Disclaimer: Not mine, don't own them—I wish! Unfortunately, Harry Potter belongs to JKR and Discworld belongs to the late Sir Terry Pratchett and his heirs. Neither of them belongs to me; I'm just playing in their sandboxes. RIP, Sir Terry—the world will be a sadder and poorer place without your satire and wit.
» This is very loosely based on the Reptilia28 Don't Fear the Reaper Death Challenge, whereby Harry dies at seventeen fighting Voldemort, is sent to Death's office, where Death rants at him for being killed yet again thus causing Death to be on the verge of getting fired (Harry must have died at least three times before) and for not marrying his soul-mate (some Granger girl). Harry signs a contract that he will be retaining his memories and then gets sent back to fix things.
» An enormous thanks to my beta, the wonderful StrongHermione, for all her help and support. I highly recommend having a look at her stories; they're all well worth reading.
DEATH – AGAIN!
Harry opened his eyes to see a Being with a skeletal face, wearing a black dress, black high-heeled boots, a black cloak and holding a scythe looking at him.
"HARRY POTTER? Oh no, not again! Ahem." The Being coughed, clearing its throat. Suddenly the Being's face looked a lot less skeletal and morphed into that of a young woman. She had white hair with a black streak down it, and as Harry watched her open-mouthed, it kept rearranging itself into a variety of different styles. "Just give me a moment," she said taking several deep breaths. When the woman's hair had settled itself into a tight bun, she snapped her fingers and the pair of them appeared in an office with walls full of hour-glasses, filing cabinets and books, while a strange scratching sound filled the air.
"Again, Harry? Really? Just how hard is it to live your life without dying before your time? I'm on the verge of being fired, thanks to you! Every time you die prematurely, Voldemort wins, he decimates the wizarding world, the muggles learn about him, they try to take him out with missiles and magicals around the world are persecuted in witch hunts, all thanks to you dying before you manage to kill Tom Riddle! Because your premature deaths keep causing Armageddon, more or less, I'm on the verge of being fired. The Grim Reaper is my grandfather, Harry. This job, the characteristics of Death, that's all hereditary. I was born to this job. Do you know how embarrassing it is for Death's granddaughter to be on her last warning? No, don't say anything. Just sit down and wait a minute!" she snapped crossly.
As a bemused Harry seated himself in front of the desk, the strange woman then turned to the wall of bookcases, held out her hand and in a doom-laden voice, much like the slamming of coffin lids, said, "HARRY POTTER." A book flew into her hand and she put it down on the desk. Then she turned to the wall of hour-glasses and repeated the process. Flouncing into her seat with a huff, she spoke again. "Look around, Harry. Tell me what you see."
Harry looked and saw black. The furniture was black, the floor was black, nearly everything was black. Except for the walls: these were bone white. As was the skull-and-scythe motif on the black carpet beneath his feet. And yet somehow it was all in different shades of black, so he could see everything clearly. "Well, I see a lot of black," he said hesitantly.
"No, Harry," she sighed. "I'm not asking your opinion of the décor. Take a look at this." She turned the hour-glass to him and he saw his name on it. "Now, compare that to all the other ones in this room."
The woman sounded remarkably like his rather strict teacher, Minerva McGonagall, minus the Scottish accent. Feeling as though he was sitting in one of Professor McGonagall's Transfiguration classes, he looked closely at the items on the desk and then at the ones on the bookshelves. With a shrug of his shoulders he looked back at her bewilderedly.
"Harry, the sand in those life-timers on the shelves is moving. People live their lives and the sand falls until they die. Once that happens and all the sand is at the bottom of the life-timer, it disappears, as that person's life-time has ended." Harry looked around again and noticed that as they spoke, life-timers were appearing and disappearing with quiet pops.
"You have passed into Death's Domain, Harry," she continued. "That means all the sand in your glass should have run out and you should be dead. Now look at your life-timer. The sand isn't moving. There's sand there, in the top of the life-timer, it hasn't run out. You can even see the stream flowing down to the bottom. But it's not actually flowing, it's in stasis. That's because you're not supposed to be dead. You died before your time again! So the life-timer is stuck."
Then she showed the book to him. "Harry Potter," it said on its cover. She opened it to the last page and Harry read:
Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear –
He saw the thin, bloodless lips move, a flash of green light, and everything was gone...¹
"This is your autobiography. Can you hear that scratching sound? That's lives writing themselves, but yours has stopped. Not ended, stopped." Harry looked and saw that instead of words, row upon row of dots was appearing. There's nothing recording because you're here, in Death's Domain. Dead before your time! Again!"
"So what happens next, if I'm dead now? And what do you mean, again?"
Susan sighed again. "Okay, let's start over. I'm Susan Sto-Helit and I'm Death's granddaughter. Death, or the Grim Reaper, is an anthropomorphic personification whose Duty is to make sure that life ends when it's supposed to. His jurisdiction only used to be the Discworld but there's been leakages between your world and the Discworld and so his jurisdiction has been extended. However, that's a bit much for one sole anthropomorphic personification to take care of by himself, especially when no matter how fascinated by humans he may be, he really doesn't understand them. So Azrael (he's the big boss, the Great Attractor and the Death of Universes) insisted I take on the extra Duty.
"As Death's granddaughter, I used to inherit Granddad's Duty on Discworld when he was unavailable, so Azrael decided I may as well take care of Earth on Granddad's behalf. I tried to get out of it, believe me – I was perfectly happy just trying to be a normal human back on Discworld, or at least as normal a human being as Death's granddaughter can be – but Azrael isn't someone you can say no to. I have to say that the entire population of the Discworld all together – and that's including all species, even animals – isn't nearly as much trouble as the magical beings on Earth. Granddad is not going to be happy with me. Or, rather, he wouldn't be if he could understood emotions. And Azrael is likely to replace me with the Death of Rats. Do you know how annoying that little rat is? He'll never stop sniggering!"
