1.

I'm born again,

How could that be?

My past, my future: where does it belong?

Where do I?

I see her face, can't help my cries.

Am I cursed to live as someone else?

What an unpleasant surprise.

Sunday, May 2, 1999, 8:47pm

High above them a great sphere pulsed with the blinding whiteness of pure starlight. Each throb chased the shadows from the ostentatiously decorated hall. They lingered in her heart, scattered to the furthest corners. Keeping busy helped more than pondering the ways to dissolve the black hole of overwhelming uselessness. A dose of daydream where she did something fruitful worked just as well.

'Those glazed eyes of yours tell me someone's being naughty, Miss Gran-ger.'

The list of topics for the upcoming N.E.W.T.s she had to revise disappeared from her mind's eye. George Weasley was rather amused, judging by the raised brows and mischievous smirk. Hermione smiled and shook the head to gather her thoughts.

'If by naughty you mean having to attend this sorry excuse of a party…' The speech dripped with bitterness, so she cut it off, embarrassed to be caught in ranting about the same thing again. George looked away gulping from the drink in his hand, which she suspected was infused with firewhisky.

'We've won, haven't we?' he mused. 'Even if so few of them wankers fought along with us.'

She pursed the lips to halt the verbal spew of resentment towards the Ministry and its role in the war. The show they put on while organising the grand celebration of A Victory Day was a laughable attempt to appease those who risked everything in the fight. The all-around invitation to the legendary Spavin Hall, graciously opened to guests by Hadar Spavin, the descendant of the longest-serving minister, was much like a slap to the face in the wake of continuous unsuccessful pursuit of the remaining Death Eaters. The fanatics ran free murdering magical and muggle folk alike on a frenzied killing spree. What a farce the whole affair was when so many lost lives because of Ministry's incompetence. The righteous indignations simmered under her skill. Soon, once finished with the exams, she would push for reforms.

'At least brother's found ways to amuse himself.'

Distracted, Hermione followed his gaze towards the banquet tables. A group of young witches and wizards gathered around Ron. He was engaged in a posturing drinking game with Dean Thomas. Punch in their cups, the size of small buckets, was most certainly not a non-alcoholic beverage provided by the hosts.

Who'd choose to stay behind without any alcohol? The irony made her roll the eyes in self-mockery. She was certainly not drinking in this ghastly place. Hermione signed. She needed to get out of there. She should've left right after Kingsley finished his speech.

Harry cheered Ron on. Next to him, with a bucket of her own, Ginny sang at the top of her lungs, 'Weasley is our King!' Neville was energetically gesticulating something to the starry-eyed Hannah Abbott. The Patil twins whispered to each other glancing at Seamus Finnigan, who guffawed when Dean finished his challenge with a loud belch. Luna was impressed and commented on it inducing a bout of roaring laughter. Ernie Macmillan sprayed his drink through the nose to further delight of the group. Alicia Spinnet pointed to Angelina Jonson at the unlikely pair of Lee Jordan and Katie Bell chortling some distance away. Angelina smiled and nodded, sending unsuccessfully covert glances towards her and George.

'He's going to propose tonight.'

Huh?

'Huh?'

George heaved a great sigh, dramatically peering heavenward. What an arse.

'A certain brother of mine decided to make his intentions clear and could not choose the occasion more suitable. That is why he is drinking himself into a bucket.' He suddenly grinned. 'Literally.'

Ron sang at the top of his lungs of all songs 'God Rest Ye, Merry Hippogriffs'. Hermione cringed both at the crass musical choice and George's blunt disregard of her feelings. Was this a prank? Her love life was romantic, indeed.

'Harry has got a sobering potion. We even offered to get some felix felicis…'

He had the nerve to go on with the nonsense. What on earth made him think he could just go and spoil this moment for her and Ron? 'I mean if you'd rather we got him home before he embarrasses himself-'

'I'm going to say yes!'

The response might have been a tad rude but what did he expect? She didn't care to receive Ron's proposal from his brother, for God's sake! Uncaring of the interruption, George grinned but the happiness he was trying to project did not quite reach his eyes. Hermione exhaled the irritation pity filling its space. She averted her gaze. George wouldn't have appreciated the sentiment in the least.

