Hermione felt like she was in a limbo; time had evidently stopped in one way or another. She couldn't put it down to the distance between her twin, or perhaps everything that had occurred on Christmas's Eve.
However, everything did change, once Granger's voice rang in her mind again.
Eventually, Hermione started coming out in the living room and playing Wizarding Chess with her uncle, who would immediately brighten up at the sight of her.
Later at night, she would let the unconscious ramble on about her life.
So, you married the redhead?
Hm, perhaps you'll find a redhead in your universe, too, Granger mused.
Hermione let out a snort. No, the only redheads here are the Prewett twins and they've already graduated.
Oh . . .
She caught the change in her tone and asked, What is it?
Well — you might have to save them too.
Hermione let out a heavy sigh, flopping back on the mattress with a 'thud'. So far, the thirty year old woman in her head had reminded her of a couple of names who were affected by the war, but she refused to say what happened to Sirius.
She said she wasn't ready yet, which was utter hogwash considering she'd already faced Voldemort once already.
Even Granger hadn't done that—though they still shared the torture by Bellatrix. The only difference was the word carved up on her arm.
I don't get why I have to be the Chosen One, she whined in her head.
I'm sorry. It's just well—what memories did Dumbledore show you?
All of the sudden, Hermione found herself looking at the night where the truth had been discovered and watched as the two nervous kids sat in front of Professor Dumbledore.
Granger didn't speak again, not until a while. When she did, she muttered a quick oh and told her to go back to sleep. Despite noticing her strange behaviour, Hermione didn't complain, instead letting her heavy lids drop.
If the dreams she used to get at Hogwarts were bad, the ones she had now were ten times worse. She constantly woke up to droplets of sweat mixing with the tears she'd shed in her sleep.
Her Occlumency barriers had weakened, perhaps due to the torture. She admitted it had been a while since she'd gotten punished at Grimmauld — summer break, precisely.
Despite everything, a little voice in her head couldn't help but point out that being disowned meant that Sirius and her wouldn't have to go back to their parents—no, parent—in the summer.
But, would that possibly end the smallest interactions she used to get with Regulus?
There was no way she could possibly forget that he did help her get out of the Black Manor, insisting that she went back to Sirius more than once. He'd talked to her more then, than he had during the whole course of the terms spent at Hogwarts.
She remembered the darkness in his eyes, the frown etched onto his face. Merlin, when had her little, innocent Reg turned into a miniature version of Walburga? How could Hermione even let that happen?
It was her fault. She should've insisted more, tried talking to him more, or even just locked her two brothers with her in a room until they went back to talking to each other, just like they used to! Before — before everything.
Sometimes, she felt like Hogwarts had made her life better, but even worse.
The castle had given her a chance at magic itself, but also at friendship and loyalty. In the same way, it had introduced her to pain and betrayal. It had saved her from her family, but it separated her from the one person she'd considered family and loved more than anyone.
Of course, she loved her best friends dearly, but had she really forgotten about her little brother on the way?
She was supposed to be the reasonable one.
When Sirius had acted rash after he was sorted in Slytherin, she should've insisted on talking some sense into him. She should've urged him to talk to Regulus more.
Deep down, she came to realize that it would do her no good to keep crying over spilt milk. Yes, she'd done mistakes, numerous ones. Despite that, she needed to get over it so that she could even fix it.
Hermione needed her whole family back together, before she could lose someone else again. She needed to wash away any impurities his brain had been filled with. He deserved to know how his father had truly died — at the hands of the man he'd started to respect.
She shook her head in determination. There was no way she was going to let Tom Riddle force her brother to become a Death Eater. He'd already messed with her family once, she would be damned if she were to let that happen again.
A hand flew to her mass of curls, running through knots as she tried to figure out how to, well — how to even go on from there. Her eyes moved towards the calendar sitting on the desk, reading the date. Time had passed too quickly, and now she needed to go back to the place where it had all begun.
The Headmaster should start preparing for her. She had a lot to get done.
