Yesterday is Tomorrow (Everything is Connected)
"Everyone else is bound by time. Not you. Not even the paradox can hold you now." – Jones, "Splinter," S1E1, 12 Monkeys
Note: trigger warning for discussion about panic attacks.
Sirius groaned as he popped his back, the beginnings of dark circles under his eyes and he shrugged off his Auror jacket and unceremoniously threw it into his locker. "I'm going to be so glad when we're no longer on night shifts. I know nothing exciting happens in Knockturn, but I would happily never see a hag again in my life."
"You and me, both," muttered James, wearily collapsing onto a bench between the two aisles of lockers below the Auror training pit in just his trousers, socks, and shoes. Not full-fledged Aurors yet, neither had an office in the Department and were relegated to the underbelly of the Ministry instead until they moved from trainees to cadets and then junior Aurors. As such, after a grueling twelve-hour shift overnight, Sirius and James were ready to go home.
James rubbed at his wet hair with a generic towel, body weary, and ready to Apparate to Potter Peak and sleep for days. The warm shower he had taken had not woken him up much or eased his aching muscles.
"You're just missing your bird," teased Sirius.
James rolled his eyes. "Don't be jealous 'cuz you don't have anyone."
"Why settle for one when you can have dozens?" leered Sirius, and James laughed, throwing a towel at him, which he dodged. They were silent, ambient noises of other Auror trainees in different parts of the locker room carrying through the industrial space.
Then, Sirius asked, "Why didn't you ask for time off to pick up Princess when the train came in yesterday? She just graduated."
"One; don't call my girlfriend that, it's weird," said James pointedly, "And two, she knows my schedule. She didn't want to be a bother and suggested we meet up when I was done with the night shifts so we could actually spend time together."
Sirius snorted. "That girl is too interested in not generating chaos. How did you two get together, again?"
James rubbed at his eyes, sighing, dislodging his glasses. Sometimes I wonder, too, but then… his thoughts trailed off and a lopsided grin settled on his face as he closed his eyes and remembered his birthday. With his eyes closed, he didn't see the man who entered the pit, but he felt Sirius stiffen.
Looking up, he saw Rufus Scrimgeour, lips pursed, and eyes fixed on his friend. Slowly, James rose to his feet.
"Black," the Auror barked, and then tried again, "Sirius. Head Auror Crouch is requesting you join him at St. Mungo's immediately."
Sirius reached back into his locker for his jacket, face turned away as he asked, "Does he needs me to record a witness statement—?"
"Sirius, you're not going as an Auror trainee," interrupted Scrimgeour quietly.
Sirius stilled and James glanced sharply at him.
"Your brother was admitted early this morning."
Sirius whirled around and James tensed. Where Regulus was, so was Hermione, and Crouch. Had something happened to them at Hogwarts? At King's Cross? No – it would've been that morning. Had they gone and done something – something like them that was secretive, and he had no idea, and he was spiralling, waiting to hear what Scrimgeour would say—
Scrimgeour continued, his voice as soft as he could make it (which was gruff), "Regulus was abducted from the train, along with two of his friends. They were held overnight and tortured by Death Eaters and barely escaped. They're in St. Mungo's, being treated. The Head Auror's son is with him—"
He didn't get to finish as both James and Sirius took off down the aisle and out of the pit, racing toward the Ministry Apparation point to get to St. Mungo's as quickly as possible.
Hermione must have passed out during the Portkey trip, because when she woke up, she was lying on a cot with a truly hideous lime green sheet pulled to her collarbone, Regulus on the bed next to her, and Barty at the end of her bed, scraping the bottom and sides of a chocolate pudding cup with relish.
Given that he was on her bed, Hermione deduced he was eating her food, and appropriately sent him a glare as she shuffled up into a sitting position. "Is that mine?"
"Not anymore," he replied between licks of his spoon, eyes closing in happiness.
"Prat," she muttered, instead turning to Regulus to ask, "How long was I out?"
"Barely forty minutes," answered Regulus solemnly. He was pale, but his Hogwarts uniform was missing, leaving him in a borrowed Healer's tunic; his face and hair were clean, too, but his right hand was bandaged. "It was long enough for them to dose you with potions for the cruciatus, but you're on a drip."
Hermione glanced up and to her left, seeing the hooked upside-down vial, its interior filled with tiny, pink swirls, and the line that connected the vial's stopper to the needle in her arm. She wrinkled her nose. "How long—?"
"Until it ends," said Barty, drawing one leg up under him, with the other on the floor. His hair had been washed, too, free of the blood and dirt. He looked remarkably calm.
"What happened?" muttered Hermione, looking around the empty ward they were in. While there were at least ten beds on either side of the walls, theirs were the only three occupied, and Barty had clearly abandoned his on Hermione's other side, nearest to the door, given the rumpled bedsheets.
"Private ward," explained Regulus, catching Hermione's thoughts. "They took one look at Barty and me, realized who we are, and then cleared this room out for us."
Hermione made a face, and Regulus sighed.
"Just wait for it," he muttered. "My parents and Barty's were owled. They weren't sure what to do with you, given your parents are Muggles. We didn't want to mention the Potters in case you and Potter were keeping things quiet."
With her own sigh, Hermione tried to bring a hand up to run through her hair, nervously – almost grimacing at the thought of picking up James's bad habits – but saw the dripline and reluctantly put her arm back on the lime green sheets.
"This is going to be a shitshow, isn't it?" she murmured, eyes turning the ceiling.
"When everyone arrives?" Barty nodded. "Oh, yeah."
"Do you think we'll still be able to escape to the Haberdashery?" asked Regulus, picking at his bedsheets.
"We're going to have to." Hermione glanced at Regulus. "I owe you and Barty a story, I think."
Barty snorted. "Well, you owe Regulus a story. I figured it out ages ago—"
"Bullshite," interrupted Regulus with a glare. "No one could figure that out correctly—"
"I'm a Ravenclaw, excuse me for having significantly higher cognitive abilities—"
"Are you calling me dumb, Crouch?!"
Hermione groaned, burying her face in her hands. "Could you two not? I've got a splitting headache."
"Sorry," muttered Regulus, a blush staining his cheeks.
"Yeah, sorry," echoed Barty, looking down.
"I'll – I'll tell you everything," continued Hermione, her voice low as she pulled her hands away. "I owe you that. But it's… parts of it… it's not always a happy story."
Regulus's eyes went soft, and he reached out to touch Hermione – to offer comfort or something – but there was a commotion at the end of the room, out in the hallway: the loud of loud voices, a woman's shrieks, and of Healers trying to argue back.
Hermione recognized the shriek, and judging by Regulus's wince, so did he.
The door at the end of the ward crashed open, making Barty tense and clench around the pudding cup in his hand. His father was the first through the door, his face full of thunder. Bartemius Crouch made a beeline for his son with his wife, Iris, on his heels, wringing her hands.
Behind them, Orion Black strode forward, his face blank – in direct comparison to Walburga's wailing, threats, and sneers that she directed at the gaggle of Healers that followed them in.
Hermione had met Bartemius and Iris Crouch and spent time with them the previous summer before Alphard Black's funeral, so they weren't a surprise; seeing Orion and Walburga, up close and not in portrait, was entirely different. The Crouches had kept her far from the Black family during Alphard's funeral – even James had ensured he and Barty were never far from her side when at the ancestral Black estate – so Hermione had never had the opportunity to look at the elder Blacks who were dead in her original time.