'Just looking after my brother, you understand,' he said and unapologetically stalked off to join Ron and Harry who moved on to a singing contest.

He had the right to meddle if only to protect one of his brothers. Hermione sighed, rubbing the forehead to stave off the budding migraine. How she wanted to be anywhere else in the world right now. In the wake of the news, George so gracefully supplied, she had no choice but to stay.

Drawing a calming breath, Hermione resolutely turned away to find Andromeda and Teddy. It was the foolproof plan before her thoughts drifted to the impending exams. The pair would improve the ghastly evening.

Turquoise hair easily stood out in a room of fancy hats and hairdos. Andromeda cuddled little Edward, leaning against one of the massive columns circling the centre part of the grand ballroom. The boy hung on every word of her story. Filled with joy at the mere sight of them, Hermione almost missed a furious if hushed fight between two wizards. She furrowed the brows, trying to place the gestures of one of them. He seemed familiar, yet, she was certain she'd never met him. Only a brawl was missing in this dreadful place.

'Hermione!'

Andromeda nodded her over. She went with a fleeting glance at the men. Both paused to leer in her direction. She pursed her lips to keep from sneering. Splendid. Ministry was now employing nasty creeps as well.

Teddy's hair curled and darkened to the exact shade of brown of her own locks. He wiggled in the arms of his grandmother reaching for Hermione. With a laugh, she hugged the boy close to her heart. He smelled sweet of sunny beach and ripe apples. She cooed bouncing the child in her embrace. 'Who is this little pixie I found?' she asked. Teddy squeaked, tangling tiny fingers in her styled curls. Hermione already felt so much better, playing with him.

Andromeda watched them, content. 'Just the other day he managed to sneak away in the apothecary and was returned to me with the very same words.' She stroked Teddy's plump pink cheek. 'I believe it was meant as a flirt. The wizard was younger than Kingsley, for Morgan's sake!' The witch burst with a peal of delighted laughter. Hermione snorted, beaming at her mirth. It wasn't so bad to come after all.

'I'd like to visit you once I'm done with the exams,' she said. Teddy dissolved in fit of adorable squeaks and giggles at the slightest tickle. 'We could go somewhere together or I could relieve you of this little beast for a while.'

Andromeda caressed her curls. 'You are always welcome with us.'

Hermione had to swallow back the tears. Kind words never failed to make her emotional. Her heart pulsed with fondness. It was so filled it felt swollen.

Fighting in the war brought many of them close together. At first, Hermione was hesitant to follow Harry on visits to Teddy. Her friend insisted. He could not quite relax around Andromeda, who only at the first glance resembled Bellatrix. The witch was as different from her sister in temperament as water and oil. Stiff as he was with Tonks's mother, Harry doted on his godson. He was determined to give Teddy the love for both Nymphadora and Remus.

Soon enough, Hermione found a great companion in the older woman. Andromeda's calm speech and even the occasional haughtiness reminded Hermione of her mother's mannerisms prior to the trip of the Wilkins to Australia. The Grangers returned to Britain with their identities intact before she even considered finishing the seventh year. But the damage was done. The one-sided decision to place the charm on her family caused a rift in their relationship that resulted in an abundance of distrustful and disapproving looks and words. Neither sincere apologies nor teary embraces managed to heal the split that gaped like a laceration on a corpse: perhaps, not bleeding but incurable. It hurt.

Andromeda offered a piece of advice one day when Hermione had a particularly nasty exchange at home on the topic of her prospects. As usual, the argument ended in bitter accusations from her mother and angry silence from her father. They wished for Hermione to attend a university and consider life outside of magical Britain. The Grangers did not want to hear the blatant refusal, yet did not have much patience for her reasoning either. So, she followed Harry in an attempt to escape and had an outwardly random conversation with Andromeda. The witch spoke about Remus and the man's poor ability to follow his heart under the strain of expectations and limitations he caged himself by. The story of Remus and Tonks never much bothered Hermione but Andromeda's words inspired her to reach the compromise with her parents. She decided to graduate from Hogwarts and consider a part-time course at the university which would allow her a job. After the success of that clandestine counselling, Hermione could not help coming back for more, until she visited Andromeda and Teddy at least once a week by herself.

