For thesteppyone, for her birthday. She asked for Hermione and fringe characters, so that's what I gave her! Much thanks to the boyfriend for being my Taskmaster, but also unbeta'd, so all mistakes are mine. :)
Not What She Expected
Three months after the end of the war, Professor, now Headmistress, McGonagall offers her the position of Head Girl.
"Oh, no," Hermione says immediately, shaking her head. "No, Professor."
"You are the natural choice," McGonagall tells her. "You are a hero to many, if not most of the returning students. Leadership in this coming year is of vital importance."
"Which is why you can't choose me," Hermione says gently. "A hero I may well be, and I don't doubt that many of them would follow me, but out of obligation, not true loyalty. I'm a hero to them, but I'm not one of them, not really. They hold me separate. I don't have this last year in common with them. I didn't suffer the way they did. I didn't experience this past year with them, so how can I help ensure it never happens again? I'm not the one you want, Professor."
McGonagall beholds her then with a measure of pride and respect that very nearly makes Hermione uncomfortable, for she has difficulty bringing herself to believe that she deserves it. "I know what it means to you to refuse this," she says quietly. "I have watched you over your time here closer than you know, Miss Granger. You have no idea how much of myself I see in you. Serving as Head Girl should have been your crowning glory at this school."
Hermione gives a breath of laughter, more of a smile than anything else, and looks briefly away, incredibly touched by the rare admission from a woman she respects a great deal. "I think helping to defeat Voldemort is crowning glory enough," she says. "Ginny Weasley is the Head Girl you want, Professor. They will follow her with unswerving loyalty, and she will be the leader you need."
"There is no one from her year to serve as Head Boy," Professor McGonagall warns. "Mr. Creevey and Mr. Bowles of Hufflepuff gave the ultimate sacrifice in the war. Mr. Riley of Ravenclaw did not return this year. And Mr. Avery of Slytherin was one of the most prominent aggressors last year and is currently serving time in Azkaban for his crimes in the last battle. Of the returning seventh year students, Mr. Macmillian has, like you, refused the position. With Mr. Goldstein's death, Mr. Boot is the only choice left."
"Ginny and Terry will work well together," Hermione says, certain of that fact. "I will continue to serve as Prefect if it is asked of me, but Ginny and Terry are the team you need."
Professor McGonagall sighs. "Yes," she says. "I admit, I knew this would be your answer. But," and a hint of a smile ghosts across her face, "you cannot blame me for hoping."
Four months after the end of the war, she sits in a room while Ginny Weasley conducts her first Prefect meeting, and the segregation in the room is noticeable and troubling. Hermione sees it, sees the way the Slytherin prefects are clearly set apart, not by their own doing, and red flags go up in her head, but she has no idea what to do about it. It's not as if she has the right to order the other students to sit next to the Slytherins, but the black looks being sent across the room worry her, and the gleeful, vindictive satisfaction on a very few faces send a shiver up her spine.
She is not the only person in the room to notice this; indeed, no one in the room can be unaware of it, but most are trying to pretend it doesn't exist, and Hermione can see the tension coiling stronger every moment and Ginny and Terry push valiantly forward about the heightened importance of the Prefects' leadership this year.
When a Ravenclaw boy snorts derisively and mutters, "Yeah, right," after Ginny address the elephant in the room and says they must all work to unite all four houses, and not condemn the House of Slytherin for the actions of the Death Eaters that the tension reaches its breaking point.
The Slytherin girl Hermione has been watching the whole meeting is the one to stand as soon as the words are out of the boys mouth. She is young, fifteen at most, and Hermione does not immediately recognize her. "Why do you laugh at this?" she demands of the boy, who glares at her with a blackness that chills Hermione's heart. The girl, however, is not cowed or chilled. If anything, she stands even straighter, proud and angry as she stares down every student in that room. "You blame us for the war, for the injuries you and your loved ones sustained, and I cannot say I do not understand why. But how is it fair to paint us all with the same brush? To sit there and assume that anyone who wears green is your enemy? I never raised a wand against any of you last year, or against any student. I supported you and your cause!"
"It's easy to say that now, isn't it?" snarls the Ravenclaw boy who laughed, and he stands as well, to meet the Slytherin girl eye to eye. "That's what your kind always do, once the war is won. Align yourself with the winning side and swear you were there all along! Filthy Slytherin scum!"
The Slytherin girls shakes with fury at his words and advances until she is less than a foot from him. "How dare you," she says, and Hermione's hands clench in her robes, her right hand curling tight around her wand as she waits to see if this face off will come to blows. "You have no idea what this year was like for us, for those of us forced to sit and watch while the values of our house were twisted and warped beyond recognition! My allegiance was with you, with Harry Potter, and with every person who fought against Lord Voldemort!"
"You had a pretty funny way of showing it," snarls the boy, a malicious sneer marring the lines of his face.
"And who would have accepted my help, had I offered it?" the girl challenges immediately, and then steps back to challenge the room as a whole. "Or the help of any Slytherin student?" The room shifts uncomfortably, and no one will meet her eyes. Only Hermione, Ginny, and Terry watch her without flinching, but she scarcely seems to notice them. "We would have been killed. And for what? It would have been done in secret, because Merlin forbid they offer you any hope by letting you see you were getting through to any of us! We would have just quietly disappeared the moment we so much as showed the tiniest bit of unease, and more than a few of us were, and none of you even noticed, am I right?" The room definitely fails to meet her eye after that statement. Even the other Slytherin students seem to pull back from her, as if there is still someone watching from behind the scenes, waiting to condemn them.
"'We will see justice done,'" the girl quotes then, to the silent room. "'Not vengeance.' Harry Potter said that, less than a month ago. Will you so blatantly disregard his words? Headmistress McGonagall took the Prefects of our house aside the moment we arrived here, to warn us that we had a difficult road ahead of us, to impress on us the hardships that this year would undoubtedly hold for us, to warn us that we would have to work twice as hard and behave twice as well as anyone else if we wanted to have even a hope of changing the attitude toward and the reputation of our house. And we all, every single one of us, committed to the enormity of that task, unfair as it is, because we know we have been complicit. We know we have actions to atone for! But we were assured that every Prefect in this room would support us and our goal, and help us to meet it."
She turns then to Ginny and Terry, who continue to meet her gaze without looking away. "Forgive me," she says to them. "Head Boy and Head Girl. I believe what you have said, and I believe that you are committed to helping reform Slytherin House. Please understand that when I leave this room in a few moments, I am not walking out on you. But I cannot stay here if the people from whom the rest of the school will take their example will sit in this room and so openly express such hostility and prejudice."
And with a respectful nod to the pair of them, the girl turns her back on the room and walks out.
There is stunned silence for a moment, and then the Ravenclaw boy, left standing on his own, mutters, "Well, good riddance," and Hermione is on her feet.
