Disclaimer: I own nothing but my Hermione musings. J.K. owns it all.

Hermione gazed at her reflection in the mirror of Shell Cottage and a shudder passed through her at what she saw. The mess of black hair. The dirty, cracked teeth. The cold, penetrating gaze. Hermione looked on, but it was Bellatrix who stared back out at her. It was Bellatrix's hand that smoothed back her hair. It was Bellatrix's eyes who widened in surprise. But it was still Hermione's heart that sped up in fear as she looked on at her torturer. Still her keen mind behind the face she wore, telling her it wasn't real.

Looking down at the counter before her, she eyed Bellatrix's wand warily. Picking it up, using it, the very object of her torture, was almost too much for Hermione to bear. This wand had inflicted pain on her like no other. But it was so much more than that; it had done so much more. This wand had killed Sirius, had taken away more family from Harry than a boy his age should have had to lose. This wand had tortured Neville's parents into madness and robbed her friend of the childhood he'd so richly deserved.

She knew it was imagined, but Hermione could almost feel the evil energy being emitted from the object. Such a thought was crazy, of course. A wand could only do its masters bidding. Unfortunate for those who had made it, the master was none other than Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort's most loyal, if not fanatical, follower.

With a calming breath, Hermione reached forward and grabbed the wand quickly before she could psyche herself out anymore. And with it came a rush of memories.

The shooting, slicing, blinding, never-ending pain.

Him screaming her name.

Her failure, her weakness, consuming her.

The tears.

Her screams.

The unyielding wish that it would just be over. That the bitch would just end it, because Hermione was certain she could endure no more.

Hermione didn't know how long she stood in the bathroom, staring at the wand. Dimly in the back of her mind she was aware the Polyjuice she'd just taken would only last about two and a half hours. She knew she had to meet Harry, Ron, and Griphook out front.

A soft knock on the door broke Hermione out of her daze and without a thought she opened the door to reveal Ron on the other side. He stepped into the room quickly, shutting the door and performing Muffliato as Hermione turned away from him, casting her eyes down.

"Hermione, whats wrong? We have to go. Did the potion not work?" he asked in a whisper despite the bit of magic he'd just performed. Hermione said nothing, still turned away from him with her eyes on the ground. "Hermione, look at me."

"No," she whispered fiercely, causing Ron to reach out and gently turn her so she was facing him. "Don't look at me when I'm like this."

"Like what?" he asked, tilting her chin up with two fingers so her could look into her eyes. If he was at all surprised or repulsed to see Bellatrix before him, he gave no indication of it.

"I'm a monster. I just feel… wrong. This wand… in my hand… I feel the pain and the death… Merlin, Ron, I don't think I can do this."

"Yes, you can." He said it so simply Hermione had to look him dead in the eye to see he really believed it. He believed she could do anything, overcome anything.

"I can't even look at myself. Ron… she came so close to… to… I let her see me vulnerable and weak. I almost died a coward, sniveling, begging her for mercy."

She was in his arms faster than she thought it possible for him to move. There was a passion in his grip on her, but she could feel the fear and rage he was trying so desperately to hide from her as well. With his arms around her, his chin resting on the top of her head, her heart beating next to his, she felt safe, if only for a moment.

"You listen to me," he said with such emotion in his voice Hermione could almost hear him trembling. "You are Hermione Jean Granger. You are the bravest, most talented witch I know. You've performed magic I can only dream of doing. You wiped your parents' memories to protect them. You traveled through bloody time to save a man the rest of the world believed to be guilty. You've seen evil other girls your age would never be able to face, and you've done so brilliantly. You could never be weak or a bloody coward, Hermione."

"I begged her, Ron," she whispered. He gently brought a hand up from around her to gently stroke her hair.

"You were under the Cruciatus Curse, love. That's a pain no one should have to endure once, let alone what that tosser put you through. And I'm so sorry she did. Anyone would have wanted it to stop, Hermione. And not many could have made it out of that like you did. The fact that you're standing here now, ready to go out on another mission… You rightly blow my mind away."

She said nothing for a long moment. Hermione stood firmly in the circle of his arms and let his words wash over her. His hand still tenderly stroked her hair, but then she remembered it wasn't her hair. It was Bellatrix's. She was Bellatrix, and suddenly, she couldn't be out of his arms fast enough. A look of hurt flashed through his eyes as she pressed herself against the opposite wall, and she flinched when he tried to take a step closer.

"Hermione?" he asked, unsure what to do, what she needed.

"How can you look at me… hold me… when I look like her?"

Ron took a step forward, and this time she allowed it. Then he took another, and another, until he could reach out, grasp her firmly by the hips, and pull her to him. He lowered his head to her hair, and gently breathed her in before tenderly cupping her cheek and looking her in the eyes.

"You still smell like Hermione. And sound like her. I still feel it's you, Hermione. I can still look into these eyes and see you. No matter what, no matter who you dress up to be, I'll always know it's you. And I'll always be here. I'm not going anywhere… never again."

His eyes got misty, and she knew he was remembering when he left her, just as she was. A second or two later he'd composed himself and placed a tender kiss on her forehead before reaching down for her hand.

"Are you ready, love?"

Hermione breathed deeply, and glanced in the mirror one more time. In just two hours time, she would be Hermione again. She was Hermione still. Ron was right; no matter what mask she wore, she would always be herself to her core. Squeezing his hand, she nodded once, and let him gently lead her out of the bathroom and into the night where Harry and the goblin still waited.

"Everything alright?" Harry asked as they walked down the porch steps together.

"Right as rain, mate," Ron replied, stopping in front of his friend and glancing towards Hermione.

"Never better," she answered with a nod and a small smile, her hand still curled protectively in Ron's.

"The potion worked, I see. Fantastic! I'd never know it was you under there."

Hermione glanced at Ron to catch him looking at her as well. Maybe Harry was right. Perhaps to the world, she did look different.

"Well, it is. Just Hermione," she said lightly as she put her hand still closed in Ron's out for Harry to grab. Harry motioned for Griphook to join them, and the group Disapparated in a flash.

Perhaps to the world, she was just another young girl damaged by war. By grief. By loss. Hermione knew who she was. And Ron would always see her; would always know who she was deep down. And that was all that mattered.

She was Hermione Jean Granger, the brightest, cleverest, bravest witch of her age.