RITUAL

Mon. 8 July

The sun shone through Ginny’s window casting a warm glow upon the room. In the bright rays, Hermione could see the sparkles of dust caught momentarily in the light—thousands of little entities flashing in and out of view, but never ceasing to exist. She wondered if that was what death was like. She hoped so—like Moody’s story—just over the horizon, waiting for the day when their loved ones would join them.

Hermione felt a lightness in her chest that she hadn’t for weeks. It wasn’t happiness necessarily, but more as though the inertia had momentarily been removed from her life. She’d forgone her morning ritual over the weekend with the excuse that she would be unable to continue it if her parents chose to take her home. Tomorrow she would start again.

“Hermione?”

Ginny was at the bedroom door.

“Mum wants to know if you want breakfast?”

Hermione hadn’t been eating breakfast with the family; she had been getting it as part of her morning routine. She wasn’t deliberately lying about it, but it just hadn’t come up and somehow she was protective of it.

“No. I can make myself a snack later if I get hungry.”

Ginny nodded and yelled down the stairs.

“She says she’s good.”

Hermione had to smile at the ease with which Ginny fit into her family. It was so different and yet fundamentally similar to Hermione’s.

Ginny came in and shut the door.

“How are you feeling?”

Really? If Ginny was asking about feelings, it must be really bad. But ironically, Hermione was feeling okay.

“I think I am actually doing okay.”

Hermione smiled honestly at Ginny.

“So... can I convince you to come play quidditch with us?”

Hermione thought quidditch was stupid. It had to be a mass delusion amongst the magical community that kept it going. But Ginny liked quidditch and Hermione had come to like Ginny. And after that broom flight, Hermione knew that she would have to hide her true feelings from Ginny. She could never discover the pain Hermione was putting herself through. She would never tolerate it.

Ginny had in many ways been her protector despite being one year her junior. She’d run interference and given her a shoulder to lean on. Her reason for doing so defied Hermione. Ginny couldn’t save her from her penance.

That wasn’t allowed.

But Hermione didn’t like quidditch, so there was no rule against it.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Wait, really?!”

“Yeah. You’ve sold it continuously for days now. So yeah. I’ll come play. I just want to look through this mail that Dad left first.”

Ginny actually ran to her bedroom door opened it and yelled full throated as she leapt down the stairs, “She says she’ll play!”

What had Hermione just gotten herself into?

She picked up the bundle of letters that her parents had brought. Most were just normal things such as college advertisements and holiday cards, but towards the bottom was an official looking letter labelled from the ‘Gringotts Muggle Post Interchange’. The back was sealed with a soul-seal, which was odd. Even her first Hogwarts letter hadn’t been sealed that way.

The last will and testament of

ALBUS PERCIVAL WULFRIC BRIAN DUMBLEDORE

who having passed this the eighteenth of June shall be executed upon the premises of

GRINGOTTS WIZARDING BANK

within the offices of the Noblesse Exchequer upon a Saturday this

THIRTEENTH OF JULY

The presence of one

HERMIONE JEAN GRANGER

is requested.

She had been invited to the reading of Professor Dumbledore’s will but had no idea why the professor would have taken an interest in her. She felt a responsibility to attend even if she didn’t deserve his countenance.

The card was concise but Hermione read it again to be sure. The thirteenth of July was this coming Saturday. She had nearly missed it, so her parents’ visit could be seen as having had at least one silver lining.

Dad was still mad. He couldn’t understand the duality of the argument. If she were in danger, then he would throw himself in its path however foolish it might be. This produced, in parallel, feelings of warmth and frustration. Ultimately though, Mother had made him see the way of it. Or at least that it wasn’t going to be his way.

She wished they had parted on better terms.

She leafed through the remaining correspondence and not finding anything of further interest, Hermione headed outside to meet up with Ginny.

~ diffindo ~

Susan didn’t want to do this. She’d gone over and over it in her mind. Her mind kept reminding Susan that it was for the best and that she needed to be talking to her heart.

Her heart wasn’t convinced.

In fact, her heart was missing. A great gaping hole had opened in her chest evacuating the joy and excitement that had once lived there. Anger had given way to sadness, and the sadness had given way to exhaustion, and exhaustion was all she had felt since.

