NOT A PRETTY GIRL
"I am not a pretty girl, that is not what I do."
Hermione stared down at the letter in her hand as the warm summer breeze blew pleasantly through her hair. She could feel Mrs Weasley shift silently next to her as she began absent mindedly to fold over the corners of the crisp parchment, feeling that special kind of coarseness that she loved so much beneath her fingers. She hazarded a glance at her companion and found that Molly too was neglecting to watch the two aside match of Quidditch between Ron, Harry, Ginny and George being played in front of them.
Hermione followed Mrs Weasley's gaze up onto the hill beside the Burrow. Through the glaring sunlight she could just make out a row of head stones peeking through the long grass. She looked away quickly, feeling the image burn itself brutally onto her retinas. She blinked rapidly, and finally cast her eyes upwards to stare up at the match.
Harry was speeding through the air, an old football tucked underneath his arm as Ron sped along behind him, clearly having difficulty keeping up. Harry pitched the ball at Ginny, who plucked it deftly from the air and launched it through one of the hoops that had been charmed into hanging a few metres off the ground as their make-shift goal.
From where Hermione was sitting at the small circular wrought iron table under one of the larger trees growing around the Burrow that her and Mrs Weasley were sharing, she could see Ron's face turn a brilliant red and his mouth open angrily, but the wind blew his words away before they reached her. Hermione felt the sun burn on her neck as the afternoon wore on and sighed, getting to her feet, tucking the letter, now folded into a small square, into her pocket. She turned to Mrs Weasley.
"It's too hot for me out here, Molly, I'm going inside. Do you need anything?" She asked, laying her hand lightly on the older woman's shoulder.
Mrs Weasley started slightly, her eyes dazed and blank, and then said quietly, "No, no dear, I'm fine. I'll just get started on the weeding." Hermione flashed her a kind smile, and turned away, noting as she did that the older woman made no move to leave her seat.
Hermione made her way into the kitchen, past the old cauldrons and wellington boots scattered around the Burrow's back door, and stopped to run her hand over the stained and deeply scratched wood of the dining table.
Her thoughts drifted, as they always did at some point during the day, to those they had lost. How many of them had sat around that table? Sirius once, Hermione could see a tiny SB carved into the wood. She wondered at the disrespect of such an action but then remembered that Molly encouraged her friends and guests to mark the table. She seemed to see it as them leaving their mark on the family, as a great artwork never to be finished.
But what about Dumbledore? It seemed just like him to be a party to something like this. As she ran her fingers over the wood she wondered what his mark would be, if anything, and almost as soon as she found it, carved into the side of the table rather than the top, she knew. The little scratched triangle with a circle and a line down the middle that looked a bit like a tiny eye. She felt a momentary rush of resentment towards her old headmaster. She had devoted years to believing him infallible and all-knowing and he had gone and crushed it. She knew, deep down, that there had been no other way. Harry had to sacrifice himself in the end. But it hurt knowing how many things Dumbledore had never told them, never told Harry. She'd always thought he was a genius, brilliant but mental as Ron used to say; now however she knew him to be just as stupid as Tom Riddle. Both men were paradoxes. Idiots with too much information at their disposal.
She let her fingers trail over the mark and walked around the table to sit heavily in one of the chairs. The list of names and faces rattled themselves off in her head, as they did every day and every night; those who had marked the Weasleys table, and those who had never had the chance.
Moody was gone. Srimgeour was gone. Colin Creevey, Dobby, Ted Tonks. They were all gone.
Fred, Remus, Tonks…
Those three hurt the most. Not just for her sake but because of the damage their deaths had caused. Those three had wrecked the Weasley's and Harry.
And then of course there was Severus Snape. She didn't know how to feel about that one. When she thought of him, the only words that ran through her head were Grumpy Old Man. He was the grumpy old man. No matter what Harry said about his allegiances and his bravery, he was still a bastard. But she would have liked to come out of the final battle and shake his hand all the same; would have liked to have talked to him, see what he was like without Voldemort and Dumbledore hovering over him.
Understandably, she found it hard to believe that it was all really over; she still expected to hear of some evil being threatening the lives of everyone she loved to emerge from the background. Another Dark Lord. And then the battle would begin again. They would all have something to consume them again, something to care about. She couldn't help worry now about all the people left behind, the world just didn't feel right, didn't feel full anymore. There was something wanting and she could see it in the faces of everyone around her.
Nothing was the same. She always knew it wouldn't be but the differences were drastic and scary.
Harry flipped constantly between two extremes. On a good day he would be dizzyingly euphoric, leaping about assuring everyone that life was good again, and that happiness was possible. He would laugh and talk and eat. He'd mourn the dead with respect and bravery, he was strong about it.
The very next day though could find him lying in bed with the curtains drawn as Ginny knelt beside him, rubbing his hair as he alternated between sobbing into the mattress, the sheets scrunched up in his fists; and staring blankly into the space in front of him. On rare occasions, they could all hear him raging at her, screaming, begging her to tell him what the point was, why he should bother any more. It was at times like these that the muffled sound of Ginny's sweet, comforting voice, crooning words of reassurance and hope, would float through the house both lifting spirits and quashing them.
Ginny herself had adopted a kind of wounded strength that Hermione had never thought possible of her. Once upon a time she was strong and independent; but now she had taken on the motherly role within the family; trying, resolutely, to remain the omnipresent pillar of strength to what was left of the people she loved. Ginny was affected now. She no longer danced to her own tune but to the tune of everyone else's grief.
