Conflict lay in the mire of her mind and chaos in her soul, as Hermione released a long sigh.
The Hogwarts library had been her safe haven since she was eleven years old, a bright-eyed first year with visions of grandeur and delirium to spare. Back before she could have even guessed at what life would have in store for her over the following seven years—and the person she would be on the other side.
Her beloved library stood before her now in ruins. It was symbolic of how her life had come to feel and was simply another of the many losses she had experienced.
The only difference was that this one could be recovered.
Recalling the many memorial services she had attended over the previous two months, Hermione swallowed back the bile pushing up from her stomach. They wouldn't get Fred back—or Remus and Tonks. Colin, Lavender, even Snape. Severus' had been the smallest and most somber of affairs, but McGonagall had insisted upon holding it.
If she were truly honest with herself, Hermione had leapt at the chance to return to Hogwarts in advance of what had been deemed her eighth year. If for no reason other than some time to process her thoughts.
After the Battle of Hogwarts, she had stayed at the Burrow for a while, her own parents' memories beyond repair. But it had quickly grown to be too much, and she had found herself anxious over the ubiquitous despair. The churn in her stomach every time she saw George, lost in another bottle, or walked in on one of Molly's breakdowns.
A small contingent of students and professors had committed to the repair and cleanup efforts, and it had come as no surprise that Hermione had been assigned to the library. After all, she knew those dusty stacks better than anyone.
Or she had.
Gazing around the wreckage, untouched for two months, she felt tears sting her eyes.
Where her favourite armchair had once sat, perfectly positioned relative to the hearth so she was never too hot or too cold, there now existed a gaping, blackened maw, filled with rubble and debris.
The stacks which had held books on the Goblin Wars all the way to the ones containing advanced household charms were simply gone. Her heart mourned the loss of information, of the aged books that could never be recovered.
The reek of fire and ash, mingled with dust and destruction, pervaded her senses and her eyes itched.
Jolted from her inspection at a sound behind her, Hermione released a tight exhale.
She had two months to help put the library back to rights before the train arrived at the beginning of September. Her gaze swept the group of people joining her, lingering on one recognisable head of ashy platinum blond, and grey eyes swivelled to find hers before she swallowed and looked away.
At least she wouldn't be braving the memories alone.
Two weeks had passed since Hermione had returned to Hogwarts for the cleanup project, and she had found a sort of quiet peace in the work of it. She had been granted her own private quarters, along with each of the other eighth year students, and she was grateful. The last thing she needed was dormmates witnessing her nightly forays into the memories she couldn't yet leave behind.
There were six of them altogether working in the library—four students and two professors—and day by day, it started to look more like the cavern of knowledge it had once been.
Only, it didn't.
The tables were fresh wood, their surfaces unmarred by the scribbles and engravings of centuries of quills; the armchairs were a bit too stiff.
Hermione had been tasked with sorting and repairing the books that had been lost in the heaps of rubble, and salvaging whatever could be saved.
Her work was proceeding rather slower than the rest—but they couldn't expect her to go through thousands of books without getting distracted now and again. Even after six years of study at Hogwarts, there were still so many books she had never even seen. It was one silver lining of the situation.
The other was that Draco Malfoy—whose presence in the repair efforts had been mandated as a part of his trial acquittal—had largely kept to himself. Although he didn't have a friendly word to offer her—nor her for him—he hadn't gone out of his way to antagonise her like she would have expected.
Especially when it was often him who caught her reading when she was meant to be restoring.
A couple times she thought she had seen a smirk grace his lips, but it was a ghostly shadow of the confidence he had worn so blatantly in their younger years.
All she could remember, every time she looked at him, was the searing pain as his aunt's wand and knife tore through her, leaving her a gasping, sobbing mess. And the way Malfoy had watched on, fear in his wide eyes.
Even barely conscious, she had seen the remorse, mingled with something akin to pity. Like the rest of them, he had been a child when his path had been set. Not that it excused the way he had treated her and her friends for years—but she had seen it plainly in his face that day, that he had no spirit for the cruelty like the other Death Eaters.
Drawing herself back to the present, Hermione shifted some torn pages to a stack for homeless information. An ancient tome was buried near the bottom of the stack she had been working through, its thick cover having protected its contents remarkably well. Upon closer inspection, she realized it wasn't a book, so much as a series of pages bound together by magic and held within a sturdy spine.
As she flipped it open, a breath caught in her throat. The tome was old. She could see it in the yellowed parchment and the fine penmanship that read in an archaic voice. She skimmed the wording but much of it was faded beyond recognition so she couldn't decipher the message very well.
Several pages in was a black and white, still photograph of a young man, perhaps Hogwarts aged, with thick brows and sleek hair down to his shoulders. The robes he wore were of no fashion she had seen, and spoke once more to the age of the collection.
