Act One - Best Friends
Chapter Four - The Grass Isn't Always Greener
“Pst! Harry!” Ron whispered, a hand held in front of his mouth. “What’s up with Hermione today?”
Harry looked up from his breakfast. He turned to Ron in the seat next to him, and then he turned to glance at Hermione sitting across the table.
“She’s right there, Ron,” Harry replied, not at all hiding his words. “You can just ask her.”
Still whispering, Ron said, “Are you mad? She’s in one of her moods. I’m not walking into that trap. I’d be deaf before I finish eating.”
Harry sighed. “Hermione, do you want to tell Ron what’s wrong?”
Just by the tone of her voice, it was hard to tell if Hermione was mad, or upset, or sad, or some combination of the above, or who knew what. Ron’s choice of words might very well have been on point. Hermione was in a mood. Giving it more definition than that might not even be possible, except perhaps that it was a thoughtful one. But then when was Hermione ever not thoughtful?
“There you go,” Harry said to Ron. “She doesn’t want to talk about it. She’ll be fine tomorrow.” And if she’s not, she promised she’d talk to me. Admittedly, Harry was rather curious what Hermione saw in the mirror. For now, though, all Hermione had asked for was for him to put up with her while she worked through whatever it was she saw on her own.
Ron looked highly sceptical. “What, did she not master the patronus charm in five minutes? Is that why she’s…you know?”
“Neither of us expected to. I only got the shield version to work.”
“Okay, but did she–”
“Just leave it be,” Harry interrupted. “She’ll be fine by the time you see her tomorrow, if not sooner. It’s Hermione; she’s a tough girl.” He actually caught the hint of a smile forming on Hermione’s lips.
Ron fell silent for a second or two, and Harry saw him glancing down the table at Ginny. Whether it was for magical, telepathic sibling advice, or if he was just trying to ponder girls, Harry could only guess.
“So, Hermione, any plans today?” Harry asked.
Hermione stopped poking at her eggs and looked up. “You need to talk to Susan. Get her after defence.”
And talking to Susan Bones inevitably meant coming into contact with Hannah Abbott, not exactly something Harry was looking forward to. Still, it’d be a good idea to clear the air with as much of Hufflepuff as possible before the break. Talking to MacMillan was going to be a disaster, not that he and Harry had spoken much before, but surely talking to Abbott would only be awkward. Right?
Harry sighed. As if life could be so easy for him.
“Or not,” Hermione said in reaction to Harry’s sigh. “I’m still hoping for not.”
“No, I’ve put off contacting Lady Bones far too long already.” Seeing as Harry was the only person who could open the Chamber of Secrets now, it seemed prudent to him to find out if the DMLE needed access to finish their investigation. That was the kind of proactive behaviour Hermione had pushed for. It was the kind of behaviour that would at least make Harry Potter famous instead of the Boy-Who-Lived. Or so he hoped. “I was more asking after your plans, though. Do you need anything?”
“I’m not made of glass, Harry.”
“Be careful,” Ron whispered to Harry, but not nearly quietly enough. “Girls get scary when you push them too far. Ginny has this awful bat-bogey hex, and who knows what Hermione could throw at you.”
It was a very good thing Hermione seemed to be simply ignoring Ron this morning. The last thing she needed was to blow up at him, and Harry very much did not want to clean up the mess which he knew he would be left with.
“I know that,” Harry said, similarly ignoring Ron. “It hasn't stopped you before, though. Unless you think I am?”
“Fine,” Hermione finally agreed. Although she certainly sounded a bit miffed, she did trade knowing smirks with Harry. “If you must know, I need to talk to Daphne, so you can run along and play. Her family deals in potion ingredients I need for the summer.”
Off to his side, Harry heard Ron mumble something about summer and studying. He was going to make a sarcastic remark about how Hermione very much sounded like his governess right now, but there would be time enough to tease her about that later when she was in a more palatable mood.
“Really? Wouldn't the apothecary in Diagon Alley have what you need?”
“Possibly,” Hermione replied, giving Harry a subtle look that suggested she was probably after something that shouldn't be made public knowledge, which explained why she was not eager to share her plans for today. “If they don't, though, I'd prefer to already be in negotiations with Daphne.”
“Fair enough.” Then, because he was almost sure whatever Hermione was after was for him in one way or another, Harry said, “Let me know if you need a few galleons.”
“I should have enough pocket money, but thanks.” The strangest smile found its way onto Hermione's face as she said that. It was small, mysterious, and directed into her breakfast rather than to anyone in particular.
I wonder what that's about? I've never seen her so… I don't even know what the word is. Mellow? Serene? Centred? Except maybe for that morning on the Astronomy Tower.
But that smile was not to last. It left only seconds later to be replaced by the same frown that had dominated Hermione's face all morning.
“You're handing out galleons?” Ron asked. “Didn't you say you don't have access to your vault?”
This time it was Harry's turn to smile. It was more a grin, really. “Hermione talked the headmaster into giving her my vault key.”
“Are you serious?” When Harry nodded, Ron said, “That's bloody brilliant! You should get yourself some real clothes and a flat.”
“Ron, if Harry could get a flat, he’d have come to live with you or me last year straight out of school.”
There was a moment where Ron looked like he wanted to say something, but then he admitted that Hermione had a point.
“I do agree that you need proper clothes, though. I think I want to burn those rags you have even more than you do.”
Harry chuckled at that. “Well, I won’t stand in your way.”
“Actually,” Hermione continued, “why don’t you send an owl to the Dursleys and tell them you’ll find your own way ho – to their place. That should keep them from ambushing you and taking your wand while in public.” The emphasis on those last two words was unmistakable, if subtle. “You can spend the night at my place, and we can go shopping the next day.”
Before Harry could reply, Ron preempted him, saying, “Don’t do it! It’s a trap! Don’t ever go clothes shopping with a girl.”
Hermione scoffed at the comment, rolling her eyes. “I’ll tell Mum to stay at home.”
Harry’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly at the implication that Hermione might not consider herself a girl, but he dismissed it just as fast. Anyone who knew her would agree that Hermione Granger was not, in any sense of the word, girly.
“I’d rather not send Hedwig there alone,” Harry said before Ron and Hermione could start another row, not that Hermione seemed much in the mood for a shouting match this morning. She even let Ron's earlier language pass unchallenged. “They probably wouldn’t even read the letter. Would your parents be willing to call them for me?”
“I don’t see why not,” Hermione replied. “We need to send them a letter anyway to let them know to expect you. Do you mind if I use Hedwig?”
Harry shook his head. “Of course not. Your letters home are probably the only reason she hasn’t gotten bored and left.”
“I’m sure your affections and owl treats have something to do with it, too.” Hermione set her fork down and wiped her mouth of crumbs. “I’ll go get started on it, then. See you at herbology.”
Harry nodded, smiling once Hermione had left. He was under no illusion that whatever it was she saw in the mirror had fled her mind, but at the very least, she sounded less grumpy now. What exactly he did to help was a bit of a mystery to him, but it was about time he could start paying her back for the frankly absurd amount of emotional support she provided.
There was also that other matter preying on Harry’s mind, but he could wait for Hermione to be in a more receptive mode for conversation to bring it up. She never did like having her schedules interfered with. Discussing it now might just cause an explosion that would inevitably require him to spend a great deal of time calming her down. Yes, it would be better to wait. With any luck, later she would only be mildly irked.
Come potions class, Hermione had written directions to a disused classroom on the fourth floor on a small slip of paper. It was near enough to the more commonly travelled corridors that Hogwarts probably would leave the room where it was between now and dinner, but one never knew with the castle. The stairs moved, the halls warped, and secret passages came and went at their leisure. More importantly, however, the classroom was also far enough out of the way so as to be unobtrusive.
As she walked to her seat beside Neville – the poor boy needed help in this class and against Professor Snape as much for his own grades as for everyone else’s safety – Hermione silently let her hand fall onto Daphne Greengrass’s desk and trail across a small pile of textbooks. When it came back up, she was one scrap of paper poorer.
The note was unsigned, since doing otherwise would defeat the purpose of a clandestine meeting. It did have a specific time, however, and when Daphne finally got around to noticing it, the mere fact that it was written on paper and not parchment would clue her in as to who it was from. Nothing screamed muggleborn like paper.
Potions went by in the usual manner. Since there were no exams this term, for review, Professor Snape had written the instructions for a sleeping draught on the board and had vigorously underlined all the points where the potion could turn into a mist and knock everyone out while glaring at Neville. The entire potion would take about an hour and a half to brew; as such, he emphasised that there would be no second chances today.
While brewing and keeping an eye on her lab partner, Hermione’s thoughts wandered to last year, and in particular, how much easier her life might have been. I wish I’d known about this potion when Harry and I carried Norbert up to the Astronomy Tower. We probably wouldn’t have forgotten Harry’s cloak and have been caught, then. No weeks of scorn from the rest of Gryffindor. No detention in the Forbidden Forest. It just proves my point to Harry about knowing what magicks exist.
