Hermione found herself lost in chaos. It was like when she'd fallen into her older self's memories, in the Library, except this time it was Hogwarts' history she was seeing. But only fragments, in no sensible order, some things mixed together. She saw the school run by a Blood Purist Headmistress. She saw students die. She saw the Founders, blending their incomprehensibly strong magic into to the magic of the land itself, to give the castle a kind of permanence and life that no later structure would match. She saw Triwizard Tournaments (and more students die, incidentally). She saw Salazar Slytherin and Godric Gryffindor in such a row that the veins stood out in their necks, but they never touched their wands.
It all became a jumble, one thing running into another with no pattern, too fast to follow, and just as Hermione began to fear for her sanity, it faded, withdrew. She could feel, somehow, that it was still happening somewhere inside her, and realized she was being shielded from the Memory Charm - at least for the moment - but at a terrible cost. Worse, her instinctive interpretation of the sensations suggested desperation and weakness.
Hermione spared no time on grief for the other her, and simply felt grateful, while she frantically searched for some way out of this mess. But while she was still paralyzed, unless she somehow deduced how to produce wandless, motionless magic in the next couple of minutes, it seemed like this was only delaying the inevitable. Maybe if she was wrong about her protection being temporary, he would finish his spell, thinking it was successful, but allowing her to act freely?
Then her nose, pressed against the stone floor, twitched. As the rest of her body gradually followed in returning to her control, Hermione controlled her shock and tried to keep herself as rigid as she'd been before - she wasn't sure how much spare attention a Memory Charm left the caster, but she could not afford to let the murderer notice something was awry.
Hermione began to think even faster, mystified as to what hat her older self had pulled this rabbit from, her heart racing apace with her brain. She could move now, and that was a significant improvement, but her options were nevertheless rather limited.
She could just wait and hope that the sleeping potion would slow or disable him, or Ron or Harry would show up with a Professor before the Memory Charm fought its way through, but that was a pure gamble. Banking on his Memory Charm finishing before it chewed through her other self and reached her own mind was a similar bet on unknown odds. She could try to run for the door, but it was still sealed, and without her wand, she had no way to open it. She could try, again, to knock herself unconscious to trigger her fail-safe, but Hermione doubted she had the strength to do so from a prone position.
Hermione closed her eyes, picturing her last view of the scene before she'd dived to the floor, examining every detail she'd seen. Her surroundings, cleared of anything useful save her own impotent "fail-safes", the murderer, looming before her, a wand gripped in each hand, blood dripping from the man's flayed palms-
A rather Gryffindorish idea occurred to her at that point, but she made note of it, set it aside, and continued to consider the situation carefully. The floor was still lubricated from her spell, which meant he was either standing very carefully, or, more likely, had moved away from his previous position, which meant in turn that her fail-safe was probably entirely useless at the moment - a rather significant hole in her original preparations, she now realized. But there could still be some of the lubricant on his shoes from contact, as well as the blood randomly dripping from his hands. She could try to tackle him, and hope the treacherous footing would aid her, but despite his stature, he still outweighed her and was probably stronger as well.
Suppose she just stood up, blank faced and glassy-eyed...was it plausible that a Memory Charm might allow something akin to sleepwalking, or interfere with a Full Body-Bind? Maybe the FBB was a mental block, and not an actual physical force. Even if that wasn't the case, he'd admitted he wasn't very good with Memory Charms, and he'd fallen for the Supersensory Charm notion...maybe he wouldn't know for sure - possibly be thrown enough to delay, to investigate? But he had seen through her edging towards her wand, and seemed much better at intuiting intent than she was - now that he wasn't as overconfident - certainly better than she was at deceiving in the first place. He probably wouldn't let her just shuffle within reach of him in any case.
And yet...his obvious pride in learning what other people wanted to hide, his seeming empathy when she'd begged him to explain, just so she could know. What if he thought he'd lose something by continuing the charm...something he'd never get back...
As the seconds ticked down with no further insights, Hermione grew a bit desperate. Carefully choosing a course of action from all the available options was all well and good, but there were such things as time constraints, and sometimes you were just forced to work with what you had. An unlikely feat of agility and dexterity - neither of which were strengths, though she had been working on dexterity at least - or a far-fetched deception to lure him into making a mistake. She could feel the Memory Charm nearly touching her, and she made an instinctive decision.
Hermione dutifully rehearsed the plan, imagining likely slips, making corrections. When she felt a grey fog creeping in at the edges of her vision, she knew she could wait no longer.
"...Memory...for the best...never know...secret…" she murmured into the floor, but loudly enough that - assuming he could hear at all - he couldn't miss it. She tensed, ready to try the other plan if it seemed he hadn't heard through his concentration, or was otherwise not taking the bait. But immediately, she felt - somehow - the Memory Charm slow, then pause, but not stop. There were bare tatters of her other self's protection left, nothing that could be called thought. The best metaphor Hermione could come up with, from a source as mysterious as the sensation itself, was as if a book had been dropped, page-by-page, into a diamond-cut document shredder, then a tablespoon of what remained was sprinkled into a spiderweb.
