Dust hung like glitter in the air, sparkling in the light from nowhere. The stillness was soft and breathless.
She was breathless.
"You are not dead." The Voice came from nowhere also. Spoke from on high, she thought disjointedly.
"If I have to go around again, some people are going to die." Memory began slotting into place. She had been here before to this not here place. The space between breaths, she recalled thinking. Assuming those thoughts were her thoughts. Details remained foggy. "I think I'll start with Quirrell. Putting his head in a jar might prove educational."
"You are not dead." The Voice repeated.
"Yes, I've got that far." She snapped. "Am I stuck here?"
"No." There was less certainty about that answer than the first. She did not like uncertainty in the matter of her existence.
"You are not filling me with confidence." She drew in a breath, old habit, and marshalled herself. Piffling details such as which self she was could wait. "Did I stop the event?"
"You did." Now they were back on firm ground. "While there is significant spell residue within the environs of the school, a problem in of itself, we are whole. There is a future ahead." There was some sub-vocal consultation between the entities that comprised the Voice. "An acceptable one, as fewer of our children died. We are not as weakened as we were."
"Good." The sigh of relief was heartfelt even if only a gesture. So much of speech was breathing, she realised. Pacing and spacing and emphasis. And she was drifting. "So I can return to the present? The changed present, I mean."
"Yes and no." The Voice hurried on before its interlocutor could find something to throw. "There was a complication. There is only one thread, you must understand."
"Must I?" The rhetorical question was tart. She puzzled out the theory though. "Granger and Rosier are the same thread, yes, I can see that." There was a pause for reflection, a silence as she put one and one together and got one. "Cathal exists in the loop, with Hermione at either end. So why am I not a brunette again?"
"We cannot untie the knots." There was anger there and frustration. Hogwarts in a state of thwart was irate. The combined knowledge of a thousand years of students and faculty was not easily stymied. "We pulled and loosened and unhitched as best we might but should we do more, you would become unfettered. That would be poor recompense for your service."
"Define unfettered in this context." She didn't feel alarmed. One felt very little in this non-place as emotions were biochemical, something she was not at the moment. She could think alarmed thoughts but they took a back seat to planning.
"If we do more, we would tear your soul apart." The Voice told her bluntly then explained what it could.
Magical folk were paranoid, she knew that. They locked their research away behind curses and covenants, published only tiny parts of their discoveries, and hoarded knowledge. Secrets were like wine and a many of the most brilliant magi were intoxicated. Hogwarts had facsimiles of their minds while they were at school, refreshed whenever they returned to the Castle, and if they taught there it could plumb their consciousnesses. However, Pensieves stored memories outside the mind. There were also other, Darker, ways of locking parts of the self away from scrutiny.
Hogwarts knew much but could share far less as it was bound by the constructs of the memories within it. So she heard a rough outline of what it had done; a lace-work of lacunae. She could figure out some of what it wasn't telling her in that long, long lecture. There was infinite time to think. The conclusion in the end was easy.
"I don't want to die." She had fought. She still had fight in her. There were still fights to be fought. "Or to un-be." One disembodied phantasm hungering for reincarnation was enough. "Can you put me back into Cathal?"
"Yes." Even in a place without time the pause after that confirmation stretched. "There will be consequences."
"It'll be hard to undo the Obliviation on Granger's parents." She, one of her selves, had tied the magic to herself to make the transition smoother for her mum and dad. There would be no hazy recollectons, no nightmares of the Other. Monica and Wendell would be sane and whole. "I could mimic her or piggyback like I did with Brown."
"You could risk the attempt." The Voice wasn't disagreeing.
"I could risk destroying their minds to tell them their only child is dead, you mean." She snapped, partly because she was thinking the same thing.
"Not dead." Hogwarts corrected as prim as a school marm.
"She'd be as empty as if she'd been Kissed, which is as good as dead." Speaking of death, a horrible thought occurred. "If I return to Cathal, will I be trapped inside her forever? What happens when her body dies?"
"The strength of the bonds will weaken as you age. If you live to your senescence, your spiritus will float free of your corpus. Blood magic is intense but finite." Knowing its audience, the Voice continued. "If your body dies before the bonds slacken, you will be moored. Depending on the condition of the corpus, perhaps an Inferi. There are however many ways to rectify undeath."
"Are the bonds the reason I felt nothing near the Dementors?" She asked as her mind filled with other questions. A pen and paper would be very handy now. Yes, there was time enough to ask everything but the act of making a list helped her order her thoughts.
