Neville sliced off the snake's head.
Harry caught the Elder wand.
Hermione felt only coldness beside her where Ron had been. They had run down the stairs chased by Nagini, turned to face her with their backs to rubble... She nodded to herself as the memories flashed. Neville bloodied with the Sword of Gryffindor. The last horcrux destroyed.
She had turned, scrambling up the debris to see Harry in the distance as the red/green glow flared to nothingness and he disarmed Voldemort. Slow motion, the wand sailing into his hand and then... the earth shook. The corpses in the courtyard tumbled, her friend and the Dark Lord bowled off their feet by the pressure wave before a thunderous shaking noise so loud she didn't even hear it before her eardrums burst and the...
The what? Hermione blinked, staring up at a pale sky washed almost colourless. Something had happened. She sat up slowly, expecting to feel pain but not. Blinking again she brushed hair off her face and stared at her hands. They were clean.
That was unexpected.
Hermione inspected herself. Same clothes, rumpled and torn but not dirty. Same self, it seemed, but not tired or hungry or frightened. She didn't feel anything.
With a sense of resignation, Hermione looked around. She was in Hogwarts still. The steps, the debris, the ruined stonework. She was alone. It was quiet.
Well. The Muggle-born would have sighed if she had been breathing, which she belatedly noticed she was not. Well, then, now what? The stillness seemed sort of soft. Like the moment between breaths. If she had thought about what came after death at all, she had vaguely expected it to be brighter in that 'walking into the light' cliché.
All in all, Hermione mused as she tramped through the rubble of her school, this afterlife was rather underwhelming. Where were the ghosts? The other people? She knew she wasn't the only one who had... passed on. She went to the Great Hall expecting to meet regrettably dozens of fellow casualties. She'd quite like a hug from Tonks right now.
The Great Hall was empty. The tables and the ranked benches were bare. There were pennants, which made her frown. The colours were faded and the emblems morphed oddly through stylised shapes. Always the right ones; eagle for blue, lion for red but not the same symbol. She wasn't wearing her uniform otherwise she would have checked her badge to see if it was doing the same thing.
"It would be." The voice came from behind her. Of course it did because this wasn't creepy enough. Hermione froze. She didn't have a wand. Ron had been holding hers, she thought. Her recollection of the battle was still disjointed flashes, the memories ill-formed from stress and adrenaline. Was cortisol the hormone that inhibited memory? She thought it could be. Cortisone was an anti-inflammatory.
"You are drifting. Focus." The voice spoke again. Hermione turned around. No one was there.
Then a bust in one of the alcoves nodded at her. She glared. Right, Hermione thought marshalling herself. Right. Right now, she was going to get some answers.
"Am I dead?" She demanded, wanting to know exactly her state of being or unbeing so she could get some direction back in her (un)life.
"Yes and no." The stone head said placidly.
"I am not in the mood for any metaphysical nonsense." Hermione replied, marching over to the abbreviated statue to poke it on the nose. It felt solid but the sensation from her finger was muted. Not numb exactly. More sluggish, perhaps. "Is this a time dilation effect?"
"Not entirely." The head shrugged its truncated shoulders.
"Magic school or not, I'll bet Filch has a sledgehammer somewhere." She informed the unhelpful noggin. "Or you and I could go find an intact tower I can drop you off. It's been a long year and I am sure I could find some irrational wrath to share."
"But you do not feel angry, do you?" The voice was still pleasant though now with a hint of smug. Hermione frowned, anticipating feeling a spike of irritation at its response. She didn't. Didn't feel anything much beyond the exhaled aftermath of exertion. Like a popped balloon.
"Not entirely." Hermione retorted. She might not have any lively emotions but she certainly had a wellspring of snark. "Look, I don't want to play twenty questions. I would like to have an explanation of what is going on, how I can get back to where I should be, and generally life, the universe and everything."