At that, Harry heard a "Snh, snh, snh" sound coming from behind him. He turned round and on a shelf behind him was a skeletal rat wearing a black cloak, carrying a scythe and sniggering, just as Susan had predicted. Susan threw Harry's autobiography at it. "Out!" she exclaimed and with a snap of its skeletal fingers, the rat had disappeared, the book bouncing harmlessly off the shelf where it had been standing a moment before and landing on the floor.
"You, Harry Potter, have now died six times. You were supposed to defeat Tom Riddle, neutralise Albus Dumbledore's propensity for meddling, marry your soul-mate – some Granger girl – and live to the ripe old age of 163." Susan turned to the wall of filing cabinets and summoned a file, the same way she had summoned the life-timer and Harry's autobiography. She flipped it open and started leafing through it.
"Hermione is my soul-mate? What about Ginny?" All these revelations were a bit much for Harry to take in at once, so he latched on to the one thing that made sense to him—sort of.
"Do you really want to marry a girl who looks just like your mother? Seriously? Do you know how disturbing that is? Besides, can you honestly tell me that she wants to marry Harry Potter and not the Boy-Who-Lived? That she even knows who Harry is?"
"So I'm supposed to marry Hermione then?"
"You don't have to, I suppose, but she is your soul-mate and you won't be complete or happy without her."
Harry thought about that. Susan was right that Ginny did not really know him and that she had been obsessed for years with the myth of the Boy-Who-Lived. Hermione, on the other hand... Well, Hermione knew Harry. And cared about Harry. She had always been there for him and had supported him, no matter what. He always felt centred and at peace when he was with her, even when they were fighting. She made him believe that he was not alone. Suddenly, something clicked into place within him, something that he had not even realised was out of place until he felt the rightness of his realisation. That ache he felt during the school holidays, that feeling of something missing, the relief that came as soon as he saw Hermione again... Susan was right. Hermione completed him. Hermione was his happiness. Without Hermione, he was empty, he was nothing. A look of wonder crossed his face.
"Hermione really is my soul-mate, isn't she?" he asked in awe.
"Yes, she really is. Oh, wait a minute... Sorry, no; it's not the Granger girl, it's Graynge."
"Graynge? Who's that? I don't know anyone called Graynge! And Hermione, it has to be her; it can't be anyone else." Harry looked desperately at Susan.
"That's what's written here and these files are never wrong. Look, Hermione Graynge."
"Yes. Oh! Hmm, let's see if we can find about more her."
Susan turned back towards the filing cabinet. "HERMIONE GRAYNGE," she intoned. A file came flying out and landed on the desk in front of her. She opened it, showing Harry the picture attached to the inside cover. "Do you recognise her?"
"That's Hermione," Harry said in confusion.
"Yes, we know that. Hermione Graynge, your soul-mate."
"No, that's my Hermione. Hermione Granger."
Susan looked in Hermione's file again. Then she went back to Harry's file and noticing that the words Hermione Graynge were the very last words on the page, she turned it over. "Okay, relax," she said. "Hermione Graynge AKA Hermione Granger. She's been using an alias."
"But... but... why?" Harry looked completely dumbfounded. What possible reason could Hermione have to use an alias, especially that was so close to her apparent real name? And why did she never confide in him about her name. He was her best friend, after all.
"I don't know but I suggest we get her in here and ask her," Susan proposed, her hair rearranging itself again as she spoke.
"You can do that? Bring someone living into Death's realm?" Harry asked dubiously.
"Yes, though we're not supposed to. Azrael doesn't like it ever since Granddad took on my Dad as an apprentice and everything went a bit haywire. But I won't need to this time because she's also here waiting to be processed."
"She's dead? My Hermione died?" Harry whispered despairingly.
"I'm afraid so, Harry," Susan replied gently. "She also died before her time though, so her soul hasn't moved on. She's waiting to be processed after you."
"Can I see her? Please? Where is she?" Harry leapt out of his seat and spun round, looking for a door so that he could go and find his Hermione.
"Harry, calm down. I'm sorry, I can't process you together because she won't be going back with her memories but I'll let you see her before you go back."
"No, she needs to have her memories too. Wait, you're sending me back?"
"I'm sending you both back. You get to live your life again but this is your last chance, Harry. You're going back to your seventh life. You know that seven is a magical number, don't you? Well, that's how many chances at life you get if you die before your time. So because you're on your last chance, you get to keep your memories. Hermione isn't on her last chance, so she doesn't."
"If I have to defeat Tom Riddle without being manipulated by Dumbledore in the process, then I need Hermione to have her memories. I couldn't bear to remember the past and know that she doesn't have any memory of it. I don't think I could handle that. Besides, she's the brains of the operation and I really can't do it without her."
Susan sighed yet again. Harry was making some good points. She knew she was not supposed to interfere but she also knew that her Grandfather had meddled many times, in particular by involving her in situations that he himself was unable to deal with because they required someone human. Or mostly human in her case, she supposed.
"Sit down, Harry. I'll bring Hermione in here and you can talk to her. I'm not promising anything but if you can both convince me that she also needs her memories, then I'll see what I can do."
Susan snapped her fingers and suddenly a petite girl with bushy, brown hair and chocolate coloured eyes appeared.
"Hermione!" Harry yelled.
A moment later, Hermione had attached herself firmly to Harry and showed no signs of letting go. Her arms were wound tightly around his neck and her face was buried in the crook of his neck as she cried silently. He put his arms around her in return and laid his cheek gently on the top of her head. He breathed in the scent of her hair, his eyes closing in bliss at the feel of his soul-mate in his embrace.
"Harry! Oh, my Harry!" Hermione sobbed.
"Hello, my love," he said, smiling down at her as she raised her head to look questioningly into his eyes.
"I love you more than I could possibly say, Hermione. I was a fool not to realise it earlier but Susan helped me see clearly."
"That would be me," Susan interjected. "Susan Sto-Helit, at your service. I greet people after their deaths and help them move on to their next great adventure. Only in your cases, I won't be helping you move on just yet. You weren't supposed to die in the war, you were both supposed to die peacefully of old age together, holding each other in your arms as you slept."
Harry and Hermione looked at each other and smiled. "I want to hold you in my arms for the rest of our lives."
