Hermione had known, even as Ginny was speaking, that Ginny had been the one to draw the short straw, or pick the wrong side of the coin, or loose at whatever kinky game of chance the women of the Weasley-Tonks household had most recently thought up between the two of them.
"It's not that Nymph and I don’t like having you around, luv. Of course we do. We just think you might be using us as an excuse not to get on with your life, and that makes us a smidge uncomfortable."
Hermione tugged at one of the strands of hair that had squiggled its way free of her messy but utilitarian up-do. "Sure."
Ginny wrinkled her nose. "Minny, don't."
Hermione made a face at the nickname, thought up by Nymph in frustration at there being no cute way to abbreviate Hermione and amusement that it rhymed with Ginny. "Don't call me that."
"Don’t act like I don’t know you," Ginny bit back.
"Don't pretend like going out on a few dates with the idiots who slobber on me all day at the office or a couple of drinks with the girls up the hall will change anything," Hermione sneered in retaliation.
Ginny took a step back, but held up a hand when Hermione began to apologize, "No, I mean, it was something, at least."
Hermione pressed the heels of her palms against the mottled skin under her eyes. "Gin. Damnit." There was no apology in the world that could make up for the last two years, though, so Hermione just stayed still, head down and shoulders forced nearly to her ears.
"Okay, so maybe not socializing. It's been two years, Min, the Department's pretty well-established and you're still on everyone's A list. Get yourself a job you enjoy." There was a thinness to Ginny's voice that Hermione recognized as a dignified sort of pleading.
The Department, more formally known as The Department for the Protection of Muggle-Born Magic Adepts had been Hermione's baby, constructed by her a year before the end of the war over the summer before her final season at Hogwarts. At the end of her sixth year, Voldemort had managed a strike, killing hundreds of Muggle-born would-be wizards not old enough to have yet received their school letters. Recognizing the immense vulnerability of this sect of the Wizarding population too late, Hermione had worked her hardest to establish the Department.
In the aftermath of the war, when she had succeeded partly out of her status as hero and partly out of the wave of public sympathy for Muggle-borns that the massacre had secured, she was left in charge of its set-up. It had been for the best at first, giving her something to focus on other than her grief, but after less than a year it became clear that while it was her project, it was hardly her passion. Still, as head, she dutifully went in to see to its smooth operation day in and day out, very, "one-foot-in-front-of-the-other," as Nymph called it.
Hermione straightened slightly, lifting her hands from her eyes. "And what happens to the Department without me to defend the purpose behind its funding, make sure that enough PR is generated on a regular basis to maintain the public's attention to its importance?"
"Dean won't let anything happen to that office and you damn well know it." Dean Thomas's ten year-old sister had been one of the children killed.
Hermione couldn't deny the truth in that. "What would I do?"
"What do you want to do?"
Hermione refused to look at Ginny, the answer too immediate in her head. She lied, "I don't…I suppose I haven't really thought about it."
"Then start, luv." Ginny took hold of Hermione's shoulders and shook gently. "We don't know how to help anymore."
"I know," Hermione admitted. "You've been the best, truly."
"You're my sister. In every way that matters, at least," Ginny let the appreciation slide off her without a second of hesitation. "I miss them too, Min. But I wish I could give you what I have."
"Sanity?" Hermione attempted the joke, however weak.
Ginny gifted her with a small smile, "What lies behind it."
Hippocrates Smethwyck eyed Hermione, "You're far too qualified, Miss Granger, you must know that."
Hermione kept her expression even. "All of my training was emergency-based, I have no formal education as far as the medical arts are concerned."
"Regardless, you saved countless lives."
Hermione swallowed, trying her best not to grimace at the bite of acid as it slid reluctantly back down her throat. You didn't kill Harry. The voice that reminded her of that was never her own. Ginny's, Nymph's, Charlie's, even Minerva's. Never her own. It would do, though, in a pinch.
"You understand that what I'm proposing is a very specific type of work. The proposal deals with several points that I've been working on with the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures." Hermione fought to keep the twist of contempt those words always made her feel far from her expression.
"Your proposal suggests that you take on a position as Sister to the most dangerous inhabitants of the Dai Llewellyn Ward."
"It suggests that I work on rehabilitation and socialization of recently bitten werewolves." Hermione stated plainly.
"Forgive me, Miss Granger, but you are aware that werewolves are still considered dangerous and are only released if they agree to register so that they can be tracked. Socialization is rarely ever important, as most kill themselves rather than face this prospect or that of lifelong incarceration."
Underneath the ledge of the desk she was sitting on one side of, Hermione twisted her fingers tightly into her robes, releasing on the count of ten. "It is precisely either of those ends that I am hoping to help these patients avoid."
Hermione was actually fairly used to people looking at her like she was a few crumpets short a full tea service, but somehow, it never failed to anger her. Luckily, her anger over Smethwyck's carefully worded but blithe disregard for an entire class of his patients was far overriding this more recent irritation. "You loose nothing by allowing me the chance."
"I risk the life of a war hero. Mungo's reputation hardly needs the bolstering."
Hermione dropped her voice an octave, something Ron had always said made her sound like she was channeling demons. He had warned her about using her power responsibly. "I'm quite certain I can take care of myself, Healer Smethwyck. After all, I have managed to get this far, have I not?"
The sentiment, when so many others are dead, floated between them for a minute, heavy and unstable.
Smethwyck cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I suppose if this is what you want…" He waved his hand negligently. "The pay is less than glamorous."
Hermione smiled without showing her teeth. "That will be such a change from the Ministry."
Hermione was too smart not to recognize her own psychoses. She was well aware that she was nursing a guilt complex but for the most part, completely powerless to do anything about it.
She often thought that perhaps she had planned too strongly on Ron making it out alive.
She had known Harry wouldn't.
The curse that had killed Voldemort was Old Magic. Older, it was believed, than even Slytherin himself. The book that Hermione had found it in had claimed that snakes had created the spell themselves; a spell designed to work only on those who had a connection with snakes. Parselmouths, in contemporary terminology.