Until this morning, when the prospect arose that he would soon arrive at her bedroom door expecting to practice Occlumency. With a tempest of emotions crashing through her mind, the idea of him caressing her thoughts and feelings was terrifying.

Now exhaustion had given way to anxiety.

Susan knew the right thing to do. Greet him. Close the door. Explain that she wasn’t going to continue their relationship. Do not address why. And hold firm the gap between his sense of betrayal and hers.

She had briefly considered telling Harry everything. It would have made her job simpler and he wouldn’t hate her if he knew why. But Harry wasn’t the type to give up. He was a natural martyr. He would probably throw down his name and take up the mantle of Bones entirely of his own accord, and Susan wasn’t sure that she had the strength of character to turn him down.

No. She had to end it cleanly. He could hate her if he wanted, but it was the best thing for him. Her mind agreed, but her heart was hiding.

A knock at her door harbingered the end of her anxiety and the advent of terror.

“Um, Harry? Hold on one minute.”

His voice came muffled through the door but was sharp in her mind.

“Yeah. Amelia said to head back.”

Susan looked around her room frantically for several seconds before she realized that she was looking for a place to hide, which was absurd.

“Okay, you can come in.”

The brilliant smile on Harry’s face threatened a seduction from what her mind told her was necessary.

“Hi.”

“Hi, Susan. I was thinking we should start by reviewing the basics since we’ve been off practice for a while. So, just some breathing and focusing. I’ll understand if that’s too boring.”

She just stared at him. Speak, damn you.

Harry—unaware of her distress—got the candles from her vanity and sat down lighting them with his wand.

She just stared at him. Fuck!

Expecting her to have sat down with him Harry finally looked at her properly for the first time and probably picked up on her tension.

“Is something wrong?”

Susan just stared at him.

She had to say something. This was horrifying.

“We don’t have to practice today, if you don’t want to.”

Say something!

Susan just stared at him.

“I’m on my period.”

~ diffindo ~

“You told him WHAT?! Good grief, Susan... why?”

“Just kill me, please.”

Hannah’s best friend held her face in her hands as she pleaded for a merciful end. She had known that something was wrong the moment Susan and Harry had emerged from the floo.

First, there was the body language. She had expected the pair to be hand-in-hand and smiling. Instead they were turned inward and keeping a careful lack of contact.

Then, there had been the weird way that Harry had asked Susan if she was feeling okay and if she wanted to get some ice-cream or coffee or something.

The final straw had been when as they sat down in the gallery at the beginning of the session Susan had forcefully pulled Hannah down next to her rather than sitting next to Harry.

After the session Hannah had pulled Susan into an empty office and said ‘spill’.

But this? This was stupid.

“Look it’s horrifying, but he’s going to have to face the fact that you’re a female eventually. What did you expect?”

“You don’t understand! I am not even on my period, right now.”

Hannah shook her head in disbelief. Had falling in love just driven Susan insane?

“I don’t get it, then.”

Susan closed her eyes collecting her thoughts. Hannah was dying to know, but her friend was obviously upset.

“I can’t marry, Harry Potter.”

“Not to be contrary, but isn’t it a little early to be deciding about marriage?”

“No, I mean ever. I am not allowed. Because I’m a girl.”

Hannah had to find a way to slow Susan down. Her mind was running in overdrive and Hannah could not catch up. Despite this, Hannah couldn’t help but ask the question that came to mind.

“Harry’s gay?”

“No! No, no. It’s not him, it’s me.”

“Susan! Stop! I have no idea what you are talking about. You aren’t allowed to marry Harry because your a girl? That’s doesn’t make any sense!”

Hannah was relieved to see Susan finally stop and collect herself. As Susan laid out all that her aunt had told her, Hannah felt her stomach churn. Susan had been through so much in her life. It wasn’t fair that she had to deal with these absurd and archaic rules.

The Abbott family had rules just like Susan’s, but Hannah had never concerned herself with them because her cousins were in front of her for house leadership. They were silly lazy gits who wanted their parties and their friends, so Hannah’s uncle had for some time been planning to pass the seat in the Wizengamot to Hannah, but the house lordship would naturally fall to the eldest brother. This relieved her of almost all responsibility to the house by-laws.

But when Susan’s father and her uncle’s entire family had been killed by death eaters, Amelia became the Lady-scion of the house and Susan her heir apparent. Even if Amelia married and had children, Susan’s adoption and Bones blood had ensured her position. It must weigh on her.

