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The first time she'd seen him had been on the second week she'd used her time turner and the third time she'd used it that particular afternoon. It was a Thursday, she remembered that clearly. There had been nothing especially strange about that day, really. It was just a seemingly normal day in mid-September in Scotland, which meant it was cold and a little damp. The sky had turned a light iron grey with the sun occasionally peeking through the clouds.

She was between classes, looking for a secluded spot to use her time turner so that she might attend her Arithmancy class. This particular corridor had been suggested by Professor McGonagall as an ideal place for using the device for one of her time hops as it was disused by staff and few students knew about it. It was also dusty and exposed on one side, affording a spectacular view of the Scottish highlands. Everything in the wizarding world seemed to have an unerring sense of capriciousness that was at times awe inspiring but also dreadfully impractical to Hermione's thinking at times. And an exposed corridor with lovely decorative arches on the side of the building for no real reason reeked of impractical whimsy. It also seemed like a silly spot to time travel in, but she assumed Professor McGonagall knew what she was talking about.

A gust of wind buffeted her and she pulled her robes closer to her, hiding her face into her scarf until it passed. In the two weeks she'd used this passage, she had never seen a single other soul. So she was a bit surprised to actually see someone walking down the corridor that day. But it was a rather big school, with loads of students and McGonagall had said that only a few knew this place, not that no one knew it, so she covered her surprise. After all, there was the evidence bobbing down the hall towards her.

The first thing she'd noticed was the shock of white blond hair, which had panicked her briefly as she thought it was Malfoy. Really, the last person she wanted to deal with in a dusty, disused hallway. But as the figure got closer, she could see it was not him. First of all, he was far too tall. It had to be a sixth or a seventh year, at the very least, by her estimates.

Coming closer, the differences were very sharp and obvious. That shock of blond hair was far too shaggy, almost artfully messy. And it was all flipped up like a bird wing in the back, not smooth and slicked back as Malfoy seemed to prefer it. The most startling thing, though, was that he was out of uniform on a school day. He was wearing ill-fitting black jeans that hug low on his hips, a baggy bright red hoodie that was not zipped up, and a t-shirt with what looked like a faded broken record printed on the front. Dark mirrored aviators covered his eyes and he walked towards her at what could be generously described as a lackadaisical gait. Hands stuffed into the pockets of his hoodie, he had the air of a person who had all the time in the world and nothing at all to do.

As they came closer, he gazed at her, a very small, almost imperceptible smile on his face. The blond boy nodded at her as he passed, giving her what, at the time, she thought was a very rude gesture, but upon reflection later that night she realized it was a rather lazy peace sign because... He had said only one thing to her, in a very clear American accent.

"Sup."

It took her several seconds to really even think about what happened because she'd been so gob-smacked by the accent and the gesture. Turning around to question him incredulously, she made to shout at his back but he was gone. She did a double take. He hadn't been walking that fast, she had been sure. It had seemed almost as if he hadn't been there at all.

Later in the day while reflecting on it in the common room it almost seemed like she'd dreamed it. 'Ridiculous', she told herself, shaking her head. Neglecting to mention it to Harry or Ron partly out of fear they'd make fun of her and partly because nothing really had happened anyway, it was silly of her to worry about it and even sillier of her to make her friends worry. Plus, how would she even explain what she was doing down that corridor without also mentioning the time turner, which no one was even supposed to know she had. So, turning back to her Ancient Runes homework, she pushed the strange encounter into the back of her mind, despite the lingering questions... what was an American doing in Hogwarts walking down a little used corridor as if he belonged there?

The very next day, she'd gone to Professor McGonagall to ask if Hogwarts had ever had exchange students, like they did in some muggle schools. The Deputy Headmistress had primly told her that Hogwarts had never hosted such a program. When McGonagall had asked her why she'd made such an inquiry, Hermione had lied and told her that she was only curious. She didn't know why she'd lied, considering everything going on it seemed foolish. It was just stress, that's what she'd told herself. She'd just imagined it, because she really hadn't been sleeping well, what with all the work. Even though it was only two weeks in, Hermione had read about sleep deprivation and what it could do. She'd just have to sleep in a bit over the weekend, it'd fix itself.

She didn't see the boy again, and had completely forgotten September's incident. Chalking it up to exactly what she thought it had been: a bit of stress and a desperate need to sleep more. And she believed this until just after Christmas.

Chapter Text

The second time she saw the strange American boy was on the evening of December 28th. Christmas had been three days before, and her friends had stopped talking to her because she'd let Professor McGonagall know about the Firebolt Harry had received for Christmas. Both Ron and Harry were furious with her and refused to even look at her, much less speak with her. Naturally, she was very upset as she'd only done what she thought was right. No one even knew where the thing had come from and she'd only been thinking of Harry's safety because she cared about him. Neither boy seemed to see it that way. It wasn't like she couldn't see their perspective though - even though they hadn't even bothered to consider hers, as per usual. There was a small part of her that expected it; she really was the odd one out. Harry and Ron had been friends first, after all. They'd only even accepted her as a friend under duress because of a troll.

Irritated and out of sorts, she went to the one place that would never disappoint her: the library. Madame Pince was much more forgiving when it was just her, though not by much. She tended to be a bit shirty when Harry and Ron were around because they were disruptive at times. It wasn't their fault, really. Ron especially had trouble keeping his voice down and Harry always tended to follow Ron's lead with these things. One would get going and then the other one would reciprocate and... Hermione sighed sadly at the thought, wiping at her eyes because, damn it all, she wasn't going to cry over this anymore. She'd had a good long one in a bathroom on the way here, enough was enough.

The library was absolutely deserted, for which Hermione was grateful for. It was just her and Madame Pince, who was irritably stamping books in at the circulation desk. She gave Hermione a beady, distrustful glare before going back to stamping, rather harder than she needed to. Most students gave the library wide berth during the holidays, except for Hermione, who would have been here anyway. It just so happened that being here and avoiding her friends made a rather nice Venn diagram under the circumstances.

Taking her mind off her woes was a bit hard. Being upset had the annoying effect on her concentration in that it tended to wander and made reading her Arithmancy notes that much harder. Also it didn't help that she was reading through her tears, because she hadn't stopped crying. She dearly wished there was some sort of spell to stop it. After an hour and a half where she pretended like she was going to get something done, instead of just crying, she surrendered to it. Burying her head she sobbed into her arms, her entire body shaking silently.

She was so absorbed in her own grief, she didn't notice when someone sat down across from her. Nor did she notice that he'd pushed his chair back noisily or that he'd loudly plonked his feet on the table, ankles crossed neatly. She didn't even twitch when he started to beat box, though to be fair to her, he was trying to keep it library quiet beat boxing. It was only when he started actually rapping that she realized she was not alone.

"Noooow don't you tell me to smile," he began, hands behind his head all casual as if rapping in a library was The Thing To Do. "You stick around I'll make it worth your while. My number's beyond what you can dial. Maybe, it's because we're so versatile."

Hermione raised her head, positively alarmed by the blond boy sitting as if he wasn't wildly out of place in this library. She looked a mess - tear streaked and snotty with her bushy hair sticking out five different ways from Sunday.

This did not detour the casual rapper, who continued, "Style, profiled, I said. It always brings me back to when I hear 'oooh child.' From the Hudson River out to the Nile I run the marathon to the very last mile..."

She blinked, once, twice, three times. Shaking her head, she wiped her eyes because it had to be a hallucination. It was getting late, she was stressed and upset. It had to be a hallucination. The hallucination, however, hadn't stopped rapping, as the Beastie Boys were one of his favorites and damned if he wasn't gonna at least finish the entire first verse. Seeing as she was just sitting there with her mouth open, gathering flies, he felt continuing really was the best course of action. By the time he got to, "... Go ahead put my rhymes on trial. Cast you off into exile", she had recovered, which was pretty great timing, he thought.

"You!" she breathed shrilly, slapping her hands on the table.

"Sure am," he said, with a sarcastic little salute. "And you're you. Now that we got that out the way, Dave Strider, your friendly, neighborhood Knght of Time." And then he held out his fist. "C'mon man, fist bunp. Don't leave me hanging."

She was somewhere between towering fury and absolute confusion, watching as he guided her own hand fist bump his. "WHO- WHO ARE YOU AND HOW DID YOU GET HERE?" she bellowed as she slapped his hands away, in her temporary insanity forgetting about Madame Pince and her firm insistence on absolute quiet in the library.

He held up his pointer finger, twirling it in the air theatrically, "Question numero uno. Dave Strider, def just mentioned that," holding up his index with a similar flourish, "Quuuuuestion deux, Time Travel... Also mentioned that before but more obliquely, re: being the Knight of Time- which, to break that down, means being a mother fucking time traveler. AKA, being an interdimensional badass. Nice to meet you too, B-Tee-Dubs."

An ominous rustling came from somewhere in the vicinity of the circulation desk. Remembering herself, she hissed, "I know you're not a student -how did you get in here? There's no way you apparated and most of the secret entrances are either guarded or closed."

"We covered this. I warped the fabric of space time and abraca-fucking-happened right the fuck where I felt like being. That's how," he drawled, dark eyebrows popping up over his glasses.

"How did you get past the Dementors?"

He actually laughed. "What, those fucking shitty floating zombies? Like I'm gonna be stopped by bunch gently drifting garbage bags that fucking wishes they was relevant enough to present me with even a modest challenge. Please."

Hermione bit her lower lip, thoroughly unsettled that she could not tell if he was being truthful or just full of stereotypical American Bravado. "Are you saying you're not affected by them?"

"Am I supposed to be? That's a real question. Cuz I'm not. Just kinda feel like the whole thing is super passé. Like the scary shit in your world ain't even trying that hard."

She was desperately trying to convince herself that it was just bravado. Because even if the things weren't allowed that close there was a terrible pall of melancholy hanging over the entire school even before the Firebolt incident, she'd noticed it since November. But this American seemed positively ebullient.

"You're American," she blurted out, feeling very foolish for saying the only thing she could come up with in the moment.

"As apple pie. Next question," he quipped, snapping his fingers and making little finger guns at her.

"Why are you here?"

"Finally!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands together softly. "So, like, you want the literal answer or a more existential dialog? I can do both. Don't know if you can though. You get like... what? Five hours out that thing?" He pointed a finger at her necklace. "I got lots more time. To liberally paraphrase somethin' a legitimately terrible person said once, I have all the time. All of it."

She clutched the time turner, which had fallen out from under her jumper when she'd had her little episode. "How do you know about that? No one's supposed to know!"

He stopped and stared at her for ten whole seconds, his hands pressed together as if in prayer. Pursing his lips, he drew his hands up to cover his mouth. With a sigh, he pointed his clasped hands at her and said, "My dude, we literally covered this already. I. Am. A. Time. Traveler. What about that is a mystery?"

Opening her mouth and closing it several times as she tried to form an argument, she finally conceded. "Noted. But haven't told me why you're here?"

"And you didn't tell me if you wanted a straight answer or more of an existential 'Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot why are we all here' type thing?" She gave him a withering look. "I ain't got nothing but time and nowhere else to be. Saw you on this timeline, all by your lonesome with the crying and shit. You looked all hella sad and this is, as you know, a sads free zone, so I thought I'd do ya a solid and chase them sads away by hopping on in to say howdy to my fellow time buddy."

"I'm not your time buddy," Hermione asserted acidly, her eyes narrowing.

"Yeah, I know! That's cus you haven't even made a proper introduction like a fucking civilized human being. Like, I'll show you how that shit works." He pointed to himself. "Dave Strider." Then he gestured to her. Leaning forward with his arms crossed, he stared at her until she answered.

"Hermione Granger." He held out a hand expectantly. Rolling her eyes, she took it, muttering, "nice to meet you."

"Likewise. Soooo... Sup?"

"Sup?" she scoffed haughtily, "What does that even mean?"

"Sup as in what is up, as in let's ask 'how are you' but in a way that doesn't confirm a stick is so firmly stuck up your ass that you could pass for a fucking Muppet," he shot back, a liberal dose of humor in his voice. "So are we done with the hostilities here and can we maybe talk about shit that isn't boring as fuck?"

Hermione closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "So, what you're trying to tell me is... you're a time traveler who got bored and came here to talk? To me?"

"Preeeeetty much." He made a little popping noise with his lips and nodded, pulling one of her books over to him to look at it, sunglasses still on.

"Do you honestly expect me to believe that?"

"Sure do. Cus it's 100% Pure-D-truth. The truthiest truth that ever did truth," he insisted, slowly flipping through the book, pausing to look at a particularly complicated illustration. "Ain't you wizards got some sort of horse shitty truth serum? Probably got some dumb ass name that combines Latin and English badly and it makes some sort of shitty whimsical pun. Y'all be like, hey, get me that Et-tu-Brute-Juice, Rupert. Gotta make some dipshit spill his guts so he gives up them dope ass secrets."

"It's called Veritaserum," snapped Hermione defensively. "And I don't have any."

"HA! Called it. Anyway, why don't you go get some or whatever. I'll drink that milk shake right the fuck up and lay down some nasty truth that I've been saying since the very beginning. Because it's, you know, the truth." She stuck her lip out stubbornly and he rolled his eyes behind his aviators. "I ain't got no ulterior motives here, sis. Like, you tell me what kind of jackass would pull a stunt like this while being as absurdly upfront as I'm being right now."

"Well, you might not be aware, but there is a former Death Eater on the loose right now. Who happens to want to murder my best friend! So pardon me for being suspicious of some mad American wizard who broke into Hogwarts for a laugh, apparently."

"WHOA-MAHGAWD!" he exclaimed, holding up a hand as if to ward something away. "Dude... Firstly, gonna go on record as not giving a shit about any of the words you just said. Secondly, I ain't a fucking wizard, so jot that down."

"Not a wizard, that's impossible! There's no way you would be able to even find Hogwarts if you weren't."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's a job of work for people who aren't me," he snorted, still idly flipping pages. "Look behind you."

Biting her lower lip, she scowled and slowly turned her head. Standing at the bookcase just behind her was Dave Strider. The Strider at the bookcase gave a salute and said, "yo." Her head snapped back and found the Dave Strider she'd been talking to this entire time was still there. He was staring at her blankly, hand hovering over a page he hadn't yet turned. Turning again, the Strider at the bookcase was also still there but only for a moment. He smirked and gave her a little thumbs up. She could hear something that sounded like a ticking of a clock as he slowly disappeared, whirling gears overlaying his afterimage. And with a final chime from that invisible clock the other Dave was gone.

"How... how did you do," Hermione spluttered pointlessly. "You shouldn't be able to do that. Hogwarts has all sorts of enchantments and wards. You can't... How did-"

"Cus I'm the Knight of Time! Something I might have mentioned a ridiculous number of times within the last few minutes," he said in a rather sing song manner, chortling at his own little joke.

"What does that even mean?!" She threw up her hands, pulling at her hair in aggravation. "And don't you dare say time travel! What does that actually mean?! I'd like an explanation, if you please."

For the first time, he seemed uncomfortable. Hermione couldn't find it within herself to care. "Eh, it's a long story that neither of us got time for, and that's saying something." She glared at him murderously. "Aaaanyway, the title itself means that, like, I exploit time as a weapon. I got that by ascending to the God Tiers - which is a condition where you're granted godlike power related to your particular Aspect. Mine is Time. So there we go."

Hermione Granger had officially had it. "Okay, fine. Bloody brilliant! You're a god-"

"Hate to interject, but demigod would be a bit more accurate," he corrected, going back to perusing her book. "Right now though, I'm more like the Dave of Guy, who thinks this whole conversation is stupid and booooring. I came here to have hang outs with my good time buddy."

"And do demigods always wear sunglasses at nine o'clock at night?" Hermione didn't know why this bothered her, but it did. The entire exchange had been exasperating thus far, and the fact that he'd just begun perusing her Arithmancy book without even asking if he could while still wearing those stupid aviators was driving her spare.

"Yup. Standard uniform for all rad dudes."

"And you just came here to talk... to me... because I'm your time buddy," she stated, somewhat derisively, making little air quotes as she said 'time buddy'.

"HELLS yeah! 'Bout fucking time you got on this tiger boat!" He shouted, triumphantly slamming the book closed. Standing up, he cracked his knuckles and said in a more conversational tone," but we gots to get outta here ASAP, wasn't kidding about us not having that much time... that lady who looks like she's never found a lemon she didn't wanna suck is gonna kick us out in about 4.13 seconds."

At this point, Hermione didn't really care much if this was a stress induced illusion or an actual thing that was happening. She really did need to talk to somebody, even if it was some blond goofball claiming to be a time traveling demigod who wore sunglasses at night. "Fine, where shall we go?" she sighed, packing up her belongings until they were all safely in her bag.

He tilted his head, listening to the distant shuffling steps of one lemon sucking librarian. "The roof. Riiiight now."

"We can't-" but her objection wasn't noted because before she could blink he'd grabbed her wrist and then they were on a small parapet on one of the many towers in the castle. "How did we get-"

"Time traveled a few seconds into the future. I can't teleport... two of my best friends can, but they ain't here right now. So gotta make due."

Hermione shivered violently, trying and failing spectacularly to recover from the shock of such an abrupt mode of travel. "It's freezing up here. I can't believe I let you talk me into this. Don't even have my cloak," she muttered pitifully, slipping her hands and arms deep inside her jumper.

He mumbled something and a cape was forcibly hurtled from out of nowhere, hitting Dave in the face hard enough for him to stumble back. "Fucking Sylladex," he grumbled as he pulled it off his face and handed it to her without looking at her directly. His glasses had gone askew and he needed to fix them.

For the first time in hours, she laughed lightly. It really was quite funny. "What's a Sylladex?"

"Complete bullshit way of organizing your shit is what," he grunted, clearly a bit embarrassed by what happened but also glad he got a laugh out of her. "So, feelings jam. Let's do this."

Wrapping the cape around her, she inhaled deeply, not even sure where to start or if she wanted to talk about it at all. Instead she commented, "This cape is really warm."

"Damn straight it is," he declared, quickly cleaning the ledge so he could turn around and casually lean back on the parapet. "Warm as the fucking Texas sun."

She noticed then that he didn't have a coat or a cloak on either. He was still in that bright red hoodie and a thin t-shirt with the same design he'd worn before. Hermione scrutinized him before observing, "Aren't you cold?"

"Nah, I got lava in my veins, sis." Her eyebrows nearly disappeared into her hairline. He snorted with a faint hint of a smile. "Just kidding, I'm freezing my fucking nuts off here. Who knew that Scotland in the middle of winter would be a really shit place to be, not fucking me, that's for damn sure," he said with a one shouldered shrug. "Probably shoulda planned better before hoppin' on over here."

A time traveler who didn't bother to plan ahead; the absurdity of it all struck her all at one and she began to laugh, almost hysterically. Once she started, she simply couldn't stop. Her stomach hurt and tears were streaming down her cheeks as she laughed and laughed. The sound of his laughter mixing with hers was unexpected. It seemed he found the situation equally hilarious. He turned his face to adjust his glasses so he could wipe the tears from his eyes. It wasn't lost on her that he'd purposefully turned his head so that she couldn't see them. This thought sobered her a little. As if by design, their laughter tapered off.

"Why do you wear those glasses, really?"

"Can't get nothin' past you," he said, easily slipping his aviators off and perching them on top of his head. Long gone were the days when he was ashamed of his eye color. Being cagey about it at this point was worse than predictable and predictable was tedious. She gasped, hand clutching her throat. His eyes were a bright, penetrating blood red. "Nice reaction. I'm sure in this world there's some kind of ominous shit that goes along with having eyes this color. But I assure you, this is straight up genetic fuckery that runs in the family." He mumbled something again and a photo popped out of nowhere. Grabbing artfully between two fingers as it floated in mid-air, he handed it to her.

Taking it tentatively, Hermione gazed down at the Polaroid. It was a picture of four teenagers, Dave and three others to whom he was obviously related. They all had the same deep tan skin and white blond hair. There was Dave, glasses clipped to the front of his t-shirt with his arm around a small girl who could almost be his twin, except her eyes were a vibrant purple where his were red. Her hair was neatly bobbed, full lips tipped into an impish smile made all the more prominent by the dark lipstick she wore. To say she was gorgeous was a dreadful understatement.

Just behind her was another girl, who wasn't as put together as her sister but still very beautiful. She had wide eyes with bright pink pupils and her grin was more silly than alluring. Her coiffure was a riotous jumble of candy floss as if the exuberance she exhibited in the photo extended all the way to tips of her hair. The pink eyed girl's arms were wrapped around the other boy in the photo's neck as if her chokehold was the only thing keeping him there (in truth, it was). He had a look of blank annoyance on his face, as if he alone was the mature one in this family or perhaps the least ridiculous. Had Hermione been a connoisseur of Anime, she might have been able to better describe his hair in more specific terms. As it was, it seemed to defy gravity, sweeping back in sharp, neat spikes. A pair of triangular sunglasses were buried haphazardly in it as if someone had stuffed them in there in a hurry. His eyes were bright orange and vaguely reminded her of Hagrid's overlarge pumpkins he grew for Halloween.

Without prompting, Dave explained who they were. The purpled eyed girl was Rose, and she was, as it turned out, his twin sister. Roxy was what he described as his older sister/mom friend. It must have been some sort of American slang, as Hermione had never heard of the term. She got the concept but it was an odd turn of phrase none-the-less. The older boy with the triangular glasses was his brother, Dirk. Hermione thought about asking if they were all demigods as well, but somehow resisted the urge. Instead, she asked about where his parents were, curious if they had the same odd colored eyes. Dave got quiet then and said that it was "hells of complicated" and best not to get into it. She assumed that this was code for them being dead and was sorry she'd asked at all.

He began telling little stories about his family and some of his friends, which she could tell were somewhat edited. According to him, Rose was a lot like her; studious, sometimes serious, and too smart for her own good. Roxy was just as smart but more fun loving, and he claimed that she'd shit bricks if she knew he was here. He laughed as he explained, "She fucking loves wizards. Cus wizards ain't even a thing that's real in our world, I guess. Total fake fucking bullshit, and not cus it was hidden from prying normal people eyes or whatever."

"Your world?" Hermione asked cautiously. Whether or not this was a hallucination, the night had suddenly become far less dreary and more interesting. "You're not just a time traveler then?"

"Nah. Come from an alt-universe Earth where this whole world is a total fraudulent fantasy book for small children that my sisters are obsessed with. Well, Roxy more than Rose - I think Rose only ever liked 'em ironically but you never can tell with her."

Hermione was not entirely sure if he was being serious or if he was having a laugh at her expense, so she said nothing. He continued on talking about his brother, who was occasionally ridiculous, sometimes serious, and un-ironically loved and built his own robots. His anecdotes about all of them had to be greatly exaggerated, because the 'shenanigans' they got into were too extraordinary to believe. She informed him of that fact without even thinking.

"You live in a fucking wizard school and you just said that to me," he pointed out, holding out a hand emphatically. "Fucking incredible."

"Fair point, but you honestly expect me to believe you and your sister flew into a moon, blew up some enormous bomb inside it which created a Green Sun that you ascended out of, hence becoming a god."

"Demigod," he corrected. "And yeah, that's what happened, hand to myself and all that shit. And let's be clear... Y'all are turning horses into tea cups 24/7and you're over here giving me the business over the mundane facts of my own life." She looked scandalized and opened her mouth to object, but he cut her off quickly. "Your best friend fucking survived an un-blockable killing curse when he was a baby; I know that shit for a fact. If that fuckery is true, then me emerging from a Green Sun like a mother fucking phoenix ain't too much to believe."

"I really want to disagree but that's actually impeccable logic," grumbled Hermione, honestly feeling a bit sick saying the words. She'd known this American less than a day and she just knew that Dave Strider and impeccable logic didn't often go together.

"Score," he deadpanned. "Anyway, we've been talking about my shit for a while and as amazing a concept as this is, I'm tired of talking. So, how 'bout we discuss them mad sads you been having. Get that shit all sorted out."

She hadn't realized how good it had felt not to worry about her problems. The last few minutes had been aggravating but also weirdly enjoyable. The thought of delving into her troubles felt as if she were dunking herself into the Black Lake without a stitch on. But she really did need to talk to someone and Dave didn't really know anyone else involved. He was neutral and whatever perspective he'd have would be purely his own. She wasn't daft enough to think he'd offer a good solution but he was nice to talk to, despite his flippant, annoying American bravado.

Beginning slowly, she told him everything that had happened, not just with the Firebolt but also with the murderer stalking Harry and basically everything; every single little thing that had bothered her about her last two and half years at Hogwarts. The fear for her friends that she felt she couldn't express. Her insecurities about her place not only in the wizarding world, but within her little friend group and how easy it had seemed to her that they cut her out. She'd never had friends like this before and to lose them over something so stupid... it hurt more than words could even say.

"I k-know they just t-think I'm an annoying, bossy swot. B-but I wasn't trying to ruin anyone's f-fun. I was just worried, that's all," sobbed Hermione, a steady stream of tears down her face. Dave silently handed her a tissue which she took with a small, whispered thanks. "It's like they e-e-expect me to apologize for c-caring a-about... a-b-bout..."

"A pair of knuckleheads too up their own asses about sports."

"YES! It's not as if I don't u-understand why it's important to them, but they d-didn't even bother to look at it from a..."

"...A clearer, more nuanced perspective where you were more concerned for a friend's welfare than a ludicrous sportsball game that don't mean shit in the grand scheme of things?"

"YES!" Wiping away her tears with her palm, she gazed at him thoughtfully. "I could do with a bit less cursing, but you're a-actually quite good at this. How are you good at this?"

"I like to think it's because of the swearing." He grinned cheekily, eyebrows waggling. "But on the real, relationships are complicated as fuck. I've just had a bit longer to figure shit out than you. Y'all are young, navigating in a much larger world, realizing things ain't made of rainbows and sunbeams and all that other childish horse shit. It's confusing as hell, and it ain't gonna get that much easier, but... you start to work it out, y'know? Just give it time, they'll either come around or not."

"And if they don't come around?"Herimone said, with a miserable look on her face.

"Then fuck'em. Ain't worth your time if they can't see how awesome you are." If there was a way for her to look sadder, he had found the exact words to make it happen. "C'mere." She gazed up at him, looking very much like a wet cat. "For real, c'mere." With a shaky sigh, Hermione shuffled over to his side, squeaking when he threw an arm around her shoulder. Giving her a little squeeze, he reassured her. "I'm guessing these friends of yours will see the light. Like, trust me. They're gonna pull their heads out their asses and then you'll have the perfect passive aggressive ammo to bust out at any conceivable opportunity. And this kind of ammo is gonna last for years, dude. So don't worry."

"That's easy for you to say. What's a demigod got to worry about," she grumbled, picking at the sleeve of her sweater.

He gave her another squeeze, explaining to her slowly, "I'm gonna let you off the hook for that, cus you don't know my friends. They're straight up a bunch of douchebags, myself especially. We've had more than our share of disagreements, but we always come back to each other. Cus we're basically all we have - like family, 'cept you get to choose. Your friends ain't no different."

"You really think so?" she whispered in a very small voice.

"Yup, very sure in a completely sincere and not-ironic way, like I know that sounds like a goof or a joke, but really... it'll be cool. So stop worrying already." She gave him a little smile, her cheeks a little pink. After all, she'd never been held by a boy like this, especially one that was a little older than her and very good looking. Dave, completely unaware, gave her another squeeze and then ruffled her hair. She squawked indignantly, slapping at his hands again. "There's my good time buddy. So, I'm thinking... I ain't got nothing to do for the next while. This project we're working on is sort of stalled at the mo'. Figured since I got time, maybe we can make this a thing."

"What a thing?"

"I meet up with you whenever it's convenient for you, and you can talk about your problems or just chill, like the raddest of time buddies any universe ever did see."

It might be a sign of an inevitable mental breakdown, but she actually agreed. They had both decided that weekends would be best. But how they'd be able to contact each other for appropriate times and places to meet, she hadn't a clue.

"Don't worry 'bout it. I'll let you know," he insisted when she pressed him for details, as he'd outright refused to use owls - 'they wouldn't find me anyway' was his answer for why it was out of the question.

"But-"

"You're just gotta trust me on this one. When I see a good opportunity, I'll send you word."

"How-" but before she even asked the question, she realized he'd just answer time travel. "Fine. Send me word, then."

"Rad," he said, giving a thumbs up before his face turned more serious. "Welp, I think we've done all the damage we can today. Time to pack it in."

Grabbing her hand, she was pulled through time again. Thinking about it later, it had reminded her of the numerous times she'd ridden the Black Hole and other roller coasters at Alton Towers. There was a peculiar lurch in her stomach and a dizzying sensation as if she'd been pushed off a cliff. It never felt this way when she used the time turner... it didn't really feel like anything when she'd used it. It was very strange. She could only guess that perhaps time travel was different in his universe than her own somehow.

They appeared in the library only a few seconds after they'd left. Just in time for Madame Pince to come storming over to their table, breathing fire. She nearly chased them out of the library. Hermione half expected her to throw books at them as they ran pell-mell down the hallway. Dave was cackling wildly as he dragged her behind him. They stopped several hallways later, sweaty and breathing hard.

"Ohmigod... gonna check that box off my bucket list. That was the best. Shit, I wish I went here. I'd make it my personal mission to give that old bat an aneurysm," he gasped, resting himself against a wall.

"You're not alone... half the school wants to do exactly that." Privately, she thought it was a good thing he didn't go here. Merlin knew the kind of mayhem he'd get into if he joined up with troublemakers like Fred and George.

"That's the first time you said anything about this place that made any fucking sense."

Once they caught their breath, they meandered down the hall, Dave following Hermione as she knew where she was going. At the stairs that lead to Gryffindor tower, they stopped and he gave her a hug. Hermione's face went brick red as suddenly everything felt awkward. With a kind smile, he ruffled her hair again and giving her a little half-assed salute, he bid her goodbye and disappeared in a swirling maelstrom of clock gears. She gazed at the spot for a very long time, before letting out a tired little sigh and trudging joylessly towards the tower. Staring up at the canopy of her bed that night, she thought about sleep deprivation and stress and all the reasons why what she'd experienced tonight could not be real. Her sleep was restless and filled with chiming clocks.

Chapter Text

The next week was one of the worst on record, in Hermione's opinion. It was full of lonely, pointed silences and meals all alone, and many, many trips to the library. By the time term had started, Hermione was almost relieved. She had thought a lot about the night of the 28th and had firmly concluded it was a stress induced delusion. A nice little vacation from reality, but hardly any different from a dream, which was an awful shame. It had been the only bit of fun she'd had the entire holiday.

She woke up on January 3rd having slept less than five hours, preparing for the day as if she were getting ready for a firing squad. On her way out of the girl's dorm, books in hand, she was stopped short by Lavender Brown.

"You dropped something," she pointed out, picking up a small scrap of paper that had been lazily folded by someone who clearly didn't care.

Looking at the uneven 'square' of paper, she took it from Lavender's proffered fingers, thanking her absently as she unfolded it. Apparently interested in whatever was on the note, Lavender skipped around to watch her open it, much to Hermione's annoyance.

It was some kind of poster from a muggle video game with abysmal box art which someone had crudely drawn over in Sharpie. The knight on the box had been modified with a pair of shades and had a red blurb written above him that said, "FORSOOHT n' get ur shit TOGETHER you chumpstick!" While the wizard had been made to look like her, which involved a dark brown blob of squiggly hair and a witch hat, the blurb over her head proclaimed proudly, "HOPY SHIT IM A WIZORD!" Even more strangely, there was another figure that had been drawn over.

This was a game based on Dungeons and Dragons, and if she remembered correctly from her short time playing a similar game when she was much younger, the class of the third figure was a seer. Someone had drawn glasses over the seer's face, red glasses. Crude black hair had been scribbled over the hood with a pair of candy corn colored horns sticking out of it and the symbol for Libra was drawn on the seer's tunic. The bubble over this figure's head was clearly written by someone else as the handwriting didn't match what was on the rest of the page, not mention that it was written in teal ink, rather than red or black.

It said simply, 'H33 H33 H33. S33 YOU SOON. >; ]'

"Strange," she thought, regarding the picture quizzically. There was a postscript on the back written in blocky red text with a time, "sunday, jan. 9 8:55 am astronomy tower. don't be late. DS".

Hermione could feel her cheeks becoming warm and knew she was blushing, in front of the school's worst gossip no less. Looking over at her roommate imploringly, she was frankly alarmed to see a sly smile as Lavender's eyebrows slowly raised.

"Who's DS?" Lavender asked with a slow, conspiratorial smile.

"Um, just a friend." Hermione winced, because it didn't sound like a statement.

"Oh, a friend-friend or a friend." Lavender leaned hard on that last word, her eyebrows rising ever so slightly.

"A friend-friend," she replied, a bit too quickly.

"Mmm-hmm." Lavender nodded, her lips tipping up into a devilish grin and her eyes twinkling mischievously. "Sure he is."

Before she could explain, Lavender flounced out with a hop in her step. Hermione moaned quietly, banging her head on one of the bedposts on her four-poster. The only reason Hermione wasn't panicking was that her thumb had been over the time and meeting place. Being that neither Lavender nor Parvati were particularly sneaky, avoiding them on the day of the meeting would be relatively easy. The only real difficulty would be dodging them in the common room for the next week, for they were sure to pester her about who DS might be. She could only hope their short attention span would keep them from being too distracting.

Luckily for Hermione, Daphne Greengrass had evidently been dumped by her most recent boyfriend rather publicly that morning right in the middle of breakfast. From what she'd heard there had been a very loud shouting match and then an entire ramekin of baked beans had been dumped over Theodore Nott's head before Daphne had stormed off, threatening to hex him if he said so much as a word to her. Such an awful spectacle would fuel the rumor mill for weeks while Hermione's positively boring meeting with an unknown friend was pushed to the back burner as all old news is. Though Lavender and Parvati themselves had badgered her a bit over who 'DS' might be, no one else seemed to care all that much.

The thought of the meeting was really the only thing that got her through that dreadful week. And not just because it'd be nice to have a friendly ear she could talk to but because it meant that she hadn't been hallucinating. Lavender had seen the note he'd sent, touched it with her fingers. And she'd been able to read the message. If she could do all those things, it had to be real.

Creeping out of her dorm at 8:30 in the morning, Hermione was relieved to find her dorm mates were still asleep. She had been half expecting them to be wide awake and more than willing to follow her to her morning meeting. Lavender and Parvati were the only obstacles she had counted on that morning. She in no way expected Harry to have been awake at this hour on a weekend but he was. Seeing that dark of mop of hair relaxing in front of the fire had honestly been the last thing on her mind, he usually slept in on weekends. Willing herself not to cry, she clutched her book bag and briskly walked by, glancing at him only once a bit hopelessly. That he didn't even bother to call after her to see where she was going so early in the morning stung.

With a heavy heart, she sat down on the cold cobblestone of the Astronomy Tower. It was 8:45 and she was trying desperately not to cry. Closing her eyes, she took several deep breaths, her head pressed into her knees. Just when she felt tears prickling, someone ruffled her hair. There was only one person whom she'd ever let ruffle her hair.

"Hey there, how's my time buddy?" She looked up at him with puffy, red rimmed eyes. "Pretty bad, eh?" She nodded miserably. "S'bout to get better. Brought a friend," he said, jabbing behind him at the silhouette of a woman, hidden by shadow.

The darkness seemed to slide off of her until it revealed a person she had only ever seen in a faded photograph. She was taller than Hermione had imagined but her hair was just as riotous as it had been in the picture, it drifted lightly in the wind. Her bright pink eyes were more vibrant and electric than any photo could capture. Dark, full lips formed a large smile, so overflowing with joy one could almost think she'd seen a long lost relative, rather than a girl she'd never met before. She let out a high pitched squeal that sounded like a tea kettle going off before she took a couple of very deep breaths while fluttering her hands excitedly.

"I'm sorry... it's just, I'm a HUGE fan. It's a friggin' honor to me you, like for reals. Can I shake your hand?" the pink eyed girl asked, pausing contemplatively before glancing over at Dave." Would it be weird to ask for an autograph or...?"

"Dude, you are a fucking mess," Dave chuckled, shaking his head ruefully.

"Oh, fuck you, Strudel," she guffawed merrily. "S'not every day you meet your literary hero."

