Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.
- T.S. Eliot, Rhapsody on a Windy Night
She slipped out like a ghost, silent and unsubstantial and caught in limbo.
Lightless, she went through the dark in careful steps. The wind whistling through the cracks in the mortar disguised any sound of her presence; even three years after they had lost the war, she was still careful. You could never be too careful.
Hogwarts had fallen into ruin in that time. What battle magic had not destroyed, nature had reclaimed. Vast, uninhibited creepers clutched the walls and sprawled across the multitude of floors. Scorch marks were erased by the night only to reappear with the first trickle of light, reminders seared upon the wall, graffiti of a hellish, indelible nature.
From a distance, it must have appeared a wreck – a haven fallen into gothic decay, teetering towers and crumbling walls. The Forbidden Forest had crept out to consume it, so Hogwarts rose from the dense foliage like the hand of a drowning man, slowly faltering.
Inside was little better. There were certain places where she did not go, rooms so deformed by layer upon layer of spells that they were little more than death-traps, savage reflections of the people who had fought in them. Katie Bell's voice screamed endlessly in one, the last imprint of a girl long dead.
It had been her home; now it was her only refuge, and she had learned to navigate its treacherous paths.
For months after the last battle, she had shivered in the secret spaces between the walls while Voldemort and the Death Eaters ransacked Hogwarts. One by one, her hiding places had been revealed or destroyed as she fled before them, the shrieks of others less lucky, less clever, echoing in her ears. For months she hadn't seen sunlight, lost in shades of grey as her eyes grew used to darkness.
At last, they left. She remained, the last living thing left in all of Hogwarts.
Hermione Granger, the ghost in the walls.
X - X - X - X - X
She took her usual path, squeezing past the toppled pillars of the east hallway, clinging to the cracked masonry of a staircase as it swung out over the long fall down to the ground floor. The last few risers were gone; she made the jump easily, although her heart still hammered every time, fearful the stones would dissolve under her.
On the landing, she took a brief detour into her old Muggle Studies classroom. Here too the vegetation had conquered all, but the trees that had burst up through the floor were hung with apples. Small, shrivelled, sour, they were at least food. She tossed a few into her makeshift bag, an old robe she had stitched together with judicious spells, and went on.
She passed the place where Ginny had lost the fingers of her left hand to a hex as sharp as a blade, carefully ignoring the dark patch on the flagstones. At the next corridor, she leapt from stone to stone as if playing hopscotch.
At last she came to the steps of the Astronomy Tower. Slowly she began to climb.
Every night she made the same pilgrimage. Every night, she walked the battlefield again because of a promise, because some part of her still hoped beyond all reason.
So, following her fairytale, she climbed the steps to the tallest tower, unsure if she was beauty or the beast, either way imprisoned.
At last she reached the top – shafts of moonlight struck her, and she breathed the cool air. Around her, weird lights rose, curling and unfurling like flowers, yellow and blue and orange, a great, strange garden of fire. The sky around Hogwarts was always lit now, more residue from the spells left by the war which reacted with oddly beautiful alchemy.
The roof was long gone, blasted away in a careless spell by Bellatrix Lestrange. She could not forget those wild eyes, those parted, dark lips, smudged and shining as if Bellatrix had smeared them with poison.
No books to help you now, little girl, she had whispered, moving like a panther. Nothing but you and me and our magic.
She'd had a voice then. Her name had been more than an echo in her own head. Hermione Granger had been someone quite different and she could still not quite grasp how she had diminished, shrunk down until she was slight as mist, the ghost in the walls.
Wrong, she said, shrill but defiant. I have a brain as well.
Oooh, so sharp, so sharp! Bellatrix sneered. Better be careful you don't cut yourself-
Her wand flicked so fast Hermione could only react with instinct; her shield flashed red as the bolt of purple light rebounded from it.
Bellatrix only smiled her terrible, beautiful smile. So, Mudblood-
Hermione! Lupin roared – he sprang onto the tower, eyes wild, flinging a quick succession of spells at Bellatrix. His next words were fired at Hermione. Go! Run!
Yes, run! Bellatrix mocked, countering his magic with sweeping gestures, body as sinuous as a snake. It's over now – the Boy Who Lived is nothing, nothing, nothing, and the Dark Lord has all that he deserves!
Including you? Lupin said softly. If you think you are anything more than a weapon to him, Bellatrix, you are much mistaken.
Her screech was thin and feral – she turned back to him with the ferocity of a wounded animal. You are wrong!
Hermione was forgotten, a toy tossed aside as Bellatrix aimed all her energies at Lupin. She wanted to stay and help, but one look from him said he would not tolerate it, and obedience to authority was deep in her bones. She would only be in the way, leverage if Bellatrix thought to use her.
Nor did she have the battle skills to help. Light flew about them in a dizzying display, until they were lit by gold and green and red, until the walls shattered about them. She didn't even know some of the spells, although the Unforgivable Curses she knew far too intimately.
The tower rocked. She was thrown to her knees, dust raining down on her. Knowing she could not stay, she could not let Lupin risk so much for nothing, she crept to the stairs and went down, wand at the ready, the curses she had memorised so arduously on her lips.
She had left him, and he had died.
