Thanks to all who reviewed the last chapter! I know it's been a really long time and a lot of people have given up on the story, so I'm really glad to see that a few of you have picked it back up. It means a lot.


The sound that spilled forth from his throat was both eerie and beautiful, and it halted all of them in their tracks. She saw Firenze smile, and the thestrals' ears perked up, their expressions alert. For them, it was the loveliest birdsong on the planet. For the centaurs that fought each other and intended to fight her, it was a sound of pure dread.

The phoenix sat on a low branch, the firelight reflecting off his feathers and making his black eyes gleam. In a rare show of aggression, he snapped his wings out to their full breadth—maybe nine, ten feet wide, she couldn't tell—and screeched at them.

And then he burst into flame.


The centaurs reared back, shielding their eyes from the heat. She just stared, transfixed, as Fawkes turned to look at her. Then he flew over to her, fire and all, and landed heavily on her shoulder.

She shed her cloak before it could catch fire. She was still in her school uniform, and her shirt burned away as the fire licked down her arms, spreading across her skin with a menacing crackle. She kicked her shoes off as the fire spread, and soon enough her entire body was engulfed, her hair snapping with electricity as every limb burned. The little red purse she'd shrunk down and tucked between her breasts fell to the ground, unharmed, as her bra turned to ash.

She did not have the presence of mind to be embarrassed. She merely enjoyed the fire, letting lava run through her veins and turn her eyes into red-hot coals. She fixed all of them with her gaze, letting Fawkes look at them through her eyes. Vaguely she noticed that their campfire was twisting up and around, forming shapes and roaring disconcertingly.

Fire, she discovered, was a living, breathing thing. It was more than just an element. It had a spirit, and it had emotion. It was something else, something different. It should have frightened her; would have, before she'd changed. Now it was a part of her, living underneath her skin, ready to ignite at the smallest spark.

It felt wonderful. It warmed her and energized her and made her feel invincible. It belonged with her; was safe with her, and she with it. It was a part of every cell, flowed through every vein, sparked through every synapse in her brain.

"I would like to know about this prophecy," she said lowly, making them strain to hear her. It was a page out of Tom Riddle's book: speaking lowly so that you pulled closer, not wanting to miss a single word. "So either we can sit down and have a civil conversation, or I can take my leave."

She let the fire die, and soon she was just glowing like a red-hot poker, Fawkes smoldering on her shoulder. He was heavy, she noticed, but it felt right to have him there.

She did not pick up her cloak. She was still so hot she knew it would ignite, and she would need something to cover her when she returned to the castle. Of course, she had the invisibility cloak…

But it was bloody cold. And phoenix or no phoenix, she was not impervious to the wet chill of Scotland and how it settled deep into your bones and lived there until spring.

All of the centaurs were frozen, merely staring at her. Some looked on in awe; some in fear. A select few looked angry and suspicious still, but when she met their eyes they looked away.

"I want the future to be different, here," she said softly, looking sincerely into Magnum's deep brown eyes. "I may have the power to make it so. But I can't do it alone."

He tugged on his auburn beard, looking thoughtful. "Firenze," he said gruffly, looking upon his fairer kin with judgment and confusion burning in his eyes. "Recite the prophecy."

Firenze cleared his throat, his electric blue eyes coming to settle on her. "'Watch for the One for whom the fireflower opens,'" he said, his voice soft but clear. His expression spoke heavily of relief. "'Watch for the One who has the heart of the lion, who is never alone, who walks with Death and flies with Fire. Watch for the One who is two.'" He cleared his throat again. "'When the fireflower opens and two become One, the fabric of Time will tear asunder, and the past will spill forth in fire and blood. When the evil heart conjures pure Light, the present will become future and the future become present. Creatures great and small, arise. Arise, for the two that become One will determine your fate.'"

They were all silent for a moment. Hermione was still glowing like an ember, hot to the touch, and Fawkes ruffled his feathers, ashes falling to the forest floor. He chirped and gently pecked her on the temple with his beak before taking to the sky. He left a trail of smoke that drifted through the trees. She looked up, and through the thick tangle of branches she could see the dark glow of his shape whirling in the starry sky above.

"Be careful that you do not start a forest fire, Hermione," Firenze said gently.

She turned to him with a sad smile. "In my time, most of the Forbidden Forest has been burned down. Very little of it remains." She blinked away tears. "It's such a relief," she said thickly, uncaring of how vulnerable it made her look in front of them, "It's such a relief to not have to carry this burden alone. To have a group of people that I can share the future with, that understand the gravity of time and how it works." She took a great shuddering breath, and then looked around at the group, noting that they were rather subdued, compared to before. "Please. I need to know more about what has happened to me. You have centuries of knowledge at your disposal." She sniffed, and finally her skin was cool enough for her to pick up her cloak from the ground and swing it around her shoulders. "Lend me your wisdom, and I will lend you whatever strength I may have."

She crouched down next to the hurt mare, who was sitting up now, licking her foal's leathery back. Her wound leaked blood. The stallion stood guard, stoic as ever, seemingly unfazed by the fireworks display she and Fawkes had just put on. The rest of the thestrals hung back in the trees, watching her, waiting.

They were a little intimidating, to be honest. If she didn't absolutely trust that they would never hurt her, she would be sweating. Raven was right: they were creepy, and dangerous looking. But they had such a sweet nature, and the way they had moved forward to protect her warmed her heart.

"May I heal her?" she asked quietly, looking again at Magnum. "I don't want to draw my wand out of respect for you. But I cannot let her remain wounded when she became so on my account."

"I will heal her," Ronan said gruffly, his eyes like flint. "It was my arrow that drew blood."

Hermione nodded, knowing that Healing and Divination were two magicks that centaurs practiced with unparalleled skill. She moved aside and rose from her crouch, pulling her cloak tighter around her. She noticed that two of the young horse-men that lingered towards the back of the crowd were watching her intently. The intelligence in their eyes was foggy with what she knew was a serious mating instinct, and judging from their age it was possible they had never mated before.

They'll have to go find a nice pretty mare to breed, she thought sourly. This one is not available.

"Come and sit by the fire, human," Magnum said, his voice and eyes reluctant. His mouth was tight with displeasure, but he was the leader of the herd for a reason. Being slow to anger and prone to reason was a rare trait amongst centaurs, and they knew to value it. There was seldom any infighting when it came to choosing the head of a herd—perhaps the only aspect of their society that was not determined with violence. It was almost always apparent to all of them exactly who the First should be.

Centaurs were nothing if not self-aware.

"Thank you," she said, leaving the mare's side and reaching down to pick up her burgundy purse and returning it to its original size. With a subtle bit of wandless magic she floated her wand from the ground and into the bag. Holding a wand in front of centaurs was considered bad etiquette at best, a threat at worst. Moving slowly and purposefully, she dropped the purse down next to a tree, wrapped her cloak tighter around her, and strode over to the fire.

It was a tricky game, knowing what body language and facial expressions to use. She had to seem firm and strong in order for them not to take advantage of her or feel tempted to attack her. But she needed to be cool and nonthreatening so that they would be more at ease. They would be suspicious if she made herself too comfortable in their midst, and irritable if she sat too tensely with too straight a back.

