Despite three solid days of enforced rest, Hermione managed to oversee Potions exams and perform her duties as head of the anniversary event committee. She had taken advantage of all who had visited her in the hospital wing, and no one had left without a task to perform or a role to fulfil. When the morning of the event finally dawned, even the weather dared not oppose her. She stood on the grounds outside the Great Hall and welcomed the midday sun that soaked through her robes to warm her skin. The battle monument had been positioned just outside the Great Hall windows, to be revealed after the final speech. She hid the statue with a Disillusionment Charm, then gazed skyward when a shadow blocked the light.
A pair of Thestrals flew overhead, so low their skeletal hooves skimmed the treetops.
Two for joy, she thought.
It had been a lone Thestral at the start of term that had reminded her of the magpie-counting poem she'd sung as a child. So much had transpired since the day she'd stood in the Great Hall and watched the solitary creature fly to the Forbidden Forest. In nine short months, she had found love and she had been pursued by hate; she had fought for life, and she had tasted death. The sun felt all the warmer for knowing how lucky she was to be bathed by its bright rays. She told herself it was the glare of the sun—not the mated pair of Thestrals—that made her eyes fill with moisture. She had no business getting weepy so early. It would be hard enough to keep her eyes dry once the afternoon's speeches commenced.
"Professor, thank goodness!"
Hermione blinked rapidly and turned to find Emilia Woodhouse, the Gryffindor first-year she'd taught before Snape's return, racing across the grounds.
"What is it?" she asked when the girl stopped before her.
"There's been an accident!" She pointed into the distance. "Behind Greenhouse Two. Come quickly!"
Hermione's heart pounded as she tried to keep pace with a pair of fast, twelve-year old legs. They both stopped short when they rounded the corner to Greenhouse Two. Hermione touched Emilia's shoulder, then said, "Shh."
Laughter floated across the soft grass. Neville sat across from Sandy Creevey, in the centre of what had once been an empty field. Overturned carts surrounded them, and hundreds of exploded plants littered the landscape.
"Are you sure you're not injured?" Neville asked Sandy.
"I'm fine." She shook her fingers through her cropped curls and chuckled when clumps of dirt and leaves showered her lap. "Are you alright?"
"Just a little singed," he said, "but that's nothing new." He stood and brushed debris from his robes, then held out his hands and helped Sandy to her feet.
The young woman smiled up at him, silent for several moments, and Hermione wondered if either realised they had yet to release each other's hands.
"I'm so sorry," Sandy said. "I'm not sure what happened. I haven't been able to do magic in years—not since I was a little girl."
Neville grinned. "You don't have to apologize. I've studied magic from the best witches and wizards in the world, and I still blow up the plants on occasion."
Hermione stifled her laughter and drew Emilia back around the corner of the greenhouse.
"Shouldn't we help them, Professor?"
"I think Professor Longbottom can handle this one," she said. Finally.
"If you say so." The girl shrugged and skipped back to the castle.
Hermione hugged herself tightly and smiled. Neville and Sandy had been covered in soil and roots and leaves, and yet both had seemed oblivious, as if they couldn't focus on anything but each other's eyes. It was a very good sign. Hermione resisted the urge to spy on them a bit longer. Instead, she congratulated herself for having assigned Neville the role of Muggle florist liaison, then she returned to the castle and her interminable task list.
A delegation from the Ministry arrived first. Hermione greeted Gregor Ustinov's pursed lips with a cool nod, relieved when the headmistress escorted him away. Election of a new Minister for Magic couldn't come soon enough. She just hoped the people were wise enough to reject Ustinov's bid for re-election.
The crowd swelled, and before long she found herself surrounded by a sea of bright red hair, consumed by the Weasleys. Molly and Arthur surprised her with a crushing hug while George and Angelina accused her of trying to best the scar on Snape's neck with one of her own. She had forgotten how much she'd missed being swallowed by this clan. Charlie, Bill, and Fleur shook her hand, then she met Percy's wife, Audrey, for the first time. Finally, she greeted Ron, who stood to the side with Harry and Ginny. She smiled when she spotted his fingers threaded through those of Penny, the purple-eyed witch.
"All prepared for your speech?" she asked Harry.
"As ready as I'll ever be."
"I can't believe McGonagall talked you into this," Ron said.