Both were good-looking – Orion just fifty, that year; Walburga fifty-four –, although with Walburga's sneer it aged her significantly, twisting her features reminiscent of Bellatrix's own ugly beauty, which could only come from the Crabbe/Rosier blood that ran through Walburga and her niece.
But neither went to their son, instead turning to the Healers. Orion was silent, letting Walburga demand answers to what their son experienced. On the other hand, Iris flew toward Barty and wrapped her dainty, thin arms around him, hugging him tight while his father approached, eyes flashing and practically foaming at the mouth.
"Oh! Oh, my Barty-bear," she murmured, drawing back, touching his cheek lightly with her fingertips.
The fact that Barty didn't call her out on the nickname or whine about it told his parents – and Hermione and Regulus – just how badly shaken he was from the encounter.
"I've heard from my Aurors when they were alerted to the disturbance of an intense level of magic being performed in Wiltshire," began Crouch, his voice low as his brown eyes fixated on the three teenagers, "And while I will be questioning each of you, personally—"
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. Hermione saw his hands shake before he clenched them into fists. "First, how are you feeling?"
The three shared equally confused glances, and it was Barty who hesitantly began, "Father – we're… well, I won't lie – we've been better… but…"
The words hung heavy amidst the five. It seemed the admission meant something to Barty, because, for a long moment, he just sat dazed, as if realizing what he personally went through: the kidnapping, the physical abuse, the fear of dying; fighting Death Eaters and even Voldemort and surviving.
Through sheer, dumb luck; through pure, iron will.
Barty's face went pale and he swayed where he sat, utterly dazed and breathing heavily. Immediately, Hermione and Regulus reached out to steady him, just as his mother cried, "Barty!"
He gasped, a hand pressed against his chest, hard. His brown eyes darted from his parents to his friends and he stuttered out, between gasps, "I can't breathe. I can't breathe!"
Crouch turned on his heel, shouting for Healers, causing them to turn from where they were trying to pacify the Blacks. Iris had no idea what to do, but Hermione, who had seen this in the immediate years after her Granger-self's future war, leaned forward and caught his eyes and held them with hers.
"You're having a panic attack," she said calmly. "I know it seems like you can't breathe, but you can."
Barty's eyes widened with panic as he still couldn't catch a breath.
"Okay," she said, her voice low making him focus on her. "Tell me five things you can see."
"What?" wheezed Barty, but when Hermione continued to watch him, doing her best to keep her face calm, he licked his lips and stuttered out, "You."
"Good. Four more," she offered.
"Reg. My – My mother," continued Barty, the words tumbling out quickly. "Father. The… the pudding."
Hermione huffed a laugh at the last one. "Great. What are four things you can touch?"
Blinking, Barty looked down and quickly grasped Hermione's nearest hand. "You."
"Three more," urged Regulus quickly, watching with wide eyes as Barty's breathing began to slow, just the tiniest.
"Um. The bed. And – and the pudding cup," continued Barty. His hand clenched around the fabric of his shirt. "My shirt."
"Three things you can hear."
"Your voice," muttered Barty, eyes fluttering closed. "The Healers. Mrs. Black."
"Two things you can smell."
"Healing potions and chocolate," he answered immediately, his breathing beginning to even out now.
"And one thing you can taste," finished Hermione with a quiet murmur and a small smile on her lips as she squeezed Barty's hand.
"Chocolate, from the pudding," he said, opening his eyes. His breathing wasn't as slow as it normally could be, but it was significantly less, and his panic attack had lessened enough that he could manage it somewhat.
A Healer had wandered over during the 5-4-3-2-1 method, at Mr. Crouch's side. "I've never seen that before."
"It's one of several methods," replied Hermione. "It doesn't work for everyone, but I counted on Barty's tactile nature. Reg would probably do better with a different technique if he needed it."
Shame covered Barty's cheeks. "I'm sorry – I don't know what happened—"
"It's nothing to be sorry about!" said Hermione fiercely, shaking his hand a bit. "I get them, too, Barty." She lowered her voice. "I always have."
Barty's brown eyes flew to lock on Hermione's, catching what she meant. But the moment passed as Orion wandered over, hands in his robe pockets as he stared down at Regulus, something inscrutable on his face.
"Son," he began, his voice low and cool.
"Father," began Regulus, trailing off as his Adam's apple bobbed nervously in his throat. He was pale as he stared up at the man.
"Black," interrupted Crouch with a sharpness to his voice, making Orion Black look over at Barty's father. "I don't really care if you knew what happened last night. I'll even go a step further and say I don't care about your politics – but what I do care about is that my son was tortured by mad witches and wizards and I will be doing something about it."
The two stared at each other for a moment, and then Crouch finished, his voice low, "What will you be doing?"
Orion seemed to be measuring Crouch, considering his words despite the cacophony of sound Walburga was making behind them. He didn't seem to want to say anything or tip his hand, and Hermione wondered how he got so good at his poker face when Sirius wore his emotion, and Regulus was easily deciphered the more you spent time around him.
By the door, where Walburga was holding court with several frustrated Healers, loudly jumping between complaints at the room, service, company ("Mudbloods and blood traitors, really!"), Walburga made a familiar noise to Hermione – a shriek – that had her, Barty, Regulus, and Orion and the Crouches look over.
Immediately, Hermione groaned into her hands.
"You!" shrieked Walburga. "How dare you show your face here, you blood traitor—"
"Lovely to see you, too, Mother Dearest, but I have a little brother to see," bit out Sirius with a sharp crack in his voice even as he hurried past her, his eyes already lingering on Regulus on his bed, closest to the door.
But Sirius pushed past his father, leaning into Regulus's space and cupped his shoulders, tight. His eyes were frantic as they roamed from the top of Regulus's head down his chest and then his hands – as that was all he could see above the blanket.
Regulus winced. "Sirius, please, it's too tight—"
"What did they do to you?" he barked, eyes furious as they snapped back up to meet Regulus's.
Nervously, Regulus's eyes skipped from Sirius to James for a quick second, but it was enough that Sirius caught it and whined, "Reggie, please, tell me!"
Orion cleared his throat and added, "I, too, wish to hear this."
Hermione watched as James sidled around the Blacks and then the Crouches, nodding once at Barty who quickly looked down at his pudding cup. He absently set it aside on Hermione's bed table even as James reached forward and laced his fingers with Hermione's.
Caught, Regulus sighed, slumping in the bed. "It wasn't much. They didn't do much but push me around a bit. Petrificus Totalus, mostly. Barty and Hermione had it worse."
James's hand tightened around Hermione's.
Orion glanced over at Barty and Hermione, still sharing a bed with Barty perched at the end with his parents bookending him, and then his grey eyes – similar in colour and shape to Regulus and Sirius – dropped down to her entwined hand with James'. He hummed thoughtfully.
"The worst of it was when we were escaping," continued Regulus quietly, not looking at anyone. "I – Hermione's been practicing with us and doing nonverbal spells, and some wandless, and we – well, I…"
"Regulus." Orion's voice was stern, but it was what the youngest Black needed.
He took a deep breath. "I electrocuted Bellatrix. Wandlessly. It damaged my hand." He looked up at his father, jutting his chin out just the tiniest bit, and added stubbornly, "But it was worth it."
Orion's mouth tightened, the tiniest amount but Sirius's split into a grin.
"You knocked down Bella without a wand?" he crowed, throwing his arms around Regulus. "Good on you, Reggie!" Then, he turned partially toward Hermione and added, "Great job, Princess – knew you were holding out on us in our defence tutoring sessions, though."
Hermione sighed, noisily.
