September 19, 1999 AD

Number 12 Grimmauld Place filled with a sudden scream.

The strangled noises came from a young witch, who woke up suddenly to a burning assault of pain. She rolled over onto herself, clutching her arm across her chest desperately. The pain offered no concession. Another wave hit her and she cried out once more.

"Hermione!" someone shouted from the other side of her door. Somewhere through her hazy consciousness, she recognized Harry and Ron's voice, but she could hardly answer them. The pain was choking her. She screamed again.

Her two best friends burst through the door. The light blinded her, and she raised her arms to block the burn. As she moved her arms, her left wrist seared one final, glorious time.

Then it stopped.

She collapsed back onto bed as her friends rushed to her side, both speaking at once.

"Are you alright?" Harry demanded, looking her over for any sign of physical distress.

"We heard screaming," Ron stammered. His face was white, his eyes wide and frantic.

Hermione took several ragged breaths, trying to alleviate the leftover ache from the sudden attack. "I….I don't know," she whispered, clutching her arm to her chest. "I don't know what happened. I was sleeping and then I felt like I was being crucio-ed."

Harry ran his hand through his hair. "Are you still in pain?"

"It's passing," she breathed, trying to stop tears from leaking out the corners of her eyes. "Oh Merlin, I'm scared."

Ron moved from his kneeling position to sit on the bed with her. He reached over and wrapped her up in his arms. Closing her eyes, she tried to slow her heartbeat with deep breaths.

Harry's eyebrows were scrunched up as he eyed how she was cradling her arm. "Is that where it hurt?" he gestured.

She nodded mutely. Harry lifted his hand and gently pulled her arm away from the protective hold. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on dispelling the remaining pain.

"Uhh, Hermione?"

"What?" she snapped.

"Have you always had a birthmark?"

Hermione's eyes popped open. After a moment of focusing, she directed her gaze down to where Harry was looking.

On the inside of her wrist, a mark had appeared. It looked like it had burned directly into her skin; a small tree.

Harry grazed it with his thumb and Hermione stifled a moan.

His eyes shot up in worry. "Did I hurt you?"

She shook her head, trying desperately to calm the blush that had erupted on her face. "No," she stammered. "It…it tingled."

Harry gave her a look but didn't push the matter further. He once again looked over the mark. "Have you ever seen something like this before?"

"No," she said. A wave of relief washed over her as the final traces of pain disappeared from her wrist. "The pain is gone."

Harry sighed, the worry lines disappearing from his face. "Well, it's an obvious question mark. Do you think you can go back to sleep and we can talk about this in the morning when the rest of the Order's up? It's three am."

"I can probably sleep." She turned to Ron. "Could you stay?"

He nodded immediately and readjusted his body position so that she was comfortably curled into him. Harry smiled at them both and quietly exited the room.

Once the door was closed and the darkness had returned, Ron brushed a few pieces of her hair behind her shoulder.

"Are you sure you're alright?" he asked, the worry still permeating his voice.

She gave a quick, stiff nod. "The pain's all gone now."

"Thank Merlin," he responded. He placed a small kiss on the crown of her head. She sighed, and settled in to sleep.

"Oh, Hermione?" Ron whispered once more.


She could almost hear his smile.

"Happy birthday."

"It seems familiar," Lupin frowned, examining the mark on Hermione's wrist carefully. It was the next morning and the rest of the Order staying at Headquarters had been filled in on the night's events.

They were sitting in the kitchen of Number 12 Grimmauld Place. Though the five years since Voldemort's return had been full of change and displacement, this home still remained headquarters.

The war had been full-fledged for nearly three years now. Ever since Snape murdered Dumbledore that night on the Astronomy Tower, the Wizarding World had been thrust into an inevitable state of chaos.

Over the course of the past three years, the war had increased from some disappearances and murders into a society torn down the middle. The dark and the light were playing a never-ending game of tug-of-rope. Any time it seemed like a battle or a mission had advanced them forward, they lost another one.

Hermione, Harry and Ron had been fully fledged members of the Order since Dumbledore's murder. They had not returned to Hogwarts after the Battle of the Astronomy Tower. Instead, they had devoted themselves to missions and battles, and of course, the task that their old Headmaster had left for them.