“I’m sorry, Sue. It’s not fair. How did you tell him?”

“I haven’t. I wanted to, this morning, when he came over to practice Occlumency.”

“You didn’t, did you? Practice Occlumency?”

“No, but I couldn’t tell him either. I froze... And then I told him I was having my period— God— kill me!”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I can’t do it today. Not after this morning. Maybe tomorrow.”

Hannah nodded.

“Just don’t wait too long. He still thinks your dating.”

~ diffindo ~

As she sat upon the cold marble bench waiting for the girls and Harry to exit the gallery, Augusta Longbottom reflected on the gratuitous opulence of the Ministry atrium. How many galleons had been wasted for the sole purpose of striking awe into the visitors? Now that Abelsted was the chief warlock maybe some things would change. He was an insufferable elitist, but he also favoured austerity.

“Girls! Harry! Over here.”

“Hi!” chorused the voices of three youth.

“Come on. I reserved a meeting room for the next hour. We’re going to talk about how a member of the chamber requests an assignment of guardianship on behalf of a citizen.”

That would get Harry’s attention if not the others. Augusta had been working through the details of how Harry’s proceeding would by necessity continue.

The group of four shuffled into the reserved meeting room and Augusta closed the door.

“Okay. So, Harry. I’ll be moving the chamber to consideration of your guardianship tomorrow. Normally, the Ministry Office of Dependants Welfare would be responsible for reassigning you to a new family, but since I intervened on your behalf the case was elevated to a parliamentary matter.

“I could release my injunction and allow the department to reassign you, but they are not authorized to emancipate you. In order to have a chance at that, you’ll need sponsored time on the floor. So tomorrow, I’ll move to consideration of your matter and then reserve my time for discussion on Wednesday.

“Then, Harry, on Wednesday it’ll be your turn. Have you figured out what you want to say?”

Hope drove people forward and so Augusta did not want to crush Harry’s hopes, but the chamber would not emancipate a fifteen year-old. The chances were essentially nil, but he deserved to speak his piece.

“I’m not done with it, but yeah more or less I know what I want to say.”

“Okay. The only key thing to remember is that it will be your only opportunity to speak before the chamber. Somewhere in what you have to say you must make a formal recommendation for guardianship other than emancipation. The chamber will vote on your emancipation on Thursday; and if it doesn’t go our way, a vote to establish your legal guardian will be taken immediately after based on your recommendation.”

“Why?”

Harry clearly didn’t like what he was hearing. Technically, Augusta had taken responsibility as his acting guardian when she had placed an injunction upon the ODW. When she brought the matter to the floor for consideration, she would have to remove the injunction which would terminate her guardianship and the proceeding could not be resolved until Harry’s status was affirmed. So, short of a recess called by the chair, the vote would have to be immediate.

Augusta explained this Harry.

“I don’t have anyone to recommend. All the people who should be my guardian are dead. I don’t need a parent. I need to put this whole thing behind me. Can I just use you?”

Augusta shook her head in disappointment. She wasn’t prepared to take on a dependent, especially Harry Potter whose misadventures were well known to all members of the Wizengamot.

“No, Harry. You need to figure it out by Wednesday.”

Harry looked thoughtful for a few seconds.

“What are the rules?”

“On your guardian? They need to be a living adult who can declare to the Wizengamot their intent and unless they are a blood relative they need to already have nexus into magical jurisdiction... they have to already know about magic.”

“Okay, I’ll figure it out.”

Susan who had been keeping an unusual distance from Harry came up and put her hand on his shoulder.

“You could ask Auntie Em?”

Harry turned to Susan. His hopes must have been raised by her propinquity, because he gave her a look of warm affection.

“Wouldn’t that make us siblings?”

Susan turned away in embarrassment. That struck Augusta as odd. Yes technically it might mean that, but not in any way that would prevent a relationship.

“Susan. It’s just a legal formality.”

She turned partially back so Augusta could see tears gathering in her eyes.

“Oh my dear. What is wrong?”

“I— “

Susan turned away again and left the meeting room perhaps not wanting to cry in front of Harry.

Augusta first turned to Harry who had the same look of worry and confusion that Augusta felt on hers. Then she turned to Hannah.

“Do you happen to have insight into Ms. Bones’s distress?”