Two quick footsteps - and a noise that suggested he'd nearly slipped but recovered himself - then she felt a hand roughly turning her over onto her back. She kept herself mostly but not entirely stiff, leaving room for some awareness - beyond her having spoken at all - that she wasn't fully frozen...he mustn't be too startled when she did move, lest he jerk away in surprise. But she did try to keep her face slack, her eyes dull and half-open.
"What? What secret?" he demanded. Hermione could see now that he'd put one of the wands away, and held only one - hers - in his right hand. But she forced herself to keep her eyes unfocused, not even to glance at it.
"...you...don't know…" she murmured, more quietly, airily raising her right hand to point at him. His eyes widened in confusion and he leaned in closer.
"What secret, what don't I know?!"
Hermione smoothly extended her reach, grasped her wand, and pulled as hard as she could. As she'd hoped, the blood on his palms had not congealed, but was still flowing from the horrible damage he'd done to them. It acted as a lubricant, and despite her disadvantage in relative strength - though his missing index finger no doubt helped there - her wand slid free of his grip, eliciting a hiss of pain. Her sense of the suspended Memory Charm vanished instantly.
"You're even worse at Memory Charms than you thought!" Hermione shouted into his face. She couldn't cast with the wand reversed, or holding it like an ice-pick, so as she shouted, she twirled it in her hand like a baton - thanking her juggling exercises. But even as she closed her fingers back around the wand in a proper grip, the man overcame his pain and surprise and reached out to wrest it back from her.
With no time or room to cast, she flung her arm to the side to keep it from his reach, and though his shoes slid and he half-fell, it was mostly onto her, pinning her wrist against the stone. When she tried to take the wand out of her right hand with her left, he seized her left wrist - her skin crawling as his flayed hand wrapped around it - and wrenched it to the other side of her body, pinning it just as he had her right.
Hermione kicked at his legs and body, but their respective positions didn't allow her to do much more than annoy him, and - no doubt by design - she couldn't bend her wrist enough in this position to point her wand at any part of him. But lying on her back, past his furious, half-panicked expression, she saw something she could target. She bent her wrist as far as she could manage, aiming the wand at the ceiling in the center of the room. Silently thanking Professor Quirrell for the extra bit of practice, she jerked it upwards as sharply as she could, giving it the proper back-and-forth half twist, and hoping the tiny distance she was able to thrust it with her wrist pinned was sufficient.
"FINITE INCANTATEM!" she roared. The murderer's face was contemptuous, though shaded with a hint of confusion. He began shaking her wrist and slamming it against the floor, trying to dislodge her wand, but Hermione hung onto it doggedly - her spell, if it had been successful, was already cast, but it was a distraction at best and she couldn't afford to lose her wand.
During her preparations - what seemed like years ago - Hermione had selected the classroom's heavy worktable as the best candidate for her failsafe. She'd discovered that - after multiple Shrinking Charms - the formerly very sturdy and thick oak legs could be removed by a succession of Severing Charms that would've been useless against them otherwise. After she'd removed them all, Hermione had managed to charm the table's surface to nearly the exact color of the ceiling, then lodge it there amongst the vaulting with the strongest Floating Charm she'd been able to cast after multiple attempts - and positioned precisely over the spot on which she'd planned to stick Scabbers to the floor.
The thick slab of oak - which Hermione had estimated weighed at least 50 kg - now restored by her Finite to its original color, size, and mass, and freed as well of the magic which had been maintaining its vertical position a good fifteen feet up, dropped to the floor about two yards behind them with a tremendous crash.
The murderer, in a panic, released her in order to scramble away, looking around wildly for the source of the noise even as he fumbled in his robes for Lavender's wand.
Hermione didn't waste time by trying to get to her own feet, she just swung her own wand over to track him, aiming across the length of her body.
"Petrificus Totalus!" He'd managed to get Lavender's wand out, but not fast enough to parry. The spell, however, failed to contact him as he instead used his Animagus transformation to dodge, his form shrinking rapidly down to that of a rat again.
Now Hermione leaped to her feet, and sent spell after spell towards the rat, starting with more Full Body-Binds but switching to Rictusempra which was slightly quicker to cast, then Engorgement Charms, which were faster still and might make him easier to hit subsequently, and finally - steeling herself - Severing Charms, which were the fastest yet. But the rat was too small and quick, and she couldn't land anything. Even after she tossed in another Lubricating Charm - which affected a sizeable patch when cast at the floor - given the benefit of claws it barely affected his speed at all, though he did seem to have slightly less manoeuvrability.
But despite all her efforts, she saw he was aiming for - and likely going to reach - some of the desks she'd moved to the back wall of the classroom. Hermione realized that if he managed to shift back to human shape behind them, he'd both have some cover and be able to parry spells, while she would benefit from neither. She turned her back and sprinted for the door, wand extended before her.