"There was an event." The bust announced and primmed its lips at her glare. "We are sorry we cannot be more descriptive. We are the voice of Hogwarts not an oracle." Hermione crossed her arms but forbore to comment. "The event disrupted the corporeality of the environs. The fabric of reality has been partially unwoven."
"How do we fix it?" She asked, shoving aside a juvenile urge to stamp her feet and scream. She could have a tantrum after she escaped this weird limbo.
"We send you back to find out what happened and have you stop it. This thread of existence has unravelled. You can leave before you entered but not after. There is no coherent future from here." Seeing this news was moderately well received, the stone head ventured into less amenable territory. "But you cannot be put back as yourself."
"Why not?" Hermione inquired, imagining a tapestry. If someone had put a hole in the cloth and she was near one of the frayed edges, she could picture what 'Jocunda Sykes' or at least the statue depicting her was saying. Without any thread ahead of her, she couldn't follow it forward. She would have to backtrack and go sideways to divert around the gap.
"Because there is not space for two of you. There is already a 'you' in the 'you-shaped' place in reality. There are other gaps we could put you in but you, the Hermione you, would not fit properly." Jocunda explained with an air of talking to the hard-of-thinking. "There are always lacunae in reality so we can find one that might suit but making one damages the whole cloth."
"Anything that breaks the pattern hastens Ragnarok." She quoted a runic edda. Hermione had never put much stock in predestination. The idea of just giving up and letting Fate sweep over her did not appeal. Going quietly was not for her. "So I leave here and pop up in the nearest suitable naturally occurring hole?" That didn't sound too bad. "What makes the gaps?"
"It depends." The bust weathered a gimlet stare from the young witch. "We are not doing this deliberately to vex you. All sorts of things can ease apart the threads. Reality breathes and in that motion, the parts comprising existence shift." The stare continued along with the prevarication. "The sort of space we need for you comes from someone else's death, does that sate you? Every time the Killing Curse ends someone, the thread of their future disappears."
"Dead man's boots, literally." Hermione grimaced. "Couldn't I just go back as a ghost? If I didn't have a physical body, would I be able to fit better between the threads? If I were incorporeal, I could more easily pass through wards and barriers."
"You would look like yourself. Ghosts are wholly made of soul-stuff. Eternal and immutable. There is no way to disguise you. Neither could you lie, except by silence." Jocunda shook her head firmly enough to rock a little on her plinth. "We would not be killing someone so you could take their place. He or she is already dead. The Unforgivable Curses are not so-called because of their general unpleasantness. They linger on the weave. Once cast, their effects remain. Even if you used temporal magic to alter the threads, someone would still die at that moment."
"I didn't know that." She had tried to research the Unforgivables to find a way to resist them or mend their damage. Being a student limited her access. She couldn't complain about a secondary school not having books on death magic readily available but the theory behind the curses was as fascinating as the curses themselves. Hermione wanted to know everything about how magic worked. "Does a Time-Turner have the same effect? Does it make marks on the tapestry the same way?"
"No, though the supposition it would is not unreasonable. Temporal magic manipulates the threads but does not itself damage them. You can loop a thread, direct it elsewhere, unweave it so it hangs loose and seems cut, all manner of change. However, you are simply shifting the fabric not damaging it." The bust paused, seeing a question bloom in the witch's eyes.
"Is that why I am the only one here? Because of the Time-Turner?" Hermione bit her lip. "I took Harry back with me when we saved Buckbeak and Sirius. He should be here too."
"He was a passenger." Jocunda went silent for a long moment and when it spoke again, the voice was slightly different. "Child, there is a reason you were given the temporal device. It was not simply to allow you to study yourself to exhaustion. You were being tested."
"Did I pass?" She asked, biting her tongue before she inquired about the marking key and assessment parameters.
"You did, yes. Had matters been otherwise, you would have been approached after your OWLs to undertake special training. The Unspeakables had noticed your resonance and wished to recruit you." The carved mouth sagged into a frown. "With Tom Riddle again embodied, bringing such attention to you would have been fatal. It is fortunate you were not an apprentice when you visited the Department of Mysteries. The Marked would have noticed."