Hermione shook her head as her cauldron bubbled and brewed. I still can’t believe Hagrid left us alone in the forest. He was the one who said nothing would hurt us if we were with him or Fang. Not that Fang helped Harry when he ran into Quirrelmort later on. I swear I like the man, but his judgement can leave much to be desired at times. Not that we were supposed to actually find what was catching those unicorns. I suppose we would have been fine if Quirrelmort hadn't been on the prowl that night. Probably…
Still, we did deserve the detention, just maybe not that particular variety given our then ages. There were so many better ways to take Norbert out of Hogwarts. Most obviously, since Hagrid goes into the Forbidden Forest regularly anyway, he could’ve just carried Norbert through the forest and outside the wards. Seriously, why did we even use the Astronomy Tower as our pick-up point?
Oh well. Another year older, another year wiser. I wonder how many more mistakes I made this year I’ll spot…
Sighing, Hermione went about finishing her potion and went on with her day. Without a defence professor, Headmaster Dumbledore had taken over the class himself and had covered a good chunk of the remaining second year curriculum already, which was, unfortunately, more than half of it. One of these years, they had to get a good defence professor. Harry would probably insist on practising duelling in private next year, but it would be nice to have some proper formal instruction.
At least second year only covers the more dangerous magical pests and not actual self-defence. Next year is dangerous magical creatures, and the year after that the extremely dangerous ones. Fifth year is supposed to be a proper self-defence class, but one can only hope.
When class was dismissed, Hermione watched a horribly awkward Harry approach Susan and a very embarrassed, bright-red Hannah Abbott, the latter of whom promptly excused herself after a few stuttering words. Harry and Susan then left class together to find a quiet place to talk without eavesdroppers.
Time passed quickly in the library for Hermione as dinner neared. She checked her mechanical watch almost obsessively to avoid getting lost in a sadly thin book about wandlore. This was the last such book she and Harry had found in the entire library, and neither had found so much as a passing mention of whatever had happened between their rowan wands.
They had, however, cautiously determined that the phenomenon was one, replicable; two, happened only between their rowan wands; and three, occurred when ‘offencive’ spells met, for some strange definition of offencive. Unfortunately, that was where their knowledge ended. They had a few semi-educated guesses as to why the phenomenon occurred at all, but with only one data point, they could hardly draw any meaningful conclusions. Their best guess – and even that they were sceptical of – was that Hermione had made nearly exact duplicates of a wand, and that somehow caused a strange interaction between them.
Hermione checked her watch again. Finally Slytherin’s last class for the day was almost over, so she packed up her bookbag and made her way to the fourth floor classroom and her meeting with Daphne. Daphne, who was somehow already there when she arrived despite her head start and Hogwarts's moving stairs offering her no problems whatsoever.
“And here I thought you were going to be late to your own meeting,” Daphne said from behind the desk she’d obviously commandeered for her own use. She gestured to a chair on the other side and then folded her hands together – typical Daphne.
Just to be sure, Hermione checked her watch. Being on time for this was the entire reason she had it with her today to begin with, and lo and behold, she was five minutes early as both expected and planned. Daphne must have left class early just to get here before her – how petty.
Frowning, Hermione replied, “I’m really not in the mood for throwing thinly veiled insults at each other today, Daphne. Can we just pretend to be professional and talk business?”
This, in turn, caused Daphne to sport her own frown, but at least it was better than her snide smile. “Fine. What illegal potions ingredients do you need this time?”
Hermione winced before she could help herself. Professor Flitwick had lectured her about secrets only last night, and here she was giving them away by accident.
Forget Harry. I need to get in touch with my inner Slytherin. At least he doesn’t give away secrets when merely confronted with them.
By this point, Daphne was smiling again, her head propped up on her hands. Judging by how she swayed slightly from side to side, she was likely swinging her feet back and forth beneath the desk in glee. No doubt she was happy to have gotten one over on academic rival number one.
“How did you find out?” Hermione grudgingly asked.
Daphne rolled her eyes. “Please. Everyone who was put into Slytherin for a real reason and then some knows about your little mishap with polyjuice. Next time, memory charm the stooges you replace when you’re done with them.”
To be fair, Hermione had to admit Daphne had a point. The number of mistakes made this year to learn from went up by one. “Free advice?”
“We can always tack it onto your bill. Although I will say that nothing you three did was technically illegal.”
Hermione filed away the fact that polyjuice was not or was loosely regulated into the back of her mind. It might be a good idea to have a fresh cauldron of it sitting around if Harry continued to insist on getting into his usual misadventures.
And then Hermione made the connection. “But memory charms are?”
Hermione mentally patted herself on the back for avoiding that little pitfall. No blackmail material for Daphne Greengrass today or anytime soon – not that she had any plans to memory charm anyone to begin with.
“Anyway, what can Greengrass Acquisitions do for you? I can only assume that this is an under the table deal.”
Even though she herself had called this meeting, Hermione hesitantly asked, “You’re not going to hold this over me, are you?”
Daphne raised an eyebrow. “That would be unprofessional.”
Well, she sounded honest enough, I suppose… And it’s not like developing a reputation for backstabbing is in her own interests. “I need all the ingredients to brew veritaserum.”
Not at all surprised, Daphne nodded to herself ever so slightly. “Is this a rush order?” she asked.
“Er… Maybe.” Harry would likely want to have his heart broken sooner rather than later. “Why?”
“Would you prefer to buy veritaserum instead? It’s twice the price, but much less of a fuss.”
Of course they brew their own veritaserum, Hermione thought to herself sarcastically. How could I have expected anything else? I wonder how many litres they sell of it per year.
“I’m not sure if I have enough on me,” Hermione said, still debating if it was worth the extra cost. It would be good to have a professional brew it for her, no matter how much confidence she had in her own ability. And Daphne would be somewhat equally culpable if it came to a trial, so professionalism aside, she would keep quiet about this.
“How much do you need?” Daphne asked.
According to the instructions, three drops was all she actually needed to guarantee answers, although two drops would guarantee truthful answers and be less obvious, if what Hermione had read was correct. But it was always better to have more than necessary than not enough.
“Just enough for one…question and answer session–”
“Interrogation,” Daphne unhelpfully provided.
“–and a little extra just in case. I’m not sure how… Could I buy it in chocolate bar form?”
“How droll, but of course,” Daphne said, and at first that was all. But then a puzzled expression found its way onto her face. Hermione thought she mumbled, “Dementors?” and mere seconds after that, she somehow concluded, “Sirius Black?”
“How did you…” If that did not give the answer away, Hermione’s stunned gaping certainly did. Already she could hear Professor Flitwick lecturing her for having a looser tongue than Hagrid.
“You gave me three periods to divine what you were after,” Daphne said as if that explained everything. “Then when you asked for veritaserum in sugary treat form, it’s fairly obvious. No one would believe you carry chocolate casually.”
For perhaps the first time in her life, Hermione regretted being raised by dentists, regardless of how healthy her teeth were and how easy it was to eat well without having grown up on sugar.
“I don’t know who you could possibly want to visit in Azkaban, so of course this is a favour for your darling Harry.”
Hermione refused to comment on that. “How much?” she bit out.
“Don’t quote me on this, but if you want to guarantee you have enough, I’d estimate somewhere between ten and twenty galleons.”
For a moment, Hermione sat frozen in shock. Okay. Maybe I don’t have enough pocket money. Even at half the cost for the raw ingredients – if I can even brew that small a batch – that’s expensive. And a single mistake…
“I – I might need to think about it.”
Daphne smiled, and that only made Hermione terribly worried. “Of course, of course. Although if you’re interested” – Hermione was about ready to run out the door – “it behoves me to ask if you might consider an alternative arrangement.”
Really, she should just get up and leave now. Hermione knew that. Anyone with even the slightest bit of sense could see that whatever Daphne’s offer, it’d be nearly equivalent to getting into debt with the mob.
“What do you want?” Hermione asked against her better judgement. Maybe – maybe – Daphne would ask for something benign or simply embarrassing. Daphne was, after all, only thirteen. And there was no harm in merely asking.
“Oh, I don’t know. Hogwarts’s rumour mill is alive and chattering, but no one seems to know anything, so I’ll ask you outright. What are you and Potter up to?”
Of all the questions Daphne could have asked or demands she could have made, this was not among the ones Hermione had expected or even come close to considering. The information was harmless, really. And people were gossipping about it? What was wrong with Hogwarts students? Did they really have nothing better to do?
“We’re just preparing for the summer. For studying together.” Besides her and Harry’s new wands, which Daphne had no business asking after, there was hardly anything going on that anyone else would find particularly interesting – not for any sane reason, anyway.
Daphne’s disappointment was obvious on her face. “And you did that last year, too?”
“No. Harry’s home is… No, we haven’t. Besides, I only got him to agree to take his education seriously a couple weeks ago. What did you think we were doing? Snogging?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Daphne waved her hand dismissively. There was a strange eagerness underlying her tone as she asked, “But you say Potter has just been…what? Coasting on his wits?”
“It’s not like he hasn’t studied before!” Hermione said, defencive. “He – and even Ron, I suppose – did just fine on their first year finals. He just hasn’t…applied himself.”
“Since he got here?”