"Wait... what do you mean?"

The pink eyed girl grinned, giving her a little wink. "Don't pay no attention to my silly ass, I'm just full of beans this morning. Dave's told me a lot about you, that's all. Roxy Lalonde, pleasure ta meetcha," she said, offering her hand which Hermione shook slowly. "Okay. We need to get on the road, because we gots a ton of shit planned for today."

"We do?" squeaked Hermione, she had been under the impression that this meeting would be more low key, like last time.

"Hells yeah we do! Dave brought me in cus he said you need to have a good time. And errybody knows good times are my deal. Gave me the 411 on all your mad sads. I aim to fix that, cus doing a bunch of castle moping ain't gonna solve nuthin', IMHO. Thought we outta get out for a bit, do something fun."

"Like what?" the young witched asked, looking over at Dave who gave her a lazy thumbs up as if that was enough to convince her that whatever they had planned wasn't just ill advised shenanigans.

"The kind of fun that's a surprise," Roxy replied, wiggling her eyebrows. "So, we get to point two on our agenda. See, Dave ain't so good at the whole transportation deal. Time travel is supes dangerous, ya know. Going places that way is looking for trouble in a bad way. Now, I ain't no expert. That's Jade and John, but they ain't available, as always." She rolled her eyes dramatically and laughed. "I do know a thing or two about going to a place or three. But if you're gonna travel my way, ya gotta trust me."

Without further preamble, she pulled out a large bright red rifle with a ridiculously long barrel. Shouldering it, she walked to the very edge of the Astronomy Tower, long purple striped scarf flapping behind her heroically. With clearly practiced ease, she aimed and fired it. Hermione, expecting a loud rapport, covered her ears before realizing that she didn't need to. It only made a strange soft 'bwoing' sound because the rifle didn't fire bullets. It fired what looked like a whole window but what Roxy called a Fenestrated Plane.

"Basically, it's like a portal that allows you to travel from one place to 'nother by using the space between dimensions, aka The Furthest Ring. But it's real tricky to use, on account of having to travel through a nearly unnavigable void which is hella dangerous for peeps who ain't got my type of mad skeelz. Hence, why trust is important here, you do not wanna get lost in the Furthest Ring," she explained, holding her rifle loosely at her side. "So this is how it's gonna go. Dave's gonna go in first and then me n' you. Portal auto-closes behind us and I open up another portal that gets us to our destination-"

"Wait, wait!" Hermione objected nervously. "This doesn't sound any safer than time travel! If Dave goes first won't he-"

Dave cut her off. "I'm touched and all, but don't worry 'bout me. Got a map of the Ring all memorized. One of them long boring stories I ain't never gonna get around to telling you about."

"All right, then. How are we going to go about entering the portal?" Hermione snapped, jabbing at the Fenestrated Plane as it hung in the air a good ten feet away from the edge of the Astronomy Tower. "We'll fall to our deaths!"

Roxy and Dave looked at each other knowingly, small smiles appearing on their faces. "Show her," Roxy challenged, gesturing with a hand at the portal.

Nodding back mutely, he approached the edge of the tower, standing there as a fierce January wind rippled his clothes. His feet slowly left the pockmarked cobblestone until he was suspended easily in the air. He floated for only a moment before hurtling towards the portal at distressing speed, disappearing into its depths without a sound. Hermione's jaw dropped, mouth working soundless as she stared at the place Dave had been.

Roxy, mistaking her silence for awe and not mortal terror, smiled and said, "Neat trick, right? So, our turn next."

Shaking her head slowly, Hermione took a step back, uttering a single, soft, "No."

Approaching her like she was a scared cat, Roxy carefully put her hand on the young witch's shoulders. "Hey... lookit me," she instructed, repeating herself until Hermione met her eyes. "You're gonna be with me and I ain't lettin' nothing happen to you. You gotta trust I got your back."

"I can't f-fly," she stuttered, her eyes darting from Roxy to the portal. "I c-can't-"

"But I can," Roxy stated with not just a little bit of humor.

She grabbed the young witch gently by her hands and their feet slowly left the ground. Hermione let out a shrill gasp, convulsively squeezing Roxy's hands. They hovered there for a bit. It was a bit of kindness on Roxy's part to help Hermione feel a bit more comfortable. At the very least, the young witch had stopped shaking, though she refused to open her eyes. Somehow, Roxy coaxed her into allowing her to slip an arm behind her back. Breathing shallowly, Hermione's hand clutched the back of Roxy's dark blue pea coat in a death grip and buried her face into her friend's shoulder. Accelerating without warning, Hermione screamed and her eyes shot open as the world became a blur. They entered the portal at full speed, just as Dave had moments before.

The difference between being outside of the portal and being inside was stark. There was an oppressive void of feeling; it was neither warm nor cold. Though they were traveling at a quick pace, there was no wind against her face. All sound was dampened and flat as if everything was muffled by a large pillow. Worst of all was the complete and utter darkness that was so thick she couldn't tell if her eyes were opened or closed. Halfway through the journey and she had begun to almost prefer the terror of flying to whatever terrible place this was.

There was a muffled 'bwong" sound and suddenly she could see a faint square of light - a portal that was swimming through the darkness to meet them. And just like that, they were thrown from the void into the comparatively bright January light. She could see and hear and feel again, the terrible darkness of the void loosening its grip on her. It took a good five minutes for Hermione to recover, to remember that she existed in the world and not that dark place. Roxy was terribly patient enough to allow her to hold onto her arms for a bit. After taking a very deep breath, she finally looked around to discover that she knew where they were. This was the bit of forest in front of the Shrieking Shack, which glowered gloomily in the distance.

"Hogsmeade... we're in Hogsmeade," Hermione whispered anxiously.

"Yup," Dave confirmed casually. "Rox told me about this place. Figured it'd be more fun than skulking 'round that musty ass castle. Plus, added bonus, it'll be easier for us to blend here."

She gave him a look of absolute shocked fury, shouting, "are you daft?! I'm a student and it's not a sanctioned Hogsmeade weekend! I'll stick out like a sore thumb! We all will, if we're being honest!"

"Imma need you to calm them tits," Roxy chided, easily interrupting the witch's oncoming tirade. "See, I got this rad sleeper power."

"Which is?" Hermione demanded fiercely.

"I'm sorta like a human invisibility cloak. If I don't want peeps noticing me, they don't notice. Simple as that."

Narrowing her eyes, the young witch tartly retorted, "Is it then?"

"Wow, girlfriend here is tightly wound!" Roxy exclaimed, looking back at Dave, who sagely tipped his head to the side in agreement. "You gotta do two things. One, stop being such a tight ass. Two, Trust me. Got you through the void and here with no problems. I ain't lead you wrong yet."

Against her better judgment and all common sense, Hermione huffed and nodded. With a thousand megawatt smile, Roxy linked their arms and marched her down the path, away from the Shrieking Shack and towards Hogsmeade. Perhaps she just wanted to prove, if only to herself, that she wasn't the relentless rule monger her friends thought she was or maybe it was something else entirely. Maybe she was just tired and this strange detour in the road was what she needed right now.

As they entered the little village, her courage wavered and she squeezed Roxy's arm tightly. Roxy grinned, patting her hand comfortingly. "Relaaaaaaax. We got this."

The village wasn't nearly as busy as it was normally. After all, it was a Sunday and there weren't hordes of giggling teenagers bumbling about. But there were still a fair number of people on the street. Hermione stiffened nervously, her eyes wide as they darted around wildly. No one took note of the three teenagers in their midst. They smiled and nodded at them when they passed.

It took Hermione a moment, but she realized it was like they could and couldn't see them. She could see the way their eyes fell on them and then slid blankly past as if they weren't there at all. It was even stranger when they went into Honeydukes. The attendants were pleasant and friendly, helping them with their purchases as normal. But there was hollowness - a void, if you will - just behind their eyes. It was deeply unsettling.

It was noon and they were headed to the Three Broomsticks, Hermione could no longer contain her curiosity. "You're like Dave, then? A God... G-Godtier?" she asked in a soft, breathless little voice.

"That I am," Roxy affirmed, a sly smile creeping across her face.

"He said - He said that his specialty is Time. So, what I'm wondering is..." stuttered Hermione, pondering the entire time how to ask without being rude.

The older girl finished her question for her. "What MY specialty is?"

"Well, yes. Not to put too fine a point on it."

With a wide, toothy grin, Roxy poked the young witch in her arm several times. "Beep. Beep. Boop. No spoilers."

"What... what do you mean by that?"

"She means that it's for her to know and you to find out," Dave supplied coolly, playing with a strange little device she'd seen him with a number of times earlier in the day. He held it up and said, "say cheese."

Without further warning, a flash went off and it became clear that the device was probably a strange camera of sorts. Roxy let out a small, indignant scream. Her bright pink eyes narrowed and her lips thinned as she launched herself at Dave. There was a short slap-fight between them as she tried to wrest the device from his hands, without much success (it was somewhat clear she wasn't trying all that hard).

Cuffing the back of his head gently, she declared, "Is that any way to treat your mom?! Give me your damn phone!"

He handed it to her, pointedly rubbing his head. "Child abuse. I'm calling CPS, by the way."

Roxy stuck her tongue out at him like an adult. Looking through the gallery on his phone, she found the photograph and let out a very loud guffaw. She turned it so Hermione could see what she was looking at. There was, indeed, a picture of her and Roxy walking along the lane, eyes wide with the dumbest looks on their faces either one had ever worn. Hermione was all bushy haired surprise, like a cat that had its tail stepped on. Roxy's face was more pure confusion, with one lip lifted up crazily like she'd just smelt something weird. Hermione glared at Dave, pursing her lips angrily before she smoothed out her expression.

"Honestly," she scoffed, her head shaking back and forth with an almost affectionate amount of disgust. "How do I manage to surround myself with so many exasperating boys?"

Roxy giggled, it was a lovely sound. "Ppffft. You think Dave's exasperatin'? He's a fucking sweetheart compared to his brother."

"You sayin' I ain't the most exasperating Strider? You wound me, Lalonde," he complained, hand to his heart. "Gonna get sepsis from that wound that no antibiotic on earth can cure. RIP Dave Strider, raddest motherfucker in any universe."

"You mean there's one that's worse than him?" questioned Hermione, who valiantly tried to keep a straight face.

"Oh snap," Dave quipped before all three of them burst out laughing.

Hermione's heart felt lighter than air. These people were absolutely frustrating and needlessly mysterious, but they were also delightful to be around. She had laughed hard enough that she began to cry a little. Wiping her eyes, she thought these tears were so much better than the ones she'd shed the last few days. They felt cleansing, as if she was truly releasing just a bit of the stress that had been plaguing her as of late.

Arriving at their destination, they entered the welcome warmth of the Three Broomsticks. They were the only people under the age of thirty in the building. And no one made a note of it, not even Madame Rosmerta, who should have recognized Hermione, being one of Harry Potter's two best friends, or at the very least realized she was a student who was clearly out of bounds. With that unsettling blankness in her eyes she sat them at a nice table near the back, promising a waitress would be with them soon.

"Aspect," Roxy corrected as they sat down at a table.

"What?" Hermione was distracted by the unnerving effects of Roxy's power and hadn't been paying attention.

"Time is Dave's Aspect, not his specialty."

Getting her bearings, she realized that Roxy was continuing a previous conversation. Still puzzled, Hermione commented, "I don't quite see the difference."

But before she could ask another question a waitress interrupted them. She was cursing the intrusion, sure that she'd never receive an answer. From all the tantalizing hints, these people had incredible power so different from her own. She wanted to know how it worked; her mind reeling with thoughts of how she'd pull all that information apart and then put it back together again. If only they'd let her at it.

But incredibly, once their food and drinks were delivered minutes later, Roxy answered her unspoken question. "So, you wanna know the different between specializing in somethin' and an Aspect?" Hermione nodded, nibbling at her chips absently. "Anyone can specialize in something. My speciality is guns. Really good with 'em. Dave's actual specialty is swords."

"More like breaking 'em," Dave murmured before biting into his sandwich.

"Hush you! There's no self-deprecation on the S.S. Rolal," Roxy growled, scowling at him as she threw a fry at his head, which he caught with two fingers. "Anyways, Aspects are different cus they ain't something you just learn from practice or a book. Aspects are an innate part of who you are, as unchangeable as your DNA."

"So it's like my magic, then," Hermione mused thoughtfully.

"Hrm. Yeah, sorta," Roxy hedged, looking over to Dave for help. "Cept also not."

"No help for you here, Lalonde. Rose is way better explaining this shit than me."

Roxy hummed softly in agreement. "You're right. She's way better at this crap."

Things went a bit quiet then. Hermione was dreadfully disappointed, for a bright, shining moment she had almost had some answers. Well, she supposed she did sort of have a partial answer, so that was something. She turned her questions to the "phone" Dave had taken their picture with. Not only was it an electrical device, but it was one she hadn't ever seen before and it worked perfectly well in a highly magical environment. Dave and Roxy were all too happy to talk about it, explaining its function in a way that reminded her vividly of Fred and George. It was called an iPhone and that it and other devices like it would be ubiquitous in the not so distant future. She noticed that they had dodged any questions of why it worked within the bounds of a wizarding village, when it really shouldn't have.

Hermione was thoroughly nonplussed. "You shouldn't be telling me this, if that's really some kind of muggle technology from the future." She felt stupid even saying it, feeling vaguely as if she'd entered some bad science fiction movie. "That kind of knowledge is dangerous," she said, turning to Dave specifically. "As a fellow time traveler, I'd have thought you'd know better."

The Knight of Time had the unmitigated audacity to grin at her. "Yeah, but here's the thing," he said, pausing dramatically. "What you gonna do with that info?"

"Well, I mean... one could..." she sputtered, clearly not expecting his comeback.

"Nothing. And even if someone unscrupulous overheard it..." he trailed off, glancing at Roxy.

"Ain't nothing we talk about together gonna creep out without my say so. Cus obfuscation of information is my jam," she finished, taking a swig of pumpkin juice. She looked at the glass appraisingly. "This shit is way better than I ever imagined it."

The conversation turned to more mundane things. Roxy asked her about Arithmancy, because Dave had mentioned something about it to her. And suddenly his idle perusal of her book seemed a bit more welcome, because though Dave didn't understand much of it, Roxy did. Hermione had taken her for a bit of ditz, really. Oh, she was very kind and endlessly mysterious, but she had a gregarious, open disposition that Hermione had immediately judged as wanting. She felt bad that she'd made such harsh assumptions before even giving the older girl a chance. Roxy had a very nimble mind and though she had a rather colorful way of speaking, Hermione could see her genius.

It was a breath of fresh air to talk to someone about a subject you were passionate about and not have to suffer them asking you to speak English, as if you weren't doing so already. And the fact that she was able to make a connection between Arithmancy and various different muggle mathematical disciplines, like Differential Equations in relation to various phenomena in physics, was a very welcome surprise indeed. There were a number of different types of equations used in the muggle world to describe dynamically changing phenomena and they were very accurate when worked correctly and incredibly useful. The immediate application of such equations in Arithmancy was blatantly obvious to her. It had become a point of contention between her and her classmates, many of whom were born to wizarding families and therefore put little stock in anything to do with muggles. Roxy shared her frustration.

The conversation moved on from there, though all of it vaguely orbited mathematical and scientific theories that they were both passionate about. Roxy commenting at one point that she should get together with Dirk and Jade, as this conversation was right up their alley. And from there more personal anecdotes were shared on both sides, which allowed Dave to contribute to the dialogue as math was not remotely his thing. It was frankly the most intelligent, logical conversation Hermione had in a while. The three of them had been so absorbed in their conversation that they'd lost all track of time.

"Hate to break up this nerd-fest by being the wettest of all blankets, but, uh, we gots to get back," Dave interrupted, lazily playing with his phone.

Hermione checked her watch and was shocked to find it was nearly five o'clock. "Goodness, time does fly, doesn't it?" she remarked with some wonder. "I... I want to thank you both. I know I can sometimes be a bit of a pill, but you've both been so lovely and-"

Roxy shook her head, placing her hand over Hermione's. "It ain't no thing. You're our friend. We'll always have your back." And the way she said it conveyed a depth of meaning that was almost alarming. She wasn't speaking as if this friendship was new, as it truly was. She spoke of it as if they'd been friends for quite a bit longer.

"More casual spoilers?" Hermione asked, an eyebrow arching questioningly.

"Nah, just causal facts," Roxy replied, her eyes sparkling mischievously. "Let's get this princess home. Can't have just anyone ganking her gourds."

One disconcerting dark journey through the void later, she was back on the astronomy tower saying goodbye to her new friends. She had more questions than ever and even fewer answers. But it didn't matter. Dave gave her a fist bump. Roxy gave her an over-exuberant hug. And they both promised to see her later, Roxy, in particular, promised to stop in a bit more often than Dave, who apparently had things he had to do.

"His schedule is way fuller than mine," Roxy said with a little wink. With that, she opened another portal, waving goodbye back at her before disappearing into the Fenestrated Plane with Dave. The strange window hung in the air for a second or two before abruptly winking out of existence with a thunderous 'pop'. Hermione stood there for a moment longer, staring at the space the window had occupied, the joy slowly draining from her face. Turning slowly, she walked away with a very heavy heart, heading back to the common room and all the worries and woes she had left behind, if for only a day.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks were the best and the worst of her life up to that point. It was very easy to focus on the negative things that had happened. Those things being that the relations between the two boys she'd once called her best friends had worsened, if possible. Evidently, it was her fault that a cat acted like a cat.

She had tried to keep an eye on Crookshanks, she really had! But cats do as they please and she'd lost track of him. It wasn't as if she didn't feel awful about what happened to Scabbers. She was mortified, in fact. But Ron and Harry had acted as if she'd set Crookshanks on the rat on purpose. It didn't help that she was seriously overwhelmed by all her coursework, not to mention all the research she was doing for Hagrid for Buckbeak's hearing.

She was stressed out and so, so tired; spending nearly every moment she had trying not to have a complete emotional breakdown. Somedays she had to settle for just not crying in frustration over something silly, like accidentally dropping her toothbrush. Hermione wasn't sure what would get her first, the stress from her studies or all the unnecessary teenage angst.

There was one, small ray of sunshine in her otherwise gloomy forecast; weekends with Roxy and Dave, which was now a regular thing. Dave was usually only available on the weekends. But it was nice because from Friday night to Sunday, he'd pop in with Roxy who was a much more frequent visitor. She'd showed up almost every day of the week at various times according to her own whimsical nature, apropos of nothing. Hermione would arrive at one of her classes and there Roxy would be - waiting for her dressed in Gryffindor robes. At one point or the other, Roxy had showed up for almost every class. No one ever questioned her, not even the teachers. At this point, Hermione had somewhat gotten used to the glazed look on people's faces when they looked at her. The only class the older girl had outright refused to go to was Potions. She wouldn't say precisely why.

"Can't take the chance of him ferretin' me out and stickin' his nose in my biz," Roxy had said in a tone that was a trifle ominous. "Dude sees through fuckery like it owes him money. And I'm made of 100% pure American bullshit - the best god damned fuckery on this planet."

Hermione couldn't really blame her. Snape was a deeply unpleasant person, and a terrible teacher, in her opinion; though she had a feeling that Roxy's misgivings were less about Snape's abilities as a teacher or a person, but something more ephemeral. She wasn't sure, but Hermione had worked out that it had to do with Roxy's abilities - her Aspect. Something about Snape, a peculiar power only he had, either neutralized or negated entirely her "sleeper" power. Meaning, he might be able to see her and remember her, which would clearly blow her cover.

Even so, Hermione secretly wished she would come anyway. It was the worst of all her classes, with the exception of Divination, and it would have been nice to have a bit of moral support. Plus, Roxy was pretty good with potions and all the theories behind them. She'd been helping the young witch with her homework at night in the library. When Hermione mentioned this, Roxy had let out a fully belly laugh.

"Just simple chemistry," she pointed out with a light hearted shrug. "Wish my bffsie Janey was here. Think she'd be way more helpful, what with all the cooking she gets up to."

"Cooking is better than chemistry, then?" Hermione asked archly.

"Nah, they're really similar when you get right down to it. But I just feel like she'd come at it from a more creative perspective than I can. Probably figure out a shit ton of amazing shortcuts that'd blow your fucking mind."

Any other day, Hermione might have pursued the argument. But Roxy had brought her some biscuits Jane had baked, and they were the most delicious things she'd ever eaten. They were apparently a recipe of her own invention. And if that was what she could do with flour, sugar, and eggs, Hermione could only hope to imagine what she'd do with more magical ingredients.

"Let me see your parch," Roxy drawled, breaking Hermione out of her momentary reverie.

Let me see your parch, it was a little in joke that started only a few days ago when she'd been reviewing her Arithmancy notes for the parchment she was writing. For any student, there comes a point when working on a project where you know something is wrong, but no matter how hard you try, your brain can't pinpoint where your error might be. That point where you begin to hate everything you've written and where it almost seems more useful to throw everything you've done in the bin. It is a desperately terrible feeling.

With a frustrated growl, Hermione had discovered that she was at that point. She was about to crumple up her parchment and maybe set it on fire, until Roxy had said those magic words, "let me see your parch." After a great deal of bemused misunderstanding, she'd handed Roxy her parchment. Ten minutes later, Roxy had given it back to her and explained where she'd gone wrong and the rest was history.

The silly way her new friend shortened things that didn't need shortening was as endearing as it was annoying. It should have aggravated Hermione, and once upon a time it might have. As it was, she found it more amusing than anything else. Handing over her parchment, Hermione watched as Roxy carefully checked over her homework. It was nice having another pair of eyes to look over her work. It was nice just having someone who understood it.

It was nice having a female friend... she didn't really have many of them. Being the best friend of the Boy Who Lived had its ups and downs. One of those was, well, it was hard to trust other girls as they very often were using her as a way to get to Harry. And it didn't really help that Hermione was a bit of a fuss budget and in general found it hard to make friends, period. She didn't have much time or inclination for frivolity, which most of her peers seemed to enjoy. They thought she was a prude or a killjoy.

Roxy had a lot of the qualities that those other girls had. She was often very silly and fun loving above all else. She was reckless and loved drama. But deep down, Roxy could be very serious and driven. She hid it well, covering it with a hundred ridiculous ruses but it was there. There was a saying Hermione once heard, which sounded very cheesy and it had made her eyes roll just reading it... the idea that someone could be silk covering steel. She still thought it was a very cheap romance novel way of saying something, but it fit Roxy perfectly. Roxy Lalonde was a woman who looked and sometimes acted like a pretty bauble - eye catching nothingness - but deep down in her very core, she was made of steel. And she was Hermione's first real friend she'd made outside of Harry and Ron. The first really good female friend she'd ever had.

In her very secret of heart of hearts, she was more than just a friend to Hermione. Being an only child is a very lonely way to grow up. She'd look at her cousins, who all had siblings of their own or more recently Ron and his very large family. They had all said that she was lucky. Hermione never felt she was lucky at all. Just because she was the only child, didn't mean that she got any more attention than children with siblings did.

Oh, you got your own room. And all your toys were yours and you needn't worry about siblings breaking or misplacing them. And if you made good grades or did all your chores, the accolades were yours and yours alone. But there was no one else to play with. You could try to engage your parents but most of the time they could hardly be bothered - adult things took up their time and were far more important than you and whatever game you wanted to play.

Hermione distinctly remembered having tea parties with a dozen imaginary friends (which was far less fun than the movies lead her to believe) or playing board games with her stuffed animals, cheating and being angry at herself because what was the point... you can't really argue with yourself properly, could you. And if you were too noisy or if you broke something important, something grownups cared about, there'd be no one else to share the blame. There was no one to share anything with at all. And very, very quickly, childhood games lost their luster.

In the end, turning to books was the natural choice for an only child. Reading books was quiet. Reading books didn't disturb your parents when they were watching the nightly news or had their friends or colleagues over. Reading books meant you were ahead in your studies and that you could skip an entire grade. Reading books made your parents proud... made them pay attention to you and only you for just a moment. Yes, Hermione supposed there were some good things about being an only child - but if she were honest, it had been lonely. Very, very lonely.

So deep in her secret heart, Hermione had always wanted a sister or a brother. And if she were to be really honest, she had always wanted an older sibling - an older sister, in point of fact. Someone she could talk to about all the things that made little girls giggle and all the things that made them cry. Someone just older than her to be a little more responsible, more mature, but no so old that they couldn't understand her hopes and dreams. Hermione would not admit it out loud, not under pain of death, but she had begun to see Roxy in that secret little heart as the kind of older sister she had always wished she had.

Pink eyes peaked over parchment, slowly revealing the mischievous smile hidden behind it, as if she knew where Hermione's thoughts had gone. "Wanna know the verdict?" The young witch nodded, Roxy was a tough but fair critic and Hermione deeply respected her opinion. "It's poifect! All your 'T's dotted and your 'I's crossed," she exclaimed, rolling the parchment and handing it back to Hermione. "Not that I expected anything less."

Carefully rolling it back out, the young witch examined her own work critically. "Are you sure? I feel like the solution for the second equation is far too simple and I'm not sure I explained it right - I couldn't get the wording to work the way I wanted."

Roxy hummed, her tongue sticking out briefly as she thought. "I get what you're tryin' to say. But, like, the simplest equations are sometimes the most elegant, when you get down to it... and your wording don't gotta be flawless. You just gotta get across the meaning. So long as you got that right, who gives a fuck? Amiright?"

"I suppose," admitted Hermione reluctantly, restlessly twisting a small lock of hair between her fingers. "I just feel like I ought to do more. Like I'm missing something..."

"Y-e-e-e-ah, but if you keep pickin' at it, you're just gonna make a mess. Now, don't get me wrong, messes can be fun," Roxy mused, gesturing expressively with her hands. "But there's a time and a place for fucking around. And we can both agree, this parch ain't the time or place for it. It's like a good friend once told me - sometimes you just gotta put the fucking chalk down or it's just gonna smudge like a motherfucker."

"I've heard that before, but isn't it about a paint brush?"

"Mmmhmm. 'Cept my friend was more partial to chalk. It's easier to lick."

It was just like her friend to find the right kind of conversation to take her mind off things. Resting her chin in her hand, she remarked, "Are you implying that this friend of yours licks chalk?"

"Ain't no implying. She straight up licks chalk. Well, red chalk specifically. Sorta has a thing for that color. Probably go apeshit over these robes we're wearing," she said, indicating the bright scarlet details on their school robes.

Hermione laughed lightly. "So I suppose your friend would unquestioningly belong in Gryffindor?"

"Fuck yeah, she would. It'd be obnoxious for everyone involved. Ask Dave once about Terezi and the color red. It's a fucking hilarious story."

Dave and Roxy had mentioned many of their friends, not to mention their relations. She'd heard a lot about John and Jade from Dave. John was his best friend "in the whole fucking world" who loved ridiculously bad movies and Jade was also his best friend but also a partner in crime, as they often worked together. She liked dogs and orchids and was extremely silly by all accounts. Roxy talked glowingly of her bffsie, Jane, almost all the time. She also mentioned Jake more than once - a boy they'd all had a crush on at some point, even though he was kind of a dork. Not to mention all the stories relating to Rose and Dirk. There were so many stories about the six of them, Hermione almost felt as if she'd met them already, despite only ever seeing pictures of them.

It was in her nature to pull at strings, and this string was loose and lying there so temptingly. "You've never mentioned a Terezi before, have you?"

Roxy paused for a second and hummed. "No, I haven't. Weird. Yeah, she's one of our other friends. Real piece of work."

"So, what IS it with her and the color red?" Hermione queried, attempting to act as if she wasn't on the hunt for more information.

"Weeeell, Dave could tell the story better," Roxy hedged, subtly aware of how her friend was attempting to manipulate her and willingly going along with it, capricious as ever. Relenting, she explained, "It's just, 'Rezi's favorite color is red. Like she really fucking loves the color and that's really all there is to it. She normally writes in this shade of teal but there was just this one time she switched to red and Dave said she nearly had a stroke. It's kinda difficult to explain. Like I said, it's Dave's story and he's way better at the buildup." She gave her an apologetic shrug.

Hermione had then let the conversation slip to other topics, but inside all she could whisper to herself was 'teal, she wrote in teal'. The moment Roxy had left her at the entrance to Gryffindor tower she had sped up to her room. Pulling the curtains around her four-poster, she frantically tore apart the contents of her school bag until she found the long forgotten note written on a poster Dave had left her seemingly ages ago. Smoothing it out, she carefully touched the words written in teal ink. 'S33 YOU SOON.' It was silly but it felt a like some kind of portent or omen. Replacing the 'E's with threes had seemed, at the time, rather nonsensical but ultimately harmless. But now she wondered if there might be something there, a message.

In her limited spare time, she spent a total of three hours between classes and homework using every conceivable Arithmantic equation to figure it out. She even went so far as to use ordinary algebra to see if she could find some meaning beyond the surface of the message. But there was nothing. No matter how she combined the numbers, it all added up to nonsense - not even the now normal obfuscation she was used to in relation to her new friends. She could only conclude that perhaps she was just reading too deeply for something that clearly wasn't there. In the end, it was just an addendum to a note that had more to do with Dave seeing her soon after giving her the note, rather than something more prophetic.

Still, S33 YOU SOON... there was a part of her that just couldn't help but think there was something more going on here. They kept talking about a project they were working on. There were vague mentions of them not even being from the same universe. Hermione at first had thought it had been some kind of terrible joke, because she had never entirely understood the American sense of humor. There was also the off chance that they had been making reference to some piece of American muggle media that she hadn't seen. They did it quite often but it occurred to her as she thought that night, that whenever they did make a reference they'd usually explain it.

She had taken a lot on faith; perhaps too much. But it just didn't seem as if they were up to anything untoward. Her mind immediately went to Harry, who attracted trouble like a moth to candlelight. But neither of them ever expressed any interest in him at all. At one point Dave had even called him Jerry Pooter, and she wasn't entirely sure if he was joking or not. She got the distinct impression that he didn't even know who Harry was (beyond a few well known facts) or why everyone else seemed so fixated on him. Roxy, at least, knew who he was, but she didn't seem any more interested in him than Dave.

And then there was the slip Roxy had made when they first met - she had said literary hero. She'd taken it back a second later, indicating that it was on account of how much Dave had talked about her. But it had seemed to Hermione then and now, that it was a cover - she had only said that to explain the slip up. There were a thousand little details like this, that were off by just a little bit... but for the life of her, Hermione could not get any one of these details to form a coherent picture.

The one thing she did know for sure was that they were very powerful and they most certainly were not wizards. The feel of their power was different from any wizard or witch she'd met. There was something decidedly dangerous about the feel of it, a wildness in it that was frightening. Something deep within her, something primal, was terrified of it - the way the air pressure dropped when they entered a room, the deadly purpose behind that feeling. Dave made jokes about being a demigod - it was clear he didn't take it seriously when he called himself that. But Hermione was sure it wasn't all that far off the mark.

Her professors were powerful and the few times they'd show an inkling of what they could really do, it had left her breathless. But it wasn't just the breathlessness of someone unleashing that much power that she felt the one time Dave had time traveled with her in tow. It was the fact that she knew with grim certainty that he wasn't even using half of his real strength. And if she was really being honest, he wasn't even using a quarter of it. His single demonstration seemed like he wasn't doing anything more complicated than turning on a tap. Roxy was the same way, though she wasn't as overt or flashy as Dave. There was no incantation, no gesture, no potion, no wand, nothing. She willed people not to see her and they didn't, like she'd flicked off some universal switch.

It was maddening. Perhaps some of her aggravation showed, because the next day when Roxy met her for her first class, she noticed the change in demeanor immediately. She badgered Hermione relentlessly, until just after lunch when the young witch finally exploded - letting out every last doubt and all the strange contradictions she'd been brushing off for weeks. The look on the older girl's face was nothing short of grave.

"Listen, I understand why you're upset but there's stuff we can't tell you," she said, speaking slowly. She looked at Hermione then, really looked at her, as if she was making some kind of decision. "I suppose I owe you at least some kind of explanation."

Without a warning, she touched the young witch's shoulder. Her vision went black and suddenly they were in the deserted corridor where she'd first met Dave. Hermione stumbled, feeling suddenly very sick. The world was spinning uncomfortably. Taking a deep breath, she braced herself against a balustrade. Cool highland wind buffeted her face; it made her feel slightly less like vomiting.

"Sorry 'bout that. S'why I don't use my powers to transport folks directly - tends to make people wanna yartz." Hermione didn't say anything, though she did give her a very baleful look. "Thought privacy was more important though," said Roxy with a jerky little shrug.

Her gaze was firmly focused on the landscape, harsh January wind whipping her hair fiercely. This was Roxy at her most serious, the steel she so effectively hid. Hermione hadn't realized that she could look like that - like a hardened veteran of some long forgotten war. She had no clue how close to the mark she had come.

"There's plenty of stuff we haven't told you, that's true. Ain't cus we're trying ta hoodwink ya or that we're balls deep into some nefarious hijinks. It's cus some of the shit we're here to do is dangerous as fuck, and I don't wanna involve you in that. Cus if it ain't obvious before, lemme be real clear. The shit we get up to is beyond you," and as she said this, she looked Hermione dead in the eyes - her own vibrant pink eyes shining fiercely. "And not just cus you're a kid. Wouldn't matter if you was full grown and at your most powerful. Y'all aren't made for the shit we deal with. And that's a god damned good thing. I care 'bout you enough to not want to entangle you in our bullshit."

She gazed back out at the highlands pensively. The fierceness was gone, replaced by bone deep sadness. Her eyes were watery and far away, her lips pinched and thin. Hermione felt terrible. What had happened to Roxy to make her face look like that? Did Hermione even really want to know? Silence stretched between them for a very long time.

"When you got the time turner, they told you how hazardous time travel can be, right?" It was the first thing she'd said in twenty minutes. Her gaze didn't leave the distant horizon.

"Y-yes," Hermione replied hesitantly.

"What they tell you about it?"

"That it was dangerous... that you couldn't be seen, by anyone, but especially by any future or past versions of yourself. They said that some wizards had gone mad when they did - even going so far as killing their own double and creating a paradox."

"And you only got five hours on that thing. Imagine what it's like to have the entire timeline at your disposal," Dave intoned, appearing at her other elbow all whirling clockwork gears. "To become a God Tier in some respect you gotta not just master your Aspect but accept it. When Time is your Aspect, that means you gotta accept the fact that you'll die a thousand deaths to keep your timeline intact and whole. You'll go back again and again, spinning those gears until you work it out; till you find where you fucked up."

Hermione glanced at him. He was leaning back against the balustrade, looking artfully unbothered in that languorous way that seemed to define him. His glasses were perched on his head, which was the only indicator anything might be off. She supposed it was the things he said, the unspoken admission that she was too afraid to confirm. In the end, she didn't have to.

"Don't know if I died a thousand times. Lost count a long time ago," he stated bluntly. His strange eyes which were normally so bright and expressive were flat like the slowly dying embers of a fire. He sighed, it was a frustrated sound. "So here we are. Shit's awkward as fuck." Looking over at Hermione, it was obvious she was seconds away from tears. He gave an expert oh-god-360 eyeroll, flicking her forehead with a finger. "You think too much. Or like, over think it. Fuck. Just, get a lid on your shit. Everything's cool. You were just protecting your timeline and responsible timeline management is why we're time buddies, okay."

He held out a fist and she slowly bumped her fist against his, her eyes glassy. Then she burst into tears rather noisily. Dave slipped his glasses back on, looking positively alarmed. Roxy, however, went to immediately hug her. In seconds they both were crying and apologizing, and eventually Dave got dragged into a ridiculously uncomfortable group hug situation. The awkwardness was a thing that was never gonna stop happening.

Tears were dried. The young man who was suffering from the current lack of personal space was summarily released from his short sentence in friend jail. And plans were made for that very Sunday. Dave said they had something big, which was why he stopped by on a "non-regulation" day.

"It's sorta a good news/bad news deal," said Roxy, wiping neatly at her hopelessly smudged eyeliner. "Me n' Dave have been figuring out the logistics of it forever. Lotsa movin' parts. Soooo... d'ya wanna hear the good news or the bad news first?"

"I suppose the good news," Hermione sniffed, dabbing at her red, puffy eyes.