"I don't ever want to leave your arms, my Harry. I love you, too – so very much."
Harry bent down and kissed his soul-mate. He felt a warmth spreading all through him, something that he had not felt even with Ginny. He reached out and gently tucked a stray curl behind Hermione's ear, revelling in the feelings of rightness and peace that being with Hermione brought to him.
"Come over here you two and sit down. We have a lot to discuss," instructed Susan.
A second chair had appeared beside Harry's but Hermione ignored it in favour of planting herself on Harry's lap, as he wound his arms tightly around her waist. Susan gestured towards the second chair and Hermione firmly shook her head. "I'm not letting go of him," she declared stubbornly, and kissed Harry's cheek.
"Erm, before we get started, you do know that there's a very angry Severus Snape waiting impatiently out there, don't you?" Hermione inquired. "You might want to deal with him first because I think he's liable to explode if he has to wait much longer."
"Snape's here too?" Harry exclaimed?
"Professor Snape, Harry. And, yes, he is."
"If he's here does that mean he also died before his time and will be sent back to relive his life?" Harry asked Susan. She nodded and Harry continued to question her. "How many chances has he had?"
"I can't tell you that, Harry. It's his life, not yours."
"But if we're all here together, then wouldn't it help if we can all plan together and then all go back with our memories intact?"
"Harry, I can possibly justify sending Hermione back with her memories intact because she's your soul-mate but Professor Snape..."
A mulish look crossed Harry's face. "What chance is he on, Susan?" he asked again, adamantly.
Shrugging her shoulders, she gave in. "I'm not sure, I need to check his file. SEVERUS SNAPE," she intoned. A file came flying at her and she caught and opened it. She skimmed the file and said, "Well, well, well. Guess what? He's on his last chance as well. Good thinking, Harry." She snapped her fingers and Severus Snape, clearly incandescent with rage, appeared on the chair next to Harry and Hermione. The dark-haired wizard blinked in astonishment when he identified the two people sitting next to him.
"Potter? Granger? What kind of purgatory is this? Can't I even get peace in my death?" As the furious man began to rant in anger, Susan interrupted.
"SILENCE," she said. It was her ominous and foreboding Death voice and it cowed even a livid Severus Snape instantly.
Susan had had enough. It had been a long, hard day for her and the knowledge that a second person now sat in her office, also on his last chance, was trying her last nerve. She was shocked that her own hour-glass had not appeared in front of her, indicating that she was on her way out, as had once happened to her grandfather before he managed to change Azrael's mind. Her own fury and worry was taken out on the three in front of her.
"All right, here's the deal. I'm the representation of Death and I'm here to give you all another chance because you all died before your time. Harry and Severus have both died six times and will be returning to their seventh lives. Seven, being the most magical number of all, is the maximum number of lives you get. If you mess this up, there's nothing we can do to fix it. Since this is their very last chance, they get to go back with their memories intact. Hermione has died three times and will be returning to her fourth life. Harry has requested that she also be allowed to return with her memories intact. Normally this would be impossible since she's not yet on her last life, but because she's Harry's soul-mate, because four is also a magical number and because for the first time, the three of you all happen to be here together, I'm going to bend the rules and allow it. Don't make me regret that decision! Now, you all have to sign magical contracts confirming that Death's Realm has allowed you to retain your memories." Three parchments and a quill appeared on the desk in front of them. "Once you've signed those, we can get down to some serious planning."
Hermione picked up her and Harry's contracts and read them quickly. She leaned over to the desk and signed her contract, handing the quill to Harry, who followed suit. Severus scowled but did likewise and the planning began.
"Severus," Susan said. "Your life is going to have to change drastically or you'll never succeed. For one thing, you were never meant to be with Lily Evans."
Severus looked like he was about to interrupt and Susan held up her hand to stop him. "You have a soul-mate, Severus. One who will complete you and make you happier than Lily ever could. You didn't meet her last time because she died before you had a chance to find her. I'm sending you back to the day you first spoke to Lily and Petunia Evans. If you don't alienate Petunia, then this time you'll become their brother. If you're not competing with James Potter for Lily's affections, you'll befriend the Marauders. You'll find relief from your father, you won't be bullied at school, you won't become a Death Eater and you won't need to spend your life spying – after all, you already know all that you need to know about the Voldemort Blood Wars and how to defeat him. If you do all this, Severus, I promise that you will meet your soul-mate and you will live a long and happy life."
Susan knew from previous dealings with the recalcitrant wizard in front of her that it would be much easier just to lay everything out in front of him and not waste time with promises and enticements. He could then take it or leave it and if he thought for one moment that she was trying to manipulate him like Albus Dumbledore had done in all his previous lives, then he would most definitely leave it, so it would be better to be open and honest with him.
Listening to Susan, Severus looked very thoughtful. He pondered what Susan was saying and after a few long minutes, he nodded. "All right," he said stoically. "I don't suppose I have much to lose by giving it a try. It certainly can't turn out worse than my last attempt at life."
"Good," Susan said. "Now, you will be able to save many of the people who died – Cedric Diggory, Colin Creevey, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks Lupin, Ted Tonks, Fred Weasley, Sirius Black and many others. You might even be able to save Frank and Alice Longbottom from their fate. However, it's unlikely that you'll be able to save the lives of James and Lily Potter."
As Harry and Severus both looked at Susan in horror, she explained. "The only way to save them is if you manage to locate and destroy all of the horcruxes before Sybill Trelawney makes the prophecy about Harry. Once that prophecy is made, James and Lily's fates will be set in stone and cannot be changed."
"If I become a Death Eater again, I can try and get the horcruxes..."
"No!" Hermione interrupted urgently. "Professor, in all the years you knew Lucius Malfoy, in all the years you were godfather to his son, did you ever know where his cache of dark artefacts was hidden? Did you ever even have the opportunity to roam freely around Malfoy Manor to try and find it? And what about the Lestrange vault in Gringotts? Would you be able to access that?"
"No," he replied resignedly, "but Lily..."
