Chapter One: Reboot
Disclaimer: Only the plot is mine. The characters, setting, and everything else belong to JKR.
Author's note: This is the alternate plot path I've had in my head for my Fated fic. Writing both storylines at the same time is probably not a wise decision (and might be downright silly), but I found it impossible to ignore. The background in both stories are the same, but aside from this first chapter, they're completely different and can stand on their own. If you've read the other fic, then you can skip this chapter as there's not much new.
"Wow," whispered Hermione in awe. "That has got to be the tallest tree I've ever seen."
It was summer time, and young Hermione was stuck at her grandmother's house. She had sought refuge in the library for the first few weeks, away from her cousins who didn't like her. However a couple days ago, her mother had kicked her out, all but ordering her to play outdoors.
And so she took to exploring the surrounding woods, using all caution to avoid her troublesome cousins. So far she had discovered several odd stones, one which she thought looked like a dragon and that she tried to take home, but couldn't. She had spied countless small animals, mainly rabbits and squirrels, but most of them had run away at the mere sight of her. She had even encountered a snake once, a small garden snake that could do her no harm. But nothing she had found so far had been half as magnificent as the tree in the clearing before her.
Hermione tilted her head back, trying to see the top of the tree but found that she could not. For a moment she thought how it was strange that she could have missed seeing this tree from her window in the bedroom she shared with her parents. Casting that thought aside, she ran towards the tree and hugged the trunk, its rough wood feeling warm against her bare arms. They barely covered a fraction of the trunk. She grinned widely, mentally congratulating herself for being right. She had never been in the presence of a larger tree.
"I wonder how long it took you to grow this big," she told it cheerfully. "You're truly the mightiest oak I've ever seen."
A peal of laughter sounded from beside her, startling Hermione, who thought she was alone. Jumping, she turned to her side and saw a young woman, decked out in flowing robes of white and green, smiling merrily at her. "My tree is no oak, child, but an ash," the woman told Hermione gently.
Hermione looked up at the tree again. "I thought oak trees were the largest," she told the woman primly. While she had never read up on the subject, she felt that she could rely upon the experience of all her four years and that told her that oaks were larger than all other trees.
"Perhaps a common oak is larger than a common ash. My tree can hardly be considered common, however. I have been told that Yggdrasil herself was an ash much like this one," the lady calmly replied.
Hermione had no idea what the woman was talking about, but she filed her words in the back of her mind, planning to look up what they were later. Something was off about this strange lady. "Who are you?" asked the young girl suspiciously.
"No one who means any harm to you."
Hermione rolled her eyes. Of course the strange lady would say something like that. It did feel like the truth, however. Somehow she got the sense that the woman felt benevolent towards her and wasn't going to harm her in any way, even though she had nothing concrete to base that judgment on.
"No, no, it is very much the truth. Why would I want to harm my own granddaughter?"
Hermione froze. "My grandmother is back at her house," she said stiffly. She surreptitiously glanced around, getting ready to run.
"Your grandmother?" repeated the woman, cocking her head to one side as though confused. "I'm sorry, child. I thought you were Elizabeth's daughter, Helen."
"Helen is my mother," said Hermione. She too was now confused. Perhaps the lady did know her family, seeing how she knew the names of both Hermione's mother and grandmother. "Elizabeth is my grandmother, and she's not doing well," she added.
"That long has it been?" the lady murmured to herself. "No wonder that I've been all but forgotten." She sighed. "I would have never expected that it would take this long. But perhaps I should have expected this, considering my mate was a Muggle. The magic of my line has been hidden for so long, and I am lucky its first witch is also its first blossom."
Hermione ignored the strange lady's words. Clearly the lady was not all there, and that was why she was talking to herself using such nonsensical words. She turned her attention back to the tree, marveling it once more. Hermione placed her hand on its trunk and she sensed that it was overjoyed to see her.
"No, not it but she rather," the lady said, standing directly behind her. She laid her hand on the trunk right next to Hermione's. "Her heart and mine are one and the same, and we share the same duty. I would not have lingered so long after my love had passed away if it weren't for her. I could not leave her behind any more than I could have turned my back on him and done as my family asked." She smiled as she bent down so she was level with Hermione. With a flourish, she cupped her hands together and then opened them once more. Hermione gasped. In the middle of the woman's hands was a pendant that hadn't been there before.
"Take it," said the woman. "It's yours."
Hermione shook her head no. "I'm not supposed to take anything from strangers," she said. Her hands itched to reach for the pendant, but she fought that feeling. Her parents would be livid if they knew she had accepted such a gift from a total stranger, even if that stranger did seem to be acquainted with her mother's family.