"We've been cooking up a real small shindig for you. Ain't nothing big. Just me, you, Dave, and a couple of special guests."

"It's gunna be a real hootenanny," drawled Dave with a terrible attempt at a Southern accent. "Gonna get old timey as hell up in this piece. We got that good backwoods hooch all stuffed away in a big fucking barrel. Barrel so god damned big you'd see it from the moon. S'why it's called moonshine. Gonna get crunk as hell and get chased by some cops through byzantine Louisiana backroads, get lost and then high five a Minotaur. Best god damned getaway Boss Hog done never seen."

Roxy looked at him, her face halfway between amusement and befuddlement. "Who the fuck is Boss Hog?" Dave looked up from his phone and shrugged unhelpfully. She rolled her eyes and smiled broadly. "Aaaanyway... so that's the good news. Bad news is - it's gonna be a going away party."

Hermione's heart stopped. She could feel her hands trembling. "What... why?" she whispered breathlessly. This couldn't be happening.

Alarmed, Roxy held up her hands and waved them in a shushing motion. "No, no,no! It's not cus of anything that happened today. Please, don't get the wrong idea!"

"Then what idea would you like me to have?!" Hermione demanded tearfully.

"Well, it's j-just... you k-know we c-can't s-stuh-stay," began Roxy, her voice very wobbly.

They stood there silently for a moment or two; Roxy still stumbling over her words, tears smudging her makeup worse than ever. Hermione felt numb as her own tears coursed down her cheeks in hot waves. Both of them were trembling with emotion uncontrollably. Dave watched this all blandly; annoyed that he'd have to step up and save this situation from becoming a complete clusterfuck, again.

"Jesus fucking- can you two put a fucking cap on the waterworks for, like, two seconds?! Y'all are acting like someone fucking died. We're just going away cus we have to, not cus we want to. We got obligations. So do you. Fuck me," he bellowed, sounding a bit more rancorous than he had intended. "And s'not like we're going away forever. We'll see each other again."

"When," Hermione sniffled hoarsely, her voice congested.

"In approximately four years, give or take," supplied Dave with a regretful smile.

"That's ages!"

"Well, not in the grand scheme of things," he commented, grimacing a bit at the harshness of the statement. She glared at him mutinously. He frowned at her, his expression softening until it became obvious he had come to a hard, but necessary decision. "Real talk. Things are gonna heat up for you and your little boyfriend in the next few years-"

Hermione interrupted him immediately, shouting, "HE'S NOT MY-"

"Yeah, cool. Whatever. Don't care," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "Fact is, your life for the next four years is gonna become an inescapable maelstrom of flaming dicks. All perky and impudent, smacking you in your face like those little bug-eyed demons in a Bosch painting. Just relentless dick demons all up in your shit, flagellating like a bunch of highly flammable assholes. That's gonna be your life. And your head needs to be 100% in the game for that. Distracting you has been fun, but realistically, it can't go on. You gotta keep that big noggin of yours focused on the very serious shit going on right here." As he said it, he gestured to the ground forcefully. "Eyes on the prize and all that."

Taking his words in, the young witch went quiet for several seconds. In a hushed whisper, she looked up at him, her eyes were very big. "What's... what's going to happen? You know, don't you? You can s-see..."

Dave's head fell back as he groaned loudly in frustration. He had been expecting that question. People always asked that question. "You know I can't tell you that."

"Why ever not?! You're my friend! Harry's my friend! It's only fair-"

Dave interrupted her angrily, "Because people can't know what's gonna happen or what they're gonna do before they do it! That's how timelines get doomed. Your timeline right now is straight as a fucking arrow, no deviations. And it's gonna stay that way! I ain't gonna be responsible for gettin' you and everyone you love killed or worse! Cuz there are things that are far worse than death, Hermione. You remember I died, like, a million times, right. Did'ya think I did that shit for fun?! Did'ya think I took some kind of sick pleasure from watchin' my friends die horribly over and over and over again all the while trying to fix what got fucked up?! Do'ya wanna make me watch you die over and over? Is that what you want? I'll fucking do it, but don't think I'm playin' when I say that I don't want to." He stopped when he saw her face pale. She finally got it, though he was still fuming that it had to be explained. He had thought she was smarter than that. With a shaky exhalation, he muttered, "and that's all there is to say about it."

Her tears began in earnest again, face crumpling as she tried to stutter out an apology. 'Why did I have to ruin everything?' she thought morosely. Still agitated, Dave ran his hands through his hair. Blowing out air like some god damn cartoon storm cloud, he whispered a single, "fuck," and pulled her into a very stiff embrace. She resisted at first, but eventually melted into it, sobbing loudly as she clutched the back of his coat like a lifeline. He looked over at Roxy, who was just as hysterical. Her hands covered her mouth, stifling her sobs, but her apocalyptically smeared makeup told the truth of the matter. He beckoned her forward, relenting to doing more time in friend jail.

They eventually broke away; all of them feeling wrung out and tired in their own separate ways. Hermione in particular felt as if something in her had simultaneously been ripped out and healed again. Because the thought of losing these new friends was horrible, but to realize that they really did have her back, just as they'd always been telling her, was a dear comfort. Before leaving, Roxy quickly fixed her makeup as best she could, despite Dave's endless complaining about it. She also summoned a pair of Gryffindor robes from between her hands and badgered him into wearing them. When they were ready, they walked her back to Gryffindor Tower as usual.

It was Roxy who hugged her first, pressing a kiss to her cheek that left a dark magenta smudge on it. "Gonna miss you heaps, kid."

"Me too," Hermione affirmed, unable to keep sorrow from her voice. She turned to Dave and gave him a very watery smile, holding out her first slowly. Pressing her lips together, she gazed up at him expectantly.

His smiles previous to this had always been very small, almost imperceptible. But this time, he broke out a huge shit eating grin. She was delighted to find out that he had dimples. He laughed; it was a deep, hearty sound. "Fuck, dawg. That's my time buddy, all grown and handing out fist bunps like they're candy," he said, nearly glowing with happiness as he returned her fist bump. He then gave her a rough one armed hug and then ruffled her hair fondly. She waved him off half-heartedly, her smile less watery and more genuine in its joy.

They stepped away like parents on the first day of kindergarten, giving over their child into the care of strangers.

"See ya Sunday?" Roxy asked, as if they hadn't just made the plans minutes ago.

"Sunday," Hermione confirmed, nodding her head before turning and running up the stairs.

She stopped at the portrait of the Fat Lady, turning briefly to give them both a little wave before giving the password and disappearing behind the door as it slowly swung open and then closed again. There was a pregnant pause as they watched the spot where she'd just been. Roxy's lip trembled a little. Dave gave her arm a reassuring pat.

Neither of them had seen the dark haired young man with bottle green eyes who'd just witnessed everything they thought was secret. He hadn't been able to hear much of what little they'd said, only that they were doing something on Sunday. This young man didn't claim to know everyone in Gryffindor, especially older students. But he didn't recognize these two people, even though they wore Gryffindor's colors. He reckoned he would have remembered them, considering the pale blond color of their hair. It'd be hard to miss. Stepping out of the shadows, he eyed them warily. Who were they? Why were they with Hermione? He didn't like it, something wasn't right.

Harry Potter inhaled to say something, what it might have been no one would know, because as soon as he did the young woman had spotted him - bright pink eyes widening in shock. She tugged gently on her companion's robes and pointed at where Harry stood. The young man looked at him but did not react with the same amount of surprise as his fellow. His eyebrows rose above the aviators he wore, lips turning down into a small frown. Wordlessly, he shrugged and turned back to the girl, jerking his head in the direction of a corridor to their immediate left, away from Harry. She nodded back, entwining her arm in his as they lazily strolled away. Before he lost sight of her, the woman blew him a kiss and then winked at him.

He was stunned by the clear dismissal, standing motionless for a beat before barreling forward towards their retreating footsteps. But when he got to the corridor where they by all rights should be, they were gone. It was empty. Eyes wide and breathing heavily, he stood there for several minutes trying to comprehend what was not there.

Sunday. They were meeting her Sunday. He promised himself that he would find out what was going on and what Hermione may have unwittingly gotten herself into.

Chapter Text

Hermione woke very early Sunday morning. She wasn't sure what they might be doing; neither Roxy nor Dave had given her a clue. Assuming they'd be going outside at some point, she dressed warmly, though she did pick her favorite moss green jumper which wasn't exactly as cozy as it was fashionable. But Roxy had said that it brought out the little green flecks in her eyes. She braided her hair into a messy plait; somehow making it look intentional as opposed to what it was - a mistake - because she had to do all this in the privacy of her four-poster with the curtains drawn. It also didn't help that she was very nervous.

This would be the last time she'd see her friends in a very long time. It also didn't help that there would be special guests, which Hermione took to mean that she'd finally be meeting some of the people she'd only ever heard about second hand. She wanted so badly to make a good impression. If Dave were here, he would have told her that she didn't need to be worried. All their friends were "super chill" or at least most of them were, according to him. But having often made very bad first impressions, Hermione was determined to, for once, not make a fool of herself.

As she was tying her boots one of her roommates stirred in the bed just across from her own. The curtains parted and Parvati's head swam out of the gloom. Blinking owlishly, she stared at Hermione as if she'd never seen her before in her life.

"H'mione?" asked Parvati blearily, her eyes half closed. "Izzat you?"

Shoving her left foot into her boot, she looked up and smiled kindly. "Yes, go back to sleep."

Parvati sat up a little, leaning forward on her arm. "Why're you up so early? It's Sunday."

"Going for a walk," lied Hermione, though she supposed it wasn't entirely untrue.

Her roommate's face scrunched up in confusion. "Wha time izzit?"

"Eight-thirty," Hermione replied quietly.

Parvati head cocked curiously as if she were working out a particularly difficult equation. She gave Hermione a look of utter exasperation. "You're going on a walk at half eight in the morning... on a Sunday?"

"Yes, I am," replied Hermione, a little laugh in her voice as she firmly knotted the laces of both boots. "Walking is good for you."

"You're mental," Parvati commented with a small smile. She then shuttered her drapes and went back to bed.

As Hermione opened the door that led to the common room, she heard a muffled, "have a nice walk," come from the direction of Parvati's bed. She whispered a thank you and left the room happily, her heart weighted a bit but still light. Again she had expected one of her roommates to be her biggest obstacle and again she was wrong. For as she entered the common room, she was greeted with a very unwanted sight - Harry was there, reclining on a squashy armchair near the door. Some good luck prevailed, though. He was asleep quite soundly with one hand curled under his chin, glasses askew. She knew he was a light sleeper, but she felt as if sneaking by him wouldn't be that much of a chore.

How wrong she was.

Inhaling slowly, she turned to close the door, grimacing when it let out a slow squeak. She stopped abruptly, glancing over her shoulder. Still asleep. Heart thundering in her chest, she closed it more slowly. She glanced back again, he'd snorted a bit and then went quiet - still asleep. Letting out a shaky sigh as the lock clicked close, she pressed her forehead and hands against the smooth wood of the door. Just as she turned around, happy that she'd been so successful thus far, she saw movement from the corner of her eye. Turning around sharply, she noticed that he'd sat up, wiping his eyes before replacing his glasses. Both of them froze, staring at each other, feeling that there was more separating them than a small room. It felt more like a thousand miles.

Summoning her Gryffindor courage, she took a very deep breath and marched forward, studiously averting her eyes as if she didn't even notice he was there. As evidence of this, she fervently pretended she didn't notice the way he scowled at her. She refused to be upset by him or Ron. Not today, at least. Head held high, she walked past him. She heard a scuffling sound just then and all of a sudden he was standing in front of her, blocking her way. Hermione started, surprised for only a moment before her brows furrowed. She tried to side step him, but he blocked her. Frustrated, she tried again and again he blocked her.

"Could you please move, I'd like to get by, if you don't mind," she demanded, clearly aggravated.

She could see him thinking, his eyes darting back and forth wildly. "I... I needed to talk to you."

Eyes narrowed, Hermione stepped back as she crossed her arms very slowly. "Did you? Whatever for?" He licked his lips, eyes darting again as he tried to come up with something, anything to tell her. She lifted an eyebrow imperiously. "Well, get on with it. I haven't got all day, you know."

"I saw you," he blurted out, wincing as whatever he intended to say hadn't come to him in time.

Rolling her eyes, she sighed. "Good for you. Is that all?"

"Yes - I mean, no! I mean," he stammered, closing his eyes for a second to collect himself. "A few nights ago when I was coming back, I saw you on the stairs. It's just..." Harry ran his hand through his hair, unable to figure out a way to ask her about what he saw; the words didn't want to come.

"You want to know if I was on the stairs? Yes, I was. I have been on the stairs several times during our stay here and will likely be on the stairs several more times. Is there anything else?" She enunciated that last question with a slow, irritated tone.

"I saw you with two people. Two people wearing Gryffindor robes that I didn't recognize!" She opened her mouth and he knew what her objection would be. "I know what you're going to say, but I would have noticed them... their hair, you see. Who are they?"

All the blood left her face, it took everything in her not to fall apart right then and there. She knew he saw how she reacted. But there was no way he'd wrest the truth from her. Instead, she used her own indignation as her sole ally. "Were you spying on me?"

"That doesn't matter!" he shot back, taking a single step closer to her.

"Yes, it actually does," she snarled dangerously, stepping right up to him so that they were almost nose to nose. "Who I associate with and who I choose to spend my time with, regardless of whether or not you recognize them, is none of your business, Harry Potter. Now let me pass."

"No," he growled, bright green eyes alight with fury. Why wouldn't she listen to reason? "You're meeting them today and I want to know who they are and why they're here. I don't care what you say, they're not Hogwarts students - I have a right to know who they really are."

On the outside, she somehow managed to maintain a cool exterior but on the inside she was panicking. He had seen them? How? She could only conclude it was because Roxy had not known he was there. If she'd thought the corridor was deserted, she wouldn't use her power, allowing Harry to see them. His request was reasonable, under the circumstances. But she didn't have time to explain any of it. Moreover, she didn't have the inclination right now.

Eyes flashing, she fumed, "So let me get this straight. You spy on me. Overhear a private conversation with my friends, because I do happen to have them outside of you, by the way... and then you have the gall to demand explanations from me simply because YOU don't recognize them? Did I cover all your major points? Or is there more evidence you'd like to add?!"

Put that way, Harry's concerns did seem very small. He cast around for something, anything to prove his point - to make her see that there was something very wrong going on. "They... they could be working for Sirius Black!"

The statement hung in the air like a lead balloon. Hermione's eyes widened and she stepped away from Harry, looking at him as if seeing him truly for the first time. She let out a harsh, ugly laugh. In fact, she couldn't stop laughing, until real tears formed at the corners of her eyes. Harry did not see the humor in the situation.

"I hardly think that's funny."

Wiping her eyes, she shook her head. "No, it really is. It's very funny, actually."

"What do you mean by that?!" He got the sense that she wasn't necessarily talking about their current conversation.

"Oh, figure it out yourself, Harry," replied Hermione tiredly, as she pushed past him, ramming her shoulder into his as hard as she could.

Never in her whole life had she been so furious. She stormed out of Gryffindor Tower, wrenching the door open and violently slamming it shut, ignoring the portrait's indignant objections at being handled so roughly. There was a small, mean part of her that hoped he followed. Because she had thought up several more things to say to him on the way to the Astronomy Tower, not to mention the great urge to sock him right in his stupid, thoughtless face.

"How dare he," she hissed angrily as she took the stairs two at a time. "Of all the things he could have said... working for Sirius Black, honestly... he has a lot of nerve!"

"Who has the nerve to say what?" asked a cheery voice.

Shaking herself, she realized that she had reached the Astronomy Tower - only it was completely deserted as it looked. She twirled around, swiveling her head trying to find where the voice came from. The voice kept giving her "helpful" hints, hollering warmer or colder as she stumbled around the tower. Was she going mad or was it a particularly mischievous ghost? She must have said it out loud, because the voice laughed, it was a very airy sound.

A wind whipped through the tower suddenly, it was fierce and localized to the area where Hermione stood. It was so strong that she stumbled back a few paces, protecting her face with her arms. The wind died down as quickly as it came. Hermione opened her eyes cautiously to find a young man standing just in front of her. He was very tall (taller than Dave, in fact) and lanky - he was 50% limbs by volume. His hair was dark and his eyes were the brightest electric blue she'd ever seen. The fact that he wore glasses and his dark hair was very messy sent a sharp pain through her. He reminded her very much of Harry, except for the very large, goofy smile on his face. Harry had never been so carefree.

"You look like you saw a ghost," he said, chuckling like he'd told a joke.

"Oh, well, I..." she stammered. The American forthrightness was disconcerting.

"John Egbert," he offered, holding out his hand which she shook. "You must be Hermione, right? It's really nice to meet you. Dave and Roxy have told me a lot about you. Don't worry, it's all good stuff. I'm kinda surprised to be honest, he's my best friend but Dave can be a real douche sometimes. Eh, I mean, we all can be on occasion, I guess. But he did have a lot of nice raps to say about you and all the stuff you guys got up to. And by nice raps I mean the stuff he was rapping about was nice, not that the raps themselves were nice. They were really terrible. Don't tell him I said that though."

It was still odd to her how quickly Americans became familiar with people they hardly knew. She had thought she'd gotten used to it, having spent so much time with Dave and Roxy. But they were positively terse compared to John, who exuded enthusiasm and babbled endlessly about whatever came into his head.

"I'm sorry but where are Dave and Roxy?" asked Hermione timidly. They hadn't told her they'd be meeting one of their friends so immediately. "I wasn't expecting-"

"Oh, they got their hands full setting stuff up. Plus, they really suck at transportation, if you haven't noticed. My way isn't as dangerous and it won't make you hurl," he said, with another earsplitting grin. "So, you ready?"

Hermione nodded, clutching her book bag close. "So, um, if I might ask... where are we going exactly?"

He tilted his head, vibrant blue eyes sparkling with mirth. "Ah-ah. It's a surprise. Soooo, shall we?" he asked, bowing deeply. With a flourish, he held out his hand. "Mademoiselle."

She took his hand hesitantly, not quite sure how she felt about him. For his part, he was all smiles as he carefully tucked her hand into the crook of his arm in true gentlemanly fashion. Bouncing on his feet, he glanced at her, giving her a little wink. One moment she was standing on the Astronomy Tower, the next she was standing in dim cloisters in an abandoned monastery. It was just that easy. Far in the distance, Hermione could just barely see Hogwarts as a misty silhouette. The awe she felt must have been visible on her face, because John gave her a little nudge.

"So, how was your first flight on Air Egbert?"

"Very good," she complimented with a small relieved smile. "I particularly enjoyed the inflight service."

"At Air Egbert, we aim to please," he replied cheekily. "C'mon, we got a room set up this way."

They walked down the ruined corridor, hoping over bits of masonry that had crumbled due to neglect. It was very quiet, sound muffled by the thick layers of snow covering everything. An unseen bird warbled disconsolately. She couldn't tell where it came from. Her new companion was quiet as well, which was quite unexpected. Instead, he looked around curiously, his lips tipped up in his own private amusement.

On the east side of the cloisters was a doorway that led to what had been the abbot's residence when the monastery had been functional. A pair of carpets had been hung over the doorway, to keep out the cold. They stopped in front of it. Hermione had no idea why they didn't just go inside. John let go of her hand and stepped forward.

"Ready to make an entrance?" asked John, a dangerous glint of mischief in his eyes. He flicked his arms out like a magician about to perform a trick. Pushing his hands forward, a great gust of wind blew the heavy carpets apart. He strolled into the maelstrom, seemingly impervious to it. Inside, Hermione could hear muttered oaths and a good deal of swearing. She scuttled after him, amazed that she too seemed immune to the wind's power, as if she'd stepped directly into the eye of a storm.

"THE HEIR OF BREATH HAS ARRIVED," John shouted, the wind quieting at his command as he held up his hands like a circus ringmaster. "And he's brought our very special guest."

There was a chorus of complaints.

"God damn it, Egbert!"

"JOOOOOHN! WHYYYYYYYYEEEE?!"

"AH FIDDLESTICKS!"

The last was said by a plump girl, who'd dropped the spoon she'd been using to stir something on the carpet covering the cold cobblestone floor. She wore bright red glasses and had messy, flyaway hair like John. Her eyes were a clear light blue, contrasting beautifully with her dark skin. Picking up her spoon, she gazed at it critically, a frown marring her pretty face. She scowled at John for a moment before her expression softened. Even Dave and Roxy, who'd given him very dirty looks shrugged and proceeded to pick things up without blinking. It was as if this particular scenario had played out many, many times and they were all used to it by now.

"Get over here and clean all this up, buster. You're taking over dish washing duty now, since you have so much time to fart around," the girl commanded in a voice that would not be denied, brandishing the spoon at him menacingly.

He laughed sheepishly, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck as he complied, taking the spoon gingerly from her hand. The girl watched him carefully to make sure there were no further shenanigans, hand on her hip. She then regarded Hermione with a sweet smile, walking forward with confident but graceful steps. Bowl clutched in her left hand, she tipped her head curiously while rolling back and forth on her heels.

"Sorry about that. Jane Crocker. Very pleased to meet you," she said, bobbing her head and stooping into a little half curtsy. Touching Hermione's arm, she guided her over to plush chair placed in front of a small brazier that gave out a regular amount of comfortable heat. "Why don't you have a seat while we get everything ready?"

Pulling her book bag over her head and placing it next to a chair, she didn't sit down. "Oh, but is there anything I can help with?"

Jane looked almost offended as she practically pushed Hermione into the chair. "Nonsense. Guests don't help! You sit down. Do you like hot chocolate or would you prefer tea?"

"Tea please?" she asked, feeling very out of sorts as she sat there, watching everyone else bustle around busily.

Turning to her blond friend, Jane asked, "Roxy, would you mind?"

Roxy's head popped up, looking over at Hermione with a grin. "D'ya like Earl Grey or chamomile? Sorry I ain't got much variety. Only thing I ever seem to be able to appearify is Earl Grey or chamomile when peeps ask for tea. It's like a weird mental block or somethin'."

Nonplussed, Hermione replied, "Chamomile will be fine."

Roxy rubbed her hands together, swiftly drawing them apart in a jerking motion. From between her outstretched hands a box of chamomile tea appeared with a loud pop. She handed the box to Jane who took it and began to prepare the tea, bumping John away from the sink with a hip so she could fill the pot. Minutes later a warm cup of tea was handed to her by Jane, who'd also set a plate of neatly made scones with little jars of marmalade on the table next to her chair. Still feeling guilty for just sitting there, she thanked her softly before carefully sipping the tea.

"Did you need any milk or sugar? Honey?"

"No, this is fine."

Jane nodded and then skipped back to their makeshift kitchen. Hermione sighed, taking another sip. Her eyes skimmed the room. The arm chairs and the brazier were nearest the entrance at the far right of the room. There were several colorful carpets hug over the walls, keeping out the cold. Christmas lights were strung all around, plugged into small green cubes which apparently supplied the power to everything in the room, including a full kitchen stove which was parked in the far left corner. Next to the stove was a full sink, which somehow worked despite clearly not being attached to any kind of plumbing. John was happily doing dishes, bopping back and forth as he scrubbed while Jane danced lightly around him as she cooked. A good distance from this "kitchen" was a picnic table which Roxy was carefully covering with a checkered cloth. Dave waited behind her with an armful of eating utensils wrapped in bright yellow napkins.

With the soft glow of the Christmas lights and the warm smell of cooking food, it was a cozy, comfortable space. Being so near the brazier, she opened her jacket a bit with one hand, pressing her back into the armchair. She'd helped herself to a few of Jane's scones, which were delicious. Having skipped breakfast, she hadn't realized how hungry she'd been. Watching the fire crackle inside its little cage, Hermione found herself becoming a bit drowsy. She wasn't sure how long she'd sat there watching the dancing flames. It was long enough, apparently, that she'd fallen asleep for several hours. Someone gently prodded her shoulder; she looked up dreamily into a pair of clear blue eyes.

"Sorry to disturb you, but lunch is ready," Jane said sweetly, a lovely little smile gracing her face.

The spread was simple American cooking, nothing fancy but very hearty. There was a classic beef stew, roasted red potatoes, asparagus in some kind of butter and garlic sauce, and fluffy butterhorns, a kind of buttery roll that was a Crocker family recipe. Everything was delicious, but the thing that really made the meal was the comradery. She had worried a bit that with more people she'd be made to feel, however accidentally, as an outsider. But she was happy, so very happy that it turned out not to be the case. Dave and Roxy were amusing as usual, enhanced by John's exuberance and they were all kept from getting out of control by Jane's gentle hand. It was a warm happy feeling eating with these people. Something she hadn't felt in a long while.

Jane shooed them away from the table as she cleared it. She wouldn't accept any help at all and insisted they all sit down for a bit. So everyone made their way to the chairs arranged around the brazier and sat, listening to the hiss and pop of the fire and the low sound of Jane humming a tune softly as she puttered away in the kitchen. Hermione sat down where she'd been previously. Roxy flopped down in a chair to her right and Dave sat next to her. John took the seat near Dave, his long legs stretching out towards the warmth of the fire.

Dave gazed at her, fire reflecting in his aviators which he'd pushed on top of his head. "How'd we do?"

Hermione averted her eyes and laughed. "Everything's been lovely, thank you."

"Is that Brit speak for it's been the rad-est fucking shindig ever OR shit sucked but I'm way too British to say so... help me out here."

She was quiet a moment before smiling. "Well, to translate from British English to American, I do believe it's been fucking awesome, as you would say."

Roxy and Dave immediately broke up, laughing hard enough that they began to sputter and cough. John just shook his head, intoning forlornly, "looks like we've corrupted another one. So sad when they go grimdark like that."

This prompted more laughter. They moved on to other topics that were mostly lighthearted fair. The more lighthearted fair in question at the moment was an entire five minute argument between Dave and John about some terrible movie Hermione had never heard of. It had all started when the boys had decided to list their top five movies of 1993 and quickly devolved into loud but amusing bickering.

Dave nearly slid off his chair in frustration as he argued. "Omigod, fucking unbelievable! I can't believe you actually picked the third fucking Teenage Mutant Ninja Shitbags sequel over fucking Jurassic Park for favorite movie of 1993. At that point you might as well flip a coin and pick whatever shitty movie Nic Cage was in that year, it'd at least make more sense because I know you love that flaming bag of cock! What is wrong with you?!"

"Nothing, it's just a really great movie. Like, they go back in time and become samurai. There's a really funny scene where they try and ride horses. It's objectively awesome. Also, Corey Feldman's performance has to be the best of his career," replied John earnestly; he seemed entirely at ease as if they weren't having a half shouted argument about movies. "I would have picked 'Weekend at Bernie's II' but it feels a little like the filmmakers sold out. Plus it's Jake's favorite and I wouldn't feel good about stealing his pick."

"If I thought that you two knuckleheads liked that movie ironically, I could respect that. But I know you both fucking love it, no ironies involved whatsoever. Feel like I failed as a friend and a human being."

Looking at her phone which had a long list of movies released that year, Roxy interrupted them. "You guys are clearly missing the real point of this. Which is - what's the best ninja themed movie of 1993 and the clear winner of that contest would be 'Surf Ninjas', hands down. I mean, their tagline is 'Surf's up! Time to Save the World!' You can't beat that shit."

She held out her phone so they could all see the poster in all of its garish glory with its tagline emblazoned proudly in bold black ink.

"That looks perfectly awful," Hermione scoffed, her nose scrunching up in disgust as she gazed at the perfectly terrible poster art. "I don't even want to imagine who'd pay money to see it."

"I know, right?!" Roxy snorted, turning away so she could show the boys.

"Ahahaha! Jesus Christ," Dave exclaimed, leaning forward to see it. "Look at those assholes. Fuck, what a completely ignominious way to end your career."

"Yikes," John grimaced. "That looks like the worst piece of shit ever. I can't condone Rob Schneider's antics."

"Welp, I'm glad you at least have a line you won't cross. And more importantly that the line is Rob Schneider," commended Dave, cracking his knuckles softly as he gazed at the fire.

John and Dave then proceeded to continue the previous argument, apparently weighing in on who would win in a grudge match: mutant ninja turtles or velociraptors. It was incredibly hard to tell who was on what side of the argument as it kept evolving with sillier and sillier scenarios. Hermione sat quietly listening to them with puzzled bemusement. Roxy's eyebrows rose into her hairline, turning away from the conversation with a little head shake.

"Sorry you had to witness that. We're all inured to the almost daily arguments about John's terrible taste in entertainment, but you rode out your first time pretty good. S'ppose it helps you don't got no idea what they're talking about," Roxy mused with a little sigh. "Wish ta god I didn't."

"It's oddly comforting, actually," commented Hermione, shrugging. "Really no different than when everyone starts going on and on about Quidditch." For a moment she thought back to a week ago, when two seventh year Ravenclaws had nearly come to blows during lunchtime due to a difference of opinion over which of their teams was likely to win the next league match. She shivered. "It was funnier than the arguments I'm used to, at the very least."

"Yeah, glad I don't gotta deal with that shit. All our boys ain't that fond of the sports, unless it's making hilariously inaccurate references to sports for shits and giggles. Hey, how'd you do on that Arithmancy paper I helped you with, by the way?"

"Very good, actually. She mentioned the elegance of the solution particularly," she said with a tiny little grin.

Roxy had never been one to gloat when she was right and instead beamed at Hermione, nearly vibrating with excitement. "HOT DAMN! Do you have it with you? Can I see it?"

Digging into her book bag, Hermione retrieved it and handed it over. Roxy took and unrolled it carefully, her eyes immediately scanning the bottom. Her brows were furrowed at first but gradually softened as a huge smile appeared on her face.

Affecting a truly terrible British accent, she recited, "Most students are inclined to reach for a far more complicated solution to this particular problem, though it requires arguably a far simpler solution. It is precisely why I have assigned it over the years. The heart of Arithmancy is more than simply memorizing equations; it is the realization that numbers are living things. In my experience, it has been the rare student who can assess the sheer elegance of the simple solution. You are that rare student." She paused, her pink eyes bright with tears. "I'm so fucking proud of you."

Hopping out of her chair, she gave Hermione a big bear hug. She handed Hermione back her parchment, wiping her tears away with her hands - her smile still huge. Then she asked about this week's homework, insisting on looking it over as well. Hermione surrendered it to her, glowing with pride on the inside as Roxy poured over that week's assignment. Shortly thereafter, Jane came to sit down, wiping her hands on her apron and looking a bit exhausted.

"Well, the cake's out of the oven. I'll have to let it cool a bit before I can put icing on it," she said, more to herself than anyone else.

Dave and John's argument died down eventually. John stared sleepily at the fire, rubbing his eyes under his glasses as he yawned widely. Dave had put in an earbud and was fiddling with something on his phone, the vague sound of music drifting up from the speaker lying in his lap. Roxy had fully engaged herself in Hermione's homework. She'd managed to appropriate the young witch's bookbag and dug out her Arithmancy book which was balanced on one knee, parchment draped over the other. Somehow she'd managed to get a regular muggle notebook and a pen. She was furiously writing, her eyes sliding from the book to the parchment to the notebook at regular intervals. Jane had awkwardly taken off her apron without getting up, gazing at her friends and then the fire with a strange kind of restlessness.

"I was thinking of taking a walk," she announced, gauging the group for a reaction. "Does anyone want to join me?"

They all looked up slowly. Dave was first to answer.

"This Texas boy ain't going out in that frozen tundra 'less this place is on fire. Pass."

John yawned again, nestling deeper into his chair. "Mebbe later," he replied drowsily.

Roxy waved her hand absently. "Yeah, you do that."

Jane's expression went flat with frustration. All the same, she stood up and began to put on her winter clothes. It wouldn't be the first time she'd taken a walk alone and she really needed to stretch her legs. She hadn't bothered to ask their guest. Frankly, she felt it'd be presumptuous of her to press her into doing something she might not want to with someone who was a virtual stranger, even though she would have liked the company. She was surprised to hear the young witch stand and say softly, "I'd love to go, if you don't mind..."

"Oh, that'll be perfect! Shall we?" Securing her beret on her head, she turned and grinned.

Chapter Text

All bundled up, they opened the carpets covering the entryway and exited to the outside. They both gasped a little as the difference in temperature was sharp enough to steal their breath away. Inside the old abbot's residence was warm, but not so warm that one could take off all their winter clothing. There was still a bit of a chill. But it was obvious that it was still quite a bit warmer than it was outside. Shivering a little, Jane set off, giving a curt nod to Hermione to indicate where they'd be going.

For someone so short Jane Crocker walked awfully fast. That was the first observation Hermione made. She had been excited that she'd finally found someone shorter than herself, thinking that she'd finally have the benefit of a longer stride length. No more hustling after two long legged boys, no sir. She'd finally be able to walk with someone without have to practically run alongside them. How foolish she'd been.

Just like Roxy, Jane was seemingly filled with endless energy, though it wasn't the restless energy her blonde friend exuded. It was more focused, bound to the earth. Jane had a goal in mind for today's excursion; that much was sure. And it wasn't the spur of the moment goals Hermione had gotten used to - Roxy and Dave's "plans" were less like plans and more like happy accidents. She had a feeling that Jane had planned most of this little shindig, not that she would ever say so.

Her other observation was that while Jane was very friendly, she wasn't quite as chatty as her other friends. She was quite happy to walk quietly with Hermione, taking noticeably shorter strides so they could match gait better. All the while she silently took in the sights, her clear blue eyes wandering over the ruins that had at one time been a vibrant place of worship. She gave Hermione an encouraging smile as they walked.

"You know, whenever I go to a place, I always like to look it up beforehand," Jane commented idly, breaking the comfortable silence between them. "It makes it easier to connect when you visit, I think. You get an idea of the people who lived there and what they did. What it was like to live and breathe in a place in times gone past."

Hermione was reminded of when she'd first learned she was a witch - how she'd latched onto 'Hogwarts: A History' and read the entire book in almost one night. She smiled wistfully. "I agree. It makes everything more real."

"When we first came here, I tried to find out a bit about this place. Went to that little town down the way, Dumfries, I think it was called. We went right to their parish records office looking for a monastery. Imagine my surprise when not only didn't we find any records but when we asked the very polite lady in the office about them, she looked at us like we'd grown two heads," Jane said with a hearty little laugh. "Told us straight out that there wasn't a monastery in these parts and that there never had been. I'm sure she thought we were just a pair of crazy Americans, but it was a real bother, to be honest."

Hermione frowned, puzzling it over. "Really, no records at all?"

"Uh-huh. Even did an... um... well, it's this thing. Ugh. An internet search... you do-" Jane stammered, gesturing awkwardly.

"Yes, I do know what it is. My dad hasn't stopped talking about how it's going to change everything all last summer," Hermione murmured in amusement.

"Okay, well, we did one and got bupkis. We even looked up a list of defunct monasteries in Scotland at the tourist bureau... nothing at all. It was like this place didn't even exist."

Hermione looked at the distant shadow that was Hogwarts. "Do... do you think it's because Hogwarts is so close? That perhaps some of the charms and enchantments have made this place..."

"Invisible to normal human eyes?" Jane finished Hermione's sentence with a sardonic little smile. "Yeah, we considered that. Roxy and I even thought about going to that wizarding village near here. But then we realized that'd be a bust in more ways than one."

The young witch gave her a strange look of befuddlement. "Well, it seems to me that doing so would be the next logical step. I would have done it."

"You clearly haven't read the most recent issue of the Dumfries Standard," Jane said, pursing her lips as she pulled out the neatly folded front page of a newspaper. "Roxy... well, she stole it when we went into town last week." Taking the proffered paper, Hermione quickly read it, eyebrows rising in astonishment.

"Black's been sighted in that muggle village nearby?"

"Indeed," Jane confirmed with a heavy sigh. "We're all aware your Ministry is looking for him. So, Rox and I figured that two school age American girls wandering around asking questions about a monastery suspiciously near a wizarding school that no one outside of Britain should know about - well, that's pretty ding dang suspicious. Let's not forget, neither of us are wizards and wouldn't be able to hand over wands if asked. I assume they ask or would ask?" She titled her head to the side thoughtfully before shrugging. "Anyway, it all just added up to being one huge bad idea, so we nixed it."