Hermione leaned over and put her hand comfortingly on his arm. "Sir, I know this is hard for you. I would give anything if Lily and James could be saved, for Harry's sake and for yours, but don't become a Death Eater unless you truly can save them. It's not worth the misery you'll have to suffer. Instead, focus on making sure Harry has a happy childhood after the loss of his parents. Do that for Lily. She died to protect Harry. Don't you think she'd consider the sacrifice worthwhile just as long as you and Harry are happy and safe?"
"Hermione..." Harry said in anguish, tears pooling in his bright, green eyes.
She put her arms around him again and hugged him hard. "I'm so sorry, Harry. Really I am. I'd love it if you could grow up with your parents but if that's not possible, then isn't it better that Professor Snape be your uncle? Isn't it better that he lives a happy life than that he spend his entire adulthood suffering the Dark Mark? He deserves the chance at a good life just as much as you do and this way he'll be able to make sure you have a happy life too, even though you won't have your parents."
Harry buried his face against Hermione and let the tears come. He had never actually mourned for his parents before. Petunia and Vernon Dursley had made it impossible for him even to ask about his parents, let alone grieve their loss. Then, after starting Hogwarts, he had been too busy merely trying to survive. It seemed that there was a significant, and usually life-threatening, incident involving him most years at Halloween, with even more dangerous incidents occurring at the end of every school year. Consequently, he was never able to take the time on Halloween to commemorate his parents' deaths, especially as Halloween was always a celebration at Hogwarts. At this moment, he finally took the time to mourn. As he cried, Hermione kept her arms around him and rubbed his back comfortingly until he was composed and ready to continue the planning session.
"Harry, you will meet Hermione much earlier this time." At this, both youngsters' faces lit up with delight. "However, you won't regain your memories until later. You can't be infants or toddlers with the memories and knowledge of eighteen year olds. If you regain your memories on Hermione's eleventh birthday, that will give you approximately a year to process them and make sure you know how to behave convincingly as eleven year olds before you start Hogwarts. Severus, you will need to start teaching them both Occlumency as soon as you possibly can. No one can know that they have knowledge of the future or that they are trying to change it, especially not Albus Dumbledore. Hermione, do you know when you first did accidental magic?"
"I'm not sure," she mused. "I believe it was round about the age of four. My Mum had taken my book away so I could have a nap and the next thing I knew, it was in my bed with me. I could never have reached it myself from where Mum put it and I didn't levitate it, it just appeared. I think I must have summoned it. It's possible there were other indications before then but that was the first tangible sign of magic that I can recall."
Susan nodded. "Severus, if everything happens the way it should, you, Harry, Sirius, Remus and Petunia will all know Hermione from infancy. As soon as she starts showing signs of accidental magic, you can tell her and her family about magic and start teaching her and Harry Occlumency. I know they'll be very young but if you introduce it gradually from an early age, then they should be proficient by the time they start Hogwarts. That's very important."
"What is it, Harry?"
"Professor Snape tried to teach me Occlumency before and it was an unmitigated disaster, not just because we hated each other at that time but because, well... we were both at fault, I guess. Professor Snape never really explained to me what to do and I didn't make much effort to understand, I suppose."
Severus snorted and Hermione intervened again, before Harry could lose his temper with the surly man. "Professor, perhaps we could start by learning how to meditate? We could go to a children's yoga class or learn martial arts. Both of those would teach us meditation techniques and mental control. Once we've been doing those for a few years and are competent in clearing our minds, maybe then you could start to teach us techniques for building barriers?"
Snape nodded in approval at this plan. "Not only would learning to meditate teach you to clear your minds, it will also help you control your accidental magic while you are young. That is indeed a good idea, Miss Granger. And I owe you an apology, Mr Potter. Professor McGonagall and I both tried to convince the Headmaster that given our somewhat contentious relationship, it would have been better had he tried to teach you Occlumency himself, but he insisted that I do it. He also insisted that I give you a crash course so that you learn as quickly as possible, instead of building up your shields gradually, the way Occlumency should be taught. Between our poor relationship and the Headmaster's interference, as you say, it was an unmitigated disaster. I will do better next time."
"Thank you, Sir," said Harry quietly. "And I apologise for viewing the memories you had stored in your pensieve. Although, in a way I'm glad I did see them. Not to gloat," he hastened to assure his again irate professor, "but because I needed to see what my father and Sirius were really like. I finally understood why you hated them and, well, you had good reason. That's the way my cousin Dudley always treated me and while he and I did kind of call a truce the last time we saw each other, I'm not sure if I could ever truly move past it. I can't bear bullying. That's one of the reasons why Malfoy always managed to wind me up so easily: he was nothing more than a petty bully. I would like to apologise to you for the treatment you received at hands of my father and godfather, Sir."
"Thank you, Mr Potter," Snape said hoarsely. "That's a honourable gesture on your part and I appreciate it."
Both men were embarrassed by the emotions they had shared and Harry rushed to change the subject. "I think I'd prefer martial arts to yoga," he surmised. "It's good defence – it would mean I wouldn't be helpless without a wand – and I think I would relate to it better than yoga."
"I'd really like to learn yoga," said Hermione. "I often have problems sleeping because my mind is so busy and knowing yoga would be very calming."
"You should try to learn a defensive technique as well, Miss Granger. It could be very advantageous to you," Severus lectured. "And if, as you say, learning martial arts will also teach you meditation, then that will help you with that problem."
"There's lots of different types of martial arts, Hermione. You could investigate and see what would suit you best. It's not like you've never done any physical fighting – I haven't forgotten that punch you gave Malfoy in third year!" laughed Harry.
Hermione looked embarrassed. "My brother liked to box and he used to spar with me a little bit. Before I went off to Hogwarts, he taught me some basic techniques because he thought I should know some self-defence, even though I had absolutely no interest in most physical activities. I enjoyed it, though, and I picked up more than he realised. You're right, Harry, Professor. I'll try a few different types of defence classes and see what works for me."
"Kick-boxing!" Harry exclaimed excitedly. "That might suit you."
