The morning was quiet, unnaturally still. Hogwarts was never like this. There was always some sort of sound. The chattering of students and portraits, the clinking of pots and pans, the grating of the ancient staircases as they moved of their own accord. There was always something. But not today. If a mouse farted in the dungeons, it would have echoed to the top of the Astronomy Tower.
It was as though the great, shattered castle stood in reverence of the absent dead.
Harry walked though the grounds, his mind blank and dazed. His feet were moving but he hardly knew where he was going. He'd thought about the owlery. At least there was some hint of life there. Life which wouldn't intrude on him too much. But there was painful death there, too. Poor Hedwig. She had called the place home, as much as Harry had done his dorm room. Now they belonged nowhere.
And part of Harry wished he, too, was sleeping soundly, as his once-beloved owl now surely was.
Without realising, Harry found himself approaching Hagrid's cabin. His step faltered. There was the threat of company there. Harry wouldn't be able to avoid it if Hagrid spotted him. The crushing silence was here too. No booming barks, no crashes from inside the hut. Harry's eyes were drawn, magnetically, to the little mound of earth off to one side of the cabin. Grass was starting to grow over it already, life blooming where death's inevitability had been observed.
There was, of course, nothing little about Fang's grave. The boarhound had been anything but little. But soon the flora would cover the disturbed earth and only the ring of memorial stones Hagrid had laid there would be any reminder that this wasn't just another overgrown, anonymous patch of land.
Harry's heart lodged in his throat at the sight.
In fact, it had become a frequent resident there, choking him, quickening his breath in the worst sorts of ways. Not from nerves like at Quidditch, not from excitement at intimacy with girls, just the grim realisation of the darkness that had permeated his life. It was as if Voldemort's presence had served as a sort of shroud, hiding his misdeeds as Harry expected worse to come. Deaths of his friends, death of himself. Now that he was gone, all the horrors of the Dark Lord's actions were coming home to him.
And the brutal murder of beloved pets was only an entryway into this catalogue of heinous deeds.
Harry's decision was made. He unclenched the fist that was a moment away from knocking on Hagrid's door and veered away from the gamekeeper's cabin. It wasn't a morning for chit-chat. The Great Lake loomed large, deserted and ideal, off to the left. Harry struck out for it, following the sloping lawns down to the water's edge. The surface of the lake was like fresh-cut glass; smooth, flat, totally unbroken. And still that silence. Harry felt deaf enveloped by it. It pressed on him, sound taken from his world and thrown somewhere else. Somewhere it could be enjoyed, somewhere it wouldn't be taken for granted, for Harry felt a selfish guilt that that's all he'd ever done with it.
The morning sunlight fell on the surface of the Lake, gilding the unmoving water. Harry looked at it, marvelled at its prettiness, cautiously welcoming the warmth which accompanied it. It would be Summer soon. There would be light, and life, and Harry wondered vaguely if he would be in any state to enjoy it. If his anguishing mind might by then have started to settle on this new idea of the world. A world with a future.
He couldn't rightly conceptualise that.
For what was life without Voldemort? Without his ever-pervading threat? How was Harry supposed to go about picking up the pieces of a broken life? Did he even know how to live, without the shadow of Voldemort stalking just behind him? Harry wasn't sure he did. People would just go back to normal. Life would return to the way it was, free from the prowling presence that had plagued the Wizarding World. They would all celebrate the Dark Lord's demise, cherish the victory, revel in the freedom Harry had given them.
But Harry wouldn't be part of it, wouldn't have anything to do with it. He couldn't. There was no way he was ready to face that reality. There was a celebration planned at Hogwart's for the very next week. A victory parade to toast Harry murdering a man. He baulked at the concept. They'd want to hug him, kiss him, hoist him to a plateau where they could vaunt him and exalt him. Harry couldn't think of anything worse. And then they'd drift away, drink to the victory, return to normal. All great pretenders to Harry's suffering.
And he could tell nobody about it.
Hero's didn't feel anguish, after all. The world would never accept it. Their perfect vision, their peaceful future, would be shattered by the notion that any pain could still exist. They would want their perfect normality to return to their lives, as if Voldemort had simply been a passing storm, his damage superficial and easily repaired. Normal would return as a sparkling dawn.
Ginny Weasley had made that perfectly clear. Approaching Harry soon after Voldemort fell, the stilling blood yet warm in his dying veins. Harry still had Snape's blood crusting on his clothes. His skin still dirty from where he'd been face down in the mud, feigning death to Voldemort. Ginny had tried to hug him, to kiss him, to celebrate, as though he'd just been triumphant in catching the Snitch to win the House Cup. Like it was a petty, trivial act.