"That's such a shame. It would have been nice to know more about this place," said Hermione, a bit crestfallen as she gazed over the ruins.

"O-HO! You think this gutsy gumshoe would throw in the towel so easily!? I am as tenacious as Monsieur Poirot. No mystery will ever get the better of me," Jane declared with a little hop in her step.

Hermione laughed brightly. "Is that so? I'm intrigued now; do tell me how you solved it, Madame Crocker."

"Roxy and I kinda, sorta, most definitely broke into Hogwart's library," Jane admitted sheepishly. "We started in the history section, obviously. We found a whole lot of nothing. All the editions were about fifty years old or less which I thought was rather surprising, all things considered."

"Why would that be surprising? A library ought to have the most current editions of all of its books, especially ones dealing in history."

"True, but a library as old as Hogwarts certainly wouldn't get rid of them entirely - like for instance, first prints or really rare editions. Look at the number of Shakespeare folios there are or the different editions of the Bible. If they have a special collections area in a non-magic library, it'd stand to reason that Hogwarts would be no different, despite being distinctly magical," Jane explained, gesticulating animatedly. "Not JUST a restricted section, but one specifically for rare books."

"You're right," Hermione breathed quietly. "You're brilliant! I can't believe I didn't know about..." she marveled, pausing for a beat, "it should have been in Hogwarts: A History. How could I have overlooked it? I've read that book dozens of times and there was never any mention of a rare books collection."

"I have some theories," Jane began, giving her a little sideways glance. Hermione was on tenterhooks, gesturing impatiently at her blue eyed companion. "Well, the innocuous explanation is that those books aren't there for students but for academics and other professionals; adults, in other words. It makes a whole lot of sense that they wouldn't trust students with their rarest tomes. But considering what I found out about this place, there may be a more insidious reason for it as well."

Hermione went quiet, her mind working quickly. The only other reason to keep something like this a secret would be because there was information in some of those books that was in some way dangerous, but perhaps not dangerous in the usual way, information that might threaten the status quo. She said as much to Jane, who nodded at her appreciatively.

"It took us a bit," Jane said as she wrestled with something in her large, patchwork messenger bag. "But we found this." She pulled out a thick leather-bound tome titled 'An Unabridged History of the Magical World' by Adelbert Fletcher.

Taking the book, her lips quirked up in a half smile. It was somewhat amusing to her that she only seemed to attract friends who had a penchant for breaking rules. Opening the book, she noted the publishing date listed in Roman numerals, MDCCCLXII - 1862. Jane had helpfully left a bookmark, an old receipt, so that finding the right passage was easier. Carefully thumbing open the book, she flipped to the appropriate page.

There have been a number of experiments over the years in merging the muggle world with our own. Perhaps the saddest of these is Midwich Abbey, now nothing more than mouldering ruins. It was founded in 897 A.D. by a group of disgruntled muggleborns who believed, quite incorrectly, that natural born wizards used their magic far too frivolously. Some have suggested that it was the precursor to Hogwarts; a ridiculous notion at best and one that I have dismissed out of hand.

These were suspicious times, and the founders of this institution were as vulnerable as the common blood they came from. Unlike their muggle peers, they believed their magic was a gift from god, rather than a curse. Moreover, they believed it ought to be used to benefit all mankind, whether magical or not, to spread their word view and promote peace where there was none. Clinging to these primitive beliefs, they refrained from using any spell defensive or offensive that would make their share easier.

They did have some semblance of wizarding pride. Rather than eschew magic entirely, they believed it ought to serve a useful purpose, not an entirely unworthy goal to be sure. While living in strict austerity, they peddled potions and cures to both wizard and muggle alike. They believed quite firmly that both muggle and wizard were equal in the eyes of god, which is, of course, pure foolishness and was borne out by the abbey's ultimate fate.

It ought to be noted that they had lived thusly for centuries before inevitably being found out. Of course it was only a matter of time. In 1692 the Abbey was attacked and unceremoniously burned to the ground by their muggle neighbors in a fit of superstitious pique over a poor harvest and the frequent illnesses of the town's children, blaming the very remedies that cured them. It was one of the last wide spread efforts to bridge the gap between the muggle world and our own, a tragic end to a failed experiment.

It was this attack that gave greater weight to those in favour of the Statue of Secrecy and secured its easy passage...

Hermione had to read the pitifully miniscule passage over again such was her fury. She wasn't even sure what she was angrier about - the bigoted pureblood tone or the fact that something this important wasn't in 'A History of Magic' - they hadn't been taught this at all.

"How could... how could they hide this from us?" She exclaimed, huffing indignantly.

Jane bit her lip and then grimaced. "It gets worse." Hermione's eyes flashed asking silently how it could get any worse. "Follow me."

They walked together quickly, stopping by a door just off the west side of the cloister. It was a very small room with a row of bright windows. The walls were blackened in places and deeply scored in others, leaving little doubt that something terrible had indeed happened here. Hermione gazed piercingly at the walls, remembering what she'd just read.

Glancing over at Jane, she asked demandingly, "The book said it was burned." Jane's incredibly blue eyes widened as she nodded slowly. No one could look at Hermione when she was in her highest dudgeon and not be a bit intimidated. "This doesn't look like damage from a fire. Fire damage is more uniform, especially when it's purposefully set. These look like blasts... like spell damage."

"That was my assumption as well," Jane confirmed grimly, looking at the young witch with not a small amount of concern.

Hermione was absolutely shaking with rage. They had destroyed this place and murdered its inhabitants because the abbey was at odds with the message the Ministry wished to promote. They had always been told that secluding themselves from muggles had been the only choice. But that was a lie and the evidence was born out by the walls of the abbey. She flirted briefly with the thought of revealing the truth, but quickly realized that she'd either be dismissed as a lunatic or silenced as the monks had been. The wizarding world had been built on this lie and there were those who wouldn't be keen to give it up.

Watching Hermione quietly, Jane touched her arm gently, looking into eyes glassy with tears. "There's something else," she whispered quietly, a small smile teasing her lips. "Something really good."

She could not possibly believe anything found in this place could be good. Jane walked into the room, which made Hermione gasp. It somehow felt wrong to enter, as if they were disturbing the dead. Jane turned around quickly with her hands clasped in front of her, her face all blustery excitement.

"See, when John and I found this place... well, it took me a minute. But I figured out what it was. There were remnants of ink wells and a few desiccated feathers" She gave a momentary pause, hoping the young witch would guess correctly as she had before. But she remained stubbornly silent. Frowning a little she exclaimed, "It's a scriptorium - a place where they made illuminated manuscripts!"

"What does it matter what they did here?" Hermione replied, her eyes roving the walls sadly.

"It always matters! Places like this are important. Knowing what happened... history is speaking to us here. Don't you see it?"

"I don't see anything but..."

"UGH! Besides the markings!" Jane scowled, making an exasperated sound. "Maybe it's because I played the Game with all its stupid puzzles that I see them everywhere. Look!" She commanded, storming over to the far wall and jabbing a finger at it.

Nearly lost in all the damage the room had taken was a small ornamental sculpture that looked very out of place in such an austere room. Hermione finally entered, walking slowly towards Jane - boots echoing loudly with every step. It was a trefoil and inside it was a lamb surrounded by lilies. She met Jane's eyes, knowing they were thinking along the same lines. This sculpture had obviously Christian overtones; pureblooded wizards would never understand the significance and no doubt overlooked it as another muggleborn oddity. Biting her lip again, Jane carefully grasped the sculpture and turned it. There was a series of odd thuds and a scraping sound. The wall fell away to reveal a small alcove and inside that alcove was a book.

"I wasn't able to remove it," Jane admitted with a little head nod. "I think it's protected. But it was nice to solve a puzzle that didn't involve plonking reptile skulls onto weighted platforms..."

Hermione could tell that there were protective enchantments on it; they were so strong that the hair on the back of her neck tingled. She knew she shouldn't reach in but she did anyway. Her fingers closed over the book and pulled it forward. Nothing happened. It was as if it had been waiting for her and only her to take it. Both girls let out the breath they had been holding the entire time.

Nervously glancing over at Jane, Hermione opened the elaborate, gilded cover. Inside was a revelation. When she was very young, long before she'd gotten her Hogwarts letter, she had gone to Ireland with her family. Her father insisted on visiting Trinity College to see the Book of Kells - he had always had a great love of art and he wished to instill the same love in his only child. She was only seven, so some of it was lost on her. But one of the pages displayed a profusion of swirling whorls and tight Celtic knots and between them wandered all manner of animals and hidden human faces. Her father had bought an expensive reproduction of the book on their way out. She used to spend hours looking at the pages intently, her eyes drinking in every detail. Those images were at once terrifying and fascinating.

The wonder of those moments were brought back in an instant. But here the whorls turned gracefully, Celtic knots twining around themselves endlessly. The animals seemingly imprisoned by the design moved freely between them while flowers bloomed or wilted at their leisure. The human figures blinked languidly as they gestured with impossible reverence - their gold halos illuminating the page quite literally.

Hermione realized all at once what this was. This place had been founded by monks and nuns. It was true that wizards had no set religion, but the people who had made this place had - they were muggleborns who had somehow reconciled their faith with their natural born talents. There'd be no question that like regular muggle monasteries they would have made illuminated manuscripts. But they would never be content with static, fixed illustrations. In true wizard fashion, they had made them come alive in breathtaking fashion. It was frustrating that she couldn't read a bit of it as it was all in Latin.

"This was their life's work," she whispered tearfully. They knew what was going to happen and had without a doubt not raised a hand in their own defense. Instead, they had hid their one true treasure in hopes that someday it would be found.

There was a part of her that dearly wanted to take it. The book was evidence, after all. But what could one teenage girl do with this, really. If she took it, there was a good chance it'd be destroyed, either purposefully or on accident. She might revere the hard work that went into making this, but her clumsy roommates would not. This alcove had preserved the book, the ink looked as bright as they day it was put to the page. It had kept it from the ravages of time and the destructive impulses of those who felt this place represented something dangerous. She quickly replaced it, carefully using the hidden lever to close the wall.

"You're not taking it?"

Looking at Jane's astonished face, she shook her head. "It's safer here, for now."

Noticing the young witch's demeanor, Jane was suddenly filled with regret. "I'm sorry... I shouldn't have said anything. This was supposed to be a happy occasion but I was so wrapped up in sharing the... history of this dumb place that I didn't think about-"

Hermione looked at her sharply. "No, I'm glad you told me. This is something that everyone should know. I'm angry that the history of this place has been hidden so effectively. But I can't be mad that you showed me what you knew." She gave a tight little smile, giving Jane's arm a light squeeze. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Jane replied, patting Hermione's back companionably. "We probably should get back. I don't even wanna know what those three goofballs might be up to without a qualified adult watching their every move."

They exited the scriptorium and started the long walk back to the abbot's quarters.

Neither of them said a whole lot - there was far too much to think about. Hermione's mind was a thousand miles away, so she hardly noticed that Jane had stopped cold. She was staring out at the courtyard, her mouth wide open. It took a second for Hermione to realize why. Following Jane's line of sight, he own mouth dropped open in astonishment.

In the courtyard there was an unimaginably huge sphere made entirely of snow. At first, Hermione couldn't imagine how it'd been formed until she saw Jane look up. Floating happily in mid-air was John, an equally enormous ball of snow being formed just above him. He was somehow using air currents to suck the snow from all around to fashion what could be described as a terribly small snow planet.

Tearing her hat off her head and throwing it to the ground, Jane's face went puce as she roared, "OH FOR CRIMINEY'S SAKE!" She clumsily crawled over the balustrade and marched into the knee deep snow in the courtyard. "JOHN NATHANIEL EGBERT WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING? I LEAVE YOU ALONE FOR TWENTY MINUTES AND THIS IS WHAT I COME BACK TO? GET DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT!"

As she quickly knelt down to pick up the hat, Hermione was instantly reminded of Mrs. Weasley. She watched the display warily, absently clutching Jane's hat in her hands. Of all the powers she'd seen her new friends use, John's was the most terrifying and the fact that Jane was worried enough to shout that loudly was not a terribly good sign.

"Nah," came the distant reply. "I don't even have a middle name by the way."

"I JUST INVENTED ONE BECAUSE YOU MADE ME SO MAD TWO NAMES WEREN'T ENOUGH! " At this he laughed uproariously. This was unquestionably the wrong thing to do. "DON'T YOU DARE MAKE ME COME UP THERE AND GET YOU!" Jane shouted back, nearly hopping with the force of her fury. "WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING WITH THAT THING?!"

"Making a really huge ass snow man." This time his voice was a bit closer as he'd floated a few feet down, the snow planet moving gracefully with him.

"WHAT?! That doesn't even make any sense. It won't work," Jane reasoned, gesturing wildly. "You might defy physics but that doesn't mean the snow can."

"Jane, please. I know all about snowmen. I saw a documentary about how they make these huge sculptures made out of snow in Japan once. Don't worry. It's gonna be awesome," John explained patiently, waving his free hand at her dismissively.

Slapping a hand to her forehead, she wailed, "That's because they use water to freeze the snow to strength it, otherwise it loses cohesion!"

Sure enough, the other snow planet had begun to crumble on one side without John's windy power to hold it together. John ignored it. "This is totally gonna work. You'll see!"

Taking a steadying breath, Jane tried to argue, "No, John, they use blocks of snow that have been compacted tightly and they use water to freeze it. This snow is too loose; it'll just break apart and make a huge mess of everything."

"Haha! Nice try!" John laughed, floating up suddenly as he carefully guided his second snow planet onto the first.

"Ah, shit," Jane cursed, looking over at Hermione worriedly.

She ran, vaulting over the balustrade in one go. Grabbing hold of Hermione's hand, she whisked her into the air in an eye blink. Hermione barely even noticed they were floating above the courtyard. The sight of one snow planet colliding slowly with the other was too transfixing. The two snow spheres sat snugly for all of three seconds, before collapsing in a small avalanche. Once finished, it had completely covered up the area both Jane and Hermione had occupied seconds before.

"Wow, what a completely predictable outcome," Jane commented blandly as she carefully brought them back to earth. "It's almost as if someone told you it'd be a stupid idea."

"Huh, best laid plans I guess," John chortled, scratching the back of his head as he had not considered this particular possibility.

Once safely on the ground, Jane held out her messenger bag forcefully. "Hermione, dear, would you mind holding this for me."

It wasn't a question. Hermione took the bag meekly, looking worriedly at the dark look on Jane's face. John didn't seem to sense the danger. Kneeling down gracefully, Jane scooped up a handful of snow, balled it, and threw it in a single fluid movement with as much force as she could at John's face. This was also a possibility he hadn't counted on, but should have. The snowball struck him right on his cheek with terrifying velocity that literally knocked him off his feet. Suspended mid-air for a second, he made a soft "oof" sound before comically falling over into the snow. He lay spread-eagled on the ground, both his legs sticking straight up like flag poles.

Shooting him a dirty look, Jane dusted herself off calmly and straightened her clothes. "Let's get out of here before he gets his second wind. I'm in no mood for a prank war. I mean, I know I'd win, but I am NOT in the proper frame of mind for it."

Hermione did not argue with her.

Jane powered through the snow, even though in places it went up to her thighs. Hermione walked behind her, not struggling as badly thanks to Jane's trailblazing. As they trudged forward they could see both Dave and Roxy had hurried out to see what had happened. Roxy hand reached them first, looking over the apocalypse of snow with something between awe and confusion. Dave reached them second, surveying the devastation with raised eyebrows.

"What in the shit happened?" Roxy asked, stomping genially through the excess snow.

Dave looked back at her disbelievingly. "C'mon! This is clearly John's work. Big doofus is lying just over there with his feet stickin' out the ground."

Four sets of eyes gazed over to the area where John had last been seen. There was nothing left but the deep indent from his landing and unsettled snow. A volley of snowballs filled the air before anyone could properly register anything was amiss. Most of them went wild. Two hit the ground near Jane's feet. One hit the back of Hermione's leg rather pointlessly. Some hit the snow with a soft 'poff' that left little craters behind them. One hit Roxy right in the chest - cold, wet snow found its way between her scarf and skin. Holding her hands out, she let out a strangled scream, shaking her clothes out to try to relieve her discomfort. Another hit Dave square in the face. He stood there mutely as the snow slid slowly off his aviators that were hanging drunkenly off one ear. Taking them off slowly, he brushed the offending snow from them, and then his face and hair. With deliberate slowness, he put the glasses back on and glared at John murderously. Roxy wore a similarly dark expression on her face.

"You're a dead man, Egbert," Dave declared with deceptive calmness and then he leapt into the air spectacularly, disappearing in a whirl of clockwork motion.

A second afterwards, there were no less than ten Daves in the air. Each and every one of them hand a snowball in hand as they threw them at John in a chaotic barrage. John ducked and whirled like a dervish, waving his arms wildly to push the projectiles away with short bursts of wind. He wasn't entirely successful as many of the snowballs hit their mark. There were far too many Daves - all of them winding in and out in a coordinated dance through the timeline. John, realizing he was outnumbered, abruptly became the breeze, surrendering corporeal form temporarily.

The Daves in the air solidified to one singular Dave, whose feet hit the ground with a controlled skid. His hand flicked out and a long, elegant sword appeared in his grasp. Swinging the sword languidly, his entire body automatically assumed a defensive stance. His head tipped back and forth imperceptibly as he slowly circled around the courtyard; his movement was economical, precise as a Swiss timepiece.

Hermione knew without question that there was nothing real about this "battle". But she could also see that Dave had all the mannerisms of a practiced warrior and if this had been real... she shuddered.

She watched as his head suddenly snapped up, attention focused on the sky. John was there holding up another snow planet, though much, much smaller than the ones he'd originally made. He had what looked to be the world's most ridiculous sledgehammer in his hands. It was overlarge with a silly profusion of decoration on it and painted in the most hideously garish colors she'd ever seen. Lifting the hammer over his head, he struck the snow planet, sending it hurtling towards Dave at incredible speed.

The Knight of Time's knees bent before he shot forward to meet it, sword flashing in the dim winter light. He cut the snow planet down the middle. The two halves broke apart but before they could fall there was a blur of motion as he cut it into smaller pieces. Somehow he had grabbed some of the falling snow mid-air. Packing it into a ball, he hucked it at John who batted it away easily with a swing from his hammer.

They both hovered in the air for a few moments before throwing snowballs at each other in earnest. Whatever they'd been doing before it had clearly been only a prelude. With the feeling that they'd shown off enough they began to move faster, until they were moving so fast that her eyes had trouble perceiving it. It was all a blur of red and blue as snowballs whipped through the air at such speed that they had turned to glittering steam on impact.

Enraptured, she was so caught up in watching them that she didn't notice the tug on her sleeve. It wasn't until Jane shouted her name that she was able to drag her eyes away from the sky and the rapid fire snowball fight happening above her.

"We should go," Jane said and her tone was very firm. "Before they remember we're here."

"But-"

"Neither of us wants to be caught up in that nonsense," she insisted, jerking her head at the chaos happening above them. "Besides, you can help me with making the frosting for the cake!"

"What about Roxy?" Hermione asked as she was being nearly dragged toward the abbot's residence.

Jane guffawed loudly. "You should be more worried about what she has planned for those two buffoons. C'mon, it's freezing out here."

Chapter Text

Once inside, they took off their wet coats, boots, and socks and set them in front of the brazier to dry. It was a bit chilly but infinitely better without their wet things on. Jane had seemingly planned ahead for such a predicament. It looked to Hermione's eyes like she was paging through an invisible book. A profusion of clothing instantly popped out of nowhere, plopping neatly into her waiting arms. She handed a light blue sweater, a pair of socks, and a pair of slippers over to Hermione. Jane had already slipped herself into a vibrant red sweater and began pulling on the warm, dry socks.

"I was a camp fire girl," Jane said, answering the unasked question. "And my dad was a boy scout... always be prepared and all that."

And with that, she put on her apron and began to pull ingredients out of the cupboards briskly. The sounds of clattering bowls filled the room. She cheerfully gave Hermione directions on what needed to be started first. There were two different types of buttercream frosting she intended to use.

Italian buttercream would be used on the outside as it didn't tend to get melty straight away. The filling inside would be French buttercream prepared using the pâte à bombe technique. French buttercream frosting tended to be very fiddly and melted easily, which was why it was a better pick to fill the cake. It was also why she would be making it herself, as the recipe was rather difficult even for the most experienced home baker. She directed Hermione to make the Italian buttercream. The recipe she had was modified first by her father and then she'd made her own adjustments which made it easier and, most importantly, tastier.

Pointing out all the ingredients and her very own recipe book, complete with hand written alterations, she watched carefully as the young witch prepared the frosting. She could tell the girl was nervous as she had admitted to not being much of a cook. It didn't matter and Jane told her so. All she really had to do was follow the directions.

You didn't need to be an expert baker to make good frosting, in her opinion. Hermione had lots of questions which interrupted her own work, but Jane didn't mind all that much. She could make frosting in her sleep and helping a friend out was really no trouble. The one impression Hermione was left with was that Jane Crocker would have made an excellent teacher.

It was by no means an easy recipe, but Hermione thought she had acquitted herself very well. The frosting was light and buttery and it tasted amazing. She gave it to Jane for a final test and it was approved with a smile. Setting it aside as Jane had yet to finish the filling, Hermione settled for watching her work. It was fascinating to say the least. Her movements were easy and economical as she was perfectly at home here. Despite the complexity of the recipe, she was able to converse with Hermione without difficulty. All the while, she traded stories with Hermione about family and friends.

While talking, she noticed something strange - while Jane stirred there was what could only be described as fire emanating from her skin. It was light blue in color and ran from her hand to the spoon straight into what she was cooking. Jane noticed her rather indiscreet staring and gave a little cough.

Hermione started, realizing she'd been caught. "I'm sorry. It's just... I've never seen anything like it."

"Well, I wouldn't expect that you have," Jane remarked with a shrug. "It's just part and parcel of my particular Aspect. Whenever I'm cooking it flares up. It likes to be a part of things like this and I guess it just can't help itself."

"You talk about it as if it's alive."

"In a way, it is - it's Life, after all. And I'm Maid of it," she chuckled, taking particular joy in Hermione's look of confusion. "I think it flares like this when I'm cooking because food is such an essential part of life for all of us. It's a bit embarrassing when someone who isn't used to it sees me do it for the first time, but it does have its advantages. Life as an Aspect has healing properties. So it means whatever I cook is infused with those properties. I've always felt like cooking for people is a way to give something of yourself in the most elemental fashion - my power just makes it more literal."

"Made of life..." Taking this all in, Hermione hummed softly. "So, Life is your Aspect. Isn't there another bit to your title though?"

"I see you didn't get my terrible joke." Jane smiled and gave her a little wink. "I'm THE Maid of Life. Get it? My whole title is a pun. The Maid of Life who is made of life. Very silly but the Game is full of things like that. Look at John's title - Heir of Breath. Air as in the air we breathe and as the heir he inherits the wind."

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude, but what does this game have to do with anything? You've mentioned it twice."

Jane looked as if she'd been slapped. "I don't understand. The Game... it's why we have our powers! I mean, I wasn't born with this, not really. None of us were. We all won the right to wield our power this way via the Game. Roxy told you, didn't she? How else could you explain-" Heart beating extremely fast, she looked at the young witch who wore a look of complete confusion. Inhaling shakily, she put down the frosting she'd been mixing. "She... she didn't tell you, did she?" The dread she felt was palpable as she saw Hermione shake her head slowly. "God, she didn't."

She turned around abruptly, inwardly fuming and trying desperately to figure out the best way to explain everything. Slamming her hands on the counter, she said forcefully, "Well, there's nothing for it. Hand me that pastry bag."

Alarmed, Hermione did as she was asked, handing the pastry bag over to Jane warily. With nimble grace, she placed the cake onto a small raised plate so she could apply the frosting. Carefully, she spooned the French buttercream into the bag and twisted it sharply, and she turned back to the cake and squeezed the frosting out onto it. As she worked, she began to speak.

"First of all, I don't want you to be angry at Roxy that she didn't tell you. I'm not happy about it but I understand why she didn't. Roxy... well, what you have to understand is the way she grew up... I mean, it's her story to tell and if she hasn't, I won't break her trust by saying anything. But it was isolated and she was very lonely. Her only friends were me, Dirk, and Jake for the longest time."

She paused briefly to align the top part of the cake with the bottom, pressing it down gently but firmly. "Because of her situation... her friends are more like family to her. Heck, it's that way for all of us to greater or lesser degrees. I'm sure you understand. Anyway, sometimes when it comes to stuff like this - Roxy can get a little irrational. She gets it in her head that she needs to protect you and then does something reckless and counterproductive. She once blew up my computer in hopes of preventing me from playing the Game. In the end, she was right to be suspicious, but..." Jane looked up at the ceiling with a little shrug. "This is no different. So, please don't judge her."

"Wait, Dave said they were all related... he, Roxy, Dirk, Rose... if that's true then-"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Jane chided as she portioned out the Italian buttercream into smaller bowls. "I'll get to all that because it's all sort of interconnected. You asked about the Game. So we'll start there."

As she squeezed food coloring into one of the smaller bowls and began to mix it, she started speaking slowly. "The name of the game as we knew it was SBURB, and I urge you never to repeat it and I will only ever say it once. It was billed as a multiplayer virtual reality video game with world building elements. According to all the advertising, it was supposed to be the next big gaming innovation. It was supposed to 'change the world' and it did... but not the way anyone thought it would," she said with a little tremulous laugh. "What all the slick merchandizing failed to mention was that minute you installed the damned thing it'd bring about the end of the world."

She paused, eyes narrowing. "Honestly, when I say that out loud it sounds insane." Shaking herself, she had begun carefully pouring out frosting onto the cake. "And if I hadn't experienced it first-hand... if I was in your shoes right now, I suppose I'd think that whoever told me such an outrageous story was as mad as a hatter. There are days where I wish that it was some tall tale a crazy person came up with. That it didn't really happen, but it did and we all have to live with it somehow."

She went very quiet for a second or two, her brows furrowed as she mixed a second color into the smaller bowls of frosting. In the seemingly endless quiet, Hermione could not help but voice the question that had been bubbling inside her. "I'm not saying I believe you but... if it's true... well, once you knew what would happen, you could have just refused to play."

"Well, here's the thing. Roxy knew and she told me beforehand, hence her attempted sabotage of my computer. And just like you, I didn't believe her. Who would?" She laughed again; it was a terribly tired sound. "Like I said before, she tried to keep me from playing it. But the Game doesn't make anything that simple. On the surface, it seems very easy... and I suppose if you think about it a certain way it was." And she exhaled shakily, her eyes taking on a slight sheen. "Our planet... our entire universe had been marked by the Game for destruction from day one and the only way to escape it was through the Game. Whether or not we installed it was irrelevant. It boiled down to whether we wanted to live or die. And despite all our reservations, we all chose to play. We chose to live."

"Marked? What do you mean?"

Carefully spooning blue frosting into a pastry bag, her lips thinned momentarily. "The Game chose our planet and marked it using a game construct, a temple, which was placed through a temporal portal and sent to our earth. Even the players were chosen because we were meant to... we were made to play it, sending us back through those same portals like some weird living portents of doom. So, really, there wasn't a choice at all. Temporal destiny fucked us good, which is the way Dave described it at one point," Jane said with a sardonic eye roll.

"Roxy said something about... that I wasn't made for the things she dealt with," Hermione exclaimed with a little gasp. Her brows furrowed suddenly in thought, piecing strands of information together as the puzzle began to knit itself together. "Is that what you meant about all of this being interconnected?"

Biting her lip as she carefully formed a flower petal out of frosting, she nodded her head affirmatively. "Yep! The process behind it is a little esoteric and hard to explain. But put simply, we were all created by the game, not born like normal people. Dirk and Roxy, Jake and I, were genetic bases for four other players - John and his friends. So while Rose is actually Dave's sister, Roxy and Dirk are more like their parents. But because of game time shenanigans, we're all the same age. Doesn't make sense to call someone dad when you're both the same age, does it. And none of us were ever meant to meet had we played the game as intended."

Without preamble, she went into further details about the game as she decorated the cake. Apparently there were two sessions, Alpha and Beta. John and his friends were part of the Beta session and had played the game first, which seemed illogical but that was par for the course, really. The point of the Game itself was to create a new universe. In John's session, it was viable and therefore able to create a new universe but unwinnable due to a strategic flaw. The players could chose to ride out the session and die or scratch it - restart it entirely with new parameters.

Jane made it very clear that restarting was not much better than death. In the new session, John and his friends would switch places with those that were their parents or guardians on their version of earth. In the new reality, it'd be Jane and her friends, their parents, who played while John and his friends would take on the more passive roles as their guardians. They would lose all memory of who they were before and all that had happened to them. Jane wasn't clear on the details, but they had somehow figured out how to retain their memories and join the new session intact. It involved a three year journey and a yellow yard and help from players in an entirely different universe, none of which were fully explained.

"Well, what happened when they entered your session?"

"We won and created a new universe," Jane replied simply, standing back from the now beautifully decorated cake.

"And that's it?!" she exclaimed incredulously. The ending of such a story, whether it was true or not, left a lot to be desired. It was as if Jane Austen had ended 'Pride and Prejudice' abruptly in the middle with "and they got over their issues completely and were married. The End." A fact Hermione wasn't shy about pointing out.

"We don't really have the time for the whole sordid tale. We'd be here for at least a week if I explained everything." Hermione gave her a look that was positively mutinous. "I've told you the most important points. Except one." A troubled look flitted over her pretty face. Instead of immediately explaining the comment, she began to clean up as if giving herself time and space to explain the next bit.

"Which is?" Hermione had hoped she didn't sound too impatient, but the truth was, well, she was dying for an answer. Even though the story was nigh unbelievable, it had the ring of truth about it and even if it wasn't true, it was a very good tale. Besides, Jane didn't seem like a person to whom lying came all that easily - especially a lie of this breadth and scale.

"I mentioned that John's session contained a critical flaw that made it impossible for them to win. The flaw wasn't there by accident but by design. It was put there by a rather malevolent entity that shall remain unnamed, for safety's sake. This entity engineered this flaw and placed it in order to allow his 'employer' to enter our universe and to give him unimpeded access to both our sessions." Almost as if she could hear the question before it was asked, she continued, "This employer of his was... a demon, I guess it's the best way to put it. This demon had been cutting a swath of destruction through various universes for a very long time. Ours was only one in a long string to suffer his influence. The damage done to the fabric of reality by his rampage was... extensive."

"That's why you're here, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. He had quite the grudge against, well, reality itself. The fact that the whole point of the Game was the propagation of existence..." Jane trailed off with a jerky shrug. "Anyway, he hijacked the Game's own mechanics against it so that he could continue his reign of terror. We were the unlucky schlubs who pulled the short straw and had to deal not only with beating the game but dealing with him as well. We did it, but it'll never be over until the fabric of space-time is healed, which, as you might imagine, has not exactly been all that easy."

The seriousness of what they were doing hit Hermione right then. It was easy for her to somehow pretend that whatever they were here for wasn't all that dire. The lackadaisical American way of going about things had perhaps blinded her. There was one thing that did confuse her.

"Why tell me all this? You implied earlier that I ought to know... but I think Roxy is right. This is beyond me."

"Well, you're still in school, still learning," Jane corrected gently. "Besides, from what I've read of you and your friends, you all have handled things most adults couldn't deal with." That garnered a small smile. "And in four years, you'll truly be a force to be reckoned with. That's why we're here after all! Well, firstly, because we will need your help quite badly. And secondly, when we first met you in what will be your future you knew a whole lot about us. So obviously, we had to go back and make sure it happened, lest we create a paradox. I guess we all assumed it was Roxy that'd tell you. Turns out it was me. Either way, you know what you need to now. So, paradox averted!"

It strangely hurt to hear that the only reason they came was to give her information she needed. They had treated her very much like a valued friend, but once again... would she only ever be a valuable font of information? Jane could see where her train of thought was going. Wiping her hands off on her apron, she touched her shoulder and rubbed it gently.

"I know what you're thinking. But you're wrong. Dave and Roxy had one job. Tell you everything I just told you. Instead, they frogged around because they were having such a good time hanging out with you. Leaving me with all the dirty work," Jane complained, though it was obvious she wasn't all that bothered. "Roxy for all her faults is a great judge of character. So if she befriends someone, it's pretty much guaranteed they are objectively a great person. And she wouldn't have insisted on this party if she didn't consider you a friend. Dave is the very same way, being her son and all. It may have started out as a mission but in the end they got so attached to you that they couldn't stand being the bearer of bad news."

"Aw! D'ya really think all those nice things about me?" chimed a very familiar voice, wearing a Chesire cat grin a mile wide. "Makin' me feel mad guilty over here for ostensibly shirking the shit outta my one job." Roxy had the good grace to grimace a little at her admission.

Jane's eyes narrowed a bit before her expression softened into fondness. "Yes, I do mean all those nice things and yes, you should feel guilty, you big horse's caboose."

"Sorry," she said though it sounded more like a question than a statement. "Ya mad at me?"

Jane made a very familiar flat expression that implied exasperation. With an eye roll, she shook her head. "I really ought to be but everyone knows I can't. I mean, look at that face."

Roxy beamed happily, skipping over to give Jane and then Hermione a bone crushing hug. Her attention was quickly diverted by the confection sitting innocently on the counter. "Yay! CAKE!"

She swiped a finger-full of frosting off the recently decorated cake. Jane gave an indignant squawk, slapping her friend's hands away irately. She gave her a dirty look before shoving the now empty bowl of frosting into Roxy's hands, mumbling the entire time about having to fix the damned cake.

While she re-piped the side of the cake, she turned to Roxy, who was happily licking frosting off a spatula. "So, where are the boys?"

"Oh, they're still outside, probs," she said, her eyes twinkling mysteriously as if she was more than clear where they were.

Jane shook her head as she dried a fork with her towel. "I assume you won the snowball fight?"

"Handily," Roxy replied with a wicked grin. "Dumped about three feet of snow I pilfered from the top of the Rockies on 'em. They should be digging themselves out-"

The rugs covering the door were thrown open as Dave stomped inside. "Right now, you mean?! And it was more like six feet of fucking snow, you ass."

John tromped in shortly thereafter, mumbling disconsolately, "I got snow in places I didn't know snow could go."

Both of them looked bedraggled, Dave's hair hand gone completely flat while John's was a twisted wreck. Their clothes were rumpled and clotted with snow that had begun to melt. Both were shivering badly. Jane immediately made them sit down and take off their wet things, handing out more sweaters and socks as she guided them to sit by the fire. Mugs of hot cocoa were stuffed in their hands unceremoniously. Roxy told Hermione that she could use her magic if she'd like, as it wouldn't register thanks to her 'sleeper' power. So she carefully cast a drying and a warming charm on their clothes. It was the first time she'd used her own magic in front of them and was embarrassed by how impressed they were.

"Wow, your powers can do really useful stuff," John complimented, sipping his hot cocoa loudly. "Wish our powers were that versatile. I mean, making tornadoes is cool and all, but it'd be nice to have it do simple stuff - not just junk for fighting monsters."

"Oh, it wasn't anything special," Hermione spluttered, her cheeks flushing. "A simple spell I learned in my first year."

"Bullshit. You dried my kicks. I owe you a fucking life debt," Dave insisted, fishing out a marshmallow with a spoon messily and eating it. His feet wiggled a bit in his shoes, which were now quite dry and comfortable.

Shortly thereafter, cake was handed out. It was as delicious as everything else had been. Hermione thought she might be imagining it, but she felt warmer and more at peace after having eaten it; as if healed from the inside. All the stress and upset she'd been feeling just melted away. There was only a little melancholia leftover - knowing that eventually she'd have to say goodbye to all these wonderful people... no, wonderful friends. And she wouldn't even see them again for a full four years. So she drank the scene in. John and Dave were laughing uproariously at some strange in-joke only understood by the two of them. Roxy chattering companionably, her hands fluttering excitedly while Jane listened with a small smile on her face. They both turned to her, including her in on the conversation. It was a completely silly discussion on the different kinds of things one could use in lieu of a makeup sponge.

