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In Defiance of Destiny

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An unnatural gloom permeated the air throughout the eerily still ruins, as if the darkest storm were bearing down upon the now-cursed land.  But the three people present in the remains of the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had been suffering under this oppressive shadow for hours, and no such storm had bothered them.  The ruins of the castle had been in perpetual gloominess for over a month.  No magic had been found which could pierce the darkness.  Nothing but pain and misery remained.

Hermione Granger hated being here.  It haunted her, filling her mind with thoughts of the evil force that was tearing a path of destruction across Europe.  Every home she had ever known was gone, along with most of her friends and family.  Her world was broken, and the only thing keeping her going was this last faint hope that they could save everything.

“I believe everything is in place.”  The voice of Minerva McGonagall was hollow, drained of her signature wry spark.  Much like the castle around them, the most powerful witch Hermione had ever known was broken, maybe forever, left with little more than pain and sorrow.  That McGonagall kept on surviving was due only to her nearly crazed dedication to find a way to undo it all.

“We need you to be sure, Minerva.  One crystal out of place, one mispronunciation in the incantation, and we fail.  And we only have—”

“The one chance.  She knows, William.”  Hermione hadn’t meant to snap at her friend, but she was on edge just from being in this place.  It was like being in the constant presence of a dementor, albeit a very weak one.  She shifted her expression as best she could into something like an apology, but positive emotions were nearly impossible to maintain here.  Still, his face softened in the dim candlelight, and he backed down.

William Weasley (Bill, to his family) was the only one of the three who still had loved ones alive, as his brothers Charlie and George had been out of the country when everything went to shit.   Internally, Hermione flared with resentment at his good luck, and the sudden presence of this unwelcome bitterness made her feel sick.  William might look monstrous, with cracked and angry scars warping the natural lines of his brow, nose, and lips, but he was a kind soul.  Hermione had nothing but love for him, and the darkness weighing on her mind frightened her.  She didn’t know if it was the lighting, or if the curse that lingered over the grounds actually made William’s scars more grotesque.  Regardless, she couldn’t fight the shudder that stole through her at the sight of him.  Hermione hated how this place made her feel.

Out of the darkness, a sinister voice whispered morose musings in her ear.  Everything he touches is left twisted and evil.  How long before the entire world is drowning in its worst impulses?  How long before we all choke on the darkness? 

Minerva’s clipped, “I’m aware of the stakes, Mr. Weasley,” brought Hermione back into the moment, her eyes blinking rapidly as she shook off the whispers around her and glanced towards her mentor.  Unfortunately, Minerva’s eyes were as haunted as ever, her Scottish brogue clipped and monotone.  “Everything has been in place for over an hour now,” she revealed.  “I have simply been checking and rechecking every detail.  We should proceed now, and carefully, lest we throw any part of the ritual off.”

“Good,” Hermione growled.  She was more than ready.  In a few moments, she would either be in a happier place, with the hope of preventing the apocalypse, or she would be dead.  Either was preferable to what her life had become.  She had barely been allowed eight months of recovery and self-discovery after the Second Wizarding War.  Eight months of peace before things became even worse than before, and another month while they scrambled for a solution.  The familiar weight of anxiety clenched that much harder at her chest.

William interjected, “Are we sure it has to be Hermione?”  It was not the first time he had raised this concern, and Hermione was well past finding his concern for her endearing.

“We are,” she snapped, before Minerva could muster a response.  “I’m the one closest to Harry.  I’m the one with the firsthand experience dealing with horcruxes.  And I’m the one most likely to change things without getting noticed.”  

For a moment, she thought he might try to argue further, and she glared daggers at him.  William’s concerns were hardly relevant at this point.  Minerva had already cast the Fidelius Charm.  It had to be Hermione now.  Finally, he sighed and nodded his assent before facing Minerva again.  She directed each of them to a corner of the triangle she had created by carving several thick layers of runes in the stone floor.  Each of them knelt down onto their knees.  “Hermione, place your wand in the circle, but be careful not to make any contact with the runes.”

Hermione did as she was told, having just enough skill with wandless magic to levitate it into the circle at the center of the runes, placing it carefully in the center so that it pointed directly at her.  Had her wand been longer, the whole thing would’ve strongly resembled the symbol of the Deathly Hallows.  The thought did nothing to assuage her anxious thoughts, and she felt naked without her wand.  This ritual was powerful and untested, and it required a sacrifice of a most personal nature.  Hermione was taken aback by the degree of loss she felt.  The beech wand was still fairly new, but it already felt a more natural extension of herself than her old vinewood wand ever had.  With a deep breath, she silently said goodbye to it, one more treasured thing she would lose to the most destructive magical force the world had ever known.

Minerva rested the heavy tome in her lap.  Something like hope shone through the gloom, and it felt strange in her chest.  “First, the blood,” Minerva instructed.  As one, they each picked up the silver-bladed knife on their right, and Hermione couldn’t stifle her low gasp at the pain that blossomed along her palm as the blade cut her open.  Blood dripped onto the inside corners of the runic triangle, splattering across the spaces between the runes and the carved inner circle.  The knives were returned to their places, and with a flick of her wand, Minerva sealed each of their wounds.

Next, she began a steady chant in an ancient Nordic language that Hermione hadn’t known existed only a few months ago.  When she finally reached a pause, Minerva lifted her wand, pointing it towards Hermione’s wand.  William mimicked her movement with his own wand.  As Minerva’s recitation resumed, a deep, inky purple began to emanate from the tips of their wands, darkening and deepening as it grew.  The effect was unsettling, an eerie absence of light that contradicted itself by flaring and glowing along its edges with powerful magic.  Hermione imagined this might be what black holes looked like.

Minerva’s recitation built steadily, her voice growing unnaturally coarse, almost like a deep roar.  A wild wind picked up and began to swirl around them as the purple substance began to form a semi-transparent orb above Hermione’s wand.  With a crack, the wand stood up straight and was promptly pulled into the center of the orb.  Minerva’s voice was nearly a scream now, and the wind whipped and howled around them with matching ferocity.  Hermione felt fear settle in her gut as the wind pulled at her.  An icy, painful sensation began to swirl inside of her, as if the wind were recreated in miniature within her very soul.

Abruptly, Minerva’s voice halted, and the tome snapped shut in her lap.  Hermione’s entire body burned with agony, and she felt as if she was being ripped apart from every direction.  She could see nothing but the velvety darkness, and a hideous, piercing scream—her own scream—replaced the now dormant wind.  The pain built and built, and it was as though every bond holding together each atom that made up Hermione Granger was being strained and ripped apart, one by one.  Until, finally, everything went black.

Though it felt like an eternity of torture for her, in reality the process took merely a moment from start to completion.  In a single moment, the energy consumed her fully, and Hermione Granger ceased to exist in this reality.

                                                  

The first thing Hermione noticed was warmth.  And not the physical sensation of warmth either.  It was a stark contrast from the numbness that became her entire existence after she lost Harry, Ginny, and her parents, and despite the warmth, it felt almost like being unceremoniously dumped into icy cold water.  The shock of it knocked the breath out of her, and then, her eyes fluttered open to see the shadows of candlelight playing along the walls and high ceiling of a room she never thought she would see again.  She gasped for air as she took in what was clearly the old common room of Gryffindor Tower.

As her vision cleared, three faces sprang into view, worry written across each of them.  Two heads of thick red hair, one a bit more strawberry than the other.  A dark disheveled mess situated above a pair of emerald eyes made no less striking by the thin frames of the glasses resting in front of them.

Harry.

In a jolt, everything from the past year came rushing back, and Hermione sat straight up.  Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley moved immediately to place a hand on her in case she passed out again.  Until they made contact, it all still could have been a dream.  But their hands were solid and supportive and so, so real.  “Harry!  Ginny!”  She leapt into Harry’s arms while pulling Ginny into the fierce hug as well.

She held her friends tightly, as if breaking contact with either of them would render them dead all over again.  The tears came immediately, and the relief that flooded through Hermione rendered her helpless against the sobs that wracked her body.  Ginny and Harry just held her that much closer, even though neither had any clue what was going on.

 “Er, guys—”

“Shut up, Ron!” Ginny snapped.  Her head turned to shout at her brother, but otherwise, she made no move to leave Hermione’s grasp.  Several minutes passed before Hermione regained any semblance of control over her emotions or her body.  She had lost everything, and now—through some ancient magic that she still didn’t fully understand—her loved ones were returned to her.  Mostly.

Suddenly feeling awkward about her outburst, Hermione pulled back enough that she could see all the subtle differences.  Harry, Ginny, and Ron were all younger and so much more innocent than she remembered them.  Ron was still taller than the others, but his lanky frame hadn’t filled itself in yet.  Ginny was so tiny, and Hermione couldn’t believe she had ever been that small.  Hermione had to restrain herself from kissing her entire face in sheer joy that her friend was alive.

And Harry. It was remarkable to look into those familiar eyes and see none of the burden she had grown so used to seeing there.  His whole body looked so much lighter and freer than she had seen it in years.  The sight of him made her tear up again, and finally, he couldn’t stay silent any longer.

“Hermione?  Are you … quite alright?”

Ginny gaped at him.  “’Course she’s not alright, look at her!”  She turned to Hermione.  “We need to get you to Madam Pomfrey right now.”  She helped Hermione to her feet, but the older girl was already shaking her head in protest.

“Ginny, I’m fine, really—”

“You’re bloody well not fine!  You passed out, then woke up all hysterical and crying!”

“I was just—”  Hermione scrambled for a plausible excuse.  She definitely didn’t want to go see the healer.  Not only was nothing physically wrong with her (she hoped), and she really didn’t need to arouse suspicion with mysterious, unexplainable symptoms.  An idea sparked, and she went with it.  “I’m just exhausted.  Got really into these ancient runes I was trying to decipher last night, and I uhhh, didn’t really sleep, I guess?”

A wave of relief and understanding passed through her friends.  Internally, Hermione chuckled.  Guess I really was the massive nerd everyone said I was.  Am I still?  But Harry wasn’t fully convinced.  “And the hugging and crying all over us?”

Hermione turned to him with a soft smile on her lips.  “I had a nightmare.  It felt … so real.  It just took me a minute to realize it was only a nightmare.”  Her words didn’t ease the concern written across his face.  She smiled a little brighter at him, then glanced at Ginny and Ron.  “Really, I’m fine.  I’ll just head up to bed right now, rest up, and I’ll be fine in the morning.”  Hermione glanced around and found her bag.

Ginny shook her head.  “Fine, but I’m walking you to your dorm.  You might hurt that spectacular brain of yours if you pass out again.”  Hermione rolled her eyes but didn’t argue with the youngest Weasley.

She rushed forward to wrap Ron in a quick hug.  “Oh, you remembered I was here, did you?” he muttered.  She grimaced but tried not to take it personally.  She forgot that she used to be so much closer to Ron.  Before the horcrux hunt.  Before her months of personal awakening.

“Hush you,” she scolded playfully, faking a grin as she pulled away and looked up at him.  She shoved him lightly, and finally, he smiled back at her.

Hermione gave Harry another quick hug, and he whispered in her ear.  “Sure you’re okay?”  She nodded against his neck, squeezed him one last time, and then turned towards the stairwell leading to the girl’s dormitory.  She didn’t resist when Ginny insisted on slipping an arm around her waist.

“I’ll see you boys at breakfast in the morning.”  Their good nights echoed behind her.  Ginny led her up the stairs to the fourth-year girls’ dorms.  They stepped into the hallway of the landing and took the few steps to the first door on the right.  It opened to the room Hermione shared with Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil.

Fortunately, while the sky outside the windows was already dark, the dorm was empty.  Hermione guessed it must be early evening, not long after dinner.  As she drew close to the bed nearest the door—her bed—she saw the items her past self had left scattered there.  A popular wizarding novel from Ginny, who was always helping Hermione learn more about wizarding culture.  Chocolates from Ron.  A book on the history of house elves in wizarding society from Harry, his small effort to support her newfound cause.  Right. SPEW. Merlin, I was naïve back then.  She filed the thought away for reconsideration later.

Hermione’s nose itched, and she was surprised as her hand discovered tears streaking down her cheek again.  It was all too much.  She had resigned herself to the end of the world.  She hadn’t let herself believe the old magic would work.  And yet, here she was.  Back to September 19, 1994, sitting among tokens of love from dear friends who were no longer dead.

She wiped the tears away before facing back to Ginny.  “Thanks, Gin, but I’m really okay.  I’m about ready to pass out again, but I promise I’ll do it on my pillow this time.”  Ginny chuckled at that, then leaned in for a hug.

“Happy birthday, Hermione.”

“G’night.”  Ginny smiled, then turned and left.  Finding herself overwhelmed, Hermione allowed her head to fall back onto her bed.  Her mind raced wildly as she stared up at the dark wood of the canopy.  It worked.  I’m really living my own past… again.  I wish I could tell Minerva and William that it worked.  They would—

With a shriek, Hermione rose to her feet, wand already drawn and pointed at whatever had dragged her out of her thoughts by jumping onto the bed beside her.  It was Crookshanks, and Hermione choked back a cry as she flung herself back down on the bed and wrapped him up in a hug.  He protested strongly, but Hermione Granger would not be denied.  “Hello, you lovely young man.  I missed you so very much.”  Crookshanks continued to act as if her behaviour was entirely undignified, and when she released him, he quickly moved over to his pillow atop her school trunk, bathing his fur as if he had been sullied by the brazen show of emotion.

“Fine, be that way.  I still love you anyhow.”  Hermione let her eyes wander across the long, curved room that had been her home throughout her teens.  The dormitories curved along the outer edge of Gryffindor tower, divided into rooms of no more than five.  Hermione’s room featured three beds along the outer wall, a window between each.  Each girl had her own four-poster bed, nightstand, dresser, trunk, wardrobe, and sitting chair.  The dressers sat beneath the windows, while the wardrobes and sitting chairs lined the interior wall of the space.  It was both bigger and smaller than she remembered it.

Hermione removed her trainers, placed her birthday presents on top of her dresser, and quickly changed out her school robes for a soft pair of pyjama shorts and a baggy tee.  As she did so, she noticed a few differences in her body.  Her skin was a little paler than it had been in the other timeline.  Her entire body was softer, not yet hardened by outdoor living or molded into the runners’ physique she had developed after the war.  Hermione was sure she was a couple inches shorter as well.

She padded out of the dorm room and across the hall to the floor’s shared toilet.  The circular room had a door on opposite sides of the space, each facing a thin dividing wall through the bulk of the center of the room.  To her left were the shower stalls, and to her right were the toilet stalls.  Sinks and mirrors lined either side of the central dividing wall.

Hermione approached the first sink on the shower side of the room and scrutinized her 15-year-old face thoroughly.  My hair!  I’ve gotta get some proper shampoo and conditioner immediatelyHermione had learned to work with her thick mess of hair quite well in her later years at Hogwarts, but clearly that hadn’t happened yet.  Her dark curls—much darker than she remembered—were dry and bushy and wild around her face and shoulders.  How did I ever put up with this?!

Other than her hair, however, her face was more or less as she remembered it.  A bit fuller, more childish, but still Hermione.  Even so, it felt so weird to look into the mirror and see her younger self.  It was going to take a lot of getting used to, but Hermione supposed she had plenty of time.  There was no going back, after all.

The thought was both freeing and terribly depressing.  Hermione blew out a frustrated breath, the found her shower stall.  She wasted no time slipping out of her clothes and into the hot, steamy water.  She was going to need some time to process.