Absently, she dropped into a seat at the nearest table, peering closer.
On the next page was a photo of another young man, and on the next, a young woman, dressed in a similar sort of old style garb.
Hermione flipped idly through the pages, careful with the frailty of them, until she reached the end. The final page of parchment showed the visage of a man, older than the rest, with long hair and a plaited beard; his expression was stern.
A faint caption was scrawled below the photograph, and Hermione could just make out the edges of the lettering before it faded off.
She skimmed her fingers over the text with bated breath, and flipped back one page. A regal looking woman stared back, and below the image, she could just make out the cursive R. Ravenclaw.
With awe and reverence, her mind pieced together what she was looking at. Students and professors from the founders' time, the earliest years of Hogwarts' existence. What a fascinating find. She might have questioned the legitimacy of the photographs, given there were obviously no cameras during that time. But there had always been spells to capture the likeness of a person to parchment, and she could see by the vague shimmer to the pages that something similar had been utilised; as a result, they appeared close to true life images, without the movement.
Her heart raced in her chest as she backtracked, flipping once more through the book with even greater care to examine every page.
She stopped, utterly frozen.
One sheet of parchment, roughly a third of the way into the collection, caught her attention, and the breath chased from her lungs.
It was her. From the dark eyes to the wild brunette curls, to the curve of the smile. The likeness was nearly identical. Eyes wide and unblinking, Hermione stared at the image, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. How was a photograph of her buried in this ancient tome from the founders' era? But it couldn't be her, because the young woman wore the same ancient robes as the rest of the ladies did.
A snicker from behind her back drew her attention from the page, and Hermione jumped in her seat.
"Nice outfit, Granger," Malfoy drawled, lingering over her shoulder as he walked past with an armful of books. He set the books down, peering closer.
Forcing a thick swallow, she shook her head. "It isn't me."
"Of course it's—" Malfoy cut himself off, dragging two fingertips across the aged parchment. "It isn't?"
As much as she didn't want to invite conversation with Malfoy, she couldn't begin to understand the similarity of the likeness, and maybe he could think of something. "I don't think so; look."
She flipped to the back pages of the book, to where the photographs of the four founders were, and she watched his eyes widen in surprise.
He breathed to himself, "Salazar Slytherin." Then he straightened. "Odd, that a student during that time looked so remarkably similar to you. Could have fooled me."
But before she could say anything more, Malfoy collected his books and was gone.
Undeterred, Hemione squinted at the photograph of Slytherin. He appeared to have some sort of stitching on the chest of his robes; a squiggle reminiscent of a serpent. As she flipped through the photographs of the other three founders, she saw a vague likeness of each of their symbolic animals.
Upon closer inspection, although some of the photographs were too faded to be certain, each student appeared to bear the symbol of their house as well. Curious, Hermione flipped back to the young woman that looked like her. Her brain whirred and twisted when she discerned the vague serpent embroidered on the girl's robes.
Uncertainty coursing through her, Hermione glanced furtively around the room. Everyone else was working in different sections of the library, and even Malfoy was nowhere to be seen. Carefully, so as not to damage the thick covers—which now seemed as if they had been added as protection some years, or centuries, later—she stowed the book into her bag.
Hermione had found only fitful sleep the night before, distracted and kept awake by thoughts of the photographs from the library. It was the first night she hadn't been stirred by night terrors, but the thought was of little consequence.
With deep shadows beneath her bloodshot eyes, she made her way to the library after a hasty breakfast to continue with her tasks, but kept the photographs stowed safely at the bottom of her bag.
Malfoy was already sorting books in her section when she arrived, and he glanced up at her presence; after a long moment, he offered her a stilted sort of nod. Surprised, Hermione pursed her lips and returned the gesture.
As she sorted through the pile, keeping an eye out for any more ancient looking tomes that might have been from the same section, she found herself unable to focus.
Idly stacking a few books, she whispered, "Malfoy."
He glanced up, irritation flashing across his face for an instant before his expression fell stoic. "What is it?"
"Your family." She waved a flippant hand. "They go back really far, right?"
Upper lip curling with a hint of a sneer, he turned to face her. "Yes, Granger, my family has been in England since the eleventh century."
"And before that?"
"The Malfoy line has been successfully documented back to seventh century France." He snickered. "You aren't still fixated on that book, are you?" Shaking his head, he added a muttered, "Of course you are."
She fixed him with a stare and he released a sigh. "Whatever you're thinking, Granger, it has nothing to do with my family."
"I didn't think it did," she said, curiosity keeping any animosity from her tone. "Obviously, I'm a Muggle-born so I can't quite understand why someone who studied at Hogwarts in the founders' era looked like my doppelganger."