And in that moment, Harry felt all his once-treasured affection for her leave his body.
She had no idea, not even the faintest inkling about what he'd been through, what he'd done. Not just on that night, but for his entire life. Who was she to him, really? His best mate's sister, a fleeting rush of lust and hormones for a pretty girl. Harry had to get that out of his system, he knew that now. He felt he'd earned it a little. A trophy moment, a bit of mindless fun with a willing partner. But she was nowhere near enough. He needed more, was desperate for it.
But he knew he would never get it. There was no-one who would understand. Who could? And who would be foolish enough to take on such a broken man? One who knew love, had much to give, but felt certain now that he didn't know how to love. Not in that way. He knew he could never give himself up completely to a stranger, any newcomer to his plagued life. This part of him would always be there, chinking away in the back of his heart, dark and ever-present.
No girl deserved that.
So he wouldn't inflict that on anyone. In that moment, looking out across the Lake, Harry made that decision. He thought back to his dream, his vision, whatever it had been. That was no future. Certainly not with vacuous Ginny. Ginny fucking Weasley. Harry felt a corrosive resentment towards her for a moment, for her impudence in suggesting that she was his gateway to normal. She didn't have a pissing clue as to what normal was in his world. A world he was now determindely resolved she would have no serious part in, or any future he was to live. Kids? With Ginny? Married to her? He understood at once why his future self had seemed so unhappy, so desperately alone, in his dream.
He would have kept this all bottled up for 19 years. Pushed it deep down, away from the sham he'd have to display on the surface. He'd have kept his own counsel while Ginny basked in the glow of the spotlight. She would have loved it.
Harry could see it now; Ginny happily paraded on Harry's arm, accepting every interview request, inviting the entire fucking Wizarding world to share their lives, ignoring the misery raging within her husband. Churning out kids, allowing him to name them to keep him pacified. It all made sense now, and it was a sense that made Harry sick - for he knew, if he hadn't seen the vision, seen how haunted it would make him, he might have been tempted to go along with it.
The sex would have been electrifying after all. Ginny would have done all sorts of things. Nothing would have been off-limits, and there was something to be said for that. Harry half-wished he'd gotten that out of his system too, during their brief, physically-driven fling. But he'd not gotten past the merest of gropes. It was all strictly over-the-knickers stuff. Fun at the time, but an opportunity for more missed.
Harry considered then that he would probably die a virgin. He wouldn't go paying for sex, and he'd never let another girl get close enough to share his life or his bed. He felt a chamber of his heart close permanently at the thought. It was sobering. He wouldn't make angry love to anyone, it wasn't an act that should be powered by such darkness. And Harry felt that's all he had to give anymore.
He took a long breath, deep and heavy. They were all deep and heavy these days. It carried away a grain, an infintessimal fragment of seven years of strife, of seventeen years of pain and abuse that he had endured.
And the bone-weary exhale made Harry felt no better about any of it.
He wanted to destroy something beautiful. He dug his fingers into the bank of the Great Lake, finding a stone in the mud. He stood up, took another one of those shuddering breaths, and flung the stone as hard as he could across the expanse. It broke the still surface of the water, - not as far away as Harry hoped it would land (he was ashamed of his upper body strength just then) - sending ripples cascading out from the point of contact. He watched them dance as a tide, shimmering in the sunlight as they caught it and spread away. He watched till they dissipated, dying against the shoreline.
Then all was still again. Nothing existed in the world. Hero's didn't feel pain, they didn't hurt. Such things didn't exist.
Except for Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived, the Hero, who had never felt more a fraud for the title. He bowed his head. Decision made. He turned for the castle, walking towards it. When he next left, he doubted he would ever return.
And still the silence observed.
Hermione cradled her coffee cup, nursed it. It was going cold. It was the third one to follow suit that morning.
But Hermione barely noticed as she wept over the cooling liquid.
A tear splashed into her mug, rippling the surface of the still drink. Hermione was mindful not to sob. It was still early and she didn't want to wake her parents, or their ire at her. She couldn't blame them, her heart ached at the thoughts, the bitter reminders pulling at the corners of her mind. She wished she couldn't think about it, desperately wanted to push the horrific memories to one side, pretend they hadn't happened.
But she couldn't, no matter how hard she tried to.
It was her father's eyes she couldn't shake. He'd never looked so hurt, so disappointed. In her. She was Daddy's girl, his pride and joy. Prodigiously gifted, wonderfully intelligent. Gentle, witty, with so much to give. He doubted there would ever be a boy anywhere who deserved her, no family nearly good enough to share her with. But Hermione felt sure that David Granger was now fiercely convinced of one, unerringly fundamental thing:
The Weasley family were most definitely not.