“Yes?” Where was Daphne taking this?
“All first year and all second year?”
Hermione let out an exasperated grunt. “Yes, okay! Harry has been a bad student. What business is it of yours, anyway?”
Daphne had been smiling again, grinning, even, and that looked more than a little strange on her face. But at Hermione’s outburst, her mask cracked despite obvious attempts to the contrary, and suddenly she was snarls and vitriol. “Absolutely none. Weasley and Malfoy have seen to that.”
“What do you mean?” The question was out before Hermione had really thought about it, and that proved to be a mistake.
“What do I mean? Can you think of a worse representative for Slytherin than Draco Malfoy? By Merlin's beard! He’s the most obnoxiously Gryffindor Slytherin I’ve ever so much as heard tell of, and if you don’t love him or at least kiss the very ground he walks on because of his father, you absolutely despise him! I swear, that boy has a brain the size of a peanut and shouts it to the world. His ambition must be unrealistically grandiose for him to have ended up in Slytherin, because he sure didn’t make it on his cunning, if you can even call it that.”
Hermione unconsciously slid back in her chair at Daphne’s outburst, not particularly wanting to be near her at the moment. Even more than that, though, Hermione was surprised to hear how much she – and, reading between the lines, a significant portion of Slytherin – disliked Malfoy.
“And don’t even get me started on Weasley! The Weasley twins are obnoxious to the point of borderline bullying and waste our professors’ time, the current prefect is irritating, and although I hear the others are alright for Gryffindors, the walking stomach is a prejudiced, bigoted arse as bad as Malfoy but in reverse.”
Hermione, admittedly, kind of agreed with Daphne, at least to a small extent. She would probably use ‘mildly sexist and completely insensitive’ instead, but that was splitting hairs. Still, Ron was sort of her friend, and he was hardly that bad. “I think you’re exaggerating a little bit.” She’d have said more, but Daphne was upset enough as it was.
After a few more seconds of quiet simmering, Daphne got herself back under control. She pinched the bridge of her nose before she slipped her usual mask of pleasant indifference back on.
“Sorry.” Then, again, but with less strain in her voice, Daphne continued, “Sorry. It’s just irritating watching the world burn around me.”
“Um… I won’t pretend I’m not confused, but if you want to be Harry’s friend, all you have to do is talk to him. All he really wants in a friend is someone who doesn’t look at his scar. Ron would get used to you eventually. He did for me. Mostly. And there’s no way to dispel prejudice quite like living among the subjects of it.”
Daphne chuckled and said, “Cute,” much to Hermione’s chagrin. Here she was extending an olive branch – small though it might be – and Daphne threw it back in her face. She might not like the girl, but she would hardly chase Daphne off, either. There was no denying that Harry could use more friends. “Let me ask you a question. Where do you see yourself in twenty years?”
Taken off guard by the change in topic, Hermione had to think for a few seconds longer than she really should have needed. She knew exactly what she needed to do, what she was needed to do. “I’m not sure about in twenty years, but ultimately, well, in politics, unfortunately.”
“Let me guess. You want to trample all over our culture like every other muggleborn.”
“Well, what else am I supposed to do! Your world is disgustingly racist.”
“And yours is filled with strange sexual phobias, weird religions, sexism, and your own strange brand of racism,” Daphne retorted. “The muggle world isn’t objectively any better, just differently bad.”
Hermione grudgingly admitted to herself that Daphne had a point. Her parents had raised her away from as much of that as possible – whether accidentally or purposefully, Hermione had never asked – but primary school had been eye-opening in terrible ways. Even so, the muggle world was actively, if slowly, fixing it's problems, and it vastly outstripped the magical world when it came to technological progress. The magical world was still stuck in the kind of mindset that caused Damascus steel to disappear from the world and sent civilisation reeling backward with the fall of the Roman Empire. Case in point, Hogwarts and Quirrelmort. No one knew how to build another Hogwarts. Even the magic on the Sorting Hat was a lost art. And every aspiring warlord with a little bit of power and delusions of grandeur could ravage the country with impunity.
“Look,” Daphne said, cutting off Hermione before she could start up, “if you goal is to improve your lot in life, I’d be a hypocrite to stop you. Hermione Granger stuck in a dead end job in the ministry would be a strange sight. Just leave the weird muggle stuff out of it, and you might even have a chance of success.”
“I don’t participate in any ‘weird muggle stuff’,” Hermione said, crossing her arms in a huff.
“Well, then all hail Dark Lady Hermione.”
Hermione sputtered some indignant reply that even she found incoherent, much to Daphne’s apparent amusement.
“What is a dark lord?” Daphne asked.
Still more than a little irritated, Hermione said, “It’s in the name. Basically an aspiring evil overlord.”
Rolling her eyes, Daphne said, “We don’t have to call it a dark lord. How about light lord? Does that not offend your palate?”
“I’m really not in the mood for this, Daphne.”
“See? This is why we don’t get along. It’s a simple question, merely something to discuss. Now sure, dark lords have a tendency toward the homicidal, but that doesn’t define them. What makes, say, You-Know-Who different from Lord Malfoy? What led Grindelwald to tear Europe apart while Dumbledore stepped aside? What made Gryffindor break away from Slytherin?”
“Ugh. Muggleborn, Daphne. Aside from the headmaster and kind of Lord Malfoy, I don’t know these people beyond basic historical facts. I didn’t grow up hearing about them.” As the words properly registered, though, Hermione had to wonder over Daphne’s word choice. “Wait, Gryffindor broke away from Slytherin? Isn’t it the other way around?”
Daphne leaned back in her chair looking more than a little grumpy. “If you read the very best sort of history texts, you’ll find that it was more of a ‘You can’t fire me. I quit,’ sort of affair. They were at each other's throats, and not just over the whole muggleborn issue. They had a longer history together.”
And then the other meaning of Daphne’s particular ordering of words hit Hermione. “You’re calling Godric Gryffindor a dark lord!”
“Again, we can go with light lord if it makes you feel better. But yes. A few centuries can change society’s perspective a bit. And since you’re obviously not going to answer, in the British Isles alone, Gryffindor sought radical change in reforging a nation from the ruins of Britannia; that was obviously a good idea, and his means were appropriate to the time. Grindelwald was prepared to do everything he thought was necessary to fix the world; a fine idea, but questionable execution. You-Know-Who has all the necessary skills to overwhelm almost anyone who would stand between him and what he wants; bad idea, worse execution.”
Casually swishing her wand back and forth, Daphne silently summoned three appropriately coloured wisps of light in succession as she said, “We can call them a light, grey, and dark lord if you wish, but they’re all the same. Those are the three points that define a dark lord: ambition, drive, and talent.”
That hardly seemed like a useful definition; it failed to capture the meaning when people used the term ‘dark lord’, but Hermione saw little enough point in arguing over it. She would, however, ascribe a large amount of luck to it as well. For every Grindelwald or Alexander the Great, there had to be a thousand more who could do just as well if put into the same circumstances.
“And from the sound of it,” Daphne continued, “you’ve got all three.”
“What! I’m not–” There Hermione had to stop to lower her voice to something that at least only hurt Daphne’s ears. “I’m not going to destroy Britain, or – or lead some sort of civil war.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, we are in but a brief reprieve from civil war right now.”
The look in Daphne’s eyes as she stared Hermione down said she was one of the people Professor Flitwick had mentioned. She knew what had happened last year in the third floor corridor. And in hindsight, Hermione noticed that Daphne had used the present tense for Quirrelmort and only Quirrelmort.
“Let me be perfectly clear so that your judgemental little Gryffindor brain can understand.”
Hermione struggled with the dual desire both to squirm in her chair under Daphne’s gaze and to send a volley of hexes Daphne’s way – not that she ever would. Somehow, Daphne always knew exactly how to vex her, much like how Malfoy found it so easy to rile Harry up. Those two were just more public and mean-spirited about it. She and Daphne at least respected each other.
“Dumbledore is an old man. He was losing his war until You-Know-Who randomly lost to Potter. The ministry was filled with pieces to be taken, stolen, and discarded. Foreign ministries were terrified of sparking the next world war and left us to our own devices. It’s not obvious yet, but we’re rapidly approaching the point where we have to choose sides. The Greengrasses won’t back a sinking ship, and neither will most of the old families.”
“So you’re just going to do what’s easy?” Hermione shouted.
“Easy? You think serving a madman would be easy? That twisting his nightmarish rule into something halfway livable would be easy? Do you know why discipline is so lax at Hogwarts that Malfoy can call you a mudblood to your face every other day without consequences?”
Hermione had wondered, but nothing that came to mind had made much sense to her. Magic had so much utility; it’d be easy enough to monitor the halls even just through the portraits hanging on the walls. They had enough memory to report an incident. To be fair, however, it was barely better in muggle primary school. Bullies were just more subtle there.
Daphne must have seen Hermione’s answer on her face. “There’s not enough staff to enforce it, even with the relatively recent introduction of student prefects. There are dusty, empty classrooms littered about the school; our population has plummeted. There aren’t enough children anymore. Hundreds of schools closed over the last fifty years. Hogwarts is the school for the rich and powerful, literally the best in the world at academics as far as the professors and safety record go, and even it is cripplingly underfunded. The ministry is cripplingly underfunded! The last two wars have practically destroyed us. It will take us centuries to recover, if ever, if we fight the next war like we did the last one.”