It is not in the basic nature of snakes to be evil. Cunning, mischievous and self-defensive, certainly, but evil is a concept mostly unknown amongst the animal kingdom. Therefore, attempting to force a snake's true nature on a Parselmouth who has deviated from it wreaks havoc with the Parselmouth's inner nature, the balance of his soul. This was essentially how the spell worked.
There were two catches to implementing it. As with most ancient spells, this one took a Wizard of great inner power to augment, but there were quite a few of those at Hogwarts. This spell, however, had to be implemented by a wizard whose actions and beliefs ran directly opposite of evil. Also, the wizard to cast the spell's inner nature would be altered, as he used the good within himself to separate the evil from his opponent. Inevitably, the spell meant death for the caster as well as the recipient.
Even if there hadn't been suggestions within the spell that Harry would have to be the one to cast it -- it was best if cast by a Parselmouth -- there was the implication behind the Prophecy that Harry was the only one with the ability to best Voldemort.
Hermione had found the spell fairly early on in her searching, at least after Snape finally allowed her access to his books on the orders of Dumbledore. She didn't inform Harry of it until the very end, until she knew there was no other way.
She never told him about the end result of the spell. He and Ron had believed until the end that there was a chance they could both live through the final battle.
The night before Hogwarts was taken, Hermione had snuck into the boy's dormitory, where Seamus, Neville and Dean were well used to looking the other way when she would climb into Harry's bed to find both her lovers waiting for her. Aware that things were coming to a head, she had been slowly saying her goodbyes to Harry, without the aid of words.
Ron she had given strength, but not leave to go. He was supposed to stay with her.
But Ron had always been the more loyal of the two of them, she supposed. He had tried to Heal Harry, intuitively, and been sucked into the death pull of the Magic. They were gone before Hermione could jump on for the ride.
She didn't regret not telling Harry, not making him live a death sentence for the final months of his life. She had found that she could live with having killed him, but she doubted she could have survived breaking him. The guilt over Ron's death clung to her, heavy as mud and twice as dirty.
It couldn’t have been helped, this she knew. Even if Ron had kept quiet, which would have surprised her, his face would have given it away. Still, knowledge is power and Hermione instinctually felt that somehow she had acted as heartless dictator in the whole situation.
She had told the remaining Weasley's, Ginny and her then-new girlfriend Nymph, and Charlie; hoping that their hatred would be worse than hers, more painful. Both of them had failed her though, too tired to hate the woman who was all that was left of Ron and the boy they had adopted as a brother.
She had given up on receiving proper punishment and instead struck out for suitable penance: to save enough lives to make up for those two. She didn't foresee an end to the pursuit. Sometimes, every once in a while, it was reassuring in its infinite nature. Those were the better days.
She may not have known how to fix the guilt complex, but that didn't mean she wouldn't try. She owed a few people that. Ron and Harry would understand.
That was why she had loved them.
Minerva was prompt, as always, but Hermione had insisted on getting to The Three Broomsticks early and was now intensely grateful for Nymph's having invited herself along. Without her there to chatter, Hermione was quite sure her nerves would have left her stammering and ready to flee by the time Minerva arrived.
Instead, Hermione greeted her former professor with a small smile and a polite, "Gillywater?"
Minerva's lips quirked up, "No, if you don't mind, I think I'll have a spiced cider."
Hermione waved over Rosamerta's nephew, Oren, to whom Rosamerta had left the bar. She ordered for Minerva and another round for her and Nymph, waiting for the drinks to actually come before she got down to business.
"I need a favor," she prefaced.
"If it's within my power," Minerva promised.
"I know you're terribly busy, training a new deputy, and all," Snape had agreed to fill in as deputy only so long as it took to find a new one. Eventually the man who had taken over for the now-retired Flitwick had consented to taking the post, but he had only been on staff for a little over a year and was still getting used to Hogwarts, let alone its administrative duties. "Still, I was hoping that you would be willing to take me on for lessons again."
Minerva took a sip. "When you graduated, your Transfigurations were quite top of the line. I'm not sure what else you imagine I have to teach you."
"The one Transfiguration I can't yet do," Hermione supplied.
"Ah," Minerva turned her cup in her hands slowly. "And what, may I ask, has suddenly attracted you to Animagistry?"
Under the table, Nymph nudged Hermione with a knee in a quick gesture of support. Hermione began, "It's far from recent, really. I've been fascinated since third year. In truth, though, the drive to learn it now comes from my new job."
"I've heard rumors," Minerva admitted.
"I imagined you would. It's no secret down in the ward that Snape supplies the hospital with its regular batches of Wolfsbane."
"It's a sign of concern that he said anything at all. He very rarely concerns himself with other people. More so now than ever before."
Hermione, who still remembered too vividly the man whose wit could target the most vulnerable parts of her without even aiming, merely pursed her lips. "Kind of him, but as I told Healer Smethwyck, I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
"So you have proven."
Hermione let the glance shared by the two other women at the table go. It would do no good to get angry about it. She owed her pretended ignorance to Nymph, if not to Minerva. "Will you teach me?"
"Of course I will, it's a good skill to have even when one is not attempting to become friendly with werewolves. I just can't guarantee regular lessons."
Hermione nodded, "I understand completely. I'm not even sure that I can. The job's hours are unpredictable, at best."
Minerva chuckled, "No doubt."
"Thank you," Hermione reached out to quickly squeeze Minerva's knuckles. Minerva squeezed back, but let Hermione go at the first sign that she was ready to withdraw.
The lessons, when they could manage, were held weekly. They could be done over an early breakfast, early enough that Minerva could make it to the Hall for Hogwart's scheduled breakfast, or late enough at night that it took several cups of strong coffee for them both to stay awake for the duration of the lesson. They were slipped in after staff meetings that ran shorter than expected and before independent student sessions.