"Stupefy!" she heard in the distance behind her, at the same instant she cast her own spell. Not at the door, but the small irregular pile of wood fragments she'd taken care to center just past the doorway as she'd entered.
"Finite Incantatem!" she yelled, leaping upward and forward. Despite her attempt to avoid it, her feet were caught slightly by the rapid expansion of the tangled pile of chairs and desks she'd repeatedly Reducio'd into manageability, causing her to tip forward in her jump and crash into the door heavily. But the pile itself blocked the Stunning Spell, and she was encouraged to find herself still awake and alive. The pile had been meant originally as a contingency - another wildly optimistic one, she now realized - against blocking pursuit if she had been forced to flee. Cover hadn't even occurred to her...not having ever been in an actual spell duel, her analysis of likely outcomes and tactics had been woefully incomplete.
Hermione wanted to take a moment to catch her breath and shake the fog out of her thoughts that had come from hitting the door nearly headfirst, but from the other end of the room she heard an incantation she did not recognize, followed by two she did, but which taken together were all extremely alarming and highly motivating.
"Bombarda Maxima! Stupefy! Avada Kedavra!"
Hermione recalled, at some point in the past week, idly wondering what the propagation speed of targeted spells was, and further, if it varied. In broad terms, it was clear that they were generally fast enough that simply dodging wasn't easy, but not so fast that parrying or dodging physically wasn't possible. She had, at the time, been in the middle of something else and hadn't interrupted it to jot the question down on her list. Now the question was of significantly more than academic interest, as the classroom was long, but not that long.
Hermione, in a time-saving instinct inspired by pure terror, tried an Unlocking Charm, which was both two syllables shorter than the General Counter-Curse, and - if properly cast - would cause the sealed item in question to physically open as well without requiring additional effort on her part.
"Alohomora!" she cried, twitching her wand in a quick double-flick upward and leaning away from the door to give it room to move. As soon as it had opened just wide enough she dove forward. But Hermione had scarcely made it halfway through when she was flung upwards and tossed towards the opposing corridor wall as her makeshift barricade - along with most of the door as well as some of the stone floor and doorway itself - exploded with shocking violence.
"Aaahhh-Arresto Mo-" she started, trying to convert her scream into something more useful, but even if she'd had the focus to cast under the circumstances, there was simply not enough time over the short distance across the corridor, and her incantation was cut short as she was slammed brutally against the stone wall, then battered and scoured by fragments of debris as she dropped heavily to the floor. The scattered contents of her bag joined her, loose sheets of paper fluttering everywhere, some covered in notes, others blank - some of the latter having been liberated from her copy of Hogwarts, a History, whose oddly worn binding it seemed had finally given out completely.
Hermione hurt everywhere, she felt dizzy and nauseated, and she seemed to be having trouble hearing, both in general and from a persistent ringing. Accordingly, she mostly saw, rather than heard, the impact of two searing magical bolts slam in quick succession into the wall above her, the blazing red a metre or so up, while the sinister green only missed her by centimetres. It also felt like something warm was trickling through her hair, and she suspected this was very bad without devoting too much of her very limited focus to it. She had somehow, in a small miracle, maintained her grip on her wand.
Through the dust filling the air in the corridor and the otherwise-open doorway, Hermione could see the rough outline of the murderer approaching from the far end of the room. She could not make out his expression, but she imagined it was grimly satisfied, though still a bit worried, because this would be pretty hard to cover up, and the noise presumably meant people would now be rushing here from every direction. Really his best bet at this point would be to make certain she was dead, transform and lie low, and then show up later and hope no one would suspect the rat. The shape of his silhouette suggested he was raising his wand, but he hadn't cast yet - he probably couldn't quite make her out, lying as she was against the wall and surrounded by dust and debris. But as soon as he was close enough to see that he'd missed, and be more sure of his aim...
It seemed like she should do something about that, and a very tired part of her thought just playing dead would be a fine idea, but Hermione rejected this as more groundless optimism. If she were evil, she'd certainly make sure her enemy was dead. Though when she tried raise her wand arm to do something, she nearly fainted from the sharp stab of pain. It hadn't really registered in the general chorus of her body's many complaints until she moved it - some part of her wondered curiously if that's what a broken bone felt like. Her arm was already pointing in roughly the right direction, however, and conveniently she'd just had a little practice in casting with only her wrist. She tried to keep her arm as still as possible and though it still hurt quite a bit managed to the complete the wand motions for a Full Body-Bind this time, but when she took a deeper breath to speak the incantation, she felt another stab, now in her chest, and despite herself released what little air she'd claimed in a croaking cry. The man must've heard, because the speed with which his shape through the dust was growing closer seemed to increase, and very faintly, mostly by the rhythm, she managed to make out "Expelliarmus", repeated several times without pause.