She had negotiated with centaurs before. She had known a handful of this herd, and had interacted with dozens of herds in other countries as well. There had been several herds on the continent, none with more members than this one, as well as a handful in North and Central America. Aside from a very small grouping in Patagonia—there had only been thirteen of them, total—there were none in South America. There had been two in Africa, in Mozambique and Zaire. Australia had never had indigenous centaurs. There were none across the entire expanse of Asia, either, except for one massive herd, nearly five hundred strong, which had claimed territory along the border of Mongolia and into Siberia. She and Charlie had spoken with all of them, at some point or another, except for a small grouping in the American northwest, who had been so hostile they hadn't been able to get within a mile.

So she knew a little bit about what she was doing. She would have given anything, at that moment, to have Charlie Weasley sitting next to her, calm and sturdy, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

"You honor me by allowing me passage," she said formally as she sat on a flat stone near the fire. She knew that her knowledge of their customs would go a long way towards smoothing the road ahead. "It would please me if you would accept my thanks, and a gift."

Magnum came to stand near her, and paused, stamping his foot. Then he lowered himself down a few feet to her left, indicating a certain level of trust. His tail, much paler than the dark grey of his coat, swished through the leaves. He still watched her with guarded eyes, but he unsheathed his knife from his hip and laid it close to the ring of stones that marked the fire pit. He made a great show of unstringing his bow as well, and handed it to Kollier, his Second, who leaned it carefully against a tree before relieving himself of his own knife and kneeling down next to Magnum.

The big bay had been the First of the herd in her time; he was handsome, with gleaming bronze skin and a shock of black hair. He sported a gold hoop in one pointed ear that he had not had when she'd known him, and his face was clean-shaven, revealing skin that was far less lined. Startling golden eyes regarded her with cool interest. Kollier had not been as easy to reason with as Magnum was proving to be so far, but they had come to respect each other, after a fashion. For the longest time he had not even acknowledged her existence; he had spoken with Charlie, and sometimes with Harry, but he would not even look at her because of her gender. It had been a hard pill for her to swallow. Eventually it had been necessary to communicate with her directly, and they'd developed a report. He had been the last of his herd to die, and she had grieved his loss almost as much as she had Firenze's.

At the culturally significant signals from their First and Second, the rest of the centaurs relaxed, though many still looked like they would kill her and enjoy it. Magorian and Caelum and two others set about cleaning the spoils of the hunt in preparation to cook. Firenze lowered himself down on her right, and Bane stared at her from across the fire before doing the same. The oldest among them, Ilinor, tugged at his grey beard and lay down as well, his black hide gleaming dully in the light. Only these five rested around the fire, though they left a space for Magorian, the Third, who would sit after he was finished tending to the deer he'd killed.

Centaur hierarchy was an interesting thing. The First, Second and Third had authority according to their leadership positions, but the Eldest—in this case Ilinor—had a place of special standing in the herd, if only because of the time spent amongst them. Firenze and Bane, as Seers, were of elevated importance, but they did not have weight in decisions made. They were heavily relied upon in a purely advisory capacity, but their gift was fickle and complex, and in some herds they had more status than in others—in Europe and Africa, they were highly prized and revered, but in Asia and the Americas they were not valued nearly as much.

There were other things that mattered as well, like specific talents and skills. Ronan was the best archer. Afton was the best healer. Caelum, despite his young age (though "young" was a relative term, as centaurs could live well over two hundred years, if not killed by unnatural means), seemed to be given some deference, and she thought it might be because he was their best fighter, though she couldn't be sure. She knew that there would be a centaur they considered the best hunter, and one that could lift their spirits and make them laugh. There were always one or two that were patient enough to be primarily responsible for raising the few foals that were born to the herd. Sometimes there was one that was considered the best strategist, though this was often the First or Second, being more rational and cooler of head than the others.

It was definitely something that interested her, and she often wished they were more open to outsiders so that she could study them. Firenze had primarily been the one to educate her, thrilled that he had been able to share aspects of his culture with someone genuinely interested.

"We accept your thanks, and your gift," Magnum said gruffly. His face was still displeased, but there was a glimmer in his eyes that showed surprise and appreciation for her gesture. "Be welcome amongst the herd, Hermione Granger."

She wondered how often those ceremonial words had been spoken since the beginning of time. Not very, she was willing to bet. It was a miracle the practice was still passed down, considering how seldom it was used.

Reaching into the pocket of her cloak, she pulled out the gift she had prepared for the occasion.

"Pretimetallicum," Firenze murmured, electric blue eyes sharp on the meteorite in her hand.

It was a fist-sized lump, a dark, dull gray metal threaded with glowing indigo veins. It was noticeably warm against her skin, and she could feel the magic that emanated from it. It was toxic, if she were to remain in direct contact with it for too long. But it would not be toxic to the centaurs, and it was far more valuable to them than it was to her.

"Where did you come by this?" Magnum said, reaching out and accepting the meteorite with a delicacy that belied the size of his hands. His gaze was almost reverent.

"Not far off the Atlantic coast of Central America," she said, remembering having spotted it at the same time as Oliver. They'd grinned at each other from beneath their bubblehead charms, and had spooked a couple of hammerheads as they'd twisted in the water to dive for it simultaneously. It had taken both of them to extract it from the rock it had been embedded in—her practicing some clever wandwork while he tugged with all his might—and they had determined her beaded bag to be the safest place for it.

"I would have parted with it gladly, but both herds in the area had been wiped out already in the war," she said miserably. "I did not have the chance to gift it to any of the herds in other parts of the world that we were friendly with. We were called to Australia and Indonesia rather abruptly, and then returned to England. And then I was sent here." She did not have to fake a smile. "It's nice, to be able to give it to you. I hope it is of use to you."

"Balag," Magnum murmured, waving over a swarthy centaur with a dappled grey coat. His brown hair was peppered with white, his face heavily lined. Ilinor seemed to be an outlier, in his great age; Balag might have been the Eldest, otherwise. He looked to be in his mid-fifties in human years, which meant he was probably closer to a hundred and fifty. A hammer and axe crossed at the haft had been tattooed on his forearm, marking him as the blacksmith. Another position of high esteem in centaur society.

Balag passed the pretimetallicum back and forth between his hands. "A superior specimen," he said, his voice hoarse. He looked at Hermione, and nodded in reluctant respect. "Better quality than I have seen in over a century, I'd wager."

"I managed to get some of the rock that it had been embedded in to a geologist I was friendly with in Australia," she said. "She dated it to the Cryogenian geological period. If I had had more time, I might have explored the area further. I might still, now that I am freed from the constraints of war. If I find more, I'll pass it on to you."

Magnum cleared his throat and nodded at Balag, who put the meteorite into a pouch at his waist. They would never allow her to see what they did with it. Hermione wasn't even sure what they used it for, or why they valued it so much. The only time she had seen the odd and rare material after it had been made into something had been while speaking with the Azargas—the giant herd that roamed the plains and tundra of Mongolia and Siberia. Their Eldest, who would make Ilinor look like a thin-legged foal, had carried a staff with a piece of pretimetallicum twisted into the shape of a flame at the top. As secretive and aggressive as any of their brethren worldwide, they had not shared its purpose.