It was as Hermione hurried up the stairs to Minerva's office for one of the late night meet-ups that she ran into Snape. Not, thankfully, literally.
She was past him, hardly having even registered the tall swish of black cloth, when he barked, "Miss Granger," and out of pure habit, she froze.
A quick breath later, she turned. "Professor."
He didn't seem to have expected a response, as once they were face to face, he went silent. Just when she was ready to bid him a good night and carry on, he spoke up. "As you have the most continuous contact with the lycanthropic patients at Saint Mungo's, I was wondering if you had noticed any difference in this month's transformation as to that of last month's?"
Hermione tilted her head. "You changed the Wolfsbane?"
"No, not on its most basic level, at least. It is something of a continued project of mine, however, its perfection. There are several symptoms of the transformation I wish to alleviate. I fuss with it when I am stuck on another problem."
"I'm sorry, I don’t remember seeing anything. I could ask them. One or two might even tell me," Hermione's lips twisted in a self-deprecating grimace. "What would you need to know?"
"If they felt more clearly inside their heads. I once was told that their awareness of self was constantly present but felt muzzled. I simmered a Jobberknoll(9) feather in the first stage of the potion's base this time, I should like to know if it had any affect."
"Of course. I will see what I can find out." Hermione gave a polite nod and began to head off to Minerva's, already late for their scheduled meeting time.
"Miss Granger," his voice called once again, this time with less edge.
"Yes, Professor?" She did not turn.
"Perhaps, if I were to owl you my ideas, the next time I got to thinking about the Wolfsbane-"
Despite the grip on her self-control that Hermione had long pounded into herself when in his presence, she spun around, cutting him off, "My expertise is nowhere near yours. I did not continue in the field after my N.E.W.T.s."
"Yes, I realize." He paused. "But I have not the disposition to sit with the subjects as they transform, and your input would be invaluable. They are often reticent in discussing the change while it is not occurring."
To her surprise, Hermione laughed. It was short and mixed with bitterness, but it was laughter. "No, no they don't. All right, I see your point. Yes, that would be fine. Just don’t expect an immediate reply. The job and my sessions with Minerva leave little time for extras and I have family and friends who still require my attention."
Something in his eyes made her regret verbalizing the last part. He didn't snap, though, merely nodded, "Of course. Like I said, it is something I use as a distraction. I will hardly be bothered by a wait."
"Well, then," Hermione took a step backward, "I'm off. Good night, Professor."
His, "Good night, Miss Granger," held the oddest tone of melancholy to it. She thought it was almost recognizable as loneliness.
"I could bite you," Zev threatened, eyes looking a bit feral even having resumed his human form. "The potion makes me know what I'm doing, y'know. I could bite, if I chose to."
Zev Peren was the new kid on the ward. He was nine years old and it was something of a miracle that his parents had taken him as far as Mungo's to abandon him. Most bitten children were dropped off at the nearest wooded area at full moon and left there to die. Still, Hermione couldn't exactly consider him lucky. "I know."
"Aren't you scared?" Zev demanded. The nine-year old was all big feet and hands and too-wide eyes, with sandy-blond hair that needed to be cut so that he wouldn’t have to constantly swipe it out of his field of vision. He was anything but intimidating.
Still, she almost wished she could tell him she was. It would have meant that she hadn't already survived things far more scary. It would have given him a little something to hold onto. Instead, she teased, "Aren't you? If you bit me, I'd have to stay here all the time."
Zev shrugged. "At least you talk to me."
There were seven werewolves, not including Zev, on the ward. Ranging from twenty-six to seventy-two, two were women and five were men. One of the women and two of the men had taken on a pack mentality and banded together, but they were hesitant to allow any newcomers into the pack. The remaining four had to be persuaded to interact with anyone, let alone each other. There had been an eighth, another member of the "quiet cult" as Hermione silently termed the loners, but he'd killed himself at the previous full moon. She'd been determinedly not making his death an issue in regards to whether she was doing anyone any good or not ever since.
"They don't know what to say, Zev."
"I asked Redda if she'd play Exploding Snap the other day and she totally ignored me."
"Redda's grieving," Hermione explained. She wasn't sure how she knew this, as Redda wasn't acting any differently than before Lucien's death, and the two had never much spoken when he was alive, but there were some things that grieving for over two years lent to a person, and the ability to sense similar emotions in others was one. "Have you tried Gerard?"
Gerard was the friendliest of the pack-mates, the most likely to argue for another's entrance. While they were cliquish, the three in the pack were the most stable in the ward and the people that Hermione worried about the least. She would have loved to secure a spot there for Zev.
Zev picked at the lint residing on his bed's comforter. "Steven and Verona scare me."
Hermione suspected without any proof to back it up that the three of them were sleeping together, which was what cemented their existence as a pack and precluded the involvement of others. Which meant that Zev shouldn't be a threat to that. It was a gamble, but one she felt needed to be taken. "I know, me too. But sometimes you've gotta stand up to what's scaring you if you plan on getting what you want."
"Easy for you to say. You're a hero. I know, my parents used to talk about Hermione Granger all the time. Her and Ron Weasley and The Boy Who Lived."
Hermione imagined she hated that nickname more than Harry had ever thought to. Quietly, she said, "We were very scared too, Zev. Voldemort's death was something we wanted very badly. Almost as badly, I'd imagine, as you want somebody to play Exploding Snap with."
Zev folded his legs up to his chest and rocked for a bit. "Would you play a game with me, before you go? I mean, if you don’t have somewhere to be."
"I have enough time." Hermione stood up and walked to the bed, careful not to touch him as she sat. Between having been bitten and his treatment by his parents and the doctors in the aftermath, Zev wasn't much a fan of physical contact these days. In the three weeks he'd been on the ward, the only time he'd let Hermione touch him was when he was in the wolf's body.
Zev lit up like a Clabbert(2) infested tree, and he began to deal out the deck he left on his nightstand at all times. "Great!"
Hermione was pretty sure she would be finding time to play two or three games.