"Mmm, yes, about Ms. Evans and my son," began Crouch, narrowing his eyes on his son, who froze. "The healers informed us about some of your injuries, Barty. Bruises, cuts… and a rather large scratch mark that appears several years old and caused by a Dark creature. Care to explain that?"
Mrs. Crouch gasped, tears welling in her eyes as the young wizards and witch all looked at each other.
Finally, Barty muttered, "Can't. Literally."
Crouch's mouth flattened into a line so thin that he appeared to have no lips at all. "I beg your pardon."
"Vow," added Regulus, unhelpfully and with a tiny shrug.
Crouch's face was turning purple in rage and Orion's own face had turned stony.
"I will uncover this," vowed Crouch savagely, almost spitting the words.
None of those involved said anything, knowing that even hinting anything more could play havoc with their magic and twist the vow they took, but Hermione knew that she was hoping Crouch could figure it out – he was a Ravenclaw.
He seemed to compose himself, although his words were clipped. "I will need the names of all the – Death Eaters – or whatever they call themselves, that you heard. Or any that you recognized. Malfoy Manor will be searched, and the Malfoys detained but your testimonies would be beneficial in aiding the investigation."
"The Malfoys are family," interrupted Walburga, having given up on bothering the healers. Crouch sneered at her, and she finished with a sniff, "Distantly, but still family. My son will not be speaking to you or your Aurors."
"Married family, and through your brothers," retorted Crouch. "Hardly counts."
"I'm happy to help," interrupted Regulus, his voice strong and clear.
Walburga sputtered in surprise as she stared at her son. "I apologize, Regulus, I must have heard you wrong—"
Regulus ignored her and turned to Crouch. "Head Auror, I am happy to provide testimony. When would be good? Or can my brother take the testimony?"
Sirius turned to his boss's boss, nodding frantically. "I can do it, sir, please—"
"Regulus!" the woman cried, aghast, but despite wincing at the noise, Regulus ignored her and kept his eyes firmly fixed on Crouch.
The man in question looked between the two, and then finally shrugged. "You're seventeen?"
"Good enough, you're legally an adult," the man nodded. "Your brother will take your statement within the next twenty-four hours." He gave the elder Blacks some side-eye. "Will you be staying with your parents?"
"Yes, he will—" began Orion, but Regulus quickly spoke over him, saying, "I have a place."
Crouch's eyebrows shot up, re-evaluating the youngest Black. Finally, he said, "Don't leave town."
Regulus nodded, and Walburga began hissing something at him in a low, angry tone, while Orion stared at his sons. Both Regulus and Sirius were defiantly ignoring their mother, and Hermione cast her eyes down to see that Regulus had a white-knuckle grip on the back of Sirius's shirt, pulling the fabric tight – so much so that a part of it was cutting into Sirius's side. There was no way he couldn't feel it, but he did not move from his spot at his brother's side.
"Barty, you are being released," said Crouch, turning to his son and effectively ignoring the Blacks. "We'll be leaving shortly."
Barty's mouth turned down into a heavy frown and he glanced back at Hermione. "But what about—"
Hermione shook her head. "Go."
"It's fine." She stared at him, silently imploring that he leave St. Mungo's with his parents. She needed time to herself, and with James sitting silently by her side, she was more than a bit worried about what was going to come next.
Unhappy, Barty grumbled something under his breath but rose from her bed. "Fine."
Hermione said quiet goodbyes, Crouch nodding at her and instructing James to take her statement, his won eyes flickering over their hands, and then the Crouches were gone; Orion finally guided Walburga out, but not before a dozen threats against Sirius, and a few surprising ones toward Regulus, flew from her mouth. Eventually, it was the two Black brothers and Hermione and James.
"Are you being discharged, Reggie?" asked Sirius.
"Then you'll come stay with me at my flat," suggested Sirius, but his tone offered no alternatives. "I know you said you have a place—"
"It's not much and there really isn't much of a bed," interrupted Regulus, catching Hermione's eyes.
Oh, she thought, he was going to stay at the Haberdashery.
"Then you'll come to mine," finished Sirius firmly. "Let's get going."
Regulus sighed but slid from the bed, moving around to lean over and hug Hermione tightly. Against her curls, he muttered, "Haberdashery. One week from now. Dusk."
Hermione nodded, minutely.
Regulus drew back, nodded once at James, and then turned to join Sirius at his side. Sirius, surprisingly solemn, gave a weak smile to his best friend.
"Speak later, Prongs," he said and then turned his eyes to Hermione. "Feel better, Princess."
Then, the private ward was empty of all but them.
Swallowing, Hermione glanced at James and found him surveying her quietly. "What happened?" he finally asked.
So, Hermione told him about the train ride and what happened, about the Portkey Lestrange gave them, his apology, and then the catacombs. She winced when James's face went thunderous as she mentioned the cruciatus curse Voldemort cast on her, and kept casting, even as she kept getting to her feet until she no longer could.
James's hair, already a wet, unruly mess, seemed to become messier as parts stuck out in random directions, resembling the spikes on a hedgehog. Bit even crackled like they had frozen wet and someone was snapping at them as his magic manifested itself, the same way Hermione created lightning.
Hurriedly, Hermione finished with Malfoy Manor and frowned, ending with, "Where did Dearborn go? Did he not come back with us to St. Mungo's?"
"Probably Dumbledore," muttered James, looking away for the first time, his jaw clenching angrily. "He disappeared several months ago."
When Hermione didn't say anything, James looked back at her. He was visibly struggling to compose himself, taking some time before he breathed deeply and asked, "How are you feeling now?"
"Sore," admitted Hermione, looking down at her hands. The one James wasn't holding was trembling minutely. "I'm told I'll feel this way for a bit."
James swore under his breath. "We both knew he wanted you, but—!"
"I didn't think it would get to this, either," murmured Hermione, biting her lip.
Miserably, James added, "And now we've both defied him by refusing his offer and fought against him."
Hermione froze. "What did you say?"
"We both defied him—" James repeated, confusedly.
—… to those who thrice defied him…—echoed in Hermione's head. Thoughts swarmed on top of another, leaving disjointed fragments: twice now – both of us – the Room spoke of destiny – what does this mean?
Startled out of her thoughts, Hermione's head jerked up. James was leaning close, peering at her with his brows furrowed and pinched. He moved from standing beside her bed to nudging her to sit hip-to-hip, his hand still holding hers tightly even as the other went around her back and snuggled her into his side.
"Are you well?"
Distantly, a part of Hermione was aware that she murmured, "I could have died," and James inhaling sharply – although Hermione had nearly died a few times in her other life, as well, particularly Malfoy Manor, the troll, and the basilisk. She had survived those incidents, grown stronger for them. She faced Bellatrix in battle, stood against Voldemort, and fought with Harry in the Department of Mysteries – twice! – only to have all that swept away by a strange twist of circumstances.
The battle in Diagon Alley wasn't even on her notice – Bellatrix was hardly an opponent compared to what she could be that Hermione had never worried about her life. But Voldemort… Hermione thought he was an idiot with his Horcruxes, and he could barely plan anything successfully in her other life, but… in the here and now? Unconsciously, she shivered, and James pulled her closer.
She could have died.
Voldemort had been playing with her – testing her, teasing her magic, see how she would react. And now he knew that she was far more powerful than she had previously let anyone but Barty and Regulus know, and even they never knew the full extent of her abilities and transmutation experiments because she was a witch mentally in her sixties and physically in her teens, and until the previous day, she had kept that secret.
If Barty could figure it out, she wondered, could Voldemort? She bit her lip as she peered at James. Could he?