All eyes turn to her, some surprised, some wary, but Hermione ignores all of them and looks only to Ginny and Terry. "Head Boy, Head Girl, I too ask your forgiveness." And then she speaks to the room at large. "That girl, and I am ashamed to say I do not know her name, is right. And I will not sit in this room and watch the war be played out again while those of you with personal vendettas you cannot release enact your revenge upon innocents." She turns to the Ravenclaw boy then, and says, "You should be ashamed of yourself. You fought a war against such prejudice. It is four months gone. Do not tell me you have forgotten so quickly. Head Boy, Head Girl, I beg you to excuse me."
And then she, too, turns and leaves the room.
A young man from Slytherin who she recognizes from her year finds her later, in the library. "Astoria Greengrass," he says when she looks up from her work. "That's the girl's name." She nods in acknowledgment.
"Thank you," she says, wracking her brain for his name, but she is embarrassed when she comes up blank. "And I'm sorry. I should know your name, but I–"
"Theo Nott," he says quickly, and, with a gesture, asks permission to be seated. She grants it, and as he slides into the seat opposite her, says, "I want to thank you for what you did in there. Standing up for us. It means a lot, coming from one who has every reason to despise us."
"It is a waste of my energy to despise people," she says, and she tries with all her might to believe it, but there is a place in her that revolts, a place that throws Bellatrix Lestrange into her face, and Antonin Dolohov and Draco Malfoy and so many others.
"Then you are better than most of us," Theo says, pulling her out of her black thoughts. A pained look crosses his face then, and he takes a deep breath, as if preparing himself for what must come next. "My father," he says, "served the Dark Lord faithfully and entirely right up until the moment the Dark Lord disappeared. Then he lied through his teeth to get out of punishment. When the Dark Lord returned, my father went straight back to his side for fear of what would happen to him if he didn't. And that fear was used, and my father tortured and killed people in the Dark Lord's name, hoping for glory and recognition and everything that had been so long denied to his family, right up until he was killed for his incompetence." He closes his eyes briefly, finding the strength to go on, and Hermione watches him with a dark fascination, for this man in front of her perplexes her, and she does not understand his purpose in telling her his story. But she listens attentively, and he continues.
"I swore to myself I would never become like my father," he says. "But I did. I tortured students last year, under the direction of the Carrows, because I was scared of what might happen if I didn't. Because I thought that, maybe, it would earn me some worthwhile reward. But it didn't. All it earned me were nightmares, and a deeply rooted guilt I cannot dispel. I tell you this," he says, meeting her eye, "as an apology. Because I may not have hurt you directly, but I have been part of the problem. So I apologize to you, as I will to every Muggleborn student in this castle, and every student I hurt. This is the penance I take upon myself. I am grateful to you for what you did today, and I humbly beg your forgiveness for my part in this war."
He extends his hand to her, and she does not know what to do. She is at a loss for words, staring at his outstretched palm, because she never imagined that anyone would come to her for absolution. And yet, here is this man, whom she has never spoken to, never truly given a second thought, asking for her forgiveness.
She grasps his hand, in the end, and forgives him. And he leaves, and she doesn't know what to think. But she makes a point, from there on out, to speak to Theo Nott, to show the rest of the school that she has forgiven him. It is the least she can do, she tells herself.
Five months after the end of the war, she finds herself alone with Terry Boot.
Though a great deal of progress was made to return the castle to rights over the summer, there was simply too much damage, and so, the students and teachers put together, at the beginning of the school year, a schedule to continue the clean-up.
Terry's personal goal is to finish the reconstruction of Ravenclaw Tower, which had been completely destroyed in the final battle, and while most of it had been rebuilt before the start of the year, Terry considers it his mission to have the place returned to its former glory before the winter.
They have worked side by side with a handful of others since the beginning of the year, starting at the base of the Tower and strengthening as they work their way up, laying protective spells, clearing the remaining rubble, thinking of new ways to improve the living space. But on this day, the task left to the two of them is to reenchant the brass eagle that was the means of entrance. It is Terry who finds the spell, in an old, near-forgotten manuscript in the library, but it is Hermione who lays the enchantment.
"You always were an extraordinary witch," Terry tells her once she has, and Hermione blushes in pleased embarrassment. "Also," he says, "I don't know that I ever thanked you for what you did at the meeting last month." Hermione shrugs.
"Thanks were never asked for," she says a little awkwardly.
"No," Terry agrees. "But someone like you standing up for the Slytherins, especially after Ginny and I froze . . ." He grimaces, and the regret is clear in his face. "We should have been prepared for it, but neither of us thought that anything would come to a head so soon. We were not as quick on our feet as we should have been. You helped us save face, even though I know that wasn't your intention."
"Tell me about them," she says suddenly.
"I'm sorry?" Terry asks, taken aback.
"I feel like I don't know anyone, Terry," Hermione says, confiding this fear for the first time. "I never realized how isolating it was, being Harry Potter's best friend. But I knew Harry and Ron, and outside them, I could recognize faces, attach names to them, but I didn't really know anyone. And this year? I feel like a stranger. But you know them all. So tell me about them. Please?"
So he does. He tells her about the Prefects, more than just names and faces: Orla Quirke of Ravenclaw, who has spent every free moment since the start of the year in the library with Madam Pince, taking stock of the damage and tracking down replacement texts. Ella Cadwallader of Hufflepuff, who has suffered from night terrors since the Carrows tortured her two best friends to near insanity. Natalie McDonald of Gryffindor, Katy Bundy of Hufflepuff, Simon Capper of Ravenclaw, and Melaina Collier of Slytherin, who consider it their personal duty to rebuild the Quidditch pitch and restart the sport, not just in their houses, but in a new intermural league as well. Graham Pritchard of Slytherin, returning after two years of being taught at home by a pureblood family who wanted nothing to do with Voldemort's reign. He tells her about Edgar Davies, the Ravenclaw boy who mocked the Slytherins in the meeting because his brother, Roger Davies, was killed by one in the final battle, and he tells her about Astoria Greengrass, proud, upright, who stood up to him.
Andrew Kirke. Joseph Summers. Marius Harper. Demelza Robbins. Jack Sloper. Derek Cooper. Ariadne Muler. Elias Vaisey. Eleanor Bradstone. Kevin Whitby. She hears about all of them, the good and the bad. And when he comes to her own classmates – Ernie MacMillan, Hannah Abbot, Mandy Brocklehurst, Theodore Nott, Daphne Greengrass – she learns more about the people she went to school with for six years than she'd ever stopped to consider before.
"And what about Terry Boot?" she asks at the end of his recitation. "Our new Head Boy?" Terry hides a half-smile and shakes his head.
"Terry Boot wanted nothing more than to bury himself in a library somewhere and do important research and never have to talk to people for the rest of his life for the longest time," Terry says softly. "But then his friends Michael and Anthony," and here a shadow passes over his face and she doesn't have to ask what happened to them, "dragged him to a meeting with the possibly-crazy Harry Potter, and the rest is history. He became part of the rebellion, he watched his friends die in battle, and then someone's asking him to be Head Boy."