Hermione grinned. "The headmistress can be very persuasive."
She'd been stunned when Harry had agreed to deliver the final speech, as well. Snape, of course, had tried to argue that his own presence at the podium was superfluous, given Harry's commitment, but the will of the headmistress had won out in the end.
Hermione glanced at her watch and searched for Snape. The headmistress's speech would begin soon, yet she hadn't seen him since breakfast. She excused herself from the Weasleys and headed towards the castle.
Very few empty seats remained by the time she finally located him, back on the grounds outside the Great Hall. Hushed whispers announced his arrival first, an excited hiss that rolled through the crowd like ripples in a pond. Considering he escorted Narcissa Malfoy, followed closely by Draco and Luna, she supposed some speculation was to be expected. Stories of Lucius's arrest had filled the newspapers for days—nothing captured the public's interest like the downfall of the rich and mighty. Hermione had not expected to see Narcissa in attendance, although the woman's bravery shouldn't have surprised her. Anyone strong enough to answer Voldemort's questions with calm lies was unlikely to be cowed by a bit of gossip.
Snape Conjured three new chairs at the end of a row for the Malfoys. Once they were seated, he leaned over and spoke in Narcissa's ear. She stiffened, then inclined her head and clasped her hands in her lap. Hermione started when he straightened and motioned her forward. She thought she'd been rather hidden, standing behind the many rows of white chairs, but he'd obviously known her exact location. After a brief hesitation, she ignored the curious glances from the crowd and joined them.
Greeting Narcissa wasn't nearly as awkward as she'd anticipated. Having Draco and Luna close proved a helpful distraction, and talk soon turned to the baby.
"Are you certain you're not carrying twins again?" Hermione eyed Luna's stomach.
"No," she answered. "Just one little boy who was supposed to be here three days ago." She frowned and shifted in her seat.
They grew silent as the headmistress spoke. Hermione kept her emotions in check, although it helped that she'd already read the headmistress's speech and knew what to expect. She noted many tear-streaked faces in the crowd that had obviously not been so fortunate.
The Minister took the stage next, but it was Draco's frantic voice she heard first.
"Now?" he said. "You're certain?"
"Oh, yes." Luna's face became a mask of pain, but after a few moments, she panted and said, "Right now."
Snape had already signalled for Poppy.
"The contractions started about three hours ago," Luna told the nurse.
"Luna!" The concern on Draco's face took the sting from his chastising tone.
"I wanted to hear Professor Snape's speech first," she explained. "And Harry's."
The nurse waved her wand over Luna's abdomen. "We must get her into a bed at once—this baby will not wait long."
"Have you any Ortus potion?" Snape asked.
"Of course not." Poppy seemed affronted. "Why would I keep labour and delivery potions at a school?"
He glanced at Luna. "I can make a small batch quickly."
"I'll prepare a bed and the instruments," Poppy said and hurried away.
Snape rose to leave, but Hermione stopped him.
"Your speech is next," she argued. "I can brew the potion."
"Have you prepared Ortus before?"
"No," she admitted. "But I watched it being made at university."
He pursed his lips.
Luna hunched forward in her seat, seized by another contraction.
"Right, just hurry," Hermione told Snape. She narrowed her eyes at his retreating back, not entirely sure he hadn't somehow arranged the situation to get out of his speech.
Through a series of Levitation Charms and frequent stops for contractions, Hermione, Draco, and Narcissa manoeuvred Luna inside the castle. They had paused at the base of the main staircase when Luna tugged on Draco's arm.
"I want to ask her now," she said.
Draco glanced at Hermione, then turned his furrowed brow to his wife. "It can wait, love. You're sort of in the middle of something right now."
"You asked Severus already." Luna's face became petulant. "I want to ask Hermione."
"Ask me what?"
Draco nodded at Luna, whose smile sparkled in her bright blue eyes.
"We were hoping you would consent to be the baby's godmother," Luna said to Hermione.
Hermione gasped and looked to Draco for confirmation. Given her role in having his father sent to prison, she was amazed he was willing to speak to her, much less share something so personal.
He grinned. "What do you think?"
Her eyes filled, yet she hesitated and turned to the last member of their quartet. Narcissa's face was impossible to read, although Hermione suspected if she were entirely opposed to the idea, her disapproval would have been evident. Narcissa's elegant features seemed to soften under Hermione's gaze.