                                                  

Hermione awoke the next morning more energized than she had been in at least a year.  She hadn’t fallen asleep until long after Ginny had left her, but for once, her sleep was unmarred by nightmares.  She knew that wouldn’t last, and she reminded herself to find time to brew the sleeping potion she had learned to make after the war.

She rummaged around her dresser for a top to wear under her school robes and settled on a simple white shirt with thin, black horizontal stripes.  Her style had changed quite a lot since she was fifteen, and at some point in the near future, she intended to reinvent her wardrobe.   For now, Hermione grabbed a black school robe—one of the ones with red trim and gold accents—and traded out her pyjama shorts for the first pair of trousers she found in her dresser.  Fortunately, there were plenty to choose from—Hermione had never understood the appeal of the traditional way to wear wizarding robes.  She pulled on her boots as quietly as possible, and she was off before her roommates were even out of bed.

After a quick stop at the toilet, where she used magic to get her hair just under control enough to pull into a messy bun on top of her head, Hermione took off for the kitchens.  There was still a good thirty minutes until breakfast got going in the Great Hall, which should leave her plenty of time.  Without hesitation, she walked straight up to the painting of the fruit bowl and tickled the bizarrely massive green pear.  It giggled adorably, then morphed into a door handle.

Most of the elves ceased their hustle and bustle immediately, wide eyes turning to meet the newcomer.  The Hogwarts kitchens were enormous, with a ceiling high enough that Madame Maxime could’ve stood on Hagrid’s shoulders and still not reached it.  For a moment, Hermione imagined a good forty elves stacked on top of each other just to reach something on one of the top shelves, and the idea nearly caused her to burst into laughter.  While she was sure they would have a good time with such hijinks, she also had little doubt that the elves had a much more elegant solution.  They were incredibly talented magical beings, after all.

Hermione wasn’t quite sure where to begin.  She wanted to talk to the elves, to get a better understanding of how they lived but also hopefully to earn their trust.  She wanted to support them in whatever way she could, but she wasn’t the pushy idealist she had been the first time she was fifteen.  She now knew better than to force her own concepts of freedom and independence on them without their consent, and building trust would obviously take time.  Still, if Hermione actually succeeded in her mission to save the world, she had a future to look forward to.  She still very much intended that future to include working for the civil rights of non-human magical beings.

However, Hermione was looking for one elf in particular this time around.  The trouble was that she couldn’t be too obvious about it.  After all, Hermione and Dobby hadn’t technically met yet.

“How can the elves of Hogwarts help you, miss?”  She smiled down at the first elf to address her, his Hogwarts-branded tea towel tied into a pristine toga and his immense blue eyes watching her with polite curiosity.  The uniform—and Hermione begrudgingly respected that it was a uniform—was startlingly clean and bore the Hogwarts crest and trim in alternating blue, green, yellow, and red.

Hermione feigned uncertainty.  “Oh um, I don’t need anything in particular, thank you.  What is your name?”

“Delaney, miss.”

She leaned down and offered him her hand with a bright, “It’s so nice to meet you, Delaney.  My name is Hermione.”  He seemed taken aback by her outstretched hand, but he knew enough about human greeting customs to shake it with his own.

“Can I get you anything, Miss Hermione?”  He continued to watch her politely, but his expression grew a bit more confused the longer the interaction went on.

“I would love a glass of water, Delaney.  Thank you so much.”  He turned towards the nearest sink, summoned a glass out of thin air, and filled it with water.  On his way back, he made a few precise hand motions over the glass, and Hermione guessed that he had performed some spell to purify the water.  Elves are truly remarkable, she thought, and she felt a sharp pang in her heart.

“Thank you very much.  And please, just call me Hermione, if that’s alright with you.”  She glanced around at the few elves that were still paying attention to her, though most had gone back to work preparing the morning meal.  “There’s no need for anyone to call me ‘miss,’ I assure you.”

Most of them looked at her skeptically without a reply, and she knew better than to push things too far.  The slavery of elves made her extremely uncomfortable, but she had no intention of foisting that discomfort on them just to feed her own righteous indignation.  It wasn’t like she had any idea what their lives were really like.

“Thank you for the water, Delaney; I was quite parched.”  She made a show of finishing the water off, and that was when her eye caught sight of a pair of bright red men’s underpants worn atop an elf’s head, bat-like ears sticking out quite comfortably through the leg holes.  “I suppose I should leave you all to it then…  Oi!”  She stepped towards Dobby, who was now turning to face her.  “Are you … by any chance, named Dobby?”

The elf’s face broke into a wide grin, a sparkle in his big, green eyes.  “Yes, miss, I am.  How do you know Dobby?”

She stepped forward, barely able to constrain the overwhelming urge to shower him in praise and adoration.  “I’m a friend of Harry Potter, and he’s told me so much about you.  I, uh, may I hug you?”  Dobby looked momentarily caught off guard, then nodded his head enthusiastically.  She fell to her knees and embraced him tightly.  It took everything in her not to break down sobbing again. 

Hermione had experienced so many forms of magic in her relatively short life, many of them incredibly powerful.  Yet none of it compared to just being able to hold this brave, inspiring, miracle of a person in her arms.  She wished she could tell him how much he meant to her, how much she admired him.  You saved my life, little one.  But as he pulled away from her, she could do nothing more than put on a pleasant smile and act as if they were strangers to each other.  Someday, she promised herself.  Hopefully someday soon.

“You know Harry Potter, miss?”

“I do!” she beamed.  “And please, Dobby, call me Hermione.  No need for that ‘miss’ rubbish.”

“Any friend of Harry Potter’s must be a truly wonderful person,” Dobby gushed.  “Dobby will call you ‘Hermione,’ if that is what miss wants.”

“That would be lovely, Dobby.”  Hermione glanced around, suddenly feeling like she was imposing.  Shite.  It was a bad idea coming down here.  What am I doing?  As if sensing her doubt, Dobby put a hand on her shoulder and smiled.

“Is everything okay, miss—er, Hermione?” 

She couldn’t quite keep the tears from forming, but she did manage to hold them in as she smiled brightly.  “Everything is lovely, Dobby.  I’d love to chat with you more, but I don’t want to interrupt your work.  I imagine it’s quite important to you.”

“It is!  Dobby loves his work!”

“Do you think you could come find me a bit later?  When you’re not so busy?”

“Dobby has time now!  No one ever comes looking to talk to Dobby!”

“Are you sure?  I can come by later—”

“No!” Dobby practically shrieked.  “No, Hermione is here now.”

Hermione giggled.  “Alright, alright.  If you’re sure.  I just don’t want you to feel obligated.”

“Dobby likes to talk,” he insisted.  “What would Hermione like to talk about?”  He led her over to the bench of one of the four massive tables, each situated directly below their house table counterpart above in the Great Hall.

“I’d just like to get to know you, I suppose,” Hermione answered honestly.  She chuckled.  “I’m not sure I agree with all of your methods, but you helped keep Harry alive two years ago, with all that Chamber of Secrets mess.”  Dobby looked an odd mix of guilty and proud at that statement.  “So, what have you been up to since then?”

“Dobby has been looking for work,” he squeaked happily.  “Not so successfully.  It is very difficult for an elf who has been dismissed to get a new position, miss, very difficult indeed.”  Hermione nodded along.  “And, well, Dobby is a free elf now.  Very proud!  And Dobby is wanting to be paid for his work. 

“Good for you, Dobby!”

He beamed even brighter.  “Thank you, Hermione.  Dobby likes being free!  Except that no wizards want to pay for an elf.  ‘That's not the point of an elf,’ they says, and they slammed the door in Dobby's face!”

“That’s awful!  Dobby, I am so sorry.”  The elf didn’t seem quite sure how to respond to her sympathy, so Hermione rushed to jump back into the conversation.  “But you found work here at Hogwarts?  Paying work?”  She could see the other elves shooting them dirty looks, but Hermione paid them no mind.  She focused on Dobby’s joyful face.

“Oh yes, miss!  Professor Dumbledore was quite enthusiastic to be bringing Dobby on.  And Professor Dumbledore says he will pay Dobby, if Dobby wants paying!  And so Dobby is a free elf, miss, and Dobby gets a Galleon a week and one day off a month!"

Hermione held her tongue, swallowing her insistence that he deserved so much more.  “That is an excellent starting point,” she offered instead, hoping that it didn’t sound too patronizing.  She also ignored the nagging voice in the back of her head that wanted to say something snarky about Dumbledore.  “You seem really happy, Dobby”

“Dobby is!” he confirmed.

“And I simply adore the outfit you’ve put together,” she added.  The bright orange necktie around his neck clashed wildly with his red underpants hat, and the pink tutu and checkered trousers only loudened the ensemble.  But it was all so distinctly Dobby that it filled her with joy. 

“Dobby thanks you, Hermione!  ‘Tis so kind of you to say so.  Harry Potter is choosing his friends most wisely, Dobby thinks.”

“Well thank you, Dobby.  That is so sweet of you to say.”  She checked the clock and, with a sigh, decided she should probably draw the conversation to a close.  “Listen, I need to get to breakfast soon, but I’m sure Harry would love to see you.  If you like, I can ask him if he wouldn’t mind a visit from you, since we’re all in the same castle now.”

Dobby grinned.  “If it’s not too much trouble, miss.  Dobby would love that!”

“Very well then.  He’ll be so glad to know you’re doing well.”  She stood.  “Do you think you would like to talk to me again?”

“Very much so.”

“Good!  Well then, I will try to make my way back down to the kitchens soon, unless you have somewhere else that—”

“Miss Hermione, don’t worry about that!” he squeaked, looking almost affronted.  “You just call Dobby’s name, and he will come to you.”

“That’s very generous of you, Dobby.  But can you promise me something?”  He nodded so excitedly that she worried that his underpants hat might fly off.  “If I call you and you’re in the middle of important work, please will you tell me so?  I don’t want to be a burden, and I’m sure we can find time to chat when neither of us is busy.”

Dobby looked like he wanted to argue, so she fixed him with a semi-stern look and added, “I know your work is important to you, Dobby.  And that is important to me.”

After a brief moment’s pause, Dobby nodded his assent.  “Dobby will do as Hermione asks.  She is a very kind witch.  Very kind, indeed.”

“You deserve all the kindness I can give and more, Dobby.”  She started walking to the door but turned back for one last glimpse of the brave little elf.  “I’ll talk to you soon!”

                                                  

As History of Magic came to a close, Hermione’s eyes searched for Neville.  She packed her bag quickly and left Harry and Ron chattering on about some quidditch thing.  She caught Neville just outside the classroom.

“Oi, Neville!  Can I talk to you about something?”  The awkward boy stopped dead in his tracks and turned around slowly, a bewildered look on his round face.  Hermione held back a chuckle.  Neville Longbottom was only just barely showing signs of the brave, confident young man he would grow into.  He was a hair taller than Hermione, but she knew that he had a good half-foot of growing to do before they were finished with school.

“Uh, yeah … sure, Hermione.  What’s up?”

She smiled brightly, hoping to put him at ease, then nodded her head in the opposite direction he had been walking, away from the stream of students heading out to the courtyard and the grounds.  His brow narrowed further, but he shrugged and followed without protest.  Hermione established a pace that would keep her at Neville’s side as she led them towards the library.

“I wanted to see how you were doing.  I know that Moody’s class on Unforgiveables shook you up pretty badly.”  Neville’s steps momentarily lapsed, and if Hermione had blinked or glanced away, she would’ve missed it.

“Yeah uh, yeah, it’s fine.  It’s just a lot … to see it for real.”

They stopped in front of the doors to the library, and Hermione put a hand on his shoulder.  “Neville, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I just want you to know, if you ever want to talk about them, I’m here.”  Neville’s face clouded with suspicion, but Hermione didn’t back down.  “Yes, I know.  I might be muggle-born, but after everything with Quirrell, then the Chamber of Secrets, then Sirius Black—” she feigned the sort of nerdy awkwardness that she knew everyone expected of her, “—let’s just say I’ve done my research on the war.  Longbottom is a pretty famous name.”

“Hermione, I—”

“No, Neville, I mean it.  No pressure.  You don’t have to tell me anything if you aren’t ready.  But for the record, I think they would be proud of you.”

Neville started to argue the point, but Hermione just shushed him and pulled him into the library.  She walked directly toward her old favourite table, tucked away in a corner where people were unlikely to bother her.  “They would be,” she insisted as they both sat down.  Coming out of his shell a little, Neville shot her a skeptical look.  Hermione just rolled her eyes.  “I know it doesn’t feel like it a lot of the time, but you’re a really good wizard—”

“Oh, come on—”

Hermione cut him off again.  “No, seriously.  I’ve seen your technique, and it’s impeccable.  Your problem is your confidence and well, I have this theory.  That’s actually what I wanted to talk to about.  Your wand … it isn’t really yours, is it?”

Neville’s eyebrows raised nearly to the long bangs of his dirty blonde hair.  “How did you know?!”  His outburst was far too loud for the library, and she shushed him as her eyes scanned for any sign of an angry Madam Pince approaching.

“Like I said, it’s a theory.”  She pulled a book—The Illusive Intricacies of Wandlore by Violetta Beauvais—out of her bag and handed it to him.  “If I’m right, I’m guessing that wand has never quite felt right in your hand.  It certainly doesn’t seem to respond to your spellwork the way it ought to, from what I’ve noticed the last three years.  I think … well, let’s just say that Mr. Ollivander isn’t just being eccentric when he says the wand chooses the wizard.  And—” she paused to emphasize her point, “—just because a wand worked well for a father, doesn’t guarantee it will fit his son.”

Neville’s eyes, now watery, stayed focused on the cover of the book.  Hermione felt the strongest urge to comfort the boy, but she knew it wasn’t her place.  “Anyway, again, no pressure.  I think you’ll find Beauvais’s theories quite interesting; I know I did.”  She stood but not before offering one last bit of information.  “Our first Hogsmeade visit, I’d be more than happy to go with you if you wanted to swing by the local branch of Ollivander’s.”  Then she left him with his thoughts.

                                                  

Despite the sun filling the clear sky behind her, Hermione could feel the biting chill of the wind as her pace slowed to a walk.  Her warming charm shielded her from the worst of it, but she instinctively hugged her arms tighter against her still-heaving chest.  It was nearly November, and her heavy breaths came out in wisps of visible fog.

After a few weeks, Hermione had managed to reacclimate herself to her teenage routines without drawing too much attention to herself.  Classes, meals, library sessions—rinse and repeat.  That wasn’t to say, however, that she had simply fallen back into old habits.  So much was different this time around.

Every morning, she rose an hour earlier than in the previous timeline, determined to start every day with a brisk run around the grounds to clear her head.  Other than the girls in her room, Hagrid, and in all likelihood, Dumbledore, she doubted anyone knew about her morning routine.  No one else got up that early, and while she was finally getting back into shape, her robes kept her runner’s physique well hidden most of the time.  The only clear difference was in her face, which had thinned and hardened a bit.

Hermione Granger was still top of her class, but what no one realized was how little effort she was putting into it.  Yes, it had been four years, but she had taken all these classes before.  The only real work she had to put in were the essays; all the actual magic was old hat.

This freed her up to develop a more active social life, which she had mostly eschewed the first time around.  While she still hung around with Harry and Ron, she was just as likely to be found sharing her table in the library with Neville and Ginny.  Ginny had even introduced her to Luna a year in advance.  Hermione and Dobby became fast friends, and she had begun to get to know several of the other elves as well.

The problem was that none of it made Hermione feel any less alone.  No one knew that she had nightmares more often than not, thanks to the permanent silencing charm she had worked into the curtains of her bed.  No one knew the trauma she had experienced, because none of it had happened yet for anyone but Hermione.  No one knew that she was an adult (mostly) who was living among children.