"Why'd you come back?" she asks then. "For your eighth year? Why didn't you take up with the Aurors like Harry and Ron and Seamus and Neville and Padma and the others?" Terry shakes his head.
"I've had enough fighting," he says simply. "I still want to spend most of my days in a library eventually, but I'm willing now to take a detour to do things like be Head Boy in a school that's falling apart, because maybe I can help put it back together." Hermione smiles.
"And Hermione Granger?" she asks him. "What do you know about her?"
"Well, she's brilliant," he says. "I've always thought she should have been a Ravenclaw. All that intelligence wasted in Gryffindor!" But he smiles at her as he says it. "She's the brightest witch of the age, some have said, and I have to agree. She's Harry Potter's best friend, but she came back to finish her schooling (to no one's surprise) even when Harry didn't. But, and now I'll tell you something that I only suspect. I can offer no proof." He glances at her to make sure she's listening, and she is, leaning toward him with a burning curiosity as to what he might say next. "I think she isn't here for the reason she thinks she is."
"What?" Hermione asks, bewildered. Terry shrugs.
"Just a feeling," he says. "Like I said, I have no proof, and I know you're not a big fan of Divination, but I learned last year to trust these feelings when I get them, and I am almost certain you're not here for the reason you think you are. But for my part, I'm excessively glad that you're here at all."
And with a nod to her, he takes his leave, and she is alone, the shock of his words freezing her in place.
Six months after the end of the war, she and Hannah Abbott are put on the DADA teaching roster together.
After much deliberation, Professor McGonagall decided not to hire a new DADA teacher for the year. As Ginny tells Hermione, "She said she didn't think she could find someone who would have anything to teach us, and if she could, she'd want that person out tracking down the Death Eaters. We agreed with her. So Neville, Seamus, and I put together a roster of students and what they should teach. Ron and Harry told me about your Repelling Charms, so I've got you down to teach during the unit on protective spells."
And so, in early November, she and Hannah spend three days teaching second and third years about Shield Charms and protective enchantments. She has her doubts initially, about working with Hannah. It isn't that she has anything against Hannah; it's more that she remembers Hannah as being a shy, quiet girl with a tendency to stress easily, and Hermione wonders if she is really the best person to teach this particular class.
Her doubts are quickly put to rest once she sees Hannah in action.
"The Shield Charm," she says to their class of second years by way of introduction. "One of the most important protective spells there is. Properly constructed, a Shield Charm will stop minor hexes, curses, and jinxes, and significantly slow and weaken stronger ones. Some people, in teaching this charm, will tell you to visualize a shield or a bubble encasing you. I disagree. Shields can be broken. Bubbles can be popped. You can use visualizations. They'll give you a decent shield. But it will have weaknesses. To create the strongest shield charm that you can, you cannot rely on simple images. Just like the Patronus charm requires positive memories to work, you will create your strongest Shield Charm by recreating the feeling that you are entirely protected. So think back to a moment when you felt as if nothing and no one could harm you. Hold on to that feeling, keep it at the forefront of your mind, and say the incantation."
And with a shouted "Protego!" she creates a blinding shield in the air around her, so strong and unyielding that even Hermione's strongest jinxes barely mar the surface.
After the class dismisses, Hermione expresses her admiration.
"Oh," Hannah says with a pretty blush. "They despaired of me for a while, last year. I'm awful when it comes to offensive magic."
"But you did all right in the DA," Hermione protests, and Hannah's smile becomes sad.
"Yes," she says slowly. "Yes, I did. Well enough to pass my OWL, at least. But when my mother was killed," a shadow flickers briefly over her features before she pushes resolutely onward, "when my mother was killed, they tortured her with jinxes and curses for hours before they finished it. And ever since then, I haven't been able to adequately perform a single one. I have a block. But," and she smiles valiantly, and Hermione has to admire her strength, "I can protect people. I'm very good at it. Not even Neville can break through my shield." There's pride in her voice, but no boasting, which Hermione also admires.
"Well, defensive spells are just as important as offensive ones," Hermione tells her, and Hannah nods.
"That's the conclusion Neville and I came to last year. He didn't want me to stay for the battle, he was worried I'd be an easy target and he wanted me to go with the evacuating students and keep them safe. But," and her chin lifts in a kind of defiance, "but I said, someone has to watch out for the fighters, too. I told him to put me at the back of the ranks, and I'd cover us from there. I did my part," she says staunchly, and Hermione has to agree.
"I'm sorry about your mother," Hermione says then.
"I am, too," Hannah says with a tinge of sadness. "She was a Muggle, did you know that? A Muggle living in a magical world. She was killed because she was willing to stand up and claim a place here, and I – I think that's admirable. It gets easier, being without her, over time. For me and for Dad."
"He pulled you out of school, didn't he?" Hermione asks, struggling to remember. Hannah nods.
"Yes. Said he needed to keep me where he could keep me safe. I'm glad he didn't shut me away, though. He spent a lot of time at the Leaky Cauldron after. Not drinking," she added quickly. "Just – just needing to get out of the empty house. So I got to know Tom and all the regulars. And I watched my father protect people. A couple of drunkards got into a duel one night. Daddy took them by the scruff of their necks and threw them out. So that the place could still be a haven for people. I think that's important, don't you?" She looks at Hermione. "Providing a safe haven like that, where people can come to be alone or be with other people? I'd like to do that, I think."
"Run a bar?" Hermione asks with interest, for it wasn't a future she'd imagined for the other girl.
"Why not?" Hannah asks with a smile. "I already know all about it. And I like people."
"Must be nice," Hermione says with a sigh. "To know what you want to do with your life."
"You don't?" Hannah asks, and Hermione shakes her head, biting her lip.
"I don't," she confirms. "I have no idea, and . . . that scares me. I think I came back to school in part to put off having to make a decision." She's never admitted that to anyone else, and she isn't sure why she's telling Hannah, except that something about Hannah feels safe, like she can tell the other girl won't judge her, will listen to her fears, and might even be able to help. "Everyone expects me to teach," she confides, "and I think I could, and I think I'd be good at it, but, I don't know. It just doesn't feel like enough."
"But you turned down the Aurors' offer," Hannah prompts, and it's just enough to nudge her into saying more.
"Yes, I did," she says."I've had enough fighting. Besides, I want to help make a difference, to make this world a better place than it was before, and by the time the Aurors are called in, it's too late. The person's already done the wrong, broken the laws."
"So help write the laws," Hannah says, as if it's the clearest answer in the world. "Go be one of the people that will define what kind of world the new one will be."
Hermione stares at her like she's never seen her before. "You know," she says faintly, "you are the second person who has recommended I go into magical law."