"I would be honoured," Hermione said. She kissed Luna's cheek, then assisted her up the staircase to a waiting Poppy.
Not five minutes had passed when the sound of running footsteps heralded the arrival of Snape and the freshly brewed potion. Poppy ushered everyone but the Malfoys out of the infirmary. The large, double doors closed before them, and they were left to wait.
Hermione strolled to the open window and gazed down. The Minister's voice rode the warm summer breeze, a dull monotone that inspired repose rather than reflection. Her lips curled into a snarl. Snape's arms slid around her, and her mood improved at once. She should probably insist he return to the event and deliver his speech, but she indulged in a rare act of selfishness and relaxed into his embrace.
His journey from the dungeons had obviously been an arduous one. A growl accompanied his panting when she said, "You'd better catch your breath, old man."
He turned her around and arched one dark brow. "You have been warned against using such terms. If you persist, I shall be forced to remind you of the consequences."
The threat still held the power to stir her blood. "Old man, old man, old man," she taunted.
His lips covered hers. In an instant, she was pinned between the wall and his body. A few moments more, and he wasn't the only one panting.
He lifted his head and glanced down the deserted corridor. "Where is an alcove when you need one?"
She chuckled. "It's a good thing there aren't any about—I wouldn't want to miss my godson being born."
"Ah, they asked you."
"I was stunned."
"As was I, when they asked me."
She imagined Lucius's reaction to the news and tried not to shiver. "I suppose they know what they're doing."
"Let us hope they are smarter than they look."
She rolled her eyes. "You can't fool me: you adore them both."
"I will admit to enjoying their company, but I have a rule against deeming others adorable."
"Except me, of course."
"You?" He titled his head and pondered the ceiling. "You manage to defy every carefully constructed rule I have. No, adorable is certainly not the first word that comes to mind when I consider you."
"Irresistible?" she asked.
"Frustrating," he answered. "Inordinately stubborn. Too much courage and not enough caution. Frequently vexing. In fact, you are probably the most exasperating person I have ever met—"
"—although that observation only makes it more difficult to understand my need to have you near." He looked annoyed.
Given his insults, she didn't feel particularly inclined to care.
"Which is why you must marry me," he said.
"What?" She blinked.
He couldn't be serious. And yet the longer she remained silent, the more nervous he looked.
"This isn't something to joke about," she warned.
"I appreciate that. Marry me."
Her heart raced. Her mind was less trusting. "You're teasing me, right?"
"I am not. Marry me."
"It's supposed to be a question, you realise. Not a demand … or … four."
He sighed. "Hermione Jane Granger, will you consent to be my wife?"
"My middle name isn't Jane. It's Jean."
"Are you quite certain?"
"It's my name, I'm fairly certain I'd know it better than anyone."
"I would swear it was Jane."
She grinned. "Oh, alright. It was Jane for a time, but I had it changed to Jean."
"What?" His brows drew together. "When? And why?"
"After fifth-year, because of Umbridge. Because she's a toad, and I loathed the thought of having anything in common with her, even something as innocuous as a middle name."
"It might interest you to know the toad is in Azkaban."
"What? When?" She chuckled. "And why?"
"Yesterday, in fact. Lucius has been eager to reveal his accomplices. It seems Umbridge performed many Unforgivable Curses whilst in his employ."
"She worked at Arglist?"
He nodded. "She was instrumental in ensuring their control of the pharmaceuticals supply chain."
She whistled. "Justice, at last. This day just keeps improving."
One eyebrow crept higher onto his forehead. "Must I ask the question again, or will you deign to answer me now?"
"Touchy," she said. "Why do you want to marry me, anyway?"
"I'm beginning to wonder …"
"We already promised we'd never leave one another. That's good enough for me."
"Not for me." He shook his head. "Not anymore."
He glanced at her neck. "Because I cannot abide the thought of losing you again."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"This will help ensure you do not."
"You don't really suppose I'll be any more likely to do as I'm told once we're married, do you?"
"Once we're married?" he asked. "Are you granting your consent, then?"
"I might be."
"You had better be."
"Are you sure this is what you want?" It had to be his choice, she was certain of that. Not a sense of obligation or the belief it was what she wanted from a relationship. "I can be quite happy without marriage, you know. I do not require this."