No one knew that behind the façade of the bookish Hermione Granger was a young woman who felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Her free time had not only been spent cultivating new allies—friends, she corrected herself—but also plotting for the year ahead.  Hermione had spent a great deal of time meticulously planning, and now it was October 28.  The other schools would arrive that night for the beginning of the Triwizard Tournament.  Everything was about to begin.

Hermione took a deep, calming breath as she slowed to a stop just outside the greenhouses.  You can do this.  You can do this.  She couldn’t keep going like this.  She needed to tell someone, and not just for her own mental health.  I can’t do this alone.  Finding her resolve, she silenced the anxious voices in her head and called to her friend.  “Dobby?”

With the usual crack, Dobby appeared at her side.  “Good morning, Hermione!” he squeaked, grinning brightly.  “If Dobby may ask, why is Miss Hermione out and about so early?”

“You certainly may, Dobby.  I’m just out for my morning run.”

Dobby’s ears perked up as his brow furrowed, and he looked around wildly.  “What are you running from?!”

Hermione couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled forth.  “No no no, don’t be afraid, friend.  I wasn’t running from anything.  It’s, erm, it’s rather a muggle thing to do I suppose, but I run for exercise.  For fun.”  Dobby continued to look at her as if she was mad.  “I run because I like to run.”

“Dobby tries not to judge, miss, but that sounds quite odd,” he squeaked.

“Perhaps it is,” she chuckled.  “How are you feeling this morning?”

His small hands played along the bright pink necktie he loved so much, a present from Hermione.  She knew he still wasn’t accustomed to having the conversation be about him and his feelings.  “Dobby is having a good morning,” he practically whispered, massive eyes darting to and fro.  Then they went even wider, and the elf nearly leapt with glee.  “Oh!  It was wonderful, miss!  Just this morning I was cleaning the Ravenclaw common room, and one of the lovely students left me this, with a lovely note!”

Hermione had, of course, noticed the multicoloured, fingerless glove on Dobby’s left hand, but she had wanted him to bring it up of his own accord.  Whoever had left it for Dobby had clearly shrunken it to a size suitable for an elf, and it suited him quite perfectly.  Based on the erratic colour scheme and the fact it was left for Dobby in Ravenclaw, Hermione guessed it was from Luna.  She made a mental note to tell the girl her gift had been so well received.

“It’s lovely, Dobby.  Very fetching.”

“Thank you, miss.”

She walked over and sat down on a nearby bench, then patted the spot next to her.  Dobby followed her lead and hopped up onto the bench, swinging his now dangling feet in the air.  Hermione turned her body so that she could face him.

“Dobby, I have something I would like to tell you, but it’s … well, it’s quite troubling.  And I would like for you to promise me that you will keep it a secret between the two of us.  It … it’s going to be d-difficult for me to speak of this.  But … but I trust you, Dobby.”  The fact that the Fidelius Charm would keep him from sharing these secrets didn’t change the fact that she did, absolutely, trust him.  Though, on second thought, Hermione had no idea if the Fidelius could actually bind elves as it did humans.  She lamented how little she really knew about the fascinating and wonderful little beings.  She wiped at her watery eyes.  “You’re the kindest, bravest person I have ever known.”

“Hermione is too kind.  Far too kind,” Dobby insisted, and Hermione shook her head furiously.

“I’m not, Dobby.  I’m really really not.”  She smiled at him.  “I know you, Dobby.  Better than you realize, I think.  What you don’t know about me is that I’ve got a great, big task ahead of me.  A mission of sorts.  And I will very much need your help.  I trust you, Dobby.  Do you trust me?”

Dobby nodded emphatically.  “Yes, Dobby does.  He wants to help you in your mission, if he can.”

“Okay.  Good.  I’m glad.  I just … I need you to promise me that you will keep my secrets.  What I’m about to tell you, you cannot tell anyone else.  You might think I’m quite mad, but I mean it when I say that the fate of the world rests on my mission, quite literally in fact.”

It was to the elf’s great credit that he didn’t flinch in the slightest.  Instead, he had only one concern.  “Dobby must keep this secret even from Harry Potter, miss?”  Hermione had guessed this would be his stumbling block.

“In all honestly, Dobby, there is powerful magic that may keep you from telling anyone what I’m about to tell you.  But it’s important to me that you will keep my secrets because you want to.  I don’t want you to do anything you aren’t comfortable with.” She frowned.  “And yes, I will need you to keep this from Harry, for now.  He, more than anyone else, is especially in danger, and while I hope to tell him everything eventually, he isn’t ready.  We have to protect him, you and I.”

Dobby took a moment to consider.  Hermione was glad that he didn’t acquiescing blindly just to be agreeable.  “Dobby agrees, miss.  Dobby will do whatever it takes to protect Harry Potter.  And to help Hermione Granger as well.  You are the best humans Dobby has ever met, miss.”

Hermione smiled down at him brightly.  She regretted that she didn’t do more to get to know the elf in the previous timeline.  He had saved her life.  He had pulled her from the darkest moment of her entire life.  And he had paid for it with his life.

Not this time, she promised herself.

“Well alright then, Dobby.  Let’s start from the beginning.  I’m from the future.”

Chapter Text

Fuck me, was she always that tall?

The students of Hogwarts had gathered together in the waning light of dusk to gape at the students of Beauxbatons Academy of Magic as they exited the absurd powder blue monstrosity of a carriage that had carried them from their chateau in the Pyrenees mountains.  Hermione, however, had eyes for only one of the students, none of whom had been warned to dress appropriately for the Scottish highlands.

Fleur Delacour caught Hermione’s attention the second she stepped out of the carriage.  Her long, silvery hair almost seemed to sparkle in the cold autumn wind, catching the purples and oranges of the sunset as it blew around her arms and shoulders.  The wind didn’t seem to bother her, though.  Fleur was as tall as many of the boys around her, and her icy blue eyes surveyed the Hogwarts grounds as if judging their worthiness.  While the others shivered around her, she stood tall and proud.

Come to think of it, shouldn’t it be just as cold in the mountains as it is here?  Why the bloody hell are they in silk robes without cloaks or anything?  Hermione had never been to the mountains before, having narrowly missed that opportunity when she skipped out on her parents’ plans for a Christmas ski trip in the prior timeline.  Just as she began to wonder if her research on Beauxbatons had been faulty, Fleur’s steely gaze turned and fixed on Hermione.

Fleur’s face remained impassive, her perfect eyebrows cutting a straight line across her brow.  Hermione’s first impulse was to look away, but despite her initial blush, she held Fleur’s gaze.  You’re grown, she scolded herself.  You can handle a gorgeous woman looking at you.  Hermione raised her chin ever so slightly, then shot the part-veela a confident smile.  Fleur’s eyes narrowed slightly, but the hint of an answering smile pulled at the edges of her lips.

“The lake!  Look at the lake!”  The loud shout just to her right startled Hermione out of the moment, and when she looked back, Fleur had turned to view the same disturbance capturing the attention of the rest of the students.  Out of the mouth of a roaring whirlpool in the center of the Black Lake, the Durmstrang ship burst forward mast-first.

Hermione blinked a few times to clear her head before watching the ship anchor down and drop a lengthy plank down to the shore of the lake.  Karkaroff and his students departed the ship and marched towards those gathered already.  She caught sight of a particularly familiar face, and immediately averted her gaze.  Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Ron from punching Harry’s arm and hissing the Durmstrang boy’s name anyway.  “Harry!  It’s Krum!”

Dumbledore led Karkaroff and his prized student towards the castle, and the rest of Durmstrang filed between the two groups of Hogwarts and Beauxbatons.  Many, like Ron, lingered behind, starstruck by the sight of the now-world-famous Bulgarian quidditch seeker.  Hermione, however, wanted to be among the first of the Hogwarts students to follow their guests back into the castle, mingling a bit with the remaining Beauxbatons students.

Behind her, Harry and Ron continued prattling on about Krum, and even Ginny seemed caught up in the excitement.  Hermione searched the crowd in front of her for that distinctive curtain of hair, and Ginny bumped her hip as she sidled up next to her.  “I didn’t think you were into quidditch,” she teased.  Hermione made a face, and it took her a second to figure out that Ginny assumed she was also fawning over Viktor Krum.

Hermione scowled back at her friend.  “Oh come on, Gin, not you too.”

The redhead shoved her playfully.  “No, not me too, Krum’s an alright seeker I s’pose, but he seems dumb as a brick.”  Hermione knew from personal experience that Viktor was actually quite insightful, but she couldn’t exactly explain how she knew that.

“What do you think of our guests?”  As they entered the hallway, Ginny launched into wild, completely unfounded speculation—Beauxbatons seemed uptight and pretentious while Durmstrang seemed like a bunch of Slytherins in fur.  Hermione barely heard any of it.

Blue eyes had found her again.  Fleur’s face softened slightly, and Hermione wondered why she had stopped.  Most of the Beauxbatons students had already begun seating themselves at the back of the Ravenclaw table, but Fleur continued to stand.  This time, she was the one to offer a smile, which Hermione returned on impulse.  It was only when Ron stepped right into her back that Hermione realized she had stopped walking, and Ginny’s quick reflexes were all that kept them from toppling to the stone floor. 

Ron immediately sputtered an embarrassingly loud, “Bloody hell, Hermione!”

A quick glance up told Hermione that Fleur was giggling at the incident, before another girl whispered in her ear and she turned with one last wide grin to take a seat with the Ravenclaws.  Her face on fire, Hermione rounded on Ron.

“Don’t take that tone with me, Ronald Weasley.  It’s certainly not my fault you’re too busy mooning over Viktor Krum to watch where you’re going.”  Ron’s face turned bright red, and before he could offer up a rejoinder, Hermione followed Ginny to the Gryffindor table and sat.  Harry and Ron sat across from them, and Ron continued to stare wistfully at Krum while making snarky comments about Malfoy, who was already trying to worm his way into the quidditch star’s good graces. 

After a brief speech from Professor Dumbledore, the meal began, and their plates filled with the hard work of the Hogwarts’ elves.  “What’s that?” Ron asked, voice dripping with disgust. 

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “It’s bouillabaisse, Ronald.  It’s French.  We’ve got dishes from France, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, and Finland.  A little taste of home for our guests.”

“Yeah, Ron,” Ginny piled on.  “Broaden your horizons.”  Ron turned to Harry and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “gross.”  Meanwhile, Hermione noticed that Ginny also went out of her way to avoid the bouillabaisse.  Everyone dug into their food, and Hermione did her best not to think about what was about to happen next.  Eventually, Hagrid showed up, arm bandaged from dealing with his very illegal breeding experiment, the blast-ended skrewts, and as Harry and Ron exchanged pleasantries with him, it happened.  Out of the corner of her eye, a tell-tale shimmer of perfect hair caught her attention, and sure enough, Fleur was approaching their table right on schedule.

Hermione barely had any time to collect herself.  Despite having planned for this first interaction with Fleur, she could see now that she had underestimated basically everything.  How gorgeous Fleur was.  The way her heart hammered in her chest as she approached.  How utterly difficult it was to appear calm around her all-time biggest crush.  Get your shite together, Granger.

“Excuse me, are you wanting ze bouillabaisse?”  Hermione had forgotten how thick Fleur’s accent used to be, and that actually helped calm her nerves a bit.  She carefully picked up the dish, and as she glanced back at Fleur, it occurred to her that there were several identical dishes scattered along the Ravenclaw table.  Certainly there was more than enough bouillabaisse there to feed a statuesque part-veela, but Fleur had come searching for Hermione’s bouillabaisse in particular. Surely it didn’t mean anything.  No pressure.

Forcing herself not to stare as she held out the dish, Hermione asked in only slightly embarrassingly accented French, «Is this what you’re looking for, Miss…?»

Fleur’s smile brightened at Hermione’s use of her native tongue.  «Delacour,» she answered.  «But please, call me Fleur.»

«Nice to meet you, Fleur.  I’m Hermione.»

«You have beautiful eyes, Hermione.»

Whatever response she had been expecting from Fleur, it wasn’t this.  For a moment, Hermione could do nothing more than gape as her cheeks turned bright pink.  All the air had been expelled from her lungs, and she blinked several times before she came to her senses again.  “Merci,” was all she managed to awkwardly choke out.  A couple of Hufflepuff boys walked past Fleur, their mouths wide open and eyes glazed over.  Fleur glared daggers at them, but they didn’t move any faster.  One of them tripped over the other, and the both of them tumbled to the floor.

Regaining a bit of her poise, Hermione scoffed, «Merlin, please tell me I didn’t just fall all over myself like the dumb boys.»

Fleur grinned wickedly.  «Not at all, Hermione.  You’re much cuter than the dumb boys.»

«Oh, well that’s good,» Hermione deadpanned, sure that she was still blushing.  She handed over the bouillabaisse anyway.  Then she summoned all her confidence and added, «Fleur, if you need someone to show you around the castle, just let me know.  There are plenty of secret passages I could show you if you’re looking for ways to avoid dumb boys.»

Blue-grey eyes sparkled.  «Well well well, I suppose I shall have to take that into consideration, Hermione.»

«And if you and your friends insist on spending meals over there with the Ravenclaws, talk to my friend Luna.  She’s a bit, erm, eccentric, but you will never have a dull conversation.  Waist-length, dirty blonde hair.  Probably muttering something about nargles.  You really can’t miss her.»

Fleur’s only answer was a pointed wink, then she walked away.  Merlin, did that really just happen?  Forcing a calm exterior to hide the intense butterflies in her gut, Hermione turned back to her friends.

“Uh, what was that?” Ginny smirked, immediately earning herself a harsh glare from Hermione.  Fortunately, the boys didn’t pick up on Ginny’s obvious insinuation.

“Yeah!  Since when do you speak French?” Harry asked incredulously.  “That was brilliant, that.”

“Since always!” Hermione huffed.

“Guys!” Ron blurted suddenly.  “That French girl’s a bloody veela!”

Hermione and Ginny rolled their eyes in unison.  “Just because you turned purple and lost the ability to talk to a pretty girl doesn’t make her a veela, Ron.”  Ginny very pointedly turned and nodded her head toward Hermione.  “You didn’t see Hermione falling all over herself, now did you?”

“’Course she wasn’t!  She’s a bloody girl, isn’t she?” Ron blustered, his eyes still lingering on Fleur across the hall.  “I'm telling you, that's not a normal girl!  They don't make them like that at Hogwarts!”

“They make them okay at Hogwarts,” Harry muttered dreamily, and Hermione just shook her head at them both.

“You’re both daft,” she grumbled, but then had to force herself to actively resist the urge to look back at Fleur.  Their first interaction had gone well.  Maybe William had been right.  Maybe she and Fleur really would’ve—will—hit it off.  Maybe they would be fast friends this time around, if Hermione could keep herself from becoming a stuttering gay mess around her.  She just couldn’t let herself lose sight of the mission.

The rest of the feast went just as before.  The two Tournament officials showed up.  The second course was provided.  Dumbledore explained the rules of the Tournament, showed off his fancy Goblet of Fire, and warned off anyone underage from attempting to submit their names.  Then he promptly sent everyone to bed, which Hermione found ridiculous, frankly.  Curfew wasn’t for another couple of hours. 

Hermione made it halfway to the stairway when a hand gently grasped her arm. 

“Excusez moi, Mademoiselle ‘Ermione?”  Hermione turned to face Fleur, and only then did the taller girl allow her hand to return to her side.  Hermione fought against the grin that wanted to break across her lips.

“Ah, hello again, Fleur.  How can I help you?”