"Well, doesn't that tell you something?" Hannah asks, still with the air of one stating the obvious, and it strikes Hermione in that moment that she has, she thinks, underestimated Hannah Abbott. It strikes her, too, that Hannah will actually make a very good bartender. "Hermione, can I make an observation?" she asks then. "Not to do with career options or anything like that, just in general?"
"I – of course," Hermione says, still a bit taken aback.
"You've been holding yourself apart," Hannah says then, and it seems Hermione's surprises aren't yet finished. "From the rest of the school and all of us. I mean, you're here, and you're interacting, but it's all been very tentative. Can I ask why?"
"I –" She searches for the right words to say. "I feel like I don't belong," she finally admits. "Like I'm something of an intruder."
"Because you weren't here last year?" Hannah asks, almost incredulous. "Hermione, that's bollocks. You're one of us. You started the DA, for goodness' sake! We would never have been what we were last year without you. You're the only one who thinks you're an intruder on something sacred. You aren't. You'll be able to do a lot more good, and you'll stop feeling so much like you're floundering if you stop being so afraid of trespassing into some kind of secret clubhouse, okay? It wasn't like that. You fought side by side with the rest of us. You're one of us."
She is stunned to hear these things from Hannah Abbott, of all people, but maybe because of that, the words sink in more than they might otherwise have done.
Seven months after the end of the war, she sees firsthand the truth of Hannah's words.
She is working in the library on a blustery, snowy evening when Natalie McDonald comes running in frantically, searching for her.
"Hermione!" she says urgently, out of breath and looking terrified. "Hermione, you have to come! None of the rest of us can get through, and I don't think he'd listen to us, anyway, and I didn't know what else to do!"
"Natalie, Natalie!" Hermione says, the girl's franticness rubbing off on her. "Slow down! Start at the beginning. Tell me what's happened."
"There isn't time!" Natalie cries, close to tears. "He's put a Shield Charm around the parapet, and we can't break through it. Please, you have to come! He says he's going to jump!"
"Who?" Hermione asks urgently. Natalie looks at her desperately.
"Dennis," she says, and then Hermione understands.
Dennis Creevey has been the subject of many whispered conversations between herself and Ginny and Madame Pomfrey and Headmistress McGonagall since the start of the year. His brother's death in the war hit him extremely hard, and McGonagall told a very few people that his parents essentially disowned him when he made the choice to return to Hogwarts this year. What worries them most is the lack of grief he's shown. He's been acting as if everything's all right, but Madame Pomfrey is certain that at some point, everything he's been bottling away inside is going to come spilling out, and now it appears it has.
She follows Natalie at a run through the corridors, to a section of castle on the top floor not often visited. "We found a note, in his room," Natalie explains, breathless, as they go. "The others are still trying to talk to him, but he won't listen, and I went to get you."
The situation is as dire as any Hermione's confronted, and she panics for the smallest moment, because how is she suited for this task? She barely knew Colin (and thought him a bit of an annoyance, though she will not be saying that to Dennis), and she knows Dennis even less, and while she understands people fairly well, she's never been that great at talking to them. But she's the one who is here now, so she is the one who will have to deal with it. "Please, Hermione," Natalie says in a whisper, catching her hand as they round the corner, the tears she'd been holding back now streaming down her face. "I don't know what I'll do if he goes through with this." And Hermione sees the truth in the young girl's words, and knows her job has just become much more important.
"Send someone for Professor McGonagall and Madame Pomfrey and Ginny," she tells the girl.
"Ginny's in class," someone argues.
"Pull her out of it," Hermione says immediately. "This is an emergency. But I'll do what I can."
They've reached the top of one of the many towers. Hermione sees him immediately, standing up on the parapet, a shimmering wall between him and the handful of students who have been trying, desperately, to call him back. But at the sight of Hermione, they fall back, leaving her to clutch at her robes whipping violently in the December wind. Steeling her courage, she steps forward.
"Dennis," she calls, and he doesn't turn around. "Dennis, why don't you come down off that ledge and talk to someone?"
"No," he says, and there is more grief and despondency in that one word than Hermione ever thought possible. "Why should I? What's left? Colin's gone. My parents don't want me. They just sent me a letter! Telling me that I'm not welcome to come home for Christmas. Everyone else has moved on. No one else knows what it's like, living this life! He's just a name on a page to them! They don't understand what I lost!"
"But they want to, Dennis!" Hermione calls to him. "This school is full of people who want to talk to you, to be there for you, but you keep pushing them away!"
"They don't really want to know!" he yells, and she can hear the tears in his voice. "And why should they? Why should I force them to deal with my problems? I'd be better off just ending it all. People could breathe a sigh of relief then, and stop worrying about me."
She understands, suddenly, what this is all about. She can read the conflict behind his words as clearly as a book open in front of her, and she thinks she knows now what to do.
"Then jump," she says, and she can hear people protesting behind her, but Dennis doesn't seem to notice them. Finally, he turns to her, a tear-streaked face lined with shock.
"What?" he demands.
"Jump," Hermione repeats. "If that's really what you believe, if you really think the world is better off without you, then jump." She is dimly aware of new people behind her, but she keeps her focus on Dennis. "But I don't think you really believe that, Dennis. I think what you want is for people to realize how broken you feel, to see how much pain you're in because you've done too good a job at hiding it. You want someone to realize. But you don't want to kill yourself."
"And how would you know that?"
"Because if you did, you wouldn't be up here. You'd drink a poison or hurt yourself or any other number of things. But you would not be up here threatening to jump off a tower you know full well has protective charms on it to keep people from doing exactly what you're threatening to do."
He stares at her for a long moment, and then he crumples, his Shield Charm falling away, and she catches him before he can hit the stone of the tower, cradling him as he sobs in her arms. She still doesn't know if she's the person to be offering this comfort, but she's the one they called. Just like Theo coming to her for absolution and Terry putting his faith in her as a uniting force, when the younger Gryffindors needed someone to help save one of their own, they came to her.
You're one of us, Hannah had said, and now, just now, Hermione could see it.
Eight months after the end of the war, Hermione spends an all-too-short winter holiday with Ron and the rest of the Weasleys.
She tells him about the year so far, and very little of what she says has to do with her classes. She tells him about Dennis and Hannah and Terry and Theo, and how she seems to have become some sort of icon for the school, how people seem to come to her for help with their problems or to absolve them of their guilt. The incident with Dennis on the tower spread like wildfire through the school, and throughout the month of December, it seemed as if Hermione could scarcely leave her dorm without running into someone who needed to talk to her.
"Does it bother you?" Ron asks.
"No, not — not really," she says, wringing her hands. "I just don't feel as if I'm – qualified sometimes!" she admits, a certain amount of dismay creeping into her voice. "They treat me like I'm some kind of – of other-wordly figure almost, sometimes. Like I have the power to make their troubles disappear! Like I'm a shining emblem of forgiveness and absolution!"