"Yes." The Voice answered sharply, cutting off further inquiry. She waited and was rewarded with the skerricks it could tell her. "The creatures' dread aura could not grasp hold of you. Any fear you felt was a psychological remnant. You are, by happenstance, immune to the Kiss."
"If I were a betting woman, I'd put my firstborn on the creation rite used to make the Dementors being an integral part in what you did to insert me into Cathal." She wasn't angry exactly. That required too much physiology. What she was... was opposed. Yes. Very definitely anti this shit. "Salazar Slytherin wrote extensively on the Dark creatures the Founders warded the Castle against. He makes no mention of Dementors. No one does, until Ekrizdis of Azkaban."
"We cannot speak of it."
"The Ministry repurposed the fortress after Ekridis died. The Minister at the time was Damocles Rowle. His niece was later Headmistress at Hogwarts." She didn't smile or smirk. "Binns never remarked on how closely linked the Ministry and the school were for centuries. The same families with their sinecures and political appointments."
"We cannot..." The Voice reiterated before she cut it off.
"Send me back. I can't do anything here. I might be able to do something there." She straightened her shoulders automatically. "I'll give it a damn good try. Ravel me back up again."
"The process is somewhat more complicated than that." Hogwarts sounded quite snippy.
She laughed before being remade.
It took her a long moment to realise time was moving, that despite the dust and the dimness she wasn't in the unworld of Hogwarts's pause, that the Voice made of many voices was an ordinary cacophony of people. She blinked because one liked to check and pinched herself because ditto. She was breathing too. That was nice.
Cathal... Hermione stared at her hands assessingly. Dirty with blood under the nails. No one had time or verve for a cleaning charm, though honestly with the amount of magic buzzing in the air she wouldn't have risked a Lumos. The aftermath of battle left traces, filling the Great Hall with the scent of ozone. Another tang amid the gore and sweat and fear.
A quiet person approached her cot from behind, sitting down beside her on the bare stone. His shoes were polished but the knees of his pressed trousers were grubby. Here for the clean up not for the fight. As she twisted around to look at him, he offered her a cup. The combined motion didn't synchronise, ending in the water spilling onto her hair.
Her long straight blonde hair.
Hermione sighed. She wasn't sure if she was disappointed yet. She wasn't sure of much other than her head felt like someone had gone at it with a mallet. Her whole body ached. The boy swore, apologised about the water and the rude word, and had half-risen to fetch more when she put a hand on his arm to stop him. She knew who he was but was less sure on why he was there.
"Theo, you left." Her words were a croak.
"I got my father away. He came home just like you said he would. I had everything ready." He covered her hand with his. "He wanted me to leave with him. Demanded it." Nott's soft voice cracked. Defiance did not come easy to him. "But you were here. I'd rather be with you than him."
"We'll probably be arrested." Hermione felt her brain wind back up to speed and wasn't entirely pleased. Drifting dazedly without a care had its benefits. "Where's Moppet?"
"Moppet is here!" The house elf popped in immediately on calling. "Moppet was hiding, watching because Ministry twonks is already flat-footing about." She clutched her bestest friend's arm and felt her 'her-ness'. Cathal, not the other one and not two. "Moppet is always here." This was directed at the bad wizard boy. "Yous can leave now. Again."
"You're not a Rosier elf." Having hosted Madam Rosier's ménage, he was tolerably familiar with the elves pledged to her House. He hadn't noticed at their first meeting but this bossy one with the wand was new.
"Lady Rosier is my witch." Moppet's ears flicked out, a bridling gesture that presaged discomfort for the wizard. She was not leashed, not a toady thing who had to scrape and punish. "You keep civil or Moppet will fix you."
"Where's Granger?" Hermione interrupted, unequal to the task of arbitration. The question threw Nott with its seeming irrelevance. Moppet mutely pointed down the line of stretchers; towards the shrouds.
"When yous left, Moppet thought..." The house elf faltered. "But thread didn't untie. Some knots can't be undone without cutting."
"You can loop a thread, direct it elsewhere, unweave it so it hangs loose..." She recalled the Voice explaining about time magic and the fabric of reality. There was so much she didn't understand but a little speck of revelation glinted in her mind now she had time to think of anything other than the Final Battle.