And as for Ron...Hermione would sooner swallow a hedgehog than to see her father's appraising glances over him again. Hermione closed her eyes, tried to block out the image. What would she call it? Distraught? Devastated? Both were true, both struck to her heart, pierced it. She had so wanted her father's approval of her choice of partner. But his reaction had been as far away from approval as Hermione thought possible.
And the worst part? She couldn't blame him. Not even one bit.
The night had been a disaster, an unmitigated catastrophe. It wasn't supposed to have been like that. None of the slightly panicked scenarios Hermione had imagined in her mind ever had it playing out in that manner. It was supposed to have gone so differently, been so much more positive. But it didnt turn out that way at all.
Instead of the proper introductions, the embarrassed awkwardness, the probable teasing of her burgeoning relationship, Hermione spent the entire evening having to listen to her parents, their careers, the Muggle world in general, being broken down and cast asunder, as though worth no more than a shit-laden scrap of toilet paper. How the Wizarding World was so much better, magic preferable to the quaint idiosyncrasies of the Muggle world and their cutesy ways of coping without magic.
Hermione endured four hours of it.
The cutting quotes, the mindless quips, played through Hermione's mind like a horribly repeating record. An aria of mortification played by an orchestra of rusty saws.
And the Weasley's had been completely oblivious to what they were doing.
There was little more jarring to Hermione's anguished mind than the casual racism, of the quasi-xenophobia they displayed. Their air of superiority was clear, their words spelled it out for the worthless Muggles in their midst. Hermione cringed at the memory, her tears a little stronger now. She had never seen her parents so cut down, so belittled, before. And to be done so by her boyfriends family...Hermione ached at the thought. Then she remembered the bitter hurt in their eyes, the way they looked at her. So disappointed. So utterly, devastatingly disappointed.
For the Grangers were good at what they did. And what they did was good. They were Doctors, doctors of Dentistry, yes, but Doctors nonetheless. And they were leaders in their field. More importantly, they were also caring, considerate practioners of their craft, something their patients were eminently thankful for. Nobody liked the dentist, but the Grangers did all they could to ease the discomfort.
To have this so callously disregarded by Ron and his family made Hermione feel physically sick.
She recoiled from the sensation, tried to choke it back. She loved her Mum and Dad deeply and felt proud of them. The image of them upset sliced right to her heart, and to think of herself as responsible merely poured poisonous acid into the wound. It let out the sob she had been so desperately trying to hold in.
Though it didn't wake her parents, it did mask her mother's entry into the kitchen. By the time Hermione noticed she was there it was too late to hide her tears. She chastened herself when her mother saw her. How dare she cry? Dare ask for sympathy. She, who had brought scorn upon the two people she loved, and who loved her, the most.
Catrin Granger struggled to look at her daughter when she entered the kitchen. Part of her didn't want to. She didn't wholly blame her for last nights fiasco, not nearly as much as her father did, but she was still deeply hurt by it all the same. It stymied that maternal instinct that rose in her when she saw Hermione weeping at the breakfast table.
It wasn't so much Hermione she was upset at. More the world she was so deeply a part of. It clearly viewed people like Catrin and David as second-class citizens. As curiosities to be parodied and pitied. It seemed totally ingrained into the seams of that society, so ensconced in their collective mindset that even families like the Weasley's - who didn't come across as particularly akin to doctrines of racial supremacy on the surface - harboured these beliefs of unwavering superiority over non-Magic people.
Catrin was never one prone to fits of arrogance. She had come from a distinctly working-class background, worked hard for her place at Cardiff University's prestigious medical college, where she met her husband, and together they set up their very successful dental practice in a fairly affluent part of the country between London and Oxford. They were well off and Catrin was always thankful and appreciative that her and David's hard work had paid off. She was humbly grateful for her lot, and never one to lord it over those less fortunate than herself.
But the Weasley's had irritated her so much she felt like doing so for the first time in her life.
They were clearly poor, so to be looked down on by these people rankled with Catrin's bank account. If they had been peasants in the Middle-Ages, which was the last time their clothes would have been in fashion, they would have had to sell their urine to buy food. Piss poor, so to speak. This was a material irritation and Catrin could have let it slide. But they also clearly had a fairly poor level of education and almost no social sense whatsoever. They were dressed like hoboes, were fairly dirty as if they'd just tumbled out of a fireplace, and looked like they should have been busking in the corridors of the London Underground like some grubby, threadbare version of the Von Trapp's.