Hannah got wide eyes. Augusta took guilty pleasure in intimidating the young adults.

“Uh— She’s on her period.”

~ diffindo ~

Tue. 9 July

Spells were funny, finicky things. Few knew this as well as Hermione who had learned that her life could be automated with simple adjustments to otherwise common spells.

Each morning she woke to sharp jolting rousal as a lacuna rennervate she had cast the prior evening finally came to resolution. The usefulness of the spell had been proven continuously and despite the discomfort that came with waking in this manner, Hermione felt a modicum of pride at her ingenuity.

So it was time to get up.

Time to fulfil her duties and make right what could be made right.

For the first couple of weeks staying with Ginny, Hermione had gone to bed in a nightgown which she despised because it always ended up choking her in the night. But now as she had become comfortable with her hosting roommate, Hermione had returned to sleeping in knickers and a sports bra.

She had been worried that Ginny would be uncomfortable with the arrangement.

As it had turned out, Ginny’s two-piece pyjamas were a thing for visitors as well, because she now slept entirely nude. This did make Hermione uncomfortable, but it was Ginny’s concern what she wore to bed, so Hermione tried not to obsess over it. But she had had trouble the first few nights not fixating on the reality that a warm body was completely naked not two meters away.

Hermione had always been more full-figured than Ginny, but Ginny’s was a body toned by an athletic ability that rivalled Greek ideals. She was toned and tight, but not sculpted. She never lost the feminine curves that spoke of a soft place to lay one’s head or to place one’s arm.

Enough of that. Hermione had things to do.

She got dressed in stretch jeans and a plaid button down top she had borrowed from Ginny. She would need her range of movement for the gym and it turned out that Ginny’s clothing which had been selected to allow physical activity had proven ideal.

Hermione left the room quietly thankful but still oddly disconcerted by the silencing spell upon Ginny’s door.

As she lit the floo, she looked forward to learning apparition in the coming year. It was a pain always needing to find a floo station to get around.

Moments later Hermione arrived in the waiting room of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. The first time she had arrived for her morning ritual, she had spent several minutes talking with the intake witch, Lucy, since she had no idea where she was going or what the rules would be.

Now though, she just waved in greeting and proceeded into the back corridor. Normally, she would need to be escorted, but she and Lucy had come to the joint conclusion that it was a waste of time.

It was odd how the boundary between the visitation and care corridors was so obvious. At one point it was all carpet and warm tones, and the next cold hard floor and bright unforgiving light.

Hermione had become habituated to counting the room numbers as she approached his room.

123, 121, 119... 117.

A countdown that reset each day stuck on an asymptotic grade. Each day she would stop at the door and a part of her that wasn’t rational would genuinely expect to open the door to an awake, talking, and inevitably hungry Ronald Weasley.

She opened the door which revealed the cold reality of life that would not be penetrated by the weak hopes and dreams of one little girl.

He looked better. The purple had begun to fade after the first week when the head hex surgeon had located and deactivated the vampiric draw that had been slowly sucking the blood out of him.

Day by day, his colour had returned and the lacerations had healed. There were scars. There always would be. But that wasn’t the problem. The damage hadn’t stopped with the finé of the spell.

Hermione had read books about the cold war and the experiments that were done on nuclear radiation. This wasn’t that—thankfully, but it had a similar effect. His body didn’t want to heal. The doctors could encourage the process. They could stimulate growth, but it wasn’t fast enough. It was all that could be done to keep his vital organs functioning.

It could have been her.

It should have been her.

Her tears had long since run dry. She didn’t need or want pity. She needed penance.

Hence the morning ritual.

“Hi, Ron. Your family’s still doing okay. Ginny got me to play quidditch yesterday. Promise not to tell her, but it was kind of fun. We miss you. We want you to come back.”

It was unlikely that he could actually hear her. In a magically induced coma there was little that could break the mental lifeboat that protected him from his own senses.

But Hermione wasn’t only doing this for him.

This was her duty. Her punishment.

Change didn’t come from comfort. Change came from pain. And Hermione would face that pain, because she would never allow her loved ones to be hurt again. Not if she could help it.

Hermione leant over the bed rail and planted a kiss on her lover’s forehead. She hadn’t told anybody. And despite her fears, he hadn’t either.