"You wouldn't be able to use a hardboiled egg that way. The shell is weakened by the warmth of the water and it'd just start peeling off and getting mixed up in the foundation, and end up all over your face. You would in the most literal way possible have egg on your face," Jane pointed out acidly. "Don't try and debate me on this, Roxy."

"Okay, okay! Oh, Queen of Cooking," Roxy replied, waving her hands in a placatory fashion. "So what about a raw egg?"

"A raw egg wouldn't be much better. It's not really pliable enough to work properly," Hermione sighed. "And heaven forbid it breaks. It'd make a right mess then."

"Okay, then what if you took the shell OFF the hardboiled egg?" Roxy asked, her lips tipped up mischievously. "Like, use the egg meats underneath to sponge the makeup on."

Jane and Hermione made twin exclamations of disgust while Roxy cackled - pleased that this hypothetical discussion had born the fruit she'd been growing the entire time. The rest of the afternoon played out in the same fashion. Most of the conversations were silly and occasionally ridiculous. At one point, Roxy had dragged out her phone to reveal that it didn't just take still pictures. It had a video function and well. They spent several minutes viewing Roxy's favorite cat videos. She had laughed more in that short time than she had in weeks. But all too quickly the day came to an end. Saying goodbye was as hard as she'd imagined. There were a lot of tears on all sides. But the promise of seeing them again, even if it was in four years, buoyed her a bit.

"How will we be going back?" she asked, her voice congested with tears.

"I'll be taking you," Dave stated with a nod. "Me and Roxy ran into a bit of a problem couple days back."

"Pretty sure we're suspected," Roxy confessed, her nose wrinkling. "Good Mr. Potter noticed us the last time we spoke. We both thought it'd be better if we delivered ya back a bit sooner than normal."

"He confronted me before I came here," Hermione admitted. "Wanted to know who you were."

"Good thing we'll be getting you back around eleven. Hopefully you have a good excuse ready," Dave said, one shoulder lifting up laconically.

"I'll be going first. Gonna send Dave a text when I'm sure the coast is clear, okay?"

Where Roxy once stood there was a shadow which stood there for one a moment before disappearing into the dark, swirling void. There were several long minutes while they waited. Jane was trying to hold back tears as she said goodbye, giving Hermione one of several dozen hugs. John stood next to her, patting her back comfortingly with a perplexed look on his face. He also gave her an awkward hug, promising her that he couldn't wait to meet her for the first time in four years. He made a strange comment about being just like someone named Karkat because he was trolling her backwards.

"Don't worry," he said jovially. "My future-past self is gonna tell your future self what that means so you get the joke. Or I guess your future self could just ask Karkat's future-past self, which would be pretty hilarious. Anyway, you'll have to let me know then how funny you think it is."

And then Dave's phone chimed. With a grim nod, she walked over to him, waving at her friends one last time. Then there was that sensation of falling dizzily off a cliff and the monastery disappeared. Seconds later they were on the Astronomy Tower several hours before their party had even ended. Above all else, this final departure was what she had been dreading. Both she and Roxy had a hard time keeping tears from coming. In the end, they both just let them come and did nothing to wipe them away.

"I got your bookbag," Roxy sniffled, holding it up a bit unnecessarily. "All your homework's been checked and doubled checked. Left you a bunch of notes... probably be good for the next couple months, I hope. I also gave you my second favorite pen. Writes real good and since I made it with weird game shit it won't get fucked up by magic."

"Thank you," Hermione whispered, wiping her face with her palm. She was quiet for a long moment. "What I am going to do without you... both of you?" She looked from Roxy to Dave, her lips trembling.

Roxy smiled and it was very brittle. "You managed just fine without us 14 years..."

"T-that wuh-w-was befuh-f-fore," Hermione stammered. As if by some secret signal, they both embraced each other. "I duh-d-don't want you to guh-g-go."

Roxy released her, gently cupping her friend's face. "I don't wanna go either. But I gotta. Y-you know how important what we're doing is. Can't fuck it up like I did with telling you all that dumb shit I didn't tell ya." She embraced her a second time and gave her cheek a little peck. "As your official big sister, cus don't think we ain't adopting your ass, be careful, okay?" Roxy didn't let go of her arms until she received a nod in the affirmative. "Good. Gonna miss the fuck outta you."

It was Dave's turn next. He sloped over in the same lackadaisical fashion as when she'd first met him, a person with all the time in the world but unfortunately other places he had to be. "So, time to go," he enunciated carefully, his entire mien was adorably awkward. "I ain't one for long goodbyes. Soooo study hard, I guess, and all that other after school special shit. Just... just give 'em hell."

"Give who hell?" Because there was no way she'd let him get away with that being the last thing he said to her for four whole years.

"Everyone all the time, that's who." She lifted her eyebrows at him expectantly. There was more in him, she knew. He toed the ground nervously. "Seriously though, you're cool as hell. I know it's rough for you right now, but you'll get through it. Cus you're a fucking badass. I ain't gonna be time buddies with any old dipshit who can't throw down. And clearly you ain't no dipshit and you got a mean right hook," he said this with a conspiratorial wink that was baffling as it was amusing. "But seriously, you're one of the smartest women I know, and I know a lot of smart ladies." At this Hermione smiled wanly as she continued her futile attempt to brush back her tears. "So, you go fuck some shit up. Make some boys cry. I know you got it in you." This got a laugh out of her as they fist bumped. "It's been real though."

He hugged her tightly and pressed a kiss to her temple. She blushed a deep beetroot red as he pulled away, ruffling her hair affectionately. When she looked at him she saw that he wasn't as unaffected by their parting as it seemed. He didn't cry like Roxy, but his mouth was thin and his entire face was tight as he valiantly attempted to control his emotions. No one mentioned it when he lifted his aviators to scrub at the area around his eyes.

With all their final goodbyes said, it was time to go. He grabbed Roxy's hand, knowing he didn't really need to. But dramatic effect was always a plus in these moments, he'd found. The gears turned, a chime sounded and he and Roxy were pulled back through time, leaving her alone on the Astronomy Tower.

Hermione stood there for a long time, staring out into the bleak winter sky with her arms wrapped around her middle. She didn't even bother batting away the tears as they froze on her cheeks. Eventually she composed herself enough to leave. She visited a bathroom on the way back to Gryffindor Tower so she could pull herself into a better semblance of normalcy. Thinking about it, she supposed it wouldn't be all that strange that she'd looked like she'd been crying. After all, she had been doing it quite a bit. But it was a point of pride that she did not appear to be visibly upset. Harry would not doubt have gone off halfcocked looking for her. If she were to have some sort of confrontation with him, she'd need to have her wits about her. Appearing weak and weepy right now would not solve any of those problems.

Thankfully, the walk back to the tower was uneventful. A few people she knew waved and said hello to her. She waved back with a less enthusiastic smile than she was trying for. It was strange to think that there was another version of her right now that was in that monastery, with all its extraordinary revelations and warm memories. She bottled those happy memories and kept them close as she entered the Tower, looking warily into the common room.

It wasn't yet noon and because it wasn't exactly nice out it was full of people. Harry was there at the chess table with Ron. His chair was the one that faced the entrance, no doubt so he could tell when she came back. Heart thudding in her chest, she tried to walk in casually. His eyes snapped up the minute the portrait door closed. As their gazes met, he stood up suddenly. He looked like he was going to storm over and start asking more questions. Ron gave him a strange look and said something she couldn't hear over the din. Then he looked over to see what Harry was staring at. He scowled and turned away, smacking Harry's arm as if admonishing him for acknowledging her existence. Harry hadn't noticed and took a step forward instead. Hermione wouldn't give him a chance to take another.

She hurried towards the girl's dormitory, taking the stairs up two at a time until she reached the door. Once it was closed, she pressed her back against it gratefully. Numbly, she collapsed on her bed. It took every bit of energy left in her to take off her coat and boots. She sat there for a bit, having dug Roxy's pen out of her bag. It was bright pink with a funny little cat logo on it. She held it to her heart before setting it gently on her bed table. Blessedly, Crookshanks was waiting for her. He leapt up onto her bed, looking at her with his large yellow eyes. Padding over to her pillow, he lay next to it, blinking at her slowly in invitation. Pulling the curtains on her four-poster, she lay down. The cat rearranged himself so that his back was flush against her stomach. He started to purr, giving her the best comfort a cat could give. With a sigh, she fell asleep for the better part of the day.

Chapter Text

It had been a little over two months since her tearful farewell at the end of January. Not a day had gone by that she hadn't thought of both Dave and Roxy. There were moments where she stopped before entering class as if looking for someone who wasn't there. And most Sundays if you were looking for Hermione you would find her sitting in the Astronomy Tower, looking out at the sky bleakly as if waiting for someone who would not come. Sometimes she'd find herself just staring out the window at night. She would drink in the stars because somehow they made her feel closer to the new friends she'd lost. If Harry or Ron noticed her melancholy, they did not say. And if asked, Hermione suspected they'd just blame it on her overfull schedule. Stress made a nice scapegoat and kept Harry and Ron from asking difficult questions.

That was perhaps the best thing that had come out of the last two months. They were now a trio once more. Apparently Hagrid had something of a hand in it. He might have mentioned the handful of times where she'd gone to his hut on the pretense of helping him with Buckbeak's hearing, only to spend a good portion of it crying. He might have also mentioned that they ought to care more for a friend than for brooms or rats. They had sheepishly apologized to her sometime after Hagrid's dressing down.

A very small, petty part of her didn't want to forgive them. It wanted to hold on to the hurt, to make them feel a fraction of what she'd been dealing with for so long. But the better angel of her nature prevailed. In the end, the only person she'd hurt would be herself. They were friends again, that was all that mattered.

Days after her Roxy and Dave had left, she had half suspected that Harry would track her down and demand answers. Surprisingly, he didn't. She supposed that Ron's smack to his arm had really reminded him that they were pretending she didn't exist. Even so, it was a persistent worry of hers that he'd become insistent on getting answers she couldn't give. This did not stop once they'd reconciled. In point of fact, Hermione had made it a point to not be alone with Harry, hoping he'd forgotten but knowing he hadn't.

It had been during a very early breakfast that he'd finally cornered her. She knew something was wrong because he was unusually quiet, biting his lip and glancing at her surreptitiously. Whenever he had a question that he was afraid of asking, he'd nibble on his cuticles for several minutes before hitching a breath and pressing his lips together and then he'd just bluntly blurt out whatever was bothering him. His pattern remained unbroken. The question came out in a breathless rush of words, 'Whowerethosestrangepeopleyouweremeetingbefore?' It was as if the faster he said it the less likely it was to make her angry with him.

Thankfully she'd had loads of time to come up with a good excuse. The time turner provided a logical way to divert their attention. Obviously she couldn't tell them about it, but they had noticed her schedule and all the very odd contradictions on it. This provided a ready excuse and it would work because it wasn't entirely a lie. Those strange people he saw her with were helping her with a special project McGonagall had given her.

"I'm really not supposed to let anyone know, Harry. I've gotten special permission for it and Professor McGonagall thought it'd look bad if other students knew. They want to avoid even the hint of favoritism, you know. So please, don't ask about it anymore."

She had felt sick about telling her best friend such a blatant lie, feeling even worse when he bought it hook, line, and sinker. She had never felt so guilty in her entire life but it really was for the best. They'd put her away if she told them the truth - that two bored demigods hung out with her for a month because she was going to help them out in the future. That was the stuff of bad muggle Sci-Fi that her father favored, things like Doctor Who with their villains made out of hosepipes and vaccum cleaner parts.

The important part was that everything was back to normal. They were all friends and any awkward questions she couldn't answer had been completely cleared up.

Today was April 13th, which was not a remarkable day at all, except for the fact that it was the first really nice spring day they'd had. The sun was out and there was a very lovely breeze. There were a number of students skiving off to enjoy the day. Hermione was not one of those students, though sadly Harry and Ron were. They thought she was mental for staying in and studying after class when she could be outside doing something 'fun'. She rather thought her studies were a bit more important. Her Arithmancy paper would not write itself.

So here she was, in the library as always with books and notes piled around her neatly. There was a conspicuously muggle looking notebook set out amongst all the parchment. Written in surprisingly neat handwriting were pages and pages of notes and formulas. The notes were clearly not written in Hermione's hand, the syntax was off, the spelling was atrocious, and it was liberally peppered with swear words, something Hermione would never have done. They were, of course, Roxy's copious notes she'd give Hermione before she left.

Had she not been familiar with the way her friend wrote, she might think she was drunk or otherwise impaired. But she knew for a fact that half of the typos were on purpose to make her laugh and the rest were because she thought so fast that spelling became too much of a bother. There were also little crudely drawn pictures of kittens in pink ink and other silly doodles (clearly added in by Dave and John in red and blue ink respectively) that made her smile fondly when she looked at them. Roxy had said that she hoped they lasted a couple months. In truth, the notes could last a whole year and that was only for ONE of her classes. Hermione was deeply impressed by how thorough she'd been. The best part was how she'd worded them to be easily understandable with the added effect that Hermione read them in her voice when looking them over.

She had only known them a short month but she missed them both terribly.

Shafts of bright sunlight shone through the narrow library windows, only slightly muted by the stained glass. Hermione looked up briefly to appreciate it as motes of dust coruscated gently through the bright planes of light that illuminated the dark library. Someone must have opened a window somewhere. A clean spring breeze drifted through the hall. Breathing it in, she exhaled with a smile and went back to her work. Roxy's detailed notes would all be for naught if she didn't use them, after all.

Such was her concentration that she didn't notice the unnatural hush that came over the entire library. Even though Madame Pince tried to enforce absolute silence, it really was a losing battle. There was always some noise. Whispered conversations, the sound of rifling paper, the slow sound of books being draw off or onto shelves and the satisfying thunk when they were plopped on desks. All of that stopped abruptly. Hermione would have known why had she bothered to look up, but she didn't. She was fully focused on her paper and her notes.

To call the young woman who walked into the library that day beautiful would have been a dreadful understatement. She was quite short and very slight but the way she carried herself made her seem terribly imposing. The sound of her clacking heels was now the only one that could be heard. Almost every eye in the library watched her progress as she strolled down the isle of desks. One young man who was so absorbed in watching her managed to drop a very large tome on his foot as he tried to re-shelve it. Another girl fell off the chair she'd been leaning back on just to get a look at her. The only one who remained oblivious was Hermione.

She stopped at Hermione's table, gracefully threading her way through the chairs until she stood directly in front of the girl she'd come here to see. With an impish smile, she dropped the large set of books she'd been carrying on the table in front of Hermione, heedless of the echoing sound they caused. The young witch gasped loudly, her eyes flying up to glower at whoever decided to interrupt her work. Any remonstrations she had died on her lips.

Standing in front of her with her hand delicately tented on a large pile of books was none other than Rose Lalonde, dressed in Ravenclaw robes. The pictures she'd seen had not done her justice. She was the single most beautiful woman Hermione had ever seen in her whole life.

Bright lavender eyes shining, she tilted her head and asked in a low voice. "Would you mind if I sat with you?"

Hermione could only nod her head mutely. She slowly cleared off an area in front of her, hardly able to believe her eyes. In one fluid movement, the Seer of Light sat down with enviable grace.

"I think we can dispense with formal introductions. We know each other's names, after all. Seems a bit pointless repeating facts we're already aware of."

"Um, s-sure," Hermione agreed nervously. "Not to appear ungrateful, but I'm wondering..."

"Why I'm here?" Rose thought for a moment, resting her head in her hand. "That's a very simple question with a very complex answer. I suppose the foremost reason is a bit selfish on my part. I wanted to meet you."

"You wanted to meet me?" Hermione squeaked, curling in on herself in disbelief.

"Is that so unbelievable?" Rose said with a laugh, it was a light, tinkling sound.

By the startled look on Hermione's face, it was. Rose sobered somewhat as she reached into the air, seemingly tapping at nothing. A book floated slowly into her hands like a leaf falling from a tree in autumn. She caught the paperback easily and held it in both hands like it was a precious treasure. Hermione could not read the cover as it was turned away from her. The back of the book wasn't much better; it was very tattered from being read quite a bit, no doubt. All she could see was a bit of vibrant illustration - there were a number of what looked like brightly patterned curtains and an owl flying over a vast forest. In the corner, she could see just the tip of a trainer belonging to a figure she could not see.

"There's a theory that there are infinite discrete universes in infinite variations with infinite possibilities. The concept is best expressed by Schrödinger's cat - being simultaneously alive and dead in box. I think that's rather grim, don't you?" Rose asked, her gaze was penetrating.

"Yes, I agree," Hermione answered cautiously, it was a very strange way to begin a conversation with someone you'd just met. She rubbed her lips together nervously before continuing. "Dave said you all were from some alternate version of earth. I suppose that's why you bring this up."

Rose tilted her head in acquiescence, her eyes never leaving Hermione's own. She placed the book, cover up, in front of her as if daring her to look. Hermione did not. "Do you believe him?"

She thought about it for a long time before nodding. "Yes, I think I do. Is it so important that I believe?"

"That's for you to decide. Personally, I think having hope in something is far more important than just belief. Hope for the future. Hope that you might make a difference in the world, no matter how small. Hope that things turn out all right. Belief suggests a certain rigidity of thought, a sense of unshakeable certainty that all those things WILL happen. But what happens when it doesn't? Hope is less certain than belief but it is also more flexible - more adaptable to the idea that the world is imperfect and that things don't always work out as planned. But that's just my perspective. That being said, I do hope you'll take his words at face value." Eyes glittering, she said nothing for a long moment before calmly observing, "You're very nervous. Dave and Roxy have talked me up quite a bit, haven't they?"

"Just a little."

"Hmm. They say that you should never meet your heroes because you'll inevitably be disappointed. No doubt because you realize that the person you idolize is human after all, with all the messiness that entails. I disagree. Meeting my hero has been very agreeable, I think." Rose said all this while looking her directly in the eye, unblinkingly.

Hermione was breathless with shock, easily reading between the lines. It took her several seconds to recover. "You're implying that I'm your hero?"

"Oh, it's not mere implication. It's a statement of fact," Rose said bluntly. "And I suppose I've become something similar for you, thanks to Dave and Roxy's no doubt outrageously exaggerated tales about me and my exploits."

"Well, yes. But it makes sense... even if they were exaggerated, you are quite brave. He said... he said I reminded him of you."

"That's very sweet of him. I'll have to remind myself to give him the sick-nastiest of fist bumps when I get back."

"But what I don't understand is how I could be yours, even if Dave exaggerated stories about me. I haven't done anything important like you have. Not really. Besides, I'm so much younger than all of you."

Rose gazed at her, her lips tipping up into her trademarked impish smile. "Someone once said that if you believe in infinite universes with infinite possibilities, then by extension you would have to believe that somewhere in the universe dragons exist. I think it was Charles Dutton. Yes, I'm very sure it was Charles Dutton who said that." Her eyes twinkled mischievously, knowing full well Charles Dutton said no such thing. "In my universe, on my earth, there were no dragons. No magic. No witches. It was all the stuff of fantasy. Only when I entered the Game did such things become real. Here, in this universe, on this earth, there are dragons and magic and witches but thankfully no game to usher in Armageddon. The more you dig into the guts that make reality, the stranger existence becomes." There was that smile again as she slowly tapped one manicured finger on the book laying just in front of her, once again daring the young witch to look.

Hermione glanced down quickly, her eyes skimming the cover finally. She had to look twice. In embossed gold lettering was her best friend's name and underneath in what looked like faux stone was written 'And the Sorcerer's Stone'. Blanching, she immediately looked up at Rose and glared.

"What is that?"

"A book my mother gave me when I was only eight. I almost cried when I turned eleven and didn't receive a letter. But then, there isn't a Hogwarts where I come from." Her smile was a little sad. "I never thought I'd find myself here, and with you for that matter. As you can imagine, being a very smart girl, perhaps just a bit too smart for her own good, I was very happy to find a character in a book that was so much like me."

"Is that why you all knew so much about... everything? Because there's some book that tells our... Harry's story?" Hermione breathed, not sure of what emotion she ought to be feeling right now. It was a strange thing to know that somewhere in a completely different universe someone who hadn't even known you had written your story.

"There are movies as well." If possible, Hermione became paler. "Incidentally, you look nothing like the actress that played you. But to answer your question, yes, that's partly why we know so much. The other part is, of course, due to Dave's flagrant abuse of time travel."

Hermione closed her eyes. "I'm going crazy. This isn't happening. It's just the stress." She opened her eyes to find Rose staring at her wryly, leaning her head on her folded hands.

"Still here," she chimed merrily. "Infinite universes with infinite possibilities, remember? And one of those possibilities is a world where this one is a story that I've read multiple times since I was eight. I've come to the conclusion that perhaps even my story has been written by some author or the other. If my theory holds, there's a girl in some other universe right now reading about everything I've gone through, as horrible as some of it was. I have to admit, I can't imagine there'd be anyone who'd want to write a highly fictionalized account of what we've done or who would even read that kind of garbage. Just as I think you couldn't imagine anyone wanting to read about you." Rose could see how Hermione was focusing on the book from the anguished way she was gazing at it. She knew it wouldn't do to dwell, so she carefully put it back into her Sylladex.

Shaking herself, she looked at Rose with furrowed brows. "Why show me that? Why tell me at all?"

"Because you deserve the truth," Rose stated simply. "The whole truth, or at least as much of it as I can safely divulge. And because you need to be prepared for what you'll face four years from now." Without looking, she set a hand gracefully on the stack of books she'd brought with her.

"What are those?"

"Books, obviously."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "You know what I meant."

"Of course but that doesn't mean I won't give you shit for it!" Another tinkling laugh escaped her lips before her face became serious once more. "I brought these for you. Since we knew so much about you, I felt it only fair that you knew more about us." She carefully pushed the pile of books towards Hermione.

The young witch didn't know what to say. Gingerly, she pulled the first book off the pile, a thick lime green volume with no title. Opening it, she flipped through the contents curiously. Stopping on a random page, she began to read. It all seemed very technical, like a manual of sorts - talking about devices that had to be deployed and punch cards.

Without waiting for any questions, Rose began, "That volume is a complete record of the game as we played it. The first part was a walkthrough of sorts that I wrote when first playing it, I apologize that you have to read it but it does have important information you'll need to understand, well, a lot of things. Just remember, I was only thirteen when I wrote it," she said with a self-deprecating smirk. "The rest are culled from everyone's recollections during and after, including as much of my research into the game and its overall history, as little as there is of it."

"Parts are blacked out," Hermione observed, looking up at her skeptically as she gestured at the book.

"Information on certain players and antagonists have been omitted because knowledge of them is very dangerous. I wouldn't have done it otherwise." It was the first time Rose avoided her eyes. "We all have our monsters we have to fight, you see. Ours... well, even saying his title is like an invitation. So, for your own good and the good of your universe, I censored it and anything else I thought might put you in harm's way. Don't think for a moment that I like it, but better safe than sorry. It's a bit like the reason no one in your world likes saying Voldemort."

Hermione flinched, silently conceding the point. "And the others?"

"Books 'borrowed' from Prospit's library. They give details about the various mythological roles in the Game. One deals with Class and the other deals with Aspect. The third had details on how Class and Aspect interact. The last is about basic mechanics of the game that I hadn't included in my walkthrough; the functions of Prospit and Derse, dreamselves, etcetera. I hope it'll be informative."

"Thank you," she replied quietly. Her eyes losing focus as she was deep in thought.

"What's wrong?"

"When I first met you all... I wanted answers. But now that I have them, I'm not sure that I want them. Does that make any sense?" She looked at Rose with heartbreaking confusion.

"That's the trouble with asking questions," Rose commented sadly. "You don't always like the answers you're given. An experience I am intimately familiar with, I assure you."

Hermione gave a small nod. For the first time since they started this conversation, she looked around. While every eye in the room was no longer fixated on Rose as they were when she first entered, it was still quite obvious that she was a definite source of interest. People were staring, though they were trying not to be obvious about it. Hermione looked around, confused by the reaction. In a way, it was like she was Roxy's exact opposite. People noticed her too much rather than not at all.

"That's odd," she mumbled, mostly to herself.

"What is?"

"Everyone keeps staring at you... like you're famous or something. But no one even knows who you are!"

"That would be a side effect of my Aspect. Light tends to call attention to itself - you might even say that it illuminates things," she explained with a fluttering hand wave. "It's made a bit worse due to the fact that I'm a Seer. The interaction between my class as a Seer and my aspect as Light... well, once you've read the materials I've left you, you'll understand. You'll also find that illumination isn't its primary function, game-wise."

"What other functions could light have?"

"Ah, you've hit my weakness. Us Light players do like to talk about our Aspect. But, sadly, I'm afraid I will have to resist the urge."

Ever observant, Hermione said, "You have to go."

"Unfortunately, yes. You also have to study and I'm doing an awfully good job of distracting you."

"I suppose I'll see you in four years then?"

"That you will." She smiled very genuinely and held out her hand. Hesitating for only a moment, Hermione took it. Rose placed her other hand over Hermione's, squeezing it gently. "I'm very glad we got to meet and I look forward to seeing you again."

Hermione had not known what to think about Rose. At first she wasn't even sure that she liked her, not until this moment. She wasn't as effusive as Roxy or as silly as Dave. She was, in point of fact, very intimidating. There was something closed off about her, as if she held people purposefully at arm's length with the sheer force of her intelligence. Hermione admitted quietly, and to herself, it was because Dave was right - she and Rose were very similar people. They both sought solace in learning, in being the smartest and the best at whatever they set their minds to; both of them reaching for a kind of personal perfection that was always just beyond their reach.

Hermione squeezed her hand back and said with great sincerity, "I'm very glad we got to meet as well."

"Study hard," Rose commanded, her smile turning impish once more as she knocked her knuckles on the books. "There'll be a quiz in four years."

"Well then, I suppose I should get right to it. I'd hate to fail, especially after having four whole years to study for it."

Rose laughed a bit louder than she had up to this point, it sounded like pealing church bells. Without further ado, she stood. "Goodbye, Miss Granger."

Hermione stood up as well, thoroughly amused. "Goodbye, Miss Lalonde."

Rose gave a little salute, very much as Dave had often done. It was the first time Hermione could really see the family resemblance in terms of personality. Suddenly light from the windows hit her pale hair just right, surrounding her like a halo. The dark library seemed impossibly bright in that moment and she looked akin to an angel. The light faded but she did not dim. Almost as if in slow motion, she turned and began to walk away. Stopping only to summon a boy no one else, not even Hermione, had noticed. He was dressed in Hufflepuff's colors and he turned to give her a silly wave which was preceded by a cool April breeze ruffling her hair.

'Goodbye,' she mouthed with a grin, waving back at the Heir of Breath.

Hermione did not watch them leave like everyone else. Instead, she turned back to her studies, once again oblivious to the world. Flipping the green book open, she began to read. She didn't choose the very first page of the walkthrough; instead, she skipped ahead a bit to the actual narrative. It began: A young man stands in his bedroom. It just so happens that this day, April 13th, 2009, is his birthday...

End Act I

Chapter Text

Four years had passed and she could be forgiven for forgetting about a promise made to her when she was only fourteen years old. It wasn't precisely that she'd forgotten the very short friendship she'd forged in the winter of 1993. There were times where it had seemed like she'd convinced herself it was a dream or a kind of fugue state. That part of her who still believed it was stress that conjured a pair of demigods from Merlin knows where could be very convincing. Then she'd look at the silly flyer Dave had drawn all over or the little pink fountain pen Roxy had given her and then she'd remember herself - they had been her friends and she missed them profoundly. And when she remembered, she'd spend the next few hours in a strange melancholy funk. But it wasn't all that frequent and as time passed, those moments came less and less often.

There were other things she had to worry about - terrible things.

As those years passed, things had gotten gradually worse. It started with Cedric Diggory's death and it continued to go downhill from there. Her life had become a steady stream of never ending misery, with one death coming right after another. Until she was here, four years later, starving and cold on a futile hunt for Horcruxes in a last ditch attempt to finally end Voldemort's reign of terror.

The one person they had trusted the most, Albus Dumbledore, had left them with nothing but scraps of information; mere hints - rumors at best - that were almost worse than nothing at all. There was something of Hufflepuff's and something of Ravenclaw's and the snake. They had one Horcrux in their possession. They'd figured out how to destroy it: The Sword of Gryffindor. Sadly, they didn't have any idea on how to obtain the sword so they could use it. So they were in this limbo, fugitives and on the run trying to kill the fragments of a mad man's soul with no idea where most of those fragments might be and with nothing to destroy them with.

Hermione thought that things couldn't really get much worse. She could have kicked herself, because the moment she thought things like that was the moment that they inevitably DID get worse. Ron had left them near the beginning of September. It was now mid-November. The weather had turned colder which made foraging harder. Neither of them was any good at hunting. Ron had been passable at it, but he was gone. He'd managed to snare a rabbit the day he'd left. It had sustained them for a day or two after... and it'd tasted like ashes in her mouth.

Her mother had told her that when bad things happen it was important to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She'd said that it was important to go on and push through because it couldn't rain all the time. That's how she put it. It can't rain all the time, Hermione. If she could have talked to her mother right now, if she'd even remember she had a daughter, she would tell her that it most certainly could rain all the time. That sometimes it was nothing but infinite rain.

Pulling the damnable Horcrux out from underneath her jumper, she glared at the filthy thing. Someone shook her shoulder. Looking up, it was Harry. His hand was held out as if he knew - he always knew - that she'd been wearing it for far too long. With a tired sigh, she pulled it off and gave it to him wordlessly.

They did that a lot now. Not talking.

She'd timed it once. They'd actually gone almost five whole days without saying a word to each other. Non-verbal noises didn't count, of course. It would officially be five days once today was over. She got up to go inside the tent without a word. It was his turn taking watch. She'd probably cry once she got inside, it was the only workout her voice got now.

"We'll have to leave tomorrow morning," he murmured as she grasped the tent-flap. "We've been here too long."

"Okay," she whispered back, thinking to herself that he'd ruined it; four days without talking - a now standing record. She wasn't entirely sure if she was happy about that or not.

The tent-flap closed with a swish behind her. She stood there for a moment, wavering on her feet, light headed and heart sore. Numbly, she walked to her "room" which wasn't so much a room because there weren't really rooms in tents, as far as she was concerned. But it was a walled off space she supposed she could call a room. Ron and Harry had insisted she take it as it was the only place in the tent that could be considered private and a room. They seemed to think as the only girl she'd need it. She would have been offended but she didn't want to sleep in the bunk beds. The small full bed in the room that wasn't really a room wasn't comfortable but it was the softest of palace beds compared to the bunk beds. Plus, it'd be easier to cast a silencing charm in a room. Ron snored badly. Didn't much matter now, she guessed.

Shuffling inside her room, she sat and then stood up again, at odds with what she ought to do with herself. She thought about reading more 'Tales of Beedle the Bard' or maybe more of their research material, but then decided against it. Her eyes couldn't take any more of either of those things. It was all tied up in Horcruxes and she just didn't want to think about it anymore.

She didn't know why she did it, but she dug into her beaded bag, throwing out book after book until she found it: a thick book with a lime green cover and no title. There was no logical reason for her to pack this book and the four other books associated with it. It had no useful purpose on this quest but when she'd been organizing things before they'd left she'd put them in without even questioning the decision. She still couldn't really justify her thinking process, other than the thought that she couldn't bear to leave them behind.

Running her fingers over the cover, she inhaled deeply and opened the book, flipping forward to what would have been the title page had the book been given a proper name. Instead there was a strange green symbol shaped like a house made of blocks. 'Earth's Sessions: Volume I' had been overlaid on top of the house logo and just underneath in smaller script was 'Universe A & B: The Full Account As Dictated By Rose Lalonde Et Al.'. There was a blank page and then a forward that was no doubt unique to this copy and this copy alone.

What you hold in your hands is a labor of love. Each page was carefully transcribed from my handwritten notes. It encompasses hours of research and interviews. Nearly five years of work stretched over two universes, and I confess my work isn't done. This is only the very first printing of this history and I've given it to you. It is the most complete and accurate telling of our tale, told to you by those who lived it.

I apologize that this tome has yet to be given a name. I made the classic mistake in thinking that everyone had a say in this book's title. John has been insisting we ought to call it Homestuck, because we spent so much time screwing around in our homes. Everyone else hates it and has argued with him ad nauseam, to no avail. Fact is, none of us have come up with anything better. Of course, this means that John has already gotten his way and inevitably that will be the title of the book. After all, he is and has always been our friend-leader. I'm sure you can sympathize.

Enjoy the book, for what it's worth.

R. Lalonde

Hermione made a sound that was laugh adjacent thinking about her friends, secretly wondering what those arguments might have sounded like. Her fingers traced the words as she gazed at it thoughtfully. This book took her back to a simpler time. Sure, back then there were still scary, terrible things that happened. But it all seemed so remote... so disconnected from them in a larger sense because there was always an adult there at some point. Just as Harry had once said, they'd nearly always had help. And now here they were, fighting for their lives and there was no one to help them. No adult to cushion their fall.

He is and has always been our friend-leader. I'm sure you can sympathize.

Those words in particular lifted themselves off the page. Yes, yes, she could sympathize. She'd follow Harry into Hell if he asked, even now. It didn't make the journey any easier though. She skipped forward a bit, occasionally stopping to read a favorite passage at whim until a photograph fell out. Picking it up delicately, she gazed at it, smiling down at her fourteen year old self. She was squeezed in the middle with Roxy on her left and Jane on her right. Dave was behind Roxy, blank-faced and giving her bunny ears while John was behind Jane making a very silly face.

She looked down at that photo, at her happy face with her cheeks pink from the cold, and she didn't recognize that girl anymore. Her face crumpled in anguish, curling in on herself as she pressed the photo to her heart. She wept silently for god knows how long; letting out keening, gasping breaths as she sobbed for everything they'd lost. Getting control of herself marginally, she put the picture and the book away. Absently she remembered that it was four years in September. Four years and they weren't here.

She wasn't all that surprised that once again things hadn't worked out as she'd hoped. Forgetting then that she had more believed something would happen at a certain time rather than simply trusting in hope that it would when it was meant to.

Chapter Text

It had been Hermione that had been their sole navigator from the very beginning. Harry had hardly ever left Surrey before now, traveling only as far a London a handful of times as had Ron. So it was up to her to pick their locations as she'd traveled far more extensively than either boy had. Taking Harry's hand without strictly looking at him, she concentrated carefully on one of the many places she'd been to before. Her parents had taken her to the Orkney Islands the summer before she'd received her Hogwarts letter.

All of her family vacations had an element of educational appeal. They couldn't go someplace and not learn something; it was a Granger family rule. Her father had wanted to see Viking graffiti in Yesnaby. She and her mother had wanted to go to Brig o'Waithe near Stenness because they'd heard you could see otters there. Her ten year old self had dearly wanted to see a real live otter in the sea, not in cooped up in some zoo. Without fail, her father had given in and they'd gone to Brig o'Waithe. They sat there for some time with a picnic lunch, waiting patiently for dusk to come. And when it had, she'd seen them. Just two small otters, rolling and gamboling about in the water and she had cried tears of joy as she watched them play. It was that memory that she'd used when first summoning her Patronus.

When she closed her eyes and concentrated on her destination she realized almost instantly that she'd done a bad job of it. The locket! - He'd worn it all last night and they'd switched it back in the morning. He hadn't wanted to but she'd been insistent that it should be no more than twelve hours at a time, preferably less. It's the only reason why she could imagine they'd end up in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time, because she was wearing that damned locket. Instead of a lightly populated area near a loch where she had once watched otters swimming at sunset, they ended up on a desolate Cliffside on one of the other islands. She had seen St. John's Head from the ferry, but she'd never been there herself.

But here they were, near St. John's Head and nowhere near where she had intended to go. The only way this could be worse is if she'd managed to splinch herself or Harry. Swearing was against her nature in general, but... Giving in, she whispered, "Damn."

Clutching her coat closer to her, she shivered. It was dreadfully cold, even for Scotland. She turned to say as much to Harry (and to apologize for her navigational error), but the words were lost on her lips. He was pale, so very, very pale. His eyes focused on the sky above them as he trembled. Her heart thudded hard in her chest as she watched frost form on his lapels, on his hair. Following his gaze, she saw a sight that stopped her heart cold. Dementors - not just a few hundred but thousands of them. So many that they had blotted out the sky as they became visible to her eyes.