“I ‘ad ‘oped to perhaps take you up on zat offer of a tour,” she replied, sticking with her heavily accented English.  Fleur’s demeanor was more restrained than before, but not nearly as stony as it had been outside. 

“Icangiveyouatour!” Ron spluttered, his words falling out all in one breath as he pushed forward to stand next to Hermione.  Fleur pursed her lips.

“Non, I believe ‘ermione can ‘andle it ‘erself, zank you.”  Hermione did her best not to gloat at the way Ron’s face turned sour, but the butterflies returned when she turned back to Fleur.

“Erm, well, uh yes.”  Hermione took a breath and flashed a bright smile.  “Absolutely I can do that.”  Boys continued to pause momentarily and stare at Fleur as they passed by, but fortunately, none had the courage to actually interrupt their conversation.  Hermione suppressed a scowl and glanced at Ginny, then Harry.  “You lot go ahead.  I’ll be back in a bit.”

Harry’s face was awash in confusion, but Ginny’s narrowed eyes darted knowingly between Fleur and Hermione.  “Right then,” she conceded, pulling Ron by the arm.  “Don’t have too much fun now, Hermione.”  Her cheeks heated at Ginny’s insinuation, but she waved them off before turning back to Fleur.

«Right this way, Mademoiselle Delacour.»  Hermione slipped back into French and in a moment of boldness, slipped her arm through Fleur’s as she led her across the entrance hall.  The rest of the Hogwarts students headed up the massive marble staircase to their right, making their way towards the many moving stairways of the castle’s Grand Staircase.  Hermione actively ignored the few of them that slowed to gape further at Fleur.

«These,» she gestured at the four massive hourglasses set into the wall, «are the House hourglasses.»  Each hourglass was roughly two metres tall and suspended magically over a matching gilded statute of the respective house’s emblematic animal.  Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin were filled with rubies, yellow diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds, respectively.  The smaller top bulbs remained equally full, but there were a varying amount of gems in the lower bulb, with Ravenclaw appearing to have the current lead in House points.

Hermione began to move past the hourglasses, but Fleur’s arm tightened, pulling her back.  «What is the point of these Houses?»

Though she opened her mouth to speak, Hermione paused to give the question some consideration.  She’d never really questioned the House system before.  «I suppose it makes managing the students easier, by breaking them into smaller groups.  Each first-year student is sorted by a magical hat based on personality, values, and, I believe, a sort of innate je ne sais quoi.»

Hermione’s eyes followed Fleur’s free hand as it moved inadvertently along the dip of her own collarbone.  Catching herself, her gaze darted back to Fleur’s now frowning face.  «I’m not sure I see the virtue in it.»

They walked forward into the corridor leading away from the entrance hall.  «It’s supposed to encourage community and friendly competition,» Hermione explained.  «Each gem represents a point.  House points are granted by professors to students for doing well in class or by demonstrating high moral character.  Points are taken away for misbehaviour.»  Hermione frowned.  «Though now that I really think about it, I wonder if our divisions might cause more harm than good.»  She looked to Fleur curiously.  «I take it that Beauxbatons doesn’t divide its students up.»

With an enigmatic quirk of the lips, Fleur answered with an almost haughty, “Non.”  The fact that she didn’t provide any further context drove the curious part of Hermione crazy.

«No?  Why not?  Beauxbatons is larger than Hogwarts, surely there must be some form of subdivision or grouping, at least for the sake of order.»  Hermione was so distracted by the unexpected turn of the conversation that she almost walked straight past the tapestry hiding the first secret passageway she wanted to show Fleur.  She halted, pulling Fleur to a stop, and then pulled at the tapestry enough that Fleur could see the passageway.  «After you, Mademoiselle Delacour.»

Fleur rolled her eyes but ducked under the tapestry and into the hidden corridor.  Hermione followed closely behind her.  Plain stone walls curved up and over them, lit by the occasional torch along the way.  It was just wide enough for Fleur and Hermione to walk side by side.

«Beauxbatons does not divide its students, at least not in such arbitrary and pointless ways,» Fleur assured her.  Maybe it was her grasp of French or maybe it was just that she didn’t know Fleur well, but Hermione genuinely couldn’t tell whether the response was meant to be insulting.  «We learn the basics of magic in our first two years, and a magical algorithm makes it so that each class in those first two years is made up of a different mix of students.  But after that, we are sorted into a concentration, based on aptitude, enjoyment, and other factors, and that does tend to dictate who we spend the most time with in school, I suppose.»

Hermione had no fewer than seven follow-up questions she wanted to ask, but they were quickly reaching the end of the passageway.  She reached out to pull Fleur to a stop, her index finger raised to her lips in silent signal.  Hermione faced the plain brick wall in front of them, and then slid her head through the wall to check if anyone was in the hallway beyond.  Seeing no one, she beckoned Fleur forward while keeping her head firmly on the other side of the (illusory) wall.  Only once Fleur passed through and faced her did Hermione step all the way through and into the hallway.  She couldn’t keep a grin off her face.

«This magic is quite cute,» Fleur said.

«It’s brilliant.  If you don’t know there is a passageway here, the wall is perfectly solid.  That way there are no Ravenclaws accidentally falling through on their way to the library.»

«The library is nearby?»

«Yes, it’s just around this corner.  Well, the third floor is.  Yes, we’re on the third floor now.  And also, roughly halfway across the castle.  As I said, it’s quite clever magic.»

Fleur smiled.  «You are a young woman with a love of books, I see.»

Hermione’s feet briefly betrayed her, and she did her best to stifle a blush as she caught herself and continued towards the entrance to the library.  «Yes,» she admitted, «though I am curious how you found me out so quickly.»

«Let’s just say that when a pretty girl steals me away for a private tour of a castle, it is telling that the first thing she shows me is a secret passage straight to the library.»  This time Hermione could not hide her blush, nor did she miss the victorious glint in her companion’s eyes.

«Yes, well, it is, um, quite a lovely library.»  She gestured as they entered onto a balcony overseeing the first two levels of the library, before curving out and off into stacks and stacks of books on either side of them.  «Welcome to the Great Library of Hogwarts.»

Fleur took her time surveying the spacious room, leaning over the balcony to take in what she could of the floors below. Then she turned back to Hermione, her face stoic.  «As a Frenchwoman, I must protest that this library is far too British.»  Fleur watched in anticipation as Hermione’s face shifted into a scowl, then flashed a placating grin in response.  «But as a guest in your castle and a fellow lover of libraries, I’ll confess that it seems magnificent.  I imagine I will make good use of it, hopefully with the assistance of an expert, who can guide my hand.» 

«Perhaps,» was the best response Hermione could muster, flustered as she was by the tone with which Fleur said those last three words.  She led Fleur through the stacks and out another exit, heading towards the Astronomy Tower.  With a pointed glance at the heels that were occasionally displayed by the swishing of Fleur’s silky robes, Hermione wondered aloud, «The real question is whether Mademoiselle Delacour can manage a robust set of stairs in those shoes.»

Fleur responded with a cutting glare.  «I would not recommend that Mademoiselle Granger underestimate what I am capable of, regardless of my footwear.»

Hermione grinned at the fiery response.  «Duly noted.  Now, I have a number of questions about these so-called concentrations you have at Beauxbatons.»

The conversation continued as Hermione showed Fleur the views from the top of the Astronomy Tower, where she could give her a more comprehensive overview of the various buildings and towers of the castle and a few notable aspects of the grounds.  Fleur was particularly entranced by the tiered turret coming off the massive turret that was the Grand Staircase Tower.  Hermione did her best to keep any animus out of her voice as she explained that it was the headmaster’s office.

From there, the two proceeded onward past the Defence Against the Dark Arts classrooms and to the balcony in the Divination Tower overseeing the training grounds.  From there it was back around to the greenhouses, across the aqueduct bridge, and up the Grand Staircase.  For the briefest moment, Hermione thought about showing her the Room of Requirement but decided to save it for another time.

Hermione was hesitant to say goodnight.  For something as mundane as a castle tour, this was the most at ease Hermione had felt since Minerva’s ritual brought her back to 1994.  And she wasn’t quite ready for the night to be over.  On a whim, and trusting her gut, Hermione grabbed Fleur’s hand and led her away again.  Towards the secret passage that led to her favourite place in the entire world.

As the two witches entered the top of the tower in the northeast corner of the school, the square reading room was perfect as always.  The lofty vaulted ceiling and massive windows in the middle of each of the four walls were striking but didn’t offset the warmth of the roaring fire, the soft plum carpet, or the wide array of comfy seating options.

«Welcome to the Reading Room.»  Fleur stepped into the room, and Hermione watched as she surveyed the towering bookcases lining the walls.  «That’s what I call it, anyway.»

«What sorts of books are in here?» Fleur asked absentmindedly, striding towards the nearest bookshelf and scanning the spines there.  «And why aren’t these in the library?»

«The books contained in this room depend on the person in the room,» Hermione answered.  «I think that’s how it works anyway.»

Fleur spun around, eyes wide as she paced back to Hermione.  «Really?  Anything?»

Hermione shrugged, suddenly feeling self-conscious.  She had been coming to this room for years, on an almost daily basis since she discovered it early in her third year.  In all that time, she’d never seen another person inside, so she guessed she understood it better than anyone else.   Even so, she still couldn’t be sure she really knew how it worked.  She just knew that it always had what she wanted.

«Think of a book you really want to read,» she instructed Fleur, “«and just follow your instincts.»  The blonde’s eyes narrowed, but Hermione placed a soft hand on her forearm.  «I’m serious.  This isn’t a joke. In fact, why don’t you give the room a challenge?  Something obscure.»  Fleur hesitated just a moment longer, then nodded.  After a minute or so, she walked confidently to the bookcase just to the left of the northeast window, using all of her considerable height to reach up for a small, leather-bound book.  No one had to know about the thoughts that buzzed through Hermione’s mind as the tall blonde stretched.

Fleur turned back towards Hermione, but her wide eyes were fixed firmly on the book now open in her hands.  «This is impossible,» she muttered, almost so quietly that Hermione didn’t catch it.  «This book is…»  Her gaze rose from the pages, and Hermione found herself frozen in by her harsh glare.  Fleur’s eyes seemed almost golden in the flickering light from the fireplace.  «How did you get this?!»  The book slapped shut, and Fleur advanced on Hermione.  «Tell me!»

Hermione put her hands up defencively but chose not to back away.  Startled, she switched back to English without thinking.  “I’m sorry!  I don’t know how the magic of the room works.”  Fleur halted within an inch of Hermione, continuing to glare down at her.  Taking a single, centering breath, Hermione matched Fleur’s gaze and asked, «Fleur, tell me what’s going on.  Why are you so upset?»

Fleur considered her for several long moments, then her body relaxed ever so slightly.  «This book should not be here.  It is private.  Personal.  Secret.» 

«What?  But how?» Hermione blushed.  «Fleur, I’m so sorry.  I … don’t know what to say.»

«Clearly,» Fleur deadpanned.  She glanced down at the book, then took Hermione by the hand and led her to a nearby sofa.  As they sat down, Hermione took care to keep a little distance between herself and the volatile blonde.  Fleur opened the book to show Hermione the graceful script contained within, the French words handwritten in nearly black navy ink.

«It is a book on the veela.  Written by my grandmother.  I have the only copy in my bedroom at home.  In France.»  

«So, you’re justifiably upset to find it stolen from your bedroom and turning up in a random castle in Scotland.»  Hermione hoped she didn’t come off as joking.  «Or perhaps, a perfect copy.  Either way, you have every right to feel angry.»

Fleur sighed as she closed the book again.  «Hermione, I believe you only meant to share your love of this room with me, but this is very troubling.  The veela are quite protective over our traditions and culture.  No one should be able to access this book but my sister and me.»

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath.  «Fleur, that’s brilliant!»  The blonde looked at her like she was crazy, but Hermione was already on her feet. «Put the book back on the shelf.»  She paced over to the nearest bookcase, and there was already an open spot waiting.  «Right here!»

It took a moment for Fleur to overcome her confusion, but eventually she rose to come join Hermione.  «I’m not sure I understand what you»

«Just trust me, okay?»  Hermione didn’t notice that she had placed a hand on Fleur’s arm until she looked down at it, and Hermione pulled back with a faint blush on her cheeks.  Her thoughts raced.  We just met.  Why should she trust me?  This whole thing was a terrible idea, Granger.  

«Okay,» Fleur answered softly.  Hermione almost missed it, but Fleur offered a small smile, and then placed the book onto the shelf.  

«Now step away from the shelf.»  Hermione shot Fleur a confident grin, then turned and walked away from the bookcase.  She made a firm loop around the room and came to stand in front of Fleur before facing the bookcase again, with only the slightest bit of a flourish.  She searched the shelf, and just as she expected, the book was gone.  «Look.»

Fleur gasped.  «Where did it go?»

«I can’t access it.  I wanted the book.  Thought about it as hard as I could, in fact.  But it’s as you said.  Only you have access to it.»  Hermione waggled her eyebrows playfully.  «I may not know exactly how the room works, but I’m sure it had no intention of offending any proud veela sentiments.»

Fleur’s entire body seemed to relax.  «Your Reading Room has made a wise decision.  We veela may be generous and affectionate friends, but we also make vicious foes for those who do us harm.»

Hermione chuckled nervously.  «Well, now that that’s taken care of, would you care for a cup of tea?»  On Fleur’s assent, she led them over to two well-used, burgundy leather armchairs, with two steaming cups of tea on a small table between them.

«These were not here before!» Fleur exclaimed.

«Perceptive,» Hermione teased.  She took her seat in the chair on the left, and Fleur took the remaining one.  From their seats, the two witches had a perfect view of the Black Lake through the massive southeast window of the tower.  The pale light of the quarter moon played along the nearly placid surface, hiding the many wonders and terrors beneath.  

«Your French is quite excellent, Mademoiselle Granger, even if your British accent cannot help but make itself known.»

Hermione took a quick sip of her tea, hoping to mask her now pink cheeks.  «Thank you,» she replied.  Judging by the return of Fleur’s smirk, the blush had not gone unnoticed.

«If you don’t mind me asking, how did you become fluent?»

«I’ve been speaking it for as long as I can remember, actually.  My parents thought it was important that I be multilingual—my mum thinks it adds to our mystique, if you can believe that.  I grew up speaking English, German, and French.  But I know French the best, because my family and I spent a month in France the summer before last.  So I’ve had a good amount of practice recently.»

That wasn’t strictly true.  Hermione, at least as she was now, hadn’t been to France in years.  Fortunately, her recall was quite excellent.

«Ah, where did you visit?»

«Well, we started in Dijon—»

«Really?!» Fleur practically squealed.  «And how did you find it?»

Hermione’s eyes narrowed at Fleur’s attempt to hide her initial shock.  Fleur had given herself away, and rather than focus on the bizarre coincidence, Hermione’s mind leapt upon a mischievous idea.  «Well,» Hermione offered teasingly, «my mother loved it, or rather I should say, she loved the wine.»  As she expected, Fleur’s pursed lips indicated that she didn’t much care for Hermione’s tone.  «I didn’t much care for it at all, though.  There was some decent hiking, but otherwise I found it a bit dull.  And the people there were all so uptight.»

Fleur looked completely outraged at this point, and Hermione burst into giggles, no longer able to keep up the farce.  «I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  But you’re actually quite cute when you’re angry, Mademoiselle Delacour.  I actually loved Dijon.  I take it that is your home?»  Fleur relaxed a little, an impressed expression forming along her proud features as she allowed Hermione her laugh.