The little Lupin squirmed in her embrace. 'Bah!' he shouted. An unpleasant odour spread and Hermione wrinkled her nose. Andromeda was already taking the boy.

'This mess is ought to be cleaned,' she said. 'Why don't you join your beau? He keeps glancing over.'

As if on cue Ron grinned from the other side of the hall, raking hands through the hair and messing it in the manner of Harry. He was such a goof sometimes. She beamed back, waving.

'I might as well.'

Andromeda and Teddy were a few paces ahead on the way to the bathrooms. Hoping that Ron took the sobering potion, Hermione had not made even half a step when there was a massive blast right behind her. Many guests cried out in fright. Something slammed across her back and skull with such force it stole all her breath away. The ache was so severe, she couldn't even scream. Her body rose in the air as if weightless and was propelled hard into Andromeda. They crashed on the stone floor. Several more explosions boomed from seemingly all directions at once, drowning out the screams and ringing in her ears. Heavy dust filled the hall.

Something hot and sticky trickled down her neck and spine. Hermione gasped and choked, wheezing and trying to stay conscious. Her back and the head throbbed with agonising stabbing intensity, nausea twisted in the gut. The taste of bile was revolting on her tongue.

Concussion, contusion, broken bones.

Teddy!

Andromeda!

Hermione managed to lift herself a little from the crumpled form of the witch and examined her briefly. Groggy, she let out a huge breath of relief, choking on the dusty air. The older woman was dazed but did not appear to be injured. Teddy was fortunately safe if scared. He wailed clutching at his grandmother. Ahead, colourful flashes of the curses illuminated the thick of the dust. A duel broke out on the other side of the hall.

Harry!

Ron!

Hermione tried to move over Andromeda and sit up. Her body refused to comply. With sluggish movements, she reached for the wand stashed in the side pocket of the dress robes. Her heart stuttered in mounting panic.

It was not there!

Hermione searched for it, groaning in frustration at her slow hands.

She put it there herself! Where was it?

Behind, a man shouted a killing curse and its foul aura settled on her skin, making the fine hairs at the back of the neck rise. Hermione couldn't catch a single breath for a moment. Someone was just murdered while she lay there injured and defenceless.

'Andromeda, where is your wand?' she whispered urgently at the dazed woman under her. There was no other reply but Teddy's cries. What was she going to do?

Slightly lifting her useless body on the trembling arms, Hermione chanced a backward glance. The small movement had her gasping from the pulsing ache in the neck and skull. She coughed, gagging on the dust. Black flowers bloomed in her vision for a moment and wilted away. She wasn't going to last long.

One of the leering men from earlier fired curses left and right, uncaring about the moaning and wailing chaos around. Each hit blasted a chunk of the great columns supporting the ceiling. Hermione's mind was frantic even as her body remained unresponsive. He was trying to make everything collapse! It would be a massacre! What was she going to do?

Wizard's features bubbled and morphed into the grimace of Rodolphus Lestrange. It was determined and completely unhinged. The Death Eater methodically swished the wand. Hermione struggled to move. More pain flared in her spine and head. More black spots hindered her vision. Nausea was so intense Hermione couldn't even gasp. How foolish it was to trust the Ministry to be able to protect anyone. She should've known.

What was she going to do?

Before Hermione could think of any plan of action, Lestrange glanced up and hurled a curse at the ceiling. The time seemed to slow like in the new moving picture Hermione wanted to see with Ron that summer. A great block of stone was falling straight at them slashing the dusty air like knife cut butter. The infinite number of thoughts filled her mind, fighting for attention.

Would Harry like or hate that movie? It looked wicked but the protagonist was also The Chosen One, and he so hated the crushing responsibility.

What kind of face would Andromeda make in response to her blabbering about the film? What would her parents think?

Would exams be difficult or easy? What if she failed?

What kind of world would the Wizarding Britain be if her reforms passed?

What would Ron say in his proposal?

Would her wedding be as filled with happiness as she dreamed?

Would she have a boy or a girl to play with her hair?

Hermione relaxed the straining elbows, collapsing back over the disoriented Andromeda and hysterical Teddy. She embraced them with all her might, covered them as well as she could, forgetting the pain and nausea. Resolve filled her heart.

She was going to die.

'I love you.'

She would shield them until then.

Hot tears slid down her cheeks.