That gave Hermione pause, but only for a moment. “So you’re just going to roll over and let Quirrelmort run rampant? That’s pathetic.”
Daphne slammed presumably her fist into the side of the desk. For a few seconds, Hermione sat in stunned silence while Daphne shook her hand and winced. There was a faint hint of red on her knuckles. Hermione made a mental note to send her to Madam Pomfrey later.
“Yes, I am pathetic,” Daphne bit out. “As much as I loathe to admit it, I’m not going to be the next dark lady. The politics don’t play in my favour. No one cares about Daphne Greengrass beyond her prematurely developing breasts.” Daphne levelled a hateful glare at Hermione. “And despite trying, I’m obviously not academically gifted enough.”
Oh. That single word summed up everything else Hermione could have been thinking. Really, that explained a lot of Daphne’s temperament if she really felt she was ‘watching the world burn around her’ and found herself wanting when she tried to help. She was jaded, not asocial.
“I had a lot of hope invested in Potter. Britain was uniting around him despite no one having so much as even seen him since he was born. But he was a disappointment, and worse, nigh unapproachable. He’s shy, rebuffs attention, and refuses the responsibility that’s been thrown at him, however unfairly. But if he really hasn’t been trying…” Daphne shook her head. “Make him great. Make yourself great. Work together. I don’t care. Convince me you two can win and keep our world intact, and there’s nothing the Greengrass family won’t do for you. If not, then here’s some more free advice. Don’t try to block green spells.”
With that, Daphne got to her feet and walked to the door. There she paused. “I should be able to get your chocolate before the term ends. Don’t make me regret it.”
The door slammed shut, leaving a very distressed and confused Hermione behind. This was not at all how she’d expected her day to go. Daphne had even walked out before she could ask about how the required sphinx tongue was obtained.
“Ah!” Hermione jumped, and her forgotten book went flying as a pair of fingers were snapped in her face. Merlin but she needed to talk with Harry about not doing that to get her attention. The boy in question took a seat across from her, leaning forward on his crossed arms.
“Well, you’re spaced out and worrying about me again. I take it your identity crisis is over?”
Hermione snorted, amused. “I worry about more than just you, you know.”
“Without exams? Am I forgetting a homework assignment or something?”
“You prat.” Seeing as they were separated by a table, Hermione settled for nudging Harry with her foot. “Daphne and I had an…interesting…conversation. I don’t really know what to think about it yet. How did your chat with Susan go?”
“Hmm, well enough. Susan is a nice girl.”
Smirking, Hermione leaned forward and propped her head up on her hands. “Is that blushing I see, Mr. Potter? Anything I need to know about?”
“Nothing happened!” He said that, but the deepening blush on Harry’s face told an entirely different story.
“She just thanked me for avenging Justin despite his behaviour is all. They’re close friends, apparently.”
Hermione hummed in delight, glad for the distraction and for once not to be the one teased for her nonexistent romances. “I see. I suppose I’ll have to try a little harder if I want to keep you.”
“Anyway,” Harry said, ending the topic and causing Hermione to giggle to herself, “Lady Bones already planned to stop by Thursday with a company of aurors to finish the department’s investigation and to make sure there’s nothing dangerous left in the chamber. Black probably isn’t allowed visitors, but, well, I’m the Boy-Who-Lived, so we’ll see.”
Hermione shot Harry a mixed sympathetic and worried look, frowning when she realised that his smirk and shrug meant that yes, she did worry about him more than anything else. She nudged him again with her foot to express her mild indignation, which only made Harry laugh. In hindsight, she probably should have seen that coming.
“Well, I hope they bring an archaeologist along with them,” Hermione said. “I’m sure a number of heirs have already trampled all over the chamber, but I weep for what a full complement of aurors will do to the place to make sure we’re safe.”
“To be fair, the basilisk probably already took care of that for you.”
“Ah. Good point.”
“The chamber was flooded, too,” Harry added. “Even if that’s how it’s supposed to be, that probably doesn’t help.”
Again, Hermione had to admit that Harry had a good point. She really should have thought of that. Still, there must be something left to study.
“So what was this ‘interesting conversation’ you had with Greengrass?”
Tapping her fingers on the one tome still open and in her lap, Hermione figured it would be a good idea to run her thoughts by Harry to get his opinion. Daphne had thrown conclusions at her, and a fresh, unbiased mind would be helpful to parse the evidence. There were things that she saw now that she’d missed the last time she read about the last magical war, and she dearly hoped she was just reading into things.
“Harry, did you know Malfoy is an only child?”
A puzzled look was all Hermione received in response to her question. She then took the book that went flying earlier and slid it across the table to Harry. He picked it up and flipped through it, glancing over the family trees it showed.
“Crabbe is, too, and so is Goyle, and Susan, and Abbott, and Neville, and Lovegood, and Goldstein, and probably half the families represented at Hogwarts. Your dad was as well. Even those that aren’t only children usually only have one sibling. At least only one close to their own age.”
At that, Harry looked up from the book. “Their own age?”
Hermione nodded. “When you’re told you’re magical, your life expectancy goes up almost a century.” Excluding those who die of unnatural causes. “That’s something no one bothers to tell muggleborn and muggle-raised students, but magicals tend to space out their children as a result, I think. According to that book, Lady Bones is thirty years older than Susan’s mum and dad. As far as I can tell, that’s part of the reason why the Weasleys have such a hard time financially even though Mr. Weasley is an office head: the economy here expects you to have few dependents at any given time. It doesn’t help that with so many kids and” – having found out about the species and their circumstances, Hermione had to struggle to get out the next few words – “no house elf, Mrs. Weasley has had to be a stay-at-home mother.”
“That’s…interesting.” Harry spent a few minutes going back through family trees again, this time lingering on each page to no doubt process the listed birth dates. “I knew about the life expectancy thing; the headmaster is ancient. But I was kind of confused about why few people talked about their families here. I just assumed that, with the war and all, no one would want to, not that they just didn’t really have many relatives.”
“No, that’s most of it. Or at least I think so. There’s always someone who’s bereaved of a family member within earshot in Magical Britain. People like Malfoy are the only ones who are insensitive enough to shout ‘When my father hears about this’ across the Great Hall. That’s not what I’m getting at, though.”
Hermione dug through a stack of books nearby until she found the three thin ones she needed at the moment. Passing them across the table, she said, “These are the British census results for 1981, 1969, and 1935. For Magical Britain, that is. For reference, World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945, when Grindelwald and Nazi Germany were both defeated. You can find the important numbers in the summary.”
It only took a few minutes before Hermione was convinced she was not imagining things.
“This is… I – Hermione, I don’t know much about the magical side of World War II, but it was about as bad, wasn’t it?”
Hermione nodded, lips pursed. “The death toll was approximately proportional to the smaller magical population, but it hit harder because magicals have children slower. The only major difference is there was as much magical British blood as magical Soviet blood. Apparently, Magical Britain got involved a lot sooner than the muggle side.”
“Okay, correct me if I’m wrong – never did learn much about the States’ history – but Quirrelmort’s war went sort of like a magical Vietnam War, right? Guerrilla warfare and all that, right? Plus terrorist tactics?”
“Yes. Sort of. I don’t know much about that war, either, and it wasn’t exactly a civil war.” Hermione bit her lip, wishing she’d studied history more thoroughly before now; it would take a lot of effort to make a proper comparison. She did know, however, that Quirrelmort’s war had been bloodier than any civil war she’d ever heard of, excepting maybe ones at the end of the Roman Republic. “Still, I don’t think it’s unfair to expect the change in casualties there on both sides to be a rough approximation for here. I haven’t been able to fact check that against other wars, though. Does that seem like a wrong assumption to you?”
“No…” Harry looked back and forth between the 1981 and 1969 census before shaking his head. “How did Quirrelmort cause a higher percentage of deaths in Britain than a bloody world war?”
Gnawing on her lip again, Hermione briefly debated whether she wanted to say anything. This was very much panic inducing information, but it was still a wild guess. There were other possible explanations, many of which were less distressing. There really were.
They just lacked the same horrifying ring of truth. Daphne had never brought it up, but that could mean anything. Maybe being raised in Magical Britain, it was just a blind spot of perspective. Maybe she wanted to keep the information to herself in case she sided with Quirrelmort. Maybe she just felt it was unimportant or would not be taken well.
But then Hermione reflected on how much more critical of ideas Harry had already become. Or at least how much more willing he was to express objections and poke holes. Harry was made of stern stuff, probably sterner stuff than herself, if she were being honest. And she was sure he knew how to keep a secret far better than her, at least until they figured out what on Earth they wanted to do with the information. It would bias his own conclusions, but she very much wanted to compare thoughts.
“Harry…” There Hermione trailed off before resummoning her courage to give voice to her fears. “Harry, do you remember how I mentioned there were things about the last war that didn’t seem quite right?” After getting a nod, Hermione continued, “No proper muggle war has lasted a decade since before the twentieth century.”
