INTO THE ETHER

Disclaimer: This is a non-profit tribute to the works of JK Rowling who created and, together with her publishers and licensees, owns the characters and settings elaborated herein.

Thanks to my previewers, Bellegeste and Cecelle. This is not a new story; it leapt into my head half-dreamt a few months ago and I thought I'd better post the first chapter before Document Manager eliminated it as a stale link. (I've since discovered that it doesn't eliminate stale links, but if you don't delete them yourself it may prevent you uploading into Document Manager. .)

Dear Hermione,

You must be surprised (and perhaps horrified) to be receiving a letter from your first-year Potions master twenty years after the event. If you have not Incendioed it on sight, I imagine you must be wondering why. Why do I take the trouble to time-spell a letter? Why you? And why do I write Hermione to the adult, when I have always called the child "Miss Granger"?

The last is the easiest to answer. Your surname may change, perhaps more than once, in the intervening years, but you will always be Hermione. A mouthful of a name for a scrap of a girl like you (the child you, all hair and teeth and wildly waving hand) but perhaps you've grown into it since. I trust you will excuse the informality therefore. It seemed less discourteous to call you by your given name than by a wrong one.

The time-spelling was Dumbledore's idea. He thought that writing a letter into the ether might assist in easing the turmoil of a troubled mind. A letter to no one need not be filtered or arranged. One does not need to check and re-check to make sure one has not given oneself away, in any sense of the words. It can be written in a steady stream-of-consciousness flow of one's thoughts until the torrent ceases. One can speak freely, as one never could to a less unresponsive ear.

I could not bring myself to waste my time - so valuable because now so short - on something that would never be read, so he advised me to choose someone, anyone, and time-spell the letters to their future self. Twenty years seems far enough into the future for me to write as I please, without consequence to the task before me – before us. Even if the war continues into that time, I am convinced that my part, at least, must be over. Just to be on the safe side, however, this letter has been spelled to arrive only if I no longer exist in your time.

Why you? I hardly know myself. Dumbledore suggested that perhaps I see myself in you. I scoffed, of course. He is right oftener than I care to admit, but not in this case, I believe. True we share superficial similarities: both of Muggle heritage (Do you know yet, twenty years hence as you read this, that I am half-blood and not the Pureblood your child-self probably supposes me?); both entering school with a superior knowledge of spells or hexes (though you reserve their application for the protection of your friends); both eager to learn. Yet there is little of your reputed fierce intelligence in your schoolwork nor any creativity in the regurgitated slabs of text you serve up as homework. Still, you did solve my puzzle. Perhaps I may be underestimating you.

But it is the adult you, not the rather unprepossessing child, whom I address. What are you like now, I wonder? Have you still the soft heart that leads you in the now to protect that lump of a Longbottom boy, who shares with Potter the distinction that their presence reminds me constantly of the blame I bear for their parents' fate? Do I perhaps hope to wake your kindness by thus addressing you? Am I so optimistic yet that I imagine that explaining myself might win at least understanding, if not forgiveness? Fool if I am, for you cannot remember me with fondness. I have no softness in me. It was beaten out of me as a boy, and even my best deeds are performed with harshness and rigour.

Perhaps it is your friendship with Potter that prompts me; a chance to confess through the backdoor the injuries that I shall never admit directly to him, as hateful as he is in my estimation and, no doubt, always will be. I shall, if necessary, protect him with my dying breath – which, judging by his reckless, ridiculous love of trouble, is like to be not long postponed – but feel anything other than deepest antipathy for the brat, I cannot and will not. If he had never been born, would she still be alive?

I awaited his arrival this year with as much anticipation as foreboding. Would there be more of his mother or his father in him? From the moment I caught his eye at the Sorting Feast, to find him staring at me with all his father's dislike, I knew to expect the latter, but by the time of the first lesson, I'd determined to give him another chance, for her dear sake. Lily was an excellent Potions-maker, as I knew from partnering her in Potions class. Though he scorned my introductory remarks, I gave him the opportunity to show whether his inattention came from his mother's superior advancement (though she was more considerate than to show open disrespect to a teacher) or his father's arrogance. My heart sickened at the immediate proof that he had inherited nothing of Lily but her green eyes. The prospect of seven years of viewing that anathema of a face in my classroom was more than distasteful. It almost reconciles me to having my time in the position cut short – as I have very good reason to believe it will be.

It is a week since the three of you braved the protections on the Stone, a week since Potter faced the Dark Lord before the Mirror of Erised and lived to tell the tale; your most foolish exploit yet. Worse than cornering a troll in the bathroom, worse than setting fire to a no doubt hated teacher or parading around the grounds at midnight with a baby dragon in your arms. In the grounds at midnight! What if it had been a full moon, you foolish child, and a werewolf roaming? There was one such in my schooldays. Trust me, watching a were transform as he bounds towards you, sharp-toothed, sharp-clawed and with mouth slavering, is an experience one does not wish ever to repeat.

Trust me? Hah! Why would you? Although Dumbledore tells me that you now know I was fighting the hex, not casting it, on Potter's broomstick that day, who knows what I shall have been forced to do by the exigencies of war by the time you read this? (If you do indeed read this far, which I imagine is most unlikely. Surely I can have done nothing to endear myself to a Muggle-born child in a classroom filled with the children of Death Eaters.) If I judge by my responsibilities in the first war, I shall come out of the shadows only if it's necessary to commit an atrocity in a blaze of light. Nothing is more important than keeping your foolish friend alive to defeat the Dark Lord again, forever this time, as only he can; nothing, not life, not limb, nor what little honour I yet retain.

As I said, it has been a week. One week since it was confirmed that it was the Dark Lord killing unicorns and attempting to steal the Stone – the Dark Lord under Quirrell's turban. There was a wrongness in him, I sensed it all year, but I never suspected the full truth. I thought him an agent of the Dark Lord, not the tyrant himself. If Dumbledore guessed at more, he did not tell me when we discussed it, trusting, I imagine, that my uneasiness sufficed to ensure my discretion. I can only thank twenty years of habit, born of the evasion necessary to espionage, that I said nothing solid enough to clarify my true loyalties. At least, I hope I did not.

One week since your friends landed themselves in the hospital wing with your connivance. One week of sleepless nights spent running over every word I ever addressed to Quirrell, especially this year, seeking reassurance that I have not forfeited my life and my future usefulness by a careless admission. For His presence this year suggests that He will return sooner rather than later, and when He does, I shall have to face him with the lies in my mouth and the wall behind my eyes. And I am afraid.

S