The woman smiled. "But I'm not giving anything to you. This is yours. It always has been and always will be." She offered it again, and this time Hermione could not resist the tug she felt towards the trinket. She slowly examined the pendant. It was very simple in design, a thin silver chain with a smooth stone as its pendant. Without thinking, she unfastened the clasp. She was able to put it on and redo the clasp easily. It was almost as though the pendant wanted for her to wear it.
"That's good." The woman was still smiling but now it seemed sad. "You are a lady of the forest, my child, its guardian. This is your connection to it, and you must keep this safe." The woman gently tugged upon the pendant, but it held fast. "Good. It shan't be taken off, not until it's time."
"And then what?"
The lady glanced at her tree. "I'm sorry, my child. It's not something that can be understood without actually experiencing it. But don't worry. When the time comes, you'll know what I can't tell you now. Run along back home, dear one. Your mother is probably very worried for you. Helen always was a fretful child. You had best get back to her for it has become very late."
It was on the tip of Hermione's tongue to refute that but to her surprise when she looked at the sky, the sun was almost setting. "Oh no!" she cried. She ran back to her grandparents' house, without sparing a single glance for the woman she had met in the clearing. Her mother was waiting outside the front door, pacing back and forth as she wrung her hands. She flew across the room to hug her daughter once she saw her. It wasn't until much later that Hermione was roundly scolded for staying out so late. However nothing was said of her new pendant.
The rest of the summer flew by after that. Her mother insisted on Hermione staying by her side, saying that she couldn't trust the young girl to play outside by herself any more. Hermione was happy to stay inside with her mother and returned to reading as many books she could from the library. Three weeks later, they returned home, her parents unable to stay away from their practice any longer. Hermione soon relegated her memory of the strange lady to the back of her mind, choosing to focus on learning as much as she could about everything instead.
However, once in a while, when she was alone at home in the back garden, she would finger the pendant that still laid around her neck. She could almost believe that she could hear the trees whispering amongst themselves, promising one another that they would watch over her while she was still young. It was magic; she knew it and she reveled in it. Nothing her parents said ever convinced her otherwise. While the accidents that happened around her could be explained away, this was too real for her to ever ignore.
She was proven right in the summer of her twelfth year, when her family was visited by Minerva McGonagall. The kind old lady informed them all that Hermione was a witch. Though her parents were surprised, Hermione took it all in stride. She had known, all along, that she was different, and she thought that this explained it all.
Learning that she was a witch didn't explain the pendant that still hung in place around her neck. However, she remained ignorant of this fact for a couple more years. Eventually she learned just what the strange lady had been. Eventually she thought to ask her mother about her grandmother's grandmother, and she came to understand that she was no mere witch. No, she could never be called that, and she was busier than ever after learning the secret of her lineage. She did her best to master ordinary magic as well as the power that had skipped so many generations to flower once more in her.
Hermione absently brushed her hands against the trunks of the trees she passed. Oak, pine, yew, sycamore, and then pine again, she thought. She recognized them not by sight, as it was the night was pitch black, but by touch. They were mostly pines, but they all did as she bid and cleared a path for her through the Forbidden Forest.
She hadn't been able to communicate as well with her friends when she had been here last year. She and Harry had come so close to being attacked by the centaurs themselves. That should have never happened. They should have been perfectly safe in the middle of a forest. Over the summer, she had devoted herself to improving her skills. She no longer needed to hold her pendant in her hands to gauge the forest's emotions. She could find that out simply by standing still and listening. She had asked them directly where the herd currently was, and the trees acting as one were leading her towards them.
And this time, they will keep me safe. Her connection with the forest was stronger this year and would ensure that. It hadn't been easy learning that she wasn't just human, but a witch. Likewise she was having trouble coming to grips that she wasn't just a witch, but a dryadmeant to act as a voice for the forest. That much, at least, was clear though. It was hard to find anything in the library about the subject. Sometimes she felt as though she was just stumbling about in the dark when it came to controlling her powers. I wish I had more time back then. I should have asked more questions, demanded that she give me better answers.
She sighed. Unfortunately, she could no longer go back and ask all of her questions. Hermione had asked her mum about her grandparents' old place, but evidently it had been sold after her grandmother had passed away. Her mum had gone on to say that a rogue lightning strike had started a fire through the woods out back, and the house had ultimately burnt down as well. It wasn't the response Hermione had been hoping for.
How much further? she asked silently. The answer came from every direction that it wasn't far. Hermione reached for her wand to reassure herself that it was still in place. She didn't want to take any chances. She knew that the forest would protect her, but she wanted to be able to defend herself with her own magic if the need arose. She wasn't going to be much of a guardian if she couldn't at least do that. She took a deep breath and then continued to follow along the path the forest was making.
