day. Ginevra, do you want to go, or shall I?"

"It'll just be awkward," Ginevra says, "and I'll have to endure rounds of questions from Mum—and rounds of nonquestions from Harry. So if you're willing—"

Hermione shrugs. "I don't mind. I'd like to pay a visit to Crookshanks anyway. And," she adds, with a certain amount of hesitation, "I should probably see my mum."

Ginevra raises her eyebrows. "Really."

Hermione traces a pattern on the table with a fingertip. "Really. It's not...What happened with Dad wasn't her fault. And she could have been more involved in my life the past couple of years, it's true, but I also didn't exactly give her that option. I notified her by letter that I was leaving school, and then I went directly to Harry's aunt and uncle's rather than going home. It just seems like...this is a hard enough time for her right now, without her daughter giving her the silent treatment. I'll owl Harry when we get home," she says, changing the subject, "and see what day is best for him."

And, back at the flat, Hermione does just that—and she emails her mother, too.

********************

 

"So you're alright with seeing her?" Dean says when they're in bed later. They're lying close but not touching, Dean on his back, Hermione on her side.

"She could have been a better parent these past few years," Hermione allows. "Or, at least, asked where I was going when I said I intended to scarper off in search of the darkest wizard of them all. But people are selfish when they're caught up in their own unhappiness, and at a certain point, she's my mum, and I miss her, and that trumps everything else."

"Yeah," Dean says after a moment. "I get that."

She knows so little about his father, just the bare facts: raised them as warriors after their mother's death, had an ongoing battle of wills with Sam, died in the car accident in which the Colt was also destroyed. Didn't put those marks on Dean's back, the ones Hermione has kept herself from bringing up again. Served in the United States Marines. Never got involved with another woman after Mary died.

"You must miss him," Hermione ventures, which is further than she's ever gone in discussing the mysterious John Winchester.

"Yeah," Dean says, and stops there. Hermione can tell that's all she's going to get out of him on the subject. He adds, "You going to see your dad?"

"Since name-calling and egg-throwing are generally frowned upon," she says, "no."

He snorts, and the mood breaks. "So I guess your mom's trump card doesn't count for him, too?"

Hermione takes a breath and says something she's never said out loud before. "When I was ten, and the representatives from Hogwarts came to our house, I think my father would have taken a paternity test afterward if I didn't look so patently identical to him."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he had no idea where my magic came from—none of us do—and I think there was a part of him that was convinced I couldn't really be his daughter, if I could do all these things he had no concept of. Never mind the incident with Becky Houston and the blackboard erasers, or my bizarre ability to Summon my toys from my crib when I was a baby, or any number of other milestones that most babies don't experience. He was willing to explain all of that away, as long as the explanation didn't involve magic."

She pauses, goes on, "It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that my father started withdrawing when I went off to school. Started dallying with that bint of a hygienist not long later. My mother never did that. Not just the sleeping-with-the-hygienist part, but any of it. She's still a little perplexed by everything I can do, but she's glad for me. Sees it as additional opportunity, even though she doesn't understand it mostly. My father, though, I wouldn't be surprised if he decides to start a family with Marcia—that's the hygienist. A new family, filled with nice, normal, moderately intelligent Muggle children."

"I hope they're all dripping with so much magic that he catches some."

Hermione laughs in surprise. "I don't think it works like that."

"Well, whatever. I hope they all Summon their stuffed animals, and light things on fire by accident when they have temper tantrums, and figure out how to escape their cribs like Sammy did. That wasn't magical, but it was still really annoying." Dean turns onto his side and traces his thumb across Hermione's eyebrow, then, gently, down the side of her face. "So you look like your dad, huh?"

"Undeniably."

"Which features?"

"The hair. My mother's hair is lovely and straight, and it's to my credit that I don't hate her for it. Meanwhile, I got my father's, unadulterated. And the horrible teeth."

"What's wrong with your teeth?"

Hermione sighs. "Nothing, now. I just...well, there's a reason why I burned all the pictures of myself from before age fourteen, and why there aren't any of my father before he was in his twenties." She tells Dean about Draco's hex during her fourth year, and about shrinking her teeth back down with Madame Pomfrey.

"He's the same guy who...with Ginevra?"

"Yes, that's right."

"He sounds like a real prince."

"You have no idea."

"But your parents are both dentists. If the teeth bothered you that much, why didn't they just fix them?"

"They didn't want to do anything rash. I had braces for a while, but they didn't want to take more drastic measures until I stopped growing. Which I understand, but..."

"But when you had the chance to take matters into your own hands..."

"I decided that it was my face, and I was the person who had to live with the commentary from my classmates. My parents were slightly less than pleased."

"But it sounds like, after a while, they just let you do what you wanted."

"I think they gave up trying to stop me," she says.

Dean pulls her so that she's settled against his side, head on his shoulder. "You and Sam," he says. "You both look all sweet and mild-mannered—except for your haircut and the fact that he's fifty feet tall—but when you get it in your minds that you want to do something, you'll plow over damn near anything in your way."

"I'm not sure I should take that as a compliment," Hermione says, her hand pausing in the light, loose circles it's drawing on Dean's stomach.

"I'm not sure I meant it as one," Dean says, not exactly seriously.

She looks up at him. "I hope you don't think I do that to you."

"No. But I also have experience wrangling Sam. So I know how you smart, stubborn people work."

"Well, yes. Seeing as you're one yourself."

When Dean opens his mouth, no doubt to protest, she puts her hand over it.

"How did the imp infestation at the jewelry store go?" she thinks to ask. "You never said anything about it."

Dean seems to be considering his words, and says only, "Well, it was interesting."

"Interesting in the way my grandfather used to describe his golf game, or actually of interest?"

"Actually of interest." He seems to hesitate again, then says, "Turned out the dude I talked to on the phone wasn't the owner of the store, but his representative. Which, OK, not such a big deal—except that the owner turned out to be a goblin."

"No!"

"Yup. Funny-looking little guy. Spoke English OK, but apparently not so good with the telephone. The infestation wasn't that bad—they got it early—but he was really grateful: I can't even imagine how valuable some of the stuff he had was. He had gold pieces in there that looked Egyptian, and they didn't really look new, if you know what I mean."

"I'm not surprised," Hermione says. "Goblins are hoarders by nature—why do you think they run the bank?"

Dean laughs. "Seriously?"

"They're greedy but strangely honest. Anyway, yes, they tend to be bankers and metalsmiths. Goblin-made jewelry is considered the finest in the wizarding world—though their concept of ownership can prove quite inconvenient. They believe that ownership of an object resides with its maker," she explains, "not with whoever happens to have purchased it."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "Really."

"It makes a certain kind of sense, if you think about it. Like a work of art: Even if it's in a collection, it still, in some context, belongs to the artist. Though most human societies don't uphold the right of the artist to repossess his or her creations whenever the artist may desire."

"Like my car, in a way," Dean says. "I rebuilt her piece by piece after the crash, and if, God forbid, she got out of my possession somehow, I'd still consider her mine. Hell, I'd probably just steal her back."

"So you can see the issue when Nana dies and the goblin who made her wedding ring comes to collect it?"

"Oh. Yeah, that might get kind of problematic. Well, anyway, I got along with Sak-Tarus—the goblin that owned the store—so that was good. Took him for a ride in the Impala, actually. He liked it."

"But did he see the car is belonging to you?"

Now it's Dean's hand that pauses, from where it's running up and down her body, side to hip and back again. "I know she was built on an assembly line in Detroit, at least at first," Dean says, "but I feel like the amount of work I put into her, I made her just as much as Chevrolet did. Maybe more, because I did it with my own hands and out of l—and because I wanted to, not because somebody was paying me to."

My goblin, Hermione thinks, amused and affectionate, but doesn't say out loud.

Chapter Text

When Hermione checks her email the next morning, her mother has responded: Any day this week is convenient, and if there is a particular time that Hermione would like to stop by, her mother is sure she can arrange her schedule around it. I'm the one without a real job, Hermione thinks. Shouldn't I be the one to accommodate?

The answer is "probably," and goes a long way to demonstrate how much her mother seems to have missed her.

She Portkeys to her parents' house in the early afternoon—evening, UK time. The Portkey is set to her bedroom, and when she goes downstairs, her mother starts and then engulfs her in a hug that would put Molly Weasley to shame. "Darling! You look wonderful! It's so good to see you!" Her mother bustles, and insists on feeding her, and appears content only when Hermione is seated at their kitchen table with a meal in front of her. Hermione had a late lunch—she and Dean stayed in bed for a good while—so she's not all that hungry, but she eats for the sake of the satisfaction on her mother's face.

She wouldn't have thought that Nancy Granger and Molly Weasley were so much alike, but apparently in certain respects they are.

"What brings you back to England?" Hermione's mother asks as she eats. "You're returning to New York in just a few days, right?"

Hermione's not about to tell her mother that she needs Harry's Invisibility Cloak so that they can burglarize a university.

"I missed everyone," Hermione says, which is true enough.

"But Ginny didn't come back too?"

"She's less sentimental than I am." Again, true enough.

Hermione stays that night, expressing her intent to go to Harry's the following afternoon. "He'll be at practice until then," she explains to her mother.

"Do you want to visit your father?" Hermione's mother asks. She's looking down at the table, at a point just above her teacup.

"Not especially," Hermione says.

"It doesn't—" Her mother starts, stops, then tries again. "I'd be glad to drive you, since I doubt you know where he lives. It doesn't have to be awkward. I'll drop you off, and you can Apparate back."

"You're speaking to him?"

"No," her mother says. "But he's still your father. I can drive you to his flat without requiring raised voices or other dramatics."

Impulsively, Hermione reaches across the table for her mother's hand. "I appreciate the offer, Mum," she says, and she does. "But I don't—I have only a few days over here, and there are other people I'd rather spend them with."

"Do you have to be back for something in particular?" her mother asks, looking surprised. She knows that Hermione has a job, but she also knows that it's on a somewhat informal basis, and she knows that Ginevra is there to take care of the flat.

Hermione can't exactly say, Yes, I need to return so that we can commit our burglary and then summon a demon. Azazel, perhaps you've heard of him. "I hate to saddle Ginevra with the flat," Hermione says, although that's a lame excuse—the flat requires very little—and it looks as though her mother knows it. "And I did tell Xander I would work."

"Well, and I imagine you have friends you miss."

"Yes," says Hermione, feeling, for once, completely truthful. And there's so little, sometimes, that she can tell her mother; she can at least tell her this. Hermione adds, "Friends and...others. One other."

Nancy Granger smiles and pours them both more tea. "And who is this one other?"

"His name is Dean."

Her mother blinks. "Not the Dean you know from school?"

It's Hermione's turn to blink. She hasn't thought about Dean Thomas in a while—he was in Auror training, last she heard. "No, not Dean Thomas. I'm surprised you remember him. I can't have mentioned him more than a few times."

"When you don't have many details, you remember the ones you do have," her mother says, and her smile is rueful. "And I remembered him because of Dean Moriarty. From On the Road." Improbably, the Jack Kerouac novel is one of Mrs. Granger's favorite books.

"Neither of them are much like Dean Moriarty," Hermione says. "Though this Dean—Winchester—is probably closer than Dean Thomas is."

"How did you meet him?" her mother asks.

Hermione casts through her mind, examining and then discarding possible responses. She finally settles on, "Through the other friends I've met in New York."

"So he lives in the city?"

"For now," Hermione says. "He's...he travels a lot. For his work."

"Hermione," says Mrs. Granger, "I know that there are aspects of your life to which I'll never have access. I accepted that fact when you were eleven years old. But there are things I can try to understand, if you'd let me." Hermione blinks, and her mother adds, "I somehow doubt that you're seeing a traveling salesman."

Hermione laughs despite herself. "No, Mum, I'm not. Dean—I don't know how to explain what he does, exactly. He works with his brother—Sam, who's dating Ginevra, and Harry is going to ask and I'm going to want to hit him, and if you talk to Molly Weasley please don't breathe a word—and they...they're like Aurors, I suppose, only they're not wizards."

"Are they in law enforcement?"

Hermione holds back a snort, and says, "No. Their work is somewhat unofficial. They hunt supernatural things. Ghosts, demons"—killer trucks, Dean's voice says in her head—"vampires. Things that hurt people."

"That seems noble," says Nancy Granger. "If slightly unorthodox."

"Well, yes," says Hermione.

"Your relationship with this...boy? Man?"

"Man," Hermione admits on a sigh, and her mother raises her eyebrows.

"Man?" Mrs. Granger echoes.

"He's twenty-eight," Hermione confesses.

"Hermione Jean Granger!" Her mother's voice rises to something that's near a shriek. "Twenty-eight? He's old enough...well, alright, not old enough to be your father, it's true. But old enough!"

"Tonks and Remus are thirteen years apart," Hermione points out. "And there are seven years between Bill and Fleur—and she was younger than I am now, when she started seeing him."

"Yes," Mrs. Granger retorts, "but neither Tonks nor Fleur are my daughters." There's a silence, and then Mrs. Granger says something Hermione never thought she'd hear from her mother. "I shouldn't scold. When I was twenty—my third year of university—I had a...well, I suppose you could call him a boyfriend, who was fifteen years my senior."

"Mum!"

Her mother smiles wryly. "It's true."

"He was thirty-five?"

Her mother nods. "That's right. I was out bicycling in the hills around Oxford, and my bicycle developed a flat tire. He stopped and helped me fix it, and asked me to dinner afterward."

"But I thought you met Dad at university!"

"I did. But not until my fourth year."

"So how long were you...did you see this man of advanced age?"

Her mother laughs. "Advanced age. Thirty-five seems like childhood now. Anyway, not long. Three, perhaps four months. It wasn't the sort of thing meant to last a lifetime." Mrs. Granger's sharp eyes look her daughter up and down. "And with this man you're seeing. Should I be casting my eye for dowdy pastel-colored dresses that might complement a floral arrangement?"

"If you're asking whether we'll be getting married," Hermione says, "the answer is no. I'm far too young, and anyway he's not...he's not that sort of person."

"What sort of person, precisely?"

"The sort who settles down."

"And yet," her mother says, "you are the sort who settles down. When you're not chasing Dark wizards across the Continent, that is."

Hermione winces; she can't help it. Her early departure from school is rarely spoken of: She notified her parents of it by letter, and when she came later in the summer to coordinate with the Aurors who had been assigned to her parents' home (and to collect her things for traveling), it wasn't discussed, already a fait accompli.

"I'm not settling down yet," Hermione says. "And...yes, I know I'll get my heart broken. I accepted that a while ago. I'd rather...I'd rather take the risk, than not do it at all."

Her mother rises from the table and kisses Hermione's forehead. "And that, darling, is where you differ from your old mother. Much to your credit, I'm sure. Now, you should get some sleep, if you're to go to Harry's tomorrow."

*****************

 

Harry's glad to lend her the cloak—the box from Delico's doesn't hurt, of course—but bewildered as to why she needs it. With him and Ron, however, she can actually say, "I need to burglarize a university," and Harry laughs.

"Should I even ask why?" Ron says as they lounge in the sitting room in Harry's bright, modern flat in Tutshill.

She gives them the best summary she can, though with more than two decades' back story, it's hard to condense.

"Crikey," says Ron when she's done. "You're going to break into a university and summon a demon?"

"I won't be performing the actual summoning," says Hermione.

Ron rolls his eyes. "And that makes me feel so much better."

"A demon?" says Harry. "Voldemort wasn't enough for one year?"

"It has to be done," Hermione tells him.

"I don't doubt it," says Harry. "It's just...I guess I assumed you would have retired from fighting evil, after everything else."

"I thought I had, too," Hermione admits. "But it isn't as though evil has retired."

"And I'm sure this has nothing to do with that bloke you're seeing," Ron puts in.

Hermione raises an eyebrow in what she hopes is the most unimpressed expression imaginable. "I've just told you the story. You know of the demon's connection to his family."

"So he asked you to do this?"

"I didn't give him the opportunity to ask, but no. If anything, I'm sure he'd prefer that I stepped back from it—stayed out of danger."

"Merlin," Harry says. "It's not like any of us have ever been very good at that."

She stays the night in Tutshill, goes to the Burrow in the early afternoon to say hello to Mrs. Weasley and pet Crookshanks, and then back to Northampton to say good-bye to her mother and use the Portkey, since it's set to that house.

"I have something for you, before you go," Mrs. Granger says. She takes a black velvet box off the table and hands it to Hermione.

Hermione opens it to find a strand of luminous white pearls arranged in a circle. "Mum. Oh my goodness." A thought occurs to her. "Are these Grandmother's?"

Her mother nods.

"But she gave them to you."

"She would want you to have them, I think. And I so rarely wear jewelry that they're wasted in my chest of drawers. They'll be quite nice with a suit, if you have a job interview." Her mother smiles. "I imagine you can wear them with robes as well. Or if you go to a nice restaurant, with that man you're seeing."

Unlikely, Hermione thinks, smiling and running her finger across the perfect pearlescent beads. Although, who knows, perhaps possible? She did convince him to eat snails, after all.

"If you're sure, Mum," Hermione says.

"Of course I'm sure," her mother replies. "I wouldn't have given them to you otherwise. Now give me a hug, darling, before you disappear back to America."

Hermione does, and ten minutes later, she's in the foyer of the flat on Tompkins Square. It was gray and rainy in England, and it's gray and rainy here—for a moment, it doesn't feel as though she has gone very far at all.

The flat is empty; Ginevra could be any number of places. She calls Faith, but gets voice mail; she's probably in class. She leaves a message saying that she has the cloak, then hangs up. She should let Willow know, but she doesn't have the number for Willow's mobile. She calls Dean; voice mail there, too. It's as though the whole world has disappeared.

She goes upstairs; there isn't much to do until she talks to Faith, Ginevra, and Willow. Perhaps she'll just read for a while until everyone returns. Except that her faithful copy of Pride and Prejudice is missing from its usual spot on her bedside table. She sighs and looks around the room for it, but turns up nothing—she didn't think she took it with her to England, but perhaps she did, which means that it's probably at her mother's or at Harry's. She goes downstairs and emails them both, asking them to please check.

The weather is discouraging, but it's not cold and not actively raining. She should go for a run. Perhaps she'll feel better after some exercise. She finds her running clothes, tucks her mobile and some money into her athletic bra, and heads up towards Fourteenth Street, in the direction of Union Square. The market is on today, and the purchase of food always makes her feel better. It won't be a long run, but it'll get her out of the house, at least.

She's perusing squashes when her mobile vibrates, making her jump and nearly collide with the person standing beside her. Hermione apologizes and steps back from the stand. It's Dean.

"You're back!"

"I Portkeyed about an hour ago. Where are you?"

"Going over the Verrazano."

"On Staten Island?"

"On my way back from Staten Island. I went to see Sak-Tarus, make sure all the imps were gone."

"And were they?"

"Yup, no problems. Where are you?"

"Union Square. I was going to buy some things at the market, then go back home."

"How about I meet you there? Your place, I mean."

"I'm all sweaty," Hermione says, then adds, "Though as I recall, you don't mind that."

"Not at all, baby. But I'll wait while you shower if you really insist."

*******************

 

She beats Dean back to the flat; he doesn't have a key, though, so she waits until he arrives before taking her shower. Meanwhile, she puts away her purchases and checks her email; nothing from her mother or Harry, and there's no sign of her book anywhere downstairs. It's not as though she can't get another copy, she reminds herself; it's just that she's had this one for many years—she bought it with birthday money when she was nine—and she's foolishly, sentimentally attached to it.

Dean gets there after a short while, and kisses her in the doorway, one hand on the back of her neck, the other running up and down her arm. "It was boring without you," he says, kissing his way from ear to collarbone.

"Dean, how can you stand to do that? I must smell dreadful."

"Not at all. You smell like you usually do, just a little bit stronger. I could take you upstairs right now, go down on you for twenty or thirty minutes, then put you in the shower. But"—he pulls back, kisses her cheek—"I want to hear how your trip was, first."

"It was fine. I got the cloak. Dean, I'm foul. Let me shower, and then I'll show it to you."

"I'm not going to get in with you," Dean says, "because we'll never get out. I'll still help you put your lotion on afterwards, though."

"Because it's such a difficult task."

"You might miss a spot, and then your skin would be dry." He manages it completely deadpan.

"And the ensuing tragedy would be of epic proportions," Hermione replies.

"Obviously." Dean kisses her one more time, then releases her. "Go shower."

She does, as quickly as possible, and returns to find Dean stretched out on her bed, leafing through her grown-up picture book. "Do you never tire of that?" she asks with some amusement.

"Ten naked girls in a bathtub. I don't even know why you need to ask." She hands him her lotion, and he sits up, positions her in front of him. "Here we go. Skin care. It's very important."

She snorts.

"It is. Keep your skin all soft, nice to touch." He smooths lotion up and down one leg, then the other, then follows with his lips, starting at her knees and making his way up. He kisses the insides of her thighs, trails his tongue over her mons, so very very close—but when her hands find the back of his head, he pulls away. "Mmm-mm. Better finish this. Don't want to have dry skin."

"Tease."

"Be nice, and we'll finish in a few minutes. But only if you're nice." He rubs the lotion over her torso, over her breasts, running his thumbs over her nipples, caressing them until they're hard, asking for his touch. Once again, he replaces fingers with lips, and she can't help the moan that escapes—she's so wet, she can feel it. But he pulls back again. "We're still not done, baby. Got to get your arms." He kisses her pubis again, gently; parts her with two fingers to tantalize her clit with his tongue. Then he pulls back again, pats her hip. "Sit here on my lap. I can reach you better that way."