This seemed manifestly unfair, so Hermione, in an impulse born as much from petulance as tactics, simply opened her fingers and let the wand fall to the stone floor. Or she would have, except now the murderer's blood on the wand was congealing and it had adhered relatively well to her palm. She felt a tingle as one of the wildly-aimed spells struck her, but the wand remained. Sticking didn't count as holding? She began to laugh, but the stabbing pain in her chest stopped her quickly. Hermione instead stuck her tongue out, thinking of Hannah Abbott roughly a million years ago at the Sorting, and vaguely wondered if she was thinking clearly, but dismissed the question as not something she was equipped to address right now. Yet through the fog and distraction, she did remember that she was meant to be doing something, and though it sent another stab of agony up her arm, she closed her fingers back around the wand and stubbornly tried the gestures once more.
Whether it was the fact that she was now bracing herself for it - and had suffered the Cruciatus Curse not long ago and had somewhat recalibrated her scale for what agony meant - or perhaps simply that she was going into shock and beginning to lose feeling entirely, this time she was able to maintain her focus through the pain, and to draw just enough breath.
"Petrificus Totalus," she whispered, and the way her hearing was, she couldn't really tell if she'd even managed to speak aloud. Maybe the murderer couldn't either, or his reactions were dulled by the cumulative contest of the Liquid Sheep versus his adrenaline, but he didn't begin a parry until - to Hermione's mild surprise - a blue-white flash of light burst from her wand.
But by then, at their current distance, it was too late. His limbs snapped into alignment with his body and he toppled forward through the doorway, his eyes full of disbelief.
The surge of relief washed away what little adrenaline Hermione had left. Her vision went dark, and the world fell away.
Hermione stared up at a cloudless blue sky. She was outside? But she'd been in the castle...doing...something… Feeling something smooth and slightly cool under her hand, she bent her neck forward and saw she was wearing a simple but lovely blue silk dress, her slippered feet peeking from under the hem. Part of the curve of the Black Lake was visible beyond...also, she seemed to be lying on a table. She turned her head to the right, away from the lake, then immediately sat up and swung her legs off of the table, trying to make sense of what she was seeing, though it was uncomfortably familiar. Facing her were rows upon rows of chairs, though not very many were filled. All of the Ravenclaws in her year were there, plus Roger Davies and Penelope Clearwater, the older girl fussing over her camera. Ron and Harry sat together, and the Weasley Twins, plus Hannah and Lavender were nearby. The latter was whispering to Parvati, next to her, but she was glancing unhappily at Neville, who was focused on clutching Trevor tightly in his lap. Tracey Davis was tugging on Theodore Nott's sleeve, trying to tell him something, but he was ignoring her. All her Professors were also there, plus the girl from the train, Tonks, along with the Headmaster, and...her parents.
Almost everyone looked very sad, though only her parents were openly crying.
A strange fear gripped her, as she suddenly remembered the last thing she'd been doing, her desperate duel with the murderer, her serious injuries. Not that the fear was unreasonable - it was actually a fairly universal one - but it was strange because despite having met a few ghosts, she still hadn't really adjusted her otherwise entirely scientific opinions on life-after-death, and had thus not anticipated having the opportunity to experience this particular fear post hoc, as it were. She slid quickly off the table.
"It's okay, everyone, I'm all-...ah, I'm still here…" she said, correcting herself when she remembered that ghosts were a possibility now, and thus 'all right' might not be wholly accurate. But no one seemed to notice at all. They were still looking in her direction, but they weren't looking at her. Feeling a chill, she slowly turned around to look at the table.
The girl lying there barely looked like her. True, she was only slightly more pale than her usual skin tone, but there was the lovely dress, her styled hair. Her hands were folded neatly atop a pristine copy of Hogwarts, a History which lay on her stomach. She was perfectly still.
Hermione swayed and might have fallen, but strong hands were there to steady her.
"Headmaster?" she gasped, looking up into Dumbledore's face. "You can see me?" He gave her a sad, kind smile.
"I see everything. I'm a powerful wizard, haven't you read my Chocolate Frog card?"
"But...am I a ghost? No one else can see me…and you can touch me…" He hastily removed his hands.
"You must've been mistaken, that would be extremely inappropriate, particularly at your funeral. Anyway, I have a duty here, so if you'll excuse me?" Hermione nodded mutely, extremely confused, as Dumbledore moved to a podium to one side of the table. The audience grew quiet.
"We are here," he said, in sombre tones, "to say goodbye to Hermione Jean Granger. An otherwise gifted girl who, entirely due to her own mistakes - whether they occurred in this timeline or not - died without quite having reached the age of twelve. Which would no doubt be very disappointing to her, were she around to think about it...I mean, honestly, within a matter of months everyone here will have done better, even Ronald Weasley and Neville Longbottom, who are each blessed with unique character deficits we all sincerely hope they will work on."