Alphard placed a comforting hand on her arm and she gave him a small smile. The man's eyes crinkled, despite the small crease between his brows. Her uncle refused to admit it, but she knew he would feel lonely once she left.
"Please, take care of yourself," she reminded him, making sure her voice was firm and with no chances of getting around the order.
He gave her a dramatic salute—resembling her brother so much—and sighed heavily. "Merlin, I think I should've begged you to just forget about Hogwarts."
Letting out a gasp, her hand flew to her mouth. "I could never drop out of Hogwarts! Especially during O.W.L.s years, which reminds me that I still need to prepare proper study notes . . ."
Well, I did drop out of my seventh year, Granger started, but let out a huff when Alphard interrupted her.
"Okay, let's just stop there," he started, his hand nudging her shoulder to start walking closer to the train. "Since you've so kindly refused my offer to stay with me, make sure you stay in trouble—wait, did I not say 'out of it'?"
She rolled her eyes, though her lips twitched. "You know very well what you said. I guess that advice was meant more for Sirius than me."
He let out a chuckle, his eyes shining in amusement. "Oh, no. I know all about the trouble you've also been getting in, young lady. You just don't get caught."
Before she could respond, he threw a haste look over her shoulders and when he looked back at her, his face had ridden itself of any mischief.
"Hermione, I know last year has been hard for you. I don't know how much my company has helped you, but I want you to know that you're welcome to visit me anytime. I — You're a very bright girl, and I know you'll do many great things in your life."
Through her blurred eyes, she could see his own shining with unshed tears. She drew a breath and moved to wrap her arms around his middle, a muffled 'thank you' flying out of her mouth as she buried her face in the front of his robes.
She moved away from him and allowed a grin to slip on her lips, forcing herself to brighten up the mood. "And you need to find someone to live with. You're becoming an old man—someone needs to be there, to make sure you don't poison yourself while cooking."
When he pouted like a petulant child, she let out a small laugh. Normally, she would've been annoyed by his theatrics, but at the moment, she knew he was doing it to make her smile.
"Now, I should go. When you see Sirius, tell him I've missed him and he's much more fun."
"Uh, huh. I'll make sure to lie to him then," she hummed, her smile slipping off as soon as he apparated away. There were families surrounding her everywhere, yet she felt emptiness cave at her chest.
Like a cursed dagger.
Her eyes desperately flickered around, wishing to catch a glimpse of her brother and best friends. They immediately halted when she recognized Amos. His back was slightly turned towards her and he was talking to someone—
No. What if that woman did something to him, as well? She hadn't realized she was walking, not until she quickened her pace, hurrying to rid the distance across the platform. She caught a glimpse of Regulus, standing by Walburga's side and looking at Amos warily.
Just as she was a few feet away, she heard her boyfriend's voice addressing the older witch. "I am sorry for your loss, Lady Black."
Hermione latched her hand onto his arm, forcibly moving him so that he could be by her side. She narrowed her eyes at Walburga, the grip on her wand tight—resisting every urge to curse her into oblivion.
"There's no need to tell her that, Amos. Don't you think that her face seems to be glowing?" she asked, never tearing her eyes away from the woman.
"Hermione!" he hissed by her side, but she ignored him. She couldn't just stand there and let him pity the woman who probably stood watching, as Voldemort killed her father. She gazed over to Regulus, whose eyes were fixed to the ground.
"Regulus," she greeted, her voice much softer and silently pleading for him to look at her. When he did, there was a familiar expression on his face. He reminded her terribly of their father, who rarely succeeded in broadcasting his emotions for the world to see.
She couldn't decipher what he was thinking, not even when he greeted her in a terse voice, "Blood traitor."
She flinched, quickly composing herself before her attention could wander off to her arm. She realized that people would be seeing it—how could she possibly think of hiding it forever?
And just why should she hide it?
"Oh, yes. That was very creative — really. Did Bellatrix teach you that?"
Just as she stared at him, waiting patiently for a reaction, someone grabbed her hand from behind and flung their arms around her. When sandy hair flew into her vision, she relaxed into the hug.
