After sitting with the seventh-year Gryffindors a short while, Hermione grew anxious. Though it was exciting to sit next to the warm fire marveling at the fact that Lily Evans and James Potter were sitting across from her in the flesh, flanked by the fresh young faces of Sirius and Remus, Hermione could not stand to be idle when there was so much to do. As the group began chatting about Quidditch and professors she did not know, her mind wandered to the stacks of catalogs and newspapers Dumbledore had given her. Feigning a long yawn, she proclaimed her weariness and excused herself.
As Hermione ascended the stairs leading to the girls' dormitories, she breathed a long sigh of relief and realized that she had been trembling. Once out of sight of the common room, she leaned her body against the wall and closed her eyes, struggling to clear her mind. It was overwhelming, simply sitting with them. Fascinating, completely terrifying, and terribly thrilling. She had no idea how she should feel, talking to people who she knew full well would be murdered in less than two years. Who would be sent to waste a life in Azkaban. Who would betray every confidence. But I can't change that, Hermione reminded herself. What would come would come. James and Lily's death saved the world, and she knew they'd sacrifice themselves a thousand times over even if it just meant Harry's survival.
This is the opportunity of a lifetime, she thought, wishing her guilt to ebb. These weren't just Harry's parents; they were historical figures who would be written about in every single magical history book until the end of time. This wasn't just any year she had been dropped into; it was nearly the height of Voldemort's reign. We can use the mistakes made in this era to strengthen our defenses in the future. She didn't know if this was a viable idea, but it was enough to calm her down and set her back on her way. Hermione ducked away to the last bedroom on the right at the end of the girls' hall, a room she could have easily found blindfolded and Confounded.
If she hadn't known better, Hermione wouldn't have guessed that another set of furniture had been moved in that afternoon. She felt right at home immediately; apart from the extra bed, wardrobe, and nightstand, the basic set-up of the room had not changed. Granted, the personal effects couldn't have been more different from Lavender and Parvati's pin-ups of Quidditch stars and fluffy pink and periwinkle trinkets. Walking around the room, she smiled at the bold splashes of color that defined Ella's area: sheer orange and pink gauze wove around the canopy of her bed; her desk was a chaotic jumble of neon quills, patterned folders, and open pots of multi-colored ink, while odd earrings lay scattered, missing their pairs. Next to her area, Katherine had chosen more sedate colors. Her small round alarm matched the deep navy of her wastebasket and neatly stacked indigo notebooks. Her quills were all put away in a tall cylindrical glass jar with inset beads that sparkled in scarlet and gold, an item that Hermione instinctively felt had been a gift from Ella. Across the room, Lily's space reflected simple elegance. Enchanted ivy had been charmed to snake up the legs of her desk, stopping just short of a few bright mosaic picture frames (between the shimmering teal grout and the myriad of colors, they also had Ella's unmistakable touch). One held a rather handsome portrait of James, who was doing his best to look serious despite his wild hair and unkempt clothes, while the other was a group portrait of the three girls, all smiling and laughing in the heart of Diagon Alley. Origami animals shifted back and forth near her quills; the giraffe bending its neck, the crane softly flapping its wings, while the stork periodically took short flights across the desk.
Once Hermione had gotten settled, she borrowed a quill off of Katherine's desk and went to work on ordering new supplies. It took her the better part of an hour to wade through page after page of potion ingredients, cauldron options, and uniform measurements. When she was done, she triple-checked her list, making sure she had enough to at least get her to the end of the year. The sum total of her purchases on the order form was astronomical, but it gave her a grim satisfaction to know that Malfoy would be footing the bill in due time. That being settled, Hermione felt far more at ease and decided that she should go back downstairs to get better acquainted with the group. Fear still gnawed at her stomach, telling her that this was still too new and risky. But if Dumbledore encouraged me to be active, then he must know what's best, she thought. Slipping her shoes back on, she opened the bedroom door and promptly stopped when she heard the hushed voices of the Marauders trickling into the hall from downstairs.
"I think she seems alright, but I'm a bit cautious, I'll admit," a female voice said. Hermione drew herself a few more steps down the hallway to hear better.
"I just don't think we can trust her yet, is all," she heard Katherine say, "Yeah, call me unfair, fine. If we trusted every person these days that comes up with no explanation and asks for the benefit of the doubt, we'd all be dead a long time ago. Personally, I think she's putting on an act. She has been all night. She keeps staring at us, have you noticed? No, not just looking, I mean… it's creepy. She seemed more interested in Lily than the castle. I mean, just think about that for a second, will you? Remember our first night here? It was all we could do to keep from exploring every nook and cranny of the place. She didn't ask one question about it."