It had been after a D.A. meeting. They were already out breaking rules that night and Hermione had been flush with success from casting her first fully corporeal patronus. She had taken him by the hand and led him to a particular corridor, one that she knew well.

He hadn’t seen it coming. She had found out only afterwards that it had been his first time. It had been short. It often was with inexperienced boys. Not that Hermione was ‘experienced’, but she hadn’t been a virgin either.

She remembered how his hand slid down her shoulder and onto her chest. The tentative and inept squeeze that had followed. She remembered the caressing sensation as he had slid the same hand up her hip and under her shirt continuing upward and brushing past her breast. How she had lifted her hands encouraging him to continue disrobing her.

She wanted to see those eyes again. They had been transfixed, focused like nothing else could ever matter again.

As is often the case following a positive sexual encounter, more followed. Each explored new ground, searching for the boundaries and choosing when to step over them. The last had been the night before everything had gone to hell with Umbridge. After Hagrid was driven off and Professor McGonagall put in hospital, Hermione had been afraid. She hadn’t wanted to sleep alone that night.

So she had climbed into Ron’s bed before he had come up to the dorm and pulled the curtains. She even cast a repellent charm to discourage the other boys from checking for Ron.

Surprise was a pale word to describe his reaction to Hermione ‘warming’ his bed for him. She knew that sex was the most likely outcome for that evening and she was ready for that. She didn’t really want to—not with all the fear surrounding them—but he had been a true gentleman. He had spooned her from behind and just held her, his strong and warm arms calming her fear and uncertainty.

She’d woken him later that night. Hermione smiled melancholically at exactly how she’d done it. She had dreamed about that interlude almost every night since the ministry.

The smile faded as her attention returned from her memory to her senses, to the broken body that—once so full of strength—now lay prone and unmoving except for the shallow rise and fall of his breath.

“I’m sorry, Ron.”

Hermione checked her watch. Twelve minutes more. That was the rule.

~ diffindo ~

It had taken her almost a week to locate the correct establishment in the magical realms, but Jean had found a spell arena that didn’t make too many rules about what she could or could not do. She slipped the coquettish desk supervisor, who knew her as Jean Ranger Grey, an extra galleon and no questions were asked.

Jean had started with a simple reflection charm, protego resulto, and a stinging jinx. The first time she had fired on herself she had clenched at the incoming projectile spell. The pain had been brief but she had allowed herself to flinch.

That wasn’t allowed. So she did it again. And again. And again, until her non-casting arm—the one she was throwing into the attack—was completely numb to any sensation. It didn’t hurt any more.

That wasn’t allowed. She used a slicing hex. That hurt so much Jean nearly blacked out the first time.

Perfect. But it was difficult to hide the scars. She was good at healing magicks, but you couldn’t damage the human body over and over and not leave scar tissue behind. The scar tissue was ugly to look at, but paradoxically it hurt less when lacerated by magic. And she was worried that someone—most likely Ginny—would noticed and intervene.

Intervention was not allowed.

Thus Jean Grey had begun an ever escalating pursuit of the most painful magicks that left the fewest physical signs.

The worst she had tried was Expulso which had thrown her into the back wall of the arena and knocked her out for nine minutes. It had severely bruised her back and she had had to simulate a controlled fall down the burrow stairs to explain away the obvious damage.

None of the spells really ‘did it’ any more. None of them made her feel less guilty. They weren’t enough, they weren’t anywhere near enough.

So today was it. The absurdly obvious solution to her problem had been sitting in front of her for weeks now, but she always just skipped past it. Some part of her psyche was trying to protect her from it.

That wasn’t allowed.

Jean had doubled and then doubled again her reflector. This spell had to go right were she intended. She took stance. Raised her wand.

She knew it was unforgivable.

But then—so was she.

“Crucio.”

She had thought it would be a white-out situation. That it would hit and the pain would cascade upward knocking her out. That didn’t happen.

Instead the spell sort of looped. The emotional pain poured out of her and then back in as physical pain. The depths of her self-anger and self-loathing had nearly no bottom.

It went on for forty-five seconds, but to Jean it was forever. The self-disconnected screams kept time for that eternity of ephemeral moments during which she didn’t feel the aching hole that had eaten her insides. The pain had wiped it out.

It didn’t last.

Again.