Harry's hand fell from her grasp and she turned to him quickly. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as he fell screaming to the ground. He writhed violently before he began to seize and twitch. She heard her voice from a thousand miles away calling his name. Felt her body as if it weren't' her own throw herself on him, his face in her hands as she tried to wake him. Desperation setting in as she looked over her shoulder and saw waves of them floating towards her. She took out her wand and tried to cast her Patronus. She tried to reach for that happy memory, any happy memory, to call it forth. But nothing would come. The locket had done its work.

The cold set in. Every happy thought, every good thing she ever felt faded and she only knew despair. But she kept trying, her dry lips whispering the incantation, "E-expecto Pat-t-tronum..."

A whisper of light came from the tip of her wand then juddered out. She tried again, the light was even smaller. She tried again, nothing. There was nothing left. Nothing. So she did the only thing her tired mind would let her, she put herself between Harry and the Dementors, shielding him with her body.

"You can't take him," she cried pitifully, using every bit of strength left in her body to resist the scabrous hands tearing at her clothes, her hair. The stink of them surrounded her and she would have retched had she the energy to do so. 'We're going to die,' she thought. 'Oh, god, we're going to die here.' Even so, she still resisted as they tried to prize her off Harry, tried to wrench her head up so they could deliver their kiss - their dead fingers leaving vicious, bruising scratch marks on her cheeks and neck as she fought them.

And then there was the sudden smell of April - a breeze smelling so strongly of spring rain and new growth that her heart ached. The bone deep cold fled before it and the hands holding her abruptly released. She could breathe again, could feel her heart beating fast in her chest. She was alive. Against all odds, she was alive. With a gasp, she lifted her head to look up. There was a gap of air around her that got wider by the moment - a pulse of light and then from the swirling current a bright shape formed. The Heir of Breath materialized out of thin air, Godhood burning brightly with his arms held out wide. He willed the breeze to form a dome of fast moving air, forcing back the Dementors with a single push of his arms.

The look on his face was grave and not just a little furious. She had only met him that one time, but Hermione could hardly believe that such an expression could ever cross his face.

The breeze could not hold creatures like Dementors for long, and the Heir of Breath knew it. This hardly mattered to him. Lifting his hand in the air, he summoned his weapon - a silly looking hammer for a god to wield but terribly powerful. Hermione gasped, trying to warn him it would not work but she couldn't get it out before he'd launched himself forward recklessly. Her worries were for naught as he swung the hammer and it connected. There was a hard crunching sound and a flash of bright light. The Dementor was knocked back and then torn to shreds with a lazy wave of his hand.

Of course, the Heir of Breath had not come alone. More Dementors broke free from the dome that had pushed them back. There was a rush of bright lavender light just over Hermione's head that smashed head-on into the encroaching wraiths, incinerating them. The beams had come from the points of two needles held by the Seer of Light. Clad in a saffron tunic, her Godhood illuminating the entire area in flickering gold, she hovered momentarily before hitting the ground with both feet and vaulting back into the air, needles positioned over her head. With a roar, she drove the needles into the head of the next Dementor who dared to enter the dome. She tore the damnable thing apart with a quick flick of her wrists and with another flick she summoned a rope of pure Light. The Light crisscrossed around her needles as she danced gracefully, using the rope like a whip. Anything that came near her was vaporized instantly.

And then... then there was Dave. He slid into view with the same kind of effortless skid he'd executed four years ago in a fight that wasn't remotely as serious as the battle they were engaged in now. His sword was slung out in just the same way, but it was glowing bright white in contrast to the man himself, his Godhood ablaze in red flames. With an errant flick, his sword cut through an encroaching Dementor as easily as if it was made of warm butter. The thing disintegrated on impact in a blinding flash of heat and flame.

Dave was joined by another young man, one she'd seen in a picture four years ago. He was in a magenta costume - something she might have laughed at had the circumstances been different. This young man had a sword as well, a sleek katana, which was held out behind him the same as Dave's.

The Knight of Time made some kind of gesture at the approaching hoard that stilled them in their tracks. His brother lunged forward, one hand held out - fingers clenched into a claw. Hot pink lightening gathered in his palm, reaching out and tearing at the frozen wraiths until every last one was caught in its grasp. And with a sharp jerk of his wrist the Dementors he'd caught exploded violently. Motes of blue-white light floated gently upward, away from the dark ashes the Dementors left behind - the souls they had trapped now free to pass on to the next life.

Last of all was a girl that hovered above them all. She was dressed almost entirely in black, bright lime green arcs of electricity crackling off her restlessly that left behind the sharp smell of ozone. This was another person she'd only seen in a photograph. She'd been described to Hermione as being silly; a lighthearted girl who loved orchids and dogs, and laughed at physics puns. This girl bore little resemblance to the description even though she looked exactly as she had in her picture. The girl that hovered above her was dangerous and terrifyingly powerful.

Her acid green eyes were focused ahead as she ever so slowly moved her hands in a wide circular arc. They stilled at her waist, hands cupped as if they were holding more than nothing. With the same slowness, she carefully lifted her hands up, holding her arms out as if she was letting go of whatever she held. And with a sharp motion, her hands slapped through that nothing and made something. A something that was like a controlled explosion, roiling around her hands as they were pressed together. Pistoning her arms forward, she directed the energy of that explosion with horrifying ease. White hot hellfire rolled towards another group of Dementors, consuming them entirely and leaving nothing behind. It spread farther and farther, directed mercilessly by the Witch of Space until there was a ring of lime green fire that surrounded them all and kept the Dementors back.

Things got hazy from there as her focus dimmed. From very far away, she could hear the battle raging; the sounds of shrieking Dementors as they were torn asunder. In the distance she could see multicolored blobs move so fast her eyes couldn't follow them as they fought. A splash of magenta mixed with the white-blue of released souls that curled past midnight blue shadows. Bright green fire rolling through ticking clock gears. Cutting blue wind whipped by bright lavender beams of Light that undulated gracefully. On their heels were abrupt explosions that were pure angelic white - looking at it, she couldn't help but feel the faintest bit of hope struggle feebly in her chest.

Her vision had narrowed to a pinprick with darkness pressing in on all sides. A pair of slimy hands reached for her and she could feel nothing but cold emptiness. 'Going to pass out,' she thought dimly as her arms wobbled before going out entirely. A pair of soft arms caught her. Whoever it was that cushioned her fall smelt like warm cake - like home and all good things in the world. The black spots receded and her vision cleared just a bit as a bit of that warmth was transferred to her from those same arms. Opening her eyes wearily, she was greeted by clear blue eyes and a kind smile.

"Jane?" she croaked, hardly able to believe her eyes.

In her hand was what could only be an enormous red fork which had speared the Dementor who'd tried to kiss Hermione through its middle. Without even looking, the Maid of Life directed her healing fire into her weapon and through it into the wraith. It let out a single horrifying scream before being reduced to dust.

"Shhh, you'll be all right," Jane whispered distractedly, putting away her weapons so her hand could come up to gently pat her newest patient's cheek. Blue flames leapt from her fingers, eager to heal as they reached for the girl beneath them in so much pain. "Roxy is gonna take you for a minute. I have to help your friend, okay?"

And she was passed from one warm pair of arms to another. She looked up and saw bright pink eyes and candy floss hair, and that same silly grin. Overwhelmed, Hermione began to cry hoarsely. Her sobs came out in pathetic squeaks and gasps as she clung to her friend, whispering, "You came. You came. You came..." like a prayer over and over and over again.

Roxy let the young woman cling to her, nonplussed by her words but understanding that people in such situations often acted irrationally. She'd been there herself more than once. It had occurred to her (and to Rose as well) what universe this might be and what the wraiths they were fighting really were. Woulda been funny had two lives not been on the line. The Dementors clearly could give fuck all about Roxy and her friends; they were aiming straight for the two young people sprawled out on the ground. And they were relentless in their pursuit.

It wasn't as if Dementors were particularly hard to defeat. For those who played the Game they were child's play, really; nothing but shitty bags of protoplasm that exploded on impact from the lightest touch of their power. The fact that the mere presence of those same shitty bags of protoplasm was enough to sap the life out of two innocent people was the part she was concerned with. It would have been easy enough to teleport away, had things been less dire. But neither prone teenager was in any shape to travel their way, being on death's door and all - even John's crazy retcon teleportation was too dangerous to chance in their condition. A Fenestrated Plane wasn't the perfect solution, but it was miles better than any other option. Problem being, she didn't want to take the chance one of those things would follow them through.

The girl she was holding shuddered, still whispering her mantra - 'You came. You came. You came.' Scowling, Roxy realized she was wasting time wool gathering. Holding out a hand, she produced a hank of dark chocolate out of thin air. She offered it to the girl shivering in her arms, but she was insensible. She pushed hard on the girl's cuticle, just hard enough to break whatever fugue state she'd found herself in but not hard enough to really hurt. The girl looked up at her with wide brown eyes, tear tracks running down her gaunt face.

"You gotta eat this, okay? Make you feel better," Roxy explained, urging the chocolate into the girl's shaking hands. Very slowly, she nibbled on it, resting her head on Roxy's shoulder. "S'gonna be okay. You'll see."

"M-my friend... Please, you have to help him," the girl begged, her breath hitching.

Gulping, she whispered soothingly, "S'all good. Janey's gonna take good care of him. See..." And she directed the young woman's gaze to their right where Jane was kneeling over the young man. Her hands held over him as she directed healing fire over his battered body. The boy was too still and Jane glanced at Roxy. For a fraction of a second, she saw worry there but thankfully the girl didn't notice. While still holding the young woman, she wrangled her phone out and sent a single text to Rose with trembling hands: 'shit has hit the fuckingg whirrlied device like a mofo*whirled... exit stradtgey would b gr9 rn. *strantney *strrannienny fuck *strategy -any sighn of serket?'

She scanned the sky, looking for Vriska - who quite frankly should have been here the entire damn time. Jade was probably the most powerful but everyone knew Vriska was the deadliest out of all of them. And she'd taken off the second they'd arrived here. Not that anyone had expected anything else of her. Serket always had plans within plans and rarely tipped her hand when it came to certain parts that involved her and her alone. Since the plan had went more than just a bit sideways, from Roxy's point of view, it might have been nice to have been informed a bit better of how shit was going down - or at least have some kind of contingency when things went tits up.

"God dammit, Vriska," Roxy murmured, nervously smoothing the young woman's unruly hair as her eyes searched desperately for some sign of the Thief of Light.

And then she saw it... eight small points of light falling from the sky. They hit the frost covered ground with a light patter, glowing hot cerulean as they turned over one by one. They singed the ground and melted the frost as they burned more brightly - eight eights - an impossibly lucky roll. High above them, Roxy could see a disturbance. The Dementors had stopped trying to breach their barriers. They were following something else now, like moths foolishly chasing flame.

There was a pulse of light and Vriska came blazing down straight through the dome of air John had created, destroying it entirely as the Dementors followed not that far behind her. Her boots thumping heavily yards from where Roxy sat. The girl in her arms reacted to Vriska's arrival with muted alarm. She gasped, looking at the figured who'd fallen from the sky. The woman was tall... intimidatingly so. Her skin was grey and her black hair was a coarse tangled mess from which her horns, nearly full grown now, stood proudly. She glanced over at them, her strange mismatched eyes glowing fiercely.

There was an incredible flash of light and her clothes changed from the plain saffron and gold of her Godhood to the black with cerulean piping of her Ancestral Awakening. She flicked out her hand sharply as a wicked looking cutlass appeared, formed from light and shadow. Fingers curling around the hilt, she smiled unpleasantly, exposing her sharp canines. And then she leapt into the air, twirling the cutlass in a series of elaborate movements that sent swaths of light sweeping out to thin the ranks of swarming Dementors.

With a final twirl, she pointed the sword down and with a single vicious thrust she stabbed it into the rock hard ground. The area around where she'd planted the cutlass began shake and glow white hot, hotter and hotter till it hurt to look at. The girl and Roxy both closed their eyes, not that it did much good. There was a pulse, a burst of raw power that made Roxy's heart skip a beat and stole her breath. She buried her face in the young woman's hair, her hand covering her ward's eyes to shield them.

And when she could see again, it was the night sky that greeted her. Every last Dementor had been wiped out by one furious blast of pure, undiluted Light. Vriska stood, her wings fluttering triumphantly as the last vestiges of her transformation reverted like burning paper. The cutlass in her hand disappeared in a cascade of shattering cerulean stars.

"Those two don't look so hot. Be a big ol' shame if they died after I went to all that trouble to save the day," Vriska commented over her shoulder with arch blandness. "Might wanna set up that portal reeeeeeeeal quick, huh?"

"Yeah, I'll get right on that, Serks," Roxy retorted laconically, her eyes narrowed.

They gave each other the ol' hairy eyeball for a hot minute before Vriska, apparently bored, waltzed off to greener pastures. Which was just great as far as Roxy was concerned. There was only so much of that bitch she could take. Looking down at her charge, her expression softened.

"Hey, can you sit up by yourself for a sec?"

The young woman nodded and pulled herself into a semi-comfortable position as Roxy stood. Opening her specibus, she chose the Crockertop Appearifier Rifle and shouldered it. Aiming carefully, she pulled the trigger and smiled as a Fenestrated Plane hovered a good ten feet above them. The young woman had collected herself enough to stand unsteadily on two feet, a small beaded bag clutched tightly in her hands. Her eyes were focused on the young man still lying, unmoving, on the ground. Jane's face was now showing obvious worry as she poured blue healing flame over him.

She looked up at Roxy, eyes shining. "I don't know why, but it's not working. We have to get him some place more stable... safer."

"Right," Roxy said, nodding grimly. She turned her attention to the young woman. "Gonna take you back to our base camp. Traveling via Fenestrated Plane is unpleasant, but you ain't up to any other mode of travel. You got some good shit in that bag of tricks, I hope." The girl shook her head in the affirmative. "Rad. Gonna hafta pick you up full princess mode. You're a bit too wobbly for something more dignified."

And without asking further permission, Roxy picked her up like the prettiest of all princesses. Hermione held on tightly, burying her face in Roxy's shoulder to prepare herself for the unsettling dark of the void. Far behind them on the cliff, Dave had arrived and fireman carried Harry off with Jane clutching his shoulder as she continued to try and heal the boy. They arrived safely on the other side in the middle of a forest, a camp already neatly set up. Before Hermione gave into exhaustion, she pulled the tent out of her beaded bag and handed it silently to Roxy. And then she blissfully lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

Waking up slowly, Hermione winced in pain. Her head hurt so badly. Dimly, she thought she ought to get up and do something about it before it became worse. But the rest of her body disagreed. So she lay there for several minutes, pretending that she'd be able to slip back into sleep. And then she smelled bacon.

For a moment, she forgot where she was.

The smell reminded her of lazy Sunday mornings at home. It was her father that had always been the cook. Her mother could never be bothered with it and even when she did try... well, it was always a disaster. And for just those few moments in time, her mind convinced her briefly that she was safe at home with her parents, who remembered her. There was no war. They were not starving and on an unimaginably futile quest. They were safe.

She didn't want to wake up. Because if she did, then she'd know that the smell was a lie. The feeling of being safe was a lie. And the truth was: she was in the middle of a war and searching for a way to end it.

Moaning, she opened her eyes slowly, making a rather disgruntled face as she did so. She clumsily brought herself to a sitting position, wiping her bleary eyes. Her head was throbbing in pain. She grunted as she massaged her temple. Looking around, she realized she was in the wrong bed. This was Harry's bunk. And then she noticed that there was someone sitting in front of that bunk, draped over two chairs and very much asleep. She looked godlessly uncomfortable, her head was hanging limply off the back of her chair at an odd angle and yet she was snoring softly as if she were sleeping on a bed in a five star hotel.

"Roxy," Hermione called, reaching out tentatively before realizing there was no way she'd be able to touch her from her bunk. With great difficulty, she stumbled out of bed, wobbling on her feet a bit as she shook her friend's shoulder. "Roxy, wake up."

She woke with a loud snort, nearly falling off her chair in surprise. "Whatimeizzit?!" Roxy looked around, eyes focusing on the figure in front of her. "Mmm. You're up. Fuck, musta fell asleep." Swiping at her eyes tiredly and unconsciously smudging her makeup terribly, she smiled. "Shouldn't you still be in bed, Miss? Like, you're all fucked up from that shit yesterday. P'tty sure you're 'posed to be resting."

"Can't. Have a headache," Hermione replied shortly. "Why am I in the wrong bunk, by the way? And... well, what happened?"

Roxy grimaced. "Eh, this is so no my department," she murmured before sighing. "You want ibuprofen or aspirin?" Clearly confused, Hermione indicated which one she wanted and how many. Holding out her hands, she produced three ibuprofen and a glass of water out of thin air and handed them to her. She continued to speak as Hermione downed the medicine. "As for the rest... you're gonna hafta ask Jane to get the deets on that. She's in the kitchen right now, whipping up breakfast. C'mon, lemme help ya."

Hermione wanted to walk on her own but was quickly disabused of this notion. Her legs felt like jelly and her first few steps almost landed her on her face had it not been for Roxy. Someone had made a makeshift privacy curtain that hung limply over the alcove where Harry's bunk was located. Roxy carefully pushed it aside while helping her out into the main part of the tent, which was radically changed.

The living area had been transformed into a dining room of sorts or perhaps more like a mess hall. It was obviously larger than it had been before and all the chairs from the living room had either been removed or pushed against the walls of the tent. The dining room table and its attendant benches had been moved out into the main living area and duplicated somehow, as there were now two tables rather than one and four benches rather than just two. Hermione could only guess what now occupied the dining room as the ten-flaps had been closed.

She was pleased to find that she had not been hallucinating when she woke up, as Jane was frying bacon. Roxy gently led her to the table and helped her to sit before addressing her friend.

"Hey, Janie. One of your patients is awake and hungry for answers. Also bacon, probably."

Jane looked up briefly as she carefully laid another strip of bacon in the pan. "Oh, good. I'll be done in a sec. Would you like orange juice, coffee, or tea?"

It was really rather sad that she had to think about it. "Orange juice, I suppose."

"Rox, would you mind?" Jane asked sweetly.

"Sure thing," she answered, cupping her hands to prepare herself.

Shadows gathered and with a pop three large oranges appeared seemingly from nowhere. She caught them in her arms and walked them over to Jane, who took them out of arms one by one. As Jane sliced one in half and prepared to juice it, Hermione looked on with an astonished expression on her face. It wasn't really the first time she'd seen it - the glass of water was alarming enough and there was that box of tea she'd made four years ago. But this...

"How did you do that?" she demanded, pointing an accusatory finger at the oranges. "They aren't in season right now and whatever you just did it wasn't summoning! You've done something like that three times now and it's completely impossible!"

Jane and Roxy looked at each other, each wearing something of an amused expression. Roxy shrugged, smiling mischievously. "I make the impossible possible," she sang with a little wink. Hermione was not at all impressed, crossing her arms and glaring at her expectantly. "You really wanna know how I did it?"

"Clearly!"

"That's for me to know and you-"

"To find out," Hermione cut in, utterly done in. "Don't you dare give me that tosh a second time. I don't know why it's so hard for you to be honest about your Aspect, but-"

She went from amused confusion to outright alarm in one easy step. "How the hell do you know about Aspects?!"

Hermione gaped at Roxy for a moment. "Are you being serious?" From the astonished look on her face, she was. "You told me. Not about your Aspect in particular, you were very cagey about that. But you did tell me about them in more general terms."

Roxy let out a high pitched laugh as she slowly shook her head in abject denial, apparently immune to the irony of her statement. "That's fucking impossible!"

"No, it isn't. You said- you TOLD me that Aspects were a part of who you are, no different than DNA. Those were almost exactly your words."

"Wrong! You got about five seconds to come clean cus I haven't told you shit," Roxy threatened, her hands slapping against the counter angrily.

"Yes, you have! We had a whole infuriating conversation about it where you were needlessly mysterious!"

"WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT?!" she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in aggravation. Her right hand twitching slightly as she prepared herself to draw her weapon, if necessary. "We haven't even met till now. You're standin' here talkin' about some fucking conversation that ain't ever happened. Fuck, I don't even know WHO you really are much less whatever the fuck you're talking about!"

"What... w-what do you mean you don't know who I am?" She demanded, her voice deathly quiet. "H-how could... You k-know who I am. We've met. Y-you told me... you s-said I'd see you in four years and you're h-here. Yuh-y-y-you ca-ame. You're here and h-how can you not know who I am?!" Her voice cracked as she asked the question. She was on the verge of tears now.

Roxy was struggling with her emotions. She was somewhere between suspicion and an alarming degree of sympathetic sadness caused by the look of anguish on the young woman's face. Her hand was trembling as she held it mid-air, it would only take a single swipe and her gun would be in her hand. But for reasons she couldn't fathom, she could not draw - it was like everything the girl was saying was true and some part of her knew, even though there was no possible way it could be true. Rose hadn't told them many details. Only that there were two people they needed to save, a witch and a wizard.

This girl was from another version of earth, she should have no idea who or what they were, much less neat little game details like Aspects. She knew too much and she felt too familiar, almost like a friend, and Roxy didn't know what it all meant. To be perfectly honest, it scared the shit out of her, flashbacks of the Condesce's manipulations swimming through her mind. She wouldn't lose everything she'd gained. Not again. Jane prevented further escalation of the issue by touching Roxy's arm, giving her pale, shaking friend a warning look.

Jane, ever the detective, had pieced some things together. She addressed the young woman trembling and near tears before them. "You say you've met us before, correct?" The girl nodded, the first tears escaping her eyes which she wiped away furiously. "And this was four years ago, am I right?" Another nod and more tears. "Rox, this is clearly a time paradox situation, put your hand down and wake Dave up."

Roxy ran off without glancing at her, exiting the tent with far too much haste. Hermione felt herself breaking down; it was just too much to deal with in such a short time. Covering her face with her hands, she wept openly, her sobs coming in harsh, shrieking gasps. Jane hurried over to her, feeling tears welling in her own eyes. She pried Hermione's hands away and enveloped her in a hug which she sunk into without protest. The Maid of Life held her like this for quite a long time, soothing her with gentle back rubs and quietly whispered words that were mostly nonsense to her ears. After a bit, she got a hold of herself to find that Jane was also crying. She had no idea why.

As if reading her mind, Jane said to her in a very soft voice while wiping away her own tears. "I'm so sorry about all this. You've been through so much since yesterday and I'm sorry we're going to put you through more. But I promise, we will get to the bottom of it. How 'bout we start with introductions?"

She gave Jane her name and Jane gave hers. It was all very foolish but also strangely amusing, the Maid of Life had a handy knack of getting someone to feel good about things that you might have a hard time feeling good about. Jane then got her working in the kitchen. Hermione was tasked with squeezing the oranges so they'd have juice. Jane went to work trying to save the bacon, as some of it had gotten burned during their hug-fest. Once she'd salvaged what she could, she switched to preparing pancakes.

"It takes a bit to get Dave up and running in the morning," she explained as she mixed the batter, though to Hemione's eyes it looked exceptionally thick. "I'm sure Roxy is busy dodging arms and elbows right now." And then she laughed, plopping a dollop of batter into a pan.

The tent was mostly silent aside from the sounds of cooking food for the next few minutes. Hermione watched Jane cook, awed as usual by the light blue fire as it was infused into her cooking. Jane noticed her staring.

"Oh, sorry that's-"

"I've seen it before." Hermione cut her off, her voice hollow. "It's part of your Aspect. Life - You told me it likes to be involved. You're Maid of it. There was a whole terrible pun you made... which was actually kind of clever."

"Oh."

The awkwardness was mitigated by the fact that the food was done. Jane made a plate for both of them and they sat down to eat silently, lost in the uncomfortableness of the situation. The food was delicious, as always, and had the side effect of making her feel loads better - physically anyway. Hermione hadn't really understood the American obsession with pancakes in the morning, and she was too polite to question Jane about it in the moment. She noted that Jane had made American style pancakes which were quite a bit thicker and fluffier than what she was used to. The addition of maple syrup almost made them too sweet, but it was good all the same.

And then while she was in mid-bite she remembered the photo. Her fork clattered loudly onto her plate and she shot up, now able to make it to her bunk without help. Jane stood slowly, staring at her cautiously. Hermione didn't notice as she all but dumped out the contents of her beaded bag until she found the green volume the photo was hidden it. She didn't bother to flip through it like she would normally, instead turning it over and shaking it until the photo fell out on its own. Rushing back to the table, she slapped it down and slid it over so Jane could see. Why hadn't she thought of that a few minutes ago?

Jane picked the photo up to look at it better. The anxious look on her face transformed into wonder as she recognized her own face as it smiled back at her. At that moment, Dave stumbled in looking tired and harassed. Roxy was not far behind him, glaring at him with a look that was half-amused, half-disgruntled. Jane turned to them wordlessly and held out the photo. Dave took it and seemed to only glance at it tiredly. And then he came to a full stop, pushing his glasses into his hair. Brows furrowed, his eyes roved over the photo as he let out a harsh sounding exhalation.

"Fuck," he whispered, mostly to himself. His gaze found Hermione's and his lips turned up into a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes at all. "Welp, temporal destiny sure fucked us good, didn't it."

He handed the photo over to Roxy, who made a small, shrill gasp when she looked at it. Sitting down, he nodded at Hermione that she should do the same. He stared at her long and hard with those strange eyes of his and with a deep breath, he asked, "I need you to remember the date we met, as accurate as you can get."

"It was in September of 1993, about two weeks after term started. I remember clearly it was a Thursday, my birthday was in three days... it was the sixteenth."

"Time?"

"I don't remember exactly... I was using a time turner that year to get to all my classes. I had three of them at the same time, nine o'clock. I was going to my last class in that block, Arithmancy, so it might have been ten or eleven?"

"The fuck is a time turner? Wait, doesn't matter. Probably some kind of shitty time travel device, amiright?"

"Yeah-"

"That'll make it a fuck-load easier," he stated, flipping his glasses back onto his face quite literally. "Just hafta look for those ugly tell-tale tears in the fabric of time heaps of shit like that make. Later nerds," he said with a salute, leaping up and disappearing in his customary whirling clock-gears.

It wasn't until he was gone that she realized he was wearing the same outfit he'd worn when she first met him four years ago and not the strange red outfit she'd seen him in more recently. Seconds later he reappeared, a huge grin on his face. "Holy shit! You should have fucking seen the look on your face, like both times. Classic! Thought I was walking into a complete shit-show and I have never been so glad to be wrong about something, like ever. Looks like I'll be hopping around for a while, someone let Rose know I need to talk, ASAP. Gonna go drag 'Rezi out of bed as well. See ya soon, time buddy." And he gave Hermione a pair of finger-guns in lieu of a goodbye wave before jogging out of the tent to make further preparations.

The quiet after he left was thunderous. Roxy was still sitting at the table, her gaze troubled as she looked at the picture in her hands. Setting it down, she left quickly and quietly. Jane watched her go, brows crinkling in consternation before she turned back to Hermione.

"She'll come around eventually, you know. She's just been through a lot. I guess we all I have," she said kindly with a funny kind of shrug. "After a while, you get kind of used to things like this, but I'm sure it's awfully strange for you. For what it's worth, I'm excited to get to know you all over again. If you need to talk... "

Hermione tried to shake her head 'no' but burst into tears again. Jane enveloped her in a hug. It was an unconscious thing, but Life rose up from her hands and sunk into the crying young woman in her arms. Warmth surrounded her on all sides now as slowly her tears dried and she felt herself becoming a bit calmer. After wiping away the tears, Jane helped her put away all the things she'd thrown out of her bag. And with a strained smile, asked if she'd like to know how her friend was.

The good news was he was alive and would be okay. The bad news was that it would take some time for him to get better. Currently, he was in a magically induced coma, except it wasn't really magical, as it turned out. One of their group, the one they'd called Vriska, had some kind of power that forcibly caused people to sleep. Jane indicated that was all her power could do to humans which indicated that its primary purpose had nothing to do with sleep and its effects on human subjects was incidental. And then she wondered at the usage of the word human. She had a hazy memory of the night before of a nightmare of a woman, tall and grey-skinned.

Frowning, she asked Jane, "So... this Vriska isn't human, then?"

"No, not precisely," Jane answered evasively. "It's a hard question to answer without being insulting, to be honest." She pressed her lips together as she thought for a second or two. "I guess you could technically call them aliens, because they're not from earth."

"They're from Alternia," Hermione supplied, casting back to what she'd read in the green book. "I thought that Rose was exaggerating a bit. I thought she was giving them a silly name because they were just from a different version of Earth not connected to your session. That she called them trolls because of how unhelpful they were at first. But from what you're telling me, they aren't from any version of Earth at all?"

"They are not," Jane confirmed, looking at Hermione speculatively. "You've talked to Rose as well, I take it."

"Well, yes, but not about this. She... she gave me a book about all your adventures."

"She gave you her journal?" Jane asked, astonished. Rose rarely let her journal out of her sight and never let anyone else touch it, not since 'The Incident'.

"No, it was a proper book. In the introduction, she called it a history that was written by those who lived it. I could..."

The Maid of Life shook her head and smiled sweetly. "It's all right. Like you said, I lived through it, and I'm not masochistic enough to want to experience it a second time, even in book form. Would you like to see your friend?" Hermione's face fell a little, but she nodded. Jane led her back into what had been her old room. "I'm sorry we had to put him in here. We, uh, guessed this was your bed by the stuff on the table... It's just easier to work in a larger space like this."

Harry lay on her bed as still as a statue. The only sign he was even alive at all was the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he slept. Coming closer, she sat on a chair next to the bed and got her first good look at him. He was incredibly pale and his scar looked red and irritated. The skin around his eyes was a harsh, bruised looking purple. There was a nasty looking wound at his temple that had been clearly tended to, but was not healed entirely. There were also deep cuts on his cheeks, neck, and chest. He looked terrible. She thought about getting the bottle of dittany in her beaded bag but then decided against it. Their stores were already critically low and Jane's power was incredible.

And then something occurred to her. She touched her cheeks. There should be deep scratches there from where the Dementors had clawed at her face. But the skin was smooth. The sickness she'd felt when she'd woken up was gone after she'd eaten food infused with Jane's power.

"Why isn't he healed?" She asked, almost accusingly. "Life works quickly, doesn't it? He shouldn't be like this."

Jane nodded solemnly. "It does, normally. But your friend... he's fighting it somehow. At first, we thought it was the fundamental incompatibility of our very different powers. Basically, magic works differently in this universe from our own. The rules aren't the same. It's why we could kill those things that attacked you, but people from this reality can't. But then we realized if that was true... my power would be hyper effective."

Hermione realized the enormity of her admission, but before she could say anything there was a cough that seemed far too deliberate to be real. It was Dirk and he was no longer wearing that silly magenta getup. He was dressed in one might term extreme casualwear as he leaned up against a tent strut, arms crossed. Dirk did not wait for them to invite him into the conversation.

"It's like a exploit or a glitch in a video game that allows you to level up with no effort or use powers you shouldn't have access to. But in the kid's case, it's the exact opposite." He tilted his head to the side contemplatively. "Whenever Jane tries to heal him, something in him resists it. It's almost like a kind of magnetic polarity - like we're trying to push together two South Pole magnets and they just keep pushing each other back. Rose thinks it has something to do with that giant fucking scar on his head."

"And the necklace you were wearing," Jane added quietly, gesturing to the jewelry in question sitting innocently on the bedside table. "There's something horrible in it. I felt it when I took it off of you and I feel it when I touch that scar. It's... something dark. It's awful... squirming under the surface when I use my power. I think... I think I'm hurting whatever it is and that's why it's reacting."

Hermione's eyes became bright as her mind raced. "Do you think you could destroy it if you tried?"

Jane shook her head sadly. "I already have. Whatever it is, it's very powerful. I practiced on the locket but all it did was burn my hand. I didn't dare try it on your friend..." She shifted nervously. "It's why we've kept him sleeping, whenever I heal his other wounds, it hurts him."

"Or more correctly," Dirk interrupted. "Whatever's in that scar hurts him because Jane was hurting it." He gazed at Hermione sharply, and though she couldn't see his eyes, she was none-the-less intimidated at capturing his full attention. "Hope you don't mind me asking what the fuck is up with that, because I'm convinced you know what's going on."

She looked down, swallowing convulsively. "I can't tell you that, I'm sorry."

Dirk nodded sagely, but his attention remained piercing, direct, and centered entirely on her. "Let me break that down for you, cuz maybe I wasn't making my meaning clear. I know what the fuck is in that locket and in his scar. I'd just like you to do us the fucking courtesy of being honest about it. Because we put our asses on the line for you and I don't truck with putting my friends in danger without them being aware of exactly what it is they're facing."

"Dirk... you really don't have to," Jane interrupted gently, her hand held out in a placatory gesture.

"No, that thing almost burned a fucking hole in your god damned hand," he ground out, a bit of Texas heat in his voice. His gaze became fierce as he stared at Hermione witheringly over the top of his glasses, bright orange eyes burning with barely suppressed fury. "I overheard Dave... he thinks y'all are good friends. So if there's any truth to that then you best give us some answers."

"If you know so much why don't you tell them then?" Hermione shot back. She wasn't going be bullyragged into talking about their mission.

"Not my farm, not my cow," he retorted easily.

"This was a mission given to Harry specifically. He didn't want anyone else beyond me and Ron to know, and I will not betray his trust. I'm sorry," she stated tightly, shaking as she tried to master herself.

"Really... then where the fuck is Ron?" Dirk challenged, gesturing around the tent as if Ron would spontaneously show himself. "We only saw two of you on that cliff, and I'm pretty damn sure Brodo Baggins over here ain't named Ron."

Hermione was angry and scared, but she would not budge, crossing her arms defiantly.

"You wanna play it like that, then. Fine by me," he growled, his eyes narrowing behind his glasses. "The thing in that locket and in his scar is a fragment of a soul. But it's not normal... it's damaged somehow, like whoever did it just tore the god damned thing out and stuffed it into a locket like a piece of garbage." He paused for a long series of seconds, shaking as he nervously ran a hand over the back of his neck. Once he'd calmed himself he continued, his voice dangerously quiet. "Whoever did that is dangerous. That thing is dangerous. Soul fragments shouldn't be able to react to outside stimulus like that. The only way it could was if it was designed to be that way. Shit, that thing is sentient and it goes out of its way to hurt people. Pardon me for being concerned."

"Do you really think that there's a fragment of a soul in his scar?" Hermione whispered, the color draining from her face as she stared directly at him.

"I don't think that's what it is, I know it for a fuckin' fact," he confirmed pointedly. "You weren't aware of it?"

"I've suspected it was for quite some time, but I've never been sure, until now," she said tremulously, her heart hammering a thousand miles a minute. "Have you told anyone else?"

"Rose and Terezi already knew. Jane knows. Roxy, maybe. That's it. Why?"

"Because you're right... that thing is very dangerous." She closed her eyes and prayed that Harry would forgive her if he should ever find out what she was going to do. "It's a Horcrux - and some of the darkest magic anyone could ever perform is required to create one. The way you described the soul... as if it was torn or damaged, you're not too far off from the truth. In order to make it, you have to split your soul by force and the only way to do that is to commit coldblooded murder."

"Then I assume once the soul is split, they put it into something? Like that locket," Dirk mused, his brow furrowed. He was deeply disturbed by the thought of anyone willingly mutilating their soul like that. Sure, he'd made some splinters but they were all accidental and it in no way harmed him. Annoyed him sometimes, yes, but there was nothing inherently malicious about them. And most importantly, he never had to murder anyone to create them. "What possible benefit would there be to put it in a person though? People are fucking fragile as shit."

"I don't think the monster who did it meant to," Hermione replied softly. Summoning her courage, she went on. "I do hope that's enough to sate your curiosity. As you might guess, this knowledge is dangerous and no one beyond this tent should know."

Jane, who had been quiet up till this moment, reminded him carefully, "I think they mean to destroy it, Dirk. She asked about it earlier, remember?"

But Dirk didn't reply at all, he stood there stock still, thumb rubbing restlessly against his lower lip as his mind began overclocking - furiously turning over the problem in a brain that never stopped thinking, ever. Jane, who knew him very well, could tell he was troubled by all this. It was a calculation he'd missed in his search for answers and he'd unintentionally hurt someone in the process. But to anyone else, he looked like a cold, blank slate. Without a word, he turned on his heel and left.