Fear was all-consuming, despair - unbearable. She wanted to live with every fibre of her being.

'I love you.'

But Teddy and Andromeda needed to survive even more if it was the last thing she'd ever done. They had to live.

She willed all of her magic to seep through the fingers, the skin, and the very pores and protect them from any harm. The dusty air grew hot and impossibly heavy, choking the wind out of Hermione. Her skin was on fire, muscles and nerves frying underneath, bones trembling in small chocks, yet, she experienced only relief. The smell of the storm was calming and nostalgic. How she loved watching the lighting dance in the night skies.

Maybe, she'll get to see it for the last time.

But the view was obstructed by the grey stone. There was no more time. She was ready.

'I love you.'

Hermione!

Harry flourished the wand, disarming the last of the fighting Death Eaters. Two aurors stunned and bound the crazed witch and escorted her from the Hall, wherever the rest of her little terrorist club was led. They were six people. Six fanatics who managed to reduce the ostentatious Hall, guarded by the Ministry, to rubble. All of them came out of bombarding alive though wounded, with Lestrange brothers unconscious and Mulciber foaming at the mouth at being taken to Azkaban.

Hermione was right. The Ministry standard ran even lower than during the reign of Voldemort.

Where was she?

Aurors vanished the dust, unveiling the extent of the damage. One of the massive supporting columns collapsed, bringing whole chunks of the ceiling down. Walls were scorched, pieces blasted, scattered everywhere. The banquet tables laid overturned, plates broken, glasses shattered. Harry levitated the rubble to the side of the Hall, following the example of nearby aurors. What did prevent them from using reparo? The question fled before he had the time to acknowledge it. Trepidation grew the more Harry looked around. Last he saw, Hermione cuddled Teddy on the other side of the Hall.

Where was she?

The majority of the guests escaped with minor cuts and nervous eye-twitches, especially those who stuck by the members of the former Dumbledore's Army. Called-in healers quickly dispersed the crowd, issuing calming draughts in large quantities and sending people home. Parvati and Padma commandeered Luna, Ginny and Hannah in assisting the healers.

Neville, Seamus and Dean joined in clearing the wreckage. Harry helped for a few heartbeats until he found Minerva McGonagall lying prone with the bleeding head wound. His heart stuttered and began to pound a deafening rhythm. Four healers swarmed the headmistress. Harry moved along in increasing frenzy, searching for familiar faces. Terror churned deep in his gut.

Where was Hermione?

Some distance away Bill clutched Fleur, nuzzling her neck. The witch was limp, her ethereal eyes open and unseeing. Ghostly pale Molly and Arthur stood like statues in each other's embrace right behind the pair, silently crying. To their right, Draco Malfoy knelt on the floor next to the bodies of his mother and fiancé. He stared right through Harry, blank face dirty and tearstained. Clenching fists until they hurt, Harry managed to look away. How many more times he'd have to witness such destruction and misery?

A child was wailing faintly somewhere ahead.

Ron reached the entrance doors closing in a circle from the other side as they agreed. It seemed his friend was stuck trying to calm a hysterical witch rather unsuccessfully with the most helpless expression. Any other time, the scene would've made him smile. Right then, the desire to wildly scream Hermione's name was growing exponentially with every passing second.

She had to be fine. She was Hermione. The mantra helped little to calm his mounting dread.

Ahead, two aurors struggled with the levitation and Harry rushed to their aid, despite the fear thriving in his heart. Under the heavy stones, Katie Bell and Lee Jordan rested holding hands. Harry gulped on air, his vision abruptly went black. A vivid flashback assaulted his mind, swapping Bell and Jordan with another pair dead on the cold floors of Hogwarts, their infant son left an orphan.

Anguished shout close by brought him back to the present. Ron was bawling over someone. Harry briefly wished for unconsciousness, swallowing with difficulty. His throat and tongue were parched by the acid and terror.

Please, not Hermione.

His gut knotted, the sense of foreboding consumed every thought. Harry caught himself exhaling in relief once he spotted the short red hair of the person Ron held. The callousness behind the sigh horrified him. He hastened to Ron, glancing around, but froze mid-step, stumbled badly and almost crashed to the floor.

Please, no.