It was the oddest sensation in a lifetime of being hit by hexes and spells and even the odd full-out curse. Hermione imagined it was a bit what being stuffed into a trunk less than half her size would feel like, only blessedly without pain. Almost as though the trunk had once been her home and whenever she returned to it, her body found ways to accommodate the smaller habitat.
Everything smelled differently. Minerva's scent was sharper, more threatening, and she could smell horses, which should have been impossible, as the only ones kept on the grounds were the Thestrals, and they were let loose in the Forest when not needed.
Transforming back was harder. Animal-Hermione's thought processes worked oddly, more jumbled than her normal semi-linear paths of thinking. It took a while to fully form the return spell satisfactorily and feel the reverse transformation, like stepping back out of the increasingly comfortable trunk.
"So?" Hermione inquired casually, as if the moment before hadn't taken months of expert tutelage and practice to achieve.
Oddly, Minerva responded with, "Were you afraid of me?"
"It…the form was. I'm still in there, though."
"You are ready to be registered, then," Minerva pronounced.
"Registered as what? What was I?"
Minerva turned her best enigmatic expression on Hermione. "You couldn't guess?"
Hermione ordered the facts available. Something smaller than her, considerably so, with an innate fear of humans who could smell the dank iron scent of Thestrals from over a kilometer away. "A horse guardian. I'm a Porlock(8)."
"Ten points to Gryffindor," Minerva murmured. "Rather appropriate, don't you think?"
Unwilling to give Minerva the immediate satisfaction of delving into why her alternate-self would choose this form, Hermione shot back, "Our hair does have a certain likeness."
"Well, Porlocks are very sweet looking, so in that, yes, I suppose there is a familiarity between your two forms."
Hermione resisted the call to Transform back, into a body that allowed no communication between her and this woman who saw everything. "I think, sometimes, that I trust humans less than the people I work with, shut away from the world through no fault of their own. They might not trust me or even like me, but I get them, and it's just more comfortable."
Minerva stepped into Hermione's personal space. Hermione made herself stay still. Minerva smiled sadly, "I was speaking of your tendency to protect those weaker than yourself."
Hermione took several careful swallows. "That never goes quite the way I want it to."
"It saved our world," Minerva reminded her.
"I'm tired of being the heroine." The words were more accepting than bitter, more resigned than angry. Hermione felt it was long past time when she deserved to be protected.
Despite all intentions otherwise, Hermione found herself tripping down stairs that had taken her to her least favorite class for seven terribly short years. She would have liked Potions, she always thought, after all there were few magical subjects as well-recorded as the science of potion development and brewing, but Snape's constant barrage of hate had taken its toll on her and she had turned from the subject eventually, drawn in by the complexities of arithmancy, the sublime aspects of Transfigurations and the information she could glean from Hagrid's rather haphazard lectures and then pursue later on her own time outside of Care of Magical Creatures.
For all her antipathy, though, she barely had to open her eyes to make it down the twist of stone steps, under the hissing frieze snakes that Harry had once confided were merely gossiping like so many other Hogwart's portraits, through the three structure support arches and into Snape's classroom. He was there, as she had expected. She knew he supplied both Mungo's and the school with much of their back-up and emergency potions stores, so it would only have made sense for him to use his classroom after hours as a brewing spot.
The classroom smelled odd. It was a familiar smell, one that Hermione knew, yet did not think of as being connected with this place. It took her a few minutes to place it. "Apple cider?"
He turned. She knew he was aware of her presence or she would not have spoken. Startling Snape was never a good idea. Luckily, it was hard to sneak up on him, particularly in the dungeons, where everything and every being reported anything unusual straight to him. "Harvesting cyanide. It's a pleasant side effect."
Hermione smiled. "Mum always adds a drop of clover honey in."
"I should think that would make it far too sweet," he lifted his chin in a gesture of arrogance that was ruined by the fact that he was sitting on a stool, the top of his head just reaching her nose.
"It doesn't," was all she said, unwilling to get into a fight over something so insignificant. She hadn't come down here to squabble. "Redda tells me she was able to remember who I was last transformation. That's unusual. Generally they can remember who they are, but only in the most basic sense, for instance, they know they're human and that the wolf is just an illusion. They can rarely remember solid facts though, such as friends, enemies. Zev says he could remember me too, but I might be a more important presence in his life than Redda's. The pack says they're more aware of their…friendship while transformed, something they're grateful enough to send thanks for."
He bent his head down over the cauldron with the simmering drink in it, avoiding Hermione's pointed appreciation. "I suppose living with a beast inside of you makes it hard for one to understand the subtler points of improvement upon a potion."
"No, Professor," Hermione hardened her voice, "I think it is you who are missing the subtler points. It worked, perhaps not as well as you were hoping, but well enough for them to see it and be grateful. Might I remind you, it is they who have to writhe on the ground as their bones break and reform each month, they who have to spend three nights in a mind that is just barely their own, they who are kept in a prison because of a condition they no more sought out than one seeks out a Cruciatus. I believe my message of thanks deserves a 'you're welcome' to give in return."
Snape brought his eyes up to hers and she prepared herself for an onslaught of cruelty prepared with an exactitude rarely seen among the most influential of rhetorists. Instead he bit out, "I should think you would be disappointed enough in the 'development' to understand why I cannot accept such gratitude at this time."
Hermione played the response back to herself. "I feel rather foolish. I thought I heard you pay me a compliment."
"Don’t be asinine. When a student is willing to listen, my teaching is well beyond average. I am intimately aware of the extent to which you are versed in potion making."
"Your teaching would be extraordinary," Hermione allowed, "if you bothered to get past your arrogance and bitterness long enough to actually, say, instruct."
Knowing perfectly well when it was time to leave and give her point some room to breathe, Hermione spun on her heel and strode calmly out of the room, underneath the arches, past the silent, gaping snakes, and up the too-dark stairs. She imagined she could hear his angered pants long past the front gates of Hogwarts, annihilated only by the loud crack of her Disapparating departure.
