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In Defiance of Destiny

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An unnatural gloom permeated the air throughout the eerily still ruins, as if the darkest storm were bearing down upon the now-cursed land.  But the three people present in the remains of the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had been suffering under this oppressive shadow for hours, and no such storm had bothered them.  The ruins of the castle had been in perpetual gloominess for over a month.  No magic had been found which could pierce the darkness.  Nothing but pain and misery remained.

Hermione Granger hated being here.  It haunted her, filling her mind with thoughts of the evil force that was tearing a path of destruction across Europe.  Every home she had ever known was gone, along with most of her friends and family.  Her world was broken, and the only thing keeping her going was this last faint hope that they could save everything.

“I believe everything is in place.”  The voice of Minerva McGonagall was hollow, drained of her signature wry spark.  Much like the castle around them, the most powerful witch Hermione had ever known was broken, maybe forever, left with little more than pain and sorrow.  That McGonagall kept on surviving was due only to her nearly crazed dedication to find a way to undo it all.

“We need you to be sure, Minerva.  One crystal out of place, one mispronunciation in the incantation, and we fail.  And we only have—”

“The one chance.  She knows, William.”  Hermione hadn’t meant to snap at her friend, but she was on edge just from being in this place.  It was like being in the constant presence of a dementor, albeit a very weak one.  She shifted her expression as best she could into something like an apology, but positive emotions were nearly impossible to maintain here.  Still, his face softened in the dim candlelight, and he backed down.

William Weasley (Bill, to his family) was the only one of the three who still had loved ones alive, as his brothers Charlie and George had been out of the country when everything went to shit.   Internally, Hermione flared with resentment at his good luck, and the sudden presence of this unwelcome bitterness made her feel sick.  William might look monstrous, with cracked and angry scars warping the natural lines of his brow, nose, and lips, but he was a kind soul.  Hermione had nothing but love for him, and the darkness weighing on her mind frightened her.  She didn’t know if it was the lighting, or if the curse that lingered over the grounds actually made William’s scars more grotesque.  Regardless, she couldn’t fight the shudder that stole through her at the sight of him.  Hermione hated how this place made her feel.

Out of the darkness, a sinister voice whispered morose musings in her ear.  Everything he touches is left twisted and evil.  How long before the entire world is drowning in its worst impulses?  How long before we all choke on the darkness? 

Minerva’s clipped, “I’m aware of the stakes, Mr. Weasley,” brought Hermione back into the moment, her eyes blinking rapidly as she shook off the whispers around her and glanced towards her mentor.  Unfortunately, Minerva’s eyes were as haunted as ever, her Scottish brogue clipped and monotone.  “Everything has been in place for over an hour now,” she revealed.  “I have simply been checking and rechecking every detail.  We should proceed now, and carefully, lest we throw any part of the ritual off.”

“Good,” Hermione growled.  She was more than ready.  In a few moments, she would either be in a happier place, with the hope of preventing the apocalypse, or she would be dead.  Either was preferable to what her life had become.  She had barely been allowed eight months of recovery and self-discovery after the Second Wizarding War.  Eight months of peace before things became even worse than before, and another month while they scrambled for a solution.  The familiar weight of anxiety clenched that much harder at her chest.

William interjected, “Are we sure it has to be Hermione?”  It was not the first time he had raised this concern, and Hermione was well past finding his concern for her endearing.

“We are,” she snapped, before Minerva could muster a response.  “I’m the one closest to Harry.  I’m the one with the firsthand experience dealing with horcruxes.  And I’m the one most likely to change things without getting noticed.”  

For a moment, she thought he might try to argue further, and she glared daggers at him.  William’s concerns were hardly relevant at this point.  Minerva had already cast the Fidelius Charm.  It had to be Hermione now.  Finally, he sighed and nodded his assent before facing Minerva again.  She directed each of them to a corner of the triangle she had created by carving several thick layers of runes in the stone floor.  Each of them knelt down onto their knees.  “Hermione, place your wand in the circle, but be careful not to make any contact with the runes.”

Hermione did as she was told, having just enough skill with wandless magic to levitate it into the circle at the center of the runes, placing it carefully in the center so that it pointed directly at her.  Had her wand been longer, the whole thing would’ve strongly resembled the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.  The thought did nothing to assuage her anxious thoughts, and she felt naked without her wand.  This ritual was powerful and untested, and it required a sacrifice of a most personal nature.  Hermione was taken aback by the degree of loss she felt.  The beech wand was still fairly new, but it already felt a more natural extension of herself than her old vinewood wand ever had.  With a deep breath, she silently said goodbye to it, one more treasured thing she would lose to the most destructive magical force the world had ever known.