Suddenly the branch of a pine to the right of her bent down sharply, deflecting an arrow shot straight at Hermione. Whirling around, she peered through the darkness, trying to make out just where the arrow had come from. She had no success. "Show yourselves," she commanded with confidence.
"Ha! The human child thinks that we centaurs listen to the likes of her," a mocking voice called out.
She raised herself to her full height, silently cursing the fact that she wasn't very tall at all. "Have it your way then. You'll find no cover here," she told the speaker haughtily. She mentally commanded the forest to move away from the centaurs so that they could no longer hide in the brush. In a moment's time, she was able to see the group of five centaurs who had fired upon her.
"A spell!" hissed a dark centaur who Hermione remembered from last year's confrontation with Umbridge. He pulled another arrow from his quiver and aimed at her. "How dare you use your magic to affect the forest so!"
She merely cocked an eyebrow, wholly unconcerned. "I used no magic," she said. "I simply asked them to move and they did." She smiled and laid a hand upon the tree closest to her. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"Used no magic?" the centaur echoed. "Then how—"
Just then one of his companions uttered a cry as realization dawned across his face. "No mere witch is she," he said. "Can you not feel how the forest reacts to her? She's a dryad." He lowered his bow, and the rest slowly followed his example.
The dark centaur sniffed haughtily. "You may be right," he said, "but she's young and not matured, no match for the last lady who reigned here."
"True," the other centaur agreed. "And as such, she cannot give lasting orders. But the forest will protect her, nonetheless, until she's grown and has found her mate. Trying to harm her is folly." He looked towards Hermione. "But any more than that is not forthcoming. We would have to honor the wishes of a mature dryad, ere we lose our home, but a youngling like yourself cannot expect the same."
The centaurs melted into the forest before Hermione could say a word or ask the trees around them to block their way. She wanted to chase after them, asking what they knew about dryads. Clearly they knew more than her—they mentioned how she was not fully developed and had yet to find a mate. But it was getting light, and she had to get back to Hogwarts before she was discovered missing. She sighed, then asked the trees of the forest to guide her back home.
But though they had been cryptic, she was still able to focus her research a bit more the next morning. In the past, Hermione had generally read up on what her powers were and how to control them. She had ignored the sections in her books referring to how dryads matured. The next evening she went back to peruse those sections, blushing mightily through some of the more graphic descriptions offered therein. But once she was finished, she knew a bit more about what it meant to be a dryad and what the centaurs had meant.
Every dryad, it seemed, had her own mate. While she would not die if she failed to find him, she still needed him to complete her. She wouldn't mature in her powers, nor would she be able to ever have any children, unless she bonded with him. This was a rather unexpected setback for Hermione. She hadn't thought to look in these sections, given their rather graphic nature, but it was obvious that she would never have the sort of control she needed to ward the Forbidden Forest from Death Eaters until she not only found her mate, but bonded with him as well.
She blushed at that thought. She was still too young for something like that, she believed. From the various descriptions, it was clear that the bonding ritual also had a good deal of magic in it—the sort of magic that dealt with fertility. Her cheeks burned even more as she recalled the details she had learned. No, she definitely did not think she was ready for something that permanent.
Of course, it wasn't as though it really mattered. She didn't even know who her mate was, after all. The books had all went on about how a dryad was naturally attracted to her mate and how he caught her attention like no other man. She couldn't think of anyone like that. At first she had thought maybe Ron, but she had soon ruled him out. She could ignore him whenever she felt like that, particularly when he was being obnoxious. Evidently, a dryad couldn't ignore her mate, no matter how hard she tried.
Hermione sighed and gathered up her books, deciding she might as well go to the Great Hall to get some breakfast. Her powers wouldn't be as much use to Harry as she had hoped. She paused for a minute, thinking of her friend, and then sighed. No, she didn't think Harry was it, either. Which was good, in its own way, because she knew that Ginny had been in love with him for a long time. She would have hated to be in competition with the other witch for Harry. Especially as Hermione knew that she would lose. While she wasn't a troll, she simply wasn't as striking as Ginny.
Hermione walked downstairs, feeling resigned. There was no hope for it. She probably hadn't even met her mate yet. The books had made it clear that once a dryad laid eyes upon her mate, she was drawn to him and was always seeking his attention. She could feel his pain and his strong emotions even before they were bonded. There simply was no wizard in the entire school like that for Hermione. That too was just as well, she thought. She didn't think she was ready.