They had made some but not much progress on that front. After a mission to the infiltrated Ministry a year and a half prior, they had discovered the locket in the dead hands of Dolores Umbridge. A few months later, they had done a mission to Hogwarts where they had gained possession of several basilisk fangs.

The locket was gone. The diary was gone. The ring was gone.

Whatever remained of Ravenclaw, the cup, and the snake remained.

It was so hard. Everything was so hard now. Three years in, it seemed as if they were making no headway against the Death Eaters. In the most recent attempt to liberate a slave hold of Muggleborns, they had been completely decimated. Their side had faced losses they had not thought imaginable. For her in particular, losing Dean and Oliver Wood had been incomprehensible.

She had seen Oliver die herself, and she still couldn't believe he was gone. His smile, his charm, his incessant teasing as she continued to read while recovering from the Battle of Yaxley Manor, all gone in one flash of terrible green light.

She felt tears spring to her eyes at the memory, but shook it off. She blinked them back with effort, forcing herself to stay in the present, where Lupin was examining the strange mark on her arm.

"It looks like a willow tree," he observed, making sure not to touch the still inflamed symbol. He looked up to meet her eyes. "Does it hold any significance to you?"

She started to shake her head, but stopped. "My mother," she muttered. "She planted a willow tree in our backyard."

"Your mother?" Lupin asked, surprised. "Before she died?"

Hermione flinched at the reminder. Harry saw her discomfort and jumped in.

"Do you think there could be a connection there?" he asked, walking around the table to rub Hermione's shoulders. She raised her other hand to hold his.

Lupin sat back on the chair behind him. "I'm not sure," he murmured thoughtfully. "It's all very odd."

Someone chuckled on the other side of the table. Lupin raised his eyebrows and glanced over. "Yes, George?"

The twin shrugged, unabashed. "I mean, a mythical power burns a willow tree into Hermione's arm while she sleeps and the best you've got it 'this is odd'?"

Tonks, who was sitting next to George, smacked the twin round the head. "Do you have anything better?" she demanded. Her husband shot her a smile.

"Yeesh woman," George muttered, rubbing the spot she had hit. "I'm just saying."

Harry sighed. "Can we go back to the issue at hand?"

Lupin nodded. "I'll look into it, but for now, it doesn't seem to be an urgent concern. It's stopped hurting, correct?"

Hermione nodded.

Lupin, though tired, cracked a rare smile. "Not hurting is a good thing to be these days."

He stood up and looked at the small assembly in the room. "We might as well go get everyone up," he said. "I received word of an attempted raid in the next few days. We should begin to prepare for that."

Tonks nodded, standing up. Her pink hair metamorphosed into a short, black, pixie cut. She only wore that hair in preparation for a battle.

She turned to the others. "George, could you go get everyone up?" The twin bounded up in enthusiasm before Tonks cut him off. "No flames this time, alright?"

He dragged his feet a little as he left the room.

As Tonks and Lupin fell into conversation, Harry pulled a chair up to where Hermione was sitting.

"You alright?" he whispered, his green eyes worried.

She knew he wasn't asking about her mysterious new birthmark.

"It's been two years," she responded, voice shaking slightly. Harry shrugged in response.

"My parents died nineteen years ago and it still hurts."

Hermione bit down on her lip. It felt like no time at all had passed since her parents had been found burnt to death in their home. The muggle authorities had attributed it to a house fire. Nothing out of the ordinary. But she knew better. It had been a message.

Message received.

Harry took her hands in his and massaged them gently. "You don't need to be strong for me, Hermione."

Against her will, a few tears escaped the corners of her eyes. "They were innocent," she murmured, forcing her gaze downwards.

Harry reached forward and pulled Hermione towards him. More tears ran down her cheek, staining Harry's shirt and he ran his hand through her hair.

"There are many innocents in this war," he muttered. "There are families torn apart when the parents had been neutral. All those muggles and muggleborns they killed had nothing against their name but their parentage."