Minerva rested the heavy tome in her lap.  Something like hope shone through the gloom, and it felt strange in her chest.  “First, the blood,” Minerva instructed.  As one, they each picked up the silver-bladed knife on their right, and Hermione couldn’t stifle her low gasp at the pain that blossomed along her palm as the blade cut her open.  Blood dripped onto the inside corners of the runic triangle, splattering across the spaces between the runes and the carved inner circle.  The knives were returned to their places, and with a flick of her wand, Minerva sealed each of their wounds.

Next, she began a steady chant in an ancient Nordic language that Hermione hadn’t known existed only a few months ago.  When she finally reached a pause, Minerva lifted her wand, pointing it towards Hermione’s wand.  William mimicked her movement with his own wand.  As Minerva’s recitation resumed, a deep, inky purple began to emanate from the tips of their wands, darkening and deepening as it grew.  The effect was unsettling, an eerie absence of light that contradicted itself by flaring and glowing along its edges with powerful magic.  Hermione imagined this might be what black holes looked like.

Minerva’s recitation built steadily, her voice growing unnaturally coarse, almost like a deep roar.  A wild wind picked up and began to swirl around them as the purple substance began to form a semi-transparent orb above Hermione’s wand.  With a crack, the wand stood up straight and was promptly pulled into the center of the orb.  Minerva’s voice was nearly a scream now, and the wind whipped and howled around them with matching ferocity.  Hermione felt fear settle in her gut as the wind pulled at her.  An icy, painful sensation began to swirl inside of her, as if the wind were recreated in miniature within her very soul.

Abruptly, Minerva’s voice halted, and the tome snapped shut in her lap.  Hermione’s entire body burned with agony, and she felt as if she was being ripped apart from every direction.  She could see nothing but the velvety darkness, and a hideous, piercing scream—her own scream—replaced the now dormant wind.  The pain built and built, and it was as though every bond holding together each atom that made up Hermione Granger was being strained and ripped apart, one by one.  Until, finally, everything went black.

Though it felt like an eternity of torture for her, in reality the process took merely a moment from start to completion.  In a single moment, the energy consumed her fully, and Hermione Granger ceased to exist in this reality.

                                                  

The first thing Hermione noticed was warmth.  And not the physical sensation of warmth either.  It was a stark contrast from the numbness that became her entire existence after she lost Harry, Ginny, and her parents, and despite the warmth, it felt almost like being unceremoniously dumped into icy cold water.  The shock of it knocked the breath out of her, and then, her eyes fluttered open to see the shadows of candlelight playing along the walls and high ceiling of a room she never thought she would see again.  She gasped for air as she took in what was clearly the old common room of Gryffindor Tower.

As her vision cleared, three faces sprang into view, worry written across each of them.  Two heads of thick red hair, one a bit more strawberry than the other.  A dark disheveled mess situated above a pair of emerald eyes made no less striking by the thin frames of the glasses resting in front of them.

Harry.

In a jolt, everything from the past year came rushing back, and Hermione sat straight up.  Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley moved immediately to place a hand on her in case she passed out again.  Until they made contact, it all still could have been a dream.  But their hands were solid and supportive and so, so real.  “Harry!  Ginny!”  She leapt into Harry’s arms while pulling Ginny into the fierce hug as well.

She held her friends tightly, as if breaking contact with either of them would render them dead all over again.  The tears came immediately, and the relief that flooded through Hermione rendered her helpless against the sobs that wracked her body.  Ginny and Harry just held her that much closer, even though neither had any clue what was going on.

 “Er, guys—”

“Shut up, Ron!” Ginny snapped.  Her head turned to shout at her brother, but otherwise, she made no move to leave Hermione’s grasp.  Several minutes passed before Hermione regained any semblance of control over her emotions or her body.  She had lost everything, and now—through some ancient magic that she still didn’t fully understand—her loved ones were returned to her.  Mostly.

Suddenly feeling awkward about her outburst, Hermione pulled back enough that she could see all the subtle differences.  Harry, Ginny, and Ron were all younger and so much more innocent than she remembered them.  Ron was still taller than the others, but his lanky frame hadn’t filled itself in yet.  Ginny was so tiny, and Hermione couldn’t believe she had ever been that small.  Hermione had to restrain herself from kissing her entire face in sheer joy that her friend was alive.

And Harry. It was remarkable to look into those familiar eyes and see none of the burden she had grown so used to seeing there.  His whole body looked so much lighter and freer than she had seen it in years.  The sight of him made her tear up again, and finally, he couldn’t stay silent any longer.

“Hermione?  Are you … quite alright?”