«Mademoiselle Granger, I did not take you for cheeky.  I stand corrected.»  She chuckled as Hermione performed a playful half bow in her chair.  «And yes, Dijon is my home.  Some of the wine your mother enjoyed was likely from my grandfather’s vineyards.»

«That’s such crazy...» Hermione found that she couldn’t remember the French word for the concept she had in mind.  ”Serendipity,” she explained, before slipping seamlessly back into French.  «I wonder if we walked past each other and never even noticed?»

«That is quite unlikely.»  Hermione quirked a curious eyebrow, and Fleur’s eyes drifted out towards the lake.  Hermione thought she detected the slightest hint of vulnerability in Fleur’s voice.  «I spend my summers with my grandmother and her coven.»

«Your grandmother is veela?»  Hermione hoped she wasn’t overstepping any boundaries.

«Yes, she is.  She is the Supreme of her coven, and I have lived among them every summer of my life.  So, I was unfortunately not in Dijon while you were there.»  Fleur turned her gaze back to Hermione.  «You seem quite unfazed by the fact that I’m part veela.»

Hermione wasn’t sure how to take that.  «Did you expect me to be shocked?»

«No. But, well, you British are not exactly known for your open-mindedness when it comes to beings who are not pure-blooded human witches and wizards.»

«You don’t have to tell me that,» Hermione shot back on instinct.  «I’m muggle-born, and believe me, some people in this castle never let me forget it.»  She caught herself rubbing at her left forearm, and immediately pulled her hand away.  It isn’t there anymore, she reminded herself.  

Yet, taunted the darkest voice in her head.  

Never, she spat back.

«My apologies, Hermione.  My father also comes from … well, in France we call them moldu.»

«So there’s less prejudice in France?»

«Yes, most certainly.  Magical France is much more supportive of our non-human citizens.»  Fleur took a sip of tea, then asked, «You’re not at all surprised about my veela heritage?»

Hermione blushed wildly, and there was nothing she could do about it.  She cleared her throat awkwardly, and answered, «No, I wasn’t.  I can, um … well… Merlin, this is embarrassing.  Honestly, I can feel your thrall.  So I, uh, wasn’t surprised.»

Fleur practically leered at her admission.  «Yet you are not drooling after me like the silly boys.  Mademoiselle Granger, it would appear that either you are very strong-willed or you simply do not find me that attractive.»

«Fleur, it’s really not fair of you to keep making me blush like this.»

«And yet, it is so very fun to do so,» Fleur retorted, and Hermione couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

The conversation continued for quite a while longer until, on impulse, Hermione checked the watch she always kept in the pocket of her robes.  “Shit shit shit!”

«What is it?» Fleur asked in alarm.

«It’s past midnight.  Curfew was over two hours ago!»

Fleur was unfazed.  «Oh no, I have been such an awful distraction for you, Hermione,» she practically sang.  «And on my first night here.»

«Yes, you are quite the terrible influence,» Hermione quipped back.  She wasn’t particularly concerned about curfew—she had her ways of returning to Gryffindor Tower without being noticed.  She just didn’t want to get Fleur in trouble.  She wasted no time leading her out of the Reading Room, and they made their way back through the secret passageway. 

As they came out the other side, Hermione stepped close to Fleur and whispered, «If you take this staircase down two flights, you’ll be back at the marble staircase down into the entrance hall.  Straight out to your carriage from there.  Are you going to be able to make it alright?»

«Do not worry about me, mon amie.  No one will bother me.»

Hermione blushed again at the term of endearment.  She wasn’t sure how many times she had blushed at this point.  «If you’re sure.»  She smiled warmly.  «I enjoyed getting to know you tonight.  I hope I see you again soon.»

«You will,» Fleur assured her.  With one last confident smirk, she turned and descended the stairs.

Well shite, thought Hermione.  This is certainly not what I was expecting.

Chapter Text

For once, Hermione allowed herself the indulgence of sleeping in properly, having fallen asleep much later than expected thanks to her night with the captivating Fleur Delacour.  No run for me this morning.  I’ll just have to push a little harder tomorrow.  Even without her normal morning routine, Hermione felt energized.  She wasted no time getting ready for the day, making her way out to the common room within twenty minutes of slipping out of bed.

“Hermione, do have any idea what time it is, young lady?”

She really shouldn’t have been surprised.  Harry, Ginny, and Ron were all waiting to ambush her the second she stepped off the staircase.  The majority of the Gryffindors having already headed down for breakfast.  Ginny’s hands on her hips matched the teasing scold of her tone, and Hermione rolled her eyes at the antics.

“Quite aware, thank you, Ginevra.  Shall we head down?  Ronald might faint if we miss breakfast.”  He nodded enthusiastically and turned to lead the rest of them out into the corridor.

“Erm, Hermione?”  Harry seemed more bashful than Ginny, but no less curious, as he asked, “Were you out past hours last night?”

“With that French girl?” Ginny added.

“As a matter of fact, I was,” Hermione confirmed.

Ron whirled around, his face full of surprise.  “No way!  Hermione Granger broke curfew?  What’s gotten into you?”

Hermione scowled at him.  “I lost track of time is all.”

“Because of the French girl?” Ginny asked again, more pointedly this time.

“Her name is Fleur, and yes, we got to talking after I showed her around the castle and before I knew it, it was past curfew.  Is that really so odd?”

“A bit,” Harry said.  “I mean, none of us even knew you could speak French, and then next thing you know, some Beauxbatons girl is whisking you away for a castle tour.  Then you’re out so long we all give up on waiting so we can get some sleep.”

Before Hermione could say anything, Ginny jumped back in.  “How do you know this Fleur anyway?”

“And do you know if she’s seeing anyone?” Ron grunted from just ahead of her, before opening the door to the Great Hall. 

Hermione glared at him as he held the door open for the rest of them, but then her eyes were searching the hall.  She smiled at the wonderfully done Halloween decorations, even if she had always found the live bats to be a bit much.  When her eyes settled on the far end of the Ravenclaw table, she was happy to see that her advice had been heeded.  Fleur had indeed sat across from Luna Lovegood for breakfast, who was in a lively discussion with the younger girl next to Fleur.  Hermione guessed this was Gabrielle, Fleur’s younger sister.  She’d seen the girl in passing a few times, but only really recognized her because of the similarities to her sister. 

Neither Delacour was facing in her direction, so Hermione turned her attention back to her friends as they all sat down at the Gryffindor table.  “Ronald, I won’t dignify that with a response, and Ginny, I don’t know her, we just met last night.”

Ron huffed but was quickly distracted by the porridge that appeared in front of him.  Ginny continued to watch Hermione curiously.  “Alright then, you just seemed… I dunno, familiar with each other right away.  What did you even say to her?”

“I just introduced myself, offered her the bouillabaisse, and welcomed her to Hogwarts,” Hermione downplayed.  “I noticed all the boys gawking at her, so I offered to show her some less common ways of getting around the castle.”  She looked pointedly at Ron.  “All that unwanted attention has to get old quickly, I imagine.”

Harry nodded knowingly, and Hermione smiled at him.  “So, she just took you up on that offer?” he asked.  “What’s she like?  What did you talk about for so long?”

“Oh, she’s quite lovely, and super intimidating.”  Hermione ignored the raised eyebrow from Ginny.  “Her family lives in Dijon, where I visited on holiday last summer.”

Ginny leaned in conspiratorially.  “Intimidating?  You think she’ll be the champion for Beauxbatons, then?”

Hermione just shrugged.  “Who knows?  She seems up to the task, but I’m sure Beauxbatons sent nothing but their best students.”

Ron’s eyebrows shot up.  “Oi!  So that’s what you were up to.  Scouting out the competition.  That’s brilliant!”  Hermione frowned, but didn’t dignify the suggestion with a response.  As much as he had been one of her best friends before the war, she found that she no longer cared much what Ronald Weasley thought of her.  Nor did she fancy dwelling on her night with Fleur any longer.

“Speaking of, did anyone we know submit their names last night?” she asked.

“Angelina did!“ Ginny answered excitedly.  “She just turned 17 last week.  A few other Gryffindors, plus Davies and Montague.”

“And Cedric Diggory,” Harry added.  A sharp pang of sorrow struck Hermione at the name.  She hadn’t known him, but Cedric’s death had affected Harry—the Harry from her original timeline—more profoundly than he had realized.  Harry was never quite the same after witnessing Cedric’s death, and the Hufflepuff had been the first of far too many losses in that war.  Hermione’s eyes landed on the tall young man across the hall, and she swore that she would do what she could to keep him from that tragic fate.

“Diggory’s a prat,” Ron complained.  “It’s gotta be a Gryffindor who ends up champion for Hogwarts, not some pretty boy Hufflepuff.”

“I think Cedric is a good person,” Hermione argued, “and Hogwarts would be lucky to have him as champion.”  Both Ginny and Ron looked at her like she had grown a second head.

“Come off it, ‘Mione, don’t tell me this is another Lockhart situation.” Hermione could hear the jealousy in Ron’s voice, and she couldn’t help but shake her head fondly.  Even more than Ginny, Ron had a lot of growing to do, but Hermione was still glad to have him back in her life.  But that certainly didn’t mean she was going to put up with any of his nonsense.

“First of all, my name is Hermione, Ronald.  Second of all, I don’t have a crush on Cedric, if that’s what you’re implying.  Not that I had one on Lockhart either.  Cedric’s an excellent student,” Hermione paused before adding, “as is Angelina.  I could see either of them getting it.  You don’t see it because you’re just jealous.”

“I am not jealous,” Ron whined, to no one’s surprise.  “I’d put my name in the Goblet right now if not for the stupid age requirement!”

“Speaking of which,” Ginny interjected, probably thinking that she was heading off a row between Hermione and Ron.  Good for you, Gin, Hermione thought proudly, even though she had had no intention of continuing the argument with Ron.  “We should head to the entrance hall after breakfast.  Fred and George are cooking up a few plots to try and get past Dumbledore’s line.”

Hermione started to protest, but Ginny cut her off.  “What else have you got to do, Hermione?”

“You can do homework later,” Harry piled on.  Hermione sighed, but gave in.  She couldn’t very well admit that she’d already lived this day and seen the twins’ feeble attempts at submitting their names.  Even so, she reminded herself that there were worse ways to spend her time than hanging out with her friends.  She intended to never take their time together for granted ever again. 

Hermione glanced back over at the Ravenclaw table, but Fleur and Gabrielle had already exited with the majority of the other Beauxbatons students.  She swallowed her last bite of toast and washed it down with a sip of coffee.  Ron and Ginny were speculating about what the twins might try, and Harry was still working on his sausage and eggs, so Hermione waited patiently while going over a few things in her head.

She turned to Neville, who was seated with Seamus and Dean.  The three of them were discussing the Goblet of Fire, and she waved to get Neville’s attention.  “Hi, Neville, how is your morning going?”

“Oh, uh, hullo Hermione.  Can’t complain, just catching up on the gossip.”  He seemed a bit more confident than the last time she had talked to him, and she wondered if he had given her advice about his wand any more thought.  That wasn’t why she had interrupted his conversation, however.

“Oh lovely, I was hoping to catch up on the gossip myself.  Do you know, have the Durmstrang or Beauxbatons students come to enter their names into the Goblet yet?”

He nodded enthusiastically.  “Yeah!  I mean, but also no.  Durmstrang all came by early.  Some of the Beauxbatons showed up to the castle for breakfast, but I don’t think any of them have entered their names yet.”

Beside her, she could hear the others preparing to leave, so Hermione just nodded.  “Thanks, Neville.  I’ll see you around!”

“You too, uh, yeah.  Bye,” he responded, blushing slightly at his own stammering.  Hermione just smiled at him.  She was disappointed, however, that she missed the Durmstrangs.  It was only a matter of time before Viktor introduced himself, but she preferred to make that connection sooner rather than later.  As much as she wanted to just savour the added time she had gained with her friends, Hermione was sent to 1994 with a purpose.  And she didn’t like her chances at completing the first part of her mission this school year without one or both of Fleur and Viktor on her side.  She made a mental note to swing by the library later.  Eventually, she knew he would come by in search of somewhere quiet to hide from his fans.

Focusing on the Goblet of Fire itself for the first time since last night’s feast, Hermione wondered if Harry’s name had passed through the flames already.  Had the man who wore Alastor Moody’s face already tampered with the magical artifact, or would he wait until tonight?  Part of Hermione wanted to wait by the goblet, ambush Barty Crouch, Jr., and hex him within an inch of his life.  Unfortunately, her plan required that the Death Eater be allowed to carry out his overly complicated plot, so she forced herself to think of something else.

As it turned out, thanks to Hermione’s lazy morning, they had already missed the twins and Lee Jordan, as a third-year Gryffindor informed them.  “They took off for the hospital wing half an hour ago. They all had long, white beards.”

“Damn, I woulda paid a sickle to see that,” Ron lamented, but then drew a sharp breath as the front doors to the entrance hall opened to admit the entire Beauxbatons procession.  Hermione’s eyes found Fleur of their own accord, and she blushed a little to find the older—younger, actually, Hermione corrected herself—woman already watching her from the middle of the Beauxbatons crowd.  Just as before, Madame Maxime lined them up in the most ridiculously formal manner possible, and each took their turn stepping forward to drop a slip of paper into the fire. 

Hermione felt like she had to be imagining the scrutiny with which Fleur’s gaze stayed locked on her through the entire process.  The slow-motion grace with which Fleur’s long, delicate fingers released her name into the flames couldn't be real.  Fleur’s cocky wink was definitely dreamlike.

And then, the French students were whisked back out of the castle as quickly and crisply as they had arrived, the door shutting neatly behind them as conversation resumed in the entrance hall.  No more than a minute or two could've passed, yet Hermione somehow missed at what point the hall had gone silent.

“Seriously, what is it with you and this French girl?”  Ginny’s question broke Hermione’s reverie.  Ginny looked to Harry and Ron for support.  “I can’t have been the only one who noticed how they were staring at each other that whole time?”

“Hermione, did she actually just wink at you?” Harry asked in confusion.  Oh, Hermione thought.  I guess that actually happened.

“Ummm, no,” Hermione demurred, unhappy with how high her voice was all of the sudden.  “She definitely did not wink at me.  Besides, I’m pretty sure she was looking at Ron.”  Hermione was so focused on denying what had so obviously just happened that she missed the sound of the entrance hall doors opening again.

“Non, I was most definitely looking at you, Mademoiselle Granger.”  Hermione’s heart stopped, held in stasis along with her breath.  A palpable wave of mortification slivered down her spine.

“There’s a gorgeous Frenchwoman standing behind me, isn’t there?” Hermione hissed, hating how red she was sure her face was turning.  And why the hell did I have to call her gorgeous?  Ginny, Harry, and Ron just nodded to confirm that Fleur’s reentry into the entrance hall hadn’t been Hermione’s imagination playing tricks on her.  Hermione spun to find Fleur and Gabrielle standing just behind her, identical teasing expressions adorning their faces.  “Oh, um, hello Fleur.  Nice to see you again so soon. Uh, what are you—I mean, who is this?” Hermione held out a hand to Gabrielle, trying not to die of embarrassment at the words that had just escaped her lips.

“Zis is my sister, Gabrielle,” Fleur introduced, and Gabrielle met Hermione’s hand with her own.  The handshake was surprisingly tight, as if Gabrielle was trying to intimidate her despite her smaller stature.  “She is a first-year student at Beauxbatons.”

«Why are you speaking English?» Gabrielle demanded in rapid-fire French, dropping Hermione’s hand as her attention shot back to her sister.