She does, and he covers her arms and then her back with clean-smelling bergamot. He closes the top to the bottle and puts it on the floor. "Good girl," he whispers. "So good for me. I want to touch you now. Will you let me do that?"

"I'll hex you if you don't."

His fingers are nice, but not as nice as his tongue. "Use your mouth," she tells him.

"Demanding."

"You've been teasing me since I got out of the shower," she retorts. "Use your mouth."

"Lie back," he says, and she does.

He licks her slowly, carefully, insistently, until she's shuddering with it, until she's climaxing against his lips and tongue. She lets her hands fall to her sides, releasing their grasp on his hair, and she kisses him. There's no revulsion this time, just the slightly salty taste of herself, the flavor of her orgasm on his mouth. "What do you want me to do for you?" she whispers.

"I want to fuck you," he says. "I want to fuck you where you just came, where you're wet from my mouth. How do you feel about that?"

"I feel that it would be easier if you weren't wearing trousers."

He laughs and unbuttons his jeans, pushes them down to midthigh. She's not dressed, but he's got most of his clothes on. It's somehow dirtier this way, with his jeans partway down and her lying naked and wanton on her towel. He slides inside her with no friction, no resistance, and she wraps her legs around his hips. She slides her hands underneath the long-sleeved T-shirt he's wearing; there is, naturally, another layer under it, and she fumbles with the multiple levels of cotton before her fingers find bare skin.

He kisses the hollow beneath her ear, mouthes his way around her jaw to her throat. She isn't going to come again, she's reasonably sure, but it feels good anyway: the warmth of his mouth on her skin, the thrust of him inside her.

He comes with a sound that's maybe a gasp, maybe a grunt, maybe a sigh, maybe her name; then he sprawls across her, smiling, desultorily kissing her face and her lips. They lie there lazily, messily, thoroughly satisfied, a tangle of skin and clothes and contentment.

"Welcome back," Dean says, running his hand up and down her body, tracing the curves of her breasts and belly and hips.

"It was only a couple of days," Hermione feels compelled to point out.

"Well, it seemed longer." Dean kisses her shoulder, lets a hand linger on one of her breasts. "So you got this mysterious cape, huh?"

"It's a cloak, not a cape. One is a functional garment, the other an ill-advised sartorial option exercised by Muggles pretending to be wizards. Or dragons, by which I am doubly perplexed."

She feels the warmth of his breath as he laughs. "You sound like Buffy. Anyway, so you have the thing. How does it work?"

"You simply put it over yourself. There isn't much art to it, though one must take care not to inadvertently display a stray hand or ankle."

"Let's see it."

Hermione elbows him and clears her throat, and, with a show of reluctance, he rolls to the side to let her sit up. She elbows him again. "You're the one who wants to see it. Don't complain to me when you don't want to move."

He gives an oppressed sigh.

She calls the cloak over and puts it in his hands, letting the lissome gleaming fabric unfold over them. Then she takes the cloak and drapes it over herself.

"Holy shit!" Dean exclaims.

She settles part of the cloak over him, so that they're hidden under it like two children under a blanket.

"Wait, so now I can see you?" he says.

"Yes—if more than one person is under it, they can all see one another. Harry, Ron, and I used to use it together all the time." Hermione remembers hiding with Harry and Ginevra in the Weasleys' garden, and adds, "I think it must expand, because we always seemed to fit under it, no matter that we all grew a good bit larger over the years."

Dean pulls the cloak off them and looks at it again, sinuous and silvery. "That's one of the craziest things I've ever seen."

"It works, though," Hermione tells him. "I can't tell you how many Death Eater encampments and gatherings we sneaked into with this."

"You don't have to do this, you know," Dean says. He folds up the cloak and hands it to her. "In fact, I sort of wish you wouldn't."

"Why?"

"Because it's a risk you don't need to take. You already fought your war; you shouldn't have to volunteer for ours."

"'Volunteer' denotes that I became involved of my own free will," Hermione says. "And your family is not the only one this demon has threatened. What sort of coward would I be, if I let it continue to happen?"

"There has to be a way that doesn't mean you breaking into Yale."

"Can you think of one? One that doesn't mean you and Sam being arrested as felons?" There's a silence, and Hermione says, more gently, "There's far less risk entailed for Ginevra and me to do this—or for Spike to do it, depending on the type of security the university has. And we have had this argument before—far less pleasantly—and I'd really prefer not to have it again."

"You are the stubbornest woman I know," Dean says after a moment.

"I really think that's Ginevra." Hermione sets the cloak on the bedside table—and notices with a start that there's a book there. "I thought I'd left this in England! I know it wasn't here earlier—I checked everywhere." Hermione stares at it. "I don't see how I could have missed it—have I lost my mind?"

She's not expecting an answer, but Dean says, "I, uh, I kind of borrowed it. Uh, I returned it while you were in the shower."

"Did you read it?" Hermione asks with no small amount of surprise.

"I tried."

"And?"

"And I like it better when you're reading it."

"You fell asleep while I was reading it."

"Well, yeah. I was tired."

Surprise mixes with amusement. "I'm sorry you didn't like it."

He shrugs. "Her sentences are all...twisty. She should just come out and say whatever she wants to say."

"That's what makes it enjoyable, though," Hermione says. "It's a little like a puzzle, her wording, but with a barb at the end. Charles Dickens's writing, too."

Dean shudders.

"Philistine," she says, but without heat.

There's an electronic ringing from across the room—her mobile. She Summons it and looks at the caller ID. "Hello, Faith."

"English! What's up? You got the magic cloak-not-cape?"

"Thank you for understanding the distinction," Hermione says. "Dean was unclear on that."

Dean pokes her, and she yelps.

"Excuse me. Dean is behaving in an uncivilized fashion." He tries to poke her again, but she's ready this time, and bats his hand away. "Anyway, yes, I have it."

"Smokin'. Got any vegetables?"

"Um, yes?"

"Put some clothes on—don't even try, I know neither of you are decent—and come over for dinner and we'll cook 'em with the tuber of my people. We've got a burglary to plan."

Chapter Text

"The food of my people," says Faith, setting a plate of baked potatoes on the table.

"Your people clearly do not follow the Atkins diet," says Spike.

"My people spit on the Atkins diet and insult its mother too. Hey, Ginevra, hit me with the sour cream."

"Literally?"

"Yes. Obviously."

Ginevra rolls her eyes and passes it as though she was not raised around Fred and George.

Once everything is passed, and the potatoes are dressed appropriately, and everyone's glass contains a serving of a Corbières of decent quality (everyone's including Ginevra's: "If we lived in France or Italy, you'd be having some," Faith pointed out, and Ginevra did not of course protest), Faith says, "OK, so we've got the cloak. We've also got some good news about the security on the place. Wills, want to fill us in?"

Despite her tendency for circumlocution when discussing many other things, Willow is blessedly direct and concise on the topic of computer security. "Because of that letter, I was assuming that Yale would know how valuable these rifles are, and they'd be guarded like you'd expect for something like that. I was even thinking they'd have some kind of magical security as well, but whoever wrote that letter seems to have let the secret die with them. The security on the Divinity School Special Collections is no different from that in the school's main library—which is to say, they have standard motion-detectors but nothing more than that. I have some contacts who are magical practitioners, and no one was aware of any spell-based security at Yale. Harvard's apparently got some really wacky stuff on parts of the Widener, and of course Oxford and Cambridge and the continental universities have all kinds of things, but in general the Americans don't seem to really use magical security, and Yale doesn't have anything as far as anybody knows. And these guys would know."

"That could just mean that the rifles aren't actually at the Divinity School," Sam points out.

"It could," Willow admits. "But I checked into the other systems on campus, and there are no departments or collections with abnormally high security levels. It's possible that the rifles are being kept somewhere that's under tight security anyway—the rare book library, for example, has both motion-detectors and heat sensors, which you'd expect for a collection of priceless antiquities. But the Divinity School Special Collections don't have anything out of the ordinary in place."

"So my services will not be required," Spike says.

"Not if the first run works," says Willow. "If we have to go into the rare books collection or something, though, then yeah. But if the Divinity School has the rifles, Hermione and Ginevra can go in and out under their cloak, and that'll be enough."

"We can Apparate out," Hermione says. "It's merely the entrance that's at issue. It would be somewhat disastrous if we were to pop in on top of a shelf and knock it down, for example."

"That'd be inconvenient," Willow agrees. "But if you guys can poof it out, that's great news—it means I only have to dismantle the security on the doors once, and you won't be inside as long."

"So when do we do it?" Ginevra asks. "Frankly, I'd like to have it taken care of as soon as possible."

"If you really mean that," Willow begins, and Ginevra gives her a nasty look. Willow, unfortunately, has not spent enough time around Ginevra to realize that she doesn't—for better or for worse—say things she doesn't mean. "If you're that determined," Willow rephrases, "the university's fall break is this weekend. The Divinity School building—which is where the library is, and the Special Collections are in the library—is closed Friday through Monday. And the campus is pretty empty generally."

"In favor?" says Faith.

Hermione's, Ginevra's, Faith's, Spike's, and Willow's hands go enthusiastically up. Dean's and Sam's are slower to rise.

"You guys have any objections?" Faith says.

"It feels sort of weird to vote," says Sam, "since we aren't exactly doing anything."

"You will be," she tells him. "No objections to Sunday?"

He and Dean look at each other, and it's Dean who says, "No. No objections."

*****************

 

Faith is laughing so hard that Hermione can't determine whether the experiment worked. "Oh my God. Dean. Dean. That's...oh my God. I think I believe in God now."

"Faith, what is it?" says Sam.

"Huh?" says Dean.

"It's just...oh my God. Your car's inner child is a Mini Cooper!"

"It's just the Impala sitting there," Dean says. "Hermione, I don't think your spell worked."

"No," says Xander. "I see it, too. Blue convertible, racing stripes."

"My car," says Dean, with dignity, "is not a striped Mini."

"It is now!" crows Faith.

"Not exactly," interrupts Hermione before Dean can panic. "It's the same car it always was. Sam, Ginevra, and I, because we have magical ability, all see the Impala in its natural form—the spell doesn't work on us. Dean...Dean I'm not sure about. You're a Muggle, but the spell, when cast on the car, obviously has no effect on you."

"But it worked that time in the kitchen," Dean points out. "With the sugar bowl. It's the same spell, right?"

"Yes, though it's directed differently. With the sugar bowl, the spell caused the object to be camouflaged. However, this is more similar to the situation with the Quidditch field in Van Cortlandt Park: The spell causes Muggles to see an illusion in place of what's really there."

"You had to make it a Mini Cooper?"

"I don't know cars well enough to specify one sort from another," Hermione confesses. "I just directed the spell to conceal the car's appearance with one quite different from its own."

"Maybe you're just that connected to the car, Dean," Faith suggests. "So much that you'll always see what it really looks like, magic or not."

"Like I'd mistake her for some pussy little convertible."

"Watch whose anatomy you're insulting, bucko. Anyway, consensus from the other Muggles: Dean is now a fan of the racing stripe?"

"I am not," Dean mutters.

"It's a Cooper to me," says Veronica.

"All perky and ready for her trip to New Haven," adds Spike.

"My car is not perky."

"Paint job like that, mate? Either a perky girl or a poncy boy, take your pick."

"I hate you all."

"It might not be a bad idea to leave the spell on the car for a while, Dean," Sam says. "The FBI's looking for a black 1967 Impala. That's, uh, not a black 1967 Impala."

Veronica's nodding. "I think that's a really, really good idea. The Impala is incredibly distinctive, especially here. Not a lot of people in the Northeast have forty-year-old road-condition cars."

"For the love of God, you want me to drive a—"

"How many Minis have you seen since you've been in New York?" Faith points out, oddly gently.

"I try not to look at them. Damn abominations against the nature of cars." Dean would deny that he's sulking, but, well, he's sulking.

"Manhattan's crawling with Mini Coopers," Spike says. "Car like your black beauty on the street, everyone notices. Little blue Mini? Women and small children think they're cute, and the authorities overlook them entirely."

"Goddamn it," Dean says. "Should I just cut my balls off now?"

"Please don't," says Hermione, and Ginevra bursts out laughing, and Sam covers his face with his hands.

******************

 

Later, at supper, Ginevra says, "So, Hermione, what do you want to do for your birthday? The revised date is Friday next, you realize."

"I hadn't been thinking beyond Sunday, really," Hermione admits.

"Oh," says Willow, "speaking of, I got the floor plans and more details on the security systems in the Divinity School building."

"Good, let's look at them after supper. Anything noteworthy about them?"

"No. The building is laid out around a courtyard, and the Divinity Library is at one end. It's on the far north end of the campus, behind a farm—"

"I thought Yale was in a city."

"It is. It's some kind of sustainable agriculture thing. A lot more progressive than I'd have figured Yale would get—"

"Birthday," Ginevra says, with emphasis. "Merlin, you geniuses get distracted easily."

"Right, birthday," says Hermione. "Sorry. I really don't know. Does anyone else have any ideas?"

"It's your birthday," Willow says.

"It was actually a month ago. Long story," Hermione adds. "And yes, I know, it's my day and all that. But I've never really done much for them—school was always just starting and I was so busy."

"Then that's all the more reason to go out and party like it's 1999. Or, you know, 2007," says Faith.

"Karaoke," suggests Willow.

"I think there are probably Geneva Conventions written purely to save people the torment of hearing me sing," says Hermione.

"I've heard you sing," Dean says, unexpectedly. "It wasn't bad."

"When have you heard me sing?"

"Is this safe for my virgin ears?" Veronica says with raised eyebrows.

Dean glares at her. "In the subway station at Fourteenth Street."

"Dude, even I ain't done it in a subway station," Faith says.

"Everyone was fully dressed!" Hermione protests.

"That just makes it dirtier."

"Your mind is irretrievably in the gutter," Hermione informs her. "It was not sexual at all. There was a man singing 'All You Need Is Love.' Everyone in the station sang along. Including me. It was a chorus of about three hundred, though, which I believe is the minimum required to ensure that my voice cannot be used to roust out Panamanian dictators."

"OK, so Hermione Granger and her Wicked Wizarding Wailers are out," Xander says.

"We could have cake," suggests Hermione.

"Of course there'll be cake," Faith says, scandalized. "What kind of savages do you think we are?"

"Then let's have cake," Hermione says. "And that will be my birthday."

"Cake is, like, an automatic thing. It's not the event itself. Of course we'll have cake, and of course you and Dean will do things that are illegal in several states and a number of foreign countries, but those are, you know, givens. Especially since you would have been off chasing evil wizard lords on your last birthday, so you should do something awesome for this one."

"I would be happy with cake and illegal activities. Assuming that you consent to them, of course, Dean." Hermione blushes.

"When has that ever been an issue?" Dean says, and Sam once again buries his face in his hands.

"We'll come up with something," Faith promises Hermione.

"Now I'm terrified," mutters Dean.

***************

 

After supper, they go over the plans with Willow, then go back to the flat on Tompkins Square. Hermione has just showered and is getting ready for bed when Ginevra knocks on her bedroom door. "I have to tell you something," she says from the doorway, not making eye contact.

"Alright," says Hermione, surprised and a little worried, but trying not to show it.

"I...it probably wasn't necessary for you to go to England. To get the cloak, I mean."

"You don't think we'll need it?"

"No. I mean, we will. But I already had one."

"How did—" Hermione cuts herself off. Draco had one. It was how he hid for so long, after the prison fell, and how he managed to avoid the battle but find Ginevra while she searched for bodies.

"Draco's," Ginevra confirms. "Neville and I—Neville said he'd rather burn it than own something that had belonged to Draco Malfoy."

"But you kept it?"

"How many Invisibility Cloaks are there in the world? The war was about to end, one way or the other, and I figured that if Voldemort won, at least a few of us could get away, if we had the cloaks. And after, I didn't know what else to do with it, but I couldn't exactly tell anyone how it had come into my possession, especially since Draco is still considered missing. I'm sorry, Hermione. I should have said something. I just...I didn't know how to bring it up. 'Oh, by the way, after Neville Crucioed and killed Draco, we stole his Invisibility Cloak. Here it is.'"

"There's not— Don't apologize, Ginevra. It's good that we have two—easier to move that way—and I didn't mind going to England. It was good to see my mum."

"I hate it," Ginevra bursts out. "I've Scourgified it so many times, even sent it through the Muggle clothes-washing device, but I swear I can still smell him on it. I didn't want to leave it at home—how in the name of Godric's stones would I explain it to my mum if she found it?—but I hate it. I have it wrapped in more bags than I can count, shoved into the back of the closet, and it's like it still—I don't know—spreads. Like an infection. It's the stupidest thing ever, and I know better, and still—"

Hermione picks up Harry's cloak and crosses the room to put it in Ginevra's hands. "This is Harry's," she says. "What does it smell like to you?"

Ginevra sniffs it. "It doesn't smell like anything."

"If I Summon Draco's cloak in here, will it knock over anything?"

"It's on the very top shelf. I didn't put anything else up there."

Hermione calls it in, and a multiply-wrapped package flies into her hands. "You take Harry's cloak," she tells Ginevra. "I'll use this one."

"No, Hermione, you can't—it belonged to that...that—"

Hermione digs beneath the layers to find the cloak itself. It's identical to Harry's, smooth and shimmery, and it's not the cloak's fault what owner it drew, but it still feels dirty to the touch, contaminated. She forces herself not to shudder—Ginevra doesn't need to see that—and she sniffs it. It smells of the "Spring Rain" washing powder that Hermione bought at the market. "It doesn't smell like anything to me," Hermione tells Ginevra. "Obviously I know who it belonged to. But it's...different for me. Not...not as immediate as it is for you."

Ginevra's looking up at her, those intense brown eyes, but she doesn't say anything. Deliberately, Hermione re-covers the cloak in its wrappings, then takes it and puts it on the highest shelf of her closet.

"You don't have to—" Ginevra starts.

"I know," Hermione says.

Chapter Text

They leave for New Haven at eleven o'clock Saturday night: Dean (driving), Ginevra, and Hermione. Sam doesn't like the idea of Dean going while he stays behind, but someone needs to drive, though the crew needs to stay as small as possible. Willow remains at Faith's: She'll drop the security at two o'clock sharp, for a period of three minutes. After that, they'll need to rely on the cloaks.

They drive past the Divinity School: Everything is where the maps indicated. The campus is dark and quiet; it looks nearly abandoned, though Hermione knows that some students have remained here for the long weekend. Nevertheless, no one is about; it's as though they're the only people there.

Hermione reminds herself not to labor under the illusion that that's true.

Dean finds a car-park and turns off the Impala. It's only one thirty; they have a little bit of time.

"For the record," he says, "I'm really not OK with just driving off and leaving you guys here."

"Dean," says Hermione, "for the millionth time, we will Apparate directly to Faith's house once we find the rifles. There's no reason for you to take the risk of being on campus when the break-in occurs."

"But I'm in a damn Mini; no one will match the cars."

"Still, it's a risk you don't need to take. With luck, we'll be home before you will."

He sighs, rests his head on the back of the seat. "My dad was in the Marines. He always used to tell us, 'Leave no man behind.'"

"You're not leaving us behind," Ginevra says. "You're delivering us to complete a mission. Army men always do that, in the films. And anyway we're not men. In case you somehow missed that about Hermione."

Dean glares at her. "Army," he mutters, "not Marines. Pus— Wimps."

"Whatever. Muggles who carry guns and wear camouflage clothing. I don't know one sort from another. Anyway, there is always some group with a mission, and they have to be taken to the site of the mission, and then the people who take them there leave so that they can complete their mission."

"I need to talk to Sam about your movie-watching habit," Dean says, but without rancor.

"They're wonderful!" protests Ginevra. "Muggles are so strangely fascinating."

At a quarter to two, Hermione and Ginevra don their respective Invisibility Cloaks. Hermione spares a moment to be thankful that Ginevra can't see her shudder as Hermione drapes Draco's old cloak over herself. They spend a moment arranging the cloaks so that they're covered. Dean opens the driver's-side door, and Hermione slides across the seat and out to stand on the pavement. To a passer-by, of course, this would simply look as though Dean got out of his car and became preoccupied before closing the door. Then he opens the back, pausing as if to think, but in reality letting Ginevra out.

He closes the back door and sits down on the car's front seat, but he doesn't turn towards the wheel or close the driver's-side door. "Y'all are sure about this," he says.

"We're sure," says Ginevra. "Now go home. Faith is expecting you no later than four. And you know she and Willow won't go to bed until you're back."

Dean closes the car's door. There's a short standoff; then he says, resignedly, "Try not to get arrested," and turns the key in the ignition.

At two o'clock, they're standing at a service entrance to the Divinity School building, near the library, within the quadrangle it encloses: They decided that was safer than being on the outside, their breach more possibly visible to traffic, though there's been none. Hermione's mobile buzzes: Go, reads the text message.

"Alohomora," she murmurs, and they slip inside.

The building's exterior is classic Puritan New England, white-trimmed brick, with a pristine white bell tower. The interior, though, has been modernized, and looks more or less like a standard university edifice. The library's entrance is on the first floor, and they find it easily. The doors have glass windowpanes, so they can see just past them—and they can see that they won't Apparate into something. The building is vacant, so there's no one to hear the pops—at least, Hermione crosses her fingers that there's not.

