Hermione had built the greenhouse herself, sculpting it with magic in a way that was graceless, raising her arms and brewing potions so the ground was heavy with the pungent scent of molasses and tangible sheets of magic hung in the air, suspended like Ron's body had been right before she had killed him.
Now she and Ginny are taking tea within its walls, gazing out through the layers of bright green glass at the dull March sky. It is warm – there is a jar of wine-red fire at the center of the table. Hermione has always been good at charming fire into her hands, and even now, when it crackles and burns with dark history, she lets her pragmatism guide her, wishing it didn't evoke memories of footprints in the snow soft like flour and righteousness. The greenhouse is full of plants, whose growth Hermione has directed for pleasure – she has lost her qualms about mixing magic with the natural fate of things, and there is joy in making vines rise and fall with her call. Hermione has an orchestra of foliage before her, and she is able to bring them into life, tug these plants into existence and push them from it easily.
Hermione has always found that skills come after they are needed, and this is no different.
She and Ginny are twenty-two and twenty-one now, respectively. Neither of them has the glorious looseness of youth, by now – Ginny is constantly smiling crookedly, a grin that is strong and hollow like a palace, and she taps her three remaining fingernails on the edge of the white table. She is wearing a thin, simple linen dress, yellow and plain and shapeless. Ginny is beautiful still, but in a stark, hypnotic way; Hermione is reminded of open-mouthed Klimt women, blurred and poignant. Ginny is slim in a way that makes her collarbones jut oddly through her freckled skin, and though she is constantly the photograph used in war stories, she is not the girl Harry married, now. Hermione and Ginny are two of a kind, widows long after they deserved happiness. When they take tea, neither discusses this, but it hangs between them, connecting them like a spider web between boughs of a tree, delicate and glassy.
It's spring, and the house Hermione and Ron lived in is fifty feet away, a two-story house with a thatched roof and white shutters and a chimney. It's built where the Burrow was: Hermione regrets this, now, letting Ron convince her to live here, on grounds so full of history they filled the house with the past. Ginny is unmoved by being here, even though it was Ginny who was in a body-bind, bleeding and watching her home burn sweetly with her oldest brother left within its walls.
"Have you planted anything new?" Ginny asks idly, sipping from the bone china in a demure, listless manner. Her striking hair is in a heavy braid that falls past her elbows, straight as her spine. There is a ring of chalk-white skin where Ginny's wedding ring was two months ago. Hermione watched her throw it into the ocean, a spark of silver in the roaring, luminous waves at midnight, like a pearl in black velvet.
Hermione still wears hers, though she finds herself tugging at it constantly. She remembers Pansy carrying her father's wand, the one which murdered her mother, saying this way I will never forget the weight of betrayal.
"I put some sunflowers over there," Hermione waves towards the North corner, where a patch of towering sunflowers is, a spread of wide yellow petals and dark centers, thick stems and curling leaves.
Ginny frowns. "Why are they all pointing different ways?" she asks. It's true; every flower is turned to a different point in the sky, and together they look like an umbrella. Ginny's knuckles clack against her saucer as she finishes the tea (honey, lemon and ginger) and tucks her hands in her pockets.
"It's something about the sunlight spell in here," Hermione replies with a shrug. "I have light pouring in from all sides, so the flowers can't seem to come together. I'm not sure how to fix it, though I don't think it matters."
She does know how to fix it, but doesn't see why she ought to.
Ginny's chapped lips curve downward. "It's not important, I just can't help but think they're aimless, then. I always loved sunflowers as a girl, they moved all at once. It was like watching rain – everything synchronized. It's graceful, that's all."
Judith has gone silent.
Holding Judith is like cradling an hourglass, having softness that could spill with a single drop. Hermione is afraid for her daughter, sometimes. Now. There were Death Eater copycats and far too many people who want revenge. Hermione was sure she would be alright – after surviving the war, there was a touch of invincibility to her, she was overconfident then, sure she could protect herself. She and Ron and Harry had taken care of themselves for years, after all. They could have faced anything after Voldemort.
Right before he died, Severus Snape had choked out a last piece of bitter advice for Hermione: do not expect things to be better, Miss Granger.
Then, she had answered by saying they will to her lifeless professor. Now, she wondered if he had known, somehow, that all of their lives would fall apart even as they guaranteed goodness to the rest of the world.
"He was lonely and he was falling apart, Ginny, and you didn't come for him, like he would have for you!" Hermione shouts, blood pounding, "He saved you countless times, and the one time he needed you to help save him, where were you?!"
Ginny looks away, and says, sotto voce: "I was burying my husband, Hermione, and you knew that."
Hermione doesn't say it, but the words and you left me to bury mine sat in her mouth like molasses, thick and stifling.
It's not the crying that wakes Hermione. Judith has lungs of steel, it seems. The sound has become background noise, almost. It is like the whistling of the winter wind, like Hermione's pulse, like footsteps. It is perfunctory.
What wakes Hermione is the crash against the nursery wall. Hermione rises, bleary-eyed but full of adrenaline – nothing has changed, it will not get better, Miss Granger – and finds Ron holding Judith, the oak crib lying in pieces on the floor.
Wreckage, thinks Hermione, remembering the weeks in which Mad-Eye Moody taught her how to kill, how to infuse the world with green light. You must learn to construct wreckage, Granger.
Snape had watched, face unrevealing, and had been quiet, speaking only as she left.
Death cannot be her first response, Alastor.
It's the only response that leaves her away from Death, Snape. You ought to know that.
"Ron, what on earth are you –" Hermione begins, but stops as he looks up at her, motions smooth like clockwork, eyes glazed.