"A fine gift," Magnum said, and to her great surprise and pleasure all five around the fire nodded. Even the centaurs that stood behind, watching and murmuring amongst themselves, cast her mildly approving looks. Caelum was still frowning, but his eyes had softened, and when he caught her looking at him he turned back to the deer he was dressing.

"Quench your thirst at our well, Hermione Granger," Kollier said, his voice as deep as she remembered.

"And warm yourself at our fire," Magorian said, letting Caelum finish skinning the deer so that he could sit down and partake in the ritual.

"Fill your belly with the fruit of our hunt," Bane grunted, looking none-too-pleased.

"And take shelter under our trees," Ilinor said, considering her with a tug on his beard.

"Rest your head on a bed of leaves at our feet," Firenze said, giving her a gentle smile.

"And be safe from harm amongst the herd," Magnum finished, assessing her with fresh eyes.

"I will gladly drink from your well, and sit by your fire," Hermione said in response. It had been a while since she had done this, but she would never forget it; sometimes, with the delicacy between their races, everything rode on this ritual. "And eat of your food, and shelter in your forest. I will humbly rest my weary bones at your feet, and sleep safe under your watch." She bowed her head in deference. "In turn, know that you are a guest under my roof and at my table. Know that my sword will clear a path for you, and my shield will be always at your back. Wash in my stream, and find stillness and quiet by my hearth."

"We will gladly sit at your table, and feel welcome under your roof," Magnum returned. "We will join our swords with yours, and be grateful for the shield at our back. We will refresh ourselves in your stream, and be at peace beside your hearth. The honor of your hospitality is ours," he finished. He pressed his closed fist, thumb inward, against his sternum.

"The honor of your hospitality is mine," she said, copying the movement.

Every one of them, even Bane, seemed to relax like deflating balloons. Many of the ones still standing shifted their feet, and some started to mill around. There were two smaller fire pits, and firewood was stacked and kindled and used to begin roasting meat.

She made sure her expression was open, but did not slump as they did—that would be disrespectful, and be seen as taking advantage of their hospitality. The young centaur who'd been carrying the string of rabbits—who looked thirteen but was probably closer to twenty—handed her a wooden bowl full of water; he was considered just old enough to interact with outsiders. If they had any younger foals, they would be raised nearby and kept away from her eyes.

She took the bowl from him with a nod of thanks, and drank immediately. This signified her trust in them, and it would have been rude of her to show hesitation. The water was crisp and clear and cold, and she closed her eyes, smiling at the taste.

"Thank you," she said, nodding her head. "Please, ask any questions of me you have. I won't keep secrets, as this timeline is separate from the one I come from, though of course I ask that you be careful with the information I give you. Already the fabric of space-time has been weakened by our presence."

"You speak of the image that repeats itself, near the southwestern edge of the Forest," Magnum said, nodding his head gravely.

"Among other things," she said. "My companion and I put wards up before dawn this morning. It shouldn't be stumbled upon by accident. Tomorrow morning I meet with Dumbledore. He may know if it can be dealt with, and what it might mean. Already, two enemies from my timeline have wandered through. I only hope it doesn't happen again."

"If wishes were wells, none would ever thirst," Bane mumbled. It was a saying she had not heard before. But she supposed they had no need for horses, did they?

"You mention a companion," Kollier prompted.

"My friend Draco was dragged along with me, though I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, on Fawkes' part. His surname is Malfoy, but here he is known as Mallery—for obvious reasons."

"Malfoy," Magorian said hatefully, spitting into the ground next to him. "Fools, all of them."

"Yes," Hermione said with a quirk of her lips. "And the same could be said for Draco, once upon a time, believe me. But war is a great equalizer, if nothing else. He is dear to my heart, and has served as a shield at my back for many years. I'd be dead a thousand times over if it weren't for him. He's steady, and there are none I trust more."

Magorian grunted, but seemed to mellow, even if his lips were still turned down in a scowl.

"How did Fawkes bring you here?" Firenze asked gently, looking up at the sky. The phoenix was not visible through the foliage anymore, but Hermione knew he was still up there, somewhere, staying close and observing.

"We were in a battle," she said softly, taking herself back to the memory. It was less than six weeks ago, but it felt like a decade, now. Or perhaps part of a dream. "The last battle, I had hoped. Here at Hogwarts, where it all began. Draco had been injured, cursed by his aunt. He was unconscious, and I was trying to tend to him. Another one of my friends—the boy fated to kill the dark wizard that was terrorizing the world—was crouched nearby, gathering the courage to do what needed to be done. And then everything froze."

"Froze," Bane repeated, cocking his head.

"Time seemed to stop. Rubble hung suspended in the air. Everyone was…still. Curses were just beams of light that never quite met their targets. I was the only person still moving—and I could feel Draco's chest rising and falling under my hand. The savior of the wizarding world—of the world at large, really; the friend I mentioned just now—was just as unmoving as everything else. There was no breeze, even. Then I heard phoenix song. I knew it was Fawkes when I saw him. I wasn't sure what to think—from what I know, phoenixes never return to the place where their companions have died, and Dumbledore had been killed years ago, in the castle. As he flew, he burst into flame, and wasn't slowing down. I was too slow to realize what his intentions were. I was crouching, trapped between Draco's body and the wall, sort of wedged defensively into a corner. I couldn't move. He hit me."

"And he was on fire," Firenze said, rubbing at his chin. His eyes were distant, making calculations she couldn't see.

She nodded. "As he was a few minutes ago, here. I'd always thought that phoenixes initiate a burning day when they do that. But he's done it twice, now, without beginning life anew."

"The Fawkes with you just now—is this the phoenix that brought you through space-time, or Dumbledore's current familiar?" Bane asked. His eyes were still mildly hateful, but he looked troubled, and preoccupied with a mystery he was trying to solve.

"The current one," she answered. "Which brings me to a point I would ask that you shed some light on, if you know anything."

"You may speak of it now," Magnum allowed quietly. "Our other questions can wait."

"Thank you," she said, licking her lips. She was nervous to talk about this. "The Fawkes that brought me here…melded with me."

Ilinor inhaled sharply. Bane's eyes were like razors. Firenze still faced the fire, but his gaze slid to her, his eyes heavily lidded. Magorian stared at her, looking mildly horrified, and Kollier bowed his down and to the side, like he couldn't bear to face her. Magnum looked solemn.

"I had hoped that was not the case," the First said softly. "But I am not surprised to hear it. Not after that display moments ago."

Hermione shifted nervously. Why had he hoped that was not the case? "I met two vampires at a party a few weeks ago," she said, ignoring how a few of the standing centaurs stamped their hooves and swished their tails. They avoided interactions with vampires, if possible; there was no love lost between the two races. "They used a term I had never heard before: hybrid. I'm meeting with them later tonight. I hope they can shed some light on it, as the sister has made studying magical beings her life's work. But I know how deep centaur lore goes, and how careful you are about knowledge being passed down. Vampires are not the same."