Healer Smethwyck intercepted Hermione before she was able to reach the ward a day after the last evening of the full moon. It had been the first time that Hermione had been able to transform and she had for all three of the nights. CubZev had been absolutely thrilled at having a pint-sized playmate. The rest of the wolves hadn't interacted much with her new form, but hadn't actively avoided it as they had her human one. It was something -- enough that she didn't regret months of training.
"Ms. Granger," the Healer called, popping his head from his office. "Can I have a moment?"
Hermione headed into the office, worried. The Healers in the ward hadn't much interfered with her work, to the extent of neglecting werewolf patients. Then again, the one time Emmett, another of the loner werewolves, had spoken to her, he had made it clear that neglect was a regular feature of their sect of the ward, even before she had shown up. Hermione made it a point to try and fill in where the care lacked and to confront Sisters about it, but so far, most of her efforts in that department had been for naught. Once she had walked in the door of the Healer's office she invited herself to take a seat. "Something on your mind?"
"You have a new kid. Of sorts."
Hermione frowned. "Of sorts."
"He was brought in this morning, Apparated in while he was unconscious by a wizarding hermit who lives in a wooded area of the Czech Republic. Heard this werewolf during the last transformation. Waited until today to bring it in, smart on his part, since this one obviously hasn't been medicating."
"It would be hard to get Wolfsbane in the woods. Why did the wizard bring him here? There are at least three major wizarding hospitals closer to that area."
Healer Smethwyck swallowed. "He has a Ministry tattoo."
Hermione closed her eyes, fighting with everything against the bacteria of hope threatening to infect her whole system. "Has he been ID'ed?"
"We sent the information to the Ministry, but they've yet to respond." If the Healer saw anything odd in her reaction, he didn't let on. "I just wanted to let you know, I doubt he'll be anything like the others in there, he's been out in the world for quite some time since infection."
Hermione nodded without really hearing. It can't be. I won't- Remus. Remus who had disappeared in the midst of the last battle and never been heard from again. Remus who couldn’t be found by the best of Aurors and wizards this world had to offer, not Tonks or Kingsley or even Minerva. Remus, who had been presumed dead for well over a year now. It couldn't be.
Hermione was glad that her reflexes were so well trained in the art of getting her from one spot to the next, of moving without actual motivation. Zev ran up to her once she reached the doorway, stopping just short of actual contact. Shaking her head just a bit, attempting to get past the shock and concentrate on the nine year old with scared eyes standing in front of her, she reached out and pulled him into a hug. Oddly, he came into it willingly, eagerly. Hermione suspected that Zev's treatment at the hands of the wizarding world had taught him that he was unworthy to touch, but had not cured him of the need for physical affection.
It took her a bit to realize that she wasn't shaking, rather, Zev was so forcefully it felt as though it was originating underneath her skin. "Zev, shh. Shh. What's wrong?"
Zev shook his head and refused to say anything, even after Hermione bent down to his level, swept the hair out of his eyes and coaxed, "It's okay, I won't laugh."
Silently, he turned and walked further into the ward, glancing back to make sure she was following. She was. He made his way into the deepest recesses in the ward, leaving Hermione at the door of the room they used for those werewolves who had failed in killing themselves but managed serious damage in the process.
Even at the doorway the room smelled of blood and sickness. The werewolf was curled up on his side, his back to the door, the covers thrown off of him to reveal sharp knifing vertebrae, deep self-inflicted slashes everywhere, numerous scars that Hermione recognized as being unhealed curse hits, and hips so gaunt as to be dangerous. Hermione crept closer, sensing his fevered heat at a distance. She walked carefully around the bed, not wanting to have to turn him, wake him.
His face was more bone than anything else, scars gracing the area around the hairline and underneath his right eye. Every aspect of him was whittled, as though someone had carved him out of wood and kept carving until the figure was a mere caricature of what it was meant to be. There were more marks than Hermione had ever thought to see on one person, more signs of survival where it had perhaps not been wont, or wanted.
It wasn't the face or the body that she remembered, but she remembered it all the same. When Zev came back to find her sitting on a conjured chair next to the bed and crying, he took the chance of climbing into her lap. "Minny." He shook her a little. She'd told him the nickname to make him laugh one day when he was scared about the pain of transforming. "Minny. What's wrong?"
She hugged him to her to decrease his worry. "I think I'm just happy, Zev."
"But you're crying."
"I know. It's…sometimes people forget how to be happy properly, and this is all they can manage."
Zev seemed to accept this as he asked, "Why are you happy?"
"He's my friend, Zev. He's my friend, and he's alive."
Zev looked at the man on the bed doubtfully. Hermione gave a watery laugh. It felt almost as good as the tears.
After a day and a night of bearing constant vigil, Nora showed up, looking for all the world to be Florence Nightengale On A Mission. She was plump but with the obvious musculature of someone who believes that using mobilicorpus over human touch is a copout, and her hair, a decent imitation of Hermione's except for the strawberry blond tint of it was streaming out of its twisty. Her eyes, pretty blue and nearly always smiling except when she was angry, were set in the expectation of an argument. Nora was the only Sister that Hermione trusted to care for the werewolves while not being watched over, but Hermione still knew what she was bracing for when she ordered Hermione to go home and get some rest.
"I'm staying." Hermione hadn't gone without a fight. A fight somewhat lacking in luster, as she'd been up for nearly four nights straight now, with the change being the three nights before Remus had shown up, but still, a fight.
"No," Nora disagreed, "you're not. I promise I'll floo if there's any change, but you're going."
"You can't stay with him, you won't know immediately if there's any-"
"I talked with Healer Smethwyck, I've been put off of rotation for today so that I can sit with him. After all," she lowered her voice to a stage whisper, "he might be dangerous."
The two women rolled their eyes at that. Hermione leaned over the bed, kissing Remus's forehead. "I'll be back."
She squeezed Nora's hand. "Thanks."