"You there?" Ginevra whispers once they're inside.

"Right here," Hermione whispers back. She's not sure why they're taking pains to speak quietly—they're the only people here—but it feels too brazen, somehow, to talk at full voice, like tempting fate.

The library, what Hermione can see of it in the dark, has kept a more traditional appearance, with paneled wood walls and stark, elegant white columns. It would, she thinks, be a lovely place to study, and it seems appropriate for the study of religion: beautiful but slightly austere. She recalls the floor plans Willow had found. The Special Collections department is upstairs. They walk quickly but carefully, trying not to make too much noise, as they ascend a staircase with a wrought-iron railing.

Special Collections is behind another locked door, but they Apparate past it easily. It doesn't look like much, just like a library office, and Hermione wonders whether perhaps she and Sam had it all wrong: The rifles may have been here at one time, but not anymore. Certainly, it doesn't look like the sort of place one would keep supernatural weaponry; nothing in this resoundingly sensible and Protestant structure does.

"Are you sure about this?" Ginevra asks.

No, Hermione wants to say. "They're here according to the best information Sam and I could find," is what she tells Ginevra. "We just have to look for them."

Everything is, of course, spectacularly well organized—libraries and New England Protestants, apparently, mix, and mix well. There is a section for personal papers; another for archives of organizations; another for "Pamphlets & Etc."; and then, Hermione thinks, what they've been looking for, "Artifacts & Missionary Bible Collection."

"I think rifles would count as artifacts," she says to Ginevra.

"Let's go find out," Ginevra says.

The Missionary Bible Collection takes up an entire room—it's evidently a point of pride for Yale that they have versions of the Bible in nearly two hundred languages—and beyond that are several rooms filled with file drawers and cabinets that look no different from those in any other archival collection. There is nothing to indicate that a pair of antique demon-killing guns might be present—nothing, in fact, that's large enough to hold such a thing.

That is, until they reach the rearmost room, and in the back, between a box labelled Wilson, Stanley Davis and Anna Lane and a sizeable cabinet labelled Wiser, William Henricks and Charlotte Melina Viall, is a tall, narrow piece that doesn't look quite like any of the other drawers and cabinets in any of these rooms. Rather than standard file drawers, it has two vertical doors, like a wardrobe. It's labelled Winchester, Sarah Lockwood Pardee. And, unlike any of the other file containers they've seen, this one is locked.

The "Alohomora" comes from Ginevra. Hermione wraps the end of her shirtsleeves around her hands and opens the doors.

Two rifles are inside.

Carefully, she lifts one out. It's long and heavy. Ginevra takes the other rifle and looks surprised, too, at its heft.

"I guess we're done here," she says.

*****************

 

They Apparate to Faith's house, by permission appearing directly inside rather than going to the alley and then walking around. Faith is watching telly with Sam, Willow, and Veronica, but they all jump up upon hearing Hermione and Ginevra arrive. The girls drop the cloaks and stand there in the dining room, rifles in hand.

"Oh my God," Sam breathes. "You got them."

Ginevra hands hers to him. As if it's instinctive—which at this point, Hermione thinks, it probably is—he checks to make sure it's not loaded, then inspects it. "It's amazing craftsmanship," he says. "I can't say whether it will really kill a demon until I see it in action, but it's a beautifully made gun, anyway."

"That's another thing," says Faith. "I really think we should test these out before we have our Final Showdown."

"Let's talk about it at breakfast," Willow says. "Right now we have them and that's extra-fabulous and that can be the victory for the day. Hermione, Ginevra, did you find everything OK? Were the floor plans accurate?"

"Everything went uncommonly smoothly," Hermione says. "I was actually somewhat shocked."

Willow smiles. "That's the kind of shock we like to have. The good kind."

Sam calls Dean: "They're back, man....Yeah, they got 'em. I'm holding one in my hand right now....Pretty much like any old gun, just better made....We're going to talk about that tomorrow, Willow says....Just get your ass home so that you can see them for yourself."

Dean arrives about thirty minutes later. At the door, he kisses Hermione hard, full on the mouth, then pauses with his hands on her face as if looking her over.

"It was painless," she says. She isn't sure what he's checking for. "Apart from the fact that we found what we were searching for, there's nothing to report."

He kisses her again, finally drops his hands. "Good. That's what I like to hear."

The rifles are lying on Faith's dining table, and Dean runs his fingers over them so reverently that he might be touching a lover. (Hermione isn't sure whether to be jealous, or disturbed, or just amused.) "I hope these work," he says, almost to himself.

****************

 

Sunday isn't typically a patrol night, at least not as a group—Faith will occasionally go out by herself, but it's a short trip, and early, since she has class the next day. But she's on autumn holiday, too—plus they're testing the rifles, as they discussed at breakfast this morning.

Everyone, to Hermione's surprise, was reluctant to summon another demon.

"It wasn't a big deal with that other one, over at Abyssus, because we just exorcised it and the guy was fine," Dean said.

"But this time we'd be killing the host—the human host," Sam continued, "and it's...it's not their fault they had bad luck."

"We're going to be killing the Yellow-Eyed Demon's host," Faith pointed out. "Are you alright with that?"

"Yeah," Dean admitted, "because at this point I really don't see any other way. It's too powerful to exorcise, and it'd probably just claw its way back out of hell and start all over again anyway."

"And," Sam added, "it's been in that body for so long that God knows whether the person would even survive afterwards. I don't...I don't like the idea of killing a human being. But I don't think we have much of a choice here. I don't know of any way to kill—actually kill outright, not just exorcise—a demon that doesn't involve the death of its host."

"Then how can we be sure that the rifles work?" Ginevra asked. "Because I am not so fond of the idea of summoning one of the most evil creatures in the universe if we don't know for certain whether our weapons against it will be effective."

"I don't think there's a way to test them on a demon," Faith acquiesced. "I'm not about to shoot one of the customers at Abyssus—most of those guys I actually like—and we have the loss-of-life issue if we summon one. Plus there's the fact that demons gossip like goddamn old women, and we've already summoned one—I don't think it's a good idea to let word get around that we're taking extra interest in them this month." There was a brief silence. Faith's face was thoughtful; Dean poked at his eggs; Sam stirred his tea. "Hey, Winchesters," Faith said after a moment. "How'd you guys like to be Slayers for a night?"

*****************

 

Which is why they're here, in the no-man's-land underneath the West Side Highway in upper Manhattan. The extensive bridgework would seem an obvious shelter for a homeless population, but they've seen no one—either the comparative remoteness (and undeniable eeriness) of the area has kept them away, or else the alleged vampire colony has used them all as food.

Hermione strongly hopes for the former.

They're not making much of an effort to be quiet, and it doesn't take long for a couple of vampires to appear from behind the bridge supports.

"Slayers," says one, with relish. He's male, probably in his late twenties when he was turned.

"And boys!" says the other, a woman who must have been slightly younger. She looks at Faith, Hermione, and Ginevra, and her face changes into the ridged contours with which Hermione has become increasingly familiar. "You brought us boys to eat!"

"Sorry," says Dean, "but that service isn't available to the general public." He fires, and though Hermione is—relatively—confident that the rifles will work, she readies a stake and firepower, just in case.

She needn't have worried. Dean's shot might as well have been a stake: There's a frozen, breathless moment, and then the female vampire disintegrates into a pile of dust, the same as if Hermione had put a piece of wood through her heart. The male turns to run. Sam pauses, and Hermione suspects he has ethical qualms about shooting even the soulless variety of vampire in the back; he settles for aiming at the buttocks.

To Hermione's shock, it has the same effect.

"Well," says Faith, "I guess that—"

Except then the rest of the nest materializes out of the scrub, and they're occupied for the next several minutes in getting rid of them. Faith and Ginevra stake some; Sam and Dean shoot some; Hermione burns some; and they pause only when all further comers have either been eliminated or have sensibly turned tail and fled.

"I hate being interrupted," Faith says. "Anyway, so I guess that proves that the guns work."

"Let's do this," Dean says.

******************

 

Sam and Dean are ready to go after the Yellow-Eyed Demon tomorrow, but Willow, though she's delighted to hear that the guns work, disagrees. "As much as the whole veil-between-the-worlds thing sounds like it should have come out of a Starhawk book, with possibly some unfortunately written lesbian sex to go along with it, it actually is kind of true and it's a lot easier to summon a demon—or anything—at Samhain. Illyria might also decide to cross back over then, assuming she's planning to and assuming she's even following Earth-dimemsional time at this point, and it'd be a real advantage to be able to consult a demon if we're going to try to summon one, and generally I think we shouldn't rush this."

"We've been waiting twenty-five years," Dean starts.

"Which means that you can wait two and a half more weeks," Willow cuts him off gently. "Dean, I know. I know it's important. I don't want Az—well, you know who I mean—in the world either. But we can't rush into this half-cocked. Or, well, not cocked at all, in a certain manner of speaking."

"You think King Lyr will grace us with her appearance sometime soon?" Asked of Faith by Spike, who has come over for a very late supper after their return.

Faith shakes her head. "I have no idea. She's not so much for scheduling even when she is following Earth time, and what she's doing might...take a while."

"What is she doing?" Ginevra asks.

"Errands," says Faith, and doesn't elaborate.

*******************

 

They have about two weeks until Samhain, so life goes, to some extent, back to normal. Ginevra resumes training and Quidditch practice; they both take shifts at Abyssus; Hermione keeps writing. They simply have to make time for demon-summoning rehearsals, is all.

It was Faith's idea to use the upper Manhattan site for the ritual: It's outdoors (a requirement, with the guns) but isolated enough that no random civilians will come wandering upon it; despite its relative isolation, it's close to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, in Washington Heights, in the event that anyone gets hurt; and it's spacious.

Sam and Dean are at the firing range daily, practicing with the guns. Several heavy, unmarked boxes arrive via Federal Express, addressed to Duff McKagan. Dean seems to know immediately that the packages are meant for him, and they turn out to contain rounds of blessed iron. "Thank you, Bobby," Dean says.

Present at the ritual will be Willow, of course; Ginevra and Hermione; Sam and Dean; Faith; Xander; and Spike. There's an argument over whether he should be there—he's willing, but they don't want too many people, but Sam says, ultimately, that they should have someone present who's categorically incapable of being possessed. There's another argument over whether Buffy should be there: Willow votes yes, Dean votes no, and Faith rules that it can't hurt to have her in the city, but "someone needs to be able to call in the troops if it all goes south."

Translated, Hermione knows, this means "if we all die." Which is a possibility.

It's a strange week to have her birthday, but apparently it's going to happen. It's Tuesday—Ginevra at Quidditch practice, Hermione serving a steady but undemanding stream of customers at Abyssus, Faith and Spike at the end of the bar with books and laptop respectively—when Faith reminds her, "So you haven't made other plans for Friday, I hope. Don't think we forgot."

"But I haven't been able to think of anything for us to do," Hermione says.

"Ah," says Spike, "but as my services have not been required as yet in the demon-hunting realm, I took the liberty of planning your birthday celebration. We'll be attending La Rhapsodie des Hommes et des Femmes, and dining at Rosa Mexicano."

Hermione repeats the name. "'La Rhapsodie des Hommes et des Femmes'?"

"A burlesque performance," Spike explains. "But with both men and women, so as to be equitable for all attending."

"I'm meant to see nude dancers on my birthday?" She's freer about certain things than she used to be, Hermione thinks, but, honestly, there are limits.

"No, no, no," Faith reassures her. "It's burlesque. I mean, there might be some naked breasts, because that sort of goes with the territory, but it's basically a dance performance. Only sexy and fun and not all 'look at me with my scarves and props and obscure titles and immeasurable depth of pain in my soul.'" Faith pauses. "It's possible that I stayed at NYU too long."

"You should feel free to overrule me, if you'd prefer to do something else," Spike says. "I assure you that it will not cause immeasurable depths of pain in my soul."

"I have no objection to a dance performance," Hermione says.

"It's a sexy one," Faith says. "I mean, it's not the City Ballet we're talking here."

"It will be something different," Hermione says. "Why not."

"And there'll also be cake and presents," adds Faith. "All that plus some naked racks—where's the bad?"

"I somehow doubt I'm the best equipped in this group to appreciate the naked...racks."

"There'll be some fine specimens of manhood as well," Faith assures her. "Something for every taste. You can talk about how hot they are, and Dean can glower, and it'll be entertaining for all of us."

***************

 

Wednesday night, they have a demon-summoning rehearsal.

They pile into the Impala and drive up to northern Manhattan. Hermione, Ginevra, and Sam all do Lumos spells, so everyone can see, and Willow walks around the site for a few minutes, apparently comparing angles and muttering to herself. She stops at a point near where the ground begins to slope down, leading through a number of yards of heavy underbrush before giving way to the riverbank, and stands with her back to the Hudson, facing eastward. "I'll set up the altar here," she says. "Sam and Dean, pretend I'm the lowest point of a triangle. You guys should be at the other two points. That way when you aim, if you miss, you'll just fire into the bushes or into the river."

"Or into you," says Dean. "We're good shots, but if you're fighting a demon at the time—"

"I should be able to freeze its body for a few seconds. Long enough for you guys to get your shots in." She looks at Ginevra and Hermione. "I know we've got a couple weeks, but that disappearing-reappearing thing you guys do takes longer than that to learn, right?"

"It depends," says Hermione. "You could probably learn to do it in a few days, but it takes a while to be able to do it well—over distances or under stress."

"But you can disappear-reappear somebody else if they have magical talent, right? Even if they can't do it themselves?"

"It's called Side-Along Apparition," Hermione says, "and yes. I understand it's a rather jarring experience for the person who's being transported, but it's certainly possible."

"Possible enough that you could do it to me?"

"Well," Hermione says, "let's have a go, shall we?"

It works: Hermione Apparates with Willow twice, from one end of the site to the other, then back again.

"How was it?" Faith asks.

"I feel a little bit like a milkshake, except without the boys-to-the-yard part, but otherwise I'm good. I've really got to learn how to do that. It'd make getting groceries so much easier!"

"It makes many things much easier," says Hermione. "And I don't think it will be difficult for you to learn."

Willow does a little dance, but then turns serious again. "OK, So here's what we're going to do."

It's odd how the most important things are often the least complicated. Their parts are all limited and well defined. They make plans to run through everything again a week from today, and then again closer to Samhain, but the procedures are straightforward, and Hermione doesn't think they really need to practice, though of course it will be reasssuring to see that they all have their roles in place.

If something goes wrong, it won't matter how much they've rehearsed.

***************

 

Friday, Hermione's birthday "do-over," as Faith calls it, is intermittently rainy, unseasonably warm, and incredibly humid. If her hair were longer, it would be outstandingly bushy, but, thank goodness, it's short enough to be inoffensive despite the weather.

Dean worked Thursday night, but came round afterwards; it was very late by the time they fell asleep, but he leaves much earlier than usual in the morning, kissing her with a murmur of "happy do-over day, baby" while she's still barely awake, naked and warm with the sheets tangled around her.

"Where going?" she mutters.

"Got some errands to run."

"You and Illyria. Don't disappear into the otherworld."

"Just Staten Island," Dean says, and promptly looks as though he's said something he shouldn't.

"You going to see Sak-Tarus again?"

"He, uh, has something that might be useful."

"Oh." She pulls the sheet off the bed and wraps it around herself. "I'll walk you downstairs."

Dean pauses, buttoning up his shirt, and looks at her and laughs. "Sweetheart, you realize you look like you've just rolled out of bed."

"I imagine the sheet would imply that, yes."

"And when I say 'just rolled out of bed,' I mean 'just rolled out of bed with somebody else in it.'"

"There's no one else in my bed," says Hermione, "because he's leaving me in favor of going to Staten Island. It's quite possibly the most ignominous abandonment ever experienced by womankind."

"I love how even when you're half-asleep, you still use words like 'ignominous.'"

Rather than respond, Hermione and her sheet lean against him. His arms are solid and strong and feel good around her.

"Dinner's at six, right?" he says.

"Right. At Rosa Mexicano."

They leave the room to go downstairs, and Dean says, "You sure you don't want to put something else on?"

"I'm just going back to bed. To my cold, lonely, solitary bed."

"You do a lot of things well," Dean says, "but Sam's the master of the puppy-dog eyes."

Ginevra, perpetually an early riser, is already awake and fixing breakfast. She looks at Hermione's outfit and appears to swallow a laugh. Sam, for his part, turns a brighter red than Hermione has ever seen, and flees into the other room.

She hadn't realized he was here. She would have considered putting on clothes, had she known that was the case.

Considered it, anyway.

Sam and Dean have a short conversation about the time and place for supper tonight—all while Dean is in the doorway and Sam is firmly on the other side of the wall in the sitting room—and then Dean kisses her and departs.

"Breakfast?" Ginevra says, hand on a cereal bowl in the cupboard.

"I'm going back to bed, but thanks."

"Now that you've thoroughly traumatized Sam," Ginevra says, "your day's work is done."

"It's not as if I'm naked," Hermione says.

"I'm not listening!" Sam yells from the other room.

"But you clearly are," says Hermione.

His only response is an unintelligible and probably uncomplimentary mutter.

"His brother's girlfriend—oh, don't start, you are Dean's girlfriend, and he's your boyfriend, and for two people of your advanced ages you're both quite embecilic about such an basic concept—parading about in a sheet? Any reasonable person would be. Now go back to bed, you tart."

Hermione makes a rude gesture, and does.

**************

 

She does some writing—her own, as well as letters she owes—and goes for a run; she stops at St. Mark's Bookshop and treats herself to the first volume in a new translation of In Search of Lost Time (she could read it in French, but it would require a dictionary and more time than she'd prefer to spend); she goes over to Union Square and treats herself to a variety of food, including a loaf of gingerbread from her favorite baker's stand, the first time they've had it since she'd been here; then she goes back to the flat and has a long, lovely bath and reads the Proust.

No one else is about—Ginevra has her usual engagement walking Nikkya's and Sarah's dogs, and then is going to Niamh's for a while; Sam, Hermione assumes, is studying with Mrs. Morganstern today—and so, though it feels vastly scandalous to do so, Hermione walks around the flat completely unclothed, making herself a plate of apples with honey and listening to Fauré on the high-fi. She chooses what to wear for the evening and lays it out on her bed. She holds up the pearls to her neck, then puts them on—there's something even more vastly scandalous about being starkly nude except for the jewelry.

Now that's an idea for later this evening.

Ginevra returns around half past four, and they both get dressed. Ginevra's wearing linen trousers and a dark-colored cotton shirt; she didn't bring much in the way of formal clothes (she doesn't own much in the way of formal clothes), and this is probably as fancy as she gets.

Hermione is wearing one of the frocks she inherited from Fleur: it's a soft dove-grey, and relatively conservative in front, but leaves her other side bare nearly to the small of her back. She puts on the pearls, and shoes she can actually walk in—plain black Mary Janes, with stack heels. She carries her usual courier's bag, though, as she's nothing else, and the dress, streamlined as it is, lacks pockets.

"Well," says Ginevra when Hermione comes downstairs. "I think Dean will approve of that."

"Are you sure?" asks Hermione. "I halfway feel as though I've gone in drag as Fleur."

Ginevra snorts. "You don't look like Phlegm. I'd tell you. Shall we go?"

They Apparate to one of the alleys near Lincoln Center; the restaurant is only a couple of blocks away. Everyone else is coming by Muggle methods, so Hermione and Ginevra are the first ones to arrive. They're not allowed to drink at this bar—it's almost a shock to remember that they're considered underage—but they sit and have Coca-Colas and feel cosmopolitan nevertheless.

The rest of the gang appears together (minus Spike, who's meeting them at the performance, it still being light outside); they must have taken the Impala. Faith's in a black dress that likely violates obscenity laws somewhere; Xander is wearing utterly inoffensive khakis. Sam is in dark trousers with a surprisingly stylish bluish-purple shirt; he and Ginevra actually match. Dean is in jeans—Hermione doesn't think she's ever seen him in anything else—but he's wearing a crisp white oxford, and she wants nothing more than to run her hands up his chest and then unbutton it, part the ironed fabric to reveal the smooth skin below.

She settles for a brief kiss like they're any other couple. Like they're really together, like she'll see him again after December 31.

No, she tells herself. It's my birthday—or a facsimile of my birthday, anyway—and I won't be sad. I'm here, and these friends of mine are here, and Dean's here, and that's enough.

Dean traces a finger down her spine as they walk to the table, and she shivers pleasurably.

Once they're seated, there are presents and guacamole. The mildness of the avocado is almost sweet against the sharpness of the cilantro, and Hermione thinks she could probably eat nothing but this for supper and be perfectly content. But the rest of the food here is reportedly excellent as well, so, reluctantly, she opens her presents and lets everyone else have some guacamole, too.

There is a gift certificate to St. Mark's Bookshop from Faith—ironic, as she's just been there, but nevertheless useful, as she'll assuredly go again. There is a pretty notebook, sturdily bound in leather, from Ginevra: "For writing your book," she explains. Veronica hands her an envelope, which Hermione assumes will contain a card—and it does, but it also contains a New York State driver's license under the name "Judith Holofernes." The card is jointly signed by Veronica and Willow.

"The name was Willow's idea," Veronica says. "I'm better at metaphorical Biblical knowledge than actual Biblical knowledge, but Willow assures me that Judith lopped off some really unsavory guy's head and saved her people like you did."