«Because these English assholes can’t be bothered to learn French, my dear sister,» Fleur answered sardonically, winking at Hermione again the second Gabrielle looked away.  «We must coddle them while we are here and speak their language.  Besides, it is a good opportunity for you to practice.» 

“Fine,” Gabrielle conceded, switching to English.  Hermione didn’t know why Fleur wanted to pretend Hermione didn’t speak French while around Gabrielle, but she went along with it. 

“Mademoiselle Granger, perhaps you could introduce us to your friends?”

Hermione tried her best to get ahold of herself.  “Right, of course!  Erm, Fleur and Gabrielle Delacour, please meet my friends, Ginny Weasley, Ron Weasley, and Harry Potter.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.  “Wait, do you mean to zay zat zis is the Harry Potter.  Zat Harry Potter?”  Fleur immediately swatted her sister’s arm scoldingly.

“Gaby, zat is rude.  Apologize.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but nevertheless turned back to Harry and offered, “I am sorry.” 

Harry just looked confused by the whole exchange and responded with a hesitant, “Erm, thanks.  Uh, and yeah, I’m that Harry Potter.”

“But zat does not give you an excuse to gawk at ‘im like some common peasant, Gabrielle,” Fleur continued to scold.  “Monsieur Potter is just a boy, and you will respect ‘is privacy.”  She faced the group again.  “I apologize for my sister’s behavior.  It is nice to meet you all.”

Ginny and Harry both offered greetings, but Ron sat in stunned silence, his face turning an odd shade of purple.  Hermione ignored him.  “So, Fleur, I see you submitted your name for the Tournament.”

“But of course,” Fleur answered.  If she was aware that the majority of the remaining crowd in the hall was gawking at her, she hid it well.  “I am, after all, the most qualified candidate from ze entire school.”  Ginny scoffed at Fleur’s bravado, and while Hermione wanted to agree with her, she was surprised to find that the cockiness just added to Fleur's appeal.

“You’re definitely the most beautiful,” Ron sputtered, seemingly unaware that his mouth was hanging wide open at this point.

“Fleur, I ‘ave ‘ad enough of ze gaping boys,” Gaby complained, before switching back to French.  «You promised to show me the stairs that move!»  Fleur rolled her eyes but let herself be pulled away from the group.

“It was nice to see you again, ‘Ermione.  I just wanted to zay zank you for ze quite excellent tour last night.  I ‘ope to see you again soon.”  Hermione just nodded in response.  She was baffled by the ease with which Fleur Delacour made her feel fifteen again.  She was so flustered by the part-veela.  And again, she was sure she must have imagined the almost exaggerated swish of Fleur’s hips as she walked away from Hermione.  No way that really happened.

                                                  

“The champion for Beauxbatons is Fleur Delacour!”

Fleur stood proudly, defiant against the mixed reactions of mockery, anger, and sadness from her fellow Beauxbatons students all around her.  There was applause, yes, but she knew her classmates.  She knew that she had few fans among her peers.  While she maintained strict discipline over her icy external demeanor, internally she preened at her victory.  That is right, assholes, she thought, I am the best of us.  Only Gabrielle and Camille met her gaze before she swept forward to follow Durmstrang’s Viktor Krum into the side room.  Ever aware of etiquette and manners, she made sure to nod politely to Albus Dumbledore and Madame Maxime as she passed them both.

The room she entered was cozy, a central fireplace lighting the old walls and the occupants of portraits residing there.  Krum’s face was stoic, and she could feel him sizing her up as she did the same to him.  He was not a pretty boy, though his thick stubble suited his chiseled jawline quite nicely. A shoulder-length mane of dark hair framed his face, and he looked much older than eighteen—only his awkwardness gave away his youth.  He seemed almost uncomfortable with his considerable bulk, as if he had hit a growth spurt late and was still not used to his own body.  She knew, however, that he was a star quidditch player, and she guessed he was more graceful than his hunched posture indicated.  If her thrall was affecting him, he kept it from showing in his body language or facial expression.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Krum.  I am Fleur Delacour.”  His handshake was brief but firm, and then the door opened again behind them.  They turned to spot a dashing boy with dark eyes and a kind smile.  He was just as tall as the other two champions, and his dark Hogwarts robes featured subtle yellow accents.  She could tell immediately that her thrall was going to be an issue with him, and she steeled herself against the inevitable awkwardness of their introduction.  

“Hullo there!  I’m Cedric Diggory.”  He stuck out his hand, eyes never leaving Fleur.  Sighing internally, she met his hand with her own, and as expected, he pulled her hand in and placed a gentle kiss just below her knuckles.  She could at least feel his restraint against the thrall, even as his eyes lingered just below her eyeline. 

“Fleur,” she introduced herself, then pointedly stared at Krum, who moved forward to shake Diggory’s hand. 

“And I am—”

“Viktor Krum, of course!” Diggory finished jovially, flashing an awkward smile to the famous Bulgarian he had clearly forgotten was also present in the small room.  “You were brilliant at the Cup this year.” 

“Not brilliant enough,” Krum muttered, turning away to stalk back towards the fireplace.  Fleur hadn’t been at the match, as she didn’t care much about the Irish or Bulgarian sides, but she had followed the broadcast.  Krum’s decision to catch the snitch when he did was an odd one, and she suspected that he had simply wanted to spare his teammates the embarrassment of losing by an even higher margin.  Or perhaps he was just a showoff, how should she know?  Either way, it was apparently still a sore subject.

Krum leaned against the fireplace, refusing to make eye contact again, and as the other two joined him around the fire, the door to the room opened again.  Fleur’s hair flipped over her shoulder as she turned to face the young boy who had entered, and she immediately recognized him as Hermione’s friend, Harry Potter.  He seemed oddly lost, as if he had wandered in by accident.

“Monsieur Potter, what is it?” she asked calmly. “Do zey want us back in ze Hall?”  He just continued to stare at her and the others, seemingly dumbfounded.  Fleur frowned, worry gathering in her chest.  But before he could bring himself to respond, Ludo Bagman burst through the door behind, his boisterous chattering breaking the confused silence of the room.

“Extraordinary!  Absolutely extraordinary! Gentlemen—” his eyes focused on Cedric, then Krum, and only after a moment’s pause did his attention turn to Fleur, standing between them.  “And lady,” he added, almost as an afterthought. Curious, she thought.   “May I introduce—incredible though it may seem—the fourth Triwizard champion!”

Fleur could sense the outrage from the two boys behind her, but her focus remained on Harry.  Yes, she was shocked and a little affronted by this strange turn of events, but it was hard to hold onto her frustration at the sight of his hunched shoulders and bewildered, wandering eyes.  The poor boy looked shell-shocked, and more than a little afraid.  “Obviously  there  ’as  been  a  mistake,” she  insisted, turning a fairly harsh glare at Bagman. “’E cannot compete. ’E is too young.”  Harry frowned at this, but it wasn’t her job to spare his feelings.  It was obvious to her that Hermione’s friend was drowning, and she resolved to throw him a life preserver if she could.

“Well, it is amazing,” said Bagman, rubbing his smooth chin and smiling down at  Harry.  “But, as you know, the age restriction was only imposed this year as an extra safety measure.  His name’s come out of the Goblet—I mean, I don’t think there can be any ducking out at this stage.  It’s down to the rules; you’re obliged !  Harry will just have to do the best he can—”

The door behind them opened again, interrupting his rambling explanation.  Albus Dumbledore strode into the room, followed closely by Professor Karkaroff, Madame Maxime, and two other men—the one who had been introduced as English Ministry official Bartemius Crouch, and one of the other Hogwarts professors, the brooding little man with the long greasy hair.  Fleur addressed her headmistress first.  «Madame Maxime!  They are saying that this little boy is to compete also!»

Maxime reacted exactly as Fleur expected, drawing herself up to her full height, indignation written across her face as she turned on Dumbledore.  “What is the meaning of this, Dumbledore?” she asked imperiously.

Karkaroff also butted in with a snide, “I’d rather like to know that myself, Dumbledore.  Two Hogwarts champions?  I don’t remember anyone telling me the host school is allowed two champions—or have I not read the rules carefully enough?” He gave a short and nasty laugh, and despite his coarse manner, Fleur was surprised at his nearly flawless English.  He had none of the thick accent Krum had demonstrated. 

“C’est impossible,” said Madame Maxime, her hand coming to rest protectively on Fleur’s shoulder. “’Ogwarts cannot ’ave two champions.  It is most injust.”  Both professors seemed to entirely miss the point.  Even with the new safeguards supposedly in place, the Triwizard Tournament was too dangerous for a child as young as Harry, who, in addition to being (Fleur guessed) a couple years younger than Hermione, also seemed worryingly malnourished.  Even if he did compete, he would hardly seem to be any real competition for the three true champions.

“We were under the impression that your Age Line would keep out younger contestants, Dumbledore,” Karkaroff sneered, his cold eyes bearing down on the elder wizard.  “Otherwise, we would, of course, have brought along a wider selection of candidates from our own schools.”

“It’s no one’s fault but Potter’s, Karkaroff,” Snape insisted. Fleur didn’t like the predatory way he looked at Harry.  “Don’t go blaming Dumbledore for Potter’s determination to break rules.  He has been crossing lines ever since he arrived here—”

Fleur cut him off with a frustrated, “You cannot be serious!” at the same time that Dumbledore offered a dismissive, “Thank you, Severus.” 

Surprised gazes focused on Fleur, who did not back down from the scrutiny.  “Look at him!” she explained.  “’E is confused and scared.  You would have to be an idiot to believe ‘e hoodwinked ze Goblet ‘imself.”   She glared pointedly at Snape.

Dumbledore turned back to Harry. “Did you put your name into the Goblet of Fire, Harry?” he asked calmly.

“No.” Harry’s voice was thin, barely there, and Fleur could tell he was uncomfortable with the attention.   Snape snorted in disbelief, and Fleur scowled openly at him.

“Did you ask an older student to put it into the Goblet of Fire for you?” asked Dumbledore, ignoring Snape.

This time, Harry’s “No,” was strong and angry.

“Dumbledore must ’ave made a mistake with the line,” Maxime suggested, shrugging.  Dumbledore politely admitted that he may well have, though his tone suggested that he was quite certain he had not.

“It does not matter,” Fleur insisted.  “There are three qualified champions.  There iz no reason for Monsieur Potter to compete.”  To her surprise, Cedric stepped forward beside her to offer his support.

“Fleur’s right.  Harry’s been through enough the past few years; surely you lot can just let him out of this.”  Harry seemed surprised by the warmth in Cedric’s voice, and for the first time, a hint of a smile graced his gaunt features.

For the first time, Bartemius Crouch spoke, his voice curt.  “We must follow the rules, and the rules clearly state that those people whose names come out of the Goblet of Fire are bound to compete in the Tournament.”

“Barty knows the rulebook back to front,” Bagman added, beaming as though he now considered the matter closed.  

Karkaroff continued to miss the entire point.  “I insist on resubmitting the names of the rest of my students,” he whined shrilly.  “You will set up the Goblet of Fire once more, and we will continue adding names until each school has two champions.  It’s only fair, Dumbledore.”  Fleur rolled her eyes.  She was beginning to see that Karkaroff was an extremely petty man. 

“It doesn’t work like that,” Bagman replied.  “The Goblet of Fire’s just gone out.  It won’t reignite until the start of the next tournament—”

“In which Durmstrang will most certainly not be competing!” exploded Karkaroff.  “After all our meetings and negotiations and compromises, I little expected something of this nature to occur!  I have half a mind to leave now!”  Fleur really wished he would.

“Empty threat, Karkaroff,” growled a voice from near the door.  “You can’t leave your champion now.  He’s got to compete.  They’ve all got to compete.  Binding magical contract, like Dumbledore said.  Convenient, eh?”  A grizzled older man had just entered the room.  His appearance was bizarre, a mismatched and disproportionately large, electric blue eye dominating a weathered face.  Stringy dark hair curled back just below and behind his ears, and salt and pepper stubble did nothing to mask the many scars along his jaw and cheeks.  The magical eye did not blink, and it’s constant and independent movement was entirely unnerving.  Every other step he took towards the assembled group produced a loud clunk, a noticeable limp drawing attention to his peg right leg.

“Convenient?” scoffed Karkaroff.  “I’m afraid I don’t understand you, Moody.”  An undercurrent of mistrust and hatred was obvious under the thin veneer of disdain Karkaroff projected.  Fleur was curious about the history between the two, but it was hardly the point right then.

“Don’t you?” Moody queried.  “It’s very simple, Karkaroff.  Someone put Potter’s name in that goblet knowing he’d have to compete if it came out.”

“Evidently, someone who wished to give ’Ogwarts two bites at the apple!” said Madame Maxime.  Karkaroff was quick to agree, threatening to lodge complaints with any number of international bodies before Mr. Moody interrupted again.  

“If anyone’s got reason to complain, it’s Potter,” he growled, “but, funny thing, I don’t hear him saying a word.”

“Of course ‘e isn’t,” Fleur snapped.  “We are all talking over ‘im and making wild assumptions about ‘is intentions.  And Monsieur Moody appears to be the only one actually looking out for ‘is best interests!”

“Delacour’s got the right of it,” Moody agreed.  “This whole thing’s fishy.  Not too much of a leap to guess someone’s hoping Potter is going to get himself killed here.”  An extremely tense silence followed these words.  Fleur was herself taken aback.  She hadn’t even considered such a dark outcome.

Bagman seemed particularly affronted by the suggestion.  “Moody, old man, what a thing to say!”

Karkaroff piled on.  “We all know Professor Moody considers the morning wasted if he hasn’t discovered six plots to murder him before lunchtime.  Apparently, he is now teaching his students to fear assassination too.  An odd quality in a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dumbledore, but no doubt you had your reasons.”

“Imagining things, am I?” Moody grouched.  “Seeing things, eh?  It was a skilled witch or wizard who put the boy’s name in that goblet. It would have needed an exceptionally strong Confundus Charm to bamboozle a powerful magical object like that into forgetting that only three schools compete in the Tournament.  I’m guessing they submitted Potter’s name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category.”

“You seem to have given this a great deal of thought, Moody,” said Karkaroff coldly, “and a very ingenious theory it is.  Though of course, I heard you recently got it into your head that one of your birthday presents contained a cunningly disguised basilisk egg and smashed it to pieces before realizing it was a carriage clock.  So, you’ll understand if we don’t take you entirely seriously.”

“There are those who’ll turn innocent occasions to their advantage,” Moody retorted in a menacing voice.  “It’s my job to think the way Dark wizards do, Karkaroff, as you damn well ought to remember—”

“Alastor!”  Dumbledore’s previously agreeable tone had turned warning, seeming to fill the room.  Moody fell silent, but the animosity between him and Karkaroff was palpable.  Dumbledore then addressed the entire room.  “How this situation arose, we do not know.  It seems to me, however, that we have no choice but to accept it.  Both Cedric and Harry have been chosen to compete in the Tournament.  This, therefore, they will do.”

Fleur couldn’t hold her tongue. “How can you say zat? Zis tournament is too dangerous—”

“Ms. Delacour, if you have an alternative, I would be delighted to hear it.”

Fleur didn’t appreciate being interrupted, and she wasn’t quite done giving these adults a piece of her mind.  “If ‘e ‘as to compete, surely there is a way for ‘im to participate without putting ‘im in danger.  Make ‘is tasks easier.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we just let this boy win,” Karkaroff blustered.

“Non!  I am saying ‘e can participate wizzout truly competing.  The priority should be ‘is safety.”

“We will see what we can do,” Dumbledore soothed, and he offered a kind smile that made Fleur want to trust him.  Something still didn’t feel right about the whole situation, but she didn’t know what else to do.  And she still had her own success in the Tournament to consider.  She did not come here to lose, after all.