"And objected to a Mudblood being given the opportunity, I expect." Hermione grimaced. If she ever got the chance to go into academia, she would write an idiot's guide to human genetics and make it compulsory reading for pure-bloods. Failing that, she'd refer them to the Spanish Habsburgs.
"Without a doubt. However any bar the hopelessly addled would also have seen you able to traverse the defences. The barriers simply would not have existed for you, including the prohibitions guarding the prophecies." The bust said with emphasis. "You would have been able to pick up the orb Tom Riddle wanted so badly. You would have been an invaluable resource."
Hermione had never envied Harry's status as the Chosen One. She had pitied him that so much of his life was bent around Trelawney's rambling and a madman's obsession. But now thinking about how close they had come to being captured and how very very pleased Voldemort would have been to have a way to pillage the Department of Mysteries at will, she felt true sympathy for her best friend. Being special could be a curse.
"Right, becoming a ghost is out and time magic won't save someone from being killed, but why do I have to go back into some else's life?" Hermione wasn't objecting per se she simply wanted to understand the extent of the crisis.
"Any temporal loop requires an intact thread. Here, in this place, we do not have one. The moment you leave, your thread would resume but without a place in the weave, you would be adrift in the ether." The marble Jocunda had a distinctly pedantic tone now. "Hogwarts can sustain your transition from this non-place. However, until you are embedded within reality, the further you are physically from the school the more likely you are to come loose."
"How long would it take me to become embedded?" She considered what she might have to do to discover the cause of the 'event'. If she could camp out in the Room of Requirement with the other students, there would be no need for her to enrol. She could sneak around the school more or less anonymously.
"That depends on how tightly you enmesh yourself with other threads. There are those who go their entire existences lightly woven and others who twine with many." The bust didn't shrug this time, reinforcing the impression that regardless of the royal 'we' there was more than one voice. "There will be the difficulty of making a body for you. The flesh itself is easily copied but your magic will be unfamiliar with your new shell. You will need time to acclimate."
"If I ask how long that will take, will I get another 'how long is a piece of string' reply?" Hermione asked with some asperity. The stone head nodded gravely. "Wonderful." She wanted to hit the ground running. Unfortunately it seemed she would need the magical equivalent of physical therapy. "Dumbledore and Cedric were both killed by the Avada. Could we use the space left by them?"
"The Headmaster's lacuna will not give you enough opportunity to regain your strength. We have only this one chance." The voice faded as it communed. "The young Badger is suitable. Have you confidence you can masquerade as him?"
Hermione blinked, startling herself with the realisation she hadn't been doing that either. She pinched herself for the sake of being able to say she had. Nothing dramatic happened. The bust of Jocunda Sykes continued to regard her patiently.
"I'm sorry. I seem to have made an assumption. Do you mean when I step into someone's thread-space that I become them? Not just me in some random disguise?" She asked carefully.
"That is the case, yes." The head confirmed. "There are complex resonances necessary to maintain the substitution. You will be their doppelganger."
"There's no way I can fake being Cedric. I barely knew him and he was very popular. Plus everyone saw him dead." Hermione sat down to give the problem some serious thought. She didn't know any people who had died from the Killing Curse who she could also impersonate. That idea was simply a dead end. The older the person was she was replacing, the more likely someone would notice her make a mistake. So perhaps, if she replaced a child? The Death Eaters had not held themselves back from murdering kids. "Is there someone who would have gone to school in my year or there abouts?"
"Alas, yes." The voice was sorrowful. "Several."
The silence lengthened as the head presumably consulted again, probably checking the Book of Admittance. Hermione would have liked to have seen the book herself but the tower in which it was kept was exceedingly locked. Professor McGonagall had told her no one had touched the Book or its paired Quill since the Founders. Given the age of the artefact, it could well be semi-sentient. Perhaps it was one of the voices.