Cathal and Granger were the same thread. Hermione began, ran to the event that tore the tapestry then Hogwarts had woven that strand back into the cloth in the Cathal-shaped space left by the death of the Rosier heir. One thread, two names, one life. With the thread tangled irrevocably in Cathal, she would have to make her own way ahead in the spaces between, pushing herself into other people's lives. It would tighten the weave. She could not think it fortunate for her that the deaths of so many had left her plenty of room.
She should be back in Granger's body, mentally seven years older with the echoes of someone else's life. That was the logical end. You closed the loop, and the future Cathal Rosier would never have had would be just another 'what if'. Anger had been denied her in the non-place. Not so now. Angst too came flooding in. Dead man's boots.
"This was not what I planned." Hermione complained then groaned at herself, at the world. Had she in fact planned anything beyond the Battle? Other than running if it all blew up in her face? She had a life now. She needed to do something with it. Like cover her arse. "Moppet, could you quietly get back from the Hogwarts elves anything left over?"
"Moppet speaks to Ouphe too. Tidies up." The house elf nodded sharply and vanished. Hermione rubbed her forehead. It was time to begin Operation: Avoid Awkward Questions. "Where's my backpack?"
"Here." Theo handed her the black satchel that had been acting as a pillow. It didn't seem of much significance until his hand brushed the leather and he realised how dense the bag was. As soon as he handed it over, he felt his interest in it ebb. He noticed that diminution, recalling also he had rarely seen Cathal without her backpack. "You really were planning this for years, weren't you?"
"As soon as I got out of that cottage." Hermione confirmed, getting gingerly to her feet. She was, by the definition of the word, upright. A light breeze would fell her. New sympathy for Harry arose; dying took a toll.
"Why?" His question was not plaintive. Nott was a realist. This was a good ending compared to the dreams of looming futures that had woken him sweating at 3am. The world, though hostile, was at least passably sane.
"I do not believe in predestination and I will not stand with sadists." That was a good start, something she would repeat when questioned by less cynical folk. The look her fellow Slytherin gave her made him look old. Old and world-weary. "Riddle was a liar. He fed our grandparents a fiction of paradise and power, gave them someone to blame. He grew up in a Muggle orphanage in the '40s. He had an excellent role-model."
"Grindelwald." Theo said, shoulders sagging. He jumped when Cathal laughed.
"No, Hitler." She corrected. "Grindelwald was small scale. An idealologue and opportunist. If someone had thrown the other two Hallows at him, he would have abandoned his war in an instant. It was all sound and fury." Which everyone would know, if Binns taught something actually relevant. "Hitler had millions of people killed because he needed a scapegoat. He did more to rid the world of Muggles than all the Dark Lords combined." Hermione took a breath. "Riddle used the same tactics. The Muggle-Born Registration Act was a Yellow Star."
"I don't understand the reference." Her verve made him step back. She wasn't hysterical. She was implacable.
"Talk to Goldstein. Talk to anyone with a Muggle grandparent." Hermione snapped, feeling her magic crackle over her skin. She dropped into a Occlumency exercise automatically. Her heartbeat slowed from thunderous to steady. "Riddle knew and he exploited pure-blood naivety to get the power he craved. Then once he had it, he kept the altars red. My grandmother wasn't a killer until her son died. After that, she'd wade through a lake of blood."
Cathal could have taken a page out of Siglinde's book but instead she went quietly. She tapped Flint on the shoulder as she and Nott were passing. Marcus kissed Wood then left with them, slipping behind a statue into a dusty corridor rather than stay to explain to the Aurors how he had got into the country. Once they were out of sight, heading into the Castle's innards, Hermione pulled her Map out to check what damage had been done.
Extensive was the first word that came to mind. She'd remembered enough and guessed more so none of her bolt-holes were crushed but getting to them was going to be difficult. With Flint and Nott trooping mute behind her, Hermione led them to the first; a niche on the Third Floor near what had been the Forbidden Corridor. She rapped her knuckles on a door behind a sliding panel behind a statue with a hidden sliding catch. Best guess it had been used for a Professor's private stash.
Kosal Veng greeted her with a ready wand. The Third Year had all the stashed supplies packed away in the satchel she'd given him and a look of determination. A look that faltered at sight of Flint, who was big and mean and he didn't recognise, and Nott, who was neither and he did. Hermione moved to reassure him.
"It's over. The good guys won. You can head down to the Hall now. Slughorn is there." She made no promises that the Head of Slytherin would look after Veng but he was at least present to object to any harassment.