Arthur drowned himself in his work, and obsessed over bringing justice to Voldemort's remaining followers day and night. He was fervent and committed but Hermione knew it was just a matter of ignoring the greater problem that awaited him at home.
George was a shadow of his former self, often to be seen walking through the hills around their home, hands deep in his pockets, speaking aloud to his dead twin as if he was still walking beside him. He was a quintessential example of numbness. He smiled, but there was no light. He frowned, but there was no storm. He was blank.
Ron was never cheerful but at the same time, he seemed less down trodden than the rest of the family. When Hermione looked at him she could see guilt and fear repressed. His eyes were blank and cold. Whenever she noticed a rare smile light up his face, she watched as it faltered, could tell that he was internally reminding himself that smiling was not allowed now. Ron was in some kind of manic denial. Hermione hoped it would work for him. Perhaps he was going about it the right way and if he continued to pretend pain didn't exist, maybe it would actually go away.
To Hermione though, Molly was the most heartbreaking. She would often speak to people who weren't there, she would re-wash dishes she had washed only minutes earlier and repeatedly she had asked Ron, Harry or herself when they would like to go to Diagon Alley to pick up their school things. Whenever any of them had reminded her that there was no school anymore she would simply reply, "Oh nonsense!" and go back to sitting in the garden, staring up at the hill beside the house.
Hermione wondered briefly if maybe the dead were the lucky ones. Were there pieces to pick up in the afterlife? Because the amount that had to be done in the real world was just too much.
She stared down at her hands again, at a loss. She could see very clearly that everyone around her was in a great deal of pain, not to mention herself, but for once, no book could help her. She ached to fix, to mend, but had no idea where to start.
After the final battle, the mood had been euphoric and manic and desperate. It had been everything. She wanted to sleep, she wanted to hug Harry, she wanted to fuck Ron, she wanted to curse everyone in the vicinity. All at once. Instead, she had laughed and cried and toasted the dead and the living. It was awful and terrifying but she had, at the very least, things to do, other things to focus on. She had ridden that feeling, that unreality, until her bones ached and her eyes refused to stay open any longer. She had been there at Hogwarts with the Weasleys and Harry until there was nothing more to do, the sick and the wounded were taken care of, and the dead were disposed of with respect.
Harry had disappeared almost immediately into the Gryffindor tower to sleep and Hermione couldn't blame him. She and Ron had followed soon after, dragging their feet through the rubble, hand in hand. When they stepped into the boys dormitory together, Harry had looked so vulnerable and hurt in his sleep that Hermione had climbed in beside him without thought. He looped his hand over her hip sleepily as she pressed her back to his chest and Ron slipped under the covers in front of her, pulling her arm over him.
She had been able to sleep only briefly. The noise from the Great Hall was a constant, distracting hum and she had left Hogwarts with the Weasleys and Harry the following evening. They had apparated directly back to The Burrow and its usual atmosphere absorbed them.
She knew, vaguely, at the time that the only reason everyone was so loud, the only reason they rushed around was because they didn't want to stay still or quiet for long enough to let reality sink in. And that method worked.
Days later, they were visited by Professor McGonagall. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny found themselves seated around the large wooden table in the dying light of the afternoon with their former professor. The older woman clasped her hands in front of her as she regarded the four of them solemnly.
"Do I need to say how proud I am? Of all of you?" She said heavily.
Harry stared at the table and Hermione itched to take his hand and comfort him. Instead, she looked up at her Transfiguration professor.
"No, professor. There are others who deserve far more credit than us."
Professor McGonagall nodded and cleared her throat. "Of course. Now I have come here this evening with a proposition."
Hermione had already guessed as much and her heart gave a nervous lurch.
"I would like it if you would consider repeating your seventh year. Obviously, I would not see it as compulsory," She said, "But the offer is there if you would like to take it."
"Just for the seventh years?" Asked Ginny.
"Initially I thought so." Replied McGonagall. "But I think that given the nature of the education you received last year, every student should be repeating. I don't see it as likely that any of you would pass the standard exams after that. I do not doubt your intelligence; I believe you, all of you, have shown a great deal of talent and bravery in the last year but you would not, in my opinion, have gathered the required knowledge under the rule of the Carrows or even Severus."
Ron, Harry and Hermione exchanged looks. Hermione wasn't feeling the mounting excitement that she would expect at such an idea. She just felt edgy and tired. And sad. She could see these feeling mirrored in the faces of her companions.
McGonagall cleared her throat again. "Do not think on it now. It was, perhaps, an imprudent time to bring it up. But I will send word by owl all the same once the finer details have been ironed out."
Every night after that she had gone to bed exhausted and utterly drained. And for a week after that, up until the funerals, her nights remained the same, having spent her days with Harry and the Weasleys consumed with planning and talking, crying and comforting. But Hermione remembered the morning when they all woke to find that the harshest reality had not yet come crashing down on any of them entirely. It was the quiet, the silence that undid them all.
The silence had lasted for two and a half months. It had gotten heavier and quieter and it had almost become normal to her. She hated it.
Realisation dawned on her as her hands clenched on the scratched table top. She had to leave, she had to get out. She could not handle the desperate taint in the air, the empty space that now hung between everyone she loved.
She opened her hand to look at the small, crushed crane in her palm. It was this letter that would allow her to do it.