Never before had her dubious double-life been more of an issue, but at least this time it wasn't about whether or not she belonged – but rather, how it would change things. How it would change her relationship with Barty and Regulus… and eventually, with James. Would he still care for her? Look down at her for once thinking of not changing things and letting him die? Letting her own sister die to maintain the timeline? Or would he understand her fears, and still love her?
Something painful lanced through Hermione's chest at the thought. Even since throwing herself into living in her new time, Hermione never once considered that James would not be part of it. That Barty and Regulus would abandon her.
I can't let that happen.
The thought rang loudly, as though all other ambient noise in the ward disappeared, leaving the thought at the forefront of her mind even as she stared at James, who frowned worriedly back at her.
An even smaller though, almost hidden, whispered, I can't be alone anymore. I can't do this alone.
Words poured from Hermione's mouth without conscious thought.
"I never thought I'd like you."
Bewildered, James sputtered, "I – ah – what—"
"I honestly never thought that I would like you, after seeing how you treated others. The bullying, the teasing, the pranks." Hermione shook her head, her voice rising as she let the words trip over each other. "I hated it all but as long as it didn't touch me, I didn't care, but I didn't care about anything. I thought I was this – this island in an ocean, a single spell without focus, a leaf in the wind, aimless. I didn't need anyone, and no one needed me."
"Hermione…" James's mouth opened, and he looked mildly hurt.
"No, let me…" Hermione squeezed their joined hands. "Please. I thought I knew who you were. I thought that the first Arithmancy session would set the tone, show me who you were. I was expecting something, I believed something. Like everyone else, I expected you and my sister to begin dating, go off and marry—"
"Me and Lily? Blimey, Hermione—"
James paused. "Then?"
Hermione's voice softened. "We had… fun on New Years."
"It was the kiss?" there was something odd in his voice, a bit of a strangled frog.
Hermione laughed. "No. Gods, no. I think you thought I was Lily."
James's mouth twisted.
"Sometime after that, you… changed." She frowned. "Or maybe you didn't. Maybe I just never knew you the way I thought I did, and I just began seeing… more of you." She shrugged. "Maybe I was finally ready to see you. But whatever it was… I saw you. And I saw something that shook my entire world. It wasn't the only thing that changed things for me, I had other things going on – but maybe those things helped me see you better."
James swallowed thickly. "I'll admit," he began, his voice a bit hoarse and eyes a bit shiny behind his glasses, "That I never saw you until I met you for tutoring."
With a wobbly smile, Hermione offered, "Maybe we were both a little blind."
"Me more than you," joked James, although his voice was a bit shaky, as he used his free hand to point at his glasses.
"I realized though," began Hermione, voice hitching, "I realized… that I didn't want to be alone. I didn't want… I didn't want to be that leaf in the wind, the island in the ocean. I… I had Barty, and Regulus, but…"
James peered at her, and asked, a bit breathlessly, "But…?"
"Do you remember our talk? When you said you spied on me and Dirk?"
James immediately scowled. "I didn't spy—"
Hermione rolled her eyes, "You totally did, but that's not the point, James. We talked. Something shifted between us. Between then, and Diagon Alley, and Tuney's birthday… it was like…"
"Like?" asked James, softly.
Hermione smiled. "Like reading my favourite book all over again. Like learning a new spell and succeeding in it. Like my entire world was turned upside down and only in the best ways." Her eyes dragged up to meet James's. "Because you make things better. Things are better with you in my life. I—"
James swore he stopped breathing. "You?"
Hermione bit her lip and then forged on, like the Gryffindor she once was. "I – I love you. I love your bravery, and strength, and kindness. I love how you worry and how you are protective toward those you care about. I love you, even when you spy on me – but we've already decided you won't do that anymore—"
James gave a wet laugh.
"—and I even love the stupid way you run your hand through your hair when you're nervous," continued Hermione, her voice strong. "I love that you don't coddle me and that I can be myself around you."
"Your prickly, onerous, sarcastic and mean self, yeah," agreed James, a grin appearing on his face now.
Hermione, on the other hand, scowled.
James laughed, tugging at her hand. "Don't be like that!"
Giving a tiny humph, Hermione raised her eyebrows at him and then sighed. "I even love you when you're teasing me."
"Good," replied James, his hand coming up to cup her cheek and turn her head to him. "Because I love you, too. I have for a very long time, now."
"Right, about that," continued Hermione nervously, "Like I began this: I could've died."
"I don't want to be reminded about that right now, Hermione—"
"Well, I could have died, and it would've been without telling you I love you!"
"And it made me realize," she said forcefully, glaring at him, "That I love you and I don't want to be alone."
"Okay…?" replied James, blinking owlishly behind his glasses.
Frustrated, Hermione sighed and repeated, "I love you and I don't want to be alone, James." She widened her eyes. "I want to be with you. Forever – and with Voldemort running around and after us now that we've both defied him – that could be days. It could be months. If we're lucky, it's years."
James's eyes went wide. "Hermione, are you—?"
"I know it's… it's not a leap year," fumbled Hermione, her voice pitching up in anxiety. "I know this isn't normal in pureblood circles, or hell, even for muggles, but I – I, well." She trailed off and then, shrugged. "I love you. I want to be with you. I… will you marry me?"
James's mouth dropped open. "I – you – you're asking me?"
Hermione nodded, mouth tightly clamped shut.
"Holy shit," muttered James, staring at Hermione.
Hermione's nerves skyrocketed. "Is… is that a… no?"
"No!" blurted James, making Hermione's eyes widen further. "I mean, I want to marry you, too! So, it's a yes. Yes, I'll marry you. It's just…"
"Just…?" asked Hermione, her voice trembling.
James pulled his hand from hers, and Hermione immediately felt the loss. His hand went to the pocket of his trousers and from it, he withdrew a tiny box. Sheepishly, he held it up and out to her, tapping the lid with a finger to open it. Inside was a ring, tasteful and to Hermione's preference: small, understated, with runes along the side of the band.
"I had this with me for months now," admitted James quietly. "I was going to ask when we saw each other next. It's, uh, kind of what purebloods do after graduation—"
"Yes, so Reg has told me," muttered Hermione, eyeing the ring.
"So, um, despite you asking me," began James, laughing a bit, and muttering under his breath, "Shit, Pads is not going to let me live this one down," he held out the box toward Hermione again, a bit closer.
"I already said yes," grinned James, "But if you don't mind adhering to one tradition, instead of trailblazing your own, would you wear this ring as a token?"
Hermione huffed her own laugh. "I ought to have you wear the ring, given I did the proposing."
"Next time," agreed James. "When I finally propose to you. It's only fair, right? You propose, I propose? I mean, I even asked your father for permission, Hermione, I went through all the muggle paces for you—"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Give it here, Potter—"
"Oh, real romantic, Evans—"
"Shut up, prat," grinned Hermione, tugging the box toward her, despite James still holding it. He grinned back, pulled the ring out, and slipped it onto her left hand's fourth finger. "Now, kiss me."
"You're really bossy, you know that?" said James, but he leaned forward and did as asked, a smile on both their faces.
James did not let Hermione leave Potter's Peak, constantly fussing over her when he was home from work – and if he wasn't hovering, asking her how she was, then Dorea took up the mantle. Charlus was much better, often only engaging Hermione in conversation when they inevitably crossed paths – which was still far more than she expected – but their conversations were about what books she was reading from their library.