"But that's why we keep fighting, isn't it?" he murmured into her hair.

She nodded.

Harry gave her a small squeeze. "Now, everyone is going to be down here for the meeting in a few minutes. Do you want to stay?"

"Yes," she replied with hesitation. "I'm not the only one who has lost people they love."

Harry gave her a sad look. For a moment, he let down his guard and she was able to see the man ravaged by the horrors of war. A second later, he forced his face into a smile.

"Keep fighting, 'Mione," he said. "You've got to fight for them. And apparently for the willow tree faction of the universe."

She couldn't hold in the laugh that burst forward. Before she could respond, the remaining members of the Order who were staying at Headquarters stumbled into the room.

Ginny immediately made headway for the two of them and kissed her boyfriend good morning. Ron came around her other side and sat down, shooting her one concerned look before turning to the head of the table. The other Weasley siblings, (besides Percy, who had died in a battle the previous year) sat around one either side, while Molly and Arthur sat next to them. Seamus, Neville and Luna also took spots. Everyone else was either out on a mission or staying at one of the many safe houses they had set up.

Hermione let her eyes wander across their faces for a moment. Everyone seemed to be feeling the weight of the war. Her gaze was especially drawn to Seamus. He was trying so hard to stay blank, but the pain of Dean's death was rooted in every expression he made and every word he uttered. The two of them had been best friends for nearly a decade when Dean jumped in front of Seamus at the battle, effectively saving his friend's life by sacrificing his own.

Hermione and Seamus had grown exceptionally close over the past three years, and she saw the guilt that permeated his features. The day after the battle, she had been trying to coax him into eating something. "It wasn't your fault," she had whispered in the darkness of his room.

"Wasn't it?" had been his only response.

She hadn't been able to say anything more before he had pulled her into his bed.

There wasn't anything between them. Nothing emotional, anyway. But the lure of physical intimacy in a world of death and destruction was too strong to resist.

They had been together, in the physical sense of the word, for just over a year and half. No one but Ginny and Dean had known. It wasn't something to be advertised. The need for the comfort of the skin was something that everyone had, but no one ever said anything about. Hermione didn't want to deal with the over-protectiveness of Harry and Ron. She never said anything about Ron's behaviour the nights that Lavender stayed at Headquarters.

Seamus offered her an escape. It was he who she had gone to after the botched attempt to rescue Ollivander from the cellars of Malfoy Manor. She was the one who had nursed him back to health after being hit by a Sectumsempra curse at the Battle of Diagon Alley seven months prior.

They needed what the other could give. It was nothing more than that.

She let her eyes drift away from Seamus to Lupin, who was standing at the head of the table in preparation to debrief them.

"The Death Eaters have set their eyes on the old Zabini estate," he announced, looking over at his audience for a moment. "After the death of Marcella Zabini last month, the entire fortune was left to her only son."

"Blaise," Harry said, frowning. "He was in our year at Hogwarts."

Was he? Hermione tried to remember. All that came to mind was an attractive Slytherin with an Italian accent.

Lupin nodded. "That's the one. Now, rumour has it that Lady Zabini killed her seven husbands."

Ginny chuckled. "Classic."

Their old DADA professor rolled his eyes at the interruption. "After every death, there was a legal investigation at the Zabini household. And every time, like clockwork, there were numerous dark objects discovered. However, the ministry had no authority to confiscate them. So they remain within the estate."

Neville nodded slowly. "So now that Marcella is dead…."

"The only thing between the Death Eaters and this jackpot is a nineteen year old boy," Lupin concluded. "Easy pickings."

"What does this have to do with the Order?" Fred asked. "I mean, I'm all for protecting the fortune of a psychotic serial wife, but do we not have more important things to attend to?"

"Blaise Zabini is not likely to make it through this altercation alive," Lupin declared.

"So?" Fred shrugged. "He's just a Slytherin."

"That kind of attitude has no place at this table," Hermione piped up. All eyes turned to her, surprise evident on several faces.

She was usually fairly quiet during these meetings.

"Pardon?" Lupin asked. Everyone was looking at her with confusion.

She felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny, but continued talking. "Condemning someone to death based on where a hat placed them at age eleven is nothing short of vile," she said quietly, looking at the mark on her arm. "Besides, the Zabinis are neutral. And if saving a human life isn't a good enough reason for you, Fred, then think about the consequences of the Death Eaters gaining control of those dark objects."

There was a bout of silence that followed her proclamation. Fred had turned beet red, and was staring down at his lap in shame. Harry was giving her one of his rare, genuine smiles. Seamus had finally looked up from the kitchen table.

Lupin was beaming. "I could not have said it better myself, Hermione." He turned back to the general assembly. "We protect human life, regardless of schoolyard rivalry. And to bout, we cannot allow the Dark Lord to gain possession of such a large quantity of dark objects and magic."

"So what are the logistics?" Bill piped in. For someone with a tooth earring and a ponytail, he always seemed to be the most concerned with strategy.

"We need ten of you," Lupin said. "The Death Eaters are going to come in a party of about six. Enough, in their opinion, to dispose of the Zabini boy and come out unscathed. We want them outnumbered. I do not want to see a single casualty from this mission."

The reminder of their last mission hung over the room like a storm cloud. Seamus's eyes once again returned to the table.

"So," Lupin said, looking around and ignoring the mounting tension. "Any volunteers, or am I going through the list?"

"I'll go," Hermione said. All eyes snapped to her.

Lupin raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? After last night, wouldn't it be a good idea for you to rest…"

"What happened last night?" Molly asked, looking at Hermione with concern.

The Gryffindor rolled her eyes. "Just because I got claimed by the Greek God of Willow Trees does not mean I am unfit for duty."

"It's also your birthday," Ron reminded her. "Do you really want to spend your birthday prepping for what seems like an in and out mission?"

"Wars don't give you days off," she said. She turned back to Lupin. "I'm going."

He conceded.

In the end, it turned out to be Mad Eye, Padma, Sprout (who had already volunteered), Fred (out of guilt), Seamus, Bill, Neville, Arthur, Luna and Hermione. They spent the next few hours going over maps of the Zabini estate and possible routes the Death Eaters may take to get through the wards. After they had figured out strategy, it was mid-afternoon. They all breaked for a while before supper. Molly was making a feast for Hermione's birthday. Every member of the Order was supposed to be there.

Hermione walked out of the kitchen and up the first set of stairs, intent on sleeping for a few hours before the party. Before she even got off the first landing, a hand grabbed her and pulled her into one of the empty rooms.

Before she had a chance to shout, Seamus had spun her around and pushed her against the shut door.

"What happened last night?" he demanded frantically, his eyes nearly crazed.

She had never seen him like this before.

"I got an unexpected birthmark," she said quickly, twisting in his grasp to show him the mark on her wrist. He reached down and grabbed her arm to examine it more closely.

"That's it?" he asked again.

Hermione nodded slowly.

His shoulders sagged with relief. "Thank Merlin," he muttered. "I didn't know what to think after what Lupin said."

"It's nothing," she said, trying to downplay it. "Well, it's something but we just don't know what it is."

"I just…" Seamus stuttered off. He looked up and met her eyes. The vulnerability in his eyes shook her to her core.

"After Dean, you were worried about me," she finished for him. He gave a meek nod as a familiar flash of pain appeared on his face at any mention of his best friend.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."

"You'd better not," he nearly growled, pushing her against the door again. "How much time do we have before dinner?"

"Two hours," she replied, suddenly feeling very breathless.

"Perfect," he muttered. He leaned forward to kiss her, but before his lips could reach hers, she felt his words dance across her skin.

"Promise me you'll make it back from the mission."

"Seamus, it's an easy in and out…"

"Promise me!" he cried out suddenly, pushing her harder into the door.

She stuttered out her answer, twisting in discomfort. "I…I promise. I'll come back."

"Please come back," he said quietly, tears streaming down his face. Without warning, Seamus collapsed to the ground. Hermione followed him down.

She wrapped her arms around him and held him close.

"Please come back," her friend muttered over and over.

The sight of him like this shook her more than a willow tree ever could.

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