"This may not be what you want to hear," Ron says carefully, "but in a way, it makes sense. You're the most recognizable and well-known Muggleborn there is at Hogwarts. If you forgive the people who did wrong in the war, the rest of the school will follow your lead. By standing up for the Slytherins and showing your willingness to work with them, you make it that much harder for others to do anything else. If you can forgive them, what reason can anyone else have for not?"
"But I'm not some shining beacon of forgiveness, Ron!" she cries then, and the guilt that's been building for the past month, if not the past seven months, comes spilling out of her. "Forgive Theo Nott? Fine! What did Theo Nott ever do to me? Absolve Graham Pritchard? Sure! He seems like a perfectly nice young man. The people who wronged me aren't there! I'm not being asked to forgive my tormentors, which is good, because I couldn't do it! If someone stood in front of me and asked me to forgive Bellatrix or – or Draco Malfoy, I couldn't do it! I'm a hypocrite," she says, despairing, sinking into a chair. "I'm no better than Edgar Davies, and every time I try to pretend that I am, my dreams remind me of it."
"You're having nightmares?" Ron asks, and there's concern and something else in his voice as he crosses the room and kneels beside her. She regrets having said that last, but not really.
"I didn't want you to know," she says in a small voice, subconsciously running a hand over her arm where, if she pushed the sleeve up, the scars from Bellatrix's knife would still be visible.
"Hermione," Ron says, his voice little more than a breath, and there's reproof in it, and she doesn't want to look at him, but she can't not. "Did you think I'd think less of you?" he asks, and she shakes her head.
"I didn't want to give you something else to worry about," she whispers, and he gathers her to him then, and she lets him.
"You know it hurts worse to find out you've been dealing with that alone, right?" he whispers, and she squeezes his hand in answer. "You'll figure it out," he says. "I don't really have advice beyond that, except to say that you shouldn't sell yourself short, that it's always hardest to forgive those who've hurt us, and that you're managing ten times better than I would have; I wouldn't have given Theo Nott the time of day." She manages a watery laugh at that. "You'll be all right, Hermione," he says then, and she really can't imagine how she went so long without this in her life, and she isn't quite sure how she'll last another six months with him so far away.
Nine months after the end of the war, Ginny asks her for help with the conjuring spells they've been studying in Advanced Transfiguration.
"That was . . . better," Hermione says as she picks herself up off the ground.
"Better?" Ginny repeats. "Hermione, my chair disintegrated when you tried to sit in it!"
"Yes, but it was solid until then." This fails to cheer Ginny, who sinks into a nearby desk and puts her face in her hands. "Look," Hermione says, sitting beside her, "Conjuring is difficult. You're creating something out of nothing."
"Creativity has never been one of my strengths," Ginny mutters blackly. "I don't even know why I'm continuing with this subject!"
"Because regardless of your future career, Transfiguration is an important skill to have in day-to-day life. Have you seen how much conjuring your mother does on a daily basis?" Ginny groans.
"You needn't remind me that I am failing to live up to my mother's standards," she tells Hermione, who frowns.
"Have you and your mother had a row?" she asks her friend. Ginny sighs heavily.
"No," she says, "not really. But I got a letter over Christmas. Angelina's arranged to have Gwenog Jones, captain of her Quidditch team, the Holyhead Harpies, come to one of our games this spring to watch me. Angelina thinks there's a good chance she'll offer me a spot on the team. Mum thinks I'll be wasting my talents on professional Quidditch. She thinks I ought to go join Harry and Ron and be an Auror or something like that."
"And what do you think?" Ginny sighs again.
"I think that if I'm going to fight for the rest of my life, I'd like it to be in an arena where there are distinct rules, and distinct punishments and penalties for breaking those rules. And I'd like to know that at the end of the hour, regardless of what's happened, both sides will shake hands and say 'Good game.' That appeals to me, Hermione. I don't want to fight for my life every day at work. And I don't want to be a hero anymore. I want to move on."
Hermione reaches over and squeezes Ginny's hand, and the girls sit like that, together, for a few moments. Then Ginny stands, squares her shoulders, and says, "Okay. Let's try this again."
Ten months after the end of the war, Lavender returns to school.
She bears the obvious scars of her attack, a shining pink and white web down the left side of her jaw and neck, and the less than obvious ones as well: a heaviness in her movements and a tiredness in her smile, as if the act requires so much more effort than it normally would have.
No one warns Hermione of her return; she simply stumbles into the dorm she has lived in alone one evening to find another person there. The room is heavy with awkwardness – Hermione and Lavender haven't spoken since sixth year. It's clear as day that this is a vastly different Lavender, but Hermione still has no idea what to say to her.
She confronts Ginny about it when she gets a chance. "Oh, she wasn't supposed to get here until tomorrow," Ginny says with a frown.
"So you knew about this?" Hermione asks, which prompts Ginny to roll her eyes.
"Well, of course I knew about it," the younger girl says. "I am Head Girl, remember."
"But she's missed most of the school year!" Hermione protests. "How can she just jump back in?"
"She's been keeping up with her studies," Ginny tells her. "She was in Mungo's until November. Greyback got her worse than Bill, and it was closer to the full moon; she took a lot longer to recover. After she got out of the hospital, she was on observed care at home, at her request. She's been determined to finish from Hogwarts, but she want to make sure she could handle the full moons first. She's been working with a private tutor, and McGonagall thinks she'll be able to 'jump back in,' as you put it." Hermione must have been making a face, because the next thing Ginny said was a reproving, "Hermione. Give her another chance, okay? She grew up a lot last year. She's not the mindless ninny who dated Ron for six months anymore."
Hermione isn't entirely sure that she believes that, but for Ginny's sake, she agrees to be civil. But it doesn't mean she has any better idea of what to talk about with the girl, or any greater inclination to initiate a conversation.
Until the night she wakes up to Lavender's panicked screams. Lavender herself isn't awake; she's caught in the throes of what seems to be a vicious nightmare, screaming and crying in her sleep with heart-wrenching pain.
Hermione reacts on instinct, doing what she's done for countless others this year who suffer from nightmares. She goes straight to the other girl's bed and wakes her up.
"Lavender!" she calls, shaking her firmly but gently. "Lavender, wake up! Wake up, it's just a dream, it's not real."
And when Lavender's eyes fly open and she realizes that she's in the safety of her own dorm, Hermione anticipates the breakdown that comes next, and gathers Lavender in her arms, rocking her gently until the sobs subside.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks in a quiet voice once Lavender has gotten herself more or less under control. She gives a watery laugh that is half a hiccup and wipes at her eyes.
"It's exactly what you'd think," she says bitterly, standing and crossing to the window just as Hermione herself has done after her nightmares. But the soft moonlight doesn't give Lavender the comfort it offers Hermione.
"The attack?" Hermione asks, and Lavender nods.