Her use of the term "magical beings" versus "magical creatures" was a massive point in her favor, as well as highlighting their strengths against vampires' weaknesses. Even Bane's eyes flickered with something akin to approval.

"They will smell us on you," Kollier murmured, his eyes sliding from the fire to her. "Be careful how much you reveal to them about us."

"I'll not speak of anything we discuss tonight," she said firmly, making sure to meet his eyes, and then Magnum's. "Your knowledge is yours, and yours alone. I'm fortunate if you choose to share anything at all. I will take whatever you can give me, but it is not mine to share with others. You have my word."

Kollier looked pleased. She was familiar enough with him that she could read the subtle expressions on his face, though the lack of a beard was still throwing her off.

"Your word is your bond," Firenze said solemnly. She nodded in agreement.

"The condition you speak of is widely believed to be a myth," Ilinor said, staring into the fire. He had the voice of a much younger man. It did not befit the creases of his face or the white of his hair. "Only because it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge its existence." Bane cast his eyes to the Eldest, seemingly displeased that any perceived shortcomings of their race might be spoken of so openly. "But we all know of the possibility, in our heart of hearts. And we fear it."

Hermione gave him her full attention. "Why is it so feared?" she asked. She was surprised, and so grateful, that they were showing some vulnerability. She'd expected to have to pry the information out of them, if they granted an audience at all.

"The standard fear of the unknown, I think," he said, tugging at his beard as she'd already discovered he was wont to do. "We cannot participate in these bonds. Such is our nature."

"We do not exist in the spiritual realm, Hermione," Firenze clarified, echoing something similar to what Katarina had told her. "Centaurs, as well as a few other races—vampires, merpeople, and the like—are tied firmly to earth. Seers, such as Bane and myself, can see into the spiritual realm—can touch the borders, you could say—but that is as close as we come."

"And phoenixes can traverse both realms?" she asked.

"Many creatures can," said Magnum. "Even humans have a toe in the spirit world. That is why they occasionally remain as ghosts. When their souls exit their bodies, they become stuck between planes, usually a result of indecision and extreme emotions regarding unfinished business or loved ones that remain alive. Sometimes they can trap animals with them, if they are tied closely in death—a horse ridden in battle, for instance, or a hound that came to one's defense if attacked by a bear or another wild creature. This is rarer."

Hermione stared at him. "Fascinating," she said, twisting her hair absently as she pondered the new information. Perhaps it was in a book somewhere—she'd never spent a lot of time on ghosts—but she'd never come across it. "And humans are the only ones that can get caught as ghosts?" she asked curiously.

"Humans are the only ones with such indecisions," Magorian said with a derisive snort. "The rest of us know when it is time. Death waits for none, and it is stupid to fight it."

"That makes sense," Hermione said with a self-deprecating grin. She thought of Magorian's death, flattened by a giant while fighting west of Rothes. Her smile faded.

She cleared her throat. She would have to do some research on this ghost thing. She could never resist the pull of new information, even if it was seemingly useless. "Are there any legends surrounding hybrids? You say they are largely considered a myth; in centaur culture, at least. Is there any knowledge regarding what kind of melds have been made in the past?"

"Bah," Ilinor said, swishing his tail. "There are all sorts of wild legends about all sorts of things, girl. Hybrids are something rarely talked about—even the rumor of their existence has faded from the history of most races. Merpeople might have their own knowledge—they're the only other intelligent race besides ours, and wizardkind, that gather in communities."

"And werewolves?" she prompted.

"Werewolves, even in packs, do not have the history," Magnum said. "The infection that afflicts them was first recorded in the thirteenth century. Only in the last two hundred years has the virus become prevalent enough to warrant the formation of packs, and it is argued that these sometimes contribute to heightened aggression and that werewolves function better as solitary creatures, especially since they live for so long." He waved his hand impatiently, seeming to know he had gotten off track. "Regardless. They have little culture to preserve. Packs form and disband like the tide, and knowledge is lost with them. Their tie to the spiritual realm is the same as any other human, though I believe something about their condition prevents them from being seers. I wouldn't count on them to have information on much of anything."

Bane spoke next. He shifted uncomfortably. "One of two stories I can think of involves a young man who became one with a griffin. He could shape shift between the two at will, and was extremely powerful. I believe the griffin's soul slowly overtook that of the man, and eventually he removed himself entirely from human society. It is a story, and of undetermined origin. Perhaps true, perhaps not."

"And the other?"

"An occamy," said Magnum. "A wizard of middle-age, in what is now Ireland. Mysterious powers; things that he could not control, and that became dangerous. He supposedly also removed himself from society. It was speculated that the bond was not a good one, and that the connection was eventually rejected." Hermione could not help but think of an organ transplant that didn't take. "He disappeared. It is thought that he perished, at some point, though the circumstances of his death can only be guessed at."

"I had a vision, many decades ago," Firenze added. "I could not determine if it was past, present or future; usually visions have a feeling about them, and you can tell, but this one eluded me. I told our First, Chala, and we determined that it was not relevant. Now, I am not so sure. I can only remember a hippocampus, and a girl. A young girl, perhaps of Indian descent. She had the look. I do not remember much else."

"You asked why it is feared," said Kollier. "Ilinor is right, in that there is a fear of the unknown. But one thing is known: hybrids are extremely powerful. Perhaps this is part of the myth, exaggerated because of fear and imagination run wild. Tell us: have you noticed a difference in your power levels?"

Hermione nodded, but then cocked her head and considered. "Yes, and no," she said.

"Human riddles," Magorian muttered churlishly, tossing a rock into the fire.

She grinned, and then tempered her expression, reminding herself, again, not to get too comfortable. "I'll elaborate," she said. "My magical power level as a witch has not changed. It's never been anything to scoff at, though it pales in comparison to wizards such as Dumbledore and Grindelwald. Even so, I have experience and knowledge on my side, and self-confidence, as well as an unusually well matched wand; which means I can use my power to its full extent in ways others might never have the opportunity—or motivation—to learn. Not to mention the hard earned instincts of a soldier," she said, somewhat bitterly. Centaurs valued combat above almost all else; sometimes she'd wished for the simple way they thought about life, death, and honor, but her mind was too much of a maze for that.

She paused, rearranging herself on the rock. She was still conscious of her lack of clothing, and the stone was cold on her bottom through her cloak. "The addition of Fawkes hasn't bolstered my power levels, so to speak—it hasn't made my magical power as a witch change. I cast spells with the same strength as before. But he has certainly added a whole host of powers to my repertoire. And the feeling of practicing magic is different. I've noticed in some of my classes that my speed has increased. Part of it is the wand I started using a few weeks ago, but much of it is Fawkes."

"Which subjects?" Firenze asked.

"Most noticeably Charms," she said. "Defense as well, though that is less surprising. My reaction time is quicker, and magic almost seems to jump forward—I suppose eager would be the best way to describe it. Things are sharper, now. My appearance suffered a similar effect," she said, rubbing at her jawline. "My features remain the same, but visually things just seem…more distinct. My teeth and the whites of my eyes are whiter, my eyelashes darker, my hair a little sleeker, though it's still a bushy mess." She tugged on it. She thought she saw Magorian's face briefly soften with humor. "The color of my eyes is more complex. My skin is clearer—but so are the scars I've acquired." She pointed to the ones on her neck and cheek, and then slid her cloak aside just enough to expose Greyback's souvenir.

