::peeks in::

Hello :)

So this story has been in the works for literally years. Started in 2018, I am excited to finally begin sharing this with you, my first novel length since Looking Glass, as I just recently finished the climax. What remains of falling action will be written as I post. You can expect an update schedule of roughly twice per week. That should give me time for final edits, writing the last couple of chapters, and review replies, but keeping a nice pace.

All the love and thanks to my invaluable team. In Dreams, LightofEvolution, and MCal. You are all life, the universe, and everything. Thank you a thousand times.

One last thing, Disclaimer:

"But, Harry, I love you..."

He looks back, a hard expression on his face. "I'm not a toy, Kyonomiko. You don't own me."

You heard him folks: I don't own him.

Eighth year.

Hermione Granger can't believe anything so mundane as her last year of school has come to its end. It doesn't seem possible, almost unjust, that something so very normal as her formal schooling reaching its completion might be looming in her future.

It was hard, last August, to prepare herself; to make herself ready with books and quills and parchment; hard not to pack foodstuffs and darkness powder into her trunk; hard not to be afraid.

September was hard, too. It was difficult to board a train without Frank Granger waving farewell, without the lingering scent of her mother's Orchidée Bleue.

Harry and Ron had decided that Hogwarts has given them all that they need, and so Hermione had found a compartment alone on the express, riding solo for the first time. Neville had asked her to join him, but she had said she'd promised to sit with Ginny Weasley. However, when Ginny invited, Hermione declined, claiming she had Prefect duties. When Luna looked her way, eerie and knowing eyes locked onto her face, Hermione had fled to the ladies room and wept.

October was better, but only just. Hermione was able to bury herself in schoolwork.

November, December; a blur of weeks in which Hermione had tried very hard not to think about what the end of the year would bring. She spent Christmas at the Burrow, drinking Firewhisky with George Weasley while Ron made eyes at Lavender Brown. Lavender was damaged, injured and sad, and Ron needed very much to be needed. Hermione had needed him too, but she was too strong, too forward thinking. Her decision to return to Hogwarts had been the final component of their undoing over the summer.

And so, while Ron sneaked sweet kisses under mistletoe, Hermione stole away to George's bedroom while the family was asleep, losing herself in a drunken haze, night after night. She found that George needed her much in the same way that she needed him: distracting and rough, no promises of a codependent future required.

January was back to business as usual, letting herself fall into Potions and Charms and research, trying very hard to be a student and a witch rather than a daughter and a lover. It mostly worked, February and March going by nearly unnoticed.

She heard George was seeing Angelina Johnson in April. Her happiness for him was sincere. Her petty glee at Ron's jealousy, having caught wind of George and Hermione's brief affair, was as well.

The other students in her year, halved by various circumstances, lived the year with their own coping and grief. Slytherin house was oh so quiet, most of the students seeming either surly and dejected, or guilty and afraid. Theodore Nott, oddly, had become friendlier than anyone thought possible, striking up a rather close relationship with Ginny Weasley. Purely platonic, they both swore, but close nonetheless. Pansy Parkinson was quiet as a mouse, eyes often red from recently shed tears. The students had been cruel to her beyond measure. Oddly, her insistence that they hand over Harry at the final battle, while deplorable at the time, was a sentiment Hermione at least understood. Pansy had been terrified for her family and herself, and what teenage girl wouldn't make sacrifices to save her family?

What girl, indeed. Hermione could tell you about sacrifice. About choices.

Blaise Zabini also befriended Ginny, but the redhead assured Hermione it was much less platonic and much more fun.

The other houses were less dour than Slytherin, though not less affected. Gryffindor was down their two star players, Harry and Ron's absence felt throughout the tower. Seamus Finnegan had returned to Ireland, leaving a rather lonely Dean Thomas to muddle through. Every morning, an owl arrived, and Dean's face would momentarily light. Hermione wondered if anyone else noticed.

Ravenclaw, as a group, was stoic. They'd suffered few mortalities amongst them but seemed to feel the ramifications of the past and the future. They strategized their careers and social movements based on the new world order, calculating based on the new demographics of the wizarding world.