Harry opened his mouth, but Hermione cut him off.
“The Cold War doesn’t count.”
Cutting Harry off, Hermione said, “Neither do those little conflicts with one side having only a few hundred people at any given time. Quirrelmort had thousands supporting his cause, if only a couple hundred willing combat forces at most. He had the resources of a proper army.”
Harry crossed his arms and frowned, but he said nothing further on the matter.
“Okay, now, you’d think magical wars would either be much faster or proceed at a snail’s pace. I’m not an experienced enough duellist to know which one, but it should be one or the other, depending on how difficult it is to tear down wards and shields and track targets. I’m not sure how the smaller population would affect things, but I’m sure war scales somehow. We should see something about Quirrelmort’s war other than what we got. Please, please tell me I’m wrong.”
“No, I agree.” Although he said that, Harry sounded as unhappy about it as Hermione felt. “The war just…dragged on and on. His side used the imperius curse liberally and worse besides. How hard can it be to install a new government and be done with it?”
“That’s really not what I wanted to hear, Harry.”
The boy in question managed a dry chuckle. “Sorry. But I got the same feeling when I read those history books you gave me. There has to be something we’re missing. I’m not saying it’s easy to overthrow an established ministry, but if only one side is willing to mind control people…”
“It’s worse than that,” Hermione said. She took out another book from the stack and passed it to Harry after first flipping it open to the right page courtesy of a sticky note. He skimmed the other book titles in the pile before looking down at the first of many budgetary reports. “Daphne says the ministry is currently severely underfunded, especially the DMLE, and not much has changed in the last couple decades. Inflation doesn’t seem to be a thing here, either. Don’t ask me how.”
Hermione let that sink in while she hoped that Harry came to a different conclusion than the one she had. If Daphne were to be believed, the ministry was as underfunded now as it’d been at the end of the last war, and things were little better at the start.
“What… That can’t be right…” Harry flipped back and forth through the pages before suddenly stopping. He looked up from the book, his brows furrowed. “Hermione, did he even want to win?”
The look on Hermione’s face must have given her theory away, because Harry’s face paled and his eyes widened.
With an uneven voice, Harry asked, “He didn’t, did he?”
“I don’t know,” Hermione replied in a small voice.
“What – what even was the point of it all? Why would he… Just…why?”
“I don’t know,” Hermione said in an even smaller voice. “I don’t know enough magic to know if there’s some ritual or something that he was working toward with all those deaths, or if there was some darker purpose he was furthering the whole time, or something even worse and more terrible than that. I just don’t know.”
A pregnant silence grew between her and Harry, neither knowing quite what to say. Really, what did one say when a relatively straightforward, daft monster turned out to possibly be something far more sinister?
And yet Quirrelmort’s behaviour the last two years clashed with that picture. Hermione still stood by her declaration that he’d gone about his tasks in just about the least efficacious way possible. She was far from being ready to say that the last war had dragged on for so long because both sides were just that incompetent, but that meant something darker was likely at work.
“Do you think the headmaster knows?” Hermione asked quietly, breaking the heavy silence.
Harry thought for a moment, tapping his fingers nervously on the desk. “I don’t see how he wouldn’t. He practically ran the war and the ministry before that. We should still tell him, though, just in case.”
Tap, tap, tap, went Harry’s nervous fidgeting. Hermione searched her memory for when she might have seen him so unsettled and came up empty. As angry, sure, but nerves had never been his problem; of the two of them, Hermione worried enough for them both already.
“Hermione,” Harry said, drawing her out of troubled and worsening thoughts. “Leave Britain.”
“Imperius your parents, if that’s what it takes. Just run.”
Hermione shot to her feet, her chair screeching in protest behind her. “Harry James Potter, I’m not going anywhere! If you think–”
The rest of what Hermione had been about to say was cut off. She screamed a few more words in silence before she realised there was an irritated Ms. Pince staring down at her with a piercing glare. She promptly snapped her mouth closed then and sat down, her back perfectly straight and her hands in her lap. Being kicked out of the library would normally be horrible in and of itself, but these were her last few days with free access to the restricted section. Nothing would be more terrible than losing that privilege, ill-gotten though it was.
Ms. Pince waved her wand, and Hermione found herself able to speak again. “Sorry.”
“I’m sure I don’t need to inform you of the rules, Miss Granger. Keep it down.” Ms. Pince glared at Hermione again before wandering off back toward the front of the library and the circulation desk.
Once she was sure they were alone again, Hermione said, “Harry–”
At the same time, Harry said, “Hermione–”
Absolutely not about to suffer through Harry’s hero complex, Hermione crossed her arms and spoke over him. “Harry, I’m not leaving you here. I’ll make an unbreakable vow if that’s what it takes to make you accept that. In case you don’t know, you die if you break it.” That was not exactly correct, but the point was made.
“You can’t!” Harry hissed.
Whispering, Hermione said, “Watch me! I’m not going to run away and leave you to die, and I’m certainly not going to imperius my own parents to do it!”
Harry and Hermione sat locked in a staring contest, neither willing to bend. Hermione knew Harry was stubborn, but in this, at least, she would outlast him. There was no way she was leaving. Forget the life debt – she could ignore that irritation if she really had to – there was no hope she would ever find someone who could replace Harry in her life. She could infer as such from the awful memory of her sorting, and the Mirror of Erised telling her she already had what she most desired had only reinforced that fact. It’d taken a bit of romanticising – again – but she was mostly at peace with herself once more.
“Fine.” Harry sounded more than a little grumpy, but he caved.
Hermione let out a long sigh and let herself relax into her seat, silently cheering in her mind. “Harry, I’m sure I’m already a huge target anyway, if not as big of one as you are. I’m sure Quirrelmort knows I helped you ruin his plans last year; he’s not going to let that go. And besides, I’m the mudblood who thinks she’s Merlin, remember? Muggleborn and showing up the purebloods? Can’t have that, now can we?”
Harry let out his own sigh. “No, I suppose we can’t. Just…don’t sacrifice yourself to save me. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime.”
“Well, I certainly won’t go around sticking my arm into a basilisk’s mouth, if that makes you feel better. I’m a little more attached to my life than that.”
Even before she finished mentioning it, Harry’s hand was on his arm over where the basilisk fang had penetrated it. Just underneath his robe remained a scar that even phoenix tears had failed to heal. “I suppose I deserved that,” he said. “I don’t exactly have a good track record on keeping myself safe, do I?”
“Not even close.”
“Is your house at least warded?”
Hermione nodded. “We got them over the Yule holiday first year when it became apparent that there were people that really didn’t like me. Or, well, more the idea of me. Emergency portkeys, too, including one to St. Mungo’s.”
“Well, that’s something.” Harry sighed and slumped back into his chair. He sent some strange, undecipherable look Hermione’s way before shaking his head.
“Oh, by the way, I think the Greengrasses are tentatively on our side.”
“Really?” Harry sounded just as surprised as Hermione had been when she finally realised exactly what Daphne had told her.
“She said if we, and I quote, ‘convince her that we’ – you and I, specifically – ‘can win and keep the magical world intact, there’s nothing the Greengrass family won’t do for us’.” Hermione chose not to repeat the ‘advice’ Daphne had offered up in the other eventuality; without the context, Harry would almost certainly take it badly. “I suspect the Greengrasses aren’t the only people who think that way.”
“I knew there had to be a silver lining somewhere,” Harry said with obviously faux cheer. Hermione smiled at the attempt regardless. “Weren’t they hardline neutral last time?”
“Yes, but Daphne doesn’t think that’ll last. She and I don’t get along all that well, but I really don’t know how to express just how helpful it would be to have her as an ally and not as an enemy. Lord Greengrass is a member of the Wizengamot, and the Greengrass family has a lot of economic resources. Daphne herself is very smart, too. She’s consistently in the top five on term finals for all years.”
“Do you think we can trust her?” Hermione nodded, so Harry asked, “Did she say what we’d have to do to convince her we can win? I’m not even convinced we can win. And…we?”
“Er…” What’s a good way to say she’s looking for the next dark lord? Or light lord, I guess. Ugh, I can’t believe I used that term. “I…don’t think there’s anything in particular we can do besides try our best. She’s not expecting us to duel Quirrelmort by this time next year or anything like that. But she doesn’t have much faith in Headmaster Dumbledore, so yes, Harry, we.”
Harry was tapping his fingers again, his head resting on one hand. “Are you sure she can be trusted? She is a Slytherin.”
“I think so. She was pretty emotional to be lying.”
The tapping stopped. “Daphne Greengrass?”
Hermione snickered despite herself at the expression on Harry’s face. “She’s not actually devoid of all emotions but smug indifference and condescending amusement, you know. She’ll probably warm up to us when she thinks the world is less doomed. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that, but…” She trailed off into a shrug.
“Fair enough,” Harry said, resuming his steady rapping. Eventually, he said, “Hermione, what do you think are the chances that I – me specifically – have to kill Quirrelmort? That would be just my luck, and I know it’s possible to see the future, even if I’m not clear on the how.”