Ginny gaped at him.  “’Course she’s not alright, look at her!”  She turned to Hermione.  “We need to get you to Madam Pomfrey right now.”  She helped Hermione to her feet, but the older girl was already shaking her head in protest.

“Ginny, I’m fine, really—”

“You’re bloody well not fine!  You passed out, then woke up all hysterical and crying!”

“I was just—”  Hermione scrambled for a plausible excuse.  She definitely didn’t want to go see the healer.  Not only was nothing physically wrong with her (she hoped), and she really didn’t need to arouse suspicion with mysterious, unexplainable symptoms.  An idea sparked, and she went with it.  “I’m just exhausted.  Got really into these ancient runes I was trying to decipher last night, and I uhhh, didn’t really sleep, I guess?”

A wave of relief and understanding passed through her friends.  Internally, Hermione chuckled.  Guess I really was the massive nerd everyone said I was.  Am I still?  But Harry wasn’t fully convinced.  “And the hugging and crying all over us?”

Hermione turned to him with a soft smile on her lips.  “I had a nightmare.  It felt … so real.  It just took me a minute to realize it was only a nightmare.”  Her words didn’t ease the concern written across his face.  She smiled a little brighter at him, then glanced at Ginny and Ron.  “Really, I’m fine.  I’ll just head up to bed right now, rest up, and I’ll be fine in the morning.”  Hermione glanced around and found her bag.

Ginny shook her head.  “Fine, but I’m walking you to your dorm.  You might hurt that spectacular brain of yours if you pass out again.”  Hermione rolled her eyes but didn’t argue with the youngest Weasley.

She rushed forward to wrap Ron in a quick hug.  “Oh, you remembered I was here, did you?” he muttered.  She grimaced but tried not to take it personally.  She forgot that she used to be so much closer to Ron.  Before the horcrux hunt.  Before her months of personal awakening.

“Hush you,” she scolded playfully, faking a grin as she pulled away and looked up at him.  She shoved him lightly, and finally, he smiled back at her.

Hermione gave Harry another quick hug, and he whispered in her ear.  “Sure you’re okay?”  She nodded against his neck, squeezed him one last time, and then turned towards the stairwell leading to the girl’s dormitory.  She didn’t resist when Ginny insisted on slipping an arm around her waist.

“I’ll see you boys at breakfast in the morning.”  Their good nights echoed behind her.  Ginny led her up the stairs to the fourth-year girls’ dorms.  They stepped into the hallway of the landing and took the few steps to the first door on the right.  It opened to the room Hermione shared with Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil.

Fortunately, while the sky outside the windows was already dark, the dorm was empty.  Hermione guessed it must be early evening, not long after dinner.  As she drew close to the bed nearest the door—her bed—she saw the items her past self had left scattered there.  A popular wizarding novel from Ginny, who was always helping Hermione learn more about wizarding culture.  Chocolates from Ron.  A book on the history of house elves in wizarding society from Harry, his small effort to support her newfound cause.  Right. SPEW. Merlin, I was naïve back then.  She filed the thought away for reconsideration later.

Hermione’s nose itched, and she was surprised as her hand discovered tears streaking down her cheek again.  It was all too much.  She had resigned herself to the end of the world.  She hadn’t let herself believe the old magic would work.  And yet, here she was.  Back to September 19, 1994, sitting among tokens of love from dear friends who were no longer dead.

She wiped the tears away before facing back to Ginny.  “Thanks, Gin, but I’m really okay.  I’m about ready to pass out again, but I promise I’ll do it on my pillow this time.”  Ginny chuckled at that, then leaned in for a hug.

“Happy birthday, Hermione.”

“G’night.”  Ginny smiled, then turned and left.  Finding herself overwhelmed, Hermione allowed her head to fall back onto her bed.  Her mind raced wildly as she stared up at the dark wood of the canopy.  It worked.  I’m really living my own past… again.  I wish I could tell Minerva and William that it worked.  They would—

With a shriek, Hermione rose to her feet, wand already drawn and pointed at whatever had dragged her out of her thoughts by jumping onto the bed beside her.  It was Crookshanks, and Hermione choked back a cry as she flung herself back down on the bed and wrapped him up in a hug.  He protested strongly, but Hermione Granger would not be denied.  “Hello, you lovely young man.  I missed you so very much.”  Crookshanks continued to act as if her behaviour was entirely undignified, and when she released him, he quickly moved over to his pillow atop her school trunk, bathing his fur as if he had been sullied by the brazen show of emotion.