He let go of her, looking over three people who were eyeing him distastefully. Before Hermione could turn around, he gripped her hand tightly and dragged her away from the trio. After they stopped at a relatively reasonable distance, he patted the top of her head, moving up and down her frizzy hair.
"Pack," he whispered, a small frown turned at his lips.
"Moony felt that you were in danger," he nodded, his eyes roaming over her face in concern. She had evident bags under her eyes, her face pale and sickly. "James told me about what happened."
"Ah," she nodded in understanding. Her eyes held a distant darkness in them, mixed with what he assumed was grief. From what he knew, Orion Black had turned out to be a good man.
"You're going to tell me how you're feeling," he told her quietly, aware of the emotional range of the rest of their best friends. "If you think you can get away with keeping it hidden, you're wrong."
"Okay," she muttered at last, her voice tired but grateful.
While he would often refrain from ordering the boys, he was much more confident with her. In a way, they were each other's best, best friends. Of course, they would never let James and Sirius hear that. They'd complain about being left out.
His eyes moved back to Amos, who was now standing with his group of friends. He remembered smelling fear and distaste from him, which completely caught him off guard. He'd expected jealousy perhaps, but definitely not fear. Unless—
"Prongs, you're going the wrong way! She's right in front of us," a loud voice called from behind and they both turned to look at the two boys hurrying to catch up to them.
While she expected James to be hesitant, he wasted no time in joining her brother as they engulfed her into a big hug.
She'd been getting more hugs today, than she'd ever had in her childhood.
Soon, Remus joined as well and she breathed in deeply, allowing herself a small smile. After all the blood and tears shed, she needed the scent that reminded her of safety and happiness, despite the ache in her chest that made it hard to breathe.
"Uhm, guys?" a voice called out and the boys dispersed around her, looking at the best friend that had just arrived.
"Hey, Peter," she said, shuffling on her feet and giving him a tentative smile. She'd finally convinced herself to be grateful for the lanky boy in front of her. He was part of their pack and shared the same loyalty she felt for the rest of the group.
Hermione had come to realize that she needed to treat the people around her better; make them feel more welcomed in her life.
It was something she'd failed to do with her father.
And though Granger stayed quiet at her new assessment in life, a deep sense of dread settled upon her. Hermione was really starting to loathe feeling anything at all.
The feast at dinner was a strange occurrence. Amos didn't meet her eyes once, nor did Regulus — though, the latter wasn't acting much different from the usual.
A Hufflepuff who did stick around dinner was Goldstein. Or at least she did, until Lily slammed her glass of pumpkin juice down the table. The 'thunk' that followed the action caught the attention of many Gryffindors, who looked intrigued at her expression.
The redhead was glaring daggers at the fourth year, not bothering to be subtle at all. Hermione watched as the Prefect sat forward, snapping her fingers at James, who had an arm slung around his fake girlfriend.
Hermione caught a gleam of excitement in his eyes, but he shoved it down before anyone else could see it. He tilted his head slowly, a silent question etched on his face.
"You are aware that you're not allowed to have such displays of affection here, aren't you?" she snapped, narrowing her eyes at the couple.
Before James could utter anything, the blonde girl jumped at their defense — though, it seemed more like an attack. "Well, it isn't our fault that we're the only truly, loving couple at Hogwarts."
The little fourth year had a smug smile on her face, growing slightly each time Lily's face turned redder. Hermione found her rebuttal quite weak and ironic. Their relationship was anything but true.
"Perhaps, the rest of students are much smarter and know how to prioritize their studies," Lily stated calmly, her hand taking a hold of her fork. "Now, please go back to your House table before I have to call Professor Mcgonagall."
While the girl hurried back to her friends, Hermione held back a snort as she eyed her former roommate. She wasn't exactly hiding her jealousy.
She supposed she should be happy—knowing that James was one step closer to being with the love of his life.
Hermione shoved down what she assumed was slight nausea at the idea of him bringing Lily in their dorm, instead looking at the empty seat of the Headmaster.