Bagman stepped forward, his body language inappropriately excited. “Well, shall we crack on, then?”  He rubbed his hands together and smiled around the room.  “Got to give our champions their instructions, haven’t we?  Barty, want to do the honors?”  

Mr. Crouch seemed to come out of a deep reverie.  To be honest, Fleur thought the man looked quite haggard, possibly even ill.  He had dark circles under his eyes, and his skin had an unsettling greyish tint to it, even in the warm firelight.  “Yes,” he said, still distracted, “instructions.  Yes … the First Task.  The First Task is designed to test your daring, so we are not going to be telling you what it is.  Courage in the face of the unknown is an important quality in a wizard.  Very important.  The task will take place on November 24th, in front of the other students and the panel of judges.”

Mr. Crouch’s face grew stern as he continued.  “The champions are not permitted to ask for or accept help of any kind from their teachers to complete the tasks in the Tournament.  The champions will face the first challenge armed only with their wands.  They will receive information about the Second Task when the first is over.  Owing to the demanding and time-consuming nature of the Tournament, the champions are exempted from end-of-year tests.” 

Fleur was surprised by this.  If anything, missing her very final end-of-year exams at Beauxbatons was something of a disadvantage, since they were excellent preparation for the post-graduation examinations that were required if one intended to pursue any sort of specialized or prestigious career path in French magical society.  Distracted by her thoughts, she only caught the tail end of the conversation between Dumbledore and Crouch.

“… It is a very busy, very difficult time at the moment.  I’ve left young Weatherby in charge… very enthusiastic … a little overenthusiastic, if truth be told.”

“You’ll come and have a drink before you go, at least?” Dumbledore persisted, apparently trying to convince Crouch to stay.  Fleur hardly cared about the sickly Englishman, so she tuned out the conversation and stepped closer to Harry.  He watched her with a healthy measure of both appreciation and suspicion.

“’Arry, it appears that we are to be competitors.  I am sorry if I ‘urt your feelings, but I believe Professor Moody is right.  This could be very dangerous.  Just know that I will ‘elp you if I can, but do not expect me to simply let you win.  I am ‘ere for a reason, after all.”  He frowned.  “I am very sorry that you have to deal with zis.”

“Well, thanks for that, I ‘spose,” he muttered, and he looked smaller than ever.  She felt a very strange urge to hug him.

“Just promise me that you will go talk to ‘Ermione.  I suspect she can ‘elp you quite a bit, and the rules say nozzing about getting ‘elp from your friends.”  At this, he finally smiled, and she returned the expression.  Then Madame Maxime was pulling her to her feet, and she seemed more than a little put out to see Fleur offering the young Hogwarts student advice.

«Come along, Fleur.  I have had quite enough of this hideous castle today.»  Fleur did as she was told, and her last glimpse of Harry Potter was of a boy noticeably more confident than he had been when he entered the room.  And that was victory enough for the night.

Chapter Text

“Professor, could I have a word with you in private?  Please?” 

Given that Professor McGonagall had been trailing Professors Dumbledore and Snape into the side room where the four champions waited, Hermione wasn’t surprised by McGonagall’s perturbed look.  “Must it be right this instance, Ms. Granger?”

“I’m sorry, Professor, but it is important, and it concerns Harry.”  Minerva’s gaze lingered on the now closed door for just a moment, and then, with a sigh, she turned to face Hermione.

“Very well.  I know that you would not trouble me with something unless it was important.”  She gestured towards the entrance of the hall.  “To my office then?”

Hermione nodded, then led the way.  Minerva’s office was on the opposite end of the castle, but they both kept a brisk pace, the crowds dispersing from the Great Hall mostly making way for them. Neither witch tried to force small talk along the way, and for that, Hermione was grateful.  She was trying to hide the roiling pit of anxiety in her gut; she had no idea whether Minerva would be at all receptive to what she needed to tell her.

After what felt like an agonizingly long trek, Minerva led her inside the office at the base of the Defense Against the Dark Arts Tower.  It was just as Hermione remembered it.  In the back left corner was McGonagall’s well-worn, oversized desk, with two small sitting chairs in front.  To the right were shelves and shelves of books on either side of a wide stone fireplace, which Minerva promptly lit with a bit of silent magic.  A comfortable warmth settled into the room, and Hermione wasted no time taking her seat in one of the comfortable leather armchairs in front of the fire.

Minerva settled in next to her, and Hermione immediately felt exposed.  This conversation was going to be a delicate mix of partial truths and carefully hidden deceits, and Hermione was uncomfortable about misleading her oldest and most trusted mentor.  But the Minerva from her timeline had warned her that it would be necessary, and they had already practiced what Hermione needed to say.  She just hoped it would work.

“Ms. Granger, what do you need to tell me about Mr. Potter?  Do you know something about tonight’s unexpected happenings?”

Hermione looked her professor straight in the eyes, and then she lied.  “No, Professor.  I don’t understand what happened tonight, but I am sure that it wasn’t Harry’s fault.”

“That would be rather difficult for me to believe as well.  Only time will tell, but I am sure Professor Dumbledore will sort everything out.”

“Not sure I share your confidence.”  The words escaped her lips without thought, her frustration and scorn too much to hold back.  Even so, Hermione immediately regretted her lack of control.  Minerva’s shock passed quickly, a scrunched look of stern reprimand sinking into her features almost immediately.

“Ms. Granger, that is hardly a respectful way to speak of the headmaster.”

Hermione bit her tongue.  She couldn’t afford to dig this hole deeper, not with what she needed to tell Minerva tonight.  So, she took a beat and shifted her strategy appropriately.

“I’m sorry, Professor.  I am just worried for Harry.  That is what I wanted to talk to you about.”  Minerva’s face softened, but her lips still pressed tightly into a slight frown.  She indicated for Hermione to continue.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since the end of last semester,” Hermione confessed, doing her best to make it sound sincere.  The events of June 1994 happened nearly five years in Hermione’s past, and much had happened to the young witch in those intervening years.  However, she could still remember the confusing, rushed series of revelations that night—that Sirius Black was not a murderer, that Peter Pettigrew had betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and had since been living in animagus form as the Weasleys’ pet rat, the subtle implication that Albus Dumbledore had always known about Sirius’s innocence and had let Harry’s godfather rot in Azkaban all those years anyway. 

This last bit wasn’t something her young mind had fully comprehended at the time.  She didn’t really begin to contemplate the stunningly horrifying implications of this truth until she was 19 years old and trying to help Harry piece together the infuriatingly few clues left behind by Dumbledore to help them along their quest to destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes.  A quest that he knew would lead to Harry’s death.  A quest which, ultimately, Dumbledore himself didn’t even truly understand.  And he left it to be finished by teenagers.

“Did Professor Dumbledore tell you about Sirius Black?”  Hermione’s suspicions about Dumbledore weren’t something she had ever shared with the Minerva she grew to know so well after the war.  It hadn’t mattered anymore, as the man was long dead.  But now, it seemed suddenly vital to know how much Minerva knew and how early she knew it.

The older witch drew in a sharp breath, then her eyes softened.  “It is as I suspected then.  To answer your question, Hermione, no.  Professor Dumbledore maintains that he has no knowledge as to how Mr. Black managed his mysterious escape from Ministry custody.  He told me only that he had help from family, and we left it at that.  However, I am not stupid.  What I do know of the night’s events make little sense without accounting for the presence of a Time Turner.  And given that you were in possession of the only Time Turner on the premises, I had assumed you had helped Mr. Potter save the life of his godfather.”

“So you know that Sirius is innocent?”

McGonagall smiled wistfully.  “I know Sirius Black quite well.  I knew him as a student and then as a friend in the war.  And if there is one single thing I know with absolute certainty about Sirius Black, it is that he would never betray James Potter.”  She paused, her face turning mournful.  “Although I confess, I let myself doubt that, in the face of all the evidence against him at the time.  I wish we had all trusted our instincts when it came to Sirius, but it was a dark time.  Now, what exactly, is troubling you, Ms. Granger?”

Hermione frowned, hoping her very nervous energy sold her performance as a young student trying to wrap her mind around a troubling fact.  “Well.  Um, it’s just that … Professor Dumbledore cast the Fidelius Charm that protected the Potter’s home.  And I did some reading this summer, and I know how this sounds, but I just can’t escape this one thing, and I …”  She took a deep breath.  “If he cast the charm, he knew who the Secret Keeper was.  He knew it was Pettigrew, and he let Sirius rot away in Azkaban all these years anyway.”

McGonagall’s eyes narrowed.  “And wherever did you get that idea, Ms. Granger?  Professor Dumbledore did not cast that Fidelius Charm.  James did. Professor Dumbledore believed Sirius to be the Secret-Keeper, right up until Sirius told him the truth last June.”  She shook her head, then cast a concerned look at Hermione.  “I know this is difficult to understand, but there is much you don’t know.  Much that you and Mr. Potter are not ready to know yet.”

This answer stunned Hermione.  She was so sure that Dumbledore had to have known, believed it was one more example of the way in which Dumbledore was manipulative towards everyone.  But as she searched her memory, she realized that no one had ever confirmed the caster of the charm, not in their discussions with Harry or Hermione about how the Potters had been betrayed.  It was a gut punch, realizing how wrong she had been.

But it didn’t change her opinion on Dumbledore, who had still manipulated Harry all of his life and raised him like a lamb for slaughter.  Nor did it change the fact that Sirius was innocent and a much better parent for Harry than the Dursleys.

So, Hermione pivoted.  “Isn’t there something we can do?  I know that Pettigrew escaped, but can’t Dumbledore vouch for Sirius?  There wasn’t even a trial as far as I can tell, and Harry needs his godfather more than ever.”  Hermione let her voice turn into a ramble, emotions building as she plowed forward with this train of thought.  “I mean, the conditions he lives in between the school years is just appalling, I mean they hardly feed him and they locked him in that cupboard under the stairs until he was 11, and they call him the most horrendous names, and Harry just needs a stable parent who actually cares about him.  Now he’s being tossed into this Tournament against his will, and Sirius can’t even be here for him?  I know it isn’t like me to question my professors, but Harry is my best friend.  Sirius was a good man, at least before the Dementors got to him.  Someone—an adult—needs to be looking out for Harry’s best interests, and I’m so scared that no one is really doing that!”

By this point, Hermione was on the verge of tears, and she hardly had to fake the emotions she was feeling.  It may have taken her years to realize the full extent of what Dumbledore had put Harry, Sirius, and others through, but the anger and fear for Harry’s well-being was very much present and real.  Fortunately, she wasn’t the only one who appeared emotionally compromised at this point.

“Ms. Granger, I need you to be very honest with me now.  What exactly have the Dursleys been doing to Harry?”  Minerva’s voice was thin, and her knuckles had gone white where she was gripping the arms of her chair.  Her emotional investment was evident.  Hermione held nothing back, giving as full an accounting of Harry’s abuse at the hands of his monstrous relatives as she could remember.  The eleven years of starvation, isolation, and regular verbal abuse to start his life.  The continued verbal abuse and mockery by Vernon and Petunia even after the presence of magic in Harry’s life forced them to give him his own room and marginally better meals, as well as the bullying and physical violence on numerous occasions from both Vernon and Dudley.  The time they refused him his mail.  When Vernon put literal iron bars on the window to Harry’s room.  Telling neighbors and family friends that Harry was an idiot and a delinquent.  All of it without a single word of kindness or love, for his entire life. 

Hermione couldn’t make it through the list before her tears started flowing.  Minerva looked absolutely stricken.  When next she spoke, her voice was so haunted that it made Hermione shudder.  She sounded like the broken Minerva who Hermione had left behind in the other timeline.  “Why didn’t he ever say anything?”

“He didn’t know any better!”  Hermione took a breath; the last thing she needed to do was yell at her professor.  “Prior to Hogwarts, his only real experience with adults was with his aunt and uncle.  They made him feel like he was an ungrateful burden, and that he deserved his treatment.  Even after he came to Hogwarts and experienced love and affection for the first time in his life, he didn’t know how to talk about his abuse.  He just wanted to put up with it and get back to the good parts of his life.”

A heavy silence settled between them, and Hermione gave Minerva time to process the information.  When the older witch finally met her gaze again, Hermione knew the conversation was drawing to an end, and quickly.  “Thank you for telling me, Ms. Granger.  You are a good friend, and Mr. Potter is lucky to have you.  I will discuss this with Professor Dumbledore, and with Harry himself.  You have my word that I will make this right.”

“Please don’t tell Professor Dumbledore it was me who told you.”  Minerva looked taken aback by this, so Hermione rushed to explain further.  “I just … I have concerns.  A-and I’m trusting you with my concerns.  I don’t want to make anything worse for Harry, and I know you trust Professor Dumbledore, but I just have this feeling like something isn’t right.  Please, Professor McGonagall.”

“Very well,” she agreed, though Hermione could tell the older witch was humouring her more than anything.  “Now, it is getting late, and I’m sure Mr. Potter will have returned to the dormitories by now.  Something tells me he will need his most supportive friend tonight.”

“Thank you, Professor.”  Hermione resisted the urge to hug Minerva and stood from her seat.  “I’ll go check on him right now.”

                                                  

Hermione did not, however, go straight back to the dormitories.  Minerva was right that Harry probably needed her right then, but Hermione was having a bit of a crisis of conscience right then.

In the weeks since she returned to 1994, Hermione had established a number of plans, strategies, and to-do lists, as well as numerous journal entries in which she wrote down as many things about her fourth year and the Triwizard Tournament as she could remember.  In none of these plans had she considered telling Harry that she was from the future.

Her thoughts spiraled a bit as her feet carried her down a corridor, which she was quite sure wouldn’t take her back to Gryffindor Tower.  She had been fully prepared to keep Harry completely in the dark, at least until after the Triwizard Tournament, in order to better be able to predict things.  That was how she thought she would keep him safe.  She would help him get through it safely but do everything she could to keep him from ever reaching that graveyard in Little Hangleton. 

And now she was realizing that would’ve been a terrible mistake.  Hermione could see now that what she had been contemplating—playing Harry’s protector while secretly manipulating the goings on around him for the rest of the year—was exactly the sort of behaviour she found reprehensible in Dumbledore.  She couldn’t do that to Harry.  She wouldn’t.

Hermione was so caught up in her own thoughts that she suddenly found herself stumbling upon a completely unexpected and confusing scene.  Sensing some movement in her periphery, she turned and looked into the empty classroom she was walking by.  Shuffling sounds drew her attention to a pair of bodies in the shadows, moving against each other.  A soft, throaty hum of delight broke the silence, and only then did Hermione realize with a blush what she had walked in on.

Two girls were snogging.

A smile broke across Hermione’s lips, as she began to step backwards towards the door.  The amorous pair hadn’t noticed her presence, and she didn’t want to ruin their fun.  Unfortunately, her still-growing body did not want to cooperate, and she hit the side of her heel against the door frame at a weird angle, drawing a sharp hiss of pain before she could stop herself.

One of the girls straightened with a muffled, “Scheiße!”

“Is it weird that your German turns me on?” came a whispered reply from the girl underneath her.

“No, there’s someone there!”  Hermione could only make out the German girl’s hair in the dim lighting from the sconces in the corridor, but it was remarkable.  A dark silvery colour that practically shimmered in the darkness, it was darker and wavier than Fleur’s hair but no less ethereal.  Hermione found herself immediately wondering if Fleur and Gabrielle weren’t the only veela who had come to Hogwarts from Beauxbatons, and the magical feeling of a sudden warmth and pull told her that yes, in fact, this girl had to be at part veela.