Hufflepuff: here were the mourners and the therapists, feeling the losses deep in their hearts, and doing their utmost to ease the pain of their fellows. Hermione avoided them above all. She didn't want a therapist or a shoulder on which to cry. Hermione searched for her own inner strength, hardening and preparing herself for a world alone. Orphaned by her own hand and separated from her dearest friends, their lives already taking different paths, she wanted to create a world where she wasn't afraid or broken, and she didn't care for witnesses while she accomplished it.

George Weasley was the closest thing she had found to deliverance. Without that option, she prefers to be on her own.

The day that broke her was May 19th. That was the day, skimming the edge of the Forbidden Forest, Hermione found a small metallic charm, jumpring pulled open and a single word engraved on the scratched and dirty face. She had choked and choked on sobs for her familiar.

Crookshanks had been gone from her life for months at this point, nearly years, but she had hoped, foolishly, that he might be found; dreamed of him sauntering around the lake or vaulting up onto her bed. As time had passed, she had understood, in a logical and mental way, that it was unlikely the old beast had survived the battle, the creatures of the forest, his own age... but a childish and desperate hope was what soothed her to sleep those nights when she met him in dreams.

Harry had lost Hedwig; Hermione lost Crooks. Likely, there were homeless familiars abandoned by dead masters as well.

She'd cried forever, feeling as though an age had passed. Once her tears were spent, her head pounding with the force of her weeping, she had pocketed the tag and made her way to the castle. She passed Draco Malfoy on her way, the very quietest of the returning Snakes, and resolutely looked away from him, watching her own feet as she moved. She thought maybe he had looked away as well, imagining with ugly and petty pleasure that it was shame that turned his face. He rarely took meals in the Great Hall, was absent more than not from classes, and had been floo'd to the school directly rather than taking the Express. No one seemed to want him there anymore than he wanted to be in attendance. It was the first time she'd really seen him in months and, she hoped, it might be the last in her entire life.

Hermione completed her NEWTs with top marks, to no one's surprise, and looked toward the final days at what was once her beloved second home. On the 12th of June, she received a letter from Harry. He was lonely at Grimmauld, Ron having moved in to his own place (presumably to pursue his on-again off-again with Brown in private) and having not replaced Ginny as his girlfriend since their January split. Would she, the letter inquired, like to be roommates, of sorts?

She wasn't sure if it was pity or his own need that made him ask, but she found herself grateful. She'd been more than hesitant to face her childhood home now that her parents would never again be a part of her life. She imagined living there, stuffed in her old bedroom, her parent's master suite empty and only the memories of her childhood, her first love, and her dead cat to keep her company.

Yes, she'd written back, she would very much like to bunk with Harry for a time. She thanked him and agreed to see him at Grimmauld in a few days.

And now, the end and a new beginning are finally upon her. Today is Hermione Granger's last day at Hogwarts. Unless by some twist of fate she were to find herself employed by the ancient institution, she might possibly never see the castle again. She's bid farewell to many of the staff, sat pensively in the quiet of Gryffindor tower for a time, and even stood in the Quidditch stands, imagining Harry circling above her, carefree and smiling like he seemed to only be on a broom.

Tomorrow morning she will board the Express. Some of the students have already departed. Students of age, many never to return, Apparated away or were granted Floo privileges. Hermione chose to remain, one of the few of the decimated Eighth years, so she might take one last ride on the Express. It might be sentimentality, though she suspects she had simply not been in a hurry to return to a lonely London.

A warm day is at its end, and Hermione is enjoying a final sunset by the Black Lake. The water ripples, and she would like to think the Giant Squid is bidding them all a farewell. Perhaps the Mermish residents are honoring the departed. Remembering the dead.

Melancholy has made a home in Hermione's heart, and she takes a calming breath when thoughts of her lost kneazle choke her, deep in her throat. A feeling of overwhelming sorrow starts to sweep through her, panic and sadness making her rock herself like a child, eyes stinging. A sob tears from her, violent and desperate, before she can quell the sounds and muffle her sadness. It is a practiced reaction, and one at which she is becoming quite adept.