"I think you could defend that same behaviour though, Kat." Remus said softly. "Let us not forget she's only been here mere hours. We don't know what might've happened to her family or her friends. She might be putting on the act to cover a wound."
The others quietly respected what Remus said, knowing he was speaking from his own experience. "Look, I'm sure she's just trying to fit in. Who wants to make a first impression by crying and blubbering everywhere?"
"Outside the portrait hole." Katherine spoke, despite James' open mouth. "She shifted to the right when Lily said the password. All the other doors here open to the left! She had no way of knowing that. Like I said, little things."
"I think you're just being paranoid, Kat." James said bluntly. "There's little, and then there's insignificant. You analyze her every move and you'll convince yourself she's Voldemort himself."
"I agree," Lily spoke. "I honestly think she's alone and frightened. I don't want any of us to make this transition harder on her than it already will be. That's the Slytherins' job."
"Dumbledore trusts her," Hermione's muscles tightened as she recognized Peter's voice. "I dunno. Seems like that should count for something."
"Dumbledore's the most powerful wizard who ever lived," Sirius said with a chuckle, "He sees a small girl like her and of course he's not going to think she's a threat. He trusts everyone."
"I don't think that's quite fair, Sirius," Ella murmured. "You-Know-Who has been so powerful for quite some time, and if Dumbledore made wrong decisions about people, then Hogwarts would have been infiltrated by now. We're the last stronghold."
"All the more reason to make sure that it stays that way," Katherine insisted. "This girl is only here for a couple of months, it's not like I'm voting to shun her for life. Besides. We've been a solid group for the past seven years and now right before we graduate, she just comes barging in. It's not fair, you know? We've already got so little time left together as it is, now we have to worry about what we say and how we act when we're together."
Upstairs, Hermione slid to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. While she had anticipated this reaction, a small part of her had hoped that they would understand her plight and agree to take her in. Hearing Sirius express his distrust stung. Hermione tried to remind herself that he didn't know her yet, and they had every right to be wary of her.
"I understand completely, Kat." Lily said gently. "But no one, including Hermione, chose this situation. It's just something we have to make the best of, right? Being friendly won't do harm to anyone, no matter what side Hermione might be on. Of course, I'm not voting to tell her all of our secrets, but for goodness sake, at least make her feel welcome here."
"I agree with Lily," James cleared his throat. "I'm just as wary as you are, Kat, but we've got to give her the benefit of the doubt. Let's also all remember that for whatever reason, Dumbledore put her in Gryffindor. That means a lot to me."
"And I as well," Remus cleared his throat, "If she had been a Slytherin at heart, then Dumbledore would have either put her with them, or, if he had wanted an eye kept on her, he would have put her in with the Ravenclaws."
"There's an idea, Remus," Katherine replied, "maybe he did put her here because he knows we'll be suspicious. You know, maybe he's testing us before we enter The Order to see if we can detect a traitor."
If only you could sniff out the real traitor, Hermione thought miserably, resting her temple against the coarse stone of the wall.
"Oh come on, have better faith in the man than that," Remus scoffed. "Let's just say for the sake of argument that he did do something so twisted – I think it would be a bit more subtle than dropping a new person on us at the end of the school year."
"Alright, fine. Maybe Dumbledore's not behind this. But until we get some sort of hard proof that she's on our side, I don't trust her as far as I could throw her."
"Well, you know, Kat, as someone who knows rejection pretty damn well—"
"Oh, come off it," Katherine snapped, "this isn't even—"
"Stop!" Lily hissed, cutting them off. "Merlin! There's no reason to start getting personal here, we're all on the same team. Let's just be civilized?"
Hermione couldn't help but smile when Sirius cleared his throat and adopted a high, lofty voice: "Well, Mistress Evans, much of what fosters a growing sense of unease within me lies in the fact that we know very little about this little lady's upbringing."
Perhaps it was this break in the tension, coupled with the desperate desire to feel accepted that caused Hermione to ignore the quivering in her knees and get to her feet. As Sirius prattled on imitating high society, she shakily descended the stairs, stopping at the last step. The entire group had broken into chuckles at Sirius, so they didn't notice her take a step into the room and lean back against the wall.
"I mean really, who knows what sort of stock this Huh-myy-uh-nee came from," Sirius drawled, "to think, her parents could be muggles—"
"Ac-tually, they are," Hermione piped up, doing her best to project a lofty voice of her own while keeping it from wavering.
The reaction was immediate: Lily and Katherine gasped, Ella and Peter squeaked loudly, while the rest of the boys jumped in their seat. All of them craned to look at Hermione, who was doing her best not to look sheepish, a wry smile growing on her face.