"None needed. My two baby brothers were under his command on a few of their Order missions. Anyone who thinks he's less than human can chuff off."
Hermione savored the curl of warmth in her chest at the sentiment. She nodded her goodbye and set out, climbing the levels until she could Apparate. With a bit of concentration and a loud CRACK, Hermione found her way into the Weasley-Tonks household. "Gin, Nymph!"
"In here, luv."
Hermione followed Ginny's voice to the kitchen, where Nymph was engaged in her morning task of attempting to scramble eggs without under or overcooking them. It was something Ginny could do with her eyes shut, but Nymph insisted on having the skill, regardless of the fact that she couldn't come up with a single instance in which she might absolutely need it and be sans Ginny.
"Mind if I steal a spot?" Hermione's hand was already on the heated kettle as she asked, and Ginny merely handed her a cup, never once looking away from her girlfriend bent over the hob, peering with scrutiny at a mess of bright yellow.
"What has you positively chipper this morn, Min?" Nymph stole the pan off the hob as though one more second would be the difference between egg perfection and total and utter ruin.
Glancing at the eggs, Hermione was pretty sure it was already past that point. Hermione opened her mouth and then shut it. "I had this plan to just, come here and tell you. But now it seems… Yesterday when I went into the ward, Smethwyck called me into his office and told me we had a new patient. This one had been infected some time ago and was found, wounded and privation weakened by a man who lives out in the wilds of Eastern Europe."
Nymph had shoved the eggs onto a plate and made her way to the kitchen table where Hermione had settled to nurse her tea. "Please tell me you're saying what I think you're saying. Because if you're not, you're being cruel."
"It's him, Nymph. It's Remus."
Ginny lowered herself into the extra chair at the table. "Holy… How? Why? Where has he been? Have you told him-"
"He hasn't woken up yet, Gin. He's a mess, much worse than I've ever seen him, even when he would come back from Order business. I only left because Nora promised to stay with him and contact me immediately if there was a change."
"Mungo's has this floo as a secondary contact for you, correct?" Nymph held out a forkful of eggs to Hermione.
Hermione politely took it into her mouth and even more politely didn't make a face. "Not quite there, Nymph. And yes."
Nymph poked at the eggs angrily. "Stay here, then, in the guest. You've the look of the positively knackered, and Gin's roasting a chicken for dinner. Yes?"
"I'll even stick in a few of those baby potatoes you like," Ginny cajoled.
Hermione drew in a deep breath and exhaled, trying to get rid of the momentary pang that Ginny's channeling her mum had caused. "Sugar biscuits for after?"
"Oh, please, please." Nymph bounced in her seat.
Ginny grinned, "Only if you decorate."
Hermione buried her head in her arms, remembering the last Nymph biscuit decorating adventure. Nobody had escaped being decorated. Nymph cackled, and Ginny chimed, "Sure, sounds lovely."
Hermione Sent her teacup to the sink and herself to bed. She was on the verge of sleep, that moment between waking and unconscious bliss when Ginny came and snuggled up next to her. "It would be good, him being alive."
What Hermione heard was things about second chances and hope and life going on, but she didn't answer, because what Ginny had said was as true as anything she could come up with as a response. Instead, she burrowed into Ginny's hold and fell asleep there, relieved that for once, it didn't remind her of being in anyone else's arms.
Nora's floo, naturally, came just as Nymph had finished face-painting Hermione's right cheek with pastel-blue icing. Hermione stepped into the fireplace and walked down the hall of Mungo's removing swaths of the icing with her finger and disposing of it by way of licking. She felt stupid until Redda laughed at her as she crossed the open area of the ward to where Remus was being kept. Then she just gave a guilty smile and a shrug and continued on her way.
Nora met her at the door, squeezed the non-sticky hand in her own, and exited. "I'm going to leave you two alone."
Which wasn't strictly true, seeing as how someone -- most likely Nora -- had set up a cot for Zev in the corner of the room and he was curled up, fast asleep atop it. Still, alone enough.
Hermione sat down in the chair kept warm by Nora. "Remus?" She asked the question quietly, not brave enough to ask it loudly and risk him not answering.
Remus peeled one eye open. Then, after a long while, the other. "Her- Her-my-"
Hermione grabbed the glass of water from the medicine table and cast a Cooling Charm on it. She supported his head, careful to touch as little of him as possible and guided the glass to his lips, allowing the water to seep into his mouth ever so slowly. He pushed a hand lightly at her wrist when he was done and she withdrew.
"Hermione," he managed, as she set the glass back on the table.
"Remus," she repeated.
"How…?" He let his eyes wander the room, indicating what he wanted.
"You were brought here by a wizard who lived in those woods you were borrowing for the moon."
Remus let his eyes drop shut. "Tried to…stay away-"
"From everything, evidently." Hermione tried to keep the words even, untouched by emotion. She knew that the loss of Dumbledore, Sirius and Harry had eaten away at Remus in ways with which she was intimately familiar. Remus, who was so very used to being spit upon, abused and abandoned by the denizens of the wizarding world, only to find family of sorts and then lose it. But she had still been there. Her and Ginny and Nymph and Charlie and Minerva. And his deception had given them one more loss to mourn unfairly.
Remus shifted, turning his back to her. "They were the reason I did all this, Hermione."
Hermione counted backward from ten. She enacted a Calming Charm. She listed all the reasons she shouldn't get mad. She retorted, "You're not the only fucking person who lost everyone, Remus Lupin."
His fury would have been better than his resigned, "I'm sorry for that, Hermione. But I'm tired of being tied to other people's pain."
Hermione exhaled through her nose, shaking her head sharply. "You know something, my friend?"
Remus didn't respond, but his breathing hadn't evened out either, and Hermione knew he was listening. "Too. Bloody. Bad."
Hermione got up and left the room, determined to give him some time to think that over.
"Not fond of giving up, are you?"
Hermione nearly tripped over her own toes at the sound of a voice she'd never heard before. Slowly, as if sudden movements might cause him to flee, she turned toward Kieran. "I've only done it once," she explained, "and the results were less than satisfying."