Hermione breathes deep, calming and steady, exhales stretched to a count of ten.

When she finally comes back to herself, muttering a mantra that everything will be fine, it's fine, everything is fine, she feels a cold press to the skin of her hand. She looks down into the onyx black eyes of a cafe colored mustelid, thick tail stretched behind it on the grass.

She jumps slightly, but the animal only looks at her, intent but not aggressive.

A final shaky breath clears her mind, and she greets, "Hello there. Aren't you a pretty thing?"

The cold little touch comes again, and she sees it is the feeling of a tiny little nose being jabbed into her hand. It seems more insistent this time, and Hermione looks over the animal. It is clean and glossy, beautiful orange markings breaking up the otherwise monochrome coat. It is also eyeing her again, then jabbing with its nose, an odd pattern with purpose. It wants her attention.

It's rather obvious this is no ordinary, wild pine marten. The weasel like animal, while native to the country, is far too comfortable in her presence. She offers her hand, gesturing and cooing for the animal to approach. It inches forward without hesitation, and she strokes a hand down it's sleek back. "Such a darling," she praises, and, experimentally, adds her second hand to pet down its side.

It seems as though the marten has no fear, edging closer still and watching her while she pets it. It doesn't claw or bite or make any sounds of agitation, only accepts her attention.

"Did you belong to someone?" she asks softly, blinking back moisture once again. "You're awfully sweet not to have someone love you." It stares back, seeming to perk up at her voice. Hermione closes her eyes, letting a tear well over and slide down her cheek. She thought she'd no tears left; apparently they are endless.

Against any better judgment, she scoops up the animal and holds it close, kneading its soft fur and laying her cheek against its warmth. "I'll find your home if I can," she promises, knowing it's likely a lost cause, but too comforted by the presence of a familiar to let go.

On unsteady legs, Hermione rises, holding the animal tightly against her and straightens her shoulders. She's yet to let anyone on the staff see her break, and today she does not intend to start. She sets a course back to the castle, hoping McGonagall is still in her office on this, their final day.

For once, someone is listening, and she finds the Headmistress in attendance. Hermione knocks softly and waits for the door to open. It swings gently inward, revealing a straight-backed McGonagall looking at her expectantly.

"Miss Granger, come in." She gestures to a chair across the desk then asks, "What can I do for you?" Hermione watches the woman's eyes fall on the furry bundle she is holding to her breast. "Have you a new familiar?"

"No, Headmistress. But I found him, out on the grounds. I don't think he's a wild marten, and I wondered if any students were missing theirs."

McGonagall presses her lips thin, an expression Hermione had once believed to be irritation, but has since learned covers an array of emotional affectation. "None that have been brought to my attention, though he does seem quite docile."

"And intelligent," Hermione adds. "He never hesitated to approach me. Almost like he was looking for a person."

"It's a rare familiar," McGonagall responds, "though not unheard of. The Creevey boy," her eyes close hard once, a pause of reflection, "he had a ferret his first year, though his parents kept it home after that. Mister Goldstein brought a badger this year."

Hermione nods, trying not to think too hard on the lifeless face of Colin Creevey.

She looks down, finding the dark eyes of the mustelid staring back at her. He's warm in her hold, and she's mortified to feel her eyes well up once again. When had she become so emotional? Next she'll be sniffling at happy family adverts on the telly.

Blinking back the tears, Hermione addresses her Head of House once more. "Do you think maybe I could keep him with me? Unless you find his witch or wizard?"

"If that is even possible," McGonagall returns gently. "But if it is, I'd hate for you to become attached. Perhaps Hagrid would be better suited?"

At that, the marten seems agitated for the first time, twisting in Hermione's hold and chittering briefly, before burrowing his head in the crook of Hermione's arm.

Both women look at each other a moment, then the Headmistress cracks a rare smile. "I think we are safe in our assumptions he is no wild weasel, Miss Granger. You may look after him, if you wish."