Hermione stared at him, then thought back to the Welcome Feast and wondered if Madam Pomfrey's memorial had just been an unusually lucid moment. But looking out at the audience, no one seemed to find anything he'd said unusual or surprising, not even insulting Ron and Neville, or mentioning timelines. The Weasley Twins had moved behind Professor Quirrell, and were beginning to carefully add pizza dough and cheese to the garlic already in the folds of his turban, which seemed both dreadfully inappropriate and unwise, but certainly not impossible...
"She did manage, sort of, to defeat a rat in magical combat, though that is only slightly more impressive than it sounds, considering. She could have just told me about it, but despite being Sorted into Ravenclaw, she was completely unable to figure out how to get into my office while I was taking a short nap, even though the password was 'password'. She didn't even guess," he added, shaking his head sadly. "Mr. Potter could've done better, and he's a muggle-raised orphan, and nearsighted to boot." Much of the audience nodded as if the Headmaster was dispensing great wisdom, Harry included.
Morag suddenly stood up.
"Yes, Miss McDonald's, tee-emm" asked Dumbledore politely, making finger-parentheses around the '™' as he pronounced it.
"Och, ah just wanted tae say," she began, and seemed to now be wearing a tam o' shanter and a kilt, despite being a girl, "e'en thoo sh' deid aft'r her first week and ah'm obviously goin' tae get way mair Hoose Points than her, ah ken fair certs ah certainly could've dun better e'en if she hadn't kipped it." She sat down, to polite applause.
"Quite right, Miss Macaroni, and well said. Even though I did already point out we'd all do better than her in the not-dying department, and I couldn't really follow whatever language you were speaking, I think we got the gist."
"I'm sorry, I mean...what? What? So, yes, the dress is very nice and I'm glad someone did something with my hair, but this is a horrible funeral..." objected Hermione, who had finally managed to find her voice. "There aren't even any quotes from famous authors, or soothing music on oboes, it's just rude and bizarre…" Dumbledore put a finger to his lips and shushed her, and Hannah stuck her tongue out in her direction, the Twins interrupting their surreptitious construction of a scale-model bistro around Quirrell's head long enough to follow suit.
"In any case, I know we all have better things to do, so let's just get on with it." He withdrew a wand from his robes - black and smooth, with a white tip - indistinguishable from a standard stage magician's wand by virtue of being one. "Abracadabra!" The body on the table was consumed by intense white flames, which quickly vanished, leaving only the book. It fell to the table's surface with a soft thump. The Headmaster waited for a moment to see if anything else was going to happen, then shrugged. "Weird. All right, off with you then. Madam Pince will be along to collect the remains at some point, if she isn't too busy being unhelpful at Library patrons."
Everyone got up and dispersed, chatting amiably with each other. Hermione tried to follow, still objecting that this whole thing was in terribly poor taste, but she couldn't seem to move further than a few steps away from the table.
She wondered if she might contrive to carve a wand out of one of the table legs, but lacking a wand in the first place or indeed tools of any kind somewhat stymied that line of thought. She was interrupted when Madam Pince did in fact walk down from the castle to the table, but after she picked up the book she swerved towards Hermione herself.
"Books left out of the Library! Shame! Shame and disrespect!" She opened a book bag that looked a lot like Hermione's, dropped the book in, then grabbed the hem of Hermione's dress and began feeding it into the bag as well.
"Wait, I'm not a book!" Hermione heard herself shout, rather unnecessarily, and wondered if Dumbledore's insanity was catching, even posthumously. But the librarian ignored her, and in a few moments had somehow stuffed Hermione herself entirely through the bag's opening, which had improbably widened enough to admit her.
It was a horrible mess in the bag, which, from the inside, looked somewhat like a circus tent. Her notes were scattered everywhere, but they were effectively the size of large sheets of plywood, and just as difficult to lug around. And while her wand was here, it was similarly unwieldy, looking more like an unusually ornate utility pole than a delicate magical instrument.
Hermione fanned out most of the pages across the bottom of the bag with great difficulty, but they were hard to sort when she couldn't properly look at more than one or two letters at a time. She used the enormous thread and thimble from her emergency sewing kit along with a ballpoint pen cap to make a pulley system, then laboriously tipped a spiral notebook up onto its edge and used the wire binding to climb up towards the top of the bag and look down. This was even more difficult than it sounded, because her dress had at some point become a pinafore and her petticoats were getting in the way.
"So, top-right, then second two rows down, then fourth one up from the bottom," she muttered to herself, figuring out the proper order. She was only halfway done when the bag lurched and she slipped, beginning to tumble head-over-heels towards the rather unyielding book cover below.
"Oh, bother," she said. "Arresto Momentum?" Despite her hesitant intonation and the fact that her wand was some distance away, her fall downwards stopped instantly, though it immediately restarted, because of course the Earth's gravitational field was entirely functional inside the book bag, and momentum and acceleration were two entirely different things. "Arresto Gravitate," she tried instead.