With Dorea, it was questions about her studies, her goals, her sisters, her parents, Cokeworth, what she wanted to be when she grew up before she knew she was a witch, about Barty and Regulus as her best friends, and then their family connections (she already knew that the Potters and the Blacks were second cousins as Dorea's brother was Sirius and Regulus's grandfather; but distantly, Barty's grandmother was a Black, making Barty and Sirius and Regulus second cousins, and then they were distantly related to the Potters through the Crouches' maternal line, with Barty's great-grandfather being Arcturus Black, whose brother Sirius Black was Sirius and Regulus's great-grandfather, and their other brother, Cygnus, was Dorea's father. The family connection made Hermione's head spin, and Dorea patted her on her head and said, sympathetically, "I know, dear. All purebloods are related.").
Of course, the Potters couldn't keep Hermione in Potter's Peak forever, and by the end of the week, Hermione was ready to burst, needing to escape. She had healed from most of her physical injuries, and while she still sometimes had muscle spasms from being tortured, she could function without help. And she missed her family.
With a promise of spending the rest of her time at Petunia's – as her parents had not been told how badly injured she was, leaving Lily and Petunia as the only two to know and Lily being the one to discharge her from St. Mungo's as her closest magical kin – Hermione kissed James goodbye and Disapparated not to Peckham, but to the Haberdashery.
Barty and Regulus were already there when she let herself in – keyed into the wards well before Alphard's death – and silently stood with rather solemn faces.
She paused at the entrance and said, quietly, "I owe you a story, I think."
Regulus nodded, and soon, the three were sitting on various surfaces: Barty and Hermione sharing a couch, and Regulus at his uncle's old armchair. Regulus had dug up a bottle of Alphard's, an aged honey-toned liquid that wasn't quite Muggle with the hot red rivets running through when the light hit the bottle the right way.
"Do you want this as a story, or do you want to ask questions?" asked Hermione quietly, looking at her glass instead of her friends. She swirled the liquid inside and watched the red turn into a whirlpool.
"Is it true?" asked Regulus, first. "Have you travelled through time?"
Hermione looked up. "My mind has. Not the body."
He exhaled loudly, closing his eyes. The hand not holding his tumbler shielded his eyes from her and Barty as he leaned over and braced that arm on his knees.
"Who were you before?" asked Barty, curiously. "You were a witch, I'm assuming."
Hermione nodded. "My name was Hermione Granger – I was born to two dentists in Crawley, in 1979. I attended Hogwarts in 1991 – but I never officially graduated. I never attended for my seventh year."
Barty's curiosity bled through even further when he asked, "Why not?"
Hermione's lips twisted into a bitter smile. "I was Undesirable Number Two in Voldemort's ministry."
"I – what?" gapped Regulus, dropping his hand. Then he paused, sputtering, "Voldemort was still around? But – the Horcruxes?"
"No one knew about them," answered Hermione, the same bitter smile on her face. "Well, other than you, Reg. Except… by 1991, you were long dead."
Regulus drastically paled, his hand going limp. Barty launched from the couch next to Hermione to catch the tumbler and placed it carefully on the side table.
"Okay," said Barty firmly. His face was rather solemn, his mouth a straight line as he glanced from Regulus's pale face and Hermione's rather blank one. "I think it's best we hear everything first and then ask questions, later. So… Hermione? Can you… tell us your story?"
Hermione leaned back against the couch with a sigh, closing her eyes.
"Where should I start, Barty?" she asked, her voice tight and pinched. "Do I begin with me attending Hogwarts, and making friends with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley? All the adventures we had together? Or should I begin in 1979, when I was born and what my life was like, growing up Muggleborn? Or do I begin with Voldemort's first fall, on October thirty-first in '81, when he murdered James and Lily Potter but was destroyed bouncing an Avada Kedavra off Harry?"
"Merlin," muttered Regulus.
Hermione opened her eyes and looked between her two friends. "No, I think I need to begin earlier, telling you what we knew and learned, although not when we learned it but in how it happened, chronologically."
Barty's eyes were wide.
"I suppose this actually all begins in the summer of 1899 when Gellert Grindelwald visited his great-aunt Bathilda Bagshot in Godric's Hollow and met Albus Dumbledore…"
Hermione talked, and talked, detailing what she knew and discovered through Rita Skeeter's The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and things Aberforth had confirmed later; she spoke of their shared ideals, of their separation, and their obsession with the Deathly Hallows. She mentioned how what happened between the two, of Arianna, of Credence – how it changed how Dumbledore handled things. At the same time all this occurred, a young, silly near squib fell for a muggle who didn't know she existed.
The story of Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle was straightforward, as was the birth and existence of Tom Marvolo Riddle; many details were still missing, but there was enough from what Harry had told her and what they discovered through Petunia's notes.
Then, Hermione spoke of Voldemort's original rise to power; of Dumbledore's Order of the Phoenix; of Sirius and Regulus's split and how the family further eroded and how he eventually joined the Death Eaters –
At that point, Regulus stood from the armchair, turned, and calmly walked past the bar and toward the back rooms, only to turn and enter the toilet. He left the door open, and from the couch, both Hermione and Barty heard him violently retch, coughing up anything he had eaten earlier as well as the three glasses of alcohol he had since Hermione began.
Concerned, Hermione partially rose from the couch, but Barty shook his head and she slowly sat back down.
When Regulus returned, he was incredibly pale but there was something in his gray eyes when he sat in his armchair and demanded, "Continue."
Slowly, she did – explaining what she knew of how the original Regulus learned of the Horcrux, thinking it was the only one, and how Kreacher nearly died, and then, eventually and slowly, she explained Regulus's initial death in the underground lake.
"That's why you wouldn't let me drink the potion," he finally said when she trailed off, her voice going a bit hoarse.
Hermione nodded. "I wasn't going to let you die again. Not if I could stop it."
"You were calling to people," remembered Regulus, quietly. "You called Harry and Ron."
"The same Harry and Ron you mentioned earlier?" asked Barty. "Potter and Weasley?"
"My best friends," answered Hermione quietly. "My brothers."
Barty's hand reached out and grabbed hers, squeezing tightly.
"What I saw – they were telling me I was buggering up the timeline." Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and sniffed loudly, even as she felt her eyes water and a few tears slip down her cheeks. "That I was killing Harry by being involved with James. He wouldn't be Lily's son anymore."
"That's not true," argued Barty fiercely, shaking their joined hands a bit. "It's not. You did so much to avoid them all. You're allowed to be happy, Hermione."
Hermione glanced at Barty. "Am I?" she asked.
He frowned, and she continued.
The increasing deaths, and then the betrayal of the Potters secret keeper – which made Regulus stand up and pace, knowing that James would have chosen Sirius – until she revealed it was Peter—
"Pettigrew?" blurted Regulus, spinning to stare at her. "How? He can barely find two matching shoes!"
"And that's precisely why," replied Hermione. "Because everyone underestimated him and he went looking for the one wizard who could protect him – and that was Voldemort, not his friends."
Barty's lips pulled back. "Is he going to be a problem?"
Startled, Hermione looked at him. She heard what he said, but she also understood it as do we need to kill him?
"I—" she bit her lip. "He hasn't… I haven't really interacted with him. I avoided Pettigrew, and Remus and Sirius whenever I could."
"You've been dating Potter for two years now," pointed out Regulus, and although his tone was incredulous, he was grinning. "How did you manage that?"
"Honestly, we just did a lot of dates in the muggle world," admitted Hermione, "or met up at Hogwarts. Anything else was in the wizarding world and we ended up in battles."
"Well, you'd best plan on figuring out the Pettigrew situation," said Barty firmly, "Given that you and Potter are engaged now."
Hermione groaned and let her head fall back against the couch. "We are, aren't we."