“Fine, be that way.  I still love you anyhow.”  Hermione let her eyes wander across the long, curved room that had been her home throughout her teens.  The dormitories curved along the outer edge of Gryffindor tower, divided into rooms of no more than five.  Hermione’s room featured three beds along the outer wall, a window between each.  Each girl had her own four-poster bed, nightstand, dresser, trunk, wardrobe, and sitting chair.  The dressers sat beneath the windows, while the wardrobes and sitting chairs lined the interior wall of the space.  It was both bigger and smaller than she remembered it.

Hermione removed her trainers, placed her birthday presents on top of her dresser, and quickly changed out her school robes for a soft pair of pyjama shorts and a baggy tee.  As she did so, she noticed a few differences in her body.  Her skin was a little paler than it had been in the other timeline.  Her entire body was softer, not yet hardened by outdoor living or molded into the runners’ physique she had developed after the war.  Hermione was sure she was a couple inches shorter as well.

She padded out of the dorm room and across the hall to the floor’s shared toilet.  The circular room had a door on opposite sides of the space, each facing a thin dividing wall through the bulk of the center of the room.  To her left were the shower stalls, and to her right were the toilet stalls.  Sinks and mirrors lined either side of the central dividing wall.

Hermione approached the first sink on the shower side of the room and scrutinized her 15-year-old face thoroughly.  My hair!  I’ve gotta get some proper shampoo and conditioner immediatelyHermione had learned to work with her thick mess of hair quite well in her later years at Hogwarts, but clearly that hadn’t happened yet.  Her dark curls—much darker than she remembered—were dry and bushy and wild around her face and shoulders.  How did I ever put up with this?!

Other than her hair, however, her face was more or less as she remembered it.  A bit fuller, more childish, but still Hermione.  Even so, it felt so weird to look into the mirror and see her younger self.  It was going to take a lot of getting used to, but Hermione supposed she had plenty of time.  There was no going back, after all.

The thought was both freeing and terribly depressing.  Hermione blew out a frustrated breath, the found her shower stall.  She wasted no time slipping out of her clothes and into the hot, steamy water.  She was going to need some time to process.

                                                  

Hermione awoke the next morning more energized than she had been in at least a year.  She hadn’t fallen asleep until long after Ginny had left her, but for once, her sleep was unmarred by nightmares.  She knew that wouldn’t last, and she reminded herself to find time to brew the sleeping potion she had learned to make after the war.

She rummaged around her dresser for a top to wear under her school robes and settled on a simple white shirt with thin, black horizontal stripes.  Her style had changed quite a lot since she was fifteen, and at some point in the near future, she intended to reinvent her wardrobe.   For now, Hermione grabbed a black school robe—one of the ones with red trim and gold accents—and traded out her pyjama shorts for the first pair of trousers she found in her dresser.  Fortunately, there were plenty to choose from—Hermione had never understood the appeal of the traditional way to wear wizarding robes.  She pulled on her boots as quietly as possible, and she was off before her roommates were even out of bed.

After a quick stop at the toilet, where she used magic to get her hair just under control enough to pull into a messy bun on top of her head, Hermione took off for the kitchens.  There was still a good thirty minutes until breakfast got going in the Great Hall, which should leave her plenty of time.  Without hesitation, she walked straight up to the painting of the fruit bowl and tickled the bizarrely massive green pear.  It giggled adorably, then morphed into a door handle.

Most of the elves ceased their hustle and bustle immediately, wide eyes turning to meet the newcomer.  The Hogwarts kitchens were enormous, with a ceiling high enough that Madame Maxime could’ve stood on Hagrid’s shoulders and still not reached it.  For a moment, Hermione imagined a good forty elves stacked on top of each other just to reach something on one of the top shelves, and the idea nearly caused her to burst into laughter.  While she was sure they would have a good time with such hijinks, she also had little doubt that the elves had a much more elegant solution.  They were incredibly talented magical beings, after all.

Hermione wasn’t quite sure where to begin.  She wanted to talk to the elves, to get a better understanding of how they lived but also hopefully to earn their trust.  She wanted to support them in whatever way she could, but she wasn’t the pushy idealist she had been the first time she was fifteen.  She now knew better than to force her own concepts of freedom and independence on them without their consent, and building trust would obviously take time.  Still, if Hermione actually succeeded in her mission to save the world, she had a future to look forward to.  She still very much intended that future to include working for the civil rights of non-human magical beings.

However, Hermione was looking for one elf in particular this time around.  The trouble was that she couldn’t be too obvious about it.  After all, Hermione and Dobby hadn’t technically met yet.

“How can the elves of Hogwarts help you, miss?”  She smiled down at the first elf to address her, his Hogwarts-branded tea towel tied into a pristine toga and his immense blue eyes watching her with polite curiosity.  The uniform—and Hermione begrudgingly respected that it was a uniform—was startlingly clean and bore the Hogwarts crest and trim in alternating blue, green, yellow, and red.