"It's worse the closer the moon is to full," she says in a whisper. "I thought I had it under control. I swore I wouldn't come back until I could wake up without screaming." She is speaking more to herself it seems than to Hermione, but Hermione hangs on her every anguished word. "I was all right at home, but being back where it happened . . . I'm sorry." She sounds so small and lost that Hermione can't help but pity the girl.
"You're not the only one with nightmares, Lavender," she says gently. Lavender gives a bitter laugh.
"It doesn't matter," she says. "It doesn't matter who else suffers from them, it matters that I do. It matters that all anyone ever saw me as was an empty-headed pretty girl. It matters that I worked so hard to change that last year when I finally realized that was all I had, and that being pretty wasn't going to help the war. And it matters that it didn't make any difference, because I lasted, what? Ten minutes? Before being taken down, targeted because of my beauty, that's what he told me, whispered it in my ear as he tore my flesh apart." There are tears streaming down her face as she speaks. "I worked so hard to change," she whispers, "but I couldn't fight him off, and now I can't fight these damn nightmares. And so an empty-headed once-pretty girl is all anyone is ever going to see."
"It's not what I see," Hermione says, and she's surprised to find that the words are actually true. "I see a true Gryffindor. You haven't shut yourself away. You've fought more valiantly since the battle than most people here, every day. I see great bravery. Not some useless pretty girl."
It takes a long moment, but eventually Lavender turns and smiles a little. "Thank you, Hermione," she says, and something between the two changes in that moment. They both feel it, and a bit of the earlier awkwardness returns, but not too much. "I am happy for you, you know," Lavender says suddenly, and Hermione is unsure to what she refers. "You and Ron," Lavender says, clarifying, and Hermione can feel a blush creeping up her cheeks. Lavender smiles softly. "It was always you, even when he was trying to pretend that it wasn't and I was hoping he wasn't pretending," she says then. "But it was always you, and I'm glad you've found each other in the end."
"Thank you," Hermione says softly, and she thinks that to be the end of the matter. Or she does until the night when she is awakened from a nightmare of her own by Lavender's hand on her shoulder, a calm word, and an understanding smile.
Eleven months after the battle, Hermione receives an anonymous note asking if she can meet that night to talk.
She's become accustomed to such notes in the months since Dennis. She gets at least one a week, sometimes signed, sometimes not. She always lets Ginny know when she's going to be out in an unofficial counseling session, just in case, but Hermione has yet to feel threatened by anyone she's spoken to. So far, there have only been people who truly want to speak.
And she's begun to accept the role the student body has placed her in, though there are those twinges that she still feels, that she shouldn't be the one they come to, that she has no expertise – but as time has gone on, she has begun to realize that most of the people who seek her out just need someone to listen to them. Like Dennis, they just need someone to know that they aren't entirely okay, that they still have scars and demons that pain and haunt them, and though it means taking on burdens that aren't always hers to bear, Hermione can't come to refuse them. And it puts her mind at rest, some nights, to know that she is helping someone else.
There have been a few surprises, here and there, students she didn't expect to seek her out, but they've become less and less the longer this goes on. And so she is surprised, very surprised, by the person who steps out of the shadows on this particular evening. "Hermione?" the voice calls before she can see who the figure is, though she knows now he's male and vaguely familiar. And then he steps into the light, and she can't help but gasp in surprise.
"Zacharias," she says, and Zacharias Smith, overly confident and boastful and seemingly unchanged Zacharias Smith is standing before her. She overcomes her shock quickly, because she knows it won't help him, and asks, "What can I do for you?"
"I–" he starts, and then swallows, looking nothing at all like his normal pompous self. "I can't sleep," he says in a very small voice.
"Nightmares or insomnia?" Hermione asks.
"Both." It seems to cost him to admit this, and Hermione knows from experience that the best course of action is to let him speak in his own time.
So she simply takes a seat in the empty room, and says, "Tell me about it."
"I can't sleep," he finally says. "When I try, I stay awake, and if I do manage it–" he swallows again, "the nightmares are horrible, and they make me scared to try to sleep the next night."
"Can you tell me about the nightmares?" she asks gently, and he pales and shakes his head. "It's all right," she says quickly. "You don't have to. I understand how hard it can be to relive. Can you tell me how long this has been going on?"
"Months," he says in a whisper.
"Since the battle?" she asks, and he nods, eyes shut tight against the answer. "So what happened in the battle?" she asks, and it takes him a long time to answer.
"I killed a man," he says finally. "Three of them. Death Eaters. I killed them."
She's dealt with this before, and she feels almost relieved that it's so relatively simple a problem. "I killed a man, too," she admits, because admitting this usually helps. "It's natural to feel guilt, to have committed such a crime and not be punished for it. After all, life is precious. But in war–" But he's shaking his head, cutting her off.
"The fact that I killed them isn't what keeps me up," he says.
"Then what is?" she asks, and his next words chill her.
"I enjoyed it." He admits this in a whisper, and in the next moment, his eyes are open, searching desperately for hers, and he's almost pleading with her. "I enjoyed it," he repeats. "They'd killed my friends, I watched them do it, and I wanted them to suffer. I tracked them down, and I tortured them, I returned the torture they'd handed out, and I killed them, and it felt good. And I—" He breaks off abruptly, his breath ragged, his face full of disgust and contempt. "I'm no better than them," he says in a ragged whisper, self-loathing lining every word. "It makes me sick, and I – I hate myself, because what kind of sick person takes pleasure in taking another's life? That's what they did." He shakes with revulsion, his hands clenched into fists. "I'm just like them."
Hermione doesn't know, at first, what to say. They sit in silence, and she probes her own feelings very carefully before she responds. The revulsion that he felt, she'd felt it, too, when he first began to speak, to describe what he'd done. But then, with his self-loathing and regret, that had all ebbed away, to be replaced by pity and a regret of her own. And knowing that, she speaks.
"You're not like them, Zacharias." She puts as much genuine feeling as possible into the phrase, speaks as clear and firm as she can. "You have acted like them, once, but you are not like them. There is one very important difference." He meets her eyes with a desperate hope. "You feel remorse," she says simply. "And that makes you vastly different from them."
When he catches her eye across the Great Hall the next morning, he mouths a simple but genuine, "Thank you."
One year after the end of the war, the Wizarding World celebrates and remembers, and those at Hogwarts do likewise.
The air inside Hogwarts is strange that day, a mix of solemnity and celebration. They lost too much and the wounds are too raw to truly celebrate what happened one year before, but the students who are there gather to rejoice quietly that they have survived an entire year, and to remember those who did not.
There is to be a ceremony at the Ministry, a dedication of a memorial to the fallen, and a reading of the names who all who had been lost in both wars to Voldemort's forces. Any student with an Apparition license was given permission to attend, but Hermione and Ginny and Terry and all the others who qualified came to an unspoken agreement that they would rather spend the day at Hogwarts with the rest of the students they'd fought beside.