Regulus stared. "Hermione, that's generally what happens when someone asks the other to get married, regardless if you asked him."
Hermione grumbled under her breath a bit and the three fell silent.
"What happened?" asked Barty, eventually. The other two looked at him. "After… after Halloween?"
Hermione pursed her lips. "James and Lily died. Voldemort lost his body, but his soul was anchored here because of his Horcruxes. Harry was taken by Hagrid to Petunia's on Dumbledore's orders, and Sirius went after Pettigrew. When he cornered and confronted him, Pettigrew blew up twelve muggles and cut off his own finger, then disappeared down a sewer, leaving Sirius to be arrested by the Aurors and chucked into Azkaban without a trial."
There was a pause, and then Regulus turned, throwing his tumbler against the far wall with a loud, "FUCK!", heaving heavily as he ran his hands through his short curls. The glass shattered and glittered in the fading light from the afternoon – the story having taken that long so far – and liquid soaked into the carpet. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and he grimaced in pain as Hermione and Barty watched, quietly.
"Fuck!" he shouted again. When he turned, he demanded, "Why didn't grandfather do anything?"
"Where was I during all this?" asked Barty quietly.
"By Sirius's arrest?" confirmed Hermione.
"About to attack Frank and Alice Longbottom," she said quietly, eyes still on Regulus as he wrestled with himself and his inner thoughts. "With the Lestranges."
Barty startled, a pained, "no," escaping his mouth as his eyes widened and he shook his head, unconsciously.
Hermione grimaced, her eyes flicking to him now. "I'm sorry."
Barty grimaced as well, looking down at his lap. "Azkaban?"
"Only for a few months," murmured Hermione, watching him carefully. The next bit was going to hurt him. "Your mother traded places with you under Polyjuice. She died there and you spent thirteen years at your townhouse, under your father's imperius and watched night and day by Winky until Voldemort and Pettigrew came for you."
"Well," said Barty, a mild tone of surprise at odds with his wide-eyed look. He blinked rapidly. "Well."
Regulus threw himself back into his armchair, glowering. He stared hard at Hermione, keeping his eyes locked on her. "Tell me Sirius escaped."
"He did." Her voice remained calm even as she held his stare.
She withdrew a bit into herself, curling her shoulders. "Twelve years. He was finally thin enough in his animagus form to slip through the bars. He swam to shore and then made his way south – to Harry."
Regulus breathed heavily, shuddering halfway through as though trying to contain sobs that wanted to escape. His hands clenched at his sides and the knuckles were white where the skin stretched painfully.
"I won't let that happen," declared Regulus hotly, sounding and looking more like the wizard in question. His eyes were bright and there was a furious vibrancy to him – something rare given how contained Regulus often was – and his hands were shaking, just as his voice was, cracking the slightest bit. "I won't let him go to Azkaban."
"It won't happen this time around," said Hermione gently, leaning across the space between the couch and the chair, far enough to reach out and grip Regulus's knee, the only thing she could reach. "I won't let it."
Regulus nodded, sharply. "Good."
"Well," said Barty again, his voice a bit lighter. "I guess after Voldemort lost his body and Reg was dead and I was my father's prisoner, things were better?"
Hermione shrugged. "For a bit, I guess."
Hermione then had to explain her Hogwarts years, from the Philosopher's Stone – which also included the troll, which had both Barty and Regulus staring at her like she had transformed into a nundu in front of them – to Professor Quirrellmort; then, it was explaining the Chamber of Secrets ("Wait! It's real?" gasped Regulus), the basilisk that lived there ("Fuck. Fuck," sputtered Barty), Harry's Parseltongue abilities, Lockhart ("Isn't he that mousy Hufflepuff that was four years below us?" asked Regulus), and Hermione being petrified for the majority of the year. She decided against her partial Polyjuice transformation as something they really didn't need to know.
Explaining Sirius and his escape from Azkaban in more detail meant explaining about the Ministry's excellent idea to post dementors at Hogwarts, the reveal of Sirius being Harry's godfather, and how everyone thought he was after Harry to finish Voldemort's job, only for them to figure out at the end of the year he was trying to save Harry – which led to Hermione explaining her use of a time turner.
"So, you've travelled through time before?" gapped an astonished Barty.
"That's different," explained Hermione, holding chopsticks in one hand as she dug through the takeout they got earlier, her story taking much longer than they had anticipated. Hermione was now sitting cross-legged on the floor, with Barty stretched out on the couch and his own take out container balanced on his chest (she wasn't sure how he managed to eat that way, nearly horizontal) while Regulus had managed to compose himself in the time since his discovery of Sirius's fate (Hermione wasn't looking forward to talking about her fifth year) and was perched on his armchair again.
"How so?" mumbled Regulus around his food. He lost all sense of manners around his friends.
"Using a time-turner is a closed-loop," she began, tracing a circle in the air with her chopsticks. "Harry cast a Patronus because he had always cast a Patronus at that moment. Buckbeak never died because we had already rescued him. The past, present, and future are intimately entwined. Just because you don't have the knowledge of what happens in the present doesn't mean it hasn't already happened for the future you who travels back."
"But this…?" Regulus trailed off, gesturing at Hermione with his own cutlery.
Hermione sighed. "Not a closed-loop since things have fundamentally changed. Not a paradox, either – nothing is going boom. Most likely my rebirth has created an alternate timeline."
"How do you know?" asked Barty, curiously as he peered at her from under his fringe.
"The Room of Requirement," said Hermione quietly. "I was having… these breakdowns, I guess, around fourth year, when I was doubted myself, my magic, the transmutations, everything. I was worried I was going to destroy the fabric of reality. But the room asked me: how do you know that this was never meant to be? It's possible that the future I knew was the alternate timeline and I was actually making things right by being here."
Barty's eyes went wide and he goggled at her. "Do you think that's the truth?"
She shrugged. "Who's to say? We'll never know."
The group was quiet for a bit, and then Hermione began on her fourth year, the TriWizard Tournament. When she mentioned Harry's name coming from the Goblet of Fire, the two other wizards groaned, having grown far used to the Harry Hermione explained about in her recount, about his luck.
They could tell there was something different with this year, with Mad-Eye Moody and the challenges, the Death Eater attack at the World Cup. When Hermione revealed it was Barty, the whole time, and as Voldemort's mastermind, Barty was torn between looking proud of himself for being so loyal and pulling the subterfuge off and utterly disgusted as a Death Eater.
Knowing he was Kissed by a dementor afterward made him put aside his unfinished takeout.
"So…" trailed off Regulus, glancing between the two. It was now dark outside, and the Haberdashery waiting room was lit by only the two streetlamps outside of the building and the crackle of the fire in the fireplace. "I was dead, and Barty as good as by 1994."
Hermione hummed her agreement.
Without warning, Barty launched from the couch toward Hermione, crashing into her so hard that she toppled backward onto the carpet, her empty container a victim of her flailing limbs even as Barty's arms wrapped around her.
"Thank you," he muttered into her voluminous hair. "Thank you for being here, for being born in this time. Thank you."
Hermione's frame softened and she wrapped her own arms around Barty, hugging him back. Moments later, Regulus was there, his own arms around them both and they were a puppy pile on the carpet, tangled limbs and shared breaths as the two wizards breathed beside her, realizing how much they owed Hermione for just existing, for taking interest in them as much as she didn't want to change things.