"Technically," he mused, looking back to the books he was sorting, "you'd be the doppelganger."
Hermione waved him off. "It doesn't make any sense, right?"
Lifting an unimpressed brow, he conceded, "Right."
"And even if it did," she went on, enthusiasm colouring her tone, "she wouldn't have been hand-selected by Slytherin for his own house."
Malfoy made a face. "How do you know she was in Slytherin house?"
"Her robes." Glancing around the library, Hermione drew the book from her bag and pointed out the crests she had noticed the day before. "So she must have been pureblood."
Shaking his head, he flipped through a few pages on his own before turning back to her. "I'm not condoning this theory, and frankly, I wish you'd leave me out of it, but Muggle-borns are sometimes an anomaly in a line borne of a squib."
"So she could be an ancestor?" Hermione asked, her heart rate escalating. She had heard the theory espoused before, vaguely, but had never heard it confirmed.
"I suppose she could." Malfoy waved his hands, as if to get rid of her. "But honestly—she doesn't look related to you, Granger. She looks like she is you."
Quiet settled between them, and he took the opportunity to make himself look busy again. But she wasn't so easily deterred. "I have another theory."
Despite the exaggerated sigh he levied, his lips twitched. "And I suppose I'll be the first to hear it."
"Do you believe in past lives?"
His head swivelled towards her, grey eyes narrowed. "Like reincarnation."
Malfoy carded a hand through his pale hair, then pressed his fingertips to his temples. "There's no proof that reincarnation exists, Granger. Besides, wasn't it you who dropped Divination because you thought it was complete tosh?"
Making a face, she waved him off. "Yes, but this is different."
His lips twitched again, curving with a hint of a smirk. "Theoretically? In magic, under a very specific set of circumstances, so they say, it's possible. But everything I've read on the topic suggests it occurs in time periods so far spread there isn't any way to find irrefutable proof. Many people believe in it, but that doesn't mean there's any measurable data."
Hermione stared at him for a long moment before realising she hadn't taken a breath as he spoke. "Do you? Believe in it?"
"Sure, Granger." He released a sharp, humourless chuckle. "Maybe you're reincarnated from that girl. Congratulations."
But she wasn't satisfied. "What are the specific circumstances?"
Malfoy clenched his jaw, and she was given the distinct impression he was done discussing the matter with her. His upper lip curled. "We're in the library—why don't you look it up?"
Scowling, Hermione reclaimed her book and walked away without a backwards glance.
Although she had plenty of work to do with regards to sorting and re-homing the damaged books, Hermione couldn't help herself from scanning the shelves that Malfoy had already put back to rights.
It seemed he knew the library almost as well as she did, because most of the sections were as they should have been—although most specific books were out of order. The downside was, of course, that many of the books had been outright destroyed, so the shelves were significantly barer than they should have been.
And despite the countless hours she had spent in the library, Hermione had never sought to research reincarnation—or anything even remotely connected. She thought she knew roughly where it ought to have been, but those shelves had been caught in the worst of the blast.
It didn't stop her from skimming the titles in adjacent sections, just in case.
Malfoy had been more willing to discuss the topic than she had anticipated, even though he hadn't been particularly inviting. It was certainly the most they had ever spoken in their entire lives. She didn't care to bother him over it anymore, however, and when he walked by as she was flipping absently through a shelf, he smirked and carried on.
Eventually she grew frustrated, wondering whether the books she was looking for were actually in that section or elsewhere.
As another day wound towards its end, and the rest of the students began trickling out, Hermione felt herself cave, and decided to ask Malfoy whether he knew where she could find resources around reincarnation.
He had been the one re-shelving most of the books, anyways. It didn't hurt that he already knew about the situation and could help her look if he were so inclined. Which, admittedly, was a far stretch.
But when she watched for him as the others slowly filed out, Malfoy was nowhere to be seen.
The group of students working at Hogwarts on the repair efforts was small, and comprised mostly of those in their upper years who had seen the effects of the war firsthand.
As a result, they gravitated towards sitting together at the table that stretched down the middle of the Great Hall, which happened to be the Ravenclaw table. With one notable exception.
Draco Malfoy sat at the opposite end of the Slytherin table, as far away from everyone else as he could manage, and studiously ignored the rest of the group.
This morning, he was reading a book, absently carving slices out of an apple with a paring knife, and Hermione found her eyes narrowing on him in consideration.
Despite his actions during the war, he had been acquitted under a set of conditions put forth by the Wizengamot. Which included, among others, his return to Hogwarts both for the repair efforts, and the sitting of his NEWTs during his eighth year.
Hermione had attended his trial, and had been surprised to learn the extent of the pressure he'd been under during his sixth and seventh years—but they'd all experienced their share of hardships during that time. She didn't feel sorry for him, but she supposed if she dug into her own heart, she would have done whatever she could to save her family as well. And, in a way, had she not?