Ilinor hissed, and Magnum's nostrils flared. She nodded, knowing they could smell how she'd acquired it; or sense it somehow—she'd never been quite sure how their bodies and their magic worked. Just as soon try to understand what a flea's eyes could see.

"A nasty bit of work," Kollier said, tilting his head curiously. He really was quite handsome, she thought. Especially now that he was younger, and clean-shaven. If he'd been a wizard, he would have fit right in with Draco; comparable bone structure, interesting coloring, similar unique features, same intensity.

"You were at war for a long time," Magnum said. It was not a question.

"Seven years, give or take," she confirmed. "There was no part of the world that it didn't touch. And the Statute of Secrecy was on the verge of collapse. It would not have been long before the Muggles caught on to what was happening."

"Dangerous," Bane murmured.

"It was a dangerous time," she said solemnly. "The most atrocious war in the history of the magical world. Perhaps worse than any Muggle war, too. I would let the world burn before I let it happen again." She smiled ruefully. "That's rather melodramatic. I suppose I should say I would do anything, short of ripping the fabric of space-time or something equally devastating, to keep the future from unfolding as it did."

"An insurmountable task," Bane murmured, his eyes glittering humorlessly.

"Alone, perhaps," she countered, making eye contact but keeping her head inclined so he did not take it as disrespect. "Not with help. And not from my…position."

"What position would that be?" Magnum asked softly, his tail swishing.

"The boy that will one day grow up to terrorize the wizarding world is in school with me at this very moment," she said, her lips quirking. "And I've gained favor with him. Already things are unfolding differently. I have influence with him that I did not expect. I think he may be just different enough in this timeline that I can steer him away from the path he is set to walk down."

Magorian grunted sourly. "He thinks you are pretty, this boy."

Hermione snorted. "Being pretty alone is certainly not enough to have any kind of effect on Tom Riddle," she said.

She stared into the fire. She nearly bowed to the allure the flames offered; nearly extended her hand to draw it into her palm. But she would not. While they might not take offense at such magic, since it stemmed from the hybrid meld, it might make them feel more on edge. She couldn't risk it.

"He covets my power," she said bluntly. "Him wanting to mate with me is a convenient side effect, and one I can use. But he would easily ignore my presence if I were not a mystery he was intent on solving. He knows I'm different, but doesn't know why—and while he attempts to figure it out, he is learning from me. He's moldable, in a way I didn't expect. I can't let this make me arrogant; I won't risk becoming so comfortable that I lose my grip on him. But it makes me hope."

"Hope will not get you very far, girl," Ilinor said condescendingly.

She smiled ruefully. "I would argue that it is the only reason I'm still alive," she countered softly, meeting his hard black gaze. "I won't pretend it isn't foolishness much of the time, but it is the very last dregs of fuel that can be converted into energy. Into power. Hope is the only reason I'm still able to cast a Patronus spell. It is the only strong positive emotion I still feel with any regularity."

She felt a little sad. She hadn't truly realized it until she'd just said it out loud, and it made her heart ache. How long had it been since she'd really, truly laughed? Loud, delighted, unbridled laughter? Laughter that made her cheeks ache and tears spring to her eyes and put a stitch in her side?

"Hope gets me out of bed in the morning," she said tiredly, taking another sip of water from her bowl. Ilinor dropped his eyes to the fire, looking troubled. "The curse that hit Draco in that last battle is killing him. I'll be alone here, if we cannot figure out how to save him; and I'm not entirely sure he wants to be saved, considering his lack of interest. When that happens, I'll have nothing but hope."

"You will have Fawkes," Firenze said gently, his mouth softening.

Hermione smiled bitterly. "Perhaps," she said, looking up at the sky. "The Fawkes that lives within me is unlike the one from this timeline. Somehow, even as he becomes a part of me, he remains a stranger."

Bane stared at her through the flames. "He does not communicate with you?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not with words. Occasionally I'll feel what I think might be emotion, from him. And interest. But it never comes at times that I expect."

Magnum cleared his throat. "Elaborate."

She hummed, thinking. "He has little to no reaction to Dumbledore's presence," she said, frowning. "Considering how he loved Albus, that always rings a bit strange to me. On the flip side, he always stirs with interest when around Riddle, when he knows that Riddle will grow up to become the monster responsible for Dumbledore's death. And he has no compunctions about me performing dark magic," she said, looking down at the ground in shame. "Extremely dark magic. He remains neutral. He doesn't encourage, but he isn't bothered by it."

"Which, in and of itself, is bothersome," Firenze murmured, giving her an inscrutable look.

She exhaled shakily. "It is," she confirmed, her soul feeling raw. "It is bothersome. It…" She swallowed. "It troubles me. One of the vampires I met mentioned that phoenixes only choose pure souls in which to house their spirits." She met Bane's eyes across the fire. "I won't go so far as to call myself a monster, but I'm far from being pure."

They were silent for a moment, considering, and then Magorian hummed, looking thoughtful. She turned to him.

"Your anger," he said, his voice little more than a murmur. "Your anger is pure."

Her brow furrowed. "What?"

"You have a rage, inside you," he continued, looking at her with measuring eyes. He scrubbed a hand across his beard. "Justice feeds it. Vengeance feeds it. You killed last night, Hermione Granger. You used a spell of the most evil nature to accomplish this."

She swallowed. "Yes," she said hoarsely. "Yes. To my detriment, and to my shame. Yes."

"I would not waste your time on shame," the Third continued, looking unbothered. "I'm not so certain it is something to feel shame over. Perhaps it was overkill, for a boy barely turned a man; but his energy was foul, and his life would have been spent spreading evil wherever he turned. I would have killed him, if I was in your position—though an arrow through the heart would have sufficed." His lips quirked, and she flushed, her shame not alleviated. "I could feel your spell, though I was nearly five kilometers away when it was cast. I turned back to investigate, despite my better judgment."

She paled. Her heart sank into her stomach. "I…"

Magorian shook his head impatiently, raising a hand to stop her from speaking. "You were long gone, by the time I worked up the courage to near the clearing. And I would not have been able to come so close, Hermione Granger, had the fireflower not gone to work for you so."

She licked her lips, her mouth dry. Her heart pounded. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"Fireflower is a carnivorous plant," the Third said, absently rubbing dirt between his thumb and forefinger. "It gains little through photosynthesis, because of the dark nature of the forest. Therefore, it seeks nutrients through whatever else becomes available. When it opens in the spring, its light draws in insects to trap them. But it has also been observed boldly going after any small animal that wanders too close, or even other plants that grow in its direction. Dead leaves that blow into its midst are consumed as fuel, as well."

Hermione blinked. She'd read that fireflower was carnivorous, like a pitcher plant or a Venus flytrap, but never to that extent—

"The remains of the boy you executed have certainly been almost entirely absorbed by now," Magorian continued. "There may be some bones that remain out of reach, but all else has been consumed by the plant. The evil that would have heavily stained the area has been diminished to the point that animals will be able to return to it, before long; if they haven't already."