A shock of white hair caught her eye as she entered the Great Hall. She peered over at the Slytherin table where Draco Malfoy had decided to make an appearance today. He was sitting off to one end by himself and looking paler than usual. Hermione shook her head as she walked to her own House's table. Both Harry and Ron thought that Malfoy was up to no good these days, and she certainly understood why. He had been acting suspiciously lately. Still something told her that the boy wasn't as evil the way her friends believed he was; that was more the influence of his environment than anything else. There was no way she would ever be able to convince her boys of that fact though.
Boys were just stubborn like that.
She pushed thoughts of Malfoy out of her head and instead focused on looking over her Transfiguration essay one last time before she turned it in. Over the next several weeks, she lost herself in her schoolwork, deciding to concentrate on that since she would be unable to use her other powers effectively for some time to come. For all intents and purposes, she almost forgot about what she had learned about dryads and their mates.
That changed late one spring evening.
Having just returned from studying downstairs, she was in the midst of getting ready for bed. Suddenly she gasped and fell to her knees, clutching at her chest. It burned painfully, and it felt as though someone had tried to slash it open. She took a shuddering breath, then looked down at her chest. There was no blood. That surprised her. Both her heart and her chest ached so much that she ought to be bleeding profusely.
"Hermione?" Lavender asked from behind her. "Are you all right?"
Hermione tried to answer, but found that she couldn't. It was all she could do to breathe. She blinked away the tears that had sprung in her eyes and tried once more to speak. "Yes," she gasped out. "Just a bit dizzy, that's all."
Her two roommates exchanged doubting glances. "You don't look that well," said Parvati. "I think we should take you to see Madam Pomfrey."
"No!" Hermione would have said more but it had become even harder to breathe. Merlin, were those black spots appearing before her eyes? "I'm fine," she repeated herself. "I just need to rest." Deep down, she knew that Hogwarts' medi-witch couldn't do anything to help her.
Neither Lavender nor Parvati looked inclined to believe her. "All right then," Parvati said finally. "We'll help you into bed." The two of them stepped forward on either side of Hermione and helped her to her feet. With their aide, she was able to transverse the short space that separated her from her bed.
"If you're not feeling well by morning though we'll take you to the hospital wing," Lavender added.
"I'm positive I'll be better by then." Hermione closed her eyes. Maybe she would get better if she couldn't notice how her vision was being affected. It seemed to work. She could breathe more steadily now, and she silently vowed to recover before Lavender could make good on her threat.
She didn't want any help from the witch who all but stole Ron away from her.
No matter that Hermione had decided that she really wasn't all that into her gangly best friend. She still didn't like losing at anything, even if she didn't care all that much for the prize.
That night seemed to last several lifetimes to Hermione. She would have random episodes of pain so intense that it was all she could do to maintain consciousness. Slowly, however, the pain receded and those spasms became less and less frequent. By the time the sun finally rose, she was feeling more like her old self again. Though rather grouchy and sleep-deprived from whatever had happened last night, she was able to form coherent thoughts again, and that was what really mattered.
Unfortunately for her, that didn't last for too long. A little bit after she met up with her friends, Harry admitted that he had at least a dozen detentions for what he had done to Malfoy last night. She gasped as Harry described what had happened. It was unfathomable. It just couldn't be.
But if her friend was to be believed, evidently he had cursed Malfoy around the same time Hermione was afflicted by that strange attack.
Hermione could hear herself speaking but she didn't know what she was saying. Her body was operating on auto-pilot as her mind rushed to examine the consequences. She came to the same conclusion again and again, no matter how many times she tried to find an alternate that fit all the facts.
Draco Malfoy was her mate.
It made perfect sense. That would explain why she was in so much pain the evening before; she had been suffering from the aftereffects of Harry's attack on him. And Malfoy had always drawn her eye ever since she met him on the Hogwarts Express while searching for Neville's toad. She had told herself it was because he was her enemy that it was best for her to keep her eye on that, but if she was being honest with herself, it was more than that. She had never believed that he was all that bad unlike her best friends. And he had always been able to affect her. She still remembered how she missed one class back in third year because she was so consumed with thinking about him. It made so much sense that she couldn't believe that she hadn't figured it out before this.
She cried herself to sleep that night. Fate was cruel, and it had doomed her to a lifetime of loneliness. Her mate had turned out to be the last wizard on earth who would accept her. Hermione knew that Malfoy despised her for being a Muggle-born. There was no way he would agree to bond with her. He probably wouldn't even want her to touch him, not wanting for her to contaminate him with her filthy self.
She turned over and hugged her pillow. Fate was cruel, but Hermione would survive. She would be lonely forever and would never have full control of her powers but she would still live. That was something. And it would have to be enough. For she would have her pride, even if she couldn't have her man.