Hermione feigned uncertainty.  “Oh um, I don’t need anything in particular, thank you.  What is your name?”

“Delaney, miss.”

She leaned down and offered him her hand with a bright, “It’s so nice to meet you, Delaney.  My name is Hermione.”  He seemed taken aback by her outstretched hand, but he knew enough about human greeting customs to shake it with his own.

“Can I get you anything, Miss Hermione?”  He continued to watch her politely, but his expression grew a bit more confused the longer the interaction went on.

“I would love a glass of water, Delaney.  Thank you so much.”  He turned towards the nearest sink, summoned a glass out of thin air, and filled it with water.  On his way back, he made a few precise hand motions over the glass, and Hermione guessed that he had performed some spell to purify the water.  Elves are truly remarkable, she thought, and she felt a sharp pang in her heart.

“Thank you very much.  And please, just call me Hermione, if that’s alright with you.”  She glanced around at the few elves that were still paying attention to her, though most had gone back to work preparing the morning meal.  “There’s no need for anyone to call me ‘miss,’ I assure you.”

Most of them looked at her skeptically without a reply, and she knew better than to push things too far.  The slavery of elves made her extremely uncomfortable, but she had no intention of foisting that discomfort on them just to feed her own righteous indignation.  It wasn’t like she had any idea what their lives were really like.

“Thank you for the water, Delaney; I was quite parched.”  She made a show of finishing the water off, and that was when her eye caught sight of a pair of bright red men’s underpants worn atop an elf’s head, bat-like ears sticking out quite comfortably through the leg holes.  “I suppose I should leave you all to it then…  Oi!”  She stepped towards Dobby, who was now turning to face her.  “Are you … by any chance, named Dobby?”

The elf’s face broke into a wide grin, a sparkle in his big, green eyes.  “Yes, miss, I am.  How do you know Dobby?”

She stepped forward, barely able to constrain the overwhelming urge to shower him in praise and adoration.  “I’m a friend of Harry Potter, and he’s told me so much about you.  I, uh, may I hug you?”  Dobby looked momentarily caught off guard, then nodded his head enthusiastically.  She fell to her knees and embraced him tightly.  It took everything in her not to break down sobbing again. 

Hermione had experienced so many forms of magic in her relatively short life, many of them incredibly powerful.  Yet none of it compared to just being able to hold this brave, inspiring, miracle of a person in her arms.  She wished she could tell him how much he meant to her, how much she admired him.  You saved my life, little one.  But as he pulled away from her, she could do nothing more than put on a pleasant smile and act as if they were strangers to each other.  Someday, she promised herself.  Hopefully someday soon.

“You know Harry Potter, miss?”

“I do!” she beamed.  “And please, Dobby, call me Hermione.  No need for that ‘miss’ rubbish.”

“Any friend of Harry Potter’s must be a truly wonderful person,” Dobby gushed.  “Dobby will call you ‘Hermione,’ if that is what miss wants.”

“That would be lovely, Dobby.”  Hermione glanced around, suddenly feeling like she was imposing.  Shite.  It was a bad idea coming down here.  What am I doing?  As if sensing her doubt, Dobby put a hand on her shoulder and smiled.

“Is everything okay, miss—er, Hermione?” 

She couldn’t quite keep the tears from forming, but she did manage to hold them in as she smiled brightly.  “Everything is lovely, Dobby.  I’d love to chat with you more, but I don’t want to interrupt your work.  I imagine it’s quite important to you.”

“It is!  Dobby loves his work!”

“Do you think you could come find me a bit later?  When you’re not so busy?”

“Dobby has time now!  No one ever comes looking to talk to Dobby!”

“Are you sure?  I can come by later—”

“No!” Dobby practically shrieked.  “No, Hermione is here now.”

Hermione giggled.  “Alright, alright.  If you’re sure.  I just don’t want you to feel obligated.”

“Dobby likes to talk,” he insisted.  “What would Hermione like to talk about?”  He led her over to the bench of one of the four massive tables, each situated directly below their house table counterpart above in the Great Hall.

“I’d just like to get to know you, I suppose,” Hermione answered honestly.  She chuckled.  “I’m not sure I agree with all of your methods, but you helped keep Harry alive two years ago, with all that Chamber of Secrets mess.”  Dobby looked an odd mix of guilty and proud at that statement.  “So, what have you been up to since then?”

“Dobby has been looking for work,” he squeaked happily.  “Not so successfully.  It is very difficult for an elf who has been dismissed to get a new position, miss, very difficult indeed.”  Hermione nodded along.  “And, well, Dobby is a free elf now.  Very proud!  And Dobby is wanting to be paid for his work. 