Her mouth dropped open. She was so astounded that she forgot entirely that she was not necessarily amongst friends, and she gaped at him, unable to wrap her head around it.

"You will catch flies that way, witchling," Kollier said, grinning savagely. "More effectively than fireflower would, perhaps."

Magnum chuckled, and boldly reached over to shut Hermione's jaw with a gentle finger on her chin. Her teeth clicked, and she slumped, blowing out a breath as the centaurs around the fire, with the sole exception of Bane, snorted in laughter. Even so, she thought Bane's lips twitched, and that his obsidian eyes might be glittering in humor, instead of hatred.

"I'm sorry," she said, smiling ruefully. "I'm sorry to have committed an act of such evil so close to herd land."

Ilinor shrugged. "If the fireflower had not cleaned up after you, wizard, it would have remained a sort of no-man's-land at the edge of our territory. While we would not have passed through it, neither would anyone else be coming through the other way. It is not an ideal way to accomplish such a border, but it would not have done us a disservice."

"Huh." She blinked. "What about the two you killed, Magorian?" she asked, eyebrows drawing down.

"They still lie there," he said, accepting a haunch of deer from the foal that had given her water. "Too far from the fireflower for them to be interested—and still too solid." He sent her a wicked grin as he tore into his meal, and she blushed and looked away, both amused and still mildly ashamed.

Similarly the others were handed meat to eat, and she looked up when she felt a presence at her back.

Caelum stared down at her with sharp emerald eyes. They were very like Harry's, she noticed. Perhaps a shade darker, but just as bright.

"For you, human," he murmured, handing her a rabbit on a stick.

She accepted it, bowing her head in thanks. "My gratitude, Caelum," she said, her mouth watering. A muscle ticked in his jaw. She could not read his expression, but she thought he might not hate her as much as before. That was a start.

She tore into her meal without hesitation, moaning at the taste. She noticed a few eyebrows shoot up at her enthusiasm, and she couldn't help but smile as she chewed.

"I did not think rabbit on a spit was so appreciated amongst your kind, Hermione," Firenze said from beside her, looking amused.

She swallowed, and washed the mouthful down with cold water. "Perhaps not for most," she admitted cheekily. "But for me, there's nothing better. It was always a treat, when we had time to hunt or could afford to buy meat. Or even just had time to cook anything. I have dug up and eaten grubs raw more times than I care to admit. There will never be anything in the world that compares to the taste of rabbit on a spit. It will likely be something I enjoy for the rest of my life, no matter how many feasts I sit down to." She raised her meal in acknowledgement. "Thank you. It's delicious, and I'm honored to be able to enjoy it—especially since I wasn't the one doing the work," she finished slyly, grinning at Magorian and further forgetting herself when he simply grinned back.

Magnum barked out a laugh, and then tore into his own rabbit, his walnut eyes far softer than they had been only minutes ago. "If you ever make a contribution in the form of grubs, Hermione, we will accept them with a smile on our face and laugh at you behind your back."

Kollier sniggered, and she glared at him meanly even as she wasn't able to help the way her mouth curved. "If you have time to cook them, they aren't too bad," she said, stripping the meat from a hind leg. "Good protein. You won't want to hear it, Kollier, but I saw you eat a few, in my time."

The Second went pale. "Impossible."

She winked at him, and his lips curved. "You did it with appropriate disdain, don't worry."

He grimaced, chewing on venison. "So you knew me, in your timeline?"

She nodded. "You were the First," she said simply. She swallowed, and all traces of a smile left her face as she looked at him. "And the last."

He stared at her. He did not look displeased. "How did I die?"

She swallowed, and cast her eyes to the fire. "Honorably," she said, thinking back. She looked back up to him and gave him a tight smile, feeling her tear ducts ache. "In service of a friend."

He nodded sharply, satisfaction etched into the lines on his face. "Good."

"I can say, honestly and with great relief, that I've never seen a centaur die poorly," she said conversationally, continuing to enjoy her meal. "Then again, combat and death are matter-of-fact, to you. There's no fear." She sighed. "If but all of us could live with such certainty."

Caelum snorted from where he stood, eating his own meat and turning a spit of pheasants over a fire. "You speak as if you envy us."

She looked up at him with open eyes. "I often do," she admitted. "Magorian earlier mentioned that only humans get caught as ghosts because we're the only ones who experience such indecisiveness upon death and end up getting caught between planes. There were many times I wished I had had the constitution necessary to do what needed doing without overcomplicating things. My mind is my own worst enemy, sometimes. I envied the ease with which Kollier led and fought." She paused, reconsidering. "Perhaps not ease. Nothing about it was easy. But it was simple."

She looked back over at the Second. "You became frustrated with me often. For desperately holding on to the idea that I could keep my friends and allies safe. You told me that safety was just an illusion humans cling to so that we can get through every day without letting our anxieties overwhelm us." She swallowed. "You weren't wrong. And I envied that you were unburdened by such anxieties. Whatever happened, happened; and whatever did not, did not."

Kollier raised an eyebrow, the curve of his lips a touch smug. "I sound wise."

She snorted. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," she said lowly, taking a bite of rabbit. "You were a pain in my arse," she muttered around a mouthful of meat.

Kollier narrowed his eyes on her, and again, she realized that she had gotten far too comfortable amongst their number. But then Ilinor threw his head back and roared with laughter, and Firenze snickered from beside her, and Magnum made a noise halfway between a chuckle and a whinny. And she sighed in relief when Kollier merely glared at her, his mouth turned down in what was frighteningly close to a pout.

Ilinor wiped tears from his eyes. "She's got you there, Second!" he hooted, beady eyes twinkling with glee. "She's got you pegged. Look at that."

Kollier harrumphed and swished his tail in a clear display of sass. The movement and accompanying expression were so familiar to Hermione that she couldn't help the tears that escaped from her eyes. He muttered something, and Magnum and Magorian ribbed him ferociously, jeering and laughing as Ilinor and Bane continued to eat.

"Are these happy tears, Hermione, or do you weep from sadness?" Firenze murmured from beside her.

She turned to look at him, and took another bite of rabbit, chewing it slowly as to savor it.

It had been rumored at Hogwarts that his mother had been a unicorn, instead of a horse. Hermione wasn't sure that was possible, but then again he was so far removed from his brethren that it wasn't entirely out of the realm of reasonable suspicion. His eyes, as pure a cyan as the clearest ocean on earth, were kind and patient. His face was beautiful, and had a feminine cast that was only belied by the proud cut of his jaw and the cleft in his chin. His hair, as it had been in her time, was long and straight and pale as flax. His pointed ears twitched, and his long fingers drummed across the spit he held, the deer haunch nearly stripped to the bone.

"I think some of both," she answered softly, turning again to watch the First, Second and Third jostle one another. Kollier said something that had the other two laughing ferociously, and she thought Bane might have been smiling behind his meal. Ilinor was eating heartily, but his cheeks were flushed merrily.

"We were never friends, Kollier and I," she continued, keeping her voice low. "Not like you and I were."