Her parents were far away in Brisbane, unable to recall the existence of their daughter. But they were safe, and alive, and it was enough to bring a shred of peace to her otherwise fraught spirit.
But yet, despite everything, Malfoy continued to isolate himself, and he hadn't made any particular effort at amends. Not in a blue moon would she have expected him to ever apologise… but there was a chance at a fresh start this year. For everyone.
Feeling her gaze, he glanced up, his grey eyes tight and unreadable from across the hall.
Hermione waited until most of the students had retreated towards their respective duties, because Malfoy was prone to lingering in the hall and avoiding small talk with the others when they all arrived at the library.
Steeling her shoulders, she cast a furtive glance at the few remaining students and professors, then made her way down the length of the Slytherin table, feeling an intense awareness of her breathing and the click of her boots on the floor.
Malfoy folded his arms across his front as she approached, which served to make him look even less inviting than he already had, but she kept on, lifting her chin as she slipped into a seat on the bench across from him.
Unimpressed, his head fell to the side. "You're here to hound me about that book again." When she didn't deny it, he scoffed. "Why do you care so much? You can't be this much of a swot."
The words weren't said with any significant level of ire and Hermione snickered despite herself. "I'm curious. All I need to know is whether you've come across the information I'm looking for in your restoration."
He stared at her for an extended moment, then brandished one pale, long-fingered hand. "Let me see the book again."
Cautiously, Hermione dug into her bag and drew the collection of photographs free. Malfoy skimmed through each page, his expression stoic. At last, he closed the book, leaving it face down on the table, and lifted his eyes to hers. "The information you're looking for is restricted content, Granger."
"The restricted section?" A wrinkle pulled to the bridge of her nose. "All I'm looking for is information on reincarnation. Surely that isn't connected to dark magic."
Even as she spoke the words, a twist pulled at her stomach. The restricted section had been reduced to bits of parchment and ash.
"What you are looking for, specifically, was in the restricted section." There was an ambiguity in his words that hinted at something deeper, but he frowned, shaking his head. "And I suppose those books would all be long gone now."
Feeling deflated, Hermione wondered for a moment at his initial query. Why was she so determined to figure out the truth about the mysterious student? Maybe it was academic curiosity—but maybe there was a part of her that wanted to learn the truth in case there was a deeper connection. Maybe it had to do with the fact that she'd lost the only family she'd ever really loved.
Malfoy released a long sigh. "Look, Granger. There are books in the library at Malfoy Manor that might have what you're looking for. I can owl my mother to send me a few."
Hermione's eyes narrowed as she stared at him. "You'd do that—why?"
He glanced away, and she could have sworn twin spots of pink bloomed on his cheekbones. "Fuck if I know, Granger. Obviously I'm a lucky sod to even be back here at Hogwarts." Silence hung between them, thick and rancorous, and she blinked several times in an attempt to process the subject matter he'd ventured towards. "I've made a lot of mistakes, and I'll carry those regrets for the rest of my life."
"Malfoy..." she began, frowning. She wondered at the depth of what he had experienced under Voldemort's mastery.
But his upper lip pulled into a hint of a sneer before his face fell blank once more. Chin lifted, he met her stare, almost defiantly. "Merlin knows I could stand to do something halfway decent."
Discomfort churned in her stomach, and she frowned back at him for a long moment, uncertain what to say. He flipped the book over once more, fingers grazing the sturdy cover. At last she cleared her throat and murmured a tentative, "Thanks, Malfoy."
His eyes flickered up to meet hers for a moment. "Don't thank me. You don't owe me shite."
Idly turning the pages once more, he flipped to the very back where the four founders' visages were, and worked back towards the front, his gaze lingering for an extended moment on a photograph that was so faded she could barely see the face. When she twisted her head around in an attempt to see better from the opposite side of the table, he flipped the page, and moments later, closed the book.
"Can I borrow this for a few days?"
The question caught her off guard, and Hermione frowned. She had no claim to the book, of course, as it had obviously been around for nearly a thousand years. But she had found it, and she was the one looking into the photo of the young woman who could have been her identical twin.
But Malfoy was staring at her, his gaze expectant, and she managed a half-hearted shrug. "I suppose. But return it when you're through?"
"I won't damage it," he scoffed, but there was a teasing undercurrent to his tone, and a smirk tugged at his lips. "You aren't the only one who finds things like this interesting."
"Fine, yes," she said, with as flippant of a wave as she could manage. Glancing at her watch, she realized they were running late for that day's restoration session, and the rest of the stragglers in the Great Hall had already trickled out. Feeling oddly bereft, she slung the strap of her bag onto her shoulder and left the precious book in Malfoy's care.