There, on the floor, Hermione eventually began again, telling them of the maze, and then what Harry had revealed over the years regarding the graveyard and Voldemort's rebirth. Then, it was about the smear campaign by the Prophet, Harry's anger, the Order of the Phoenix and their lack of doing anything – Umbridge, the neutered Defense curriculum, Dumbledore's Army, Mr. Weasley's attack, and then finally, Harry's vision and their race to the Ministry, and…
Regulus was still, the rise and fall of his chest against Hermione's arm the only thing letting her know he was still breathing. Finally, he muttered through a very nasally voice, "Keep going, Hermione."
She did: sixth year, Snape teaching Defense and Slughorn as their Potions professor; the prophecy, the quiet before the storm and Harry's lessons with Dumbledore that amounted to what she had previously known about Tom Riddle – the information she gave Petunia – and then, Harry and Dumbledore's trip in June to the Horcrux Regulus hid, only to return to Hogwarts under attack. In a monotonous voice, Hermione spoke of Dumbledore's death by Snape's hand and Draco Malfoy's inability to do so; of Harry and their plans to go Horcrux hunting after Bill and Fleur's wedding, of wiping her parents' memories and sending them away for their safety.
How Kingsley's Patronus came during the wedding: "The Ministry has fallen," and their escape, living hand-to-mouth in the Forest of Dean, of the weight and constant anger they felt wearing the locket, Harry's slip, and then… Malfoy Manor.
Hermione found herself disassociating, recounting her torture under Bellatrix's wand almost clinically, downplaying the pain to just explain things factually, even the rescue and the recovery at Shell cottage before they realized they had the location of another Horcrux.
Neither Barty nor Regulus interrupted her, sensing they were coming to the end, so they let Hermione speak, explaining the Gringotts plan, their escape on the back of the Lestrange vault dragon, and then how not even two days later, they were at Hogwarts fighting for their lives. She touched on the deaths of people she knew: Lavender Brown, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Fred Weasley, some of the Death Eaters; and then how Harry walked to his death and his miraculous survival and how he and he alone faced Voldemort and how the Dark Lord died.
She paused then, taking time to just breathe in the quiet darkness of the room.
"He got lucky," said Regulus eventually, breaking the silence.
"Who?" snorted Barty from Hermione's other side. "Potter or the Dark Lord?"
"Both," sighed Regulus. "We can't rely on that."
"Harry was the owner of the Elder wand, and he had all Deathly Hallow pieces if you believe the myth," answered Hermione, "And there was the prophecy."
"Which we have neither of," countered Regulus sharply. "Dumbledore will never give up the wand, even if you could get your hands on Potter's cloak and the resurrection stone when we go after the Horcrux – but we don't have a prophecy to fall back on."
"Nor should we," snorted Barty. "Those things are stupid."
"Hear, hear," agreed Hermione with a twitch to her lips that they couldn't see.
"So how did you end up here? If – if he was gone?"
Hermione turned her head toward Regulus, barely able to see anything but the white of his teeth and the flash of grey from his eyes as his hair blended into the surrounding darkness.
"I was meeting Harry and Ron for lunch," she began haltingly, trying to remember. So much of her life from then was gone from her now, as the years progressed, thanks in part to the Room's removal of her emotions to key scenes, and time for the rest, with her memories overlaid by those in the 60s and 70s.
She continued, slowly, "I saw Harry first – Ron wasn't at the Ministry anymore – when the alarms went off. There was fighting in the Department of Mysteries, and we both responded. There were Death Eaters there, or… some kind of Death Eaters, I suppose. They had masks and robes, but they didn't fight the same. We were in the time room, and Harry… he –" Hermione stopped, bringing a hand to her face to cover her eyes even as a tiny, laughing sob escaped her. She was smiling, though. "Gods, Harry fucking loved to use expelliarmus. It… it was like his spell. He cast it."
"On the Death Eaters, or…?" Regulus trailed off.
"I don't remember anymore," she admitted. "Just that the spell went wild, crossed with another, and then there was a blinding light – I remember thinking, something, I suppose, about Harry and wanting to kill him for using it – but… when I finally comprehended things, I was – oh, two? I think? And my last name wasn't Granger anymore but Evans, and I had two older sisters…"
"And then you were here," finished Regulus quietly.
The three fell into silence, listening to the vague noise of traffic beyond them in muggle London and the snap and crackle of the wood in the fireplace. Hermione knew Barty and Regulus were absorbing what she had unloaded on them, and she wondered if it would change how they viewed her.
"I'm not omniscient," she finally said. "There are still things I don't know; that Harry never told me, or Dumbledore never told him. I may have the mind of someone now well into their sixties, but I don't remember things much anymore from my previous life. All emotion was stripped before I was born, and my memories are fading. Eventually, I doubt I'll remember my life as Hermione Granger."
"Does that bother you?" asked Regulus.
Hermione felt Barty shift to look at her better. "Yes, and no. I have a new life here that I embraced. But I will always miss parts of being Granger because she shaped me as I am now."
Barty's hand awkwardly patted down her side until he found her hand and squeezed it. "You have us now."
Regulus did the same on her other side, finding her hand. Cautiously, he began, "What was it that you said you and Potter and Weasley always said? When things were tough at the end?"
Hermione expelled a quiet sigh. "Until the end."
Regulus's hand tightened around hers. "It's the same for me. For us," he amended. "Whatever knowledge you have; whoever you were before and whoever you are now – you're Hermione and our friend. I'm with you, Hermione. Until the end."
"Whatever that is," added Barty, solemnly. "I'm there, too. Until the end."
Hermione squeezed her eyes shut, tears leaking down the side and skidding down her cheeks to pool in her hair. What did she do to deserve two wonderful friends like Barty and Regulus? But –
When did she turn into Harry?
She clutched at their hands in hers, and whispered back – hoping it wouldn't be the same as Harry, as prophecy and Dark Lords, nowhere near as fatalistic – with a tightness to her voice, "Until the end."
Regulus stared at the dilapidated building with the tiniest sneer on his face, his eyes roving from the sloped roof to the boarded windows and the rain-stained and slicked bricks that were crumbling and discoloured. "And you think the ring is here?"
"Well…" Hermione trailed off, a bit hesitant. "Maybe? Harry never said where Dumbledore found it."
Barty, on Regulus' other side, frowned and hunched over a bit, his hands in his pockets. The area around where Wool's Orphanage used to sit was now half-industrial, with empty factories and broken, yellow-tinted windows and graffiti with litter scattered everywhere. There was the faint scent of urine in the air, as well.
The tiny patch of what was once greenery beyond the warped and twisted metal gate to the orphanage was brown, full of dead grass and persistent weeds that give tiny bursts of green. The one, lone tree in the yard was a bone-white, dead skeletal limb raising to a cloudy sky. For all that it was August, the air held a hint of chill and rain.
"D'you think it's even safe to enter?" asked Regulus. "I'd really prefer to not die in a condemned muggle building. It seems a bit lackluster after learning how I died previously, and ways I could potentially die this time around."
Hermione's face pinched. "Could you not joke about your death, please?"
There was a dry look to Regulus when he retorted, "Oh, now you see how it is on the other foot, eh, Evans—"
Barty sighed. "Stop it, both of you."
"He started it," muttered Hermione, but she strode forward, through the gap in the gates and across the uneven, dead grass until she stopped before the partially rotten front door. There was a heavy lock and chain between the two door handles, but a tap of her finger and a quiet alohamora sent the chain slipping to the flagstone steps with a loud clang.
Barty winced as he came up behind her. "Hopefully, there isn't anyone around."
"If there is, we'll handle it," replied Hermione confidently, even as regulus shot her a look.
"I hope you don't mean 'handle it' in a permanent manner."
