The first time Harry Potter met Hermione Granger, she was standing with her chin up and her hands on her hips a few paces from the old olive tree in the schoolyard, glaring into the far distance. The wind was trying to twist and buffet her hair into her face, but mostly it was just tangling cheerfully with itself.
Dudley and Piers were busy kicking all the other kids off the play structure, so Harry had retreated out into the grass. He stood a safe distance from the weird girl who was pretending to be a statue and thought wistfully of lunch.
"There's a fallen bird's nest," the girl said in a rapid and certain tumble of syllables. "The boys knocked it out of the tree, but I chased them off and I'm hoping the mama bird comes back. I'm Hermione Granger. We just moved here."
"Harry," he said.
"How'd you get that scar?" she said.
"That's a weird scar for a car accident."
Harry shrugged. "It killed my parents."
She blinked quickly at him and even at that distance he wished vaguely that she wore glasses, too, because her gaze was something that really felt like it should have some built-in bluntedness. "Mine are dentists. Mum's taking me to the library after school, want to come?"
Before they went into Diagon Alley, Harry asked Hagrid if they could find a payphone. Hermione picked up on the first ring.
"Harry! Where have you been? I've been trying and trying to call--"
"Sorry, yeah. Um, so, I'm not coming back to school next year, I..." Harry drifted off, staring at Hagrid's massive moleskin shoulders. The giant man saw him looking and gave him a tentatively cheerful little wave. "It's been weird, Herm." He pressed his forehead into the phone stand, but not too hard. "I think you're the only thing I'm really going to miss."
"Harry," Hermione said and Harry started to frown, because that wasn't her stern and startled voice. That was the voice that meant she was off down a charging war path of other thought and might not have heard him at all. "I've been reading."
"Of course you've been reading," he said. "I've been being forcibly hidden from a swarm of post office owls--"
"You're in books," she said in breathless delight, squeaking over the telephone line. "First thing we did, of course, after the professor explained, was get her to escort us to a bookstore-- a whole bibliography, Harry, a whole world's bibliography I haven't even touched-- how am I ever going to--" She took in a little calming breath, and murmured, "Different infinities, it's okay, Hermione, okay." A sharp exhale and then she tumbled right back into her rushing rivelet of a sentence. "And I picked up a good dozen, besides the school books, of course, and Harry, you're in books, in Dark Wizardwork of This Century and A Modern Wizards' History and October's End: A Biography--"
"Hermione," said Harry with slow enunciation. "Are you a wizard, too?"
"A witch, I think," she said. "But I'm still reading up on the sociology of it all."
Hagrid wouldn't say Voldemort's name, but Hermione would. She came over with a stack of books up to her chin, gave the Dursleys her normal pointed little stare that said she'd like to set them a little on fire, and curled up in his cupboard with him.
He supposed she probably could learn how to set them on fire, now, if she really wanted to.
She gave him passages and excerpts with his name in them, with his parents' names, a home he hadn't known. There were pictures of a ruined house with the smoke drifting in little curls of ink. There was his mother, smiling and waving in black and white. There was his mother, laid out on the floor, with a sober little caption below it. That picture was still, except for curtains fluttering in the window.
Hermione finally dragged her face far enough up from the pages to see Harry holding his own hand very tightly, and then she closed the book and reached for one about which magical creatures you should pet and which you shouldn't.
"Sorry," she said.
"I wanted to know."
"I'm still sorry."
The Grangers drove Harry, Hermione, Hedwig, and their trunks to King's Cross Station. Mrs. Granger kissed the top of Hermione's head while Mr. Granger mussed Harry's mop of dark hair affectionately, and then they swapped children and repeated the treatment. Hermione pushed her hair back out of her face and marched them all to Platform 9 3/4, the entrance mechanism of which she had read all about.
"Before you go," Mrs. Granger said, "let's buy you some sandwiches? I don't know what sort of food they'll have past that--"
"There's a trolley," Hermione said, but her parents dragged them off to a snack kiosk anyway, Harry happily in tow.
As they were on Hermione's tight schedule, there were plenty of compartments open, and they took one all to themselves-- well, to themselves, Hedwig, and Hermione's books, which took up two seats. (Harry would wheedle Hagrid into taking him to Diagon Alley for Christmas shopping that year, where he would get Hermione a carry-all bag for her small personal library.)
Hermione took a long preparatory breath while Harry unwrapped his sandwich. "Harry? What if I go and sit down under the Hat and I just sit and sit there, and then it says I'm not a witch at all?" Hermione said, the words getting more squashed together and higher-pitched as she went. "I'm not magic, it just got confused, and they send me home? Harry, I don't want to be a dentist. Other people's mouths are disgusting--"
"You're not going to get kicked out," Harry said, chewing amiably on his sandwich. It was not good, but the Dursleys hadn't bothered with any breakfast for him and he hadn't wanted to bother the Grangers about it either. It was a bit dry on the way down, but it settled warmly in his belly.