Kieran was the oldest of the quiet cult. He had turned himself into St. Mungo's after his wife had died in the war, his file stated his reason for coming as an "uncertainty as to whether he could safely live out the full moon without harming those in the immediate vicinity." Kieran never spoke to anyone, so far as Hermione could tell, although he seemed to harbor a silent, protective fondness for Redda and the two other loners, Emmett and Ruel.
Kieran had a registry tattoo on his wrist, where all registry tattoos necessarily went and he reacted perfectly well to the Wolfsbane, so Hermione was somewhat mystified by his choice to stay at Mungo's, but he didn't talk, so she respected that and didn't ask.
He laughed at the look Hermione could feel glued to her face. "I can talk. I just very rarely find myself with things to say."
"But you have something now."
"I read an interesting article in The Prophet this morning," Kieran told her.
"You should know better than to believe any of that rubbish," she scolded lightly, as though afraid he would wander off and never finish the conversation.
"Truth can be gleaned from even the worst of lies, my dear."
He had a gentle smile and a mischievous quirk in his eyes that sent a pang of longing for Dumbledore straight through her, robbing her of breath for a second. "What truth do you suppose you've uncovered?"
"The man in there is Remus Lupin, is it not?"
Hermione was going to kill the leak. It had to be hospital staff. Rita Skeeter had been accidentally squashed by a startled Muggle some years back and Hermione had done meticulous research into every member of the Prophet's staff while setting up The Department. No other unregistered animagi, Dark Magic experts, or reporters with ghosts in their pockets. If a reporter found something out, it was through a live and knowledgeable source. "It is. I was hoping it would be kept quiet longer than that, but wishes and horses, really."
"Your friendship with him is why you're here in the first place, is it not?"
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "He's…the man who got me started in thinking about issues of humanity and equality. I suppose in that vein, yes."
"He must have had some influence, to spur you onto regularly pissing off people that could be rather dangerous in pursuit of Werewolf Equality Legislation that gets more unlikely year by year."
Hermione ignored the inference. "You didn't find that out from the paper."
"My wife worked for the Ministry, Hermione. Old friends of hers still keep in touch."
"You've kept silent about all of this until now. What's changed?"
Kieran pursed his lips. "You see us as four and three and one, but in truth, we are just eight. A pack. No matter how much you care for us, both as wolves and as humans, you will never understand the basic way in which a pack is formed. Verbal and physical communication are unnecessary."
"All right," Hermione nodded, "I can see that."
"His presence, if it remains, will change the pack. It will change your relation to the pack."
"I get that adding a member would alter the pack's chemistry, but I don’t understand where I fit into all this."
"You are his. If he is one of us, then you are ours."
Hermione brought a hand up to squeeze at a chord on her neck that had tightened so that she could barely move her head. "I'm not… Look, you have to know the story. Remus was my teacher, later my friend. Never my lover."
"War warps relationships. Surviving war even more so."
"We both-" Hermione started but found she couldn't tell Kieran what they had in common. "We learned similar lessons, is all."
"That is a binding of its own."
Suddenly she knew how Remus had felt, lying in that bed, looking up at her. Cold that started behind her eyes tunneled its way into her knees and she wanted to run screaming from the threat of family, of pack, of something more to loose. Instead, she put a hand to her throat, trying to warm it enough that she could speak. "He'll be staying. At least for a bit."
Kieran began to turn, "Then I suspect we'll be talking again at some point."
"They tell me you're not eating." Hermione leaned against the doorframe to Remus's room and waited for an invitation to enter.
Remus didn't look at her. "'They' the other inmates or 'They' the wardens?"
"Zev and Nora, so half and half really." She gave up on niceties and crossed the threshold, walking to the side of the bed where she could see Remus's face. She sat down and held out the plasticware container Ginny had sent with her. Popping a corner of the lid so that some of the smell would escape, she told him, "Compliments of Ginny. Think you could manage a bite?"
Hermione had gotten to believing he was going to refuse when he sat up slowly, trying to position himself comfortably. He finished shifting and held out his hands, "Well."
Hermione gave the container over. "There's a fork inside."
He opened the container all the way, peering inside with a look of suspicion, as though the contents might disappear at any moment. "It looks just like Molly's."
"Her recipe," Hermione confirmed of the rum-spice cake topped with a sugar glaze into which Remus was beginning to carve. It was far from the healthiest thing she could have brought, but watching his fingers curve around the fork reminded her of the exaggerated animated skeletons of children's Halloween fare, and she didn't care about proper nutrients so much as sustenance.
"Zev sneaks in here at night," Remus fit the words in between chews, "to sleep."
"Let him, all right?" She added for good measure, "Please."
"He was left here?"
Hermione fought a smile at the way Remus was licking his lips, trying to swipe up every last bit of the sugar glaze. "Yes. Some months ago."
"Who's paying for his stay?"
Hermione glanced away. "This is a bit hush hush, just so you know, but Charlie and I 'reappropriated' some of the DoMC's funds to take care of it. It's working for the moment, but I haven't a clue what to do if more show up. It's one of the measures I'm working on. I'm drafting an Act. It's not half so radical as I would prefer, but spoonful of sugar, as my mum used to say. There would still be registry, but full-paying jobs, equal housing rights, the right to carry wands, and protection and schooling for abandoned werecubs. Something, at any rate."
Chasing the remaining crumbs with the fork, Remus inquired, "And how many enemies have you made for yourself with this little crusade?"
"I prefer not to count," Hermione admitted. "I'm a hard one to attack publicly, given majority sentiment at the moment, so I keep note of whose toes I've stepped on and make sure that I wear sturdy enough shoes to protect my own."
"What do they think of all this?" Remus inclined his head toward the door leading into the larger ward.