Hermione nods. "If you find his home, please send for me. Otherwise…" She looks down again, scratching the animal's head gently. "Otherwise, I might take him home with me. It would be nice… might be nice to have a familiar again. Though he's no Crooks," she finishes with a sad smile. McGonagall offers her an obligatory chuckle, and the marten seems to glare at her.

"Careful, he seems to have a jealous streak."

"He does," Hermione says, smile a bit more sincere. "Don't worry," she says to the mustelid, "I'm a one-familiar type of woman."

They say their goodbyes, brief small talk preceding Hermione's departure. It occurs to her, there's a possibility she might not again see her mentor. The wizarding world is small, and they may see each other someday, but it could be years before that were to occur. Will Hermione have children years from now and see them off to Hogwarts? Will she sit in this office, a fidgeting child with a riot of curls beside her, as McGonagall stares down her nose at them? It's equal parts comforting and devastating how life is sure to go on.

Hermione never felt mortality before the war. Now, she feels older than her years.

Walking the corridor to Gryffindor tower for one of the very last times, Hermione cuddles the animal in her arms close. It's comforting, the feel of fur on her cheek as she bends her head to its back. She used to carry Crooks like this, a comforting weight in her arms, feeling the vibration of his purr.

Maybe this is just what she needs. She can't deny it's been a lonely year. Hermione started in September as a nearly friendless orphan, burying herself more in books than even she thought possible.

Offering the password to the Fat Lady, Hermione sweeps through the common room, her presence mostly ignored as is typical. It's not that her house is cruel to her, but she has been so closed up all year, at some point they stopped trying for inane small talk. She's not so far gone that she doesn't recognize their attempts nor her own mild depression, but she hadn't the patience for their drivel months ago, and it's too late to change now.

Her room is quiet. She's had it mostly to herself in general, Pavarti only returning to sleep occasionally. As Hermione understands it, she and Padma have become inseparable, clinging to one another for comfort, and the twins spends many nights in the Ravenclaw dorms. Lavender had stayed in London, needing semi-constant care after her attack by Greyback. Romilda Vane had transferred to Beauxbatons, and Eloise Midgen spent a great deal of time sneaking into the Heads dorm to see the seventh year Hufflepuff wearing the badge. Tonight especially, she expected solitude, Eloise and Parvati being amongst the eighth years who left via Apparition already.

She's been grateful for it, and particularly now that she has a creature to care for.

Hermione crosses to her four-poster and gently sets the marten on top of her duvet. "There now. I'm not sure where you're used to sleeping, but this must be better than the forest, wouldn't you say?"

It blinks at her, then looks around the room, nose twitching curiously. "Merlin knows when last you ate," she ponders aloud. "Let's see if I can dig something up."

She reaches for her beaded bag. Her attempts to pack normally, to not plan for her own demise or extreme situations, had not been entirely successful. From the endless space, she pulls out a package of beef jerky. She isn't entirely sure the animal will eat processed meat, but it's all she has available until they open the Great Hall for dinner.

Tearing open the top, she pulls out a piece and offers it, pinched delicately between two fingers. With no delay, the marten snags the meat with its teeth and gnaws on the corner. It looks at her briefly, eyes locking onto hers, then goes back to its meal, scarfing the rest in one bite.

She takes the look as gratitude and smiles, then lays three more pieces between its paws. Before hardly any time has passed, the bag is empty, and the marten curls up comfortably on the bed. It studies her, but Hermione isn't sure what to do with it now. Crooks, in true feline form, had been fairly independent. Seeking food, comfort, and the occasional head scratches, he spent most of his time prowling or sleeping.

What on earth does she do with an expectant looking pine marten?

Giving him one last scratch between his ears, she conjures a small box filled with sand, hoping she's not wrong on his level of domestication, and decides to make her way to dinner after all.

"I'll bring you something nice from the Great Hall," she tells him softly. His furry head is perked up, cocked to one side as he watches her, and she smiles a soft but sincere smile, happier than she's been in some time.

Hermione closes the door behind her, giving a little shake to the handle to be certain it's secure, and flounces out of the common room, intent to find a treat for her little companion.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoy where we are going and appreciate faves, follows,and reviews if you are so inclined!