"I meant obliviate, no matter how much I personally hate it, but I would hate drawing his attention here because we left some defenseless muggles running around with the knowledge of three magic users are looking into the Dark Lord's old stomping grounds."
"Stomping grounds," snickered Barty, schooling his face seriously when Regulus shot him a glare.
The three entered through the door, slipping into a dark, echoing hall. The windows on the ground floor were boarded up, with only tiny slivers of light piercing through the cracks in the boards and barely cutting through the darkness within. As one, the three lit their wands, nonverbally, and Barty, as the tallest, held his the highest to illuminate the area. Something skittered away in the far corner of the hall.
"Where do we begin?" whispered Regulus, even though there was no one else in the building with them. There was something said for keeping quiet.
"Let's try the office first and if anyone left any records," suggested Hermione, just as quietly. "Then we can go from there."
With a silent nod, the three spread out, the light from their bobbing wands the only thing to tell where each was. The sound of doors opening and then shutting again reached each of the three as they spread out, Hermione going left and Barty right while Regulus went straight. Hermione was the one to find the office, full of the smell of animal poop and rotting wood and paper, most left behind and reduced to clumps of pulp, destroyed by the elements that managed to sneak their way into the room through the broken window in the office.
"Here!" she called over her shoulder, moving toward the large desk in the middle of the office and beginning to pull on the drawers. They were empty.
Barty first appeared in the doorway, moving directly to the shelving unit against the wall opposite the window. He paused before touching one of the few books left on the shelves. "Do we need to be careful or can we junk these?"
Hermione shrugged. "I don't see how it'll matter – it's clear there have been squatters here. Anyone after us will assume they did this."
"Fair enough," he cheerfully replied, and began thumbing through the book and then chucking them over his shoulder.
One nearly hit Regulus when he entered the room, ducking out of the way. "What the hell, Crouch!"
Regulus glared because Barty didn't sound sorry at all. He turned back to Hermione, who sighed when she slammed the last drawer shut. "Anything?"
"Nothing," she replied, "And anything that could be useful here is about thirty years degraded, waterlogged, or faded. I doubt reparo would work, either."
"Room by room then?" suggested Regulus.
"Suppose so," agreed Hermione. "There are three floors, should we split up?"
Regulus made a face. "I feel like that is going to be a bad idea, but…"
The two turned to face Barty, who held a half-filled bottle of… something in his hands.
"What is that?" asked Hermione with a face.
"Sherry, I think," replied Barty with a grin. "Spoils of war."
Regulus rolled his eyes. "Let's go. I'll take the ground floor; Barty's got the attic and Hermione's the second floor."
With the division made, despite Barty's complaints, the three split again, Hermione and Barty going carefully up the creaking wooden stairs. At one point, Barty did mumble "reparo," at a few split boards, firming the steps up so they didn't crash through to below.
With a nod at the top, Hermione turned down the hall while Barty moved to the side, finding the narrow stairs that led up to the roof attic.
Hermione had the bedrooms and one reception room; most doors were either open, shut (and locked), or there was no door, to begin with, like the reception room. The entire floor had a sense of gloom to it, with some windows boarded up and others dingy through the yellow-tinted glass from smog and pollution. There was a scent of neglect, rotten wood, and other things she didn't want to think about, and each step creaked and groaned as the building around her moved with the three new occupants made their way through.
The reception room had two couches, a few bookshelves, and a beautiful fireplace mantle that was probably worth a lot of money to someone who restored old buildings but had forgotten about Wool's once it closed. It was covered in soot, grease, and something else anyway, and Hermione turned away to inspect the rest of the room, from the lopsided and uneven couch with its missing legs, or the ripped and musty-smelling cushions. She tried to imagine Voldemort in that room, playing or quietly reading – as she knew him – and failed to do so.
There was no knickknacks or items left, so she moved to the room next to it, deciding on looking through all the rooms on the right and then come down the left side, returning to the staircase before joining Regulus on the ground floor. The next few rooms were bedrooms; two single rooms with just a rusty metal frame for the single cots in them, two porcelain sinks – one cracked – and the second room had a lonely, single wooden chair.
The third bedroom was a long hall, with several single cots. The metal on most of them was rusted, but a few still had lumpy mattresses, stained with watermarks and other things Hermione didn't want to think about. Dust most hovered in the air through whatever light managed to make it into the room through two, rectangular stained glass patterns high on the far wall, while the rest of the light came through four narrow windows with the glass still intact.
The wooden floorboards creaked under Hermione's soft steps as she moved through the room, down the aisle between the two rows of cots set up on either side of her with their headboards against the walls. The room was gloomy, devoid of personal artifacts and there was something sad about the place, about the young boys and girls who called Wool's home. Something lingered in the air, a disquiet that Hermione couldn't quite shake.
Leaving that room, she peered in three other single bedrooms, and one double, and then began the left side. At the fourth door, she found Tom Riddle's bedroom.
The moment she stepped inside, she knew it was his. There was a lingering, rank scent of dark magic and the sharp, acrid scent of greed and anger. The wardrobe on the far wall glowed in the dark gloom of the room with magic, by sight; and the cavernous silence that hovered over the orphanage outside of the room seemed muffled like there was a lingering privacy spell.
She was hesitant in reaching for the wardrobe door, casting a few detection spells on it she had learned from Bill Weasley once-upon-a-time, but if there had been any protections on the furniture, the spells had long eroded. With a sharp inhale, Hermione yanked one door open and held her wand up, aloft, and ready.
An empty wardrobe greeted her, and she gave a shaky laugh.
She peered in, looking for hints of Tom Riddle, and saw only the childish scratch marks of a young child claiming property: at the back of the wardrobe, etched in, were the words This belongs to Tom Riddle. Touch at your own peril.
"Dramatic little shit, even as a kid," she muttered, softly shutting the doors.
The final rooms held nothing, and Hermione turned to the entrance hall, where Regulus was already waiting, arms crossed and glaring at nothing in particular on the floor. He looked up when she made her way down the final steps of the stairs.
She shook her head. "I found his room and it reeks of magic, but nothing recently cast. If there's anything here, it wasn't on that floor."
"Or this," added Regulus grimly.
They waited in silence for Barty, who appeared shortly after, a shake of his head revealing he found nothing, either. He scuffed the toe of his shoe against the dirty floor. "I guess the Dark Lord didn't consider this place important."
"I think he wanted to escape it more than anything," said Regulus. "I certainly would. It's even more miserly than Grimmauld at its worst."
Hermione cringed at the image.
The three left the building, Hermione taking the time to relock the chain around the handles. It wasn't until they had left the property and were once again at the road, past the gates, did Regulus speak.
"No ring here," he muttered.
Hermione shook her head. "No."
Barty glanced at Hermione. "Should we go after the Cup next?"
"In Gringotts?" replied Hermione, incredulously. "No way. We need a plan for that unless you want to re-enact the great Gringotts Escape that Harry, Ron, and I did."
Barty paled. "No, thank you."
"Malfoy Manor is out of the question, too," sighed Regulus, rubbing at his mouth a bit. He grimaced at the feeling of a bit of stubble growing in. "I still haven't thought of how we can either get into the place after what happened in June; or if I can safely ask Cissy for help."
"So…" Barty swallowed a bit thickly. "Little Hangleton, then – to his mother and father's?"
Hermione frowned. "Yes… and let's hope this is the end of our trip down Voldemort-memory lane."
Barty snorted, even as Regulus moaned, "You just ruined it, Hermione, just you wait… you doomed us."
Hermione just scowled at her friend, and the three Apparated away.