Jane was sure he'd most likely be beating himself up over this. She was also sure he was figuring out some way to make it up to the young witch, most likely involving some kind of mechanical device. His apologies almost always came with some new bit of tech. 'Just hope he doesn't make her a little robot,' she thought to herself with mild amusement.

"Sorry about Dirk. He means well, but sometimes he goes a bit overboard with the protectiveness when it comes to his friends. It's sweet, but annoying sometimes."

"Did it... d-did it really almost burn a hole in your hand?" Hermione asked quietly.

"Well, yeah. But... healing powers," she replied brightly, holding out both hands which were perfectly fine. "It just freaked Dirk out because he had to, um, help... remove it."

"I'm suh-s-sorry," Hermione sobbed, her voice muffled by her hands.

"Oh, no. It's fine. You were unconscious at the time and couldn't have told me anyway. And I don't blame you for not wanting to say anything," she added hastily, fluttering her hands anxiously. "You're a good friend, to both of us." And as she said it, she subtly pointed to the young man sleeping uneasily in the bed. "Would you like me to stay or would you like some time alone?"

"I'd like to be alone for a bit, if you wouldn't mind."

Jane nodded, gently patting her shoulder before turning to leave. "If you need anything, let me know," she called out quietly as she closed the privacy flaps.

Chapter Text

Hermione cried for a good ten minutes after that, until her eyes were red and swollen. Eventually, she dragged the chair closer to the bed so she could keep watch over Harry while he slept. Sometimes he'd move a little, making small moans of pain but other than those small signs of life, there was nothing. At around noon, Jane came in with some lunch but left quickly thereafter. Eventually, she'd fallen asleep at some point. She knew this because Harry began writhing in pain violently enough to jostle her awake. And then he started to scream in agony at the top of his lungs. The sound was the most horrible thing she'd ever heard in her entire life.

The Maid of Life burst into the room, her eyes wild. She turned to shout behind her, "JAKE I NEED YOUR HELP!"

"ON IT!" a deep voice called back, as a very tall, burly dark skinned boy jogged into the tent. His hair was as unkempt as John's had been and he wore the same kind of square glasses. The only difference was the deep forest green of his eyes.

Jane instructed him to hold Harry down, as she didn't have the strength to. And then she rushed back towards the entrance, bellowing at whoever was left in the dining room, "SOMEONE GO GET VRISKA!"

"What... what's going on?" Hermione gasped urgently, having been hustled away from the bed.

"This is what we've been contending with." Jane looked at her anxiously. "You may want to leave." Hermione shook her head violently. She would not leave. Sighing, Jane turned back to Jake. "Would you mind?"

He also shot a tense glance over to the young witch before easily complying. Harry had been tightly tucked in so that he was already somewhat restrained. Jake merely got on the bed and straddled him, applying appropriate gentle pressure with his legs and arms to keep Harry still. While he did this, a soft white light, almost angelic in nature, suffused the tiny room. A tendril of hope coursed through her entire body, the anguish she felt nearly obliterated by the strength of that hope. Harry screams lessened in intensity but he still cried out, his body writhing in pain. Jane stood with Hermione, her hand absently rubbing her back as she watched the scene unfold.

Several long minutes passed like this until Vriska finally came. She had to duck when she entered the room as she was too tall to be allowed. This was the second time Hermione had seen her and she was no less intimidating now, even though the clothes she wore were quite casual - artfully ripped and faded jeans, a dark green military jacket, and a black t-shirt with the sign for Scorpio on it in cerulean. The Alternian looked at her right then, her strange, mismatched eyes piercing her directly with that same deeply unpleasant smile on her face. And then she turned away, looking at Jane with an extremely disagreeable expression.

"Again?! I just put him to sleep six hours ago," she complained, flipping her tangled mane of hair over her shoulder in contempt.

"I don't know what to tell you. He fights it off like he does everything else," Jane snapped tersely as if she'd heard this argument a million times before and had gone beyond being bored of it.

"Oh, god! Not that thing about his scar again," Vriska shot back, rolling her eyes dramatically.

"It's not his scar," Hermione stated firmly, glaring at the Alternian. "He was the only one to resist the Imperius curse in his fourth year." When all she got was puzzled looks, she clarified, "Mind control, he resisted mind control."

"Huh. Reeeeeeeeally. How interesting." Vriska's eyebrows rose over her glasses in surprise, an appreciative smile forming on her face. It did nothing to soften her sharp features. "Nice to know there's at least one human that ain't a complete waste of space."

"Thanks," said both Jane and Hermione in unison, offense clear in their tone.

Vriska didn't notice, and if she had she wouldn't have cared. She stopped in front of the bed, head tilted curiously as she looked down at the young man as he bucked and yawed. Now that she knew he was resisting not because of some lame-ass magic scar but because he had the willpower to do so, things had gotten more interesting. Up to this point, she'd only been giving him the bare minimum amount of effort, which in the past had been sufficient enough to put most humans to sleep easily. It was time to see what would happen if she flexed her muscles, so to speak.

With a short inhalation, she raised her hands to her forehead and with a longer exhalation, she slowly drew them down. With her left hand, she touched his forehead gently with two fingers and applied the full force of her power. She pushed and he pushed right back - enough to physically force her back a few steps. Grimacing, she took her place again and once her fingers came in contact with his skin she mentally punched, striking back using every bit of strength in her to force him to relent. For a good few minutes he fought admirably, but in the end he was no match for her, submitting to her greater strength. She had to give the kid some credit he had made her breathe a bit harder.

Hermione couldn't quite see what was happening, beyond a bright cerulean light that blazed briefly before slowly going out. Whatever was happening, it seemed to take ages until Harry had finally stopped moving and gone quiet, allowing Jake to crawl off of him. He stepped back to let Jane, and consequently Hermione, to get a good look at him. She could see he was just as pale as before. His scar looked swollen and red. In the middle of his forehead, there was a small blue circle of sorts, with the sign for Scorpio glowing white inside it. It remained there for a number of seconds before sinking into his skin. Vriska smirked and without another word she walked out, ducking her head through the entrance as she left.

Jane took a wash cloth and dripped in a nearby bowl of water, kindly wiping away the sweat from his forehead. Dipping it a second time, she left it there in hope it'd bring down the swelling. She smoothed his hair, looking at him worriedly. Her hand began to glow as her healing fire ignited. She placed it on his chest. It flickered erratically, but did its best to do the job it'd been called for. Once it was finished, Harry didn't look all that much better than before. Even so, it was a small difference - a welcome difference.

Jane swiped her hands through her hair in frustration, which made it stick up oddly in places. "I wish there was more I could do for him," she said with a huff, turning to look at Hermione. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. I appreciate everything you've done for him so far."

"Thank you, but I can't help but feel like I'm doing more harm than good," Jane replied with a helpless shrug. "Why don't I get you some dinner... you need to keep up your strength."

Hermione tried to disagree, but Jane wasn't having it. She was frog marched out of her own bedroom into the dining room. Before she got much farther, she was enveloped by a pink and white blur. It was Roxy, who was hugging her as if her life depended on it. Holding her out at arm's length, Roxy looked her up and down, as if searching for some injury.

"You okay?"

"Um, I..."

"'Course you ain't. Stupid of me. I went and acted a fool. Your friend's all fucked up. Dirk gave you the third degree, even though Janey told him not to. Sorry 'bout that. I handed him his ass a minute ago when I found out," she blurted all this out in one breath. "Hope you don't hold it against him though. I mean, he's a dipshit, but he's our dipshit."

"Thanks, Rox," Dirk called from somewhere outside the tent, punctuating his comment with the hollow thunk of an axe cleaving a log in twain.

"You're welcome, dipshit," she hollered back. And then she noticed that her new friend was looking at her as if she'd gone mad. "I'm overwhelming you, aren't I?"

"Er, a little," Hermione answered politely. In truth, she was more than a little overwhelmed.

"Sorry, it's just... I got done talking with Rose, Dave, and Terezi and I figured out some stuff and how wrong-headed I was being. I'm, uh, sorry for being an assbutt."

"Apology accepted," she said rather tiredly.

Roxy happily guided her to the tables, sitting next to her on her right side as she chattered away inanely. On her left was Jake, eating an absurdly large sandwich with gusto. In front of her was Jade, no longer dressed in black. She wore a huge oversized blue jumper with an intricate pattern of little dogs and atom signs all over it. Her wild tangle of hair had been tied back into a lazy bun, little white dog ears sticking out the top of her head. One swiveled and flicked at some unseen stimulus. Hermione stared at them, open mouthed. Jade noticed almost immediately.

"Yes, they're real. No, they don't really do anything but move occasionally. And that's the only part of me that's actually a dog," she recited as if all those things were common questions, her Kiwi accent bending the words oddly. And then she bit into her sandwich delicately.

Meanwhile, Jane was preoccupied by the person who'd made an absolute mess of her neat kitchen. "Karkat, did you do all this?"

This was the second Alternian she'd ever seen and he couldn't be more different from Vriska if he tried. His skin was the same color, but that was where the similarities ended. He was short and stout with hair so messy it was psychologically distressing to look at. Nubby little candy corn horns just barely stuck out from the tangled brambles of his hair. He wore an overlarge black sweatshirt with the sign for Cancer on it in dull grey and rumpled looking dark grey pants that had clearly seen better days.

The Alternian in question scowled at Jane darkly, his expressive eyebrows knitting together angrily. "Don't act so fucking surprised, Crocker. Sandwiches are the simplest god damned food to make. You're welcome, by the way."

"And what is it I'm supposed to be thankful for exactly?" Jane demanded with just a touch of hostility, gesturing at the mess he'd made, which was quite extensive. "I'm at a loss for words here. Were you cooking or having a food fight? This inquiring mind would like to know."

He gave her a patronizing look. "I'll have you know I've slaved over this for-"

"A hot minute?!" exclaimed Roxy with a bark of laughter. "Looks like you were trying to make sammiches via catapult. Did you just dump the ingredients in and launch it at the bread?"

"First of all, fuck you," Karkat said, pointing directly at Roxy. "Secondly, I was doing you a fucking favor, you ungrateful piece of shit," he continued rancorously, turning on Jane with an accusatory finger.

Jane's face went carefully blank as she calmly picked up a stray wooden spoon, pointing at him menacingly. "Watch your tone, buster. Now, you're gonna clean this mess up, or so help me god I will wedge this spoon in the most uncomfortable part of your anatomy I can get my hands on, are we clear?"

"Promises, Promises," he sneered. Jane's eyes widened and her lips thinned in fury. He rolled his eyes derisively, snarling, "Do your worst, Crocker."

Wordlessly, Jane twirled the spoon one handed, sharply brining it down right across his knuckles hard enough it make an audible crack. He yelped in pain. Snatching his hand back, he rubbed it. As if by some unspoken cue, they began to shout at each other almost simultaneously.

"YOU WANT ME TO CLEAN THIS SHIT UP? FINE! GREAT!" Karkat had grabbed a towel and then began to furiously rub 'clean' an errant mustard stain on the counter which only served to contaminate the counter with more mustard. "SEE?! I'M FUCKING CLEANING, YOU HARPY! YOU WANT ME TO DRESS UP IN SOME KIND OF INSULTING NOVELTY COSTUME WHILE WE'RE AT IT, YOU FUCKING SOCIOPATH!?"

"I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT AND I DON'T WANT TO! AND THAT ISN'T CLEANING, YOU DOLT! YOU'RE MAKING IT WORSE!" She shouted back, throwing her spoon at his head and missing by a country mile.

Their argument didn't slow or quiet down, but everyone else seemed to just ignore it, going back to eating their sandwiches as if nothing was going on. Hermione considered doing a cleaning charm but refrained - for one, she was kind of put out by all the shouting and secondly, she wasn't all that good with household spells to begin with. It suddenly occurred to her that this was what it was probably like to be in the middle of one of her frequent rows with Ron, a thought which she quickly pushed away.

Concerned, Hermione asked Roxy in a very quiet whisper, "Is this a normal occurrence?"

Roxy snorted and rolled her eyes as she pulled one of the sandwiches Karkat had made towards her but didn't answer.

It was Jade who spoke up. "It's an almost daily thing. I have this theory that Karkat might die if he doesn't have at least one argument with someone in a 24 hour period."

Karkat paused in his cleaning/exchanging barbs with Jane to shout, "IF THAT WAS TRUE I'D STOP TALKING JUST SO I COULD FINALLY EMBRACE THE SWEET RELEASE OF DEATH! YOUR THEORY IS BULLSHIT, JADE. I'M LIKE FUCKING TROLL SISYPHYS, ENDLESSLY PUSHING YOU ASSHOLES UP THE STEEPEST FUCKING INCLINE GOD OR MAN EVER CONCEIVED."

Jade tilted her head back and let out a rich, full bodied laugh, getting up to punch him lightly in the arm. She chased him out of the kitchen so she could help Jane, as he'd been doing more complaining than cleaning. He sat down in her place, grabbing a sandwich and shoving in messily into his mouth.

"Ouff gaht um pruhblm?" he asked challengingly, his mouth full.

"Oddly enough, no," Hermione replied with a shrug, watching him eat with an almost wistful expression. "It's kind of comforting, actually." Something occurred to her then. "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" His eyes darted back and forth suspiciously before nodding his assent, his cheeks stuffed with sandwich like a chipmunk. "John said something curious to me once and he said I ought to ask you about it because you'd get the 'joke'."

"Are you fucking kidding me right now... any joke Egbert had a hand in is bound to be awful and a waste of our time. I only include you because that enormous tool somehow roped you into his ill-advised nonsense," he snapped, finishing his sandwich in one bite. Unbeknownst to Hermione, Roxy kicked him underneath the table to force him to talk. He grunted, glaring at her. She grinned at him mischievously, kicking him again - this time much, much harder. "I know I'm gonna regret this," he mumbled, rubbing his shin with his other foot before kicking Roxy back in retaliation. "Just... ask your fucking question."

"Well, he said something about trolling me backwards. I didn't really understand what he meant then, but now I think it has to do with the fact that temporally speaking we've met each other out of regular order. My first meeting with you all isn't your first meeting with me and my second meeting with you is clearly your first, which is a bit confusing, to be frank. And I'm not quite sure how it's funny, but he did say that you'd get it so..."

"JESUS CHRIST! A GUY MAKES THE MISTAKE OF TROLLING SOME LOSER BACKWARDS IN TIME ON ACCIDENT ONCE AND HE HAS TO PAY FOR THAT SPECTACULAR BULGE-BREAKING FUCKUP FOR THE REST OF HIS GOD DAMNED LIFE," he exploded, burying his hands in the wild tangles of his hair in exasperation. And then he glowered at her, speaking more quietly (marginally) while retaining the same acid tone. "The answer to your question is it isn't fucking funny, like at all. It's just more of John's special brand of feculent horseshit that I've been dealing with for more sweeps than I'd like to think about. It's like Dave's stupid fucking stairs meme, it just keeps happening."

He stood up abruptly, giving Hermione a look of pure loathing before shaking his head and swearing quietly to himself as he angrily exited the tent. Hermione was at a loss. Her question had been quite sincere and she was baffled by his reaction. "Did I say something wrong?" She asked Roxy, honestly worried.

"Nah, he's just a really twitchy dude. Also, I think John kinda used you to prank him, timeline-wise. So there's that," Roxy said, biting her lip briefly before she explained further. "The story is that Karkat had this chat client back in the day with a temporal function. It allowed you to talk to people, or even yourself, at different points in their timeline. Instead of having conversations in lockstep with John's current time like a rational person, he talked to him backwards to avoid some dumb awkward conversation they had the first time they chatted."

"So it's just silly, juvenile nonsense."

"Yep, pretty par for the course if we're being honest here," Roxy agreed with a little headshake.

"What's the stairs meme?"

"Oh god, no. Just... no," Jane interrupted as she cleared away some dishes. "Don't open that can of worms. You'll regret it. Just believe me that you're better off not knowing."

"Ignore her, she hates art," Roxy quipped with a devious little smile.

Hermione had the sneaking suspicion that Jane was correct in this particular instance.

It was strange how easily they'd drawn her in again, even though they didn't know her like they had when she'd first met them. The whole situation was beyond surreal. She felt the cognitive dissonance as almost a physical thing. There was the hunt for the Horcruxes and all the despair that entailed; Harry's current condition and the fact that she now had firm confirmation that what she'd long dreaded was true. And then this inane argument she'd witnessed - the absurdity of everything that had happened in the last 24 hours. She should be reeling, instead she felt weirdly comforted. It was as if a warm blanket had been placed on her shoulders. Like the universe was somehow saying it'd all turn out all right. She wanted to believe it so badly...

But she just couldn't. Harry was a Horcrux. She knew it for a fact now and she knew his ultimate fate. Neither can live while the other survives... He had to die. He had face death willingly and allow that monster to kill him. The horror of it overwhelmed her. The laughing people surrounding her seemed to dim, sound and color fading to almost nothing. She quietly excused herself, stumbling into her own room. It was dark and the only sound was Harry breathing softly. Sitting down on the floor, she pressed her back into the edge of the bed. She hugged her legs and buried her face in her knees. And then she cried for the fiftieth time that day, biting her lip to muffle the sobs.

Hours passed and she awoke cold and on the floor, having fallen asleep. Looking at her watch, she saw it was a little after two in the morning. She thought briefly about going back to her own bed, but rejected that idea. Instead, she stood up stiffly, brushing off her clothes. Harry moaned in his sleep, moving restlessly under the covers. She gently brushed the hair from his face.

She leaned down and whispered, "Stop fighting it, Harry. Rest. You're safe."

Hermione didn't know if he could hear her or not. With a sigh, he stilled. It brought her a bit of small hope... perhaps he had heard her. 'Be realistic, Hermione,' she mumbled harshly to herself as she exited. She decided to go into the living area, hoping to get some late night reading done. Most people weren't up this late, and she was expecting that she'd have some time alone.

Walking into the living area, Dirk and yet another Alternian were conversing quietly sitting across from each other. Dirk paused, his head titling subtly at the sound of Hermione's shuffling feet. The troll had also noticed the sound and looked up, her eyes meeting the young witch's unblinkingly. Dirk stood abruptly, back ramrod straight.

"We'll talk more later," he stated tersely, and without warning he left without even looking at Hermione.

"All right," the Alternian woman responded, an eyebrow cocking in confusion at his sudden departure. Her attention returned to Hermione. She smiled politely. "Good morning."

"Um, good morning." Hermione just stood there nervously, unsure of what to do.

The Alternian woman regarded her for a moment and found her to be silent and therefore uninteresting. With a shrug, she flipped open the book she had in her hand to the spot she'd read last. But trying to read when someone else is staring at you and not sitting down is really the most impossible task in the world. With a quiet sigh when Hermione still hadn't moved, she said, "I don't bite, you know." She looked up, peaking through her lashes. "Unless you ask nicely."

Hermione actually took a small step back. The Alternian woman laughed lightly and shook her head, wondering internally what it was about bookworms that thought too much that made it impossible for them to make the first move - thus leaving it up to her. Gracefully, she stood up, her hand curling around her book.

Like Vriska, she was quite tall but unlike her she was willowy, lacking the dense musculature of Vriska's more athletic frame. Her dark black hair was neatly coiffed, elegant horns standing out from the precise curls. She had a lovely heart shaped face with high cheekbones. Her wide almond shaped eyes were complimented by perfectly arched eyebrows that were neat and well maintained. She wasn't rough like Vriska or rumpled like Karkat. She was perfectly poised and put together, her entire bearing insinuating great refinement. Like all of her kind, she wore a simple black t-shirt with an astrological sign on it - hers was Virgo in deep jade green.

The troll herself was rather amused by this new human's curious perusal of her form. Perhaps she'd spent too much time with her Matesprit because she couldn't help find the hilarity in the whole encounter. Without a doubt she was sure the girl was absolutely petrified of her, but also curious.

Rose had said she'd met Vriska and Karkat first, a classic mistake on the human's part. It was never a good idea to let those two be the first introduction to her people. The Thief of Light had mellowed considerably in the intervening years but that didn't mean that she had lost her edge. She was sharp and intimidating, which meant she rarely left a positive impression. And Karkat was surly at the best of times.

Friendly overtures were the best way to make humans feel at ease, it was really that simple and yet they failed at every turn. No matter how many times Kanaya had nagged both of them, neither listened. It was frustrating because even Terezi, who at her best was mercurial in her whims, had the good sense to occasionally appear diplomatic with newcomers. Oh, who was she kidding, Terezi was as big a mess as the rest of them.

She glided towards the young witch, her stride so smooth that it looked like her feet barely touched the floor. Holding out a hand, wrist tipped daintily, she said, "Kanaya Maryam, very pleased to meet you."

When Hermione didn't immediately shake her hand, Kanaya's eyes subtly glanced at her hand and then back at her face, eyebrows lifting expectantly. After staring at her proffered hand for a few seconds, fingers twisting, Hermione shook the Alternian's hand and introduced herself. The young witch was surprised at how soft her skin was.

Blinking slowly, Kanaya sat, gesturing to the space before her. "Please sit." She gently set her book down, patiently waiting for Hermione to comply before speaking again. "I apologize for my compatriot's behavior. Not all of us are so uncouth." Her voice was low and melodic with the slightest hint of an accent of some sort.

"Oh, well, yes. That's quite all right. You needn't apologize," stuttered Hermione nervously. "I'm sure they're just tired from traveling, I suppose."

Kanaya laughed throatily at the suggestion. "Oh my no, Vriska's an insufferable bitch who lives for drama, always has been, always will be. We've all made our peace with it. As for Karkat... he's loud and he is awfully abrasive at times, but it's all of a part of his charm. He'll grow on you. You'll see. Have you met Terezi yet? Which I've heard is a loaded question - to clarify, I mean have you met her recently or in your past?"

"Well, I've not personally met her at all, actually. She did write something on a note Dave left me in the past..."

"Hmm. Well, in a way that's fortunate. She's a bit better at first meetings than Karkat or Vriska, but not by much," confessed Kanaya, shrugging her shoulders. "Since you are likely to meet her sooner or later, I suppose it'd be fair to warn you. Terezi is... well, talking to her can sometimes make you feel quite unbalanced." She thought for a second or two. "Rose used an odd turn of phrase to describe her once that I didn't entirely understand due to vast differences in our respective cultures but perhaps it is applicable in this instance... she said that dealing with her felt as if you were in a final exam for class you hadn't attended all year. Terezi was the teacher that knew you hadn't studied and was eagerly waiting to fail you. I hope it made more sense to you than it did for me."

"She sounds terrifying," breathed Hermione, unaware she'd voiced her thoughts.

"Oh, she is," Kanaya agreed happily, smiling a little at the shocked look on Hermione's face. "But those of us lucky enough to call her friend know there is no one more loyal to them than her. She is vicious in the defense of those she loves and merciless to those who dare to threaten us. You're included in that now, of course. So you needn't worry."

"B-but I've never met her..."

Kanaya's eyes conveyed a warmth that there wasn't before. "Terezi is a Seer, Miss Granger. The Seer of Mind, in point of fact. And she has seen you... she knows you, even if you don't know her yet. When she told us we had to find you, she said you were an ally - a friend. Rose confirmed it. And when both our Seers agree, we are inclined to take their conclusions at face value as they are rarely wrong."

Thoroughly unsettled, Hermione made to get up but before she could even move, Kanaya's hand grasped her own. Her face was grave as she looked at her with those strange eyes - a deep jade green set in bright gold sclera. "I know this upsets you. The truth is not often comfortable, as you well know." She gave her a delicate smile, squeezing her hand gently before releasing it. "I found this book on one of the chairs," she said, holding up 'The Tales of Beedle the Bard'. "It's very interesting. Rose seemed to enjoy the story of the Three Brothers. I found it to be terribly morbid myself. I prefer the one about the Hopping Pot. It was very amusing. I apologize for not asking before reading it. Would it be too much trouble if I borrow it for a bit longer?"

"Not at all," Hermione agreed shakily, hoping that by agreeing this strange conversation could be over.

"Thank you," she replied as she stood up in a single fluid motion and then walked into what was the dining room. Halting at the entrance, she turned and smiled. "Goodnight."

Without further ado, she slipped into the darkened room. Hermione could hear her conversing with someone in low murmurs. There was a sound of rustling fabric as if someone was slipping underneath the covers of a bed and then quiet.

Suddenly going to bed seemed like a very good idea.

Chapter Text

She woke up in blissful layers, with none of the pain she'd experienced the previous day. Opening her eyes lazily, she gazed out at the tent. The privacy curtain had been replaced and the tent was somewhat dim, meaning it was probably early morning. Yawning, she lay in Harry's bunk - it still smelled faintly of his aftershave, which he often used too much of. She was aware someone else was awake. From the general direction of the kitchen, she could hear someone bustling about, singing quietly to themselves as they worked. Deliberating for a moment on what to do, try to sleep or get up, she decided that getting up was probably for the best. She didn't fancy a lie in.

With another wide yawn, she got up and walked out into the dining area. Sure enough, Jane was up early as usual, and preparing breakfast once again but this time with John's help. It was Jane that was singing, Hermione realized. Though she was attempting to keep her voice down, it was a bit pointless as it was unusually resonant and quite beautiful.

"I heard them promise, till death do us part. Each word was a pain in my heart," she sang, swaying gently as she carefully scrambled eggs in a large pan. "WH-O-O-A-O-O-O-H! All I could do... all I could was cry..."

Hermione didn't recognize the song. Obviously, it was probably by an American artist she might not be all that familiar with. It sounded like it was an older song, perhaps from the sixties. Her mother might have recognized it. The thought only pained her for a moment. So instead of dwelling, she quietly sat down and listened with her chin in her hand. When Jane came to the final verse of the song and the last note was wrung from her throat, Hermione clapped enthusiastically. John, who'd noticed her entering, joined in with a silly smile. Jane was startled and nearly jumped out of her skin, hand on her heart. With a shaky laugh, she recovered and smiled.

Looking directly at Hermione she said, "I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

"No," Hermione replied, shaking her head. "But if you had, it wouldn't have been terrible, to be honest."

"Oh, well... thank you," Jane spluttered, heat rising in her cheeks.

"I didn't know you could sing."

"Um, yeah. John and I both can, actually. We both also play piano... he's a bit better at it than me," Jane explained as she worked, squeaking when John splooshed some water at her in response to the disparaging comment about her talent with the piano. And when Hermione asked about the song and the artist, Jane was happy to elaborate on it. "Oh, it's Etta James... she's my favorite. 'All I Could Do Was Cry' is one of her more well-known hits, not her signature song but still good."

"You didn't have to stop," Hermione said shyly, immediately feeling embarrassed for being pushy.

But Jane only smiled, going into 'I'd Rather Go Blind' as if she hadn't stopped singing at all. As she cooked and sang, people began filtering in. First was Roxy, who shuffled in tiredly - still in her pajamas, her hair a riotous mess, and with no makeup on at all. She shucked off her coat and tossed it on one of the living room chairs carelessly before sliding in next to Hermione. The young witch greeted her and was treated to a grunt in lieu of a reply. Jade came in next, rubbing her eyes under her glasses as she yawned. Jake followed her and he was the only one that was fully awake until seconds later when Dirk strolled in jauntily. He immediately reacted to Jane's singing.

"Yo! Jane! At Last! Do 'At Last' next!" he hollered, solemnly blowing her a kiss when she paused and scowled genially at his rudeness.

"Evidently, I'm taking requests now," she chided with a chuckle, flipping the sausages over with a spatula.

"C'mon! You gotta," he insisted as he sat down. "Like, fuck, if I knew you were in here singing Etta, I would have gotten up earlier. Don't leave me hanging like that."

With an eye roll, she began with the first long note of Etta James' signature song, plating the food so John could deliver it to the table. And as she serenaded them, her voice filling the tent warmly, everyone piled up their plates and tucked in. The moment she'd finished one song, she began to sing another until she ran out of relatively low-key songs in Etta James' oeuvre. It got quiet then, just the sounds of people eating and dishes being done. Until Dirk decided the silence was unacceptable.

As he took his plate up to give to John so they could be washed, he began to sing, "Listen b-a-a-a-a-a-a-by... Ain't no mountain high, ain't no valley low, ain't no river wide enough baby..."

Jane, who was busy cleaning up, sighed and shook her head exasperatedly but sang back the answering verse all the same. "If you need me, call me... no matter where you are, no matter how far..."

"Don't worry, baby," He belted it out as he pointed at her emphatically.

"Just call my name, I'll be there in a hurry. You don't have to worry."

And it quickly escalated as they both belted out the chorus gleefully. Dirk in his great wisdom bumped John out of the way so he could eat and took over for him, singing the entire time. His voice wasn't quite as good as Jane's, but it was decent and surprisingly smooth. And as they worked, they both danced, causing them both to neglect the volume of their voices. The unfortunate side effect of this little performance was that it was quite loud and there were still people asleep in the tent. As they came to the towering crescendo of the song while those who'd finished eating clapped in accompaniment, there was a muffled oath coming from the dining room-cum-sleeping chamber.

"JESUS CHRIST, PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!" shouted the disembodied voice of Rose Lalonde, who sounded tired and less than happy by the interruption of her sleep.

Dave had stumbled in by this point and heard his sister's complaint with the preternatural clarity afforded to all siblings whose ears were attuned to what would annoy their sister most. His gaze met his brother's and by silent agreement they both began to beat box the opening riffs to 'I Want You Back' by the Jackson Five. Dave pointed at John, who without waiting for any further word got up from the table and immediately began his best Michael Jackson impression, which was honestly a solid effort that sounded eerily close and was greatly helped by his vintage Jackson 5 moves. Dirk, Roxy, and Jade didn't need prompting to shout out the backing chorus while Dave continued to beatbox and from there it became something like musical anarchy - no so much in that it wasn't melodic, more that its sole purpose was to fuck with Rose's calm.

During this entire interlude, Rose was moaning for them to shut the fuck up. No one listened. Hermione watched all this with befuddled amusement, looking around as if she was slowly witnessing everyone in the room all going mad simultaneously. And then a shoe rocketed out of the makeshift bedroom Rose resided in, almost triumphantly in time with the chorus of the song. The shoe hit exactly no one, smacking the side of the tent pointlessly but satisfyingly. Everyone went quiet for several minutes, all eyes on the shoe lying all by itself on the floor.

Surprisingly, it was Jane was decided to continue the mischief. Getting Jade's attention, she mouthed one word, 'Halo'. Jade, evidently, knew what this meant as she nodded and then pulled an entire acoustic guitar from god damned nowhere. She then leaned over and whispered something into Jake's ear, and he nodded. The message was passed around until all attention was on Rose's room. Jade and Jane positioned themselves near the 'door' as they began - Jade strumming her guitar in a slow, pleasant rhythm.

When she'd been trying to be quiet her voice had been beautiful, but now in its fullness it was transcendent, backed by Jade's skillful playing. And then everyone began clapping in time. When Hermione didn't join in, Roxy, now quite awake, nudged her playfully, a silly grin on her face. Reluctantly, the young witch joined in while Roxy clapped and rocked back and forth in her chair to the rhythm. Once Jane hit the chorus, everyone slowly added their own voices, Jade in particular singing counterpoint to Jane. Her voice was lower and rawer, but they complimented each other nicely.

There was rustling coming from the dining room/sleeping area and muffled complaints while Jane sang on. "Hit me like a ray of sun, burning through my darkest night. You're the only one I want, think I'm addicted to your light," and as the words flowed sweetly from her mouth, Rose dramatically appeared at the door.

She violently pushed aside the tent-flaps and held them open as she glared at everyone serenading her. It might have been menacing had her hair not been a rat's nest. Her normally imposing image was further dented by the fact that she wore no makeup at all and was dressed in a rumpled silk chemise with a very silly cat pattern gamboling all over it covered by an equally rumpled cotton robe that had clearly seen a few too many wash cycles. She looked like a very irate university RA, which was a less than intimidating look.

No one was fazed at all by her reaction. In fact, they all seemed galvanized by it. At some point, Karkat had joined them, quietly for once. He was near the end of the second table. Somehow he'd found a lighter and was holding it over his head, its little light flickering as he slowly moved his hand back and forth as if he were at a proper concert, while reading his phone at the same time. This inspired the others, who continued to sing and clap even louder. As they came to the end of the song, Jane's voice ebbed and flowed magnificently while everyone joyously joined in for the last full repeat of the chorus.

Instead of the riotous cacophony of earlier, which was mainly meant to annoy, there was something gentler as they all joined in proclaiming that they could see her halo until the last momentous note faded into silence. Rose obviously could tell the difference between the two performances but she was still playfully annoyed as she gazed at a sea of amused faces. The room erupted in cheers as they all clapped, whether it was because it was the natural way to end such a performance or to salute Rose, no one really knew or cared. She pushed past them with good-humored imperiousness, sitting down as graceful as a queen. Dave, obligingly, brought her a plate piled with food, ruffling her hair which she endured with stoic dignity.

Looking them all over with raised eyebrows, she smiled wryly as she smoothed out her rumpled clothes. "You're all pathological," she declared primly as she carefully finger-combed her hair into some semblance of order before digging into her breakfast.

Hermione couldn't help it; she openly stared at Rose as she ate her breakfast. She thought back to the first and only time she'd met her - how effortlessly intimidating she was. But without makeup she looked years younger and though there was still an aura of quiet authority about her, she seemed somehow more approachable. Perhaps it was the luminescent smoothness of her bare skin or the now visible sprinkling of freckles across her nose. It could have been her chapped lips or the way her hair still stuck up crazily, making her resemblance to Roxy far more obvious than normal.

"Enjoying the view?" Rose drawled languidly, the lack of dark lipstick did nothing to dim the impishness of her smile.

Hermione nearly choked on her orange juice, sputtering a sentence that could only be considered an incoherent string of sounds. Rose laughed - it still had the same resonance, the same resemblance to pealing church bells. The most awful thing about all of this was the familiarity. Rose sounded the same. She smiled the same. But she wasn't the same because they hadn't even met yet.

"How quickly you've forgotten what Kanaya told you last night, Hermione," intoned Rose slyly. The use of her name at that moment had been pointed as she gazed at the young witch with piercing bright lavender eyes. "Light illuminates the most fortunate path forward and that path includes you quite prominently. So, you see, I don't need to meet you at a particular time to know you." Her smile softened at the stricken look on Hermione's face.

Hermione could not help but feel the ominousness in those words. As if she'd heard her say it out loud, Rose reached over and gave her hand a comforting squeeze before flouncing off to deposit her dishes with Dirk, who was still singing and washing away happily - this time it was some song that was entirely in Spanish. Meanwhile, Roxy had watched the entire exchange silently. Her pink eyes slid over to the girl who would be, was, and always will be her friend.

"Hey," she said, nudging Hermione with an elbow. "Wanna go out on patrol with me? I mean, after I get freshened up, obvi."

"Patrol?"

"Hmm? Yeah, patrol," she repeated with a hint of irritation. "I mean, I got this place on lockdown. Ain't no one can find us if I don't want em to. Don't mean accidents ain't gonna happen and there are people out there none of us want tripping face first into our biz. So, we've been taking turns checking the perimeters of the camp. So, whadya think? Come with?" There was a hopeful lilt in Roxy's voice and an obvious but understated current of excitement in her eyes.

Pressing her lips together, Hermione's gaze couldn't help but drift to the room where Harry lay, still in an induced coma. She wanted very much to go with Roxy, but she wasn't fourteen anymore. There was the matter of the Horcrux, which she really ought to retrieve. It was dangerous to leave it out on a table like that. Plus, what if Harry woke up - he'd need a familiar face to explain what had happened. Four years ago, she didn't have near the responsibility she had now. As fun as it sounded, her place was here. She breathed in to say as much but Roxy cut her off.

"You ain't doin' him no good here," Roxy declared firmly, her eyes hard. "He's in a bad way and there's no fucking chance he's gonna be awake anytime soon. Moping don't solve shit. You need to get out of this musty old tent."

The words were eerily familiar, said in almost the same tone as they had been four years ago.