"I've never lopped off anyone's head," Hermione says, mildly alarmed, "and it's something of an exaggeration to say that I saved my people."

"That's not what I heard from Giles," Willow says, but quietly enough that Hermione can ignore it.

Veronica takes a second license from her pocket and hands it to Ginevra. "We did one for you, too. Since you don't legally exist here."

"But I don't know how to drive a Muggle automobile!"

"For that matter, neither do I," Hermione adds.

"You can learn," says Veronica. "But they're for ID more than anything else—so that if you need to show it for any reason, no one will question your right to be here."

"Thank you," says Hermione. "I suspect these will be quite useful." She pauses. "Do I even want to know how you acquired them?"

"We have our ways," says Veronica in an ersatz Russian accent.

Hermione's putting the license into her courier's bag when Dean says, low enough that the others are unlikely to hear, "I have something for you later."

"I imagine you do," she responds, deadpan.

"Oh, that too," he assures her. "As much of it as you want. But also something else."

"I'll look forward to it," she says.

*************

 

Spike meets them at the theatre, a smallish one in Chelsea. He's wearing his usual long black leather jacket with jeans, and Hermione thinks that he's one of enviable people who can appear dressed to the nines, and yet be wearing nothing but a jacket and jeans. It's rather disgusting.

The dance performance is unlike any she's ever seen before. It's like a circus in its showmanship and acrobatics, but with the artistry of modern dance—and with a generous helping of burlesque, too. And perhaps some, er, other, more primal influences—there's one particular piece where no one is wearing anything that could be construed as obscene, and yet...well. She thinks of Dean and herself in that position—only considerably less dressed—and is thankful that the darkness conceals her blush.

Afterward, at Faith's house, there is the promised cake—a rich devil's food with white frosting—and they all wander off to bed, with the exception of Spike, who calls them all boring, and he and Veronica go out for a nightcap. Sam and Ginevra stay downstairs to watch a movie, and Hermione wonders whether they're making a useless attempt to camouflage the fact that Ginevra will almost certainly be staying the night with him.

"Did you have a good birthday do-over?" Dean says once they're upstairs. His fingers go to the top button of his shirt.

"A very good birthday do-over, thank you. Don't take that off quite yet."

He pauses, looks at her quizzically.

She walks over to him and slides her hands up the fabric, letting them come to rest on his chest. "I've been wanting all night to unbutton it."

He puts his hands by his sides. "Don't let me stop you."

She undoes each button carefully, deliberately keeping herself back so that she doesn't give in to the temptation to lean forward and kiss him. When the shirt is open, loose around him, she pushes it back from his shoulders, sliding it off and letting it fall onto the floor. He's in jeans and undershirt, and when he raises his arms, they pull that off him, too.

He addresses himself to what she's wearing, unfastening the bit around the neck so that she can step out of it. She starts to take off the pearls, but he says, "Leave them on."

She's standing here in the pearls, her knickers, and her shoes. "Really?" she says.

He laughs. "You have no idea. Oh, yeah. Leave 'em on."

"You do love accessories," she says.

"Everything else can come off. Just not the pearls."

"You're a terribly dirty boy," she says, moving her hands to the buckle of his belt.

"I do my best," he says, covering her breasts with his hands and teasing her nipples.

They dispense with his jeans, and she rubs her hand lightly over his cock, through the cotton of his usual boxer-briefs, listening to his breath catch. She sits to take off the shoes; he kneels in front of her, and when both shoes are off, he pats her hip and says, "Raise up." She does, and he slides the knickers off her. His exploratory fingers are very, very light as his lips graze her inner thighs, and he grins up at her and says, "I was going to go down on you for a while, but I actually think I'll save that for later."

"I hate you," she tells him.

"I can tell."

He sits back on his knees and lets his gaze wander her, lecherous and affectionate and appreciative. She pretends to examine her nails. "Are you going to stare at me all night," she asks, "or is there a different agenda for the evening?"

He laughs and pushes himself to his feet, sits up against the headboard and holds his arms out for her. "Come here, beautiful girl. Let me touch you a little bit."

She settles herself in his lap, legs around his waist, and his fingers find her clit. He touches over and around it in small circles, and she can't help rubbing back against him, encouraging him to go just a little harder, just a little faster, letting the pleasure burn through her body. He doesn't speed up, though, just keeps going at his leisurely pace, his other hand on her breast, his mouth moving from her throat to her nipple and back again, then pausing to ask her whether it feels good, to tell her how wet she feels, how hot, how much he wants to be inside her.

She reaches between them—the angle is slightly awkward, but she manages—and wraps her hand around his cock. "If that's the case," she says, "why not do it instead of just talking about it?" She can feel his hips stutter up, involuntarily thrusting into her loose grip.

"Oh," he says, "we will, baby. Never doubt that."

He tips them forward, pressing himself on top of her, and she takes the opportunity to arch up against him, urging him inside her. But he avoids it and shakes his head, smiling. "Not just yet," he says. "Patience. It's a virtue, remember?"

"Oh, and you always exercise it so diligently."

"I can be patient when I need to be. Like right now. I said I was going to fuck you, and I absolutely mean it. It's just not going to happen right this second." He guides her legs so that her feet are on the bed, knees splayed apart. "Got some other things I want to do first."

He bends down and licks delicately at her, as though tasting some rare dish for the first time. He outlines her labia with his tongue, then lets her clit have just a few seconds in his mouth. She moves her hands to his hair and says, "Please."

He pats her hip again—the tosser—and simply continues with what he's already doing. His pace is unhurried, as though they've got all night (which they do) and there's no reason to rush (which is a matter of opinion). His lips and tongue are so very careful on her secret parts, giving her just enough to make her gasp and plead, but never enough to make her come.

She's trembling, boneless and breathless, when he pulls away. He sits them both up again, arranges her in his lap, and she's so wet that his cock slides inside her with no friction at all. One touch to her clit and now she's climaxing, shuddering around him, sinking her nails into his back and her teeth into his shoulder. She comes down from it to see his head thrown back as he bites his lip, and she laughs, now that she can.

"Trying to hold back?" she whispers. "I won't judge you, Dean. I bet it felt good, what I just did." She reaches between them again, cups his bollocks in her hand, runs her fingers over them. They're tight, drawn up. She kisses the place where she bit him, runs her tongue across the marks. "I already know you've got stamina, love. You've got nothing to prove to me."

He kisses her, and moans into her mouth as he comes.

They sit there for a few moments, wrapped in each other. "You're an evil woman," he says when he has his breath back. "It should be illegal to just...say things"—he traces the pearls at her throat—"with that accent and wearing those around your neck."

"I said nothing explicit at all," she retorts.

"That only makes it dirtier, baby."

She kisses him and pulls away, and they lie down under the covers. Hermione's just settled in, head on Dean's arm, hand on his belly, when she feels the hard shapes of the pearls on the underside of her chin and sits up. "Blast, just when I was comfortable," she says, and starts to take them off.

"Oh, shit, I almost forgot!" Dean says, and sits bolt upright. "Here, want me to put those on the desk?"

"Don't get up; I can—"

"I have to get something anyway." He takes them and sets them carefully on the desktop, then picks up something else from nearby. It's not a large object, but it's too dark for her to be able to discern anything further.

He turns on one of the bedside lamps, though, and hands it to her. It's a square black velvet box, not unlike the one in which the pearls are usually housed. "Happy birthday," he says. "A little bit late."

"Can I open it?"

"No, actually, you should carry it around on top of your head." He sits back down on the bed, draws the bedclothes around himself, looks oddly...nervous.

She opens it.

The necklace inside is made of a flawless fine white metal; it gleams even in the dim light. The work is exquisitely fine, an interlocking pattern of lines and curves that almost looks like a garland, though the chain is not large—about half the width of her smallest fingernail. Hermione looks more closely, and realizes that some of the lines are in fact writing: Subtly, in and around the links, the maker has etched a series of runes. She reads them, she can't help it—and discovers that she's reading a complicated spell of protection.

She reaches into the box, but her hand stills—there is only one kind of metal with this pale shine, and she doesn't know how Dean got it, and she never expected to own anything so fine. Part of her retains the child's fear of touching a beautiful object: Clearly, she will break it.

She picks it up and lifts it to eye level, following the runes from link to link and interpreting the set of spells. "Dean," she breathes, "who— where—"

"Remember that goblin jeweler with the imp infestation?"

"My God, Dean, these spells are incredible—I'm familiar with most protection spells, but not the Runic. They're ancient, so few understand them, and they have to be tailored to the recipient—how did you...I never met Sak-Tarus."

"Yeah, um, so remember how I stole your copy of Pride and Prejudice?"

"Right, to read it."

"No. I mean, I did try to read it, but just because I happened to have it. I— This was supposed to be a surprise."

"It is," Hermione says fervently.

He smiles, and there's something hopeful and heartbreaking and very, very young in it. "Good. Anyway, so since you couldn't go out and meet with him yourself and still have it be a surprise, he said he could work from an object that was important to you. He suggested your wand, but you'd already given it to Sam. But I remembered you saying that you'd read that book over and over again since you were eight. So I gave him that." Dean adds, "And we worked out the ownership bit. It's yours, forever. When you...get old, if you want to give it to somebody, you can—like any other piece of jewelry in that respect."

"You won an ownership dispute with a goblin?"

"Long story, but yeah. So put it on," he says.

Hermione hands him the necklace and moves so that her back is towards him. "Fasten it for me?"

Carefully, he lays it around her neck and puts the clasp in place. Then she feels his arms go around her and his mouth press softly against her shoulder. She puts her hands over his, and they stay like that for a few moments. The necklace almost seems to be generating its own warmth, as though the spells have gone online, moving from dormancy to humming activity at just the touch of metal to skin.

She feels a knot where her heart meets her throat, and she knows what it is: It's all the words she wants to say and can't. Instead, she turns around and kisses Dean, not ferociously hard but certainly with intent. "Thank you," she says.

He kisses her the same way, and says, "You're welcome."

**************

 

They sleep, finally, but she wakes up in the predawn hours with the urgent need to visit the loo. She almost goes in the altogether, then remembers that Willow is sleeping in the office—there's a fold-out sofa that lets it double as an extra bedroom—and would probably prefer not to encounter Hermione's nude state should she also find herself awake and about. Dean's shirt is still on the floor; Hermione folds herself into it, then goes out into the corridor.

In the bathroom, she does her business and then looks in the mirror, at the girl who's now a woman grown, wearing her lover's shirt and the necklace that was his gift, her body tender and sated from their sex. She's alive, and she never expected to be. She's in love, and she never really expected that, either.

Happy birthday to me, she thinks.

She goes back to bed, but keeps the shirt on. It would need to be laundered anyway, and, she thinks, it will amuse Dean. He's sprawled out on his stomach; she kisses him between his shoulder blades and then goes back to sleep.

*************

 

The screaming wakes her.

Her "Accio!" is unspecific and semiconscious, and the resulting weapon turns out to be a Sig Sauer. She Apparates down to the second-floor landing, following the horrific, ongoing noise. Faith, entirely naked but armed with a crossbow, flies out of her bedroom at the same time. The noise is coming from Sam's room. Faith tries the door; it's locked. Hermione can see her rearing back to kick it down; she says, "Wait," then, "Alohomora." Dean vaults over the bannister, similarly unclothed, Desert Eagle in hand; Willow's behind him, a stake in each hand.

The spell works, which means that the house's wards haven't been overridden. They burst into the room like an invading force.

The only people in the room are Sam and Ginevra.

The noise is coming from Sam.

Ginevra's shaking him, shouting at him to wake up, but it's not until everyone else is in the room and someone—Xander, maybe, who's behind Faith and carrying a double-headed ax that's only slightly shorter than he is—thinks to turn on the light that Sam comes out of it. He sits up, eyes completely blank, then looks around in confusion, as though he's never seen the surroundings or any of these people before. Dean is the first one across the room, and it's then that Sam blinks and mumbles, "Oh my God, dude, put some clothes on."

Dean looks down at himself and turns bright, bright red. Hermione is suddenly very grateful for her late-night trip to the loo. Ginevra's breath is still coming quick and sharp, and her expression is the toneless face Hermione knows she wears when Ginevra doesn't want to give away the fact that she's scared out of her mind; still, she has wherewithal to pick up her wand and Accio a pair of sweatpants from the chest of drawers. Dean puts them on quickly; Ginevra motions a pair over to Faith, who scoffs, "Please, it's my own house. If you can't be butt-naked in your own place, where can you be butt-naked?" She sets the crossbow to lean against the wall and walks over to Sam and Ginevra. "What happened? Was all that just a nightmare?"

Sam looks up, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands; then he sees naked Faith in front of him, turns as red as his brother, and looks back down straightaway.

"Oh, for God's sake," says Faith. "Fine, Ginevra, get me a T-shirt or something."

A T-shirt immediately results. It has a greyhound emblazoned on it. Faith pulls it on, and Dean says, "Sam, what the hell happened?"

More collected now, Sam says, "We can't wait until Samhain. We have to go after the demon now. I don't— we don't have time to wait."

Willow sets her stakes on the desk. "Explicate?" She's in a tank top and a pair of short pyjama bottoms, no nudity here.

"I dreamed—not a nightmare dream, although it was pretty awful, but a prophetic dream." He looks at Hermione and Ginevra. "A Seer dream, you and Desiree would probably call it."

"How can you tell the difference?" asks Veronica (T-shirt, flowered knickers, Taser).

"They feel different. Nightmares are clearer but also more surreal—like regular dreams. You know, one minute you're walking down the street in a place you know, and the next minute there are rainbow-striped fish falling from the sky. The prophetic ones are murkier, but it's just real life—not life you'd want, but still real life."

"And that's what this one was," Xander says (boxers with dinosaurs on, ax now leaning against the wall next to Faith's crossbow), leading Sam but not pushing him.

"Yeah," Sam says. "Really definitely. There was...I don't know where it was. An abandoned town somewhere. It looked pretty old: old-style buildings, all the paint peeling. Dean, Ava was there. She was trapped in this shed, and she was screaming to get out."

"She's alive?"

"She must be. I don't know whether she's in that shed now, or whether it's something that'll happen in the future, but she definitely gets trapped there, and it's definitely the demon. I don't know how I know; I just know. And then—it was like the scene cut, and Andy was there."

"Same town?" Dean asks.

"Yeah, same town. One minute he was alive—we were standing on the porch to one of the buildings, maybe it was a house, I don't know—and the next, he was on the floor. Dead, Dean. Like something had ripped him apart. And then"—Sam takes a breath—"and then there was me."

Ginevra stares at him, her face losing its cast of calm. "What do you mean, and then there was you?" Her hand, which had been on his knee, finds his arm, and Hermione realizes that Ginevra's touching a black tattoo on Sam's forearm. It must be recent: Hermione doesn't remember ever seeing it before, and they've all been in short sleeves, so it would have been easily noticeable.

"I don't know what happened," Sam says, voice barely audible. "It was dark. It was like I was watching from overhead. I could see—there was a big bloodstain on my back, at the base of my spine. Dean, you were trying to hold me up, and it wasn't working. I was—I was dying."

"You were not," Dean says, low.

"Has one of my dreams ever been wrong before?"

There's no answer.

"Was it the demon?" Faith asks. "Who...did it?"

"I don't think so. I think it was a person, but I don't know who. Someone under the demon's influence—maybe its orders."

"Maybe you were just unconscious," Dean suggests.

Sam looks at him directly. "You were screaming, Dean. Not for me to wake up. For me to come back."

"If we do this tonight," Faith asks, "does it keep your dream from happening?"

Sam nods. "It keeps Andy and me from dying. Ava—Ava I don't know. That may have already happened."

"I can do the ritual tonight," Willow says. "It would have been a little bit easier at Samhain, but I can do it now. And I think we should. I think we all should spend the day resting and preparing, and we should go out tonight, and we should kill this thing dead, and then maybe kill it again for good measure, because I don't want it in my world anymore."

"I'll call Bobby," Dean says to Sam. "Tell him not to come."

"Your friend Bobby was coming out?" says Faith.

"Like we could keep him away. Yeah, he was going to come out a day or two ahead of time. He's not gonna be able to be able to make it from South Dakota to here by tonight, though."

Faith sighs. "Alright. Christ. I'd say everybody go back to bed, but I don't think that's happening." She looks at her watch. "Five thirty. Who wants breakfast?"

Chapter Text

One telephone call is made even before breakfast: from Faith to Buffy, in England, telling her that the plans have changed and the expedition will take place tonight. It's late morning there; Buffy doesn't answer, so Faith leaves a voice mail. "It's a whole long story, but the short version is, we gotta get this done. I'll give you a call when it's taken care of. We'll be around most of the day, so buzz me later if you want." It's still the middle of the night where Bobby is; Dean says he'll call in a couple of hours, as Bobby is apparently a very early riser.

Breakfast is fruit, cereal, turkey sausage, tea and coffee, and quieter than Hermione has ever seen this group. They clean up equally nonverbally, and finally Faith says, "Look, I suggest we all just go back to bed. It's six thirty in the damn morning, and we're all tired and not up to doing much but sitting around and biting our nails. Or licking our nuts, whatever. Get some rest."

Sam and Ginevra settle in with a film—something about a man who steals orchids and a woman who is writing a magazine article about him. It starts out reasonably enough, but Dean refuses to watch. "It all goes to hell in the second half. Seriously, Sam, I don't understand how you can waste your time with this piece of crap."

"Dean, have you ever even seen it?"

"Yes, and like I just said thirty seconds ago, it all goes to hell in the second half because somebody went to film school and jerked off too much."

Sam instructs him to do something anatomically improbable.

"Yeah, you too, Sparky."

Hermione wonders whether a fight will break out, but Ginevra appears nothing but amused. Maybe this is just what brothers do. True, when she and Dean go upstairs, he doesn't seem particularly upset.

They never got entirely dressed after Sam's episode: Hermione fetched her knickers and a pair of Dean's clean boxers before sitting down for breakfast, but otherwise he's still in the sweatpants and she's still in his shirt. She closes the door to his room and he laughs, almost reluctantly. "What is it?" she asks.

"Nothing. I just...of all the times for you to be standing there in my shirt and a pair of my boxers, I wish it was a time when I could appreciate it more."

"It wasn't intentional," she says apologetically.

He lies down on the bed and pats the space next to him. "Obviously, baby. Come on, Faith was right. We all need some sleep."

She settles with her head on his chest. His hand dips underneath the shirt, coming to rest on her back, tracing her spine slowly from the nape of her neck to the small of her back, dipping underneath the waistband of the boxers to trail along the top of the knickers.

She wriggles, pushes the boxer shorts down a little farther on her hips.

Dean's hand settles squarely on her arse.

"You may dispense with the subtlety," she tells him.

He laughs. "Like I had any." His palm slides beneath the nylon to rest on her bare skin.

She leans up to kiss him, and the boxers and knickers come off the rest of the way; then the sweatpants do, too. She unbuttons the shirt and is about to shrug it off, leaving her naked but for the platinum of the necklace; he shakes his head. "Leave it on."

"You do like accessories, don't you?"

"A shirt's not an accessory."

"In this context it is."

She rolls onto her side and tugs him so that he's facing her. He goes uncomplainingly, resting his head on one arm, moving his other hand to tease her nipples; then, when she fits one leg over his hips, he reaches between her thighs to stroke her, first with one finger, then two, then three, until she's rocking against his fingertips, slick and urgent and wanting him.

She tries to move closer, to fit his cock inside her—he's hard and ready for her. But he pauses, hand moving to hold gently but firmly on her hip, and says, "Not just yet. Let me touch you a little longer." He does, then, returning his fingers to where they were, touching her lightly until she's gasping, head thrown back, eyes closed, and when his fingers thrust inside her, thumb brushing her clit, she comes with a cry that's nearly a whimper.

He licks his fingers, and she watches with satisfied eyes.

He moves so that he's on top, and they kiss through it. He feels incredible inside her, fierce and intimate all at once, and when she wraps her legs around his hips, heels in the small of his back, something about the angle makes her gasp again even in the lees of her orgasm.

She's not even thinking when she reaches down to touch herself, just knows that it will feel good, the precision of her fingers and the hardness of his cock all at once. It does feel good, and the noise that comes from her is both pleading and demanding.

She notices only then that he's staring at her with wide, dark eyes, and she realizes she has no idea what a man's opinion might be on the fact that his partner has begun masturbating while they have sex. "Is this alright?" she ventures.

He kisses her, staying up on his elbows so that she can keep touching, coaxing. "Baby, you have no idea," he says, and his laugh is a little breathless. "You want to be on top? Maybe a little easier that way."

She considers it, then says, "I like you covering me, for now." She starts moving her fingers again, and a shudder runs through her body.

Dean seems to take that as his cue.

She starts to come—again—before he does, but the fluttering grip of her interior muscles must set him off, because he moans long and low, and buries his face in her neck as it overtakes him. She comes around him, against her own touch, a flood of pleasure. When she collapses back, exhausted and satiated, he takes her fingers into his mouth, swirling his tongue around each, cleaning them thoroughly, tasting her on her own hand.

Lying there after, she listens to the wind on the skylights and feels herself start to drop into sleep. Stretched out against her back, Dean is warm around her, and she gives in to the lassitude. Her breathing grows shallow and even; her pulse slows; everything is gradual and liquid the way it is when you fall slowly into a well-earned sleep; but even though Dean is quiet and unmoving behind her, she knows somehow that he's still awake.