Hermione could not forgive herself for that. Each night, she came back, and remembered anew, ached anew, hated anew.
But she didn't come back for him. She came back for another friend.
George said there's a way, Ron had said. He said the Order knew this might happen...they planned for the worst, hoped for the best, that old routine. They have a signal. Use it, and one of them – us now, I suppose – will find you.
It had been a lull in the fighting, the two of them crammed behind a desk, She remembered how pale he seemed, blood livid on his cheek and arm. He'd roused a shadow of his old cheeky grin for her.
They won't need to, she'd hissed. We'll make it – Harry's still alive-
His smile faded. Hermione...you saw what happened to him.
He's alive! she insisted. We can rescue him. We have to. As long as he's alive, it isn't over. The Boy Who Lived.
I hope you're right, he'd said quietly, seeming infinitely older. She saw his grief then, raw on his face, as if he was fighting not to break apart. Hermione...I...
Whatever he was about to say was destroyed by the explosion that turned the desk into powder and threw them both backwards. A curtain of fire separated them, and then she was trying to fight a manticore - one battle disintegrated into another until it was a mad rush through the castle – walls and flames and wind and monsters.
And the place where the war had ended for her.
The library. Him.
It had ended, but she could not forget the words Ron had said. She clung to them. Some part of her wanted to believe that even in a world subsumed so completely by Voldemort and his endless, starving ambition, the Order survived.
So she raised her wand, as she did every night, and sent up the spell-
She hesitated. She always sent it up when the midnight lights were at their brightest, trusting a casual observer would think her signal part of the show. But lately, the thought had begun to niggle at her: what if no one could see it? What if she had hidden it so well she was all but invisible, even to the eyes that wanted to see her?
So that night, she waited until the lights were dim, muted – and then, ignoring her fear, she whispered the spell.
Light rose into the sky to join the flames simmering there; but this unfolded itself into the outline of a bird and blazed for a moment, white on the indigo sky.
If any of the Order remained...if they looked at the right moment...
She had cast the spell hundreds of times. No one had come. Logic said she should give up. But she would not. Even as every night whittled down the probability further, she defied statistics and she defied the ruined world she stood in, and hoped.
She stood there a moment longer, then as it always did, the memory of Bellatrix Lestrange drove her back down the stairs, back into the walls.
X - X - X - X - X
She never went out in daylight. Some days, she lingered until sunrise, but once the light had become more white than grey, the sky hinting at blue, she departed. It was too much to see what remained of Hogwarts. Night hid the worst of its wounds; daylight revealed them cruelly.
But she did roam freely at night. And midnight always found her in the same place, the only place she had been unable to leave to the intruding flora and magical debris.
In the library, it was almost as if nothing had changed. The silence here was safe and authorised, that of a sacred space, not the hollow hush of a morgue. The scent of old books and resin was comforting, the few splintered shelves carefully repaired by her. She knew its nooks and niches, walked its narrow aisles with surety.
Voldemort, she was sure, could not have plundered all of Hogwarts' secrets. Oh, he had left the library in a mess, books thrown on the floor, spines bent and trodden upon, fingermarks on the pages, but she doubted he'd read anything. Worlds to conquer, after all, people to oppress.
It was her finest weapon: knowledge. In three years, she had absorbed spell after spell, truth after truth. Not knowing what waited for her if she ever left, everything was relevant. Everything mattered.
She told herself that she would leave, as soon as she was ready. But Hermione knew that if she left, it was unlikely she would return, so she gobbled down words like a glutton. One more day, she told herself every day, and then I will be prepared.
There would be no more running. She wouldn't leave again because she didn't know enough. So she had to be prepared, had to be ready, had to have a knowledge so vast that she would never abandon anyone again, that she would never hear anyone die while she still had words and truth and magic.
Book after book, night after night. Fierce and determined as any warrior, she honed her weapons. Soon, she told herself. Soon I will be ready.
She went to the restricted section, as she did most nights, and dug out the tome she was partway through. It was an awkward weight in her arms, the parchment rough on her fingers-
"You don't change, do you?" The voice was cool and contemptuous and unmistakable. "World's in crisis, the Dark Lord's running the show, and you're still looking for revelation in the library."
The book slid from her frozen hands, thudding onto the floor. Hermione turned, fear cold in her spine.
The moonlight turned him to a monochrome angel, bones angular and bare as ivory beneath the silver light, hair pale, half his face masked in shadow. His wand gleamed at one hip; a hooked knife at the other, and neither was as deadly as the smile on his lips. The Dark Mark was stark on his arm.
Somehow, she found the courage to meet those eyes, turned to liquid in the gloom, amused and empty.
"That was always your mistake," he said softly, and stepped towards her in a lazy saunter. "Being so-"
Hermione snatched for her wand – he moved, a blur, and the impact of his fist on her wrist sent the wand clattering amidst the shelves.
"-predictable," he said without missing a beat, and his stare cut like a blade. "Careless, Mudblood. Very, very careless."
He was right. Damn him. He was right, and she was afraid, because they had found her at last.
In the gloom, Draco Malfoy's smile curved like a scythe.
And far away, she heard a clock strike midnight.
X - X - X - X - X
Thoughts and criticism adored.