And so, instead, Hogwarts had opened its doors. Family members had been arriving all day, to spend the day with their children. Hogwarts and DA alumni who had returned to fight made their way back to the school as well. And, in a last minute, carefully arranged and kept secret surprise, all the students from the past year who had joined the Auror Force rather than return to school came sweeping into the Great Hall – Neville and Seamus and Padma and Justin and Ron and all the others, with one notable exception.
"Harry wanted to be here," Neville tells Ginny when the initial excitement of their appearance has died down. "But they asked him to do the dedication of the Memorial, and he's reading the names–"
"It's all right, Ginny says with a smile that is only slightly strained. "You don't have to make his excuses, Neville, he wrote me himself. And it's my lot, isn't it? After all, I'm the one who fell in love with Harry Potter." There is a smattering of laughter at that, but solemnity returns as the Great Hall grows silent when McGonagall turns up the volume on the wireless that is projecting the ceremony taking place at the Ministry. Harry's voice fills the room, talking of unity and memory and living on in a speech that Hermione knows he didn't write himself.
It is in the middle of the dedication of the Memorial to the Fallen that some movement catches her eye, and she turns in her seat in time to see a girl with long blonde hair slipping out of the Hall.
She is not the only one who sees Luna's exit; in a room of so many sitting still, one person's retreat is not inconspicuous. But it is Hermione who rises when the rest of the room looks to one another, wondering what to do. She knows what she has to do; by this point, it's become instinct. "I'm sorry, Ron," she says, kissing him on the cheek. "I have to go make sure she's all right. I'll try to get back for the reading of the names, but no one should be alone today."
As she leaves, she's aware of Neville starting to move as well, but Ginny stops him with a, "Let Hermione go, Neville. She's gotten pretty good at this."
She finds Luna in the entrance hall, standing in front of the marble memorial they finished six months ago, tears streaming down her face. "Luna?" Hermione calls softly. "Luna, are you all right?"
It takes her a moment to answer, but when she does, she nods, her eyes not leaving the marble. "Yes, Hermione," she says in a clear voice. "I'm fine." But the tears do not stop or slow.
"You're crying," Hermione points out hesitantly, and Luna nods again.
"Haven't you ever cried just to feel the tears on your face, Hermione?" she asks, and then immediately answers her own question. "No, probably not. Not someone so sensible as you."
"Actually," Hermione says, moving closer, "I have. When I was little, I used to stand in front of my bathroom mirror and watch myself cry." She's never admitted this to anyone, but it seems to be nothing at all to say it to Luna.
"It's cathartic, isn't it?" Luna asks. "Cleansing. Like it helps to wash away all the blackness inside of you."
"Luna, what's wrong?" Hermione asks, and Luna's faces crumples just the slightest, her serene mask slipping and her grief shining through for just an instant.
"My father isn't here," she says finally. "They threw him in Azkaban, and he died in there. I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't get to forgive him."
"Forgive him for what?"
"He turned you in," she says simply. "He spent my whole life teaching me about integrity, and then he betrayed that teaching. I was so angry with him, but I was going to forgive him. I just had to see him again, I had to ask him why, and hear him tell me. I was going to forgive him. But he died." She turns then, to face Hermione fully. "You asked if I was all right," she says. "And no, Hermione. I'm not all right. I'm not very well at all. Because everyone in that room has someone, and I don't. Even the people I might have had have someone else first. Neville has Hannah and Ginny has her family and you have Ron, and that's how it should be. I don't ask for anything different. But it leaves me out, again, because my father's not here, and –" She falters and her voice catches, and Hermione has never seen her like this before. "No one knows what I've lost," she finishes in a whisper. "No one knows what I've lost, and the not having it – I don't know how much longer I can stay put together without those pieces, and I don't want to fall apart with everyone watching."
And then she does fall apart. Hermione watches almost in slow motion as Luna, loony Luna, different Luna, flighty, dreamy, not-quite-real Luna falls apart in front of her, the tears turning to real, heart-wrenching sobs, and suddenly, this girl who Hermione has never quite known what to do with is a real person in front of her, and Hermione does what it feels most natural to do.
She gathers Luna to her, wrapping her arms tight around the younger girl in an effort, almost, to help hold the pieces together, and as the sink down onto the steps of the entrance hall, Harry's voice echoes through to them, reading the names of the lost. In silence, Hermione and Luna sit, hand in hand, as the names are read, and when "Xenophilius Lovegood" is read, Luna bows her head as silent tears fall, and Hermione tightens her arm around Luna's shoulders. She thinks that that should be the worst of it, but the tightening of Luna's hand in hers and the telltale trembling of her shoulders when Harry reads "Dean Thomas" communicates more than Hermione ever imagined to be true.
She can't help the gasp of surprised understanding as she remembers the weeks Luna and Dean spent alone at Shell Cottage, and then Luna looks up, her eyes red and filled with tears, and an understanding passes between the two girls. "No one knows what I lost," Luna whispers, and Hermione, who has never quite known how to be a friend to this strange girl, learns in that moment that all she really needs to do is sit in silence and offer an arm and an additional quiet strength.
Thirteen months after the end of the war, Hermione hasn't quite gotten used to the surreal feeling of still being at school.
It feels to her, in many ways, that the school year should have ended at the beginning of May, that the end of the war should mark the end of other things as well. But it doesn't, and classes have continued for a month since that night, and in three short weeks, she'll be sitting her NEWTs.
She is nervous, of course, and she is studying for hours every day, reviewing and practicing with all the other seventh and eighth years, but she is surprised to discover that the tests seem vastly less important than they used to. Her acceptance to the internship in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures hinges on her scores, she knows, but Terry's words echo back to her even after all these months, and she knows now that he was right. She didn't come back for the reason she thought. She thought she came back for these tests, to finish the education that has always been so important to her. But now she knows that her real purpose at the school this year was for the people.
So when she enters the library one afternoon and finds Astoria Greengrass frowning over a piece of parchment, she has no hesitation about going up and offering her help, in part because she would for anyone now, and in part because this is the girl who, in many ways, started it all, and Hermione realizes with a shock that she has yet to exchange a single word.
"Having trouble with some homework?" she asks, and inadvertently startles Astoria out of a reverie. "I'm sorry," she apologizes. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"It's all right," Astoria says. "And no, thank you, it isn't homework I'm frowning over. It's a letter."
"Oh," Hermione says. "Sorry. I didn't mean to intrude." And feeling slightly embarrassed, she moves to turn away, but Astoria's voice stops her.
"You're Hermione Granger," she says, and Hermione isn't entirely sure how to reply.
"Yes," she eventually confirms. "And you're Astoria Greengrass."
"You stood up for me," she continues. "At the beginning of the year, in the Prefect meeting. Theo told me. He said . . . you walked out, too. On my behalf."