She took another bite, and chewed slowly, knowing that Firenze was endlessly patient and felt no need to fill the silence when he knew she had more to say. She enjoyed him, that way. Hermione herself didn't have the social restraint necessary to hold her tongue when there were pauses in conversations like that. She admired people who did.

"But we were comrades," she continued. "And we learned from each other. There's value in that. I missed him, when he was gone. I missed all of you. There's a lot of bad blood between our races, but we put aside our differences to fight against a common evil. Every centaur that died weighed as heavily in my heart as every wizard."

The others had stopped ribbing each other and were now focused again on her, eyes sharp and faces solemn. She cleared her throat, and felt her cheeks heat under their scrutiny.

"Sad, that war should be the only thing to bring us together," Firenze said, bowing his head and looking into the fire. He tore off a chunk of meat, chewed it slowly.

"Wizardkind are arrogant and judgmental, believing ourselves to be superior to all others," Hermione said, leaning her chin on her fist. "And centaurs are proud and settle disputes with violence. Together we're like oil and water." Her lips twisted ruefully. "But none of those things matter when you're fighting for your life. All that matters is that there's strength in numbers."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Magnum suggested.

She shrugged. "Perhaps," she allowed. "It was far less calculating than that with us. We did not seek to use each other. We simply found shelter with one another. We were all far too tired and bloodied to think of it that way." She sighed, feeling both bitter and strangely nostalgic. For all her bitterness over the past, she had still belonged there. "And in the end, we weren't friends because we had a shared enemy. We were friends because we cared for one another. And the more people we lost, the harder we all clung to one another."

They were all silent for a while, ruminating. It was not a somber and tense silence, as she might have expected, but a comfortable one. They ate their meat with a sort of peaceful familiarity that she would not have anticipated in her wildest dreams.

The giant squid seeks you out even when you don't have any toast to feed him, Riddle had said last night. Owls coo at you adoringly whenever you're near.

Did Fawkes' merge with her somehow…endear her to magical creatures?

Come to think of it, she was well liked by her peers, too. She had never been particularly popular before, but in this timeline she was receiving a lot of attention. She'd put it down to being "the new girl;" but what if it ran deeper than that?

"You mentioned before that Fawkes does not communicate with you," Firenze said lowly, restarting the conversation. He tossed his spit and discarded bones into the fire. "Do you have any notions as to what his purpose is in sending you here?"

Hermione shook her head slowly. "I'd thought it must be that he wanted me to change things going forward," she said thoughtfully. "But…changing things in this timeline will have no bearing on what happened back in our original one. Fawkes and I will still have lost those we loved. And there are countless universes where things will be even worse. So why choose this one? And what does he expect me to do?"

Firenze's brow wrinkled, and he looked across the fire at his dark-skinned counterpart. "An idea plagues me," he murmured thoughtfully. "I will have to discuss it with Bane and get back to you about it."

She nodded, swallowing any impatience. She wished he would just come out and say it—but there were good reasons for seers to be careful. Prophecies and visions were tricky and, if spoken aloud or misinterpreted, could easily ruin the lives of many.

She might be a little older and wiser these days, but she still bloody hated Divination. That would never change.

"How will you contact me, if you wish to talk?" she asked, looking around the circle before her gaze settled on Magnum.

He clicked his tongue. "We have our ways, Hermione Granger," he said evenly, looking at her askance. "You will know if we wish to visit with you. If the seers' gift turns something up, we'll send you a message."

Again, she held her tongue on her frustration. She hated the vague way centaurs conducted business, sometimes. She liked knowing things. She couldn't plan for anything without a basic guideline. But centaurs would be centaurs, and it wouldn't do to let her impatience ruin the camaraderie they'd formed over the course of the evening.

"In the meantime, I have more questions for you," the First continued, taking a bowl of stewed carrots from a member of the herd and passing them over to Hermione. "Tell me about this Tom Riddle. And this savior you spoke of. And tell me about Grindelwald, and Dumbledore."

She did. She enjoyed their hospitality and their food, and spent hours sitting by the fire, telling them of her history. There was far more laughter than she could have hoped for, and speaking so easily with Firenze and Kollier put a little joy back into her heart.

When she heard the hooting of an owl through the trees, she knew it was likely time to leave. She had a meeting with Katarina and Pyotr at the Hog's Head at midnight. And she needed clothing.

She would have to ask Dumbledore to get her a couple of new school uniforms. Or maybe Muffin could help her out with that. She'd have to ask.

"As much as I could stay and visit for many more hours, I must take my leave," she said, setting her food and water bowls aside. "As I mentioned earlier, I'm meeting with the vampires at midnight. And I need to dress."

"Ah," Magnum said, his lips quirking. "Fawkes did not tell you to bring a change of clothes?"

She narrowed her eyes at him in good humor. "I must have missed the instruction," she said drily.

He chuckled, and then slapped her on the back. She grunted. "Caelum will escort you to the edge of our territory. If you should have a need to communicate with us but cannot make it here physically, you may send one of your white messengers."

"A Patronus," she confirmed, bowing her head. It was unthinkable that they would allow her such a liberty. "Mine is a lioness," she said, and thought she heard Kollier say 'fitting' under his breath. She gave him a stern side-eye. "If something should happen to me, Draco's Patronus is a dragon. An Antipodean Opaleye. His accent is very posh, and you'll get the sense that the dragon is talking down to you. Don't take offense; he's a snob, and sounds the same when he's speaking to me. It's ingrained."

The First snorted in wry amusement and stood. The rest did the same, hauling themselves to their feet, and she was briefly caught up in the way their hefty bodies moved—it was still visibly jarring, even after all this time, to be speaking to a man who moved with the grace and power of a horse.

"You vouch for him," he said, stomping his back hoof. "The Malfoys have been nothing but evil towards our kind for as long as they have existed. But you've said that he's different, and I believe you. While he is not welcome here around our fire as you are, he will remain unharmed should he pass through herd land." He looked at her, and his eyes cooled a fraction. "The same cannot be said for any other companions. The boy who will grow up to become the dark wizard you call 'Voldemort' is not welcome here."

"Understood," she said with a sharp nod. "If he ever trespasses onto herd land, rest assured it will not be with me or by my invitation." She grimaced. "I imagine, as in my timeline, that he routinely underestimates those who he considers 'lesser.' To his detriment. However, it would be remiss of me not to stress just how powerful he is. Even as an adolescent, he could do untold damage to your number before being overcome. If he should trespass…"

She swallowed under their gazes and stood, her bottom tingling from all the time spent sitting on a cold rock. Then she sighed, and shook her head. "You will do what you will. But unless he intends on entering your camp, or on causing trouble, I personally would let it slide. I don't see him knowingly trespassing unless there are circumstances that warrant it—such as my kidnapping last night. Losing any of your number because of a careless slight seems a big sacrifice to make; especially since you can die, and he cannot. Please, use caution—and don't underestimate him as he underestimates you."

Magnum looked at her levelly, and then nodded. "We will keep this in mind," he assured her quietly. "You believe that you can prevent what happened in your timeline from happening here. Unnecessary conflict won't help with that. We will attempt to be discerning with our responses based on the gravity of the offense."