"But what if I do?"
"I'll stage a protest," said Harry. "Refuse to do my homework til they reinstate you."
"You're not going to do your homework anyway."
"See how dedicated I am to you."
She made a dismissive little noise at him, wringing her hands in her lap.
"Hermione," he said, and she lifted her bush of hair to look at him. "You're the most magical person I know. It's gonna be alright."
She gave a long slow blink but whatever she might have said was interrupted by an uneven knock at the door. "Um," said the pudgy boy standing there. "I've lost my toad."
Hermione leapt to her feet. "Where did you see him last?"
Harry followed in the wake of her forward charge, but he brought the rest of his sandwich with him.
(Harry did not know this and would not know this until Mrs. Granger mentioned it casually over a Christmas dinner years and years later-- but she and Mr. Granger reported the Dursleys for child abuse and neglect, over and over.
The reports got lost-- minds scrubbed down, papers vanished-- but they kept calling in reports. They considered kidnapping. They couldn't imagine why the wizarding world might want to keep their chosen one somewhere so toxic, why they might want to keep this underfed child and his messy hair with those people.
"My mother left me a blood protection spell," said Harry, whose scar had not ached in years. He poked at his mashed potatoes under the focused attention of Mrs. Granger's stern little forehead wrinkle. "I had to live with family, blood family."
"Then they should have made them treat you right," Mrs. Granger said, as though it was that simple.
Mr. Granger gave Harry another helping of peas.)
On the steps of Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy thrust out his hand to the Boy Who Lived, who surveyed the open palm with amusement. "Thanks," said Harry. "But I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself."
The redheaded, freckly, hand-me-down clothes boy Malfoy had been bothering snorted. Harry slipped his hands into his pockets.
"You're the kid with the rat from the train," Hermione said. "And the spell that didn't work."
"It was a cool rhyme anyway, though," Harry said. "Hi, I'm Harry, this is Hermione."
"Yeah, she said, then. I'm Ron-- uh, Ron Weasley."
"Yeah, he said," Harry said, rolling his eyes Malfoy's direction. "Come on, you wanna stand with us? Hermione will tell you about the ceiling."
"It's enchanted!" said Hermione.
When Hermione founded SPHEW, Harry was not surprised. He had spent too many schoolyard days escorting spiders to safe spaces, keeping vigil over fallen bird's nests, and watching Hermione stand up on her desk chair in heated pitched verbal battles with teachers. She'd driven at least two teachers to tears and taught most of them at least a few new vocabulary words.
Over summers and holidays, Harry and Hermione took Ron to the movies, to the seashore, to Hermione's top three favorite libraries. Hermione's Aunt Meg taught them how to whittle under a cloud of cigarette smoke that clung to Harry's hair until he washed it out.
In this life, there were things in the Muggle world that Harry missed, that he wanted to see again. He loved Hogwarts, and he nominally went home to the Dursleys each summer, but he knew he always had a bed at the Grangers'. He knew the weird system they used to organize the books on their shelves. He'd pass Mrs. Granger the marmalade in mornings before she had to ask. He got free dental check-ups all his life, which was good because the Dursleys rarely bothered taking him into the dentist.
The whole Granger family tore apart newspapers every morning, calling article excerpts across the table and pointing each other to their favorite journalists. Before Hermione even first stepped onto Hogwarts grounds she got a subscription to the Daily Prophet. During Harry's fourth year, Mr. and Mrs. Granger got Arthur Weasley to buy them an owl and then began an unending campaign of furious letters to the editor that never got published.
In a crumbling boat shed, Severus Snape died, but first he pressed a shining bundle of memory into Harry's hands.
The fight was still going-- Neville newly broad and certain; Luna whipping out quiet, barbed little curses; Ginny charging like an army in and of herself. Hermione had her arms full of basilisk fangs. Ron was moving people like bishops and knights. But Harry had a long damp walk before him, so he had time to wade through that life not his own.
Severus had been a lot of things-- one of them was in love. Harry dragged his feet through forest mulch, seeing a little redheaded girl in sunlight, hands not his own offering her transformed flowers. It had been just them for so long. For Severus, for so long, there had been no one but him and Lily.
Even in Hogwarts, Severus had drifted through the classrooms and common room and library. He had believed in magic, in the cool slide of good knives through dried roots, and in Lily-- always, always in Lily-- Lily in sunlight, Lily chewing on her thumbnail over Transfiguration homework, Lily flicking soapsuds at him in her kitchen at home over summer, Lily pig-tailed and seven, wide-eyed as he showed her the first magic she'd ever seen, a leaf to a flower, a bit of sunlight to a bit of fire.
He had loved, and it had been a real thing. He had fucked up, and it had been a real thing, that heartbreak, that regret.
When Harry turned the Stone in his hand and saw his mother step into pseudo-life in that forest clearing, he thought I wish I'd known you. He thought about how she was in sepia and gray, here, just like in the pictures in the pages of Hermione's books.