"There's no need to decide now," Severus suggested. "It will depend partly on what classes are available where you grow up. It would also be helpful if you learned the same form of martial arts, so that you can keep practising against each other once you start Hogwarts, otherwise it may be hard to keep up your skills."
"That's a very good point, Professor," Harry said, then looked at the bushy-haired witch, still perched on his lap. "I didn't know you had a brother, Hermione," he continued.
"I didn't really talk about my family last time round," said Hermione. "Dumbledore didn't want me to."
"Why in Merlin's name would Dumbledore not want you to talk about your family?" exclaimed Severus in surprise. "I know he manipulated my and Potter's lives and why he did it, but why did he feel a need to interfere with yours as well?"
"Your parents are dentists, Hermione. Why would he have a problem with that?" asked Harry, puzzled.
"Yes, my parents are dentists but my father is also the Earl of Wolsingham². Interestingly, about a hundred years or so after the Founders, there was a saint by the name of Godric who lived in Wolsingham for a couple of years – I wonder if that had anything to do with me being sorted into Gryffindor? Anyway, our family name is actually Graynge. I used Granger in the magical world because it was more discreet; Dumbledore persuaded us that I should pretend to be plain Hermione Granger. He said that if it was found out that Lady Hermione Graynge, the daughter of the Earl of Wolsingham, attended Hogwarts, the attention that would generate could very possibly leak into the muggle world and that would violate the Statute of Secrecy. Now I wonder if that was just an excuse and really he was more interested in encouraging those who didn't know differently, to continue thinking of muggles and muggleborns as inferior. I'm not sure whether Dumbledore was truly misguided or if he really was a manipulative, uncaring reprobate. He certainly sent out mixed messages in everything he did."
She took a deep breath before continuing. "Albus Dumbledore is probably one of the biggest reasons for the divide between the Slytherins and the other Houses but I think it's more than that. He comes across as being pro-Gryffindor and anti-Slytherin but I think that in reality he panders to purebloods and halfbloods from the old magical families, regardless of the House they're in, and lets anyone else go hang unless they're useful to him. In that respect, he was very like Professor Slughorn but was far less obvious about it. People like Professor Snape here turned to the Death Eaters because they weren't welcomed anywhere else.
"I don't want to speak badly of your father and Sirius, Harry, but if Dumbledore had stopped the Marauders from bullying him, then Professor Snape might have felt that he had other options. Sirius tried to kill Professor Snape, using Remus as his murder weapon. Not only did Sirius not care what would have happened to Remus if he had attacked Professor Snape while transformed, but Sirius never saw anything wrong with what he did. Never. He felt the fact that it was Severus Snape was sufficient justification for his actions. And Dumbledore never tried to make him see differently. He didn't even punish Sirius, did he, Professor? Dumbledore didn't care that one of his students was nearly murdered; he was far more concerned about the influential Potter and Black heirs than the misfit Slytherin who didn't have anyone to turn to for support. He let the Marauders run riot, just like he did with Draco Malfoy and his cohorts in our time."
Hermione saw that Professor Snape was bright red with embarrassment, while Harry was looking down mutely in shame at his father and godfather's despicable behaviour and she plunged on bravely.
"Dumbledore may have been the so-called Leader of the Light but he actually fostered discord and conflict rather than unity. He was Headmaster of Hogwarts, the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and the Supreme Mugwump of the ICW. He had enormous influence, but what did he actually do with that influence? He sat back and let extremist bigots do whatever they wanted, that's what he did. He could have made Muggle Studies compulsory – taught by a competent teacher – and tried to bring about change through education. He could have had a compulsory course introducing Muggleborns and Muggle-raised to the wizarding world, teaching us their customs and traditions. Instead, the elective Muggles Studies course was a joke and people like you and me, Harry, were left to sink or swim on our own. We weren't given any help integrating into the wizarding world – we weren't even taught the basics, like how to write with a quill! We probably offended those raised in the wizarding world every time we opened our mouths. Not intentionally, but because Albus Dumbledore never made any effort to ensure that we were taught wizarding ways.
"You're the last remaining member of an Ancient and Noble House, Harry, so despite you being a half-blood, the pureblood bigots won't reject you entirely because of your blood status. I'm a Muggleborn, though, and they absolutely despise me for that. However, if they were going to accept any Muggleborn, I would imagine that it would be the daughter of a Peer of the Realm. Heck, I'm not the daughter of just any Peer of the Realm either. My family has held that title since Saxon times; it's the oldest Peerage still extant. The first Malfoy came to Britain from France with the Norman invasion in 1066. Well, my family had already held our Peerage for generations before the Normans invaded Britain.
"If we want to make a difference this time round, then we need make people like Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson understand that there is no reason to despise Muggleborns or even Muggles. We need to begin with me because of my rank and that means playing up my heritage – and it's a heritage to be proud of. I'm sure Dumbledore wanted me to keep it hidden so that those who were inclined to look down on Muggleborns wouldn't ever come to regard us as anything other than uncouth barbarians. Remember he used to share Grindelwald's beliefs and I don't think he's changed completely. Usually Professor McGonagall goes to visit all the Muggleborn students to tell them they're magical but Professor Dumbledore came with her on my visit. Why? Why did I warrant special treatment? It's unheard of for the Headmaster to accompany the Deputy Head on these visits. He hid it well but there was something off about him. We didn't comply with his idea of Muggles and it didn't sit well with him, so he tried to make me fit into what he considered the typical Muggleborn mould and we were so overwhelmed by this strange, new world we were being introduced to that we took everything the Headmaster said at face value and allowed him to dictate that I should hide my family history. It was only after you and I became friends, Harry, and he realised that I was useful to you, that his attitude towards me began to change somewhat. If we're going to succeed, we need to reach out to the Slytherins and try to negate both Riddle and Dumbledore's teachings. We're going to need all the help we can get with that, so I think that this time round I should be Lady Hermione Graynge and not merely Hermione Granger."