"Yes," Hermione confirms again. There is a long pause in which Hermione wonders what this is all leading up to, and then Astoria says, "Thank you. You made a huge difference to us that day."
"You were right," Hermione says simply. "And someone needed to say it."
"Well, I thank you," Astoria says again. Hermione nods in recognition and starts to move away, but once more, Astoria calls her back.
"You've gotten pretty good at giving advice, haven't you?" Hermione turns, and she continues, "Hermione Granger's the one to talk to. That's what people say."
"Yes," Hermione confirms because she isn't sure what else to say.
"Might you be able to give me some advice?" Astoria asks then, a bit hesitantly, and Hermione sits at her table and waits. She traces the edge of the letter that was giving her such trouble for a moment, then asks, "What would you say to someone who insists on blaming himself for things that aren't his fault?"
"It would depend on the situation," Hermione says honestly, and Astoria sighs.
"Suppose he, the person in question, suppose he spent a lot of his life bullying others and hurting people and taking pleasure in it. Suppose he was on the wrong side of the war because his family was on the wrong side, but that he came to regret his choices, but couldn't, didn't dare, speak out. And he feels now that his inaction, his self-preservation was a crime. He feels that his past and the wrongs he's committed are insurmountable, and he hates himself for them. Nothing I can say, and I've been trying for a month, can convince him that he's not as worthy of blame as he thinks."
"May I ask who the person in question is?"
There is a long silence in which Hermione can see Astoria deciding whether or not to answer, but finally she says, "Draco Malfoy," and Hermione cannot help it; she recoils, momentarily overcome by her anger and resentment for that young man. Astoria sees it; she can't not, and she looks away, jaw set and lips tight. "It changes your answer," she says, and it is not a question. There is silence for a heartbeat more, in which Hermione almost regrets the violence of her response, and then Astoria speaks.
"Forgive me," she says, "but your reaction is – it's hypocritical." That stings, but much as Hermione wants to protest, she knows she can't, not really. "You've spent the whole year preaching forgiveness, helping the students here to let go of their judgements, but you haven't followed your own advice. Why? Because it's easy to forgive people who never actually did anything to you, but because Draco hurt you specifically, you judge him and won't forgive him, even though your judging him for who he was two years ago! You weren't here last year, and he's been gone this year, so you have no way of knowing if he's changed, you just assume that he hasn't!"
"I'm sorry," Hermione says sharply, cutting into Astoria's tirade. "I know it's hypocritical, but I – I can't. He's done too much. He spent six years belittling me, demeaning me, ridiculing me, bullying me. He's cursed me and hurt me, and he's done the same to people I love. And his family—" She has to break off and take a steadying breath. Then she does something she's never done before. She pulls up her sleeve and reveals the scars carved into her arm by Bellatrix's knife. "Bellatrix Lestrange did that to me," she says. "And Draco stood there and watched–"
"And it made him sick!" Astoria protests then. "He told me. He told me what she did, what he watched her do, and he has nightmares about it, about not stopping it, just like he has nightmares about everything he didn't stop, but how could he have stepped in? With his whole family around him, watching his every move?"
"That shouldn't matter," Hermione says through gritted teeth.
"Of course it matters," the other girl throws back. "Either you believed me when I stood up in front of the Prefects and told them that, or you didn't, but if you didn't, why on earth would you have stood up for me? How could we have stepped in? How would it have helped?" Hermione has no answer, and she knows Astoria is right, is still right, but the truth of it sits heavy and unpleasant in her stomach. "I am sorry for what happened to you," Astoria says in a gentler voice. "I am sorry for what that woman did to you. But Draco is not Bellatrix Lestrange any more than Sirius Black was, and you of all people should know that you cannot hold people's families against them." That hits Hermione like a slap in the face, but before she can say anything, Astoria continues. "And for what it's worth, Draco hurt me, too."
That gets Hermione's attention, and she meets Astoria's eyes, trying to judge the truth of the statement. "He spent most of our childhoods humiliating me, ridiculing me, hurting me in any way he could. He even forced himself on me once. I know what it is like to be bullied and abused at the hands and words of Draco Malfoy."
"Then how can you sit there and defend him?" Hermione whispers.
"Because he's not that person anymore." Astoria's voice is weary, like she has said this time and time and time again, and is worn thin and tired by the disbelief of everyone around her. "And he hates that person, believe it or not, even more than you do." Hermione can't look at her any longer; she closes her eyes and clenches her fist and tries to ignore how uncomfortable Astoria's words have become. "I'm sorry for calling you out, and for throwing all this in your face," she says softly. "But you've spent the past year asking people to do what is difficult. Please don't hold it against me that I've asked you to do the same. Now I need to answer this letter. If you'll excuse me." That hits Hermione like a stab in the gut, because she's right again, this proud young Slytherin girl is right again, only this time, Hermione's the one who has been in the wrong, and she knows it, and it kills her.
She stands there, next to the table while Astoria struggles with the first few words of her reply, and Hermione knows what she has to do. She knows, but actually doing it is one of the hardest things that has ever been asked of her. But she can't offer advice or tell one more person to forgive a Death Eater if she doesn't. So she takes a deep breath and says, "Will you tell me about him?" Astoria turns toward her slowly, as if uncertain whether she heard Hermione correctly. "This new Draco. Will you tell me about him, and how you came to forgive him?"
"You really want me to?" she asks, and Hermione nods.
"Yes," she says truthfully. "I really do."
At the beginning of the year, Hermione would never have believed that the Slytherin girl who walked out of the Prefect meeting would end up being the one person who Hermione would need the most, and yet, somehow, she is.
Fourteen months after the end of the war, Hermione stands on the shore of the lake with the other graduated seventh and eighth years and prepares to ride the boats back to the train station.
For years, she imagined this moment much differently. She was convinced that she would ride out the way she'd come in, with Harry and Ron and Neville, the only difference being their ages and the Head Girl badge pinned on her chest. Instead, she climbs into a boat with Terry and Hannah and Theo, and the Head Girl badge glints off the front of Ginny's robes in a boat beside her with Luna and Zacharias and Lavender. And yet, somehow, this is right. This is her graduating class, and these are the people she has come to know so well in the past year.
As the boats set off, they ride in silence, all sharing in a quiet reflection on how far they've come and all they've accomplished. But as they approach the far shore, Hermione breaks the silence. She looks at Terry, catching his eye, and says, quietly, "You were right."
"I'm not surprised," he says cheerfully. "About what?"
"That I wasn't here for the reason I thought I was. I thought it was about school and grades and NEWTs, but it wasn't."
"What was it about?" he asks.
"These people," she says with a smile, looking around at them all, the students she now knows. "It was about the people. Thank you." But Terry shakes his head.
"No, Hermione. Thank you."
And as the boats hit the shore and they disembark, Hermione takes one last look back at the castle she has called home for so long before turning with a smile to face the future.