But he was also thinking about Severus. He was remembering Lily in sunlight, remembering her walking away, remembering her in that same cold photographed sprawl but in color--in grief--in bruised knees and heaving gasps.
Severus had been the first to find Lily's body and it had felt like someone had cut the sunlight out of him. Harry was living through that grief, but he was also living through the wail of the child crying unacknowledged. His tiny pudgy hands were wrapped around the guardrail of his crib.
Harry was thinking about a girl standing in a field like a statue, hands on hips. He was thinking about Hermione's raised hand ignored in Potions, or the way Snape had sneered that he didn't see a difference in her cursed teeth. Love had made him brave, perhaps. It had killed him, but it had not made Severus good.
Harry wondered if his mother would have escorted spiders to safe places, if she would have stood guard over fallen bird's nests, if she had worried herself to pieces that first time on the Hogwarts Express about the Hat telling her she didn't really belong.
"I wish I'd known you," he told the specter of Lily Potter. He held his own hands tight.
For Harry, for so long, there had been no one but him and Hermione. Even in Hogwarts, there were things only she would understand-- parking meters, the cobweb ceiling of his cupboard, the silence of marmalade at breakfast. Harry believed in magic and he believed Hermione Granger was the most magical thing he knew.
"They'll be alright," he said. "I'll be alright. I was alright, mum. I wish I'd known you-- but I wasn't alone." He squeezed his hands tighter-- Hermione showing him her favorite spots in her favorite libraries; Ron shyly showing them the Burrow like it was anything less than a magnificent masterpiece of warm rooms and patchwork architecture; Hermione standing in the field like a statue, bushy-haired and seven years old, jaw set. "She wasn't alone, either," he said. "And she'll be alright. Ron will be alright. I have to do this, don't I?"
"We are so proud of you," Lily said.
"Thanks," said Harry. "Sorry," said Harry, and wondered if Hermione was going to be able to read the little passages and excerpts with his name in them, with those un-moving pictures and the sober captions underneath.
He dropped the Stone.
When Harry Potter died for the first time, crumpled in forest mulch, he didn't go to a squeaky clean King's Cross Station. There were no crescent moon glasses to twinkle kindly at him.
He stood under an old olive tree and a little girl looked up at him with those eyes that needed shielding, needed blunting, needed a manufacturer's warning. "A wind's coming," she said. "You can just go. It will be easy."
He stood outside Diagon Alley, a Muggle payphone tucked between his shoulder and ear. "You're in books," she said, with a breathlessness he'd barely heard for years. There had been too much weight on his shoulders, on hers. "You're done," she said. "You've done enough. Go on, tap three bricks up and two to the left."
He stood in Godric's Hollow, in the snow, holding her hand, looking at the ruined house. "You should have had this," she said. She was seven and small, not nineteen and weary like she had been in life. The sky was overcast but there was sunlight glinting in her hair. "You can still have this. You can have everything."
"You're not real," Harry said.
"But you are," she said. "There's a wind coming. It will be easy."
"You've never done anything easy in your life," he said.
She took both his hands-- hers were so small against his grown fingers, his broad palms, and how had they done everything with hands that small? Basilisks and werewolves; shouting down teachers from atop desk chairs.
Harry was sitting in his cupboard in the light of its single bulb and he was too big for this space, his shoulders curling forward, his head bowing. She was standing there with sunlight still in her hair and her arms piled high with books. "You don't belong here," she said. "It will hurt. You won't fit, if you go back. Everything can be easy. Everything can be fine. It doesn't have to hurt, ever again."
"Hermione," he said and leaned forward, put his hands on her hands where they were gripping her books. "It'll be alright." He smiled and she was staring at him with those eyes, those goddamn eyes. "We never fit, remember?"
"We tried," she said and Harry squeezed her small hands gently.
"Send me back," he said. "I want to go home."
After the battle, as Hogwarts rang with frantic healing, crushing grief, and raging celebration, the three of them retreated to the library. Hermione hauled them down narrow aisles until she found her favorite tucked-away nook and they all collapsed on sagging sofas that seemed to not have been touched at all by the war.
"Well," said Hermione. "What now?"
Ron let his head flop back against the seat, hair tumbling all over his pale forehead. "I'm going to nap," he said. "For a month."
"That's not physiologically possible," said Hermione. "Or if it is, then it'd be a coma."
"It's a metaphor," Ron said, then: "no, wait, a hyperbole." Hermione beamed at him. He blushed a little and elbowed her gently.
"After this, you'll be in books, you know," Harry told her.
"Not-- I mean--" Hermione rubbed at her nose furiously. Ron laughed enough to wake up and sit up, throwing an arm around her shoulders.
While Ron came up with outlandish titles for Hermione's eventual many biographies, Harry pulled his feet up onto the sofa and watched the candles float quietly between the shelves.