This time her fall did not stop, but she stopped accelerating, and floated relatively gently down with the same speed she'd had when she spoke. She nodded approvingly that magic was finally starting to make sense even if nothing else did at the moment, though when she reached the book's cover, she simply bounced off of it and headed straight back up, lacking any gravity to otherwise hold her. Hermione saw a bright light above her and realized she was going to sail straight up out of the bag entirely - she looked down and waved goodbye to her notes, and they each wiggled a corner at her.
Hermione looked around curiously. She seemed to be in the Hogwarts Library, but if so, someone had radically redecorated since the last time she was here. The architectural features, the stacks, the books - everything was in its proper place and configuration, but it was all white. Bright white. Madam Pince wasn't anywhere in sight - no one was, come to think of it - but perhaps she'd simply chased Professor Flitwick out after he had, for some reason, tried out his room-coloring charm again.
"Hello?" she called out, experimentally.
There was no response, but there was a change. She could now hear the soft, comforting sound of pages being turned, about once every twenty seconds or so. For the average non-fiction book, it was a pace a bit rapid for nearly anyone who wasn't skimming, but the rhythm was as familiar to Hermione as her own heartbeat. She searched through the stacks, pausing occasionally to listen, until she located the source of the sound.
A young woman - perhaps Nurse Wainscott's age - sat in an overstuffed chair in one of the many little alcoves of the Library. Her legs were tucked under her, and her clothes were modern muggle standard, except as white as everything else - she noted her own clothes were now her Hogwarts robes, though equally white. Hermione recognized the book she was reading at the same time as the woman herself.
The woman looked up, gave her a welcoming smile, and patted the arm of the similarly-overstuffed chair adjacent to her own.
"It's all right, really," she said, quietly. "It's not what you think...so to speak." This should not have been reassuring, but somehow it was anyway, at least enough to break Hermione's hesitation. She moved to the empty chair, toed off her shoes - she noted there was a mirrored pair in front of the woman's chair - and climbed up, curling her legs under herself similarly, but sitting turned, to face the woman over the arms of the chairs.
"I'm not sure what I think, but...I'm not dead, then? I mean physically - obviously I'm not last-year's concept of dead, or I wouldn't be asking, cogito ergo sum and all that." The woman smiled again.
"Neither. If you'd been discorporated, I think you'd know it...whatever ghosts are, they don't seem to have the capacity for..." she paused and waved a hand airily, "...this sort of thing. Given that, the other follows - you must have a living brain with which to indulge in whimsy. At least for the moment." Hermione frowned.
"Are you sure it's not you indulging in the whimsy? You seem awfully pleased with yourself, whereas I'm just confused. Case in point, I thought for sure you'd been wiped out by that Memory Charm…" The young woman shrugged.
"I'm pretty sure 'I' was." As Hermione's frown deepened, she continued, "And before you offer any objections about that contradicting the implications of what I just said, let me clarify - I am exactly as sure as you are that whatever constituted 'me' was in fact irrecoverably destroyed." It took Hermione a moment to parse this.
"Oh. You're saying this is all coming from me, and you're not really 'her'? Goodness, that makes a lot more sense now...I didn't want to believe Dumbledore was that crazy…" She paused. "But if this is all a dream, is there a point? Beyond the usual, at any rate." Another shrug.
"I'd say it's an open question as to whether she was 'really' her in the first place. You'd have to look into the question of continuity of consciousness across Transfiguration and other radical alterations to physical instantiation, and that's a thorny puzzle indeed, since from your reading, you already suspect magical society doesn't seem to understand consciousness any better than science does. As for your question...what's the point of anything? It's a little nihilistic, but I'm serious. You learn, you grow. Ostensibly so you can survive long enough to pass your genes along to some offspring and give them a decent chance at doing the same. In this particular case, along the way, brains have evolved ways of trying to right themselves when they've taken a particularly hard knock - physically or otherwise." Hermione considered this.
"What, so I may be dying? And I have to choose whether to go on living or not? That's a bit clichéd...but anyway, you know my answer to that, so I guess we can just skip to the end?" The woman laughed, but it didn't sound kind. The light through the windows began to darken.
"Such a snippy little witch...so be it. And asking me questions about the future, little girl? I already know how this really ends for you, and it's not happy." Her form shifted and shrunk, but rather than turning into a rat, she turned into a mirror of Hermione herself, though still in white casual clothing. "You don't get to choose anything...you've already been trapped by the person you're staring at."
"I don't understand…do you mean the other me? Or...because it was really my fault Madam Pomfrey died?" The girl made a disgusted noise.
"You can be a bit thick sometimes, you know? But by all means, let's talk about that. You realized your actions had led to Madam Pomfrey's death. And because you felt guilty, you decided you could be as efficient as possible by punishing someone else along with yourself, and nearly getting yourself killed!" The girl turned and lifted her shirt halfway, showing a mass of bruises and cuts, half her ribcage sickeningly misshapen, one rib protruding here, a shard of wood piercing her there.