~ diffindo ~

Ceannara Dunbar was consumed with curiosity. She had seen people come and go from the arena. Her boss had been unmistakably clear about the boundaries of her responsibility. Take the money. Call the end of the session. Leave the customers to their whims.

But most patrons she saw were men or military. Most at least had some possible use for a ‘no questions asked’ business.

Jean was a young woman barely older than her sister and had come in almost every day, had paid an extra galleon almost every day, and had found some use for the arena for an hour almost every day.

The curiosity was unbearable.

There was a monitor. For security purposes there was a local scrying mirror just behind the desk. But if her boss ever found out...

~ diffindo ~

The pain was exquisite. It still cycled in her system. Her hands shook, her whole body trembled. But the hour was coming to an end and Jean would need to walk out on her own power or risk drawing attention to herself.

She got to her feet and took one unsteady step after another. The physical effort of it was astounding. Distracting.

Was that allowed?

Oh, fuck, it didn’t matter.

As Jean went by the front desk, she stopped and tried to sign out finally settling for a scribble that looked kind of like a name.

“Thank you.”

Her voice barely slurred. Good. In a few minutes there would be no evidence left behind. Now the cheery receptionist would ask ‘same time tomorrow’ in that infuriatingly bubbly voice.

“Are you in trouble? Do you need help? There are places you can go.”

What? That wasn’t what she was supposed to say. Jean looked up into the desk worker’s eyes and could tell instantly that she knew what spells had been cast in the arena.

Shit. Was an unforgivable curse illegal if you only cast it on yourself?

She reached into her bag and retrieved another five galleons and fumbled them onto the counter and ambled out of the business before further inquiry occurred.

~ diffindo ~

Ginny didn’t understand why Hermione insisted on being so industrious. She had come back from whatever she did every morning and promptly announced that she would be de-gnoming the garden. Apparently, she was serious about not letting Dad do it.

But of course, Mum wasn’t going to let her do it alone.

So Ginny had taken an end and Hermione had taken the other and they were working toward the middle. Hermione was not moving very quickly and Ginny was concerned the she might be getting sick because she seemed unsteady on her feet.

Ginny had suggested she take a break, but Hermione had just said that ‘it wasn’t allowed’, which had struck her as odd.

The end of the current row was in sight when a yelp sounded through the stalks dividing the two girls. The grimacing moans that followed had Ginny running to her friend.

“What is it Hermione? Is it your head?”

Hermione was breathing heavily and clutching her head.

“I’ll— I’ll get, Mum.”

“No!”

“Hermione, your writhing in pain. We need to figure out what’s wrong.”

“You can’t. It’s not allowed.”

“Screw what’s allowed. You need help.”

Ginny got up, but Hermione grabbed her wrist almost painfully.

“Don’t! Please, if you’re my friend and want to help me take me somewhere private. Your room has a silencing charm on it.”

It wasn’t okay. Whatever this was, it was getting worse. Hermione’s arms and legs had gone from trembling to shaking.

“There’s no way to get you inside without Mum asking. Please, let me just get her.”

“No! Your window. Put me through your window.”

That was crazy and Hermione must have seen it in her eyes.

“Ginny, please. Just do this for me and I’ll explain it to you. I can’t right now.”

A muffled yell escaped Hermione’s lips and her back arched bending her body abnormally.

Fine... Fine!

“Levicorpus.”

~ diffindo ~

Hermione would learn in the days following her episode that the torture spell was far more evil than she thought. The pain during its application was unknowable, but even after, the pain would continue in waves that crested and crashed through her body.

All thoughts of the ritual were lost.

There weren’t rules any more.

Just pain.

And no hope.

How long would it last?

Would it stop?

Would she be sane?

Her bedrock anchor was Ginny. She’d left only briefly to tell her Mum they were napping. Hermione had gripped Ginny’s hand in a vice. It had to hurt, but she couldn’t care less right then.

So Ginny stayed by her side. Wave after wave. Coaching her between peaks in amplitude. Reminding her that she would be fine. Ginny didn’t even know what was wrong with her. She just trusted that Hermione’s stamina would be enough to endure it. And that Hermione would not have stopped her from getting help if she was in danger of life or limb.

~ diffindo ~

The minutes stretched into the next hour. Soon Ginny would have to come up with another excuse because ‘napping’ was not going to cut it.

But the pain appeared to be subsiding into smaller more rapid waves.