"No, but I do." He pulled her closer. "I want to fall asleep beside you each night and awaken each morning to the smell of burnt toast."
"You think you can woo me with flippancy?"
"I could have simply told you I want to explore more uses for the Private Storeroom."
"I would have agreed to marry you much sooner if you had."
"Foolish girl," she corrected.
"Yes, we old men have a weakness for foolish girls."
Applause floated up from the grounds and signalled the end of Harry's speech. Hermione wanted to add her approval, but for entirely different reasons. She glanced out the window. The audience left their seats and slowly approached the battle monument. Given the number of onlookers, the statue would soon come alive with the images of lost souls.
Before she could decide whether she was relieved or disappointed to miss the spectacle, the double doors opened and Draco beamed at them. Behind him, Luna lay in bed and cradled a platinum-haloed bundle to her chest. Narcissa stood to the side and discreetly wiped her eyes.
"Come meet your godson," Draco said.
They turned from the window, from the sight of so much loss and grief, and welcomed the tiny new life. A different sort of crying replaced the soft sobs outside. Snape didn't even mock the women when they cooed over the squirming infant. The baby's wails began tremulous but grew louder, more insistent, and were soon filled with as much indignation as newborn lungs could muster. Hermione couldn't have imagined a sweeter sound.
Life would go on, a runaway train that didn't care where it was headed or who had yet to fasten their safety belts. And that was okay with her. She had her ticket in hand, and this time, she was determined to enjoy the ride.
I first encountered the term "fan-fiction" in June of 2008. A search for the movie release date sent me to MuggleNet, and an innocent looking menu link piqued my curiosity. At that point, I still believed shipping was strictly a nautical term and slash merely a button on my keyboard. In typical fashion, I read all of two stories and promptly decided to write my own. I had no idea what I was doing (still don't), but seven weeks and 154,000 words later, I finished "A Murder of Crows." Or so I had thought. Only in editing each chapter prior to posting (which has taken fourteen months) have I come to appreciate how much I still have to learn about writing. At some point, I shall revisit the first half of the story and correct the frequent mistakes of an amateur writer. But for now, there are new stories to write and that pesky little distraction called life.
I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude to those who have helped with this story. I am fortunate to have had such incredible friends throughout this sixteen-month endeavour.
My thanks to Karelia: for holding my hand when I wibbled; for being a mentor as well as a friend; for opening my eyes to a world of possibilities I had never before imagined; for welcoming me into her heart, her home, and her family; and for introducing me to so many wonderful folks in this fandom. Oh, yeah—and for exhibiting unsurpassed patience while taking me from 80+ errors in my first chapter to Validated Author status at all three moderated archives. She is amazing. Truly.
My thanks to Little Beloved: for writing "Denial," the first fan-fic I ever read (after saying "eieew" and clicking on the SS/HG link with nothing more than morbid curiosity); for reeling me into this ship; for remaining my beta when a million real-life distractions could have pulled her away; for offering the most hilarious, grounded, and perfect responses when mean reviews made me cry; for flying to London so we could play together; and for offering a wealth of support and encouragement. I am honoured by her friendship.
My thanks to Lettybird: for Brit-picking the first half of this story, for being so kind despite my frequent butchering of the Queen's English, for travelling to London so we could play together, and for remaining a lovely friend.
My thanks to Melenka: for setting the bar so very high; for offering literary insight and truly constructive criticism; for helping me believe my dreams shall one day become reality; and for poking me with sharp, pointy sticks when I needed it. I love her oodles!
Although they may not see this, my thanks to my husband and sister: for loving me so much they sacrificed their time and freedoms to provide me the opportunity to write this story. I am certain they believed I was wasting my efforts by working so hard on an un-publishable story, yet they never failed to encourage or support me. They did a thousand little things to make my life easier, just so I could focus on writing. They even read the story—if that's not love, I don't know what is!
Last, but certainly not least, my thanks to the readers: for having the forbearance to stay with this story through sixteen months of less-than-regular updates; for leaving reviews despite my horrid inconsistency with responding to them; for patience with a twisting, turning plot; for providing insight into characters I had only thought I knew well; and for making this fandom the best place to play. Ever.
Thank you, thank you, and thank you again.
Don't forget to vote for your favourite stories (including this one!) in the upcoming SS/HG awards. Voting ends 5-Dec, 2009.
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