"Dumbledore must have been pretty persuasive last time when he got you to agree to pretend to be someone else. How will you get around that this time?" Harry had listened to Hermione's story with rapt attention. Everything she had said about Dumbledore made sense, plus it hurt him a little to hear how she had suppressed her own heritage at the Headmaster's suggestion. As the Boy-Who-Lived's best friend and the most intelligent witch of her age, she had attracted more attention than any other Muggleborn who had been at Hogwarts with them, and it saddened Harry to know that some of the prejudice and hatred she had suffered could have been alleviated somewhat had Dumbledore not manipulated Hermione into pretending to be someone else.
"Do you remember Justin Finch-Fletchley telling us in second year that he would have gone to Eton if he hadn't gone to Hogwarts?" Harry nodded and Hermione continued, "Well, my brother, Benedick, went to Eton with Justin's older brother. Benedick often had school friends visit during the school holidays and last time round, Jason Finch-Fletchley came to stay during the summer before our first year and again the summer before second year. I never said anything to Justin because I was masquerading as Hermione Granger then, but I think that this time I need to make a point of cultivating the Finch-Fletchleys. Perhaps Professor Snape could also arrange for us to meet some other people our age as soon as my magic has been recognised: Neville Longbottom, Susan Bones, Hannah Abbot and Luna Lovegood, perhaps. The more people who know me before I start Hogwarts, especially from families who are influential in the wizarding world, the more unrealistic it will be for me to hide my real identity.
"And if on top of that, Professor Snape and Sirius support me when I want to remain Lady Hermione Graynge, then it will be harder for Professor Dumbledore to insist. In fact, given the potential connection with the Finch-Fletchleys, perhaps we could arrange a pre-Hogwarts get-together for the Muggleborns and Muggle-raised from our year, if Professor Snape will have access to that information. We could justify it under the guise of how much I would have hated to enter this new world completely unprepared and not knowing anyone or anything about it, but since I'll be fortunate enough not to be in that position since I'll have learned about the magical world from a young age, I'd like to help the others who are going to be in the position I would have otherwise been in."
"A masterful analysis, Miss Granger... sorry, Lady Hermione. Ten points to Gryffindor," drawled Severus. "Of course, your plan needs some polishing to be truly Slytherin but it's a good starting point."
Harry smiled at Susan. "And that's why I wanted Hermione to retain her memories. We need her brain if we're going to succeed."
At that, Hermione grinned a Cheshire Cat grin and gave Harry a quick kiss. "Thank you," she said to him softly, then seeing his smile fade, asked, "What's wrong, my love?"
"It... it's Dumbledore," he burst out. "I realised when I saw that memory of him telling Professor Snape that I had to die that he'd been manipulating me all along but I hadn't realised just how much he'd interfered. Sirius: why didn't Dumbledore insist that he be given a trial? He may not have known at first that Wormtail was my parents' secret keeper but after Sirius escaped and we saved him, Dumbledore could have gone to the Wizengamot to demand a trial. There was a Kiss on Sight order, for Merlin's sake. If it had become known that Sirius had never received a trial, then that at least might have been cancelled. And Remus: why was he the only werewolf ever to attend Hogwarts? Why no others before or since? Especially after the Wolfsbane potion was developed. I know there was that time at the end of our third year when Remus forgot to take his potion but a student attending Hogwarts wouldn't merely be handed the potion and trusted to take it the way Remus was as a member of staff. Any students would have been supervised by Madam Pomfrey as the school Mediwitch, or by Professor Snape as the brewer of the potion, to make absolutely certain that they took it with no mishaps."
"Those are all excellent points, Mr Potter, and ones which we should certainly consider before going back," Severus approved.
"My meeting the Weasleys at the beginning of first year... that was contrived by Dumbledore too, wasn't it?" Harry continued.
"I'm not sure what you mean, Harry," said Hermione quietly.
"After Uncle Vernon tried to prevent me getting my Hogwarts letter, Dumbledore sent Hagrid to give it to me and take me to Diagon Alley to get my school things. Don't get me wrong – I like Hagrid, he has a good heart and he was my first friend, but he himself admitted that he wasn't the right person to introduce me to the wizarding world. He gave me the bare bones of my history and never thought to suggest I should buy other books in addition to those on the school list, to give me more general knowledge of the wizarding world, or to prepare myself for what the being the Boy-Who-Lived would mean. I was completely overwhelmed by everything, and being able to buy things for myself was such an alien concept back then that it never even crossed my mind that it may be useful to buy books that weren't on the school book list.
"Hagrid also forgot to tell me how to get onto the platform. It's possible it genuinely didn't occur to him to tell me and Dumbledore decided to make use of that, but it wouldn't surprise me if Dumbledore did something to Hagrid to make sure he wouldn't tell me. The Dursleys had left me at the station and I was desperately trying to find the platform when I heard Molly Weasley loudly talking about the station being packed with Muggles and asking her family which platform they needed. Why did she need to ask that? It's always Platform 9¾, she must have known that. And surely she knows better than to talk about muggles at full volume in case they hear her? But I was so grateful to see this family with a pet owl, and to hear them talking about Muggles and Platform 9¾, that I didn't question it. I just went up to her and asked her how to get on the platform. The next thing I knew, I was on the train, sitting in a compartment with Ron.
"I was already inclined to dislike Draco Malfoy, as he hadn't made a good impression on me when I happened to meet him in Diagon Alley, and Ron just fostered that opinion when Malfoy came into our compartment on the train. Not knowing any different, I believed everything Ron said about the wizarding world and so I begged the Sorting Hat to put me anywhere but Slytherin, because I didn't want to want to be in the same House as Malfoy, the House that Ron and Hagrid had both told me was the House of Evil. So the Hat put me in Gryffindor and suddenly I was Ronald Weasley's best friend and allowing myself to be guided by him about the wizarding world. I knew that Ron doesn't think, and is as prejudiced in his own way as the pureblood bigots, and yet I never once questioned his beliefs. I just went along with everything he told me because I was so grateful to have a friend. But Dumbledore set it up, didn't he? He made sure that not only would I be influenced by a Light oriented family but that it would be one which was completely and unquestioningly loyal to him. Was that to make sure I would be willing to die for the cause? Was that all I ever was to him? A weapon to be discarded? And the Weasleys, did they truly ever care about Harry?"