Certainly not besmirching her daughter. Certainly not coaxing her into their family, to become one of them. Catrin's heart fell as she thought about it.
And as for that boyfriend... Catrin tried not to think about him at all. She didn't have the vocabulary for him.
She made herself a cup of tea, facing away from Hermione, who was still weeping. She took a lot longer than she normally would, gazing into the wilderness of the back garden as she tried to compose her thoughts. What was she going to say? Or, more accurately, how was she to phrase it, without it sounding like the bitterest of knee-jerk reactions? It was the only logical option, though. David was adamant about that, and Catrin tended to agree with him. No matter how difficult it was, no matter how much it would tear at her heart.
Hermione watched her mother sit down at the table. Her movements were slow, measured. It were as though she were in recovery and moving gingerly to not aggravate tender wounds. The idea flooded Hermione with a sense of sorrow so great she felt she might drown in it. She clung to her coffee cup as though it were a lifebuoy.
For a few minutes neither spoke. Hermione sniffed a bit, dried her eyes and determined to stem her tears, despite the torrent welling being her eyelids. She watched her mother gently blow her tea to cool it. But she could tell she was thinking. The action was a ruse, a delaying tactic, a ploy to buy time. This was serious. Hermione felt her skin prickle with a cold fear. She wasn't going to enjoy this, but she could stand the tension no longer.
Her mother looked up, offered a tiny smile. But it was full of sadness. But something else, too...something avoidant. She didn't want this discussion either. To see her mother still unhappy, so shaken and uncomfortable, in the pale light of the morning, took the floor from beneath Hermione's feet. Her stomach lurched with the fall.
"You're up awfully early," said Catrin.
Hermione looked back at her coffee, now stone cold. "I couldn't sleep."
Her mother sighed deeply. Hermione tried not to take hope from the tone of recognition of a reflected condition.
"Mum I'm so sorry," Hermione blurted out, still not looking up. She just had to get this started. "I had no idea it would be like that. I don't know how to apologise enough."
"I think you should have expected it," said Catrin. "I'm disappointed you didn't. You're far too clever and perceptive for that."
"Oh Mum, don't," Hermione whined. "How could I have known?"
"You know the family well," said Catrin. "And that...that boy is your partner now. Can you be that blinded by love that you didn't see it coming?"
Hermione shifted in her seat at the words. Something in them made her uncomfortable. "I don't know that I'm in love, Mum."
"Well, at least that's something," said Catrin. She wished her tone could be less bitter about the Weasley's, less hopeful that this was just a passing fling for her daughter. But there it was.
"Did Dad calm down?" Hermione asked tentatively. "I've not seen him like that before. I don't think he's ever shouted at me like that."
"Oh, that wasn't your father shouting," said Catrin off-handedly. "That was a slightly raised voice. Your father hasn't shouted at anyone properly for years, and be thankful you've never heard it. It's a good thing too. You know how his high-blood pressure gets."
Hermione felt her own heart stop for a second. Imagine if she'd caused her father enough stress to make him seriously ill? Another bought of nausea threatened to engulf her.
"But he's still angry with me?"
"Come along, Hermione!" said Catrin, exasperated now. "Don't you see how hurtful all those comments were to us?"
"Of course I do?" said Hermione, tearing up again. "I'm so ashamed, embarrassed. But I know sorry isn't enough. Do you think Dad will forgive me?"
Catrin looked at Hermione silently for a few minutes. The moment was coming. She could sense it.
"I don't think its as simple an forgiveness, honey."
Hermione swallowed hard. "Do you...do you think...does he want me to break up with Ron?"
Catrin almost smiled. Hermione was approaching this as a child might. Her innocence tapped at Catrin's resolve.
"You father isn't that pig-headed to suggest that," she said. "Neither of us are. We know how stubborn you can get. Once your mind is set to something there's no swaying you. It's usually an admirable quality."
Hermione chanced a half-grin at this. But Catrin wasn't finished, not by far.
"Your father and I were expecting a reaction like this, just not quite as pronounced. From what you've told us, most wizards think they are superior to us non-Magic folk. To be honest, we used to agree. We know you can do things that would astonish us, blow our minds even. All witches and wizards probably can.
"But that doesn't make you better than us."
Hermione looked up, shocked and wounded. "I don't think I'm better than you because of magic!"
Hermione felt like her mother had slapped her. Slapped her back to being eleven years old again. She'd never felt so small or so chastised.
"Mum...how can you say that?"