She sleeps anyway, because for the moment she's safe and protected, and they'll have to fight later, but not now. Now it's time for rest.

Dreams slip in, unpredictable, unbidden, and for a while she's back at Hogwarts, standing in the Great Hall and looking up at the ceiling of stars. "That one's for my mum," Luna says; the star in question is a bright blue. "And that one's for me," she continues, but there's nothing in that part of the sky; it's blank.

"I don't understand," Hermione tells her.

"That one's for me," Luna explains, "but it's not there, because I'm not there."

"Of course you're not," Hermione says. "You're right here."

But Luna just laughs—not a mocking laugh (the girl didn't have a mocking bone in her body), but an affectionate, amused one, as though Hermione is a small child who has brought home a diverting drawing from primary school.

But now it's not the Great Hall anymore, it's a park, and they're sitting by a fountain—only it's Hermione and Harry and Ron, and Luna isn't anywhere to be found. Hermione recognizes the fountain with a start: the Fontaine de Médicis, in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. But she's never been there with Harry and Ron, just with her parents on holiday several years ago.

Never mind. The Jardin du Luxembourg is quite pleasant, and it's nice to be able to be here with Harry and Ron and not have to chase any Death Eaters. Luna must have been right, though: She isn't here.

She hears an automobile's horn, which is strange, because they're sitting deep in the park, far removed from the city's traffic. But there it is again, and then someone comes up behind Hermione. It's not Harry or Ron, because they're sitting right here in front of her, and somehow she knows it isn't Luna. The person is instantly familiar, even though Hermione can't see him. Maybe he's been here all along, and she just didn't know it.

Dean kisses her temple and the line of her jaw, but she's not embarrassed, because it's just them and Harry and Ron, and anyway who can be embarrassed in the beautiful warm Jardin du Luxembourg, with all manner of beautiful and unconcerned Parisians lying about? It's autumn, yet everything's in bloom, in bright but watery Impressionist colors, and she knows she's dreaming because Dean says into her skin, "I love you so much, sweet girl. Please don't get hurt," but it's alright, because it's a good dream.

**************

 

She wakes a while later. She doesn't know how much time has gone by, but she's alone in bed. It's cloudy outside, so the sun through the skylights is no help; it could be morning or afternoon.

She buttons Dean's shirt; puts her knickers back on yet again; dons the boxers over them. When she opens the door, she sees that a note has been folded underneath it:

Home to shower. Back soon.

Ginevra's handwriting. Hermione could use a shower, too, and some clothes that aren't Fleur's or Dean's. She decides to go downstairs, let everyone know she'll see them a little while later, perhaps have a cup of tea if Faith is about and there's any made, and then go back to the flat.

The house is quiet, and she's as quiet as possible on the stairs in case everyone is still resting. There's no sound from from the lower floors; perhaps everyone really is still abed, though this is usually a fairly awake-and-alert group.

She steps onto the first-floor landing, and can see that no one is in the kitchen or dining room. From her vantage point, she can see two people in the sitting room: Sam and Dean.

Dean's lying sprawled on one of the sofas. The telly remote control is on his chest, but it's either muted or turned off, because there's no sound. His eyes are closed, and his face betrays the ease and vulnerability of sleep. Sam is sitting on the floor in front of him; Hermione can't see his face, but he doesn't turn his head or move to look in her direction, and she takes that to mean that he's asleep, too. Dean's hand rests on his shoulder.

Hermione leaves them there, as everyone else seems to have done. As much as the rest of them are involved, this is the Winchesters' fight, the culmination of what they've both trained for, fought for, lived for. Endgame.

She goes back up to the third-floor bedroom and Apparates home to go for a run and take a bath and get ready for the night.

***************

 

By the time she's had her run and taken her bath and read some Proust, it's time for lunch. She eats with Ginevra, and they decide to go back to Faith's. Faith and Willow are home, and Xander has come round; Sam and Dean, Faith says, are at the firing range, practicing with the rifles one last time. Hermione and Ginevra practice Apparating with Willow, who now seems less perturbed by what she calls the "milkshakey" feeling.

"After this is over, why don't you stay a few days?" Faith says to her. It feels almost deliberate: If they make plans, they have to come through this. "The girls can teach you the Disappearing-Reappearing Wizard trick, we can go to some museums like we always say we're going to do—the Met just reopened the sculpture gallery, and it's supposed to be really awesome."

Willow's smile is small and hopeful, as if she knows Faith's implications without having to be told. "You sure you want me crowding up your place for that long?"

"You're short; you don't take up much room. And Spike's got a freaking mansion over there in Chelsea, so if you're feeling cramped, it's totally cool if you want to head over there for a few days; he and Xander won't mind."

"I'm good here." Willow's smile has grown a little. "And I wouldn't mind seeing the sculptures if you're up for some naked Greco-Roman people in marble."

Sam and Dean come back midafternoon. They're tense and jumpy; nearly everyone is. Finally, after a round of sniping about whether Bigfoot is actually a legend, Faith ejects them from the house. "Go to Union Square and buy some vegetables, and don't come back until you've had your fight over whether rutabegas are better than butternut squash. I'm ready to take one of those rifles and shoot you both myself."

Muttering, they go.

Willow goes upstairs to meditate, and the rest of them play Scrabble, with some slight modifications to the rules: Only obscenities or synonyms for obscenities are acceptable. Consensus is used to settle such arguments as whether "manhood" is an obscenity or merely an unfortunate turn of phrase adopted by certain types of novelists. (Public opinion rules on the latter for "manhood," the former for "watersports.")

Ginevra manages forty-five points for "codpiece" (which Xander protests but Hermione reluctantly supports, pointing out that "cod" was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much as "cock" is now)—and then there's a knock on the door.

Sam and Dean have keys.

"Avon calling?" says Veronica.

There's a pause. Then the telephone rings.

Faith blinks and answers it. "Hello?...Oh, hey, Buff, what's up?...Yeah, look, I'm really sorry about that—it's a long story....Where are you?"

The retort of, "Outside your front door, nimnode!" is plentifully audible to everyone in the room.

Faith drops the cordless and goes to the door. Good as her word, Buffy is standing on the stoop, mobile in hand, exasperated, affectionate expression on her face.

"What the hell are you doing on this continent?" Faith yelps.

"So nice to see you too, Faith. Can I come in, or should I just camp out here until we go get the demon? It's really kind of humid, and I hate Slaying with my hair all frizzy." Her hair, of course, is a sleek, golden mane that might never have seen a frizzy day in its life.

Muttering in a manner disturbingly similar to Dean, Faith steps aside and lets her in. Buffy kisses her cheek, bestows a hug on Xander, and greets Veronica, Hermione, and Ginevra.

"Seriously, B, what gives?" Faith says. "I, like, just talked to you."

"What's the point of having access to a private jet if you can't go help your friends fight demons once in a while? Even when they move the schedule up two weeks and don't tell you until the last minute."

"Yeah, that, um, isn't so much under our control. I'll tell you the whole sordid story if you want to hear it. Want in our our dirty-word Scrabble? Ginevra just kicked all our asses with 'codpiece,' but you can be on my team."

*************

 

Sam and Dean return about an hour later, bearing many items of produce, as well as three loaves of bread, several different kinds of cheese, two bottles of wine, and a flowering plant, which Sam hands to Faith.

"Aw, boys! You shouldn't—no, actually, you should have, because you were driving me up the Goddamn wall. But it's still nice of you."

"Cheesy goodness!" exclaims Buffy, and takes all five varieties from Dean's hands.

"Uh, hi, Buffy," says Sam. "It's nice to see you again?"

"I thought I'd take in a show, do some shopping, kill a demon or two. Ooh, wine!"

Willow wanders downstairs a few minutes later and says, "So I think we should eat and then do some final planning and then do something completely not demon-related for a while and then head out— Buffy!"

They spread the food out on the table, and Buffy says, "So tell me the plan, guys."

She's not happy about the idea of staying behind, but Faith is unyielding: "If it all goes to hell—maybe literally—somebody needs to be able to call in the troops. And we're the oldest Slayers out there, B. We can't risk both of us."

"What's the point of being a Slayer if I'm just sitting in the house while my friends are putting their lives in danger?" Buffy says unhappily.

"The point is that you can marshal the reinforcements. Somebody has to. Somebody who knows what they're doing."

"We're the ones who go on the front lines, not the ones back in the tents with armed guards," Buffy persists. "It just feels...wrong."

"For fuck's sake, I should never be the voice of reason!" Faith says. "Buffy, you know it's stupid to risk both of us!"

Buffy's reply is interrupted by a lengthy and emphatic banging on the front door. The house seems almost to draw itself up with indignation.

"You expecting anybody?" Faith says to Veronica. Veronica shakes her head.

"Anybody else plan for a visitor?" Faith asks.

Silence.

The banging resumes, then stops; there's a pause, and then, in a distinctly American accent, "Dean and Samuel Winchester! Open this damn door, or I swear on my left nut I will kick it down!"

The brothers look at each other and say in unison, "Bobby."

They don't sound all that surprised.

The man outside is shortish, balding, dressed as though he pulled his clothing from the wardrobe a couple of days ago without looking at it and without changing it since. Dean's face breaks into a grin. "Damn, it's good to see you, Bobby." They embrace in one of the back-thumping hugs that American men deem unassailable to their masculinity. "Now what the hell are you doing here?"

"You want to invite me in, or am I giving the answers to all your neighbors?"

Faith shoulders Dean out of the way. "Faith Lehane," she says. "It's my house. Come on in."

"Bobby Singer. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Lehane."

"You want some dinner? We just sat down."

They shuffle and draw up another chair. Bobby sits with a relieved groan, and gratefully accepts the beer Sam hands him. Introductions are performed, and Bobby Singer's eyebrows rise just the slightest bit when Hermione says her name.

"Not that I'm not happy to see you, Bobby," Sam says, "but how did you get here? There's no way you drove all the way since this morning."

Bobby looks slightly askance at the various cheeses, but helps himself to the roasted vegetables. "Even I don't drive that fast. I flew. And you boys can thank me later, because let me tell you, I hate goddamn airports. Hadn't flown in years, and it hasn't gotten any better with all this Homeland Security mess. I flew out of Rapid City this morning—headed straight to the airport after I talked to you, Sam. Told 'em I'd had a death in the family; they got me a bereavement ticket and put me on the first flight out. Changed planes in Denver, got into LaGuardia around four thirty. Did I mention that I hate goddamn airports?"

Bobby seems much happier once he has some food and beer in him, and they go over the plan for the evening. Bobby, like Buffy, is less than pleased about the idea of serving as backup. "Look, I flew out to help in any way I can, and I'm not some shrinking violet that you need to keep at home and protect."

"Exactly!" interjects Buffy.

Dean sighs. "Bobby, you know it's not like that. Look, things go badly tonight, we need people who can bring in some other people who know what the hell they're doing. Buffy can get the Slayers and Watchers, and you can call in all the hunters you know. Worst case, somebody needs to be left alive."

"You boys are young," Bobby says. "Anybody kicks it, it should be the old man in the room."

"First of all, you're not old," says Sam. "And the demon killed our mom. Killed Jess. I think I can speak for both Dean and myself when I say there's no way we're sitting this one out."

Bobby holds up his hands. "Fine. You win. I know when I've lost against Winchester insanity."

After supper, there's some reorganization of sleeping arrangements: Buffy puts her things in the third-floor bedroom where Willow's staying, and Faith shows Bobby to what's apparently a not-quite-finished bedroom in the cellar. "The walls still need painting, and I can't say much for the decorating scheme, but all the necessaries are there. Spike stays down here sometimes, if he gets caught after sunrise."

"He one of those that's allergic to sunlight?"

"In a manner of speaking, I guess," Faith says. "What with the vampire thing."

"Excuse me?"

"Oh, yeah, you heard me right. Vampire. Has a soul, though. He's coming tonight; you'll meet him later."

Hermione thinks she hears Bobby coughing.

They have a few hours before anything happens. They'll leave at half eleven and start the ritual at midnight. They've practiced as much as they can. The guns are stowed in Dean's closet. At the moment they're not doing much more than making time pass, while trying to pretend that they're not merely making time pass.

Hermione winds up in the office, playing cards with Willow, Buffy, Xander, Veronica, and Faith, a highly uncivilized game to which Faith insists on referring as "Bullshit." Hermione, losing resoundingly, volunteers to drop out of the game and go fetch drinks for everyone. It's like playing chess with Ron, only with five opponents instead of one, which makes things all the more embarrassing.

She's puttering in the kitchen, trying to think of something fun to drink that isn't alcoholic, when she hears a voice from the steps leading down to the cellar room. The door has always been there, but Hermione assumed that it led to a closet; it's strange to learn only today that it introduces an entirely separate level of the house.

The voice, evidently speaking on the telephone, is Bobby's. "...Yeah, no problems. Couldn't bring any of the guns, though—hard to explain why you need them on a bereavement ticket even if you've got a collector's license, you know?...They've got the usual arsenal along with the rifles, should be fine....Whole passel of 'em. Sam and Dean, obviously; their friend Faith; couple friends of hers; and then a bunch of girls in from England....Well, that's where it gets interesting....Slayers and witches—and a couple who are both, and one of 'em's Sam's girl and another one's Dean's....Swear on a stack of Bibles and my grandmother's peg leg, Ellie....Yeah, Sam told me, but I gotta say I didn't really believe it....Redhead, real pretty, about a foot and a half shorter than he is. Little fireball, from what I can tell....They seem good together, and God knows they seem crazy about each other....Like I said, that's the interesting part. She's more the kind of girl I'd expect to see Sam with....Pretty but bookish....You know Dean; he's not gonna pick 'em ugly....And so much magic you can practically watch it roll off her. Side note, there's another one here like that, and let's just say I'm real glad they're both on our side....Yeah, far as I can tell, just her....I know. I never thought I'd see the day, either....I think if Jo don't ask, there's no reason to tell her....I'll do my best. They're as prepared as they can be, but, well, it ain't like there's a flow chart on how to get ready for this kind of thing....Yeah, of course....Of course, you impossible woman....Yeah, me too, sweetheart."

Ears burning, Hermione steps deliberately hard onto one of the floorboards, and she hears the stairs creak, then the sound of Bobby's feet going down them—he must have been sitting on the steps.

She opts for tonic water mixed with pomegranate juice; there's an open carton of blueberries, so she uses those as garnish.

Dean and Sam are in the room when she returns; with all the cardplayers, it's a lot of people in the small space. She delivers the drinks, then nudges her way into Dean's lap. He seems amused, but he doesn't object.

"Is your friend Bobby married?" Hermione asks. She tries to recall, but she doesn't think she remembers seeing a ring.

Dean shakes his head. "Confirmed bachelor there."

She supposes the woman on the other end of the telephone might be merely a friend, but somehow she doubts it. "I think his friend Ellie might disagree."

Sam's and Dean's eyebrows shoot up simultaneously. "Ellie?" says Dean in a tone of such disbelief as to imply that Hermione has claimed to befriend Elvis Presley while queueing up at the grocer's.

"Someone you know?" Hermione asks.

"We know an Ellen," says Sam. "Whom I can't imagine would let anybody call her Ellie."

Hermione shrugs. "He addressed the woman as Ellie, and she didn't seem to object. Maybe it's a different person."

Judging by the continued height of the Winchesters' eyebrows, however, Hermione doubts it.

Spike arrives as soon as it's full dark. At nine o'clock, they have a small meal—dessert, really—and then dress for the occasion. This means jeans, mainly, and heavy weaponry. Buffy and Willow consult over a lengthy list of telephone numbers. Then, at ten thirty, those who are driving pile into the Impala; if Hermione and Ginevra Apparate, everyone else only just fits.

"Call," Buffy says after the Impala pulls away, as Hermione and Ginevra are checking one final time to ensure that they have everything. "As soon as...as soon as it's done."

"We will," Hermione says, repeating the promise that Faith, Dean, Sam, Willow, Spike, and Xander have already made several times over.

"And don't let those boys do anything dumb," Bobby adds. If his voice weren't so gruff, it would almost be a plea.

"We won't," Ginevra says. "At least, no dumber than summoning one of the most powerful demons in the universe. On purpose."

Hermione and Ginevra arrive before the car does, so they busy themselves clearing some underbrush that has accumulated since they were here last. When at last the car does arrive, they help Willow set up the altar, dragging the cemont blocks from the Impala's boot and setting the plank over them. Willow opens a rucksack and takes out several candles, a small bowl, a sheathed knife, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a box of gauze bandages, and a roll of medical tape.

As they've rehearsed, she begins with her own wrist, murmuring as her blood fills the bottom of the bowl. There's something grotesquely fascinating about it, but Hermione's stomach begins to roil, and finally she forces herself to look away, at the dark gleam over the river and the cliffs of New Jersey on the other side. When Willow's finished, she presses a bandage over the site of the cut, and Hermione tears off a length of tape to secure it.

Willow pours some of the alcohol over the knife, and it's Hermione's turn next. The pain doesn't bother her—there isn't very much—but this time she can't look at all. She keeps her eyes on the water until Ginevra hands her a bandage. Willow tapes it, sterilizes the knife again, and then it's Ginevra's turn. She watches without apparent distress as her blood fills the bowl, nearly touching its rim; then they tape her off and it's finished. Willow murmurs again, this time recognizably in Latin, and sets the bowl at the center of the altar.

Everyone is standing in their agreed-upon positions: Sam and Dean at opposite corners, at the far end of the site, facing the altar and the river. Faith, Spike, and Xander are standing slightly nearer, but off to the side, out of the potential lines of fire. All are as armed as it's possible to be without bringing in a rocket launcher on the back of a lorry. Hermione, Ginevra, and Willow reposition themselves to match the way they stood the day they summoned the low-level demon in the cellar at Abyssus: Willow on one side of the altar, Hermione and Ginevra on the other.

As she did before, Willow passes her hand above the candles, and they flicker into flame. She pours the blood in circles around the bases: the blood of the summoners, of three witches, of two Slayers, willingly given. A willing sacrifice is more powerful than an unwilling one, and they need all the power they can get.

Willow closes her eyes and begins to chant.

At Abyssus, they had the lights on; here, they're making do with the candles, the moon, and the gleaming city, shining like heaps of jewels several miles to the south. That's probably for the best, Hermione thinks when Willow opens her eyes again, because it makes the inky, unnatural pupils far less unnerving.

Hermione and Ginevra close their eyes and pull.

"Why, Miss Rosenberg." The voice is male, mocking, just a little bit gravelly. Hermione's eyes blink open, and she looks first at Ginevra and then at the man—or the body, rather—currently hosting the demon Azazel.

He's standing next to Willow, and he's not particularly impressive to behold: His hair is thinning, and his skin, as Ginevra noted, is uneven and pockmarked. Hermione wonders, briefly, inappropriately, why one of the feared and powerful demons in the cosmos would choose this unremarkable housing.

Maybe it's camouflage.

Willow is meant to step down now: to keep hold of Hermione's hand so that Hermione can Apparate her to safety and give Sam and Dean a clean shot. Except that Willow drops Hermione's grip—shakes her off, even—and looks at the demon through obsidian eyes.

"Azazel," she says. It's something between a breath and a snarl, and it doesn't sound at all like the happy, quirky personality that Willow's voice usually betrays.

"If you wanted to join the team, all you had to do was ask, sweet thing. Force-summoning—well, it's a tad vulgar, don't you think?"

Willow reaches forward and takes the demon's hand. This is all extremely unscripted, and Hermione isn't sure whether to grab Willow and Apparate her out, or to stay completely still since Willow and the demon don't seem cognizant of the fact that they're not alone, and it's probably best that they stay that way.

"They call you Azazel," Willow says, and though her voice is soft, Hermione thinks she can feel it rippling against her skin. "On the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. The whole earth has been corrupted through the works that were taught by Azazel: to him ascribe all sin."

"You flatter me, Miss Rosenberg, really."

Hermione looks at Ginevra. She has that perfectly even expression on her face, the one that means she's hiding panic. Hermione doesn't know what to do. Any move they make will distract Willow and the demon from each other, and the demon is stronger than they are—they know this. But if she, Ginevra, and Willow all stay in place, Sam and Dean can't fire without risking hitting one of them. A glance at Faith says that her crossbow is shouldered, and Spike and Xander are beside her with weapons out, but none of their arms will be more than an annoyance to the demon.

They discussed this—no speeches, no monologuing, as Faith termed it. Get in, kill the demon, get out. They don't have the advantage here, despite their greater numbers. It's in their best interests to have this finished as quickly as possible.

"I can see your destruction," Willow goes on. "The homes and families you tore apart, the joy you took in their misery and pain."

Hermione can take one person by Side-Along; that much she knows. It's not unreasonable to think that she could take two, especially if she can draw on the prodigious reserves within Willow, but she's never tried it. There's no way to communicate to Ginevra what she wants to do, so it's going to take everyone by surprise. She prays for Sam's and Dean's quick reflexes to carry the plan through.

She calls forth all the Slayer-quickness Faith tells her she has. Calls forth all the magic within her—her own or inherited from Voldemort, it doesn't matter anymore. Hermione already has Ginevra's hand in her own; she grabs Willow's, yanks her back from the demon, and pulls again—pulls them to safety, behind Sam and Dean, throwing a Petrificus spell at the demon as she's landing heavily on the hard ground. The spell won't do much, but it'll keep in place for at least a few seconds, the body if not the demon itself, and she prays that will be enough. Willow sprawls, but Hermione and Ginevra roll, come to their feet.