“Good for you, Dobby!”

He beamed even brighter.  “Thank you, Hermione.  Dobby likes being free!  Except that no wizards want to pay for an elf.  ‘That's not the point of an elf,’ they says, and they slammed the door in Dobby's face!”

“That’s awful!  Dobby, I am so sorry.”  The elf didn’t seem quite sure how to respond to her sympathy, so Hermione rushed to jump back into the conversation.  “But you found work here at Hogwarts?  Paying work?”  She could see the other elves shooting them dirty looks, but Hermione paid them no mind.  She focused on Dobby’s joyful face.

“Oh yes, miss!  Professor Dumbledore was quite enthusiastic to be bringing Dobby on.  And Professor Dumbledore says he will pay Dobby, if Dobby wants paying!  And so Dobby is a free elf, miss, and Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!"

Hermione held her tongue, swallowing her insistence that he deserved so much more.  “That is an excellent starting point,” she offered instead, hoping that it didn’t sound too patronizing.  She also ignored the nagging voice in the back of her head that wanted to say something snarky about Dumbledore.  “You seem really happy, Dobby”

“Dobby is!” he confirmed.

“And I simply adore the outfit you’ve put together,” she added.  The bright orange necktie around his neck clashed wildly with his red underpants hat, and the pink tutu and checkered trousers only loudened the ensemble.  But it was all so distinctly Dobby that it filled her with joy. 

“Dobby thanks you, Hermione!  ‘Tis so kind of you to say so.  Harry Potter is choosing his friends most wisely, Dobby thinks.”

“Well thank you, Dobby.  That is so sweet of you to say.”  She checked the clock and, with a sigh, decided she should probably draw the conversation to a close.  “Listen, I need to get to breakfast soon, but I’m sure Harry would love to see you.  If you like, I can ask him if he wouldn’t mind a visit from you, since we’re all in the same castle now.”

Dobby grinned.  “If it’s not too much trouble, miss.  Dobby would love that!”

“Very well then.  He’ll be so glad to know you’re doing well.”  She stood.  “Do you think you would like to talk to me again?”

“Very much so.”

“Good!  Well then, I will try to make my way back down to the kitchens soon, unless you have somewhere else that—”

“Miss Hermione, don’t worry about that!” he squeaked, looking almost affronted.  “You just call Dobby’s name, and he will come to you.”

“That’s very generous of you, Dobby.  But can you promise me something?”  He nodded so excitedly that she worried that his underpants hat might fly off.  “If I call you and you’re in the middle of important work, please will you tell me so?  I don’t want to be a burden, and I’m sure we can find time to chat when neither of us is busy.”

Dobby looked like he wanted to argue, so she fixed him with a semi-stern look and added, “I know your work is important to you, Dobby.  And that is important to me.”

After a brief moment’s pause, Dobby nodded his assent.  “Dobby will do as Hermione asks.  She is a very kind witch.  Very kind, indeed.”

“You deserve all the kindness I can give and more, Dobby.”  She started walking to the door but turned back for one last glimpse of the brave little elf.  “I’ll talk to you soon!”

                                                  

As History of Magic came to a close, Hermione’s eyes searched for Neville.  She packed her bag quickly and left Harry and Ron chattering on about some quidditch thing.  She caught Neville just outside the classroom.

“Oi, Neville!  Can I talk to you about something?”  The awkward boy stopped dead in his tracks and turned around slowly, a bewildered look on his round face.  Hermione held back a chuckle.  Neville Longbottom was only just barely showing signs of the brave, confident young man he would grow into.  He was a hair taller than Hermione, but she knew that he had a good half-foot of growing to do before they were finished with school.

“Uh, yeah … sure, Hermione.  What’s up?”

She smiled brightly, hoping to put him at ease, then nodded her head in the opposite direction he had been walking, away from the stream of students heading out to the courtyard and the grounds.  His brow narrowed further, but he shrugged and followed without protest.  Hermione established a pace that would keep her at Neville’s side as she led them towards the library.

“I wanted to see how you were doing.  I know that Moody’s class on Unforgiveables shook you up pretty badly.”  Neville’s steps momentarily lapsed, and if Hermione had blinked or glanced away, she would’ve missed it.

“Yeah uh, yeah, it’s fine.  It’s just a lot … to see it for real.”

They stopped in front of the doors to the library, and Hermione put a hand on his shoulder.  “Neville, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I just want you to know, if you ever want to talk about them, I’m here.”  Neville’s face clouded with suspicion, but Hermione didn’t back down.  “Yes, I know.  I might be muggle-born, but after everything with Quirrell, then the Chamber of Secrets, then Sirius Black—” she feigned the sort of nerdy awkwardness that she knew everyone expected of her, “—let’s just say I’ve done my research on the war.  Longbottom is a pretty famous name.”