Ginny had had to cast a numbing charm on her hand after the first few minutes, but over last few peaks Hermoine had barely squeezed.

She’d rolled onto her side and was sobbing quietly.

Hermione was going to fess up to whatever this was, because there was no way Ginny was going to risk it happening again.

She wiped the sweat from her brow and lay down behind Hermione gently hugging her and feeling the ragged rise and fall of Hermione’s breath.

“I’m sorry.”

Hermione hadn’t spoken a word after convincing Ginny to levitate her through her bedroom window.

“Worry about that later. Just rest.”

She nodded ever so slightly and relaxed again.

They had just lain there for ten minutes or so when Hermione began to laugh. The noise was so incongruous with the situation that Ginny was worried that she really had lost her mind.

“I was— just thinking what— what a good birth coach you would be. And then I just now decided that I never ever want to give birth.”

Hermione’s chuckles infected Ginny. It wasn’t funny. This wasn’t funny. But imagining Hermione in labour was kind of funny. Maybe.

“You owe me an explanation, you know.”

“How about if I agree to be your labour partner when you need one?”

No. And not funny. Ginny wasn’t having kids until she had established her career as a professional quidditch player. She was only half facetious about that. No kids until she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“Yeah, no. You’re going to do both. So start explaining.”

Hermione was quiet. Let her think about it. She didn’t break her promises, ever.

“I’ve been doing penance.”

“Is that what you call where you’ve been disappearing every morning?”

Hermione rolled over to face her with a look of disbelief on her face.

“You know?”

“Hermione, I know when you aren’t sleeping. I definitely know what you leave in the early hours of the morning.”

“I... I’ve been going to visit Ron.”

“Why?”

“Penance. I need to face him. I need my mistakes shown to me each day until I fix them. I made rules about how long and what I could do.”

Jesus. Ginny had been by to visit regularly and it was emotionally difficult, but if Hermione was doing it everyday just to satisfy some sense of guilt...

“So you’re torturing yourself.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Not yet, I don’t. What else do you need to tell me?”

This had to stop.

“I, uh... Don’t make me tell you. You’ll hate me.”

“It sounds like that’s what you want, isn’t it? Is that one of the rules. You have to hate yourself?”

This was bad enough, but it didn’t explain what Hermione just went through. Hermione had just ridden out pain unlike any she’d heard about—outside dark magicks.

“Come on. What did you do to yourself?”

Hermione’s tears turned to sobs again.

“I don’t want anyone to ever be hurt for me again, so I wanted to make sure I could handle the pain. I started small with little jinxes, but it stopped hurting.”

The horror was almost too much for Ginny. Her friend had been literally and viscerally torturing herself for days and she’d had no idea. She’d been casting pain inducing magic against herself and it had gotten out of control.

“Hermione, did you cast the torture curse against yourself?”

She wouldn’t face Ginny, but through her tears she nodded.

“You can’t do this any more. Never! Do you understand me? If you want to hurt yourself, you bloody-well come to me. I’ll gladly beat the shit out of you.”

Ginny was getting angry. She didn’t mean to, but this was so big.

“Damn it, Hermione. How could you? This is the same bullshit that Harry has been pulling. I think he’s finally coming out of it and I find out... this!”

They needed to talk. Harry had found a better way through this, so he and Hermione needed to talk.

~ diffindo ~

“I’m sorry that Ginny bothered you with this, Harry. I’m fine. Really. She’s just overreacting. I’m handling it and you have enough to worry about.”

Hermione’s head was down. She was carefully averting her gaze. Harry knew that something was wrong but Hermione wouldn’t open up about it. They’d been stepping around the eggshells for almost a half an hour and he hadn’t gotten anywhere.

Ginny’s heated call to him at Longbottom matter had struck Harry’s heart with a cold fear. He knew that Hermione was blaming herself for what happened to Ron, but she had always been so stable and capable that he had allowed his own problems to eclipse his friend’s need.

“Hermione, I don’t need you to be considering my feelings right now. It needs to go the other way... Look, I’m good. I mean, it still hurts sometimes when I think of Sirius and that night, but—really—some new, great things have been happening, so... I’m good. You can tell me what’s going on. I’m not glass.”

Ginny had dressed Harry down after he had tried to skive off visiting Hermione. Lady Augusta had driven the fear of God into him about being late not to speak of missing it.