The dual shots are deafening at this short distance.

The silence that follows is perhaps even more so.

Dean's rifle is still cocked, ready, as though he's just waiting for the demon to get back up, as though he's sure it's a great joke. Sam, though, has lowered his, and is staring towards the altar, leaning forward but not venturing across the ground, as though he's holding himself back, maybe waiting for Dean.

It's Faith who, crossbow still cocked and ready, strides over to the crumpled body. It's lying on the other side of the altar, partially blocked from view, so all Hermione can see are the feet. From this angle, it looks like any other human body, and Hermione is momentarily overcome by a wave of nausea: She has seen so many, and no matter who they are, what they have done, they are all at some point someone's son, someone's daughter, someone's friend, and so this man was, before the demon took him.

Faith crouches, then stands. "Guys, he's got practically no head left. He's dead. You want to come see for yourselves?"

Slowly, Sam and Dean walk over. Hermione helps Willow up, and they follow with Ginevra, Spike, and Xander. Dean's sits on his knees by the body, Sam next to him. The rifles are on the ground.

"Holy shit," Dean exhales, and puts his hands over his face for a moment. Sam starts to put a hand on his shoulder, but Dean shrugs away, and Sam doesn't persist. Dean looks back up, and whatever he might have betrayed with that exhale is now gone. "What are we going to do with the body?" he says.

"It belongs to somebody," Xander says. "I mean, presumably there are people that noticed when whoever this was went missing."

Hermione steps around. Faith's words were accurate: Even in the dim light, the bloody pulp of what had been the man's head is clearly visible. She remembers Pansy Parkinson, then pushes the memory away. It's not the time for that.

"OK," Dean says, "but how the hell are we going to explain away multiple gunshot wounds to the head? That tends to be the kind of thing that the police take notice of."

"We could just leave him somewhere," Willow suggests.

Sam shakes his head. "No. One of the first things they'll do is ballistics, and these bullets are unique. If ballistics figures out what kind of gun these came from, and Yale figures out what kind of guns they have missing, they'll have the weapons traced in a matter of days."

"But no one saw us," Ginevra says.

"Doesn't matter. If you left any traces behind, any at all, they'll be looking for them."

"I don't mean to sound disrespectful," Spike interjects, "but from the stories I've heard, this demon has been tagging along after your family, in this particular body, for quite some time now. Whoever this is, he's been missing for a good while, and if anyone's searching for him, it's not urgent enough that the demon saw fit to give up the body."

"We burn it," Hermione says. She thinks of Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy. One more dead villain.

"Really?" says Ginevra.

"I think Sam is correct, and Spike too. We burn the body, and we all say a prayer to whatever divinities in which we believe that this man's family finds some sort of peace."

The fire burns quick, hot, and Hermione covers her nose and mouth against the roasting smell. She's experienced it before, but that doesn't make the repetition any more pleasant. When there is nothing left but ashes, she looks up to see what may be tears in Sam's eyes, or what may be just a reaction to all the smoke.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Faith says.

Chapter Text

Everyone who arrived in the Impala leaves first; Hermione and Ginevra volunteer to stay and clean up the site, then Apparate back to Faith's. They'll probably still beat the car group; there's not much to do apart from dismantling the altar.

"Don't forget to ring Buffy and Mr. Singer," Hermione says.

"My cell's in the car," Faith says. "I'll do it from there. Don't worry about leaving the place spotless; just clean up the worst of it and come back ASAP."

Hermione and Ginevra busy themselves. They can use Incendio for the candles and board; they could probably carry the cement blocks, but it's easier to move them into the underbrush with magic.

"What the bloody sodding hell was that?" Ginevra hisses once everyone else is out of earshot, well on their way to the car.

"I'm sorry," Hermione says. "It was the only thing I could think of in the moment. I know it was jarring, and it's fortunate that Dean and Sam—"

Ginevra looks at her as though she's barmy. "Not you, you great berk. You did the only sensible thing you could have done in that situation. I meant Willow. We went over the entire ritual—that day at Abyssus when we summoned that other demon, and then again later as a rehearsal. She knew better."

Hermione shakes her head. "I don't know. But you're right: She did know better."

"We could have all been killed, or worse!" Ginevra looks down at one of the cement blocks, and she doesn't use Mobili—instead, she picks it up and gives it a hearty throw into the thicket. She stares after it, but doesn't seem satisfied. "Whatever her problems were, she obviously doesn't entirely have them under control." She scrapes with her foot at the scorched mark on the ground, it and some ashes the only remnants of the body that housed Azazel. "Do you remember how it felt when it was over?" Ginevra asks, unexpectedly. "The war, I mean."

"Vaguely," answers Hermione. "I was only about half-conscious, so my memories are hazy."

"Well, they took you and Harry directly to St. Mungo's, of course, and I followed close behind, but I stopped and looked at You— at Voldemort's body first. I wanted to see it, to see that he was really dead. And he really was, finally. It was quite clear." She leans down and scatters the dusting of ash, gathering what remains of it into her hand and dispersing it into the air. Hermione can't imagine how she can stand to touch it, but Ginevra's just like that sometimes. "But I remember looking down at him and thinking, 'It's just a body. All of this, this entire war, and all we're left with is a body.'"

"And there isn't even that, now."

"It seems rather anticlimactic, doesn't it?" Ginevra says. "We were prepared for the worst, and except for Willow's bout of insanity, it didn't happen. There was no epic battle. We didn't need all the people we had."

"I think it's good when it happens like that," says Hermione. "Better than the alternative."

"Oh, no doubt about that. But Sam and Dean must be disappointed. Their whole lives leading up to this fight, and it's over so quickly."

"Like having it off with Blaise Zabini, or so I hear."

Ginevra's laughter is a startled crack in the darkness. "How in the world did you hear that?"

"Just things that got around among the girls my year. Blaise Zabini's got no stamina, and Seamus Finnegan curves to the left. I make no representations about which, if either, is true."

Ginevra stands up and brushes her hands on her combats. She's still laughing. "Just when I think I can predict you, the things that come out of your mouth. Come, let's get back to Faith's."

"I think we're finished here," Hermione agrees. "It's true, though—I don't remember the immediate aftermath very well. But I remember waking up in a bed at St. Mungo's, and even before I realized that my magic was gone, I remember thinking, 'Well, now what do I do?' Everything was over, and I didn't know what to do." She pauses, admits, "I still don't, really."

"And I think that's Sam and Dean's problem, too," Ginevra says. "Especially Dean's. When this has been your life, what comes next?" She pauses. "Sam—he always had other things he wanted to do. Besides hunt, I mean. I don't think Dean did, necessarily."

Hermione recalls one of their very earliest conversations. This is what I'm good at, Dean had said. What I know. It's the second part of the statement, she thinks, that's the more important. Most people have a variety of skills, and skills can also be developed—Sam's magic, for instance. But it's harder for a person to leave behind everything she or he knows, or thinks he knows.

She says to Ginevra, "We should get back to Faith's."

**************

 

They Apparate into the usual alley and then walk around. It's Buffy who answers Hermione's knock. "Oh, thank God," she says, and hugs them both.

"Did Faith call you?" Hermione asks.

"Yeah, but it's not the same as seeing you right here in the slightly grimy flesh." She steps aside to let them in. Bobby is behind her, and he pats their shoulders, a little bit awkwardly but no less heartfelt for that.

Veronica takes them both by the shoulders and looks them over, as if checking for damage; she finds none, and announces, "You girls look like you could use something to drink."

"I would love some water or some juice," Hermione says, only now realizing how hungry and thirsty she is. Summoning a demon like that, it would seem, consumes a great deal of the body's resources.

"And I should wash my hands," Ginevra says, looking at her dust- and ash-covered skin with a certain amount of disgust. Maybe, Hermione thinks, it's only now occuring to her precisely what she was touching.

"You summon Azazel, and all you want is juice?" Buffy says in disbelief.

"We'll likely require something stronger when everyone else returns," says Ginevra. "There was— Well, you'll hear the story soon enough."

"Everybody's alright, though," Buffy says, halfway between a statement and a question. "I mean, Faith would have said something—"

"Everyone's fine," Hermione assures her. "Part of it just...didn't go quite as we planned."

"Which part?" Bobby asks, eyes narrowing under his hat.

She and Ginevra aren't able to answer, though, because at that moment the front door opens and the rest of the group bursts through it. Dean's voice is raised. "...incredibly fucking stupid. What the hell were you thinking?"

"You don't understand—" Willow starts.

"Oh, I think I do understand, since it was my goddamn mother on the ceiling that started all this off. We went over everything, Willow, and there wasn't room in the plan for you to try to show that your dick's bigger than Azazel's."

"What the hell happened?" Bobby interrupts, looking first at Dean, then at Willow.

Faith begins, "After the summoning—" but Dean cuts her off.

"Willow summons the demon, it shows up, and she decides she needs to go mano-a-mano with it or something. She starts monologuing with it, and basically the only reason any of us got out of there is because Hermione yanked the three of them clear and gave Sam and me a shot."

"I didn't—" Willow tries.

"No," Dean says, "you fucking did, and if you don't have any better control than that, maybe you need to rethink this whole magic thing again, because you're a walking time bomb."

Willow's eyes widen in shock and hurt, and Buffy says, "Listen, maybe you rode in here all Clint Eastwood straight outta Kansas, but we came here to help you. You're all hunky and world-save-y and angsty, but so is everybody else I know, and it doesn't give you the right to talk to my friend like that."

"Your friend," Dean says, "tried to destroy the world once, and from what I hear, came pretty fucking close to succeeding. Likewise, your friend decided on some extracurriculars while we were trying to get rid of Azazel, and if you're all as good as you say you are, maybe you ought to know that that's a bad idea."

"Look," Xander starts, "maybe we all just need to have something to eat and decompress—"

"Maybe Willow needs to tell us what the fuck she was thinking," Dean interrupts.

"Maybe you need to calm the fuck down," Xander replies, voice level.

There's an earsplitting shriek like a train's whistle. Hermione starts, and covers her ears, and looks around to see Faith with her fingers in her mouth. Faith removes them, then says, "OK. Can we try to have this discussion rationally?"

"I saw it," Willow blurts out. "I mean, as soon as I summoned the demon. I mean, not just that I saw the demon, but I saw him with Sam and Dean's mom."

"You never met—" Dean starts.

"Long blond hair. White nightgown. Baby in the crib. She was very beautiful. And I saw the demon drip blood into Sam's mouth—"

"What?" Sam and Dean say, simultaneously, staring.

"You were lying there in your crib, Sam, and the demon came over and dripped blood into your mouth. Not a lot. Just a few drops."

"You're lying," Dean says.

Willow doesn't even pause. "Your mom walked by, but the room was dark, and she thought it was your dad standing there. Except, you know, it wasn't. Then she came back in, and the demon forced her up onto the ceiling. Slashed her stomach—right over her womb. For fertility. Like it did with Jessica, Sam."

"Stop," says Sam, low.

"She was going to be the mother of your children, and the demon didn't want that. It wanted you to breed with somebody under its influence—Ava would have been a solid choice, it thought. It knew how much you loved Jessica. It knew you wanted to marry her, make a home with her, a family—a normal family."

"Why the fuck does Sam need to know this?" Dean says.

"Because you weren't the only family!" Willow shouts. It's not the snarl; it's not threatening; it's high and loud and a little bit tearful. "As soon as that thing appeared, I could see all the families, over hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years, and the stories were all the same. I mean, maybe it used the ceiling trick some times and not others—though it really did seem to favor the ceiling trick, it was kind of a drama queen—but it killed them, and all because they got in its way. It tortured a nine-year-old girl in Australia because she tried to fight it when it wanted her sister. It poked her eyes out, and it liked it. Enjoyed it. Ate them. Then it took her sister, and when she wouldn't cooperate—she was only five, and she was really scared, and her sister had just been tortured and killed in front of her—it broke her legs and her pelvis, and left her in the desert to die of exposure. An old man in Vietnam tried to protect his grandson from it, and you know what it did to him? It really liked napalm. I saw all of that, as soon as we got there, like the same way I can see the auras in all of you, except those are just general auras, and with this—I got the full stories, all of them at once, all at the same time. And not just what happened, but how good of a time the demon was having. Mmm, eyeballs!"

"And so this makes you think it's OK to flip the fuck out and nearly get us all killed?"

"Fine—" Willow starts, a short snap of a word, but Dean holds up a hand and turns around.

"Screw this. I'm going to get a beer somewhere none of you own. Don't wait up."

It's only when the door slams that Sam starts after him, but Faith grabs his wrist and halts him midstep. Bobby says, "She's right, Sam. Your brother's got some steam to blow off, and it's best he does that on his own."

"I was just going to say," Willow finishes softly, "that I was sorry I let a couple of millennia of murder, torture, and rape get to me. What I did wasn't the smartest, but I wasn't expecting to see all that, either. Your father, too. I saw him possessed, and the demon playing with all of you like a cat with mice. I'm sorry. I didn't know that would happen."

Sam sighs, rubs the spot between his eyes as though he has a headache. "It's probably best you didn't get that far," he says. "Our dad is...kind of a sore subject right now."

"Did he really—" Willow starts, and Sam cuts her off with a firm "Yes" that's not harsh, but manages to definitively end the line of questioning just the same.

There's a silence, brief and tense.

"I need some fucking alcohol after all that," Faith says, and the wave of laughter that follows is self-conscious and relieved.

Buffy bustles into the kitchen and starts removing a variety of food and drink from the refrigerator. Hermione doesn't remember seeing it before they left, and she thinks Buffy (and perhaps Veronica, and perhaps even Bobby) must have spent their absence cooking and arranging. It's not something she would have guessed—but she also remembers Molly Weasley in the war's aftermath, and how there was too much food in the house to feed even that family's teeming numbers until Harry woke up.

Hermione isn't particularly hungry, but she gratefully gulps down two glasses of orange juice before moving on to water. She thinks better of accepting a glass of wine, though nearly everyone else (except for Bobby, who opts for beer) takes one. They all gather at the table with their plates; Ginevra sets hers next to Sam's and climbs into his lap, and for a moment he just sits, face buried in her hair.

"You know," he says after a few seconds, "of all the ways I ever envisioned that going—and I played it out a lot of different ways in my head—what happened today was not one of them."

"How did you see it?" Spike asks.

"I didn't see it in a Seer sort of way," says Sam, "just so we're clear. But...well, one common scenario was that we all ended up dead, and that the demon won. That obviously didn't happen, thank God. Also that we all ended up dead, but that we took the demon down, too—not ideal, but better than the first situation. But I thought...I thought there'd be a battle. Something legendary. Something people would hear about. And we'd walk away, and, I don't know, we'd celebrate. Things would be better."

"We're celebrating now," Willow tries, raising her wineglass.

Sam smiles and meets it with his, but then he goes on, "I guess I thought it would make everything better. That Jessica's death and my mom's would mean something. And they don't. They were just collateral damage—they got in the way."

"I'm sorry," says Willow, quietly.

Sam shakes his head. "No, you were right to say it. And our family wasn't the first. I mean, I knew that, but I didn't know how far back it went."

"Far," says Willow.

"You put all of our lives in danger, though," Sam says, and it's that same tone from earlier: not harsh, not angry, but inarguable. "I know you weren't expecting what you saw, but we all could have been killed because of that."

"I know," Willow says, and looks down at the table again.

There's another silence.

Willow breaks it with, "I don't think I'll ever do anything like that again. Not just because I don't want to, but because—well, really, how many times in my life am I going to need to summon a high-level demon? Although I say that, and who knows. The crowd I run with is kind of a demon-summoning sort of crowd, so you never know when I might have to call one up again. And I thought my training was pretty much done, but there's obviously an element of control that I don't have. And I'm not really sure how to get that, since I don't think it's really a good idea to just summon some demons for practice." She sighs. "Looks like it's more meditating with Giles for me."

"You think that'll be sufficient, love?" Spike asks.

"What happened today, and what happened before, when I got all world-destroy-ey, was because I was angry. The first time, I could see all the evil that people did to each other, and it just made me so mad, that people had been given the world—literally—and that was what they chose to do with it, to hurt it and to hurt each other. And this time I saw everything the demon had done, and even though we killed it, that wasn't enough—it would never pay for all the evil things it had done and all the lives it had destroyed. There was no possibility of justice."

"So what you're saying," says Bobby, "is that you need psychic anger-management classes."

Unexpectedly, Willow laughs. "Right. Or, you know, meditation with Giles. Anyway, I guess I know what I'm doing when I get back to England. A lot of it. For a very long time."

"But you have to stay here and learn the disappearing-reappearing wizard thing first, though," says Faith. "And, you know, meditate too. Obviously."

"Are you sure?" Willow asks. "I mean...only if you want me to stay."

"You've got some poofing to learn," says Faith, "and B probably has some shopping to do."

"I've got pounds sterling and an exchange rate burning a hole in my pocket," Buffy confirms.

"What about you, Sam?" Faith asks. "Now that your Big Bad is dead, I mean. The world is yours."

Sam's smile is slight. "Not exactly. The FBI's still out there, don't forget. And I don't know. I guess that's something else. For a while, I figured I'd go back to school, graduate, try to put my life back in order. Go to law school. Now...now I can't exactly do that."

"But you still have all your magic to learn," Ginevra says, craning her neck to look up at him. "You and Ms. Morganstern have only just begun."

"Yeah, dude," Faith adds. "When I said you were going to use your Jedi mind powers to clean my house for me, I wasn't kidding. You better get on that."

"You're trying to cheer me up," Sam says.

"Totally," Faith admits, shameless. "Is it working?"

Sam smiles, and it's a real smile—ducked head, dimples.

"So what are you doing tomorrow, Samuel?" Ginevra prompts.

"Tending to my brother in what's probably going to be a hangover to end all hangovers," Sam says. Ginevra elbows him, and he adds, "And calling Desiree."

"What about you, Hermione?" Xander asks. "Plans?"

She'd like to go find Dean, but that's inappropriate—he needs his space, and anyway she's assuming she could track him down in what's likely a well-strategized trek through Manhattan's pubs.

"Sweetheart," Bobby says, surprising her, "he'll be fine. He's the kind that needs to blow off steam, and he'll do it, and he'll come back hungover and maybe a little banged up, but you should see the other guy."

"I didn't realize I was that transparent," Hermione says.

"You're not," says Faith. "It's just a logical deduction. I know you'll still worry, so I'll text you when he comes back tomorrow—if he doesn't beat me to it—but he'll be fine."

"I don't know," Hermione says to Xander. "Go for a run, I suppose. Try to write a bit. Oh, bother, I'm scheduled to work tomorrow!" The realization is sudden: She volunteered for the Sunday night shift last week, thinking that it would be slow and she could get some writing or research done. Which is still true. She just didn't remember until now that Sunday is tomorrow.

"Are you sure?" Xander asks, then pauses. "Oh, God, you're right. I made the schedule and basically forgot about it. Do you want a sub? I'm sure we can conscript some hapless NYU student."

"Thank you," says Hermione, "but it will be...reassuring, somehow, to work. Sometimes the mundane is quite comforting."

"Seriously, Hermione, you don't have to."

"I appreciate it," she says, and she does. "But I really don't mind. Four to midnight, right?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"There won't be many people about. I'll polish all the glasses extra-clean and work on my writing."

They finish the bottle of wine, and then another—Hermione finally consents to a small glass—and they eat until the food is thoroughly picked at and they're all yawning. Sam surreptitiously looks at his mobile; Faith catches him. "Don't," she says. "Let him brawl and get some of it out."

Sam sighs and pushes the device back in his pocket. Ginevra, mostly asleep by now against his chest, makes a grumpy, sleepy noise and then resettles. Sam cradles her head in one of his big hands, and she's either dreaming something good or just awake enough to smile.

Willow gets up. "I should hit the luxurious feather-filled sack. I have a big day of meditation ahead of me."

"We'll start Monday?" Hermione suggests.

"Sounds good." She turns towards the stairs, but then turns back. "For what it's worth, you guys, I'm sorry. I mean, I know it worked out, but..."

"But you could have gotten us all killed," Sam says evenly, when she trails off.

"Your track record isn't exactly spotless there, either, bub," Faith says. "Wills, go to bed. I don't want any more fighting in my house."

Willow goes upstairs. The scene around the table is tense for a moment; then Hermione yawns so wide that her jaw cracks, and that seems to break it.

Spike looks at Hermione, who's now rubbing her eyes; at Ginevra, asleep in Sam's lap; at Faith, head on Xander's shoulder; at Veronica, chin in hand; even at Bobby, who looks a little worse for the wear. "The perils of socializing with humans," Spike says. "You all fall asleep just when the hours become interesting."

Faith raises her head to look around at them all, too, and laughs. "We do look like a bunch of old people, but for real, we should probably all hit the hay. Hermione, you want to stay over?"

"Faith, you've a Quidditch team's worth of houseguests as it is. I appreciate the offer, but I'd like to take a bath in my own bathtub."

"OK. If you're sure. But text me when you get home, yeah? Just so I know that you made it alright."

"I'm Apparating," Hermione says. "If I don't get home in one piece, you'll know. Quite literally."

"Text anyway," Faith says. "Or I'll worry. And I'm a pain in the ass when I worry."