Hermione stared in horror.
"It's...but...you said it wasn't what I thought..."
"You thought you might be dead, and you're not. Yet. But that does not make everything okay." There was blood trickling down the girl's neck from the back of her skull, spreading crimson across her white shirt.
"I know I made mistakes, I'm sorry…" she protested, weakly.
"That's not good enough!" roared the girl. "Guilt is a useful emotion only when it helps you avoid making mistakes - not as motivation to recklessness! And casting a stupid Color-changing Charm wasn't even a mistake! You had no way of knowing what would happen...all the real mistakes came after!" Her face was pale, her cheeks hollow, her eyes dark, and Hermione found she was leaning as far away from her as she could while staying in the chair.
"I...I wasn't...the me from the future said…"
"Wah, wah, I had a visitor from the future in my head, nothing's my fault," she mocked. Hermione slid out of the chair and took a couple of shaking steps away from her.
"What do you want from me?!" The girl's expression became calculating for a moment, then furious again.
"I want you to be good for something. You have all these talents, but I haven't seen anything but a pretentious, selfish child, skipping about among whatever shiny things catch her attention for a moment. In all your plans for justice and transference, did you consider for a moment how your parents would've felt if you'd died in this act of sheer idiocy?!"
Not even a little bit.
Not even really at her 'funeral', though she'd been rather distracted by trying to figure out all the strange behaviour. A part of her tried to object that when she'd decided to trap the murderer on her own, she hadn't been thinking clearly, it was a unique situation, but a growing opposition in her shouted it down. She'd abused her marvelous intelligence and rationalized herself into nearly throwing her life away, and likely ruining her parents' as well. Her splendid memory helpfully summoned up the image of her parents in the front row, clutching each other, wracked with grief.
Hermione collapsed to the floor, sobbing, while the dark shape of the girl moved close. The windows had gone totally dark now, casting the Library in gloom, and her form was a smoky mass, outlined only by scattered highlights from glistening blood.
"I lied, you know. Before?" it whispered, and the words sounded cold. Hermione looked up, uncomprehending. "You are dying, but oh so slowly...you're in a coma. You're never going to wake up, but you won't die, witches are long-lived, and I'll have an eternity to bury you in your failures. You're going to suffer, you'll wish you were in Azkaban..."
Hermione's thoughts flailed about without direction. This wasn't her subconscious, she couldn't hate herself this much, could she? But what, then? The murderer had been using a Memory Charm, not just to remove, but to add...how did that even work? What if it added your own thought patterns to someone else's mind, and they stayed there? Or could it be the Cruciatus? There had been plenty of references to the Unforgivable Curse in her reading, but precious few details about how it worked. Maybe there was always permanent damage, maybe children were more susceptible, maybe every time it hit you it broke something.
But the thoughts were frantic, none pausing quite long enough to be seriously considered, just a whirl of terror as the dark figure drifted closer and Hermione scrabbled backwards on her elbows along the floor, trying to maintain the distance between them.
"Please stop, please, I'm sorry, pleasepleasepleaseplease-"
"Stop?" shrieked the girl incredulously. She threw back her head and cackled, then leaned in, her face centimetres from Hermione's. "Round and round the carousel goes, the sights may change but everyone knows, it never stops it never slows, a stream of Fate that ever flows…" Her mouth was a manic grin, and her eyes were clock-faces, tiny hands spinning against each other.
"Time!" Hermione shouted, desperately answering the implied riddle, but simply knowing the answer didn't magically fix anything - it never had. The girl gripped her by the shoulders, and where she touched a grey coldness appeared and spread. "No! I didn't do it, it wasn't me, it was her!" Hermione protested, finding it hard to speak.
"She is you and you are she, and though you march on differently, all what has been will come to be, for threads may wander in the weave, but only tem-po-ra-ri-ly…" she continued, in a maddening chirpy sing-song. The - whatever she was, girl wasn't a meaningful label anymore...wraith? - laughed maniacally.
Hermione found herself slowly standing up against her own volition. She could vaguely see the grey had spread across her entire body, but she couldn't turn her head to look - instead she moved to a shelf and withdrew a book. Her motions were natural, not mechanical, but she couldn't change them, all she could do was watch, as she sat down to read while the wraith capered about her in crazed delight.
She couldn't even see the words, the Library was so dark now, but her body continued turning the pages, once every twenty seconds, and no matter how natural and comforting the rhythm had seemed before, it felt like a hammer nailing shut her coffin.
Hermione screamed soundlessly, trapped in her own body, then started running through incantations, though it was no more helpful than the scream - even if she'd somehow done wandless magic earlier, this felt somehow more real than that, and she wasn't even truly speaking.
Alohomora, Finite Incantatem, Optundo Pulvinus…
The wraith was moving about the Library, running her hands over everything. Grey spread in clouds from every touch, like milk into tea. Hermione didn't know anything to fix this, but magic didn't have to make sense, and she clung to the litany as if it were a life preserver.