"We call them the Lost Ones or the fosterlings of slipshod angels. Their loss diminishes us and angers us. They should not have been taken." The sculpted teeth ground as the animus within the bust manifested intensely. "If you wish a life with little oversight, there is one. An orphan raising in hiding, fatherless since the war, motherless since their Secret Keeper died and they were discovered. Cathal Machtilde Rosier."
"A Death Eater's child?" Hermione had done some research into her enemies, particularly those who had supported Voldemort from the beginning. A Rosier had gone to school with Tom Riddle, and his son had died resisting arrest. Had in fact taken a chunk off Alastor Moody.
"The legitimate daughter of Evan Hugh Rosier, of Slytherin House, and Derica Melusine Max, a Durmstrang alumna." The bust could not comment on the political affiliation of the witch but given the child had been born at Rosier Hall, the marriage had almost certainly been acknowledged. "She was raised on the Isle of Man, and died there age ten. She would have been in your year."
"How did she die?" The question was quiet and intent.
"We cannot say. We know only where she was when the Killing Curse ended her. We are aware of the Fidelius by supposition because her location was not revealed to the Book of Admittance until three weeks before her death." Edging forward on its plinth, the bust looked down at Hermione pensive on the floor. "There are others."
"Is Cathal the one where I would have the least scope of getting caught out? I can lie but I'm not good at making things up on the fly." Hermione didn't like the prospect of wearing someone else's life like a flayed skin. Neither did she like sitting here for an arbitrary eternity.
"Her next-of-kin is listed as 'nearest blood relative', which indicates her immediate family are either dead, incapacitated, or incarcerated. After her death we received no queries about her from concerned individuals." Here the voice paused to assess a declarative statement. "We believe she is the most suitable lacuna near the time you suggested. That is not to say she is the best positioned candidate to succeed in discovering the cause of the event."
"Given we have no clue what the event is far less how to stop it, I doubt we could say who is 'best positioned'." She weighed the pros and cons, ending with a great big bunch of inconclusive guesswork. "Hypothetically speaking, say I go back as Rosier, I find out what happened, I put the kibosh on it and then what?"
"We do not know." The candid answer came promptly, which did not do much for Hermione's peace of mind.
"That's what I thought you'd say. So blindly into the unknown I go." She stared at the desaturated masonry, at the dust motes hanging suspended as though she was looking at a photograph taken with a dirty camera. At her own hands, clean despite all she had done to bring herself to this point. "What do I need to do?"
"Consent is all that is required. We cannot tell you how we do what we will do to return you to the world." There was admantine in the voice now. However chatty the school might be on esoterica, there were secrets that would be kept. "You will find yourself as Miss C. Rosier, Hidden Cellar, Rose Cottage, The Cronk, Ballaugh, Isle of Man."
"How much time will there be between her death and my return? Specifically, will I be stuck in a cellar with someone willing to use the Killing Curse on a ten year old?" Hermione got to her feet, dusting herself in a gesture that was more about mental preparation than cleanliness.
"Very little and yes." The bust replied. "Once you are back in the world, we can send a house elf to help you. But you must go first for our servitor to find you as Cathal Rosier has no link to the school." The stone eyes studied Hermione unblinking. "Her deathday is the nineteenth day of July. Her birthday is the third day of August. You now know as much of her as we do."
"So the general plan is I rematerialise and don't get killed again then your elf arrives." She had done more with less. "I have a link to the school. Can the elf bring me to Hogwarts early? You said I needed to stay close to avoid drifting away."
"It would be better if you were close to us, though not essential." A moment of consultation later, the head nodded. "Yes, you will come to the school. We can conceal you here then convey you to Platform Nine and Three Quarters to feign a more appropriate arrival."
"Let's do this before I think of all the ways it could go wrong." Hermione raised her chin and consciously took a deep breath. "I'd like a way to communicate with you. I'll need all the help I can get."
"Such a way will be provided." The voice reassured. "Close your eyes, Miss Granger."
Hermione did as she was told and tried not to flinch as the darkness consumed her.