"But... there are people out there looking for me... well, for Harry and me both. I couldn't bear it if something were to happen to you," Hermione began with a tremulous sigh, it wasn't exactly a lie but she didn't really know how true it might be. In fact, it sounded terribly close to complete bullshit if she was really thinking about it, just an excuse because she didn't want to leave Harry. "It's simply not safe."

Roxy burst out into loud peals of laughter. "I appreciate you worryin' about me and all, but you seen what we did to those Dementors. 'Sides, I have it on good authority that you know I got this rad 'sleeper' power that I haven't seen fit to give you the 411 on."

"Are you ever going to fill me in?"

"Nah, waitin' for your big brain to put all the pieces together on its lonesome," Roxy said with a wink and a grin. "So, coming with? Or are you dead set on moping around in this grungy tent like a shitty wet blanket?"

"You're not going to leave me alone unless I agree, are you?"

"I'm gearing up to be downright relentless about it, if I have to. Just hoping you'll preemptively say 'yes' to save us both some effort," she said, wrinkling her nose adorably. "Plus, I feel like I gotta 'splain some stuff about how I reacted when I was being an assbutt... like I know I already apologized, but just feels kind of shitty that you don't know the reason why. Cus I'm pretty sure you don't. It's stuff I don't like talking about all that often. Stuff I think my newest bestie oughta know." Roxy looked up cautiously through her messy fringe. There was a raw vulnerability in her gaze that was almost hard to look at.

The dreadful importance of this moment hit Hermione just then. There were hints she'd inferred from certain passages in the green book about Roxy. Hints she didn't quite want to believe because if she did... her heart broke for her friend. With a small nod, she gave a reassuring smile. "I'd love to go with you."

The smile Roxy gave then was nothing short of luminous. "Sweet! Be back in five. Gotta make myself presentable," Roxy chirped happily before she hopped up and nearly skipped out of the tent.

In truth, it was more like fifteen minutes than five before Roxy returned, dressed and ready to go. She stepped into the tent, her hair 'fixed' up but still somehow windswept. Her energy was boundless, as always, as she nearly dragged Hermione out of the tent, barely giving her time to throw a coat on. She blinked owlishly as she stumbled out of the tent. Two days ago, the weather had been miserable and gloomy. But the sun had come out since then and it was very bright. She stopped cold, looking around while trying to adjust to the difference between the tent and the outside world. Roxy would not be denied, grabbing her by the hand to encourage her forward. They walked briskly through the camp, Roxy happily greeting Jake as he carefully stacked firewood.

The camp itself was quite large. It consisted of four other tents besides the one Hermione had provided. Besides the regular tents, there was a large pole-tent of sorts. The windward sides of the shelter were literally blocked up by bright green bricks. The other two had the same thick carpet like coverings she'd seen four years ago which were clumsily tied back with cords. Inside she could barely make out what looked like a brazier similar to the one they'd used in the monastery four years ago. An extension cord dangled from canopy of the tent, though what it was attached to was not immediately obvious. One of the small green generator boxes sat just below it, as if waiting to be used. Near the pole-tent was a cord of wood that Jake was currently stacking. To the left were the temporary shower facilities and further away from that was the lavatory.

Then there were the tents themselves, scattered haphazardly across the camp. Hermione's was nearest to what Roxy had termed the 'entertainment zone', indicating the pole-tent. To the far right was a red tent, which was shared by Dave, Jade, and Karkat. There was a smaller green tent which was farther away than the others, which belonged to Dirk and Jake.

Roxy pointed excitedly at a blue tent just behind Hermione's own. "That's my tent. I share it with John and usually Jane, but since she's on healin' duty it's just been the two of us." On the outskirts of the camp was the last tent, which was dark purple. "That one is Vriska and Terezi's. Trolls got better hearing than humans, so they usually set up near the border of my influence. Better to get the jump on anyone who gets too close."

Roxy chatted with her amiably about nothing at all important as they walked out of the camp. The further they went into the forest, the quieter she became. She stopped suddenly, her hand lifting up and tapping at nothing. From seemingly nowhere a wicked looking short-barreled rifle appeared. She caught it, swinging it over her shoulder with almost perfunctory flare.

"What's that for?" Hermione blurted out, slightly alarmed by the presence of such a dangerous but distinctly muggle weapon.

Roxy's eyebrows rose subtly. "Protection, obviously."

"Muggle weapons are useless against wizards," she explained with an air of exasperation.

Her blonde haired friendly smiled slowly. In a blur of motion, she shouldered the rifle and shot it; completely obliterating a tree a good ten feet away from them with a loud, futuristic sounding bffftwang. It had happened so quickly that Hermione barely had time to breathe from shock. "I'd like to see the wizard that got the reflexes to beat me in a quick draw. Mostly cus I'm sure they don't exist." There was no arrogance in the statement at all, just grim fact. "C'mon. Somebody is probably gonna notice that and I don't want to listen to another lecture 'bout not blowing the fuck outta innocent shrubbery."

It was hard to believe Roxy was as deadly as her other friends were. Well, really, Hermione had barely believed any of them were capable of summoning the kind of raw power they'd unleashed just two days ago until she'd witnessed it firsthand. It just seemed especially unbelievable in Roxy's case. She was so affable and goofy, but here was the evidence that she was every bit as deadly as her peers.

Hermione fell back on her old standby, disapproval. "You know, they don't allow those types of weapons in this country."

Roxy let out a hearty guffaw. "What? You mean to tell me they don't allow no Star War future weapons in this neck of the woods? I am shocked and appalled I can't get my Han Solo on - got half a mind to write a sternly worded letter to the Queen."

She narrowed her eyes wryly and corrected her, amusement coloring her voice. "Don't you mean Star Wars?"

"Nah, I meant what I said - One whole Star War, with no pluralization taintin' its lofty magnificence," Roxy quipped, her eyes sparkling as she gave Hermione a little nudge with her shoulder.

The young witch smiled despite herself, playfully pushing Roxy away with a laugh. Almost as if planned, they both went silent, falling into their own thoughts. The day was cold and crisp; the sky was a lovely pale blue. In the distance, Hermione thought she heard a bird sing. There were still a few leaves on the trees, though they were all dull and brown now. Hermione sniffed, looking down at her feet as they went ever forward. Each footstep came with an accompanying crunch from the dead leaves below. Roxy, by contrast, was nearly silent as she moved; her eyes scanning the woods cautiously. Hermione gripped her wand which was in her coat pocket, suddenly worried.

"Is there something the matter?" she whispered, her heart beating a bit faster.

"Not really. Just..." Roxy huffed frustratedly. "There were some guys on that ridge there," and she pointed at it, "just a couple days ago. Pretty sure they're wizards, on account of their terrible taste in fashion. I mean, who the fuck wears a drum major jacket with a pirate shirt and culottes, honestly? Plus, they got wands and can't help but shoot 'em off like every five minutes like a buncha tools. Anyways, I've been tracking them last couple days - cus they keep circling closer to us. And that don't sit right with me."

"What would they be doing out here?"

"Looking for folks on the run, like you," Roxy suggested with an easy shrug. "Rose says they're called snatchers. Roving gangs of magic folk that ain't good enough to be Death Eaters what go looking for people in hiding with bounties on their heads. And then turn them in for fun and profit."

Hermione paled. She knew it was bad. After all, the three of them did have a price on their heads. When Ron was still here and they listened to the radio broadcasts, it was clear the situation was dire. But they hadn't really listened since then. They'd had no news of what was going on in almost two months. She had never imagined things would go downhill this way and so quickly. And the fact that some of these awful people were near enough to worry Roxy... she slowly drew her wand from her pocket, looking around the woods as if seeing it for the first time as a very dangerous place.

Roxy stopped and looked at her with a strained half-smile she clutched her arm and squeezed it. "You don't got nothin' to worry 'bout. You're with me. I got your back."

Hermione returned the smile and responded quietly, "I know. But... you need to know that I have yours as well."

A look of surprise flitted across her blonde friend's face that warmed into a fond, watery smile as she nodded sharply to acknowledge what Hermione had said. "C'mon. There's a real nice flat rock down that way by this little stream. Looks like a good place to talk."

Chapter Text

Roxy let out a deep sigh as they sat down on the rock. Talking about her past, before the game... before she got better, was hard. She began with the background information about the Condesce, who she was and what she'd done to the earth to make it the post-apocalyptic shit hole she'd grown up in. Specifically, she'd mentioned the fact that she was the Alternian's former Empress, aka Her Imperious Condescension. The Condesce was good at two things as far as Roxy saw it. She was super fucking good at conquering worlds and then spectacularly fucking up those worlds once she got her grubby little mitts on 'em.

Roxy then went on in depth about the gradual extinction of the human race and the Condesce's direct role in it. The despair she'd felt being one of two human beings left on earth. The fact that Dirk was a good three thousand miles away, in the middle of the fucking ocean with no way to get to him. That her other friends were stuck 400 years in the past and utterly untouchable. That the person who she had believed was her mother had died hundreds of years before Roxy was even born. Worse, the reality that the only way she'd ever meet her friends or the woman she thought was her mother was to play a game... a game she knew the Condesce wanted her to play. That the only way to make her hopes and dreams come true was to play right into the hands of the very person who'd made her life a living hell and had basically taken everything from her.

"To say I wasn't in a good place back then is a bit of an understatement," Roxy supplied with a huff. "I was a lonely, depressed teenager with an entire wine cellar at her disposal and no adult to tell me what a fucking terrible idea that was."

"So... you drank," Hermione whispered tremulously, realizing her worst guess had been correct.

Roxy let out a hollow sounding laugh. "I didn't just drink. I got black-out drunk on the reg. Drank till I couldn't feel feelings, y'know. Could barely function once the game got started - was a fucking liability to my friends and a danger to myself. I was a huge mess." Roxy let out a very loud, shaky sigh. "I ain't proud of it. From what she told me, Rose was nice enough when she was writing our part in that book she gave you that she kind of toned down the fact that I was an almost functioning alcoholic. Like, I guess she cut out some of the more embarrassing logs. But the evidence is still there - can't really hide it."

For a moment, Hermione thought of saying something dreadfully stupid like 'I'm sorry'. In fact, she struggled greatly with finding something to say that wasn't one of the most idiotic things you could say to someone in Roxy's position. "Well, you got better, didn't you? I mean, from what I've seen from meeting you four years ago to today - you're sober. That's good," she said attempting to be encouraging but to her ears sounding silly and a bit lame. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong..."

Roxy took in stride, as she always had. Most people didn't know how to deal with someone who had a problem like she did, because they never had that problem to begin with and Roxy hoped to god they never would. Most folks tried their best. She couldn't judge someone who'd never been in her shoes, after all.

"Nah, s'all good," she exclaimed with a hand wave. "I just decided that I didn't want to be a hilarious shit-show when I first met my mom/ecto-daughter. So I got clean. And here's where we get to why I acted so messed up when I first met you." Her cheeks puffed out as she exhaled harshly. "How much do you know about doomed timelines?"

Hermione gave her the standard definition of what a doomed timeline was, almost verbatim. It was a timeline where one or more players had utterly failed at what they needed to do, consigning everyone in that timeline to die, inevitably. Here came the really hard part of her story, revealing that she and John both came from a doomed timeline where everything that could possibly go wrong had happened. And it had all happened that way because the Condesce had manipulated every last step of their journey for the benefit of herself and the demon that employed her.

She told her that the Rose they knew now was not the woman Roxy had first met. She recounted how joyous that first meeting was for her and how it was abruptly ended - watching in horror as the Condesce impaled Rose with her trident - watching as Rose died in her arms, unable to do anything. That was why she'd reacted so irrationally. Because for just a moment, she thought it was happening all over again and that she'd have to watch everyone she loved die and be unable to do a damn thing about it.

"Wait," Hermione interrupted, a thought suddenly occurring to her. "I was under the impression that everyone from a doomed timeline dies, save the Time player - who would go back to fix what was wrong. If that's true, how are you even here? And you're clearly not a Time player, Dave is, because there's only ever one per session."

"Ten points to Gryffindor!" Roxy grinned at her quick witted friend. "See, it's like you said -normally Paradox Spaces goes out of its way to kack you. Sort of like when you wanna wipe a computer. Like, you could just overwrite shit, but all that does is put new stuff over old stuff," she explained, waving her hands animatedly. "There's still gonna be old stuff left over, right? So, if you really wanna do it clean, you gotta be brutal and wipe fucking everything with a special program. Paradox Space works like that, brutally wiping out shit it don't need."

She paused long enough to make sure Hermione was keeping up before continuing. "Thing is, you can't never really get rid of every last little bitty bit of info, not for realsies. There's stuff left over and if you're really clever you can find neat ways to get info back that you thought was gone. What happened to me is like that. Well, me and John - we sort of found a giant ass loophole that let us squirm our way out of being straight up murdered by game mechanics."

"How?" Hermione's tone was dreadfully insistent. There hadn't been anything about that in any of her books.

"Well, I ain't the only one that gots a sleeper power. And, let's be honest, my sleeper power is just my regular power. John... he has a real sleeper power, one we don't brag about on account of the fucking weird way he got and how insanely powerful it makes him."

The young witch looked at her skeptically. "But it's no secret he's a Godtier. It was in that green book Rose gave me in plain black and white. He was the first one of you to reach it."

"Yeah, but this shit was something he got outside of normal Godtier powers. How he got it is not the point really... and frankly the shenans involved in that story is out of fucking control," she began, with a self-conscious shrug. "The fact is - he can selectively travel through timelines and alter reality without creating any paradoxes that doom the shit out of everything. It's sort of like he's a Time Player but without all the dangers and risks involved inherent to that Aspect. We call them his 'Retcon' powers, cuz he was able to retroactively change the timeline to tilt things significantly in our favor."

Her eyes widened as she remembered to a moment four years ago - when John had taken her from the Astronomy Tower to the monastery in an instant. "H-he transported me via..." she gasped haltingly, her mind racing so quickly she was barely able to form coherent sentences. "F-f-four years a-ago... that time when he transported me, he was using this 'Retcon' power? That wasn't a part of his normal God Tier powers?" Hermione's voice became a bit shrill at that point.

"Nah, dude's Heir of Breath. His shit don't work like that," Roxy said blandly, as if it wasn't the most terrifying thing one could say in regards to non-standard forms of magical travel. "The only person he can transport using his normal powers is himself... or like him and a chess dude flying in a car, which I'm under the impression he actually did at some point for some convoluted fucking reason, no doubt."

Hermione could not believe what she was hearing, so she closed her eyes and took a calming breath. "You implied that traveling that way isn't dangerous... but nothing comes without a cost. Especially when it comes to this game of yours - everything I've read about it indicates there are always consequences for your actions. Always."

"True, but in this case it ain't that simple. Since you mentioned it, John lettin' you hitch a ride using his Retcon powers ain't no thing. He wasn't changing nothin', he was just taking you from point 'A' to point 'B' in the safest way possible, comparatively speaking. Like, you should be glad he didn't show up with that fucking car all 'beep beep motherfucker, let's ride the wind'. Because honestly, I love that boy to pieces, but there ain't no way I'm sitting in any kind of vehicle that he's controlling using only his windy bullshit."

Hermione scoffed, the look on her face telling Roxy she wasn't buying it. And then she inhaled deeply, her eyes closing briefly as she steeled herself. "There was a cost, but not for the 'me' you're talking to now or the John you've already met. See, this whole game is one big mind-fuck. The 'Roxy' and 'John' from the new timeline John created with all his record breaking time-hops paid that price. They died, we lived, which brings up a whole host of messy questions we ain't gettin' into."

"You know, every time I think something can't get worse when it comes to this game of yours, it inevitably becomes more horrible than I could ever possibly imagine," she commented with a frown.

Roxy actually guffawed loudly. "Yeah,well. That was my fucking reality for, like, a year and a half. Sort of like your whole on-going camping trip from hell looking for the 'you know whats', that shit is horrible as fuck. We all got our crosses to bear," she stated simply with a shrug. "So, your turn."

"Huh?" was Hermione's rather elegant reply.

"Well, I been talking for a while and while it's been rad as hell getting all this shit off my chest, feel like I ain't bein' a good friend just talking about my issues. You got issues too. Huge, horrific issues. What with your mission to kick you know who's moldy asshole... one friend all fucked up and barely conscious in a tent, the other one is fuck knows where. You're having a tough time right now, it's obvious. I'd be a shitty ass bestie if I didn't offer my shoulder for a good cry," she explained, patting her shoulder invitingly.

Hermione hesitated for only a seconding, looking into her friend's face. Roxy wore her signature silly smile, but just underneath you could see the genuine concern. And even though this version of Roxy didn't remember their first meeting yet, Hermione felt the same as she had back then. That this was a person one could trust their secrets to. Letting out a shuddering sigh, Hermione started at the beginning. She told her everything, even though it was hard and she spent a good portion of her time crying, as usual. Roxy was a sympathetic ear, offering advice when she could and her shoulder, which was remarkable good for crying on, as promised. And when she finished and the sun was low in the sky, Hermione felt as if something terrible had been flushed from her system. She felt good for the first time in months.

They chatted merrily on the way back. Hermione blithely mentioned future Roxy's interest in Arithmancy. For which Roxy gently chided her for. "Gotta watch out for them casual spoilers," she said by way of explanation. All the same, Roxy was interested in the subject though they did end up sticking to safer topics, like their favorite thought experiments and various physics equations that made them laugh.

By the time they got back, the sun had set and all the camp was aglow with lights. Dinner was on the table and it was just as raucous affair as it was the previous day, mostly because Terezi had finally made an appearance. If she were to say that Terezi Pyrope was loud, that would be an immutable fact and a vast understatement of reality. She was a megaphone that some idiot trickster had gifted with sentience; cacophony in human form made by a malevolent god as punishment for some unknown crime. She made Karkat's yelling from the day before seem like sweet heavenly music.

Like Karkat, she was very short but unlike him she was lean and wiry. For some absurd reason, Hermione was forcefully reminded of the Hungarian Horntail Harry had faced in fourth year. Her hair was somewhere between neat and artfully messy, with a pair of straight, pointed horns peeking out mischievously. Her eyes weren't immediately visible, hidden as they were behind an odd pair of sunglasses with red lenses rather than the normal black. She wore plain black clothes, the only splashes of color were her bright red trainers and the teal sign for Libra on her T-shirt.

As if she knew someone was watching her, Terezi's head snapped in her direction. She stared at Hermione intently, lips pulling back to reveal a shark's grin. It went on long enough that it made the young witch distinctly uncomfortable, turning away even though she knew without looking that the troll was still staring at her. It was exactly as Kanaya said last night. Terezi almost enjoyed deliberately making people uncomfortable.

"You're right, I do," rasped Terezi, having suddenly plopped herself into an empty space directly across from Hermione. How and when she did that without making a sound was a mystery.

Shocked, Hermione almost choked on the stew she'd been eating. "E-e-excuse me?" she squeaked out between gasps, before chugging down a gulp of water.

"I enjoy making people uncomfortable. Deliberately," Terezi answered with a toothy grin, her voice carrying.

Not that anyone was all that interested as their attention had been diverted elsewhere. John and Karkat were having a very spirited discussion about Alternian films, which was really more along the lines of an argument. Though it was difficult to tell as it was clear Karkat was the only one arguing. John seemed amused by it all and was answering back with cheerful jabs, a small half-smile on his face. Vriska chimed in on occasion, with the sole apparent goal of goading Karkat into having an apoplectic fit. And if that was, indeed, the goal, she was succeeding with honors.

Hermione turned her attention away from the amusing spectacle and back to the Seer of Mind, thinking for a moment or two before she spoke. "Why?"

Of all the questions she considered, this one seemed the most important. She could ask her how Terezi had known what she'd been thinking or really anything else. But this one, most of all, seemed like it deserved an answer. Why would anyone enjoy making people uncomfortable? It seemed entirely pointless and counterproductive to any kind of communication that wasn't overtly hostile.

"It's an interrogation technique common on my world. You keep the subject constantly unbalanced so that they have a harder time answering with anything but the truth," she admitted as if Hermione had voiced her thoughts, and then she grinned wickedly. "And also because it's fun to watch people squirm."

All the Alternians she'd met had made her feel uncomfortable for one reason or the other. This one was no different. "I assume you've come over here for a reason."

"Then you assume incorrectly," she retorted giddily and then she cackled. "I came over here to mess with you."

"And why's that?" Hermione hissed with a hint of indignation.

"Because you make it so absurdly easy," Terezi replied, tenting her hands as she leaned in. "You don't like us very much... us trolls, I mean."

It was the truth, though she wouldn't admit it. "Rubbish. I've only just met you... trolls. I haven't known any of you long enough to even begin to make such a blanket statement -"

"Liar," Terezi countered with great amusement. "You haven't known some of the humans in our group all that much longer, but I know for a fact you're all great human friends. Length of time has nothing to do with it."

"What are you implying?"

"That we make you 'distinctly' uncomfortable. With the exception of Kanaya... but she's always been better at socializing with humans than the rest of us. Them," and then she gestured at Karkat and Vriska, who had loudly elevated their disagreement from simple sarcastic barbs to playground taunts, "because it's something they've never been good at, even when they were on Alternia. And me... because I don't give a shit." And then she cackled again. "Your deflections are pointless, so you may as well answer".

"I suppose that there is some truth in your statement," answered Hermione cautiously, unable to see what the whole point of this argument was. "That's not a crime, is it?"

"No, it isn't," she conceded. Her head swayed oddly for a moment, as if she were sniffing the air. "So, tell me Miss Periwinkle-Starburst... how did you like Dave and I's little art project?"

Reeling, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion, not only at the question but the strange, spontaneous nickname. "W-what?"

"The flier we just finished today and sent you two sweeps ago." She paused for a few seconds. "Or perhaps I should say four human years ago. Did you like it? We both worked awfully hard on it."

"Why do you keep saying things like that?! Human this and human that! It's ridiculous!"

Terezi gasped dramatically, feigning hurt. "I'm an alien, after all. We do have to live up to your impressive Earth expectations," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I've seen some of your movies. The one where the monster bursts out of that human male's chest was particularly funny. So, what did you think of our lovely art project?"

It took Hermione a moment to remember it, the flier that had been graffiti-ed by Dave all those years ago; the flier with the strange little addendum on it that was almost like a portent - S33 YOU SOON. Truth be told, she had thought the flier was terrible in an endearing kind of way, but terrible none-the-less.

"It... it was very amusing," Hermione answered diplomatically, feeling out of sorts and a bit annoyed. "But I don't under-"

"Are you patronizing me because I'm blind?"

"What?! I d-didn't kno-"

"Making fun of a blind girl... Tut! Tut! What would your human woman-lusus say?! If she remembered you, that is." She paused for effect, something dangerous in her smile. "Rather devious of you, the way you wiped your strange human guardians of their memory of you, without even asking. I'm almost impressed."

Hermione's eyes went wide and there was a flicker of fury. "H-how did you know that?!"

"I'm a Seer. It's all part of the job," she said flatly, leaning a bit on that last word suggestively, as if giving away some kind of hint for a riddle she hadn't bothered to tell.

"I don't see what the point of all this was, other than to be deeply unpleasant and rude," she snapped, feeling deep in her heart that this was the single most off-putting conversation she'd ever had in her whole life. She would have rather had a good long sit down with Rita Skeeter over a cup of tea than continue speaking with the Seer of Mind.

Terezi was overjoyed by the feathers she'd so clearly ruffled, her grin losing none of its more manic qualities before she quickly sobered. "The point was for me to get a sense of you... and whether you're up to the task that'll be set before you."

"So you were testing me, then?"

"In a manner of speaking..."

"And did I pass?"

"That remains to be seen," she answered with an air of nonchalance, standing up rather abruptly. Pulling out her dragon-headed cane from seemingly nowhere, she carefully navigated herself out of her seat and tapped her way to the entrance of the camp. Holding back the tent flap with her cane, she turned to give Hermione one last look, that shark's grin on her face before walking out silently into the night. Vriska followed her shortly thereafter.

Chapter Text

Rose appeared less than a second later with Kanaya in tow, holding two cups of tea. It was almost as if she knew she'd need some kind of steady normalcy in light of everything that'd had happened in the last few minutes. The Seer of Light didn't pry and instead she talked about lighter things.

Like Hermione, Rose was a great reader and was eager to talk about her favorite books. The young witch was almost relieved and obligingly acquiesced. Contrary to what some might assume about both girls, neither particularly favored more the more expected choices for young women their age. Sure, both admitted they enjoyed Austen and Brontë, but they were far from their favorites.

Rose preferred Oscar Wilde. When she was much younger, she'd read 'The Happy Prince and Other Tales' and 'A House of Pomegranates' and had been delighted by them utterly. She'd related the story of sneaking into her mother's library to snatch 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' because her mother had insisted it was too mature for her.

"I mean, she was right," Rose admitted with a chuckle. "Not that I would have told her as much at the time."

Hermione herself liked Christopher Marlowe and Chaucer. She also enjoyed Shakespeare quite a bit, though who didn't, really. But she had always felt that Marlowe's writing was a bit more nuanced and less appreciated by more modern audiences for it despite the fact that he'd clearly influenced Shakespeare. As for Chaucer, her favorite was obviously 'The Wife of Bath's Tale'. Some of his short poems were rather good as well. She'd gone so far as to teach herself to read Old English in order to enjoy it in its original form. She was also partial to Virginia' Woolf's oeuvre, particularly 'The Waves'. A choice Rose was enthusiastic about, as she'd also read the book and had found it dreadfully interesting, relating it to her experience as a SBURB player.

What followed was a spirited discussion on the finer points of English literature which morphed into a comparative literature discussion once Kanaya felt comfortable enough to join in. She had mentioned a few Alternian classics which sounded rather interesting, though the titles were nothing short of exhausting. With promises of getting her copies quite soon, Hermione had long put the unpleasant discussion with Terezi behind her, looking forward to the opportunity for a rather exciting cross universe cultural exchange.

The rest of the night unfurled in the same pleasant fashion. Between the intellectual discussions she had with Rose and Kanaya and the amusing physics pun off between Jade and Roxy, the night had turned out better than it had started. The lone exception was when Dave had decided to interrupt with a ten minute rap that was supposedly about Nicola Tesla but was absolutely lousy with swears and several references to people and media Hermione was unfamiliar with and only passing references to a doomsday device Tesla had supposedly made. Other than that, it had been a rather lovely night, though she did feel quite guilty about how much she really enjoyed it. She had gone suddenly quiet, a pensive look on her face.

Rose looked at her thoughtfully, giving her a strange half smile. "You know, it's okay to have fun. You don't have to beat yourself up for it."

Hermione wanted to deny it, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't. "I can't help it," she whispered. "Here I am, talking about books and laughing while people are dying... and I..." Trailing off, she sighed exasperatedly. "I don't think your Alternian friend thinks very much of me."

Rose and Kanaya glanced at each other, a worried expression passing between them. "And why would you think that?" Kanaya asked with a little frown, her head tilting slightly. "Our conversation was quite short but I thought overall our interaction ended on a rather positive note. I wasn't aware of giving any indication that I disliked you but if so I apologi-"

"No, no," said the young witch, frantically waving her hands. "It wasn't you I was talking about. It was Terezi..."

Hermione then launched into what the Seer of Mind had said - that she'd been testing her and she was terribly worried she'd come up wanting. It was beginning to dawn on her that this was what they had been talking about four years ago. That she had to help them, though she hadn't any idea how she possibly could. If there was one thing that terrified her, it was failure and she was just sure that whatever it was they needed her to do, she wasn't up to the task.

Kanaya immediately allayed her worries. "Terezi is a Hero of Mind and Mind Players tend to like playing mind games. I wouldn't take her too seriously, if I were you."

Rose concurred, conditionally. "While I agree you shouldn't take too much of what she says to heart, there are kernels of truth in what she says. You just have to take the Seer's path and read between the lines, which is admittedly difficult for most."

But Hermione disagreed, though she kept it herself. She just could not see how anything Terezi had said to her that evening could be construed as remotely helpful. It was all meaningless posturing, as far as Hermione was concerned. She thought that Kanaya had a better assessment of the situation - that it was nothing but mind games. Mind games Hermione refused to play a part in.

Thankfully, Rose let the issue drop and instead spoke more seriously about Harry's condition. She and Jane had been talking it over for a while the day before. By Jane's estimation, with every application of her powers, he only seemed to be getting worse. The wounds weren't healing all that fast and his mental condition, according to both Terezi and Rose, was deteriorating rapidly. The Seer of Light bit her lip, wanting to say more but unsure of how safe it was to do so. She glanced over at her Matesprit, who took the hint and got up, joining Dave, who was currently trying and failing to prevent Mount Vantas from erupting. Her eyes flickered back to Hermione, nodding at her encouragingly. The young witch quietly cast a spell so that they could talk more privately.

"What's wrong with him?" asked Hermione, with a small scowl.

"It's as if he's in a kind of nightmare of his own making, one he can't escape," Rose answered, with a rueful shrug. "I know that the Dementors affect him more negatively than most and I think we both know why. The terrible memories of his parent's deaths are not his own, not entirely."

"They're You-know-who's," the young witch said, reluctantly finishing the thought.

"Indeed. Dirk and I have theorized that the fragment of soul left in that scar is what's feeding all this," she explained, the look on her face more serious than ever. "The combined bad memories of He-who-must-not-be-named and his own terrible experiences have created a kind of feedback loop... one he simply can't escape on his own." With a sigh, the Seer of Light continued, "It's made worse by Jane's healing powers, forcing the fragment in his scar to react - to physically hit back at the power trying to separate it from its host... the good news is, we may have a solution."

That solution was Jake English, who she knew was the Page of Hope because Roxy and Jane both had mentioned it about a dozen times. Jane was the one who noticed how Harry had reacted to Jake's impromptu flare of Hope. His power was able to disrupt the chain, pulling Harry back from the internal darkness that was dragging him down deeper and deeper. Jane would cease attempting to heal him with her powers, and they would instead rely on dittany to heal his external wounds.

"There's only one problem with that," Hermione said, slowly inhaling. "Our stores our very low right now. I have barely enough left for one application."

"Give the bottle to Roxy. Tell her exactly how it works and what it's used for. Giving her what's left to analyze might help as well." And then she smirked. "You might not know her Aspect, but you know what she can do."

Hermione nodded a bit numbly, before asking, "Four years ago, you said you needed my help. That there was a rift... one that couldn't be closed without my assistance. That's why you're here, isn't it?"

"Yes," she answered sadly. "Except, you have the order reversed. We will be assisting you, not the other way 'round."

And with that enigmatic reply, Rose stood gracefully and retreated into her bedroom for the rest of the night, Kanaya quick ended the conversation she'd been having with Karkat to follow her shortly thereafter.

The next morning, Hermione did as Rose recommended and while on patrol asked if Roxy might examine the small bottle of dittany in hopes of somehow replicating it. The young witch had conceded that even if she had the ingredients and the time to brew it herself, it'd be a difficult undertaking. With a solemn nod, Roxy then grilled her for a good forty-five minutes, going over its ingredients (down to the exact portions and how it was made) to the discrete physical effects when used, including how the potion looked when active versus its appearance in a more neutral state. She then handed the bottle and what was left of it to Roxy.

"Got to do some hardcore meditating... this shit is all sorts of complicated, 'specially since I wanna try for a full bottle and not just the lil' swallowful that's left in here," explained Roxy, shaking the nearly empty bottle absently. She closed one eye and stuck out her tongue as she mentally calculated, before continuing, "I think I can have it to you in about a day."

"A day?!" Hermione exclaimed in astonishment.

"Yeah, I know. That's practically forever," sighed Roxy, seemingly in disappointment. "It only took a good three hours for that alien egg thing... and most of that was me failing like a bazillion times. Prolly woulda taken less time if I wasn't so stressed. I mean, we got there eventually but..." She shook herself, blowing her bangs out of her face exasperatedly. "I really wanna get this one on the first try though and that takes more time."

Considering it took nearly six full months to properly prepare essence of dittany, Hermione thought they got off easy. She told Roxy this, but it didn't seem to soothe her friend's feelings. Though Hermione was quite unaware of her title (and would remain so for a while), Roxy took it as a personal failure that she, the Rogue of Void, would take what amounted to an eternity in her estimation to figure out what should be a simple appearification. Nothing would assuage her. She stalked off without saying anything more. Plopping down a few feet from the nearest tent, she sat in full lotus and with a wave of her hands fashioned a fort made of neon green bricks around herself.

Hesitantly, Hermione approached, asking cautiously, "Roxy...?"

Her friend's muffled voice answered back, "Shoosh. Gotta blitz the fuck outta my chakras and you're totes distracting me right now."

Hermione inhaled though what she might have said was swept away by a violent gust of air that blew her voluminous hair directly into her face. Sputtering, she batted her hair away from her face, glowering indignantly at the Heir of Breath who was grinning like a loon.

"Sorry 'bout that," he said sincerely. "But dear, sweet Roxy needs to concentrate right now."

"I'M QUITE AWARE OF THAT FACT! I WAS SAYING GOODBYE, YOU TIT!" She bellowed, stamping her foot in impotent fury as John laughed so hard his stomach cramped in pain. Gasping and wheezing, he held his stomach, trembling hand pointing at her uselessly. Shooting him a filthy look and taking a breath, she carefully sorted out her hair before pointing out in a much calmer tone of voice, "And there wasn't a better way of informing me?"

"Wull, yeah, but it wasn't nearly as funny," he guffawed, wiping away tears of laughter. "Anyway, Rose and Terezi sent me here because they need to talk to you about something. Not sure why they couldn't just walk out of the tent like I did and do it themselves... but in the interest of not getting a good drubbing with 'Rezi's cane, I agreed."

Hermione glared at him, seriously considering whether or not Terezi would allow her to borrow her cane for a moment. And then she let out an exasperated sigh, shaking her head at him fondly, muttering, "You're incorrigible, honestly."

She smacked his arm good naturedly as she followed him back to the main tent, chatting amiably. Because it was a well-known fact to all who knew John Egbert that he could be the single most infuriating person in the world and yet no matter how obnoxious he could be it was impossible to stay mad at him for very long. Friend-leaders were like that.

The meeting with Terezi and Rose was very short and less than informative. In five days, they would be going to a location of an extraordinarily large breach between universes which was widening at an alarming rate. They would escort her to the rift's location where she would assist them in closing it. They didn't say how, not really.

"We don't really have rituals, magical or otherwise," Rose explained. "There's no potion to prepare or incantation to learn, I'm afraid."

"You mean to say you have no plan?!"

Terezi cackled. "Of course we do. This IS the plan."

Hermione was quite close to losing her temper at this point. She'd been on a fruitless journey with no direction, no real plan for the last few months. And she'd informed them of such, barely controlling herself as she said it.

"I know it must be hard to trust after all you've been through, but I am going to have to ask you to do just that," Rose said, her hand reaching out to hold Hermione's own. "This task requires an open mind with no preconceived notions of how things should be done. Even if there were instructions to give, they'd be useless because in the end... this task is all about personal choice. It always is when dealing the Game."

Before she could object, Rose casually mentioned they'd be waking Harry briefly tonight and that she ought to be present. She knew very well that information had been an attempt at misdirection and she knew that Rose knew it hadn't really worked. But she let it drop because in the end, Rose was right - Harry was more important anyway.

The event itself was anticlimactic. Harry didn't really wake up, as it were. He cried out, though he wasn't screaming himself hoarse as he had the last time. While he wasn't exactly awake, he wasn't sleeping either. He was somewhere in-between. Her role became obvious. He responded somewhat to her commands. She was able to assist Jake in feeding Harry a light broth while he was somewhat conscious.

Hermione stayed with Harry long after Jake had left, watching him sleep fitfully. He made little sounds, whimpers and gasps. Sometimes he'd just soundlessly weep, other times he'd call out to people that weren't there or, in her case, were there but unable to do anything to soothe his nightmares. Without even thinking about it, she'd put the Horcrux on.

At some point, Jane came in to let her know dinner was on. She stopped short when she noticed Hermione was wearing the locket, though she said nothing. They entered the dining room together. Jane gave a subtle glance at Dirk, tilting her head in Hermione's direction. Dirk slowly gazed over at the young witch and then scowled, unsettled by the very presence of the thing around her neck. They shared a brief look of concern before taking their places. Not once did Hermione notice the interaction