"Oh, Merlin, I'm sorry Herm," Sirius half-rose from his seat, "we were just kidding around, I mean, Lily's parents are muggles and Peter's dad—"
"No, I could tell that you were joking," Hermione waved her hand to dispel his guilt. "Mind if I sit down? I was having trouble sleeping."
"Yes, please," Lily scooted over on the couch and made room for Hermione, "It'll probably take a while to get used to sleeping in a big castle like this."
"Thanks," Hermione lowered herself onto the couch, folding her arms to make herself as small as possible. "It's sort of been a crazy day."
"Would you like to tell us about it? You don't have to, of course, but we'd be happy to listen," Lily smiled earnestly, while the rest of the group waited expectantly.
"Well, there's not much to say," Hermione replied as she fiddled with a silver band on her finger that her parents had given her several years ago, "Almost everything I know was ripped away from me quite recently, and then it was decided that I would attend classes here, so um, here I am." She cleared away a frog that had suddenly developed in her throat, shrugging her shoulders. "It's just… quite surreal."
"Was it, um, You-Know-Who?" Ella asked softly, leaning forward.
"Not quite, it was one of his followers. A bit of a personal attack," she added.
"So your family was openly opposed to Him?" Katherine asked, crossing her arms.
"Very much so. I mean, my parents are muggles, so they weren't very involved, but my friends and I would rather face death than kneel to Voldemort."
"You say his name," James smirked.
"Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself," Hermione recited; she felt rather like a broken record after having repeated this adage for over five years now.
"Well said!" Sirius exclaimed, clapping his hands, "Spoken like a true Gryffindor."
A murmur of assent echoed from around the group. Hermione smiled meekly, unsure of how to respond. Thankfully, the awkward pause was broken quickly.
"So Hermione, what are you planning to do after you graduate?" Remus asked, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair and propping his chin up with his hand.
"I um, don't really know yet," she said, wringing her hands absentmindedly. "I had once thought about going into the ministry and work on promoting some changes, but right now the first priority is helping fight against the Death Eaters."
"Can you duel?" James asked, running a hand through his hair absentmindedly.
"Yes, I've had a bit of experience," Hermione answered, thinking back to Dumbledore's Army. For a brief moment she wished she could recount every time her and her friends had fought Death Eaters, even Voldemort himself.
"Good," Sirius smiled. "Perhaps you'd be up to practicing with us sometime? We're pretty busy with NEWT-level classes and Quidditch and all, but we figure there's no point in waiting until we're out of the safety of Hogwarts to improve our Defense skills."
"I absolutely agree," Hermione said earnestly, leaning forward. "I'd love to join you all, I could certainly use the practice."
"If you feel you're too rusty, feel free to knock some spells off of Peter," James laughed, ducking a poorly aimed throw pillow from Peter.
Is that an invitation? Hermione stifled the thought with a small smile. As her eyes wandered over the couch, she noticed that Sirius had furrowed his brows, shaking his head discreetly at Katherine. Hazarding a glance to her right, she glimpsed an irritated toss of Katherine's head as she crossed her arms against her chest. It suddenly struck her that Sirius' invitation had not been the consensus of the group and was already causing some level of tension.
"Maybe I, um, shouldn't," Hermione stammered, her cheeks growing hot as she failed miserably at attempting to sound casual.
"What? What's wrong?" Lily asked, laying a gentle hand on her arm.
"I—I'm sorry," Hermione mumbled, staring into her lap.
"Sorry? What for?" James laughed in confusion.
"For barging in on your last months of school. I realize that it's not fair to you all."
"Yeah, but you can hardly help it, can you?" Peter shrugged and offered her a small smile.
"No. I can't," Hermione tensed, but immediately caught herself and loosened her shoulders. "It's just… this all feels wrong. I shouldn't be here. I don't know how to explain it."
"Oh, nonsense," Lily smiled as she lightly shook Hermione's forearm, "This is the best place for you to be right now, hands down. It may not seem that way now, but you'll come around.
Hermione nodded, blinking away tears. "It'll just take time, I guess."
Lily beamed and gave her arm another small squeeze. "That's the spirit."
A/N: Ok, I promise to limit "time" puns, they won't be used to end every chapter : )
Sorry for the wait (at least it wasn't a year, right?), I'm making an effort to get these chapters written faster. My creativity goes right out the window when college life causes lack of sleep.
Final thing: I love love love reviews! Thanks to EVERYONE who has reviewed so far, and please do keep them coming. Tell me what you like, don't like, etc., but give me something to go on! If anything, they certainly inspire me to write faster.