As the part of the collapsed ceiling was being gently lifted, a bloodied body came into the view. Someone underneath was having a bad coughing fit while blubbing pitifully. The smell of ozone was so strong he absentmindedly expected the skies to break in half and spill its insides all over him. The thought died as quickly as it appeared until his brain throbbed with a single name.

Hermione, Hermione, Hermione.

Aurors levitated her aside: his eyes followed every movement without even a glance towards the wailing noise. His limbs were made of lead, the movements towards his resting best friend - stilted. She was just a bit tired. Hermione simply needed a breather.

Detached, he gazed over her broken features, filing every detail away: the red delicate hands bent at odd angles, the pale face disfigured on the right side and the matted mane of curly hair, grey from all the dust. With eyes burning, dry throat, unable to swallow or take a breath, Harry tripped on the bit of stone and collapsed like a tower. Pain exploded in his knees but it couldn't compete with the agony in his chest. The fall brought him close to Hermione's still form. Harry scrambled forward, fisting hands in the beautiful dress robes he and Ginny bought for her birthday. The celebration was so rich with well-wishes and predictions of greatness for the brilliant muggle-born from everyone who knew the witch.

Hermione had to get up. He had to wake her up.

Harry grabbed the pale shoulders, shaking the witch awake. From far away he heard an unbearable keening, that broke his heart.

No.

No.

No.

No.

No.

No.

No.

Harry came to himself slowly, the terrible wailing sound still distant but getting louder. He was clinging to Hermione with all his might. The bloodied body was pliant but cold. Her head lolled to the side on his shoulder, glassy left eye boring into his own. He was out of breath and coughing, tears clogged the throat. Harry gulped the air greedily until the floor tilted and span. His pulse raced, thrashing in the temples and ears like a wild beast in a cage. His head pounded, ready to combust. The beast keened again. The terrible noise came from him.

Harry coughed and wheezed, clutching the witch closer. She was just asleep. He needed her to...'Wake up, wake up, Hermione.'

Her name was swallowed by the sobs. She couldn't have gone. She couldn't! She always stayed with him!

'Please, please, I beg you, wake, Hermione.' She was just sleeping. She'll open her eyes and smile at any moment now.

She didn't.

She had to open her eyes! It wasn't funny anymore!

His voice was rising. 'Please, I need you to care for me! You can't leave me like mum! And dad! A-a-and Si-rius!'

Hermione promised to always be there for him! Harry's heart throbbed, crumbling to pieces.

'You can't leave me! I beg you!'

He refused to let go!

Harry wept inconsolably, wishing for Hermione to wake up, to stay with him, to always look after him. He bawled and whispered prayers to any Deity, noticing nothing. Not Ron, who stood rigidly over them, even his freckles white. Not Ginny who gently tried to coax Harry to let go. Not Teddy blabbing in Andromeda's embrace, both of them without a single scratch. Least of all, Harry noticed the blood on the broken body that he clung to.

Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease

Harry begged for her love, selfishly pleading with the witch to come back to care for him.

Please, let her live.

He wished upon the first star. He wished upon the white horses. He wished upon the Gods of Ancient Civilisations, upon Jesus, upon the Queen!

Please, grant her a chance just one more teeny-tiny time. He'll give his life for hers in an instant. He couldn't stand to witness any more of his loved ones die.

Hermione remained limp. Harry's lament was inconsolable. Ron and Ginny joined him, as many teens from the former Dumbledore's Army. Molly and Arthur were grieving in each other's arms. Cissi's boy stumbled over, vacantly observing the body with dead eyes.

Andromeda watched on stoically. She would have the time to mourn to her heart's extent. Hermione was a gift, sculptured from instinctual empathy and fairness. She was her friend, a sister she'd never got to have. If only the Black family ever spawned someone the least bit like Hermione, mayhap, her life wouldn't have been so full of loss, her House - tarnished and extinct. For a heartbeat, she wished for another sister to care for, someone, who could've become just the grain that tipped the scales in their favour during the war before it reached Harry.

Dark and cloudless sky peeked through the gashes of the collapsed ceiling. Stars flickered in the great distance, cold and unsympathetic. Centaurus's Agena dazzled in the clear night, while the Girdle of Andromeda pulsed brighter and brighter as if the chained woman was gently swaying to a sound of a lullaby.