She sighed heavily, her eyes dropping back to her half eaten plate and wondering whether it would be worth it to wait until everyone went back to sleep. Looking up, she watched as everyone ate contently and decided that no, she needed to go to him right away.
Her hand moved to sling her bag over her shoulder and rose from her seat, looking at her friends, who were now staring back at her curiously.
"I need to talk to Professor Dumbledore," she explained, and while the rest of the boys went back to eating, Sirius was looking at her intently.
She shook her head, knowing well that he was thinking of joining her. She didn't want to include him any longer in those meetings, especially knowing that he would object to what she currently had planned.
He stared at her and finally nodded slowly, before going back to eat. Her feet moved on their own, now much more used to the journey she'd started to take since a few months ago.
She hesitated briefly as she faced the sapient Stairwell Gargoyle, muttering a couple of sweets before she could think of the obvious password.
"Lemon drops," she said and the large statue moved, also used to seeing her at strange times of the day.
She walked up the circular, stone staircase, her eyes immediately finding Professor Dumbledore sitting at his large desk, a quill in his hands. Despite his stance, she could tell he'd been waiting for her, if the lack of surprise in his voice was any sign.
"Hermione," he greeted calmly, motioning a hand for her to sit on one of the chairs. She followed the suggestion, sitting down primly.
"Professor, I hope I am not interrupting anything," she started, pausing only to watch him shake his head. Thoughts piled up in her head and while she'd been intent on talking to him, she wasn't sure on how to start.
She tried to dislodge the lump in her throat, her chest feeling painfully tight. "My father was killed," she managed in a hoarse voice.
His blue eyes bore into hers and he slowly set down the quill in his hands. "Was it not an illness, Miss Black?"
His question was whisked away by the memories that haunted her sleep, and she ignored him.
"Did you know I had the chance to meet a charming man over the holidays? His name was . . . ah, yes. Tom Riddle," she said, snapping her fingers in faux delight.
"And just what a coincidence — Orion Black dying on the same day, just as he helped me get away from a crazy witch who'd finished torturing me," she said, showing him briefly the sight of her scar before she brought the sleeve back down.
It was silent. not a word uttered between them as they sat there, staring. His eyes dimmed of their usual twinkle and she looked away, a twinge of guilt surging through her chest for sounding so rude in front of him. But at that moment, as harsh as she was, she just kept silent. She didn't want to take back the truth.
"I am truly saddened to hear that," he told her. Her fingers remained secured on top of her lap, her breathing still uneven. "Had I known he would be there, I would have made sure you had stayed at Hogwarts."
And what about her brothers?
"I know that," she still stated firmly. "Those things — they've already happened and there's no going back."
His white, bushy brows rose in surprise and a small smile grew on his lips. "It truly does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live."
She bit back a retort stating that it was everything but dream. "Yes . . . I believe I came here to talk to you about something else."
"And what is that, Miss Black?" he asked, oddly silent before his azure eyes sharpened.
"My supposed training, Sir. Just how do you think I'm supposed to defeat Tom Riddle?"
"Hermione, you're too young—"
She put forward a hand and laughed a little, bitter and broken. "Professor, was I not too young when you suggested for me to be given Fawkes's tears?" her voice remained firm, despite the despair looking to escape at the reminder that she was chosen for this fate.
They'd dug her into this hole, where each passing second of her being alive reminded her of her failure.
An audible heavy sigh escaped his mouth and he replied, "I will see to find an Auror, who will keep your secret and train you regardless of your young age."
"Wonderful," she said, clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking. It was starting to become a habit, but she didn't care to stop.
"Tom Riddle," the name washed over her like acid on her tongue. "He was your student, was he not? I need to know everything there is about him."
"I suppose there is no way I could ask you to wait until next year, is there?"
She shook her head, realizing a shaky breath. Her rib cage was urging her to lay down, but even the pain couldn't stop from her remaining in her seat, staring back at him defiantly.
"We will start from tonight."