"Hermione," he says, in a voice like metal, like a metronome, "We're going to have to snap her neck."
His fingers coil over Judith's throat, and Hermione begins to speak, to babble, to think on her feet.
"I know she's been loud, but really Ron, come now," Hermione cannot finish a sentence as the thumb dips under Judith's skull.
"Honestly, Hermione –"
His hands close over like Macnair's did on Harry, like Mulciber's callouses on her own collarbones, like Draco Malfoy's over his father's, and Hermione's wand is there before she can think, and Ron's body swings high through the ceiling as she catches Judith without a thought, arms before her before she can think of it.
Hermione wrings her hands.
"I really think you should take the Willpower Potion, Ron. It's just a preventive, it'll help, it's just in case," she pleads with him, feeling pathetic and overbearing.
Many minutes pass. Ron's head in his hands, dark in the starlight that pours through the kitchen, and Hermione barely hears him say, furiously:
You can not help me, Hermione.
It would surprise her a bit more, she thinks, were it not the same thing Snape said to her, and Moody and Lupin and her father and Percy. She finds herself drifting, righteous integrity having faded long ago.
Hermione firecalls Ginny that night, even though she has been consoling her since yesterday, sobbing with the younger girl for Harry, sweet, sweet, Harry.
"Ginny, something's wrong, I'm sure of it."
"Hermione," Ginny is exhausted, so weary that Hermione is shaken looking at her, "I'm sure it's nothing. Leave it alone, please. Ron's feeling awful now, and so am I, so if you could just leave it-"
Ginny's head leaves the fire.
The wedding photo sits on Ginny's nightstand, with Harry carrying her, her skirts over his arm, both smiling mutedly at the camera. He is joyous and scarred, eyes bright like a skeleton, whispering in her ear.
Ginny brings her knees so close that her kneecaps tap her ribcage, feeling small and young. All she hears is the voice of Macnair's daughter, saying: you killed him, how can you live when he is dead?
Ginny thinks of Harry, illumined by green light, remembers thinking but I killed Macnair to save Harry and murmuring it, again and again. Ginny finds herself whispering it, still, and brings her teeth together, stilling herself.
Ginny remembers what Harry had been saying, when that photo was taken: smile for a little longer.
"Yeah, they're gone."
"Are you sure, Mr. Weasley?"
"Positive. I already discussed this with my wife; I think it was a residue of a war Imperius, maybe, like the crucio one on Luna, or some kind of post-trauma trouble. I'm perfectly fine now, though."
"Come back if it returns, then."
Hermione thinks to herself: I imagined that one. Ron would never say you deserve this. The nerves in his hand have been hypersensitive since the last battle.
On the day of Voldemort's defeat, Hermione watched Remus Lupin die at the hand of Bellatrix Lestrange, wrapped in green light and agony for a sharp moment. Hermione has never told anyone, but she saw Remus Lupin poison Snape's cider the night before the battle. You have no idea how much he deserves this, he had told her in a frenzied, rasping voice. She'd nodded and vowed to save Snape.
Hermione brewed the antidote incorrectly, that night.
I didn't believe he deserved it. I didn't, she murmurs, face buried in her pillow, wand in hand, feeling as if war surrounds her like air. Nothing has changed – the scene is the same as every night in the last four years of Hermione's life: smothering fear and alertness, regret piling in her lungs.
Ron's hand slips and Hermione thanks every God she'd ever read of that she knows how to rejoin her skin, patch her bones.
Ron's eyes aren't dulled, and when Judith continues to cry, not yet having stopped since her arrival, it's perfectly healthy.
Hermione's water had broken at dawn the day before.
It's too soon, it's too soon, she thought frantically as the Healer began to knead her flesh, feeling for the baby.
Birth was artless and exquisite – Hermione's body swelled with life for an instant, and though pain shone through her bones like a lighthouse, she found herself smiling and gasping as her arms brought the child to her.
Hermione had been hesitant about motherhood. She had never been caring like Ginny or strong like Mrs. Weasley. As the name Judith came to her, Hermione found herself certain, seeing the future like the evening sky laid before her, clear and ubiquitous.
"Nightmares?" Hermione asks, tucking her hair behind her hair with weary, sluggish movement. It is half past midnight and the kitchen is warm, and sleep nears her as Hermione blinks to stay awake. She twirls her spoon in her hot chocolate idly, watching the steam rise and curl.
"They're not nightmares, they're voices," Ron says, agitation rising. His mouth is grim and his voice low, as he continues: "It's like being under a lesser Imperius, Hermione. I need you to fix this."
Hermione runs her hands over the stretch of her stomach, still curious at the writhing beneath her belly. She remembers Neville reading Frank Crane aloud, when it was the only book left in her house, saying "Her undinal vast belly moonward bends / Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love" in his calm, shuddering voice.
"Look, for now we'll give you a dose of Snape's Willpower Serum, and I'll start looking into this, alright?" Hermione says briskly, "And we'll go to St. Mungo's tomorrow, if you want."
She remembers Ron in their second year, fumbling and worried. Hearing voices no one else can hear isn't a good sign, even in the wizarding world.
Ron looks away, thinking of newspapers and Sunday dinners. "No, I'd rather not. After all," he smiles weakly, "I've got you looking into it. I'll be cured by dawn."
tell me everything, tell chain by chain,
and link by link, and step by step;
sharpen the knives you kept hidden away,
thrust them into my breast, into my hands,
like a torrent of sunbursts,
an Amazon of buried jaguars,
and leave me cry: hours, days and years,
blind ages, stellar centuries.
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes."
-Pablo Neruda, Canto XII from the Heights of Macchu Picchu
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