He caught a smirk on her face.

“When you say ‘new things’... you mean Susan?”

Her upward turned lips spoke of a vicarious interest in Harry’s growing romance. It brought a shy smile to his face too. If he could just get through the next few days, he could start anew.

“Yeah, but that’s not why I’m here. I want to help. Ginny sounded really upset and while she’s quick to anger—”

“—among others—”

Harry finally caught Hermione’s eyes as she glanced up in light-hearted accusation. It was true; he was not a paragon of stoicism himself. And speaking of stoics... He didn’t see any way to get Hermione talking about whatever was going on.

“Hermione... If nothing else, I just want you to come to me if you need anything. If it stops being okay or you decide you can’t handle it. Anything at all. I’ll make time—”

He caught himself at the very end. Despite being legally untethered, Harry had found that his time was less and less his own. But even so... he would always make time for Hermione. She and Ron were his family. The only ones left that mattered.

“Okay, Harry. I’ll try...”

Hermione reached over to the end table next to the chair where she sat and retrieved a small envelope.

“Did you get one these?”

“Yeah, for Dumbledore’s will?”

“Yes.”

“Professor McGonagall delivered me one earlier. Are you going?”

Hermione responded with a solemn and silent nod.

“Me too. I thought... I thought about not going. You know—as a kind of protest. But it seemed stupid once I thought about it for awhile. He’s already gone, so it’s not like it would change anything.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. He felt tears of sadness mixed with resentment threaten his eyes. This wasn’t about him. It shouldn’t be about him. This visit was about Hermione.

“You should go, Harry. It isn’t about the professor. It’s about you. You were on the stage at both of his memorials. I don’t think it was a good way to grieve. Maybe this can give you better closure... let you say goodbye without all the eyes on you.”

“Why do you always end up comforting me? I came here to help you, Hermione.”

She looked down again. Her voice was coy but her expression didn’t match it.

“Oh, I’m just distracting you from the fact that you are about to tell Ginny that I seem okay and that you’re going back to Longbottom Manor to get a good night’s rest before your speech tomorrow. She’s not going to be happy about it.”

She was right. Ginny was a year his junior, but it was her judgement upon his worth that seemed to matter the most. It cut the deepest. And Ginny knew how to dig it in.

“You don’t seem okay, Hermione. You seem like you’re hiding something and trying to get rid of me.”

She bit her lip and then glanced up with a pained smile.

“Nevertheless, Harry, that is what you will tell her—that I seem okay. Because if you don’t, she’s not going to let you leave. And you need to leave, Harry. You can’t get stuck here.”

Harry was sick and tired of being pulled in all these directions. His soul felt thin like it was spread out over a drum with fate playing a pounding cadence.

“Hermione...”

She chuckled lightly.

“Oh, come on, Harry. I’m just joking. I really am fine. But not about Ginny, though, she really is going to be pissed with you. Go on. It’s not going to get any better later.”

~ diffindo ~

“Ginny, I can’t stay. I have be on the floor of the Wizengamot tomorrow.”

He was a coward. Why was he always running away? Since when did Harry Potter ever give a lick about what the Wizengamot thought? Hermione was not okay. It was obvious. He had to see that. He couldn’t be that dense.

“Your best friend needs you. You can’t just pretend that she hasn’t been there next to you every step of the way. And you’re just going to abandon her! What kind of man are you?! Please, Harry. Trust me. She needs you.”

She saw his fear of her escaping through his wide eyes. She had leverage. He cared what she thought of him, but Ginny was already pushing too hard. He and Hermione had descended into an agreed upon story that had no accordance with reality. They would just agree that everything was fine until one of them crashed completely.

He wasn’t going to stay. Not for her. And not even for Hermione. He was going to leave. The betrayal almost stole Ginny’s heart, but she staved it back. Harry’s life had been different to her own. He didn’t understand the depth of family ties like she did. He deserved a small amount of slack. A very small amount.

“No. I’m sorry, Gin. I’ll come as soon as I can.”

She couldn’t bring herself to absolve him—to tell him it was ‘okay’—but she would let him have his way. This once. If this was what he needed, then he could spend this chip with her. But just this once. Ginny turned and fumed her way upstairs as Harry’s body disappeared into the emerald lit hearth.