“Hermione, I—”

“No, Neville, I mean it.  No pressure.  You don’t have to tell me anything if you aren’t ready.  But for the record, I think they would be proud of you.”

Neville started to argue the point, but Hermione just shushed him and pulled him into the library.  She walked directly toward her old favourite table, tucked away in a corner where people were unlikely to bother her.  “They would be,” she insisted as they both sat down.  Coming out of his shell a little, Neville shot her a skeptical look.  Hermione just rolled her eyes.  “I know it doesn’t feel like it a lot of the time, but you’re a really good wizard—”

“Oh, come on—”

Hermione cut him off again.  “No, seriously.  I’ve seen your technique, and it’s impeccable.  Your problem is your confidence and well, I have this theory.  That’s actually what I wanted to talk to about.  Your wand … it isn’t really yours, is it?”

Neville’s eyebrows raised nearly to the long bangs of his dirty blonde hair.  “How did you know?!”  His outburst was far too loud for the library, and she shushed him as her eyes scanned for any sign of an angry Madam Pince approaching.

“Like I said, it’s a theory.”  She pulled a book—The Illusive Intricacies of Wandlore by Violetta Beauvais—out of her bag and handed it to him.  “If I’m right, I’m guessing that wand has never quite felt right in your hand.  It certainly doesn’t seem to respond to your spellwork the way it ought to, from what I’ve noticed the last three years.  I think … well, let’s just say that Mr. Ollivander isn’t just being eccentric when he says the wand chooses the wizard.  And—” she paused to emphasize her point, “—just because a wand worked well for a father, doesn’t guarantee it will fit his son.”

Neville’s eyes, now watery, stayed focused on the cover of the book.  Hermione felt the strongest urge to comfort the boy, but she knew it wasn’t her place.  “Anyway, again, no pressure.  I think you’ll find Beauvais’s theories quite interesting; I know I did.”  She stood but not before offering one last bit of information.  “Our first Hogsmeade visit, I’d be more than happy to go with you if you wanted to swing by the local branch of Ollivander’s.”  Then she left him with his thoughts.

                                                  

Despite the sun filling the clear sky behind her, Hermione could feel the biting chill of the wind as her pace slowed to a walk.  Her warming charm shielded her from the worst of it, but she instinctively hugged her arms tighter against her still-heaving chest.  It was nearly November, and her heavy breaths came out in wisps of visible fog.

After a few weeks, Hermione had managed to reacclimate herself to her teenage routines without drawing too much attention to herself.  Classes, meals, library sessions—rinse and repeat.  That wasn’t to say, however, that she had simply fallen back into old habits.  So much was different this time around.

Every morning, she rose an hour earlier than in the previous timeline, determined to start every day with a brisk run around the grounds to clear her head.  Other than the girls in her room, Hagrid, and in all likelihood, Dumbledore, she doubted anyone knew about her morning routine.  No one else got up that early, and while she was finally getting back into shape, her robes kept her runner’s physique well hidden most of the time.  The only clear difference was in her face, which had thinned and hardened a bit.

Hermione Granger was still top of her class, but what no one realized was how little effort she was putting into it.  Yes, it had been four years, but she had taken all these classes before.  The only real work she had to put in were the essays; all the actual magic was old hat.

This freed her up to develop a more active social life, which she had mostly eschewed the first time around.  While she still hung around with Harry and Ron, she was just as likely to be found sharing her table in the library with Neville and Ginny.  Ginny had even introduced her to Luna a year in advance.  Hermione and Dobby became fast friends, and she had begun to get to know several of the other elves as well.

The problem was that none of it made Hermione feel any less alone.  No one knew that she had nightmares more often than not, thanks to the permanent silencing charm she had worked into the curtains of her bed.  No one knew the trauma she had experienced, because none of it had happened yet for anyone but Hermione.  No one knew that she was an adult (mostly) who was living among children.

No one knew that behind the façade of the bookish Hermione Granger was a young woman who felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Her free time had not only been spent cultivating new allies—friends, she corrected herself—but also plotting for the year ahead.  Hermione had spent a great deal of time meticulously planning, and now it was October 28.  The other schools would arrive that night for the beginning of the Triwizard Tournament.  Everything was about to begin.

Hermione took a deep, calming breath as she slowed to a stop just outside the greenhouses.  You can do this.  You can do this.  She couldn’t keep going like this.  She needed to tell someone, and not just for her own mental health.  I can’t do this alone.  Finding her resolve, she silenced the anxious voices in her head and called to her friend.  “Dobby?”