"I'm not sure," sighed Severus, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Arthur is good man at heart but he's so henpecked by Molly that over the years he's come to focus his attention primarily on his fascination with Muggles and let Molly do as she will at home. William, Charles and the twins are all good people and they're stronger-willed than Arthur. They all have brains and they use them. They think for themselves. They all know right from wrong and I think they – and even Arthur – probably all cared about Harry. Molly, Percival, Ronald and Ginevra are the problem.
"Percival isn't bad per se but he cares for little but his own ambitions – why that boy wasn't placed in Slytherin, I don't know."
"Is Dumbledore able to manipulate the Sorting Hat at all? Could he have made sure that Percy was sorted into Gryffindor?" Hermione asked consideringly.
"He wouldn't have needed to if Percy had asked for Gryffindor. I told the Hat I didn't want to go into Slytherin and it took my preference into account. Percy would have wanted to go Gryffindor because that's where Weasley's always go, just like Malfoys are always in Slytherin. Sirius also chose Gryffindor over Slytherin and the Hat listened to him," Harry replied.
"I don't know if the Headmaster can influence the Hat but I'm sure that if it is possible, Dumbledore would know how. As Harry says, though, it may not have been necessary if Percival asked to be sorted into Gryffindor," Severus conceded.
Looking sympathetically at Harry, Severus continued, "Ronald is desperate for attention and glory. He's thoughtless, heedless, careless, lazy, wilfully ignorant, inconsiderate, unsympathetic, intolerant, quick to anger and he has a rather unpleasant tongue on him. He also has a deep-rooted prejudice, which has been instilled into him by his mother and he doesn't have the mental faculties to analyse and ultimately reject her indoctrination. He's rabidly anti-Slytherin and he sees the Boy-Who-Lived as both the beacon against them and his path to fame and recognition. I don't know if he ever saw you as a person and not as a symbol to be exploited for his own personal, supposed eminence."
"And Ginny? Why was I so interested in her instead of Hermione? Has she been dosing me with potions?" queried Harry.
"No, I don't think she was dosing you with potions as they wear off and it would have been too difficult to keep you dosed during the time you were back at the Dursleys and when Ronald abandoned you last year, not to mention Poppy would have picked up on it during the many times you were hospitalised in her Infirmary. Medical records, and in particular those of minors, have special charms on them so they can't be tampered with – not even by the great Albus Dumbledore! – so Albus wouldn't have been able to Obliviate Poppy and then delete any mention of you being potioned. It was more likely that with Dumbledore's encouragement, Molly simply created an enormous case of hero-worship in Ginevra from the time she was an infant. It wasn't potions but it was brain-washing, and very likely a long-lasting compulsion charm from Dumbledore as well," said Severus thoughtfully.
"Yes," agreed Susan, who had been sitting quietly listening as Harry, Hermione and Severus had analysed their situation. "Dumbledore wanted you connected to the Weasleys, who are blindly supportive of him and thus easily manipulated. I imagine he felt that a little sister wasn't a strong enough connection and thought that if Ginevra were your wife, it would give him more control over you. You know, in many ways Ginny Weasley could be right for you: she's strong, feisty, loyal to her family, intelligent and shares interests with you. However, she belittles Hermione as much as Ron does; plus, she has Molly's temper and is as intolerant of things that don't fit her worldview as Molly, Percy and Ron are. Most important of all, she doesn't love you. She's driven by obsession – she's both self-obsessed and she's also a fangirl who is obsessed with the Boy-Who-Lived. She's a fangirl with a whopping, great crush on the Boy-Who-Lived and she not only has no clue who Harry really is, but I'm not sure she realises that Harry even exists."
"She had her little fantasy that you would marry her daughter and Hermione would marry Ronald and you would all be one big, happy, Weasley family. The fact that, as Severus said, she practically brainwashed Ginevra into falling for the Boy-Who-Lived long before she ever met you, or the fact that Ronald and Hermione were vastly inappropriate for each other, simply didn't register with Molly. She only heard and saw what she wanted to and what she saw in you and Ginevra was a reincarnation of your parents; she was convinced it was fated and Dumbledore's endorsement only encouraged her in that fantasy. The fact that by marrying you, Ginevra would be financially secure wouldn't have hurt, either. I'm not sure if she meant it maliciously, though – she was manipulated by a master, after all."
"So we should try and avoid them next time round?" Harry suggested ruefully.
"It would probably be a good idea," agreed Hermione. "We can be friendly with them – there's no point in making enemies of them – but not close friends, especially if we want to try and make friends with any Slytherins. Molly and Ron would never stand for it. Think about it, Harry. Have you ever heard Ron say anything good about any Slytherin?"
"No, no I haven't," he replied with a sigh.
"Not all Slytherins are bad, you know. Of course, it was probably more than their life's worth for most of them to do anything other than badmouth Muggleborns while they had to live with all the junior Death Eaters at school but there were a number of people in Slytherin who came from neutral families. I actually got on fairly well with Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis during Arithmancy and Ancient Runes classes. I wouldn't say we were good friends but we were perfectly civil to each other when we had to work together."
"Why did you never mention that?"
"Can you imagine Ron's reaction if I'd ever told him that I was on even slightly friendly terms with a couple of Slytherins?" she demanded.
Harry shuddered at the thought. "It wouldn't have been pretty," he said.
"It would have been worse than third year. He would probably have never spoken to me again and you would have followed his lead, Harry. I couldn't have borne that," a look of despair crossing her face at the mere thought.
"I'm so sorry, Hermione," he said, hugging her.
"It's all right, Harry. I can't be your only friend, that wouldn't be healthy, but this time please choose a best friend who won't do your thinking for you."
"Especially when he's not actually capable of thought himself," interjected Severus sardonically.
"That's the result of Dumbledore's influence," said Susan. "Although he wouldn't have had an issue with any Slytherins who were willing to pander to his ego, Dumbledore realised long ago that if he wanted to keep his followers, then he needed them to have an enemy to contend with so that he could be their leader. It was easier to foster an automatic distrust of an entire House than to encourage his followers to assess each individual on their own merits. That would have encouraged original thought instead of blindly following his dictates, and that was something the old manipulator couldn't risk happening."