“Thinking like that could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy, Harry. I’m sure he’s only after you because you were around when he embarrassed himself.”
Harry sighed. “I guess that does seem more likely.”
“Exactly! Besides, either way, I’ll be with you every step of the way. You don’t have to do it alone.”
“Thanks.” Harry managed a weak smile. “While we’re on the topic, we need to discuss something.”
After Harry failed to say anything further for a few seconds, Hermione said, “Yes?” dragging out the word expectantly.
“Promise not to get mad until you hear me out all the way.”
Hermione rolled her eyes but did so anyway. “Yes, yes. I promise.”
“Remember we’re in a library.”
“Urgh. What is it, Harry?”
“I’ve been thinking, and I think we’re doing this all wrong.”
Now curious, Hermione asked, “Doing what wrong?”
Hermione stomped down on her urge to respond to that, however it might have come out. Her word was her oath, so she would listen first and then berate Harry. “I’m listening,” she bit out.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t study everything and get a broad range of knowledge about the basics. We should. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say how important the fundamentals are. Does that make you feel less like biting off my head?”
It did, actually. Hermione felt her muscles relax, and she could admit – to herself – to being more open to actually listening now. “Exercising those Slytherin instincts, I see.”
Harry actually cringed at that. I really need to find out what his problem with Slytherin is. It can’t be all Ron’s attitude and Malfoy’s behaviour.
“I suppose. Anyway, Quirrelmort is sixty-six years old, and from those books you gave me, it sounded like he refused to ever meet Headmaster Dumbledore on even ground. Not just avoided, but outright refused, running away as soon as possible if it ever came close to that. Against him, Quirrelmort only ever made hit-and-run attacks, laid ambushes, poisoning attempts, et cetera.”
“And from this you conclude…”
“It’s a really, really bad idea to ever try to fight him on anything so much as slightly resembling even ground, even just to run away. There’s the same age and experience gap between him and us as between him and Dumbledore. If he couldn’t do it, presumably we’re not going to catch up just by studying, either. Even if we somehow found a way to share our learning experiences through legilimency and doubled our study rate, it’d still take decades to overcome the age difference. I doubt he’s ever stopped learning or trying to make himself more powerful.
“Of course, it could just be a matter of not wanting to gamble on the outcome, but… Well, I’m sure you’ll find a way to torture me even if I’m dead if I take a gamble with my life that even Quirrelmort – who’s apparently able to cheat death – refused to make.”
Hermione gnawed on her lip, processing Harry’s argument. It was something of a mixed blessing that he was actually starting to use his brain now since he could point out these problems. Sure, it was good to point them out, but they were a bit hope crushing.
“You forgot to incorporate your new information. He might have just been stalling for whatever his real endgame was,” Hermione suggested. “We don’t actually know what his ultimate goal was. Maybe he needed an ongoing war.”
After a few seconds of thought, Harry said, “That’s a fair point. But it only makes the experience gap seem more insurmountable. Who knows what he must have done to catch up.”
“Tch.” That was an entirely reasonable response – how depressing. “So what is it you have in mind?”
Obviously nervous, Harry’s gaze shot to a very lovely series of violet books nearby.
“I see,” Hermione said, sighing. “We’ll just have to brainstorm sometime soon, then. Things haven’t gone pear-shaped yet.”
“To be fair,” Harry said, “I’m not completely without an idea. Well, more a vague, general aim for the start of an idea.” He waited until Hermione stopped chuckling before continuing. “I’m pretty sure Quirrelmort knows all about muggle weapons, given that he grew up with bombs raining down on his head, so I don’t think that’s the answer. Short of an atomic bomb, I don’t know what could have much of an effect anyway.”
Just to put it out there, Hermione said in jest, “No transfiguring weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Potter.”
“Please,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “Even Pansy Parkinson wouldn’t be foolish enough to do that. I’d have to be drunk, high, and sleep deprived before it’d even sound like a good idea.”
“Okay,” Hermione said, chuckling to herself. “No muggle weapons, or at least don’t depend on them. What’s your ‘vague, general aim for the start of an idea’, then?”
Harry nudged her with a foot under the table, silently protesting the quotation. “I think we need to find something…new, I guess would be the way to put it. Something Quirrelmort would be just as new to as we would be. But that isn’t easily picked up, or the surprise would only work once. It needs to be effective, too.”
“Ah, I get it. Attempting to invent spells would be a gamble and easily copied once done, and we don’t even know how to go about it, so we should just keep an eye out for new applications of existing things while we study?”
“Yeah,” Harry said, nodding. “Sorry it’s not much.”
“It’s more than enough, Harry. If you pointed this out ten years later, then we might have already been doomed at that point. You’ve been brilliant enough for today. I hate to admit it, but I’d probably never have thought of that.”
Harry flushed a bit as he denied that. “Hardly. I’m sure you’d have noticed soon enough.”
“I doubt it. Even if I did, it wouldn’t change that you did, too, and faster. You’ll just have to face the terrible truth: you’re smart, too.” Hermione smirked at the blushing, quiet laughter she managed to get out of Harry. If I keep this up, he might actually come to believe he’s as smart as he is.
Breathing a deep sigh, Harry slumped back in his chair so that his head hung backward. “Hermione, I think I’m going to go for a short fly. I need to get my mind off all this for a little while. Do you want to come with?”
“Um, I take back what I said earlier. I’ll be with you almost every step of the way.”
Hermione pursed her lips and hummed angrily as Harry got up, laughing, this time without caring who heard. Really, there was nothing wrong with wanting your feet on the ground, especially when it came to broomsticks. There just had to be a better way to fly. I guess there’s always Mr. Weasley’s flying car…
“You really need to get over your fear of heights, Hermione.”
“It’s not the height that bothers me. It’s being on a line segment and the turbulence. That, and brooms don’t seem to like me.”
“If you say so.” There was a smirk on Harry’s face as he said that. Hermione glared at his back until he retreated out of sight behind a bookshelf, and even then, she followed where she expected him to be a little longer.
Honestly, Hermione thought, shaking her head, there’s something wrong with that boy. No one should be comfortable nose diving to an inch above the ground.
Sighing, Hermione cast a levitation spell to bring the books Harry had left out of her reach back to her and stacked them atop one another before putting them off to the side for reshelving. After getting Harry’s concurring opinion about the last war and Quirrelmort’s suspect motivations, there was little point in reading any further in them.
The next morning, Hermione was very rudely accosted from the Gryffindor Common Room before she could head down to breakfast. Her abductor led her down through no less than sixteen flights of stairs while she cursed whatever foul geometry Hogwarts – the eight storey castle – tormented her so with. She swore it was never so bad when she was on her own.
Eventually, after several unanswered questions, Hermione found herself sitting on a flat, rocky outcropping hanging over Black Lake with her legs swinging freely below her. The morning dew still clung to the ground as the sun peeked over the horizon, and there was a slight chill in the air, but nothing a warming charm would not stave off.
“Here, I nicked this from the Great Hall,” Harry said, holding out a scone.
“Thanks.” Hermione let out an appreciative hum after tearing off a bite. The blackberry scones here easily held a place of honour on her list of favourite foods. “How early did you get up?”
Harry shrugged. “Earlier than you.”
Her brows furrowing, Hermione leaned closer to Harry to get a good look at his eyes.
Bloodshot. Looking him over more thoroughly, Hermione found and plucked one of Hedwig’s feathers from a fold in Harry’s robes. “Harry, did you sleep at all last night?”
Harry shrugged again. “Some. You know me and my brooding.”
Hermione shook her head at the blatant disregard Harry had for his own health. Instead of scolding him for it, she said, “At least you’re self-aware about it.”
“I suppose. I also know I tend to say I’m fine when you, or worse, Madam Pomfrey, would confine me to bed.”
“Ha! What an understatement. ‘I’m fine’ to you seems to mean ‘I won’t die’.”
Harry at least had the common decency to look ashamed. “Yes, well, it’s tomorrow. Are you actually fine, or do you want to talk?”
It took Hermione a few seconds to remember the promise Harry had extracted from her yesterday morning. Giving him a knowing look before turning back to gaze out over the lake, Hermione said, “You’re just curious about what I saw in the mirror, aren’t you?”
“I am, and I’d also like to know if it’s going to help you at all with your patronus or if I should just start groveling now” – Hermione rolled her eyes – “but you were really upset earlier. And be honest. If our roles were reversed, we’d be here right now anyway, wouldn’t we?”
“I’d have picked the library,” Hermione mumbled into her scone. That, or she would find an empty room somewhere if privacy were a serious concern.
“It’s closed,” Harry countered.
“I’d have waited until you’d at least changed out of your jim-jams.”
“Oh, yes,” Harry said sarcastically to Hermione, who was very clearly already dressed for the day. “I’m definitely the kind of guy who’d drag a girl around Hogwarts in her nightwear.”
Sighing, Hermione recognised that Harry would refuse to give this up unless she said something. “It’s nothing, Harry.” She also recognised that she had, technically, just told him what she saw. As a closet Slytherin, he could hardly complain later. “I already tried using it for my patronus memory, approximately, but Professor Flitwick said it was too passive and needed more…kick was the word he used.”