"Where are you going?" Veng didn't think much of the new Potions hire. Anyone who was that comfortable was either an informer or an opportunist. Yiey talked about the bad times in the old country too often for him to trust a fat man in thin times.
"We're leaving to avoid being arrested." Flint answered dourly.
He said the same thing three more times as they collected kids from hidey-holes. And they were just kids. Haricott was a firstie, who clung to Rosier as though she were Nimue herself, while adamantly refusing to rejoin the rest of the students. None of them wanted to throw themselves to the Lions. Crowdy started hyperventilating at the mere suggestion.
"Abduction it is, then." Hermione resigned herself to more criminal behaviour. She wasn't going to abandon the Snakelets. She tapped the gold wire behind her ear and had a short conversation with Moppet as they hiked to the Sixth Floor. Specifically to an airy solarium made from a glassed-in balcony packed to the ceiling with shelves stacked to capacity with potted plants. Plus two elves and a large carpet.
"We won't all fit." Nott objected, identifying the rug as the flying variety. He looked over the younger Slytherins. Moncrieff was the eldest but having seen him on a broom Theo was unwilling to trust him to steer a carpet. They'd need to Side-Along, which drastically limited where they could go as well as make them more traceable.
"It's a decoy. It's signature will hopefully cover ours." She went to the windows and opened them, helping Moppet and Ouphe unroll the Chiprovtsi kilim. The unbonded elf sat in the middle of the exquisite red and black pattern, wiggling his toes across the tight weave before turning himself and the carpet invisible. Hermione spoke to empty air. "Just tour around the tower and for hell's sake if they start shooting at you, ditch the rug."
"Yes, Lady Rosier." The soft voice agreed. There was a waft of air and Ouphe was gone.
"Are they likely to shoot at him?" Crowdy asked, not pointing out that the elf was invisible.
"Any Auror worth their badge will have some sort of heightened senses charm running. They might not be able to see what he is but some at least will be able to pick out a blur." Hermione explained, closing the windows. "Moppet, do you want to guard or transport? We need to take everyone to Rose Cottage."
"Transport." The house elf mulled it over. "You is still in with the Castle, and tired." She added the last bit with some force. "Don't tries to nay it."
Hermione didn't try to deny it. She posted herself at the solarium door to hold it in case they were found as Moppet took the Slytherins two by two to the Isle of Man. If they were lucky, they would have enough of a head start to blend into the Muggle population before anyone official took an interest in them. Then they could drop the kids off and hide out for a few days while the dust settled.
They stayed at Rose Cottage long enough to retrieve the cached supplies and transfigure their clothes before catching the bus to Douglas. From there they took the ferry to Liverpool, with Hermione paying cash for everyone and the pure-blood wizards quietly boggling. The younger Slytherins took British public transport in their stride, with Veng confidently guiding them to the train that would take them to his uncle's house in Stoke-on-Trent.
Mr Veng hustled them inside, speaking urgently to Kosal in Khmer as he locked the front door. He looked tired and worried as although a Muggle he was clearly in on the political troubles of his magical relatives. His nephew's explanation seemed to mollify him somewhat. He shepherded them into the kitchen and put the kettle on.
During tea and buns, Crowdy and Haricott phoned their parents and received voluble promises of immediate collection. Moncrieff phoned too but received no answer. Jaakan shook his head at Rosier, who had told him what happened to his dad. He'd hoped his mum had got away. He called his aunt and his grandparents, checking the numbers carefully in a small diary. No answer.
"You can stay at my house." Kosal said firmly to the Fourth Year. "We have plenty of room and mum's always on at me to bring friends home." He looked to the Head Girl for confirmation. "The Ministry is going to start a witch hunt, aren't they?"
"Inevitably. They'll need someone to blame when it comes out how little they did. Depending on who gets their bum on the chair first, the Minister might even arrest both sides." Hermione finished her second bun and licked icing off her fingers. "You, Crowdy, and Haricott should be safe enough. Your families don't have any direct ties to Death Eaters. The Moncrieffs were aligned with the Mulcibers. That will probably be sufficient for the Ministry even with Weyland Mulciber dead."
"Did you kill him?" Jaakan asked, tautly. He knew his relatives had worked for the older pure-blood family for yonks. He also knew that since Voldemort had shown up, things had been tense. The Mulcibers weren't all Death Eaters but some of them had been in it from the beginning.