She hugs Sam, which could be slightly odd since he belongs to Ginevra, but he just smiles and says, "Thank you for today," and it's not odd or awkward at all. More hugs are bestowed, except for Bobby, who shakes her hand properly. She Apparates out of Faith's kitchen and into the one at her flat, and feels a sudden, surprising, overwhelming sense of relief, as torrential as tears, and she leans against the doorway until she has her equilibrium back.

She sends a text message to Faith—at home with all limbs intact—then goes upstairs and sets her mobile on her chest of drawers while she undresses for her bath. It would be easy to ring Dean, or even just to text-message him. The phone lies there in apparent innocence, and Hermione glares at it. "No," she tells it sternly. "He needs his time. His life has changed, and he doesn't need me breathing down his neck."

She gives it one more glare, then goes to bathe.

She pours the bergamot wash in first, then steps into the hot, fragrant water with a sigh. She washes her hair and her body, then runs more warm water into the tub and lies there for a while. It's only when she realizes she's falling asleep that she rises, dries off, and drains the water.

Back in her bedroom, she puts on pyjamas and can't help looking at her mobile again. She could send just a short message....

No, she tells herself, that isn't what Dean needs right now. And in any case it's very, very late, so late it's nearly early.

She climbs into bed and wishes that her head were resting on his chest rather than on the soft, dry, impersonal pillow.

*****************

 

It's well past noon when she wakes up. A glance at her mobile reveals that there are no messages, from Faith or from anyone else. Hermione decides that a more-than-sufficient waiting period has passed, and she begins to type a message to Dean. She begins with hi, are you alright? but then erases it, not wanting to imply that he isn't alright. He's been through quite an ordeal, and she can't blame him for being upset. She restarts with hi, where did you go? but then deletes that, too: She doesn't want him to think she's trying to keep tabs on his whereabouts at all times. Hi, I miss you is simply ridiculous, as she saw him less than twenty-four hours ago, and even if it's true, well, that's something that only she needs to know.

She settles for Hi, am working at Abyssus 4-12; won't be busy if you want to come round. She hopes that's sufficient to convey everything she's trying. Which is quite a lot for a hundred-character text message.

Exasperated at herself, she sends the message and deliberately leaves the phone behind when she goes for her run. By the time she's returned, showered, and had something to eat, it's time to go to Abyssus—and the message remains unanswered.

****************

 

When she unlocks the iron door—with a key; there are enough people out and about on Rivington Street that she needs to maintain the semblance of Muggle normality—she's surprised to find the lights on and Spike sitting at the bar inside, pecking as usual at his laptop. The air smells strongly of curry, and indeed there's an open, empty takeaway container at his elbow.

"Hello, love," he says. "Hope I didn't startle you."

"Not at all," she says, and sets down her courier's bag to begin the routine of opening the pub. "I'm not complaining about the company, mind, but what are you doing here?"

"I came a little before dawn. Tried to sleep like all you dullards, but couldn't. Too much excitement. Thought I'd go over the stock, try to get some writing done."

"And how is it coming?"

"Well. Very well. Perhaps one of these days, when you're a little further along and so am I, we might trade."

Hermione smiles, unbidden. "I'd like that."

"Good. As would I."

Spike helps her set up, and then goes back to his computer as they open for business.

"You haven't spoken with Faith today, have you?" Hermione asks after a period of companionable silence.

Spike looks up. The planes of his beautiful, ageless face are softer with empathy. "No. I talked to Harris, though. I imagine one needn't possess your prodigious intellect to venture a guess as to the subject of your indirect inquiry?"

Hermione looks down at the bar, shakes her head.

"Sam received a text message from him this morning. Ah, love, don't look like that. Sam would have had dogs out after him otherwise, and Dean knows it."

"I sent him one," she says. "Several hours ago. He hasn't responded."

"Only the one?"

"Only the one. Though I think I put more thought into those hundred characters than I did into even the most complicated of my school essays."

"That's great restraint on your part. Most of us, fretting over an absent lover, would by no means stop at one."

"I don't want to, I don't know, stalk him. It's just...he left like that, and I'm worried."

"Of course," Spike says. "We all are. If Faith had carpeting, Sam would have worn a path in it by now with all his pacing. He'll come back, perhaps sporting a bruise or three he didn't have before, but that's a metaphor for life, now, isn't it?"

A couple of people come in, but they take their drinks and head for a table at the far end of the room, and it's slow enough that Hermione finds her notebook and pen and addresses herself to her own writing. Distracted, she's not as productive as she could be, but it's at least something besides Dean to think about.

She's written maybe two pages—and with no guarantees as to quality—when next the door opens. She closes the notebook, expecting customers, but it's not clientele. It's Dean.

"Thank God," she says, and goes underneath the snug to kiss him, put her hands on him and reassure herself that he's alright.

He doesn't say anything, and his hands are rough, almost harsh on her, holding her head nearly immobile as he kisses her back. It's not unwelcome, but it's surprising, and not something they typically do while she's working. If they're meeting at the end of her shift and he arrives early, their greeting is usually brief, and they save the more extensive hellos for when she's off-duty.

After a moment—or a few moments—Hermione hears Spike clear his throat and say, "I'll be quite happy to mind the bar if you two would like to finish your...conversation round back."

It's still early, so the back room is empty. What happens there is not a conversation.

As soon as the door closes, Dean pushes her against the wall, lifts her up to brace her body with his. She wraps her legs around him, and without a pause, without breaking the ferocious, devouring kiss, he reaches down and tears off the knickers beneath her long wraparound skirt. I liked those, she thinks to protest, but then his fingers find her clit and the objection evaporates. She rocks her hips back and forth to rub against his touch—he pulls away for a moment and she's about to protest that, most certainly, but he's undoing his jeans, she realizes, and then he pushes into her.

Except for very briefly that first time, their sex has never been painful: She's usually so wet (with her own fluids and, often, from his mouth) that the friction is delicious, hot and pleasurable inside her. This hurts a little, though: She's aroused but not as much as usual, and the angle is one to which she's unaccustomed. The wall is hard on her back, and there isn't the rush of impending orgasm to distract her from it.

She opens her mouth to say something—but then he comes, eyes closed and head thrown back. He pulls out and sets her down, then goes to his knees, and that works despite her earlier discomfort—his tongue is as nimble and as expert as always, and she climaxes, shuddering, with her hands in his short hair.

She leans back to catch her breath, and she expects him to fall forward against her, for them to kiss and laugh after their game.

She doesn't expect him to tuck himself in, zip himself up, and leave through the rear door.

Chapter Text

She nearly goes after him—except then she remembers that her knickers are gone (on the floor, in point of fact) and that she's wearing a wraparound skirt. She stands there for a befuddled moment, then Apparates home, cleans herself up in the loo, and puts on fresh knickers.

She rings Dean from the house phone, but he doesn't pick up.

She returns to Abyssus and goes back out into the main room, where Spike has raised his eyebrows and looks ready to make some terribly inappropriate comment—but then his expression becomes concerned rather than mocking, and he says, "You alright, love?"

"Fine," Hermione says, even though she's roiling with a mixture of confusion and anger—and hurt. He walked out of there through the rear door, she thinks, as if she were just some—some girl in a back room. Some girl who mattered so little that he didn't bother kissing her good-bye.

Or speaking to her.

"You don't look fine," Spike observes with unwelcome gentleness.

"I am," Hermione says, and comes back around behind the bar. "Thank you for minding everything."

"You're welcome," Spike says, taking his cue and going back to the other side, the side where customers sit, and setting up his laptop again. He adds after a moment, "You might not think that a vampire would understand love, ducks, but we do. And living—or, well, not—for a century and a half makes one a surprisingly good listener."

Tears spring to her eyes, and she makes a pretense of crouching down to retrieve a fresh bottle of vodka while she wipes them away. There are customers here; she can't cry in front of customers.

She wants to hit Dean, and she wants to know why he's angry at her (because there's no other logical reason he'd treat her like that, unless he was angry), and she just doesn't understand.

She stands back up and says to Spike, "I appreciate it. But I'm fine, really."

He looks unconvinced, but he doesn't press, and if she goes home later to an empty flat and cries during what turns into a much longer shower than she planned, no one but herself must know that.

+||+||+

 

She meets Willow the next day at one o'clock for Apparition lessons. The cellar at Abyssus is safe, private, warded, and, most of all, spacious; Hermione figures it best to start here, then move outside—perhaps Central Park—once Willow learns how everything is done and can begin practicing distance Apparition.

Two hours into their lesson, the bell rings from upstairs. Thinking it's a supplier's delivery, Hermione goes to answer; rather, it's Bobby. "Faith told me I'd find both of you here," he says. "I'm on my way to the airport—heading back to South Dakota. I just wanted to—well. I know the boys are grateful to both of you." Pause. "Even if Dean's got an ass-backwards way of showing it sometimes."

Willow, unrestrained, bestows a hug on him; Bobby seems surprised, but then hugs her back with a pat to the head. Hermione shakes his hand, and he seems relieved. "Have a safe trip," she tells him.

"Thanks. I'm sure I'll be fine if I can just get through LaGuardia. I hate airports." He turns to go, but then turns again. "I meant what I said about Dean being ass-backwards. He's a smart boy, but not so smart sometimes about the people he loves."

Is that why he came in here and treated me as though I were a prostitute? a part of Hermione would like to ask, but she keeps quiet.

Bobby leaves, and Willow looks at Hermione. "I don't want to— I mean, if I'm asking something that's, like, private, you can tell me. It's actually really hard to offend me; it's just that I'm smart but not so smart about things that people say without saying them, so a lot of times I ask about things that people maybe would rather not talk about, or that are personal, but you can just tell me and my feelings won't be hurt or anything."

Hermione translates that paragraph into standard English, then says, "Alright. But you haven't actually asked anything."

"I just...Dean came home last night, and it was sort of hard not to hear him and Faith yelling at each other, and it seemed like something had happened with you guys. Is everything OK?"

"I don't know," Hermione says, and despite Willow's profession of not being able to listen between the words, she doesn't ask again.

After another hour, Willow is able to Apparate herself short distances around the room, enough that Hermione thinks their next session would in fact be better outside. The afternoon group of Slayers is due at four—in about an hour—but Faith will probably come earlier to set everything up.

"I think we're finished for the day," Hermione says to Willow.

"Coolness. That was fun! And less milkshakey when I do it by myself instead of as a ride-along with you. Not that I don't appreciate the ride-alongs; it's just nice to not feel all dizzy when I land. Or, you know, when I appear out of thin air."

They're putting the room tidy again when they hear noises from upstairs, and then the sound of the door opening at the top. "You guys down there?" Faith's voice calls.

"We were just finishing," Hermione says.

"Ginevra wanted to come spar," Buffy explains, coming down the steps behind Faith, followed by Ginevra and then, to Hermione's surprise, Sam.

Sam says polite hellos to Hermione and Willow, then, "I'm going to take off. Ginevra, I'll see you after practice?"

Ginevra turns swiftly and takes two bokken from the rack. One she keeps; the other she throws to Sam on an underhanded toss. Reflexively, he catches it, and looks at her with a bewildered expression.

Ginevra's standing with her feet apart, stick at the ready, and it looks for all the world like a fighting stance.

"Well?" she says to Sam, and twirls the bokken in her fingers.

"Ginevra, what...?"

"I've fought with Xander," Ginevra says. "And with Spike, who's a ruddy vampire. And with your brother, and you didn't seem to have any objection to that. But when it comes to you yourself, it's as though you think I'm some ickle fragile flower who needs to be protected by her man. So step up, Samuel. I'll show you just how fragile I am."

"Ginevra, I—" Sam starts.

"I know you know how to fight," she says. "And I know you used to spar with the girls before I got here. So you obviously don't think they're weak. But you've been taking every possible pain to keep from doing this with me, and you refuse to explain why, and all I can think is that you believe I'm so weak that you have to keep from doing anything that might even create the illusion of threatening me."

"That's not it," Sam protests.

"Then what is it?" she asks, stopping the bokken's motion and holding it still in one fist.

"It's not what you think."

"Then come on," Ginevra says. "If I'm not too fragile for it, then what's stopping you?"

Sam is silent. Ginevra looks at him with raised eyebrows.

"I'll fight you," Hermione says, and everyone looks at her in surprise. "Without magic," she adds. "I'll never have the skill in physical combat that Ginevra does, but I'm still a Slayer, and I can hold my own in a fight."

"How about me?" Buffy asks. She steps out of the ridiculous high-heeled shoes she's wearing with her jeans, and even though the movement makes her three inches shorter, there's something in it and in the lines of her posture, ready for combat, that remind an onlooker that she's not merely a pretty blond Californian with a weakness for discounts on designer clothing. Her face is serious, her eyes level, and Hermione is suddenly reminded that, for several years, Buffy was the only Slayer on Earth, powerful, fierce, young, and lonely. "You can even have the bokken; I'll go bare-handed."

"That's not it!" Sam says, frustrated. "I mean, sure, Buffy, if you want to fight, I'll do it, and I probably won't walk for three days afterwards, but I'll do it. Same with you, Hermione."

"Then what is it about me—" Ginevra starts, low.

"Do you really think I could bring myself to lay a hand on you?" Sam says, incredulous. "After what that asshole did? It doesn't matter that you're stronger than I am. You think I wanted to try to hit you after that?"

"Why drop out completely?" Buffy asks. "There aren't that many people good enough to go up against Slayers, and Faith really could have used you this summer. You couldn't have just avoided Ginevra?"

"And single her out like that?" Faith says.

"Why didn't you just tell me?" Ginevra asks. Her grip on the bokken is still firm, but she doesn't sound angry anymore.

"Because at first I didn't know exactly what had happened," Sam says. "I mean, I knew it was...something bad, but I didn't know exactly what, or when, or who, and it wasn't my place to ask. And then I didn't want you to feel like you were being singled out, like Faith said, or treated differently."

"Except that I was," Ginevra says wryly.

Sam turns his hands to the side, acquiesces.

"So?" Ginevra says. "I'm challenging you, Samuel. Like people do—well, like the people we know do, anyway. You say you don't think I'm weak. Prove it."

Sam stands up straight, and even though Hermione knows Ginevra's stronger, knows that she's been training with Faith and Spike and Dean, knows that she wrestled with a variety of large brothers for years before that, the sheer difference in their size makes her want to step in and Stun Sam across the room.

Then the match starts, and Hermione knows that her intervention is quite unnecessary.

Sam is big and very strong, with quick reflexes; he has beautiful form but he's not above dirty fighting. He has trained as a warrior his entire life, and it shows.

Ginevra was born a warrior—as a Slayer—and that shows more.

Sam swings the bokken towards her head, but she ducks gracefully and kicks his knees out from under him. He falls and rolls, comes back to his feet, and the staffs strike each other. The battle goes on like that, with the four bystanders watching rapt, and the two combatants wrapped up in each other. Neither of them is fighting to hurt the other one, but they're both fighting for dominance.

The next time Ginevra puts Sam on the ground, she disarms him, throwing his bokken across the room (Willow ducks) and pressing her own to his throat. He tries to dislodge her, but her knees are on his wrists, and even when he bucks up with the muscles of his hips and thighs, she stays steady. She presses the staff more firmly against his skin, and Hermione sees Sam swallow.

"Do you yield?" Ginevra says, low.

"Yes," Sam whispers.

Ginevra sets the bokken to the side and kisses Sam hard. This time when he tries to free his arms, she allows him, and his hands tangle in her hair.

"Do you want me to let you up?" she asks, voice still nearly a murmur. They seem to have forgot that anyone else is in the room.

"God, no," Sam says.

Ginevra sinks into their kiss with a shuddery sigh.

Faith clears her throat, loudly. "Um. Guys. We'll just be. Uh. Upstairs. I'll need to set up for the Slayerettes at about a quarter to four. So. Uh. Try to have most of your clothes back on by then."

Faith and Buffy flee up the stairs. Hermione and Willow Apparate. It's faster.

The jukebox greets them with "Love Is a Battlefield."

"I sort of feel like I just watched two people have sex," Buffy says. "Except with their clothes on."

Faith plops down on a bar stool and buries her head in her hands. "I'm traumatized! I mean, good for Ginevra, and they needed to have that talk, but now they're down there...doing things."

Buffy checks her watch. "I don't know. I mean, it's four fifteen already. You told them four forty-five."

"Like they can't get up to plenty in half an hour?" She appears horrified at her own words, and plunks her forehead onto the bar. "Hermione, I need a drink. Stat."

"You have to train in less than an hour," Hermione reminds her.

"Fine. So give me something wussy without alcohol in it, and I'll try to pretend that it's a Jameson on the rocks."

"One Shirley Temple coming up," Hermione says, and Faith glares.

The jukebox switches to some Etta James that's actually quite pleasant and relaxing, and they sip their nonalcoholic drinks (it doesn't matter so much for Willow, but she opts for Coca-Cola out of sympathy) and chat. Buffy regales them all with her various purchases, which Hermione finds interesting less for their couture-related qualities than for Buffy's sheer delight in them.

It's edging close to a quarter to four, the time at which some brave soul is going to have to poke her head downstairs and remind Sam and Ginevra to stop...whatever they're doing. Faith looks at her watch and sighs.

The front door opens.

It's Dean.

As one, the girls turn to look at him, Faith and Buffy with raised brows, Willow with wide eyes and an expression of trepidation, Hermione with as neutral a face as she can manage.

Dean looks back at them all for a very brief moment; then his gaze turns downward and he rubs the back of his neck. "Hey, Faith, Buffy, Willow. Uh, hey, Hermione."

She isn't sure who or what is controlling her mouth when the words come out. "Oh, so you do remember my name? How gracious—and, I should say, surprising."

"Listen, about that—"

"About what?" she says, hearing the edges of the consonants become diamond-hard.

"About what happened yesterday—"

"When you behaved as though I were your whore, you mean? Is that the incident in question?"

"Last time I checked," Dean says, and he's looking at her now, "whores get paid."

She's not thinking when she reaches up to tear the platinum chain from around her neck. "Was this a gift," she spits, "or a fee?" She throws it across the room at him. It hits him square in the chest and falls to the floor.

The three others have been sitting in paralyzed shock; it's Faith, of course, who moves first, sliding off her stool to put herself between Hermione and Dean. "Guys, look—"

"There's no need to play peacekeeper," Hermione says. "I'm finished here."

Hermione Apparates straight out of Abyssus and into her flat. She's shaking from unreleased...something. Anger, hurt, all of it. She thinks she might cry, but that's ridiculous; there's been enough of that lately. She's cried quite sufficiently—more than sufficiently—over someone who would stoop so low as to compare her to a prostitute.

Instead, she strips off her jeans and puts on her running clothes. She can't remember what she did with her actual water bottle, so she Transfigures a magazine into one and fills it from the filtered pitcher in the refrigerator, then steps out onto the stoop, locks the front door, and starts towards First Avenue, not bothering to stretch.

She runs up First Avenue: past the former middle-class, now luxury, enclave of Stuyvesant Town, past the landmarks of Thirty-fourth and Forty-second streets. It's late afternoon on a Monday, and the sidewalks are already filling with workers on their way home; she receives several glares as she dodges through pedestrian traffic, but she ignores them. She goes past the barricades that guard the UN, then cuts west on Fifty-Ninth, where traffic thunders across the Queensborough Bridge above her. She runs up Fifth Avenue, on the eastern edge of Central Park, past the posh hotels with their perennial accompaniment of horse manure (literally—from the hired carriages that go through the park), past the museums and mansions.

By now she's several miles away from where she started. She heads west again on Central Park North, know variously as 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway; she passes enormous apartment buildings and, indeed, the arched spires and kaleidoscopic rose window of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The street ends at the river, though, and she has to pause to decide where to go next. She wonders how long it will take: how long she'll have to run before she's so exhausted she can't think anymore. An advantage or a disadvantage of being a Slayer, depending on what your goals are. A disadvantage, in this situation.

She doesn't know this part of town well, but she sees a sign for the West Side Greenway, which turns out to be a long path along the Hudson River's embankments. It's full with runners, roller-bladers, bicyclists, dog-walkers, and she's anonymous among them, one of many, just another girl in athletic clothes and with short hair, without even a name.

She runs harder, faster, feeling the hardness of the pavement reverberate through her heels, ankles, knees, thighs, hips. It will probably hurt later, but she doesn't care. Welcomes it. Let it hurt. She's had worse.

The Greenway narrows in Midtown; there isn't even enough room for two people to run abreast on each side. She has to duck around the walkers, so slow in their leisure, chatting as though there's nowhere else they need to be, no one behind them trying to get through. Farther south, as she passes the Meatpacking District and skirts the far reaches of the West Village, the river widens as it approaches the bay, ready for the end of its long journey. It starts far upstate, Hermione remembers reading, its birthplace an unassuming stream from a mountain lake with the poetic name Tear of the Clouds. She imagines the stillness and silence of the water and woods, tries to compare it to the Hudson here, the vast stretch of river with the complicated, untiring city on one side, the dense sprawl of New Jersey on the other. The pathway widens, too, and vast grassy tableaux expand from both sides. The unseasonable warmth has held, and the banks and the river piers are full of people reading, talking, eating supper, enjoying the late-fall evening.

Hermione's eyes wander over a couple kissing—arms around each other, blissful in the grass—and she focuses intently on the concrete path in front of her.

The trail continues south, leading her to Battery Park City, on the lowermost tip of Manhattan. It's heavily residential, and she watches people—mainly Muggles—coming home from work, tired after their days, happy with their children, preoccupied on their mobile phones, efficient in their smart business attire. She runs through Battery Park itself, letting the fierce harbor wind blow across her face. It's much cooler here than it is farther uptown, and the air is brisk, bracing.