“So I should start groveling, then?”
Hermione nudged Harry with her elbow, which only made him laugh.
“Alright,” Harry said, “but you are fine, right? Actually fine?”
For perhaps the hundredth time in the past couple days, Hermione found herself reflecting on the memory of her sorting at the start of first year.
“Granger, Hermione,” called out the voice of Professor McGonagall.
Terribly nervous, both about her sorting and being in front of so many people, Hermione forced herself into a mere fast walk instead of running to the stool upon which the Sorting Hat awaited her to decide her fate. She told herself to relax, for all the good that did, before jamming the hat onto her head.
“Gryffindor, please!” Hermione thought to the very obviously telepathic Sorting Hat.
There was a moment of silence before the Sorting Hat replied, “Oh dear. You don’t understand how this works at all, do you?”
Hermione winced at the rebuke. Before she could properly form the question in her thoughts, the hat picked up on it and answered it for her.
“This is not where you pick a house of your liking, Miss Granger. This is about finding where you most belong and will best thrive.”
Her shoulders slumping, Hermione resigned herself to Ravenclaw. Not that it was a bad house by any standard, but she had hoped at least to have the chance to be seen as something other than a know-it-all bookworm for once. Maybe reading the entire first year curriculum for 1990 and more besides before she even received her official Hogwarts letter in July the next year had been a bad idea.
“So assuming,” the hat said. “I have, of course, sorted children who so quickly jump to conclusions into Ravenclaw before, but I do not make that mistake. You require a more thorough examination, Miss Granger. Unlike so many other children who come beneath my brim, you are both older and more mature, more balanced. No doubt your experiences with bullying have forced you to grow up. And I see your parents have responded in kind, giving you more responsibilities and control over your own life. Yes, we shall have to look deeper to see who you really are.”
“Um, do I get a say in this?” Hermione asked, though not quite sure if she should.
“You have all the say, Miss Granger.”
Frowning, Hermione turned that conflicting statement over in her head. “But you said–”
“That you don’t get to pick a house of your liking. Your choices and behaviour in life say everything for you.”
“But what if I want to change? It hardly seems fair to set someone on a course for their entire life when they’re eleven.”
Unhesitatingly, the hat shot that down. “I can only put you where you most belong, not where you would like to belong. But I’m glad you bring that up. You, Miss Granger, have an overdeveloped belief in fairness and justice, in the rule of law. I suppose if you don’t revolt, that’s only natural after being sent home from school crying after yet another day of torment again and again.”
“It was hardly that bad,” Hermione said weakly, trying to defend herself.
“Objectively? No. But to a child? I can see your memories, Miss Granger. You can lie to yourself, but not to me.”
“O-okay. But those are Gryffindor traits–”
Cutting her off, the Sorting Hat said, “Gryffindors have a strong moral centre and the determination to see justice done themselves. While you have the former, you like order. You wish to see just rules in place and want everyone to simply abide by them and live peacefully, but you recognise the need for appropriate measures to be in place to be taken against those you find legally deviant. If you ever find them, you believe you will be fiercely loyal to whatever friends you hold close, specifically citing similar traits in your parents as evidence. Those are not Gryffindor traits; those are Hufflepuff traits.”
Hermione sat stunned for a second or two. The hat was kind enough to keep quiet as the shock set in and she tried to understand exactly what had happened to bring the Sorting Hat to that conclusion.
More gently now, the Sorting Hat said, “Hufflepuff is not a lesser house despite its reputation for ‘taking the rest’. You know that.”
“Yes, but… I don’t… I don’t think I’d…be welcomed there.” Hermione fidgeted worriedly beneath the Sorting Hat. “I’m not – everyone says I’m bossy. And I spend more time reading books than socialising. I like books. I don’t want that to change…”
“Yes, Rowena would have been ecstatic to have you, if she wouldn’t be too busy fighting Salazar over you while Helga snatched you up.”
“You’re muggleborn? The literal meaning hasn’t changed, but being muggleborn meant something very different in his time.”
Confused, Hermione asked, “What do you mean?”
“You have strong Ravenclaw traits, Miss Granger. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Regardless, Salazar would have had his work cut out with you. You do not belong in Slytherin. Despite how much you wish to change Magical Britain, even after having only seen it on occasion since you turned eleven, Slytherin is not where you will thrive.”
Hermione snorted, miffed at the abject dismissal, but she let it go. Slytherin was not for her, after all.
“Now, you have brought up a good point. You may have strong Hufflepuff traits, perhaps even more so than your Ravenclaw ones, but I suspect that is not where you will flourish. Hufflepuff would eagerly welcome you as a mentor figure. You’d almost certainly find the kind of friendship and support there that’s been lacking in your life, but that’s not what you want. It would balance you but not compel you. Hufflepuff would, in fact, actively prevent you from achieving your goals for yourself, if perhaps not your aspirations for Magical Britain.”
“So Ravenclaw, then,” Hermione said almost mournfully. What the Sorting Hat had described – Hermione could not deny that it sounded nice. If nothing else, she would be appreciated and respected there.
“Perhaps. I would accept arguments either way; however, we have one last house to analyse first. We must be thorough, after all. It wouldn’t do for you to set me on fire.”
Hermione did her best to mentally glare at the Sorting Hat, but she only got a strange sense of amusement in return.
“Despite your social troubles, I do see a great deal of empathy in you, along with a stubbornness that would make even Godric tell you to let things go.”
“Was that supposed to be a compliment?” Hermione growled, still irked.
“At times it can be. You’re not especially courageous, judging by your response to your past experiences with bullying. Or perhaps you’re simply unwilling to violate your sense of right and wrong by retaliating, but then that too can be a type of bravery.”
Sighing, Hermione fully resigned herself to Ravenclaw now. The Sorting Hat was obviously reaching to identify Gryffindor traits in her. She had hoped she could go there, but Ravenclaw would work, too. It would be fine. She would survive. Everything would be fine.
“Hmm… Oh? What’s this?”
Curious, Hermione asked, “What’s what?”
“As I said, Miss Granger, you can lie to yourself, but not to me. Tell me, what are your favourite novels?”
“I’m really fine,” Hermione said to the person she really hoped was the one the Sorting Hat had promised she would eventually find. How it knew with such absolute certainty that she would find him or her, Hermione had not the least idea, but in this case, she hardly cared. Far more importantly, she had been, until recently, beginning to worry it would turn out to be Daphne instead. The Mirror of Erised suggested he was, but she had no idea how the mirror worked. If it responded only to her own opinion on the matter, then it could only have restated her own conclusion.
“Really?” the best friend asked, although it helped Hermione’s self-esteem to think in more romanticised terms. He was the friendly rival, the other half of a positive feedback loop forever forcing them both to improve, the confidant, the one who would walk with her on a grand adventure, the person she could always trust to have her back in any circumstances, the wizard who served as her foil just as she served as his.
“Yes, Harry, really.” It hurt to think that so much of herself was wrapped up in someone else, especially someone who only very recently properly came into existence. Her heart’s desire should be becoming a world-famous researcher, or a great sociopolitical reformer, or something. But that damnable hat had been right. Hermione very much did want this – all of it, up to and including future hardship and suffering, though she could stand for Harry to worry her less often.
It also helped that all that would probably happen anyway with the way things were going, but it was the principle of the matter.
“I’m going to be in your head soon, remember,” Harry said half warningly and half teasingly.
Rolling her eyes, Hermione said, “I’m fine, Harry. It really is nothing. It’s just…deeply personal.”
That struck a chord with Harry, who no doubt very much understood the feeling of never wanting to talk about something with anyone ever. Hermione silently cursed the Dursleys to satisfy her worrying urge and kept herself from thinking about all the horrible things they might have done to him when he was younger.
Hermione and Harry silently finished what was left of their scones as they looked out over the lake. The sun was still low in the sky and painted a tapestry of colours in the clouds above. The soft light over the lake created a shimmering effect without being blinding, and off in the distance, Hermione could see a few selkies playfully teasing the giant squid near the surface. On occasion, the squid would flip them up into the air with a tentacle, and they would laugh the whole journey.
“When did you find this place, Harry?” It fell short of idyllic, but there was a certain undeniable sense of ease or comfort here.
“First year when the rest of Gryffindor wouldn’t talk to us. The sunset is best on the bridge to the Owlery, I think, and the boys’ staircase has a nice view of the moon and stars, but the sunrise is best here.”
“Please tell me you’re sleeping properly, Harry.”
Harry shook his head, smiling, and said, “Only you would jump to that before anything else. I am, though, and especially so since you taught me the silencing charm. I’m just an early riser by habit.”
A habit that was probably forced onto you. Hermione kept her comment to herself.
“But I do usually wait for Ron to wake up before heading down to find you at breakfast. He’s not a morning person.”
“Alright. Just so long as you stay healthy between infirmary visits.” Harry laughed at that, and Hermione asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have any pumpkin juice, would you? Or orange juice, if they have it today?”
“No, sorry. Do you want to head inside?”
“Hmm… No, I’ll suffer through it,” Hermione concluded. “I’d like to enjoy these moments when I can.”