"It seems the general attitude, if the Weasley's are anything to go by. And we thought they were some of the better ones. We let you stay with them several times. We thought it was good for you, but now we aren't so sure. We expected more from you than to take their opinions and go along with them."
"But Mum...I don't," Hermione sobbed. "You have to believe me."
"I'd like to, but you've fallen for one of their sons. If that oldest brother was to be believed you'll be married to him before too long. You'll be one of them. Next you'll have kids, raise them with the same outlook. And our grandchildren will probably be ashamed of us in your world. We'll become outcasts. A generation later and we'll be despised, vermin."
Hermione broke down, covered her eyes with her hands. Tears flowed hot and fast. She wanted so much to argue, but in reality all she could do was protest. She knew enough. Her mother had the right of it. Muggle borns, Mudbloods, Half-blood princes - non-Magic blood scorned and shunned. It wasn't a case of if it would happen. It was inevitable and Hermione was powerless to prevent it.
"So what are you saying?"
Catrin caved a little. She reached out and held Hermione's forearm tenderly.
"We don't see the differences the same way those people do," said Catrin. "We can send instant messages via email, cure a whole host of diseases and help people with medicines not so different from your potions. And we are perfectly capable of hurting and killing each other. Its a different route to the same outcome. That's all.
"But its the attitude that we can't ignore. I remember when we first got married. Your dad and I didn't have much. He was angry then, a lot. He blamed himself, thought he was failing me. The amount of times I wished for a magic wand to make it all better...
"But it wasn't magic, honey. It was graft and hard work, and staying strong together. It gave us all we have, all we gave to you before Hogwarts. And I wouldn't give it up for the world. But this magic you have...its part of you in such a fundamental way you might as well be a different species. Your father and I knew there would be difficulties. We were prepared for that. But after last night we're not so sure we can deal with it, or that we want to. I never want to see your father look that way again. Not after all we've done to make a good life for ourselves."
"Nor do I," Hermione implored. "Just tell me what I can do."
Catrin took a considered breath. "I'm not sure there is anything. We don't belong in your world, we don't want to be there to be poked fun at and ridiculed. And maybe...you don't belong in ours anymore either."
Hermione drew breath sharply, her heart beating a tattoo beneath her ribcage, her thoughts racing a mile a minute. Panic was setting in.
"What are you saying?" she whispered, her voice as small as it could be. "Mum...are you kicking me out?"
Catrin felt the words cut her. She never thought she'd ever say them, never even think them. But there they were, etching on the front of her mind.
"I'm just saying, sweetheart, you're 18 now. You'll be striking out on your own into the world very soon. I just don't think that world will be this one."
Hermione yelped and jumped up. She threw her arms around her mother's neck. She couldn't help it.
"Please don't, Mum," she sobbed into Catrin's shoulder. "Its too soon. I'm just not ready!"
Catrin hugged her daughter back. It would have been all kinds of wrong if she didn't. There was no way she could sit here with her so utterly distraught. But it didn't eliminate the greater problem.
"P-please Mum...talk to Dad. Make him forgive me. Please don't send me away. I don't know where I'd go."
"There isn't an easy solution, sweetheart," said Catrin. "If you were to stay, your father would never allow Ron over. Or any of his family. Maybe it would be best, easier for you to go to them. To go somewhere in that world. We could pay..."
Hermione howled. Not sobbed, howled at the notion. She couldn't believe what was happening. How one bad night could have turned into this. But there didn't seem to be anything she could do. Her parents had apparently decided already.
"I-I was going to go back to school, re-redo my last year," she managed to say between impassioned hiccups. "Would you...can I stay until then? Just for o-one more year? It would only b-be the Summer and Christmas, really. If...if you still feel the same after that, I-I'll go."
Hermione sounded so pitiful, so young and vulnerable. The sound broke Catrin's heart. Her little girl didn't shatter like this. She didn't think she could bear it.
"Okay, honey, I'll speak to your father," she said softly. She had to soothe her baby. She couldn't let her hurt like this, no matter what. "But the no wizards in our house rule will definitely apply, thats for certain."
"Absolutely," said Hermione, withdrawing her head from her mother's shoulder, nodding vigorously. "I have to Hogwarts in a couple of days. There's a celebration to mark a month since Lord Voldemort - the Dark Wizard - was killed. I'll speak to the Headmistress then and arrange everything."
And to see Harry, she thought to herself. The idea startled her, for its abruptness, for absolutely cutting to the heart of her need, for its accuracy. For at that moment she really, really needed to. She needed him to console her, make everything better. He was good at that. She hoped his saving-people-thing might extend to her, just one more time.