"All of the Weasleys? Were they all like that?"
Bill certainly fought for the right reasons," answered Susan consideringly. "The Delacours may be an old, pureblood family but Fleur has Veela ancestry through her mother, which makes her part creature. Bill wasn't fighting Slytherins, he was fighting Death Eaters who would claim that his wife was a filthy half-breed who shouldn't be allowed to live. Tom Riddle's followers don't like part creatures, any more than they do half-bloods or Muggleborns.
"Charlie is more concerned with dragons than with politics – or even people for that matter, except for his family and close friends. Living in Romania ever since he left school made the war somewhat remote and theoretical for him. He fought because his family was fighting and because he knows right from wrong. Slytherins didn't play a part in his reasoning. The only time he went up against them was on the Quidditch pitch; the inter-house rivalry just didn't register on his radar apart from that.
"Even Fred and George aren't anti-Slytherin per se, Harry. While some may criticise them for always pranking and joking around, the light-heartedness and sense of fun that led to that passion prevented them from hating. While it didn't occur to them to try making friends with any Slytherins, neither was their relationship with the Slytherins contentious. Rather, for their first couple of years at Hogwarts, the twins tended to ignore them, apart from the occasional prank. It was really the antagonism between you, Ron, Hermione and Draco Malfoy that drew them into the Slytherin/Gryffindor rivalry.
"If the Slytherins had been willing to worship the almighty Albus Dumbledore, he would have done everything he could to encourage unity between all the Houses, under his banner. However, the Slytherins, being more cynical than most, tended to see through him and certainly weren't going to give him blind devotion; that's not in their nature, despite the number of them who were sucked in by Tom Riddle. So, while Dumbledore wasn't willing to go as far as to take action against anyone from any of the Ancient and/or Noble Houses, or even just of wealth and power, Dumbledore was happy to foster discord between those who supported him and those who didn't. There were undoubtedly those who agreed with and supported Tom Riddle's ideology but there were also those who, like Severus, simply had nowhere else to turn. It was either support Dumbledore or support Voldemort and there were no other options. The very few who managed to remain neutral did so solely because they had enough prestige and influence that both sides preferred to keep trying to court them rather than move against them."
"Which I never had," Severus commented bitterly. "Dumbledore had made it more than clear when I was a student that I was worthless, the dirt beneath the Marauders' feet. As a student in Hogwarts in Dumbledore's era, I wasn't even worthy of basic common courtesy and my welfare didn't cross his mind for a moment. Without wealth and influence, I needed a patron in order to make my way after Hogwarts, so when the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters offered me the one thing that Dumbledore didn't consider me worthy of – acceptance – I committed to them because what other choices did I have?"
"Under Dumbledore's reign as Headmaster of Hogwarts," Susan continued, "the antagonism between Slytherin and Gryffindor became so bad that in Molly's mind, Slytherin became synonymous with Death Eater and after her brothers were killed, she began to think of Slytherins as being responsible for their deaths and not Death Eaters. Fred and George figured that becoming friendly with Slytherins just wasn't worth her wrath. After working with Severus in the Order and learning the truth about Sirius and Peter Pettigrew, Molly knew intellectually that not all Slytherins are evil and that bad people can come from other Houses, however, emotionally it wasn't so easy to change such long-held, deep-seated beliefs. And, of course, she had spent so many years equating Slytherin with Dark that up to a point, she brought up her family with that same attitude.
"Her influence has been strongest on Ron and Ginny, as Molly didn't become quite so anti-Slytherin until her brothers were killed. Bill and Charlie were approximately eleven and nine when that happened so they weren't brought up initially to believe particularly badly of Slytherin. Percy doesn't really see the bigger picture: his worldview is very small and narrow and remarkably self-centred, so Molly's attitude didn't make that much of an impact on him. The twins, Ronald and Ginevra got the least individual attention from Molly, however, that didn't particularly affect Fred and George, as their twin bond was more important to them and, really, all they needed. With Ronald and Ginevra it was quite damaging, though. Molly wasn't able to pay much time to them, so unlike with the older children, Ronald and Ginevra tended to be told what to think instead of being encouraged to consider and reason and work things out for themselves, simply because it was easier and quicker for Molly. Once the twins went to school and only Ronald and Ginevra were left at home she finally had time to give them individual attention, however, they were already nine and eight and by then the damage had been done. Add to that the fact that Ronald is the weakest-willed and least cerebral of the brothers and Ginevra didn't get any sort of counselling or treatment after being possessed by Tom Riddle, and you can see how they came to be so strongly swayed by her opinions," said Susan. "And because Ron, Ginny, Lavender Brown and Draco Malfoy and his gang all made Hermione feel so insecure, she didn't fight for you because she didn't believe you could be interested in her instead of Ginny."
Harry looked at the petite witch, who was still sitting in his lap but with her eyes now downcast. "Is that true, Hermione?" he asked caringly, the concern for his soul-mate clearly displayed on his face.
She nodded mutely. Harry cupped her cheek and gently turned her face until she was looking at him. "Don't ever think you're not worthy of me, Hermione. You're brilliant, you have incredible compassion and loyalty and, if anything, I'm unworthy of you."
She shook her head vehemently. "No, Harry. I'm as worthy of you as you are of me."
Her face lit up. "Soul-mates. Equals."
"I like the sound of that." Harry kissed Hermione and they revelled in the feelings of peace and completeness that brought to them.
"I think I might throw up," professed Snape disdainfully. "You two are positively nauseating. For Merlin's sake, let's start planning."
¹ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, Chapter 34.
² This is a completely fictitious peerage; everything I said about it, apart from the fact that there was a St Godric who lived in Wolsingham round about 1120 AD, is total fabrication.
A/N: I know that Susan Sto-Helit of the Discworld Series is somewhat out of character, but she's very difficult to write and, hey, it's an alternative reality in any case!