She can feel the beginnings of ache in her muscles.

She could, of course, simply Apparate back to the flat. Take some Advil, have a hot bath, go to bed.

Instead she turns north on Broadway, passing Wall Street, beautiful old Trinity Church, the unexpected lush green and gleaming fountains of City Hall Park; through the crowds of Chinatown and Soho and into the East Village, NYU territory.

She comes to the intersection of Broadway and Tenth Street. She could turn right, go home, have that bath.

She stays on Broadway.

It's only when she reaches Thirtieth Street that she realizes she can't deal with Midtown traffic at this time of day, not without hexing someone. She does turn right—east—this time, goes a few blocks across Thirtieth, then heads down Second Avenue. She's exhausted now, and she could simply duck into an alley and Apparate home, but she pushes, keeps pushing, until she's at Tenth Street; two long blocks and she's at the corner of Tompkins Square Park, almost at the flat. She pretends to search for a key, whispers, "Alohomora," and stumbles inside. She barely makes it to the living room sofa.

Ginevra and Sam are there. With their clothes on, thank God.

"Mione!" Ginevra exclaims. "Merlin's saggy pants, are you alright?"

"I'll get you some water," says Sam.

"I'm fine," Hermione says. "I just…overdid my run a little."

"A little?" Ginevra. "It's been hours! Where did you go, Canada?"

Hermione's about to gulp the water, but Sam stops her. "You're probably dehydrated. It'll make you sick. Just sip it." She does, and he takes it from her and puts it on the coffee table. A few minutes pass, and he gives her some more; then another few minutes; then more water. It's only as she's drinking that she realizes how dry her throat was, how sandy her mouth tasted.

Her knees are killing her; her thigh muscles are burning; her feet feel as though she's been pounding them into something. Which she has: pavement. And she can only imagine what she smells like. She gets up, refuses Ginevra's and Sam's offers of assistance, and hobbles upstairs.

Thank God for old-fashioned bathtubs, she thinks: There's no way she could stand long enough to take a shower right now. She pours some of her bergamot bath gel into the tub, then gets into the water and soaks until she's wrinkled as a prune. Her knees feel much better afterwards.

She rubs lotion into her skin, wraps a towel around herself, and goes into her bedroom. She crawls naked into bed and sleeps dreamlessly.

Chapter Text

I would offer you my pulse
I would give you my breath
—Ani DiFranco

 

 

 

Waking the next morning is tremulous and painful. She doesn't even wait to open her eyes before Summoning a bottle of Advil and swallowing four dry. Everything hurts: her knees, her ankles, the muscles up and down her legs, especially in her thighs. Her head aches, probably from residual dehydration. She yanks the pillow over her head and prays for sleep to take her again.

What she hears instead is the ringing of the doorbell.

Determined to ignore it, she secures the pillow in place and closes her eyes.

But, naturally, Ginevra is awake, and either not going to Niamh's or else not going until later. Hermione hears the door open, but she can't hear the conversation that ensues. Probably a postal delivery, she thinks, or perhaps religious fanatics. Her bed is so soft and she's still so very tired.

Then Ginevra's coronet of a voice echoes up the stairs and even through the closed door. Hermione can't make out the words, but Ginevra sounds sorely displeased. There are a series of pauses, as though Ginevra's letting someone else talk; then Hermione hears the light footsteps on the staircase. Ginevra says from the landing, "Hermione, you have a"—she pauses, then concludes with exquisite distaste—"caller."

Her watch says it's past noon. She's slept far longer than she intended.

She stands up, then balances herself on the back of the desk chair. She's unsteady—and, she realizes, quite naked. She wraps a dressing gown around herself and opens the bedroom door to look down from the landing. "Who is it?"

"It's Dean," says Ginevra, in the same tone she might use to convey that she's just seen an insect the size of her thumb.

"I'm indisposed," Hermione informs all listeners, and goes back to bed.

 

 

 

 

+||+||+

 

She wakes up again a couple of hours later. The Advil has taken effect: Though she's still stiff, she doesn't hurt anymore. She's able to stretch without feeling as though she's been tortured on the rack, and she Accios her combat trousers and a T-shirt and puts them on. She's quite thirsty. She goes downstairs for some water and tea, and possibly something to eat, though she's not terribly hungry. Perhaps she will be once she's less dehydrated.

There's a note on the kitchen counter. Ginevra's handwriting: Went to Niamh's. Quidditch practice tonight, so home late. Check front stoop. ♥ Ginevra.

Once she's consumed the contents of one glass of water, poured another, let her tea steep, and added milk to it, she opens the front door.

Dean's sitting outside, leaning on the railing, eyes closed.

He opens his eyes upon hearing the door open, and they stare at each other for several moments.

Hermione breaks the silence with, "How long have you been out here?" She takes a drink of tea, doesn't sit down.

"I dunno. Since whenever it was that you told Ginevra you were indisposed. She said I was welcome to wait outside."

Ginevra Weasley, her mother's daughter through and through.

"What do you want?" Hermione asks. He must want something, to have waited that long. She was asleep for a good while after Ginevra first called up to her.

He rubs the back of his neck, then looks up at her. "To apologize," he says. He stands, takes something from the pocket of his jeans, and hands it to her. "And to give you this. Look, before you say anything, just— The spells are keyed to you. They've got nothing to do with me. So—please. Pretend it's from somebody else if you want. The protection will still work whether I'm in the picture or not."

She looks down at the metal pooled in her palm. "You didn't actually apologize," she points out.

He rubs the back of his neck again and half laughs. "Nothing gets by you, does it? Ba— Hermione, I'm sorry. Sorry I said what I did, sorry I acted like I did. Next to Sam being born, you're the best thing that ever happened to me, and I'm sorry I fucked that up."

"Alright," she says. She looks at the necklace. Its pale light gleams even in the grey light of the cloudy day. She runs her index finger over the fine letterwork, then puts the chain into her pocket. The acts of putting it on or of handing it back are greater symbolic gestures than she's capable of making right now.

There's another long pause.

"Would you like some tea?" she asks after some time goes by. "I made a pot."

He accepts, though not, she's sure, because he has any particular desire for the beverage.

They go inside, and she takes down a clean cup and saucer for him, then refills her own. They stand in the kitchen for a while. Dean even drinks a little bit of the tea.

"You're moving stiff," Dean observes after more time goes by.

"I had a long run yesterday," she tells him, but doesn't elaborate further. He doesn't need to know that.

"Must have been some run, if you're still sore."

"I took some ibuprofen. I'm much better now, thank you."

She drinks more tea. Dean draws his cup close to his face and seems to smell it, but doesn't drink any.

"Does it smell off?" Hermione asks.

"No. It just smells like tea. I don't know, Sam likes the stuff, but I always liked coffee better. No offense," he adds.

"None taken. You're American, after all."

Another silence.

Dean sets his cup down. "Look, I mean, I don't really know how this goes. The only other woman who broke up with me threw me out of her house, so her intentions were pretty clear. Is that what's going on? Are we done?"

Hermione holds her cup in two suddenly unsteady hands. "Is that what you want?" she asks.

"Was I not talking loud enough with the best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me part?"

She's overcome by the sudden need to stare down at her tea. "It's not what I want, either," she says to the cup and saucer. "But I also don't want you to ever treat me like that again. I don't want anyone to ever treat me like that again. It's not something you do to a person you respect."

"Hermione," he says, and she looks up out of instinct. Then, of course, she can't look down again, because that would be cowardly. "I'm sorry. It was an asshole thing to do. An asshole thing to say. I'll keep apologizing until you believe me. Sometimes— God. I say shit and it's like my brain and my stupid mouth aren't even connected."

"Could you please try?" she says. "To maintain that connection?"

"Of course," he answers. "Yes."

They look at each other for a moment.

She sets down her tea and goes over to him then. Hesitantly, as though they haven't spent the past three and a half months exploring each other in exactingly intimate detail, she reaches for his hand and laces her fingers through his. He puts his cup on the counter, too, and, with similar diffidence, runs his fingertips over her short coils of hair.

She steps closer, rests her head against his chest, settles her other arm around him, and he strokes her hair, the side of her head, the nape of her neck.

"Everything's so fucked up," he says after a moment, voice so low it's nearly a whisper. "I thought we'd kill the demon and it'd be done. Everything would be resolved. Except nothing's resolved. My mom's still dead. She's been dead almost twenty-five years, and it's not like that's going to change just because the thing that killed her is gone. And my dad—I keep thinking that if he were alive, he would know what to do. He always knew what to do. Because it's like, what the hell happens now? Sam's got his magic to learn, and that's great. But the demon's done, the hunt's over, and now what? It's not like I've ever done anything else. Hell, I don't really know how to do anything else, except work on cars. And my dad's still— Everything's still messed up with that, too, and I still have no idea how to fix it. I guess maybe I thought killing the demon would—okay, not bring him back, but resolve it, at least. Take back what he did, cancel it out, something. But as far as I know, nothing's different."

This is perhaps the most Hermione has ever heard Dean say at a stretch.

She has no idea how to ask this tactfully. Has no idea whether, indeed, there is any way to ask this tactfully. "Dean, before your father died—did you have a row? Did something happen?"

His hand tightens on her hair, then loosens again to cup her head. "No. It wasn't— That wasn't it. I mean, things were tense, and a lot of shit had happened, but Dad and I were basically fine. It's...it was more complicated than that." There's a pause, and she's not sure whether she should ask more. She doesn't want to push him on the matter, but if it's something he wants to discuss but doesn't know how to approach (which, knowing Dean, is likely), she doesn't want to inhibit that.

Dean makes the decision. "You deserve to know," he says. "After all this, you should know." He pulls them down so that they're sitting on the kitchen floor, leaning against the cabinets. Dean holds her in his lap, against his chest—tight and close, but they can't look at each other. She thinks that's probably deliberate.

"What do you know about—about when my dad died?" he asks her.

"Just what you said that very first day: that the three of you were in a car accident. Your father was killed and the Colt was destroyed."

"That's not what happened," he says. "It's the simplest explanation, but it's not what happened." He takes a breath. "We were in the car, after a whole bunch of shit had gone down, and Dad and Sam were arguing. As usual. That's actually the last thing I remember, is them arguing. I don't remember the accident, but we were hit by an eighteen-wheeler. The driver was possessed by Azazel. Sam was conscious, or at least conscious enough to aim the Colt at it and scare it off. Dad and I were both knocked out.

"The accident was really bad. Bad enough that we were all helicoptered out. Sam was pretty banged up, but he was more or less OK. My dad too." She starts to turn around—this doesn't make sense, their father was fatally injured, or at least that's the story—but he holds her in place. "Please. Just...let me tell it. Dad was fine—I mean, banged-up arm, but nothing serious. I was the one— I was going to die. On life support and everything. Tubes up my nose, down my throat, you name it. Sam says we communicated by Ouija board. No, seriously, that's what he says. So I guess my spirit was wandering around or something. I've always been kind of hyperactive, so I could see that." He takes another breath, and his arms are so tight as to be painful, but she doesn't interrupt him. "I was going to die. I should have died. Except that my dad traded the Colt and his fucking soul for my life, and now he's in hell and I'm here."

This time she does turn, breaking his grip. He doesn't look away from her. His eyes, to her utter shock, are glittering with tears. "Yes," he says steadily, "it's possible. We met a guy who sold his soul so that his wife wouldn't have cancer anymore. We've got it on pretty good authority from both the demon and human sides."

"It wouldn't even have occurred to me to doubt that," Hermione manages.

Dean rests his forehead against her shoulder. She turns so that she's facing away from him again, and he sits curled around her, like a pod sheltering a seed. "I shouldn't be here," he says. "I should be dead—I was supposed to be dead—and my dad should be alive."

She has no idea what to say. Harry's parents gave their lives for him, but a life is different from a soul. They fought bravely, and now they're resting in peace, or rejoicing in heaven, or doing whatever it is that good, courageous people do after they die.

John Winchester will never rest in peace, and his sons know it.

She could say, "I'm sorry," but she isn't. She isn't sorry that Dean's alive. Even, she realizes, at that cost. Dean and Sam's father made his sons into soldiers for his cause, and, she thinks, any man who demands that kind of sacrifice on the part of other people should be prepared to make some of his own.

She finds Dean's hands with her own and laces her fingers through his. He doesn't fight her, and they sit there like that for a few minutes, huddled together. She whispers, "I'm glad you're alive."

"It wasn't worth it," Dean says. His tone matches hers. "What he paid, it wasn't worth it."

"You are worth it," she says.

"No. No, I'm not. Not for that."

She moves again, breaking his hold once more. She turns all the way so that she's looking right at him, hands on either side of his face. "You are worth it," she repeats, fiercely. "You are worth it, and yes, for that. Do you think your father made that choice without a good reason?"

He closes his eyes, swallows. "I don't know," he finally says, nearly inaudibly.

"Your father loved you. He loved you, and he wanted you to live."

He shakes his head again, and two of the tears that have been gathering finally fall.

"Fuck," he says, clearly, and tries to draw up his knees, his arms, to fold in on himself.

Her body is in the way, though, and she ends up sitting awkwardly crossways on his lap. His head is down; his eyes are tightly closed; he's shaking; but he doesn't push her away.

"I love you," she tells him. She doesn't intend to say it; it comes out entirely unbidden. "You are worth it, and I love you."

He makes a noise like a marriage between a cough and a sob, harsh and reluctant. She settles her head under his chin, against his chest; his breath is unsteady, his heartbeat quick and panicky. She can feel him trembling, and that noise comes again, strangled, as though he's fighting it. She wants to tell him that it's alright, that he can make whatever noises he needs to, cry if he needs to, but she knows enough about men to know it's best to stay quiet. She takes his hand, kisses the palm, rests her face against it. She feels him move, and she looks up at the same time he looks down.

His mouth is hot and urgent on hers, pleading rather than demanding.

She sits up, pulls him to her with hands on the nape of his neck and the back of his head. The position is awkward, with his back against the cabinets and her sitting on her knees, but she doesn't care. It's more important that they press close together, share breath as though they're sharing life.

She strips his T-shirt off, wanting warm, living skin underneath her hands. She kisses the scars she can see, on his shoulders and chest—the burn from the mad family who kidnapped Sam, others that look like puncture wounds, others she can't identify, won in the line of various battles. Someday she'll lay him out in front of her and she'll lick them all, but that day isn't right now. She raises her arms and he has her shirt off, too, playing her nipples between his fingers as she explores him with lips and tongue, retraces territory she already knows well.

She unbuttons his jeans to reach inside his pants and wrap her hand around his cock. He's hard; he grows harder. She kisses him again and he moans into her mouth, thrusts up into her touch. His fingers find their way into the combats and then beneath her knickers, and she arches against them, feeling herself slick and ready for him.

He tips himself forward, her backward, then pulls off her trousers and knickers and licks at her hungrily, as though it's been years since they've touched, as though he's starving and she's nourishment. The floor is hard at her back, but the pleasure is liquid and overwhelming, drowning out any discomfort as he sucks at her clit and outlines her labia. She comes in a hot rush, pulses of blood under the skin against lips and tongue and taste buds.

She pulls him up and kisses the taste of herself from his mouth. His hands are buried in her short hair; his hips, still clad in jeans, are cradled between her thighs. She reaches to pull them down, off, but there's something in the way? Oh, his boots. It doesn't matter. She turns them over—doesn't break the kiss—and finds his cock with her hand, positions him to slide inside her.

There's no pain this time, just the slick fullness of him. His neck arches and he gasps—this time the kiss breaks—and she tucks her hands behind his head. Their movements are fluid, sinuous, not slow but not hurried either. This is her show, and she controls their pace, and she's already come once.

She can watch his face like this, watch as its beautiful angles contort with pleasure. His mouth opens and she kisses it. He moans long and low, settles his hands on her hips to thrust up into her, to rub her clit with his thumb.

He comes shuddering, his eyes closed, his fingers flexing so tightly as to leave marks on her skin. His release is a warm wash inside her, and his touch on her clit drives her over again as she rocks up and down on his spent cock.

They're both spent.

They lie there for a few moments, his heartbeat thundering in her ear, until it begins to slow and his breath to return to normal.

"Dean?" she tries, and he yawns.

"Baby," he says sleepily, and tucks her head back under his chin, wraps his arms securely around her.

"Are you tired?"

"Uh-huh," he says, sounding perfectly content to have a nap right here on the kitchen floor.

"Let's go upstairs, at least," she suggests, and he doesn't protest. They collect their clothes from the floor, and Dean makes a cursory effort at pulling up his jeans, and they walk up the stairs holding hands. In her room, Hermione undresses him the rest of the way, removing boots, jeans, and boxer-briefs, and they climb into bed. He tucks himself around her, and it feels less like typical postcoital drowsiness than like hard exhaustion that he's finally giving in to.

"When was the last time you slept?" she asks.

"Here and there," he says sleepily, and kisses the back of her neck.

So before they killed the demon, then.

He's quiet after that, and she thinks he's fallen asleep until he asks, "Did you mean what you said?"

"About what?" Hermione asks.

"Uh, earlier. After I told you about my dad, and before we...you know."

She closes her eyes, even though it doesn't matter—they're not facing each other anyway. "That I love you? Yes, I meant it. I wouldn't have said it otherwise."

He turns her towards him and leans up to kiss her, a gentle press of mouths, and runs an affectionate thumb over her eyebrow before settling them both again. "I love you, too," he says, then adds, "But I already told you that."

She rolls back over to look at him then. "When?"

"Before we went after Azazel," he says, as though it's obvious.

She remembers her dream: herself and Harry and Ron in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and Dean's sudden appearance behind her, how he'd kissed her temple and the line of her jaw. Not a dream, then. "When you thought I was asleep," she says. "That doesn't count."

He laughs softly and kisses her shoulder and her nape one more time. "I meant it. So it counts like that. But just so we're clear: I love you, Hermione Jean Granger."

"I love you, too," she says, then adds, "You great pillock." But she's smiling.

Dean drops off, finally, into a dense, heavy sleep that's almost like unconsciousness. She lies awake for a while, but his sleep is a live thing, and it pulls her in like greedy quicksand, until the drowsiness closes over her head and she can't fight it any longer. She falls asleep in Dean's warm, heavy arms, but her dreams are surprisingly light.

 

 

 

 

+||+||+

 

She wakes up and realizes that hours have passed: It was midafternoon when she woke earlier, but the room is darker now, the sun on its way past dusk. She and Dean haven't moved in all those hours: He's still behind her, with her body gathered up against him. And he's still asleep, deep and peaceful.

She doesn't want to move, but she's been lying in the same position for a long time; her joints are stiff and her muscles want to stretch. She tries to do it as unobtrusively as possible, but she can feel him wake up when she shifts. He stretches, too, with a pleased, wordless hum, then rolls onto his back and drawing her up alongside him. She rests her head in the soft place above the crook of his arm, and they lie there like that for several moments, smiling like people who are stupid with love.

There are worse things, Hermione thinks, with which to be stupid.

He runs his hand up and down her side, kisses the top of her head. "We slept a long time," he says, voice gravelly from it.

"We were tired." She adds, more specifically, "You were tired."

He agrees with an, "Mmm," and they stay tangled and quiet for another few moments. Some food soon would be good, Hermione thinks, but it isn't urgent yet.

"I can't just let you go back to England," he blurts out.

Chapter Text

Downstairs, as they're puttering barefoot and disheveled around the kitchen, it's Hermione's turn to ask. "What did you mean..." She trails off.

"What did I mean about what?"

"About letting me go back to England. Are you planning to hold me hostage in America?"

Dean laughs, but it's nervous. "No. I mean, unless it's some kind of kinky thing involving one of us tied to the headboard, which I could probably get behind."

"Dean."

He sighs and looks down at the counter. "OK, OK. I just meant...your house-sitting thing ends in about two months. Life's short and it sucks a lot of the time." It's an echo, Hermione remembers, of their conversation on East Sixth Street nearly a month ago. But a slightly altered echo. "I just think"—he's still looking at the counter—"that if you find something good, you shouldn't let it go just because a couple of NYU professors are coming back from wherever they went."

She goes over to stand next to him, and his arm comes around her. His smell is intimately familiar now, and Hermione thinks that she'll know it for the rest of her life. "I agree," Hermione says. "But what do you propose? The wizarding world doesn't share the Muggle fixation upon international borders; nevertheless, it's true that, according to the United States authorities, I'm not here legally."

"Dude." Dean snorts. "Neither am I."

She can't help but laugh. "We're a pair, aren't we? I'm illegally here and you're legally dead."

"I don't know," Dean says, without ornament, answering her earlier question. "There was only ever one other person that I wanted to have...something with. An actual...something, not just a one-night thing or whatever. But she didn't want that, so we never had to try. But...you've got a whole life, family and friends and everything, in England, and I don't have much here, but I do have Sam."

"Sam is a lot," Hermione says. "And, for that matter, what about Faith? Your friend Bobby?"

It appears as though Dean's going to argue, but then he stops, nods. "Yeah," he allows. "Them too." He looks down at her. "So what are you arguing for, exactly?"

"Nothing," says Hermione, surprised. "Just that you have more ties than you think."

"What about you? You lived your whole life in England. Most of your friends are there; all of your family. You go back, and I'm sure those old wizard guys would be h