She nodded jerkily. "It's selfish of me to ask, to be sure. I…" She shifted on her feet. "I've enjoyed being in your company. And it lifts my spirits to see the herd whole, and well. I'd spare myself the grief of losing you a second time, if I can."

She turned her head to look at Firenze, who stood close to her, and then at Kollier. Her eyes lingered on him for a long second. His expression gave nothing away, but his tail swished tellingly. Frustrated, no doubt, that he could not share in her memories and satiate his curiosities about his future self.

"Hopefully it will not come to that," Firenze said softly, laying a warm, calloused hand on her shoulder. When she turned, his eyes were kind. "For now, be content in the knowledge that we can share some of the burden that falls across your shoulders."

"We will be the shield at your back, wizard," Kollier said, his shining gold eyes assessing her carefully.

"And I the sword to cut a path for you," she returned, giving him a small smile. She looked around the fire at all of them. "You've welcomed me as a friend tonight. I don't take it for granted, I promise. I look forward to seeing you all again soon."

Magnum inclined his head in her direction. "May the seeds that you sow bear fruit, Hermione Granger, and the sun illuminate the path you trod." He put his fist to his chest, thumb inwards.

"May your well always be full, and the wind grant you speed," she returned, mirroring the motion. "Be well."

"Be well," Magnum murmured.

She hadn't realized that a few of the thestrals had stayed so long. There were only four left, and her sweet stallion with the punctured wing stepped through the trees and lowered himself down at her side.

She rubbed his neck in gratitude, and then clambered on as gracefully as she could while swathed in a cloak. She heard Fawkes chirp somewhere nearby; could feel him, even if she could not see him. Caelum drew up to her side as her stallion rose with her on his back.

"This way," the young centaur said lowly as they set off through the trees. His green eyes still judged her, even if the hostility was gone. "Trust your steed. It will get dark, away from the fire."

She nodded, patting her thestral on the neck. The stallion snorted, and his lip curled to bare sharp teeth, one milky eye fixing Caelum with what could only be interpreted as a contemptuous glare. She covered her mouth with her hand to hide a smile.

"We best not linger," Caelum said, picking up his pace to a brisk walk and resting his hand on the pommel of his sword. "The arachnid is about, somewhere," he said, spitting off to the side. "Filthy animal."

"Ah," she said with a wry smile. "Aragog and I have reached an understanding. He'll not harm me, unless I try to harm him first. And I have agreed to start feeding him, when I can. I hope he will continue to keep his distance from you—he's getting rather large."

"You've spoken with this creature?" He asked incredulously.

She shifted uncomfortably. "Believe me when I say I did not seek his company," she said drily. "Friends of mine interacted with him, in our second year at school. He spoke with them readily enough, but they barely made it out with their lives. My personal experience with acromantulas has been...negative. To put it mildly."

She frowned, thinking of George. Of watching black, poisoned blood spew from his mouth, his body wracked by seizures as his hazel eyes went dark with death.

She had seen far too many Weasleys die. She had seen far too many people die.

She was tired of Death. And yet she couldn't seem to escape it. If she wasn't witnessing it, she was causing it. It followed her around, like a wraith; silent and foreboding.

"He also said I burned too hot to eat, which keeps him from seeking me as prey," she added, feeling fresh relief at the reminder.

"This climate is not suited for it," he said, looking a bit tense. There were lines on his face that reflected something like fear. Or perhaps just worry. "It does not belong on this island."

She nodded in agreement. "Perhaps he'll be interested in relocating," she said mildly. "If I run into him again, I'll mention it. He did say that it was cold, and that there isn't enough to eat. It isn't safe for non-humans to apparate. I'd have to find a way to transport him discretely." She hummed. "I'll think on it."

Caelum looked at her askance, and then shook his head, seemingly baffled. "As you say, wizard. Come, before the clouds leave us without moonlight."

He broke into a trot, and the thestral followed suit while Hermione clutched his sparse mane in a white-knuckled grip. Fawkes showed himself, swooping through the trees to her left and chirping in greeting.

Soon they came to the place where Caelum had held a blade to her throat earlier that evening. The edge of the herd's territory. Two more thestrals appeared through the trees, and then one more, and then another still. The mare that had taken an arrow for her earlier sidled up to her, nipping playfully at her mount. The stallion swished his tail and slapped it down onto the mare's rump.

They were mother and son, she realized. She wasn't sure how she knew it, exactly, but she felt it in her gut. She reached over, placed a hand on the mare's withers. A tiny spot of puckered skin was all that remained of the wound she'd sustained. Hermione rubbed it absently with her thumb, grateful for the thestrals' protection.

"You are well accompanied, it would seem," Caelum said, shifting on his feet and raising his eyebrow as more of the spectral creatures drifted through the trees. Twelve, now. Thirteen. Fourteen. Then the mare's mate and foal; the sire and sister of the stallion with the damaged wing. One more trailed on their heels. Seventeen.

Caelum cleared his throat, drawing her attention back to him. "I don't think I need to tell you what will happen if you betray us," the centaur said, his voice low and full of promise. "You would regret it."

"The warning is appreciated, Caelum, but not warranted," she said mildly, surveying the forest with sharp eyes. "You forget: I'm not from this timeline. It may not mean much to you, but our relations with the centaurs during the war meant a lot. Watching the herd dwindle..." She swallowed, and met his hard gaze. "Seeing Firenze and Kollier perish broke my heart."

His tail swished. He still looked at her distrustfully, but also like she was a puzzle he couldn't figure out.

"I won't do anything to put the herd at risk," she said, bowing her head. "I swear it."

His nostrils flared. "Wizard oaths mean little," he said, repeating Aragog's sentiment from earlier. "But I believe you will not knowingly put the herd at risk. It is the unknowingly I worry about."

She cocked her head, surprised by the depth of his thought. "That is a wise thing to fear," she said in acknowledgement. "And I can't promise that my actions won't have ripple effects that I don't foresee." She grinned swiftly. "Even if I am from the future."

She thought she saw his lips curl up at the corners. Then he was nodding, and turning away. "Safe travels, Hermione Granger."

"To you as well, Caelum," she said.

She watched his broad back as he turned, and then the taut muscles under his roan coat quivered before he leapt over a cluster of roots and cantered away. She listened until the sound of his hoof beats disappeared, and then the thestrals seemed to move forward all at once, carrying her back to the castle. Fawkes flew faithfully by her side.

Watch for the One who walks with Death and flies with Fire.


Next time:

Katarina smiled enigmatically into her teacup. Pyotr frowned, looking agitated for someone with such a perpetually smooth countenance.

"Be grateful, Hermione Granger, that we have entertained your company at all," he said, his voice like poison. The hair on her arms stood up. The part of her brain that recognized predators and kick-started her "fight or flight" receptors tingled tellingly.

Thanks for reading! I'd be so grateful if you'd leave a quick line in the review box. I've been gaining some steam lately with my writing. Thank goodness the creativity is flowing again. The last few years have been torture, not being able to write. Needless to say, I will never criticize GRRM again.

Also, chapter 40 will feature some sexy times. So…something to look forward to? If you enjoy the erotica aspect as much as the plot thing. Don't be shy. There's a reason I tend to favor fanfics with a T rating or up…