With the usual crack, Dobby appeared at her side.  “Good morning, Hermione!” he squeaked, grinning brightly.  “If Dobby may ask, why is Miss Hermione out and about so early?”

“You certainly may, Dobby.  I’m just out for my morning run.”

Dobby’s ears perked up as his brow furrowed, and he looked around wildly.  “What are you running from?!”

Hermione couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled forth.  “No no no, don’t be afraid, friend.  I wasn’t running from anything.  It’s, erm, it’s rather a muggle thing to do I suppose, but I run for exercise.  For fun.”  Dobby continued to look at her as if she was mad.  “I run because I like to run.”

“Dobby tries not to judge, miss, but that sounds quite odd,” he squeaked.

“Perhaps it is,” she chuckled.  “How are you feeling this morning?”

His small hands played along the bright pink necktie he loved so much, a present from Hermione.  She knew he still wasn’t accustomed to having the conversation be about him and his feelings.  “Dobby is having a good morning,” he practically whispered, massive eyes darting to and fro.  Then they went even wider, and the elf nearly leapt with glee.  “Oh!  It was wonderful, miss!  Just this morning I was cleaning the Ravenclaw common room, and one of the lovely students left me this, with a lovely note!”

Hermione had, of course, noticed the multicoloured, fingerless glove on Dobby’s left hand, but she had wanted him to bring it up of his own accord.  Whoever had left it for Dobby had clearly shrunken it to a size suitable for an elf, and it suited him quite perfectly.  Based on the erratic colour scheme and the fact it was left for Dobby in Ravenclaw, Hermione guessed it was from Luna.  She made a mental note to tell the girl her gift had been so well received.

“It’s lovely, Dobby.  Very fetching.”

“Thank you, miss.”

She walked over and sat down on a nearby bench, then patted the spot next to her.  Dobby followed her lead and hopped up onto the bench, swinging his now dangling feet in the air.  Hermione turned her body so that she could face him.

“Dobby, I have something I would like to tell you, but it’s … well, it’s quite troubling.  And I would like for you to promise me that you will keep it a secret between the two of us.  It … it’s going to be d-difficult for me to speak of this.  But … but I trust you, Dobby.”  The fact that the Fidelius Charm would keep him from sharing these secrets didn’t change the fact that she did, absolutely, trust him.  Though, on second thought, Hermione had no idea if the Fidelius could actually bind elves as it did humans.  She lamented how little she really knew about the fascinating and wonderful little beings.  She wiped at her watery eyes.  “You’re the kindest, bravest person I have ever known.”

“Hermione is too kind.  Far too kind,” Dobby insisted, and Hermione shook her head furiously.

“I’m not, Dobby.  I’m really really not.”  She smiled at him.  “I know you, Dobby.  Better than you realize, I think.  What you don’t know about me is that I’ve got a great, big task ahead of me.  A mission of sorts.  And I will very much need your help.  I trust you, Dobby.  Do you trust me?”

Dobby nodded emphatically.  “Yes, Dobby does.  He wants to help you in your mission, if he can.”

“Okay.  Good.  I’m glad.  I just … I need you to promise me that you will keep my secrets.  What I’m about to tell you, you cannot tell anyone else.  You might think I’m quite mad, but I mean it when I say that the fate of the world rests on my mission, quite literally in fact.”

It was to the elf’s great credit that he didn’t flinch in the slightest.  Instead, he had only one concern.  “Dobby must keep this secret even from Harry Potter, miss?”  Hermione had guessed this would be his stumbling block.

“In all honestly, Dobby, there is powerful magic that may keep you from telling anyone what I’m about to tell you.  But it’s important to me that you will keep my secrets because you want to.  I don’t want you to do anything you aren’t comfortable with.” She frowned.  “And yes, I will need you to keep this from Harry, for now.  He, more than anyone else, is especially in danger, and while I hope to tell him everything eventually, he isn’t ready.  We have to protect him, you and I.”

Dobby took a moment to consider.  Hermione was glad that he didn’t acquiescing blindly just to be agreeable.  “Dobby agrees, miss.  Dobby will do whatever it takes to protect Harry Potter.  And to help Hermione Granger as well.  You are the best humans Dobby has ever met, miss.”

Hermione smiled down at him brightly.  She regretted that she didn’t do more to get to know the elf in the previous timeline.  He had saved her life.  He had pulled her from the darkest moment of her entire life.  And he had paid for it with his life.

Not this time, she promised herself.

“Well alright then, Dobby.  Let’s start from the beginning.  I’m from the future.”