"They're not a collective, they think different things. Zev has a case of hero worship, and Kieran and Redda, so far as I can tell, both think rather fondly of me as a quixotic little fool. Ruel abhors me, tried to bite me on the first three moons that I stayed with them in my human form. Gerard kept him off and now he mostly just ignores me. Gerard, Steven and Verona think I'm crazy, but otherwise don't seem to mind me. Emmett's afraid of taking a stance against Ruel or Redda and so he treats me with thinly veiled disdain."
"I think you've inherited a bit of Harry's saviour complex," Remus put in.
Hermione remembered warning Harry off of just such behavior, the crushing knowledge that she had been right and that those who were still alive would have to live with that, but all she said was, "I haven't learned to give up the things that he left me just yet."
It left her open, they both knew it, but Remus didn't pursue it. Corner by corner he resealed the container, now empty except for the fork. "Tell Ginny thank you."
She took the container from his hands. "I will." She moved to the door, practically out in the hall when she asked, "You'll eat?"
Hermione hadn't been innately optimistic since she'd watched her lovers and a good majority of her friends die. But against all odds, Remus was sitting up in the bed behind her, alive and relatively whole. She decided to think that maybe was half way to yes.
What was left of the door to the ward was scattered across the hall, twisted, still-smoldering wood left to burn out on its own. Hermione resolutely stepped in between the pieces, careful not to catch her robe on one, and entered the ward. "Zev?"
Steven, Gerard and Verona were in the common space at the front of the ward. When the Dai Llewellyn had been remodeled to possibly house werewolves on a permanent basis in the aftermath of Fudge's pushing through the Werewolf Safety Act in Hermione's seventh year, it had been set up something like a Hogwarts House, with a common room and then several "dorms" which were really just converted hospital rooms, with all the comfort that implied.
Taking a chance that they would actually respond, Hermione attempted, "Got tired of being cooped up, did he?"
While it wasn't unlikely that one or two of the adult ward inhabitants could affect wandless magic, she doubted they would have tried it on anything so useless. Most of them stayed of their own choice, unwilling to be branded and excommunicated from the world they knew. Those werewolves who chose to stay outside Mungo's walls and declined to take the brand spent their lives either running or in the Muggle world. But a child, even if he knew he had nowhere to go, could easily blow up a door without meaning to if he was scared enough or angry enough or sad enough.
Gerard gave her what she wanted, "He's been sicking up in the loo ever since he did it. Your friend is with him."
That was evidently all Gerard felt up to saying, though, as he turned back to his conversation with the others and didn't give her anymore. Hermione headed off to the male bathroom. She knocked lightly, "Zev? May I come in?"
Hermione winced at the raw quality of the boy's voice. "It's me."
"You can come in."
Hermione stepped inside. The stench was sickening, she touched her fingers to the wand inside her pocket and chanted a quick air-cleansing charm. Remus threw a look of relief her way, but didn't move from where he was, kneeling behind Zev, one shaky hand stroking the boy's hair. Zev, for his part, was leaning up against the toilet, his cheek laying against the porcelain seat, too exhausted to do much more than breathe. Hermione settled herself on the floor across from Remus, their feet touching in the cramped space. Gently, she repositioned Zev so that he was in her lap, his head tucked under her chin. "What happened, sweetie?"
"I just wanted to go outside," Zev explained. "I didn’t mean to blow the door up."
"Everybody knows that, we all do things like that," Hermione reassured him.
"Tippy yelled at me. She called me a stupid animal."
Tippy was the Sister who had flooed Hermione with the news in the first place. Hermione carefully resisted the urge to set Zev aside and cast a schmorgasbord of hexes on the woman. "She shouldn’t have said that. It was just a mistake. It happens. You're not stupid and you're definitely not an animal."
Zev growled something into Hermione's chest.
"What was that?"
Zev looked up at her. His picture perfect pout would have been adorable had it not been so heartbreaking. "You're the only one who believes that."
Hermione kissed his forehead. "I know it seems that way, but I'm not. I know lots of people who believe the way I do."
"My parents thought I was. Mum called me a…an in-feck-shus creature."
"Your mum was wrong," Remus said suddenly, startling Hermione. "She must have been, because I've known Hermione for almost ten years and in all that time I've never once known her to be wrong. So your mum must be the mistaken one."
Hermione mouthed, "Liar," because she could think of at least six or seven times that she'd been obviously horrifically wrong and Remus had found a way to correct her without humiliating her. She didn't think now was the time to bring those moments up, though, not when Zev was sniffling, "Really?"
Remus nodded solemnly, "Swear it."
Zev sighed, looking a long way from completely convinced. "I just wanna go outside."
"I'll see what I can do," Hermione promised. "Do you think you could take a shower now, get yourself cleaned up?"
It took two tries, but Zev pushed himself to his feet. "Are you still gonna be here when I'm done?"
"Yeah, I'm not going anywhere. Except maybe out of this loo, if that's okay?"
Zev made a face at her and scarpered off to get his shampoo and towel.
Remus stayed where he was. "Um. You mind helping me up? The trip from the room here kind of took it out of me."
Hermione rose and dusted off her robes. She leaned down a bit and escorted Remus up to a standing position, her hands tucked safely under his arms. She stayed close, holding on, until she was sure he was upright and planning on staying that way. "It was good of you to stay with him."
Remus breathed deeply. "Redda was too busy tearing Tippy a new one, and she's the only one who pays him any attention in here."
"That saves me one errand, at any rate."
Remus let the shadow of a smile touch his lips. "Surprised me, didn't know she had it in her. It's really too bad you couldn't have been here for it."
Slowly, in case he wanted to try on his own, Hermione wound Remus's arm over her shoulder. "Back to bed?"
"Back to bed."
They made their way slowly, both ignoring the looks that the threesome were giving them. Once in the room, Hermione settled Remus down into the bed. She took out her wand and performed several Cleaning Charms. "Better?"
"A million times. Thank you."
She soothed back an errant hair the way he had done with Zev. "Get some sleep, yeah?"
He closed his eyes. "Yeah."
She was slow to withdraw her hand. "Yeah."