"I was there when he died. I give you my word your father has been avenged." There hadn't been enough left intact to raise as an Inferi. "I'll submit an account with memories of what he tried to do, and if that doesn't work I'll ask Susan Bones to speak for your family. The Ministry won't ignore her."
Nott's expression went very bland when she said that, and Flint raised an eyebrow. He knew Bones was in Dumbledore's Army, quite militant about it after the murder of her aunt. She'd never mentioned any tie to Rosier, at least not to Oliver. Marcus had tried to keep an ear out for any trouble his quasi-bride was in. General consensus was she was destined for a bad end.
They stayed in Stoke-on-Trent until the children had been retrieved. Hermione was cried over and promises of debt were made but she refused all offers of hospitality. She wanted to check on her elves and her grandmother. It was unlikely the Ministry had secured Rosier Hall yet but it would be soon once the Aurors realised Siglinde wasn't among the dead.
Caution had Hermione and Moppet Side-Along the wizards just in case the wards were live. It was that vigilance that had them bumped gently off the border of the Rosier property, arriving in front of the gates rather than smeared across the defences. The magic of the land reached out to the witch as soon as her feet touched ground.
"Everything is on." Hermione shivered at the intense pulse thrumming through her body. "Blood magic too." She took a few steps back because this was not a working one poked blindly. Nott and Flint gave her some distance, drawing their wands in case of boom. Nothing happened when Hermione cast an attunement charm to get a better read. "Elf magic as well."
"Moppet's hairs stand all on end." The house elf moved into position at her witch's right hand. "Is dead elf on other side."
"Yes." She could feel it too. More than one death to fuel the wards no one was monitoring. Hermione lowered the defences tied to the land, the ones she had anchored at the seasonal rite. The vivacity of the wards diminished slowly. A lot of power had been put into them. Concentrating on the attunement charm, Hermione studied the blood magic then stepped up to the iron gate. There was no push back for her, no resistance. "How do you feel, everyone?"
"I am not invited in but I'm not forbidden." Flint approached, stopping about three paces behind Rosier. He swore as the sticky acid heat of the blood magic hit him. "Fuck, that's strong."
"The same." Nott said, moving up to stand beside the older wizard. "The estate doesn't welcome me but it's not hostile." He traced his wand in an intricate pattern over the invisible surface of the remaining ward. "This is your grandmother's work." He didn't like it. "We can leave it be. Go join my father or wherever Flint's been hiding."
"Moppet feels fine from the magics and bad from the knowing." The house elf looked towards the Norman castle wreathed in roses. "Could still cross, if pushed."
"No, I'll bring it down first. Anything could trigger it, and the Rosier elves might be trapped inside." Hermione put her wand away, extending both hands to contact the working. It did not fight her. Someone had very carefully ensured it would not hurt her. Energy, magic, and love flowed into Cathal Rosier, guiding her onwards. She stumbled at the draw but it wasn't a compulsion. It had started as one. Now it felt more like a desperate plea for her to come home.
The blood wards collapsed around her as she opened the gate. Hermione paused, the ghost of Alastor Moody practically shouting in her ear. She raised the land magic, turning the legal defences back on so if anyone followed them in she'd know. An experienced Auror or a Curse-Breaker would be able to sneak around the security if given enough time. She didn't expect she'd want to linger.
The front doors opened for her, a light breeze sweeping in her wake. When Hermione paused again it wasn't to check the magic on the threshold. She knew the metal scent of blood. Sometimes when she woke suddenly she could smell it on her hands. Instinct made her draw her wand and put her left hand on the second one at the small of her back, casting a Shield Charm without thinking.
There were only three bodies in the foyer. That was a relief. Nissy the Selwyn elf who had stayed true had given her Mistress a final service. She lay in a red pentagram posed carefully, a star within a star, bled as pale as chalk. A single sanguine line linked her to a second, larger circle. It was smudgier, the sigils drawn in haste, a broken wand marking one of the directions. Sholto Selwyn, son of Siglinde's only sibling, lay spread-eagled with veins at wrist, ankle, and throat open. An unwilling sacrifice, Hermione guessed from the bruises.
Siglinde had started a third circle to add more power to the protections she had drawn with the ichor of her servant and her nephew. She hadn't finished it. The white haired witch lay curled on her side contorted, killed by the demands of her rite with a knife still clenched in her hand. And around her, blown in by the breeze, their scent oddly heady, rose petals scattered like drops of blood.