“Without a book?”
Hermione nudged Harry with her elbow.
“What?” Harry said, feigning innocence. “You’re usually reading when Ron and I show up in the Great Hall.”
Hermione shot Harry a questioning look. “Would you prefer I eat like a pig all morning?”
“No. No, I’d prefer you keep that to the part of the morning when I’m not around.”
“You make it too easy.”
Seeing her own opening, Hermione said, “Then I suppose Malfoy makes it hard? Where’s all this when he’s around?”
Clearly annoyed with merely his memories of Malfoy, not even the wizard himself, Harry bit out, “He doesn’t give me anything to work with. It’s always straight up insults and racial slurs. What am I supposed to do with that?”
Hermione shrugged. She did her best to keep up with Harry, but trading witticisms was not a well-developed skill for her. Until Hogwarts, she had very little to say to anyone besides her professors and her parents. Harry and Mum will get along wonderfully, though.
“Well, regardless,” Hermione said, “you might be interested to note that I haven’t been reading every morning anymore.”
“I blame you, you know. I hadn’t picked up a violin in over a year. My piano would be gathering dust, too, if Mum and Dad didn’t use it. I kind of forgot how much fun it is to play.”
“Then why did you stop?”
Hermione turned to look at Harry, and he picked up on it immediately. “Don’t take it the wrong way,” she said before he could do something silly like apologise. “There’s only a choir at Hogwarts, and magic is far more interesting. I probably would have put my violin down soon enough even without nighttime excursions and research projects keeping me busy.”
“I still feel bad.”
“Even so.” Harry leaned back, humming thoughtfully. “Would you like an audience?”
Shrugging, Hermione said, “I’d prefer accompaniment.” Professor Flitwick, who lead Hogwarts’s Frog Choir, had a very limited supply of solo pieces suitable for the violin. She would have to remember to divest a few music stores of their sheet music over the summer.
“All I play is the recorder, and I’m rubbish at it.”
Giggling, Hermione said, “Who isn’t? We could always stick you on drums. Or the tambourine. Or maybe the triangle.”
Hermione felt a strange sensation in her side. It took her a few seconds to realise that Harry had just nudged her back for once. In fact, come to think of it, he’d done so yesterday in the library, too. Smiling, positively beaming, Hermione offered up a real suggestion.
“You could always try the tin whistle. It’s like a recorder but actually something you can enjoy listening to.”
“Maybe,” Harry said skeptically, dragging the word out for a terribly long time.
“It’d be a good choice. I’m more of a fiddler than a violinist, you know. I mostly know folk music, where the tin whistle shines.”
“Really?” Harry quickly added, “The folk music, I mean. I wouldn’t have taken you for the type.”
Sighing and letting her shoulders slump, Hermione said, “It’s a long story.”
“No, no. You can’t stop there.”
Hermione bit her lip as she briefly debated with herself whether she should say anything. In the end, she went with, “Do you promise not to laugh?”
“I’ll try my best.”
Hermione hummed angrily, but she let Harry’s response go. “When I was really young, Mum and Dad were still trying to figure me out. They tried all the usual little girl things, like ballet.”
“Did you play a tree?”
“I did not!” Hermione said indignantly. That was, without mentioning that she had, in fact, played a swan, which was little better. “They pulled me from all that when they realised it was making me miserable, although I did keep the soft toys. I have this otter that’s still larger than me, and it’s–”
Noticing that Harry was struggling not to laugh, Hermione said, “Nevermind. I didn’t like ballet, but the few times they let us just dance…weren’t so bad. Anyway, Mum’s parents are from Scotland, and Dad’s Mum is from Northern Ireland. Thankfully, they both grew out of their accents, or who knows what kind of mess I’d be.”
“I can only imagine.”
“When I was…seven, I think, Mum and Dad both started sharing my cultural heritage with me. They both love dancing, particularly folk dances, and I got pulled in with them.”
“Not very often, but well enough to not embarrass myself. The only formal dance I know is the waltz, though. And don’t ever ask me to tango.” Hermione’s hands shot to her face, and she curled up into a ball as she recalled dance lessons she would much rather memory charm away. “Urgh! I’d never been so embarrassed in my life. The body isn’t meant to move like that!”
“I think a few million people would disagree with you there.”
“Anyway,” Hermione said, “I’d already been started on the piano by then, but I picked up the violin on a more casual basis. Mum and Dad really enjoyed when I played folk for them, and there you go.”
Uncurling herself, Hermione looked at Harry. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Minerva McGonagall did her absolute best not to have favourite students. Let alone that she was the Deputy Headmistress, it wouldn’t do for any Hogwarts professor to show special favour to one student over any other. Of course, there was the headache that was Severus Snape, but at least he was professional when no students were around. That that was entirely the opposite of what one might hope for, Minerva tried to ignore.
On her way up to the staff office for their usual morning meeting, Minerva ran into the most curious sight of Filius standing atop a conjured rock in the stairwell and gazing out a window.
“Good morning, Filius. May I ask what’s so interesting today?”
Chuckling, Filius said, “There’s a bit of a performance this morning.” He levitated both himself and his rock to the side and gestured for Minerva to take a look herself.
After shifting into place beside Filius, Minerva searched the view outside the window until she found what he was referring to. Out over the lake she spied a small herd of selkies near the shoreline leaping out of the water in time to some unheard rhythm.
“That is unusual,” Minerva said. “I sometimes see the selkies come onto or near the shores to play with the students, but it’s been some time since I’ve last seen them dancing.”
“Not since we were both young schoolchildren ourselves, I should think. Celestina Warbeck formed quite the movement back then.”
Groaning at the pun, Minerva said, “Her mother’s frequent howlers helped, I suspect. I’m not sure if I should be praising her memory or condemning it.”
Filius sent a grin Minerva’s way. “Considering I currently conduct the resulting Frog Choir, I should hope it’s praising.”
Far from the watchful gazes of the students, Minerva indulged in an eyeroll.
“Regardless,” Filius said, “the selkies are only half the show. If I may?”
Filius held out his wand, and Minerva waved her hand to tell him to proceed. Slowly, she heard more and more sounds, although for the most part, they remained muffled and echoey. Hogwarts did not carry sound well. From the window, however, Minerva picked out a Scottish jig over the background noise.
No, that’s of Celtic origin. It’s been…what is it now? Five decades since I’ve heard that song? It’s always the memory first with age, isn’t it?
All of a sudden, the music ceased. Minerva frowned, rather miffed that it’d stopped just when it was about to reach her favourite part. But then, after perhaps ten seconds of trying to pick the song out again, it restarted from the beginning.
“Who’s playing?” Minerva asked. “If you know.”
Filius pointed a bit down and to the left of where the selkies were dancing. “My stray ravens.”
Ravens? Plural? Minerva searched about the shoreline for the familiar sight of – if she were being honest – her favourite lioness. Brown and black were not the easiest to spot against the ground, but not impossible. “Miss Granger and…Mr. Potter? You’re trying to lay a claim over him too now?”
Filius smiled, showing off his teeth, but after so many years teaching together, Minerva was far from intimidated. “Oh, yes. Miss Granger has gotten to him, I think.”
Nodding and turning back to the window, Minerva said, “Very much so.”
“That sounds like you have inside information.”
“Perhaps,” Minerva said as mysteriously as possible. For a few seconds, she and Filius simply watched the sight of a far off Hermione Granger and Harry Potter dancing a jig together. From the look of it, Miss Granger was the instructor, and Mr. Potter was struggling to keep up, even with the former occupied with her fiddle.
“Ten galleons on fourth year,” Filius said.
“Fifty on betrothed before they graduate.”
“Tch. I need to change my bet, then.”
“Don’t bankrupt my lions,” Minerva said. “They give me no end of headaches, but they’re still mine.”
Filius hopped off his rock before banishing it from existence. Up a few steps from her, he looked her in the eyes and raised his brows. “And what do you call fifty galleons at what odds?”
“A lesson that gambling is wrong without simply driving them underground.”
Letting out his usual high-pitched bark of laughter, Filius lead the way up the rest of the stairs. The staff meeting room was located in the very centre of Hogwarts, equally accessible from every professor’s office, excepting Sybill, who lived at the top of her tower and refused to move to a more convenient location. Inside was nothing more than a round table big enough for all the professors to sit at comfortably, although on occasion, when a staff meeting ran long, the Hogwarts elves would bring breakfast up to them.
Today, Albus had beaten them to the room, along with Severus and Pomona. Curiously enough, however, an unexpected guest had joined them. The scarred, grey-haired, one-eyed, unstoppable warrior of a man already had his wand trained on both Minerva and Filius while his false eye presumably searched them for only the maddeningly paranoid knew what.
“Good morning, Alastor,” Minerva said. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Ah, Minerva, Filius,” Albus began, “I have some good news. After some…negotiations, Alastor has promised to fill the defence position next year if we can’t find anyone else.”
Minerva kept her face as expressionless as she could. It was good news, after all. Defence professors were hard enough to find, and good defence professors were rare gems to be treasured.
I hope no one gets seriously injured…