...Wingardium Leviosa, Lumos, Colovaria….
She started to hear the thoughts of her grey Time-locked self, banal internal comments on the book Hermione couldn't even see, but it didn't matter because she'd already read it, and when those thoughts grew loud enough she was sure she'd be buried beneath them and she'd be lost.
...Tenere Altum, Praereptor Classicum, Echo Moratus…
The wraith was at the window, just enough in Hermione's view to reveal that her back was missing, she was hollow on the inside, literally papier-mâché, but glued with something dark and awful. Her arms were raised and the Library began to lighten somewhat as the grey spread out the windows, to the school grounds, even to the sky, but it wasn't a lightness that really illuminated, it was a lack of color, a lack of freedom, a lack of meaning. Hermione was being crushed by despair, she couldn't think anymore, but stubbornly continued, giving over to her subconscious to provide whatever it would.
...Nati Sopo Álla...Iláp Iak Nuozíhcra...Aro Nit Onórehtfele...
The wraith, in the midst of chaining the whole world in grey, suddenly whipped her head around, clock-eyes wide, and swooped towards Hermione, screeching in fury.
Hermione stared up at a cloudless blue sky. She was outside? But she'd been in the castle...doing...something… Feeling something smooth and slightly cool under her hand, she bent her neck forward and saw she was wearing a simple but lovely blue silk dress, her slippered feet peeking from under the hem. Part of the curve of the Black Lake was visible-
She sat up abruptly and leaped off the table. She was back at the funeral, as were all the attendants, but they were grey, ghostly. Hermione rechecked her own appearance, and she seemed to be fine - for the current working definition of 'fine', at any rate.
She walked over to her parents, but didn't dare to touch them. It was all she could do to look at them. She leaned close.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "If I get the chance, I'll try to...do better."
Hermione glanced back at her body on the table, clutching the book. This might be a dream, but it was her dream, and seemed to have an internal logic. Maybe if she left now, before the Headmaster 'cast' his 'spell'...
She tried it, and lo and behold, it worked. She hurried into the castle, which grew more and more white as she approached the Library. By the time she stepped through the doors, it was as bright as it had been, and she noted that again her dress had shifted into similarly white Hogwarts robes.
Again, Madam Pince was not here, but when Hermione checked behind her desk, her own book bag was. She reclaimed it, and withdrew her wand. It was stained with the murderer's blood, but there wasn't much she could do about that - you couldn't really point a wand at itself.
Hermione didn't say anything this time, simply navigated the same path through the white Library to the pair of chairs, where the woman sat reading. She stopped several paces away.
"What...what are you?" Hermione asked, her voice unsteady. The woman didn't deign to respond, and Hermione tried again. "What kind of game is this?"
"It's not a game," said the woman after a moment, not bothering to look up. "Nor is it real - you're dreaming, even if you insist on behaving otherwise. But it's nevertheless how things are." There was, perhaps, a hint of dissatisfaction in her tone, but mostly it held apathy.
"That's…not okay. I can't accept that." She shuddered. The woman shrugged indifferently.
"The Universe doesn't change based on your acceptance, or lack thereof," she noted, dryly.
"No...it changes based on our actions." Now the woman looked up, her eyes normal - the precise shade of Hermione's - but skeptical. "There has to be something I can do?"
"You're lying. I'll...I'll fight you anyway." The woman set her book down on the arm of her chair and shook her head.
"You wouldn't be fighting me. You wouldn't even be fighting yourself. You'd be fighting the Universe. Not just futile, but...in the entirely wrong context of action. It would be like challenging the Pythagorean Theorem to a fistfight."
"That's not fair," complained Hermione. The woman laughed, and it wasn't cruel, but was now faintly tinged with despair, which cut almost worse.
"The Universe doesn't really care about fairness, though it sometimes likes to pretend." She paused, and her look became considering. "Suppose, for the sake of argument, there were something you could do. What would it look like?"
Hermione looked around the Library. Even against the slight glare of the ubiquitous white, she could see hints of grey, underneath everything, subtly chaining the world together, just waiting to bubble up and wash over the surface. Her expression became worried, but then softened - slowly - into wary thoughtfulness that mirrored the woman's.
"It would look different." This seemed like a truism, but it also seemed to capture the essence of her commitment. She trusted the woman would know what she meant.
There was an eternal moment of pause while they stared at each other, and Hermione felt like she was balancing on a needle's point.
The woman shrugged.
"By all means, try." Hermione's sense of tension vanished. She slumped in relief, then looked around, frowning.
Another moment went by, less eternal, but more awkward.
"Er." Hermione said. "How do I…" The woman sighed heavily and picked up the book to begin reading where she'd left off. She shook her head and spoke without lifting her eyes from the pages.
"You're a Ravenclaw now...I suppose you'll have to work it out."