Hermione rushed forward, apologizing profusely in hushed whispers.  “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.  I was just walking by and please don’t mind me at all, do carry on, and I’ll just be going—”

“Granger?”  The German helped the other girl to her feet, and Hermione recognized her as one of the Slytherins from her year, Daphne Greengrass.  She quickly dropped a couple of choice expletives herself, before reaching for her wand.  “Don’t even think about turning us in,” she hissed.

The German girl pressed her wand hand back down to her side.  “She was just apologizing.  I don’t think she intends to cause us any trouble.”  Her English was accented, but clear and precise.  Both girls were still a little out of breath.

“Oh.”  Dark eyes narrowed under even darker eyebrows.  “What gives, Granger?  I thought you were a goody two-shoes.”

“Don’t trust the rumours, Daphne.  And call me Hermione.”  Daphne looked completely gobsmacked that Hermione wasn’t fazed at all by catching her snogging one of the Beauxbatons students.  “I’ve got no issue with any of this.  Just be careful not to get caught.  Can’t imagine your pure-blood friends would be as accepting as I am.”  Daphne’s face clouded, and Hermione immediately put her hands into the air in a calming gesture.  “Seriously, not trying to pick a fight.  In fact, I happen to know there are more than a few dark corners of the library where you’re much less likely to be interrupted.”  She turned to leave, smiling at the brief but pleasant distraction.

“I should probably get going anyway,” she overheard the German girl say.  “If I am gone too long, Fleur will be looking for me.”  Hermione froze, then spun on her heal.

“Fleur Delacour?”

The German girl smirked.  “Ja.  She is my friend.  A bit overprotective at times.”  The girl’s warm brown skin practically glowed, and her lips were still slightly swollen from their previous activities.  Hermione guessed she was probably around the same age as herself and Daphne.

“Would you mind telling her that Hermione said hullo?”  Hermione fought the blush that wanted to rise to her cheeks.  Fortunately, the girl just chuckled.

“Ah yes, she mentioned you last night when she showed up after midnight.  Apparently you are quite the tour guide.  I am Katarina Seifert.  I will be sure to give her your best.”

“Thanks,” Hermione said.  “And it’s nice to meet you, Katarina.”  She turned her back and resumed walking, before dropping a final, suggestive, “Good night, Daphne.”

                                                  

Her encounter with Daphne and Katarina left Hermione feeling a great deal more lighthearted.  It was nice to know she wasn’t the only sapphically minded young witch in the castle.  As soon as she was alone again, she called out to her favourite elf.  “Dobby?”  She only had to wait a few seconds before the elf appeared with a sharp crack.  “Are you busy right now?”

“No,” Dobby answered politely before grinning widely.  “Dobby was just dusting the classrooms.”  She wondered if he had been privy to the same little show she had stumbled across, but she decided it was best not to ask.

“And you don’t have a deadline to meet?”

“No, there is plenty of time to finish before classes tomorrow.”  He smiled again, and Hermione smiled right back, feeling refreshed and ready for what was sure to be another difficult conversation. 

“Okay, could you take me to the Come and Go Room?”  The elf simply nodded and reached for her hand.  She clasped his hand and braced against the darkness and discomfort of side-along apparition.  In the next moment, they were inside the Room of Requirement, which was currently a cozy little sitting room not unlike Professor McGonagall’s office, complete with a warm fireplace, three comfortable chairs (one noticeably smaller than the other two), and a small table with tea already prepared.  This will do, she thought to herself, before blowing out a heavy breath that did nothing to soothe her resurgent anxiety.

“Thank you, Dobby.  Could you please go ask Harry to join us?”

“Yes, miss.”  He disapparated, leaving Hermione alone with her thoughts.  She took one of the chairs and immediately began a series of breathing exercises.  A lengthy breath in, a pause, then a lengthy breath out.  She repeated this cycle several times until she could feel her heart rate begin to slow. And then, with another sharp crack, she was no longer alone.

Harry still had his school robes on, meaning he hadn’t already prepared for bed.  Hermione would’ve taken that as a good sign, except for Harry’s body language.  He seemed even smaller than usual, and he didn’t seem to be handling the side-along apparition well.  His arms crossed in front of his chest as soon as he pulled his hand free of Dobby’s, and his frown deepened as he met Hermione’s gaze.

“Well have at it, then.  You gonna call me a liar to my face too?”

Hermione shook her head, then stood and stepped toward Harry.  “No, Harry, what’s wrong?”  But by the time she stepped close enough to pull him into a hug, he was looking around the room with wide eyes.

“What is this place?”

“The elves call it the Come and Go Room.  Personally, I prefer to call it the Room of Requirement.  It’s a special room that becomes whatever you need it to be.  Someday I’ll show you how to find it and use it, but for now, I just needed a nice quiet spot where no one would bother us.  You see, there’s something I need to tell you.”  She nodded her head towards the armchairs, where Dobby had already taken his seat after pouring them all tea.  Harry followed her and took the seat to Dobby’s left.

“Okay.  Does this have something to do with the Goblet?”  Harry took a sip of his tea, seeming to calm somewhat.

“Yes and no,” Hermione answered.  “Mostly no.”

“And why is Dobby here?”

Hermione smiled at the elf, who smiled right back.  “Dobby is here because he’s my friend.  And because he knows the secret I’m about to tell you.”

“Okay…”  Harry’s voice trailed off, his puzzlement evident.  Hermione could tell his mind was still focused on the night’s events.  So, Hermione decided to see if she could put him at ease.

“Harry, I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe through this Triwizard Tournament, okay?”

Harry froze, hands outstretched towards his teacup.  “You don’t think I put my own name in?”

Hermione rolled her eyes playfully.  “Well, of course I knew you hadn’t entered yourself!  First of all, I know you, Harry.  And anyways, you couldn’t have faked the look of shock on your face when Dumbledore called your name, not even if you tried.”

Harry grinned at this, and his whole body untensed a little.  “No one else would believe me, not even Ron—”

“Don’t you worry about Ronald.  He’s got his own insecurities that he’s putting on you.  He isn’t being fair, and none of it is your fault.  Don’t let his jealousy get to you.”

“And what exactly is he jealous of?” Harry asked incredulously.  “He wants to make a prat of himself in front of the whole school, does he?”

“Harry Potter’s Wheezy shouldn’t treat him this way!” Dobby protested, thin fingers pulling into tiny fists.  “Dobby should give him a piece of his mind.”

“I’d pay to see that actually,” Hermione joked, drawing a shy grin from Harry.  “Ronald just wants the attention is all,” she added.  “He’s got five older brothers, each of whom is distinctive and attention-grabbing in their own way.  And he’s been best mates with you since our first year.  He doesn’t really think about the fact that you don’t want all this.  He wants it so badly that it’s hard for him to see it from your side.”

“No excuse for him being a prat,” Harry muttered, collapsing back into the warmth of the chair and taking another sip of his tea.

“You’ll get no arguments from me.  Maybe just give him some time to cool off.”  He shrugged, and Hermione gave up on trying to defend Ron.  The boy had a lot of growing up to do still, and she and Harry had more important topics to discuss.

“Listen, Harry, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: nothing about this year is going to be easy.  And what I’m going to tell you isn’t necessarily going to make anything easier.”  This got his attention.  “But first, I need you to promise you’ll write to Sirius tomorrow and tell him about the Tournament.”

“Come off it,” Harry pushed back.  “He came back to the country just because my scar twinged. He’ll probably come bursting right into the castle if I tell him someone’s entered me in the Triwizard Tournament —”

“You’re probably right,” Hermione conceded.  In fact, she knew for a fact that he would make his way to the countryside just outside of Hogsmeade.  “But there’s no getting around that.  You’re famous.  The Triwizard Tournament is famous.  This is going to be front page news.  He would want to hear it from you instead.”

Harry blew out a sigh.  “Fine, Hermione.  I’ll send an owl in the morning.”

“Thank you.”  She drew in a deep, centering breath.  “Now.  I’m sure you’re wondering what I’m going on about.”

“A bit, yeah.  I mean, honestly, Hermione, it’s been a long night, and then Dobby shows up out of nowhere and says you want to meet, but he won’t say why and won’t take no for an answer.  Then he apparates me here, which almost made me lose my dinner actually, and now you’re telling me you know about some secret room in Hogwarts and you’re talking to me as if you’ve got some deep dark secret and—”

“And it’s a lot,” Hermione finished for him, and they both nodded.  “I am sorry for that, Harry.  I really am.”  She drew in a breath, then released it.  “First of all, I should also tell you that I had a difficult conversation with Professor McGonagall earlier tonight.  About you.  About the Dursleys.”

“What?” She didn’t think he meant to shout, but Dobby winced a little at the volume.  Harry at least looked a little sheepish at startling the elf.  “Sorry, Dobby.  I just … what did you say?  And why?”

“She wasn’t aware of how dreadfully they have been treating you, and after everything that happened with Sirius—especially everything that you thought was going to happen, and then didn’t—I thought an adult needed to know.  She wants to help you, Harry.”  She watched him closely, trying to gauge his reactions.  These wounds were still fresh for Harry, and he hadn’t actively chosen to share this with her, not in this timeline.  But it was better he hear it from her now, than when Minerva reached out in the next couple of days.

“B-but … Hermione, I don’t understand.”  His voice was thin.  Hollow.

“I don’t know what will happen, not yet, but you shouldn’t have to go back to that awful house, Harry.  You deserve so much better, and we just want to help you.  Is that okay?”

He glanced to Dobby, who offered his broadest smile.  It was probably meant to be reassuring, but with Dobby’s usual assortment of mismatched clothing and accessories, the effect was (as always) rather silly.  A ghost of a smile played at Harry’s lips.  “Yeah, okay.  Couldn’t hurt to talk to her.”

“I’m happy to be with you for that conversation, if you like.”  He shrugged, and she elected not to push.

“Okay but how did you even know … I mean, I know I complain sometimes, but what made you think you needed to talk to Professor McGonagall…” he trailed off, seemingly unsure of how to ask the question without specifically referencing his own abuse.  It broke Hermione’s heart.

“That is … hard to say.  But that’s the big thing I wanted to talk to you about, actually.  It’s something that I …. Well, I just—there’s a lot that I’ve been keeping to myself, and I’m not entirely sure how to tell you everything.  Hell, I’m not even sure you’re going to believe me.”  A snort broke through her rambling train of thought.

She glanced up from her hands and found Harry gaping at her.  “What?” she asked, self-consciously.

“I’m sorry, did Hermione Granger just swear at me?”  A wide smile adorned his face, despite his otherwise still very surprised expression.

“Oh Harry, I’m sure you’ll find a great many things about me quite surprising,” she teased.  “I’m not exactly the Hermione Granger you expect me to be.” 

“Meaning what exactly?”

“Meaning that I’m not just some bookish 15-year-old student.  Meaning that I’m actually 19 years old, a survivor of a very gruesome war, and a very powerful witch.  Meaning that I’m from the future.”

Harry didn’t say anything at first.  His eyes narrowed, and he searched her face for any sign that she might be pulling a prank.  She simply held her ground and waited, and after about a minute, Harry broke.  “What the bloody hell are you going on about?”

“Look, I know this is going to be difficult to process, but I am not joking.  This is the truth of things, I promise.  Minerva—Professor McGonagall,” she corrected herself, “used ancient magic to transfer my mind back into the body of my 15-year-old self.  I’ve been in this timeline for almost two months now, but before that, I was living in February 1999.  I’ve lived all this before.”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes, Harry.”

“And you already told Dobby?”

“Miss Hermione trusts Dobby with her mission!” Dobby answered proudly.

“Okay well what’s this mission, then?”

Now it was Hermione’s turn to gape.  “You actually believe me?”

Harry cracked a smile.  “Honestly, it sounds like a bunch of rubbish, but it was not five months ago that you and I were traveling through time together ourselves.  I was able to cast a Patronus only because I already knew that a future version of me had done it.  The whole load of it is rubbish, but it happened.  So if you say you’re somehow from years in the future, even though you look and … mostly sound like my Hermione, then I believe you.”

Hermione chuckled.  “Well, when you put it that way…”  She took a sip of her own tea.  “It absolutely is rubbish though.  I can’t believe someone thought it was a good idea to give a time turner to a 14-year-old.”

“Not just any 14-year-old,” Harry reminded her, and the sentiment warmed her heart.  But then Harry’s cheer drained from his face.  “I guess if you and McGonagall went through all the trouble of sending you back here, things are about to get really bad, huh?”

Hermione pressed her lips together.  “Not right away, no.  And not at all, if I have anything to say about it.”

“Well that’s something,” he said wryly.  “So why you?  And why now?”

“Voldemort is going to manipulate the Triwizard Tournament to get something he needs in order to restore his body.  That’s the beginning of the end, as far as we’re concerned.  If I can stop that from happening, everything else is that much easier.  But a lot of it revolves around you, and I was the only person who was close to you at this time who could try and change things without drawing suspicion.”

Harry leaned forward in his seat.  “So you know who put my name in the Goblet of Fire?”

She nodded.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you who it is.  Not yet.  But I promise I won’t let them do anything to hurt you.”

“Is it Snape?  No, that’s too obvious.  Unless…”

“It isn’t Snape, but I wouldn’t exactly put a lot of faith in him, to be honest.  He isn’t working for Voldemort, but he’s still a terrible human being, in my opinion.”  She fixed Harry with her best Hermione ‘know-it-all’ stare.  “And no more fishing for information, okay?  If there’s something I’m not telling you, I have a very good reason for doing so.  I promise I will never lie to you, but I have to keep some things to myself, both to protect you and to maintain the timeline.”

Harry made a face, but he didn’t argue the point.  She knew that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his curiosity, but she hoped by being completely transparent with him, she could at least prevent him from chasing his instinct to go find answers on his own.  “Okay, so then how did Voldemort get to someone with control over the Tournament?”

“There’s a Death Eater posing as someone else, and that’s the most I can tell you.  Trust me when I say that this person will not move against you.  Voldemort needs you to be the person who wins the Tournament, as dumb as that may sound.  You’re in more danger from the dragon than the Death Eater.”

Harry blanched.  “I’m sorry, did you say dragon?”

“Yeah sorry, please don’t tell anyone that.  You can’t ever let anyone suspect you know something you can’t possibly have learned yet, okay?  And don’t worry, we’ve got a great strategy for handling the First Task.” 

That didn’t seem to make him feel any better, so she reached across and placed her hand atop his on his knee.  “Harry, I know that this is a lot to take in, and the Tournament is dangerous and scary.  But I love you.  You’re the only brother I’ve ever had, and we will get through this together.  When the time comes, I will be the one to face Riddle.  He wants your blood to complete his ritual, and that is the one thing we cannot let him do.”

Harry’s hand moved so it could hold Hermione’s.  A fierce expression was on his face now.  “You can’t face him alone, Hermione.”

She smiled and squeezed his hand.  “I don’t intend to.”

Chapter Text

The next morning was every bit as tense as Hermione remembered it being the first time around, but the marked difference was Harry’s demeanor.  Ron sat with Dean and Seamus at breakfast and in class, pointedly ignoring Harry’s attempts to talk to him.  Fortunately, however, everything else—the proud glances from some of the Gryffindors, the jeering from the Slytherins, and the mistrust from most of the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws—didn’t seem to faze Harry like they had in the old timeline.  He was still distracted, yes, but other than being hurt by Ron, none of it seemed to weigh on him. 

Maybe he was more willing to listen to her this time around, when she told him things would be okay.  She’d lived it before, after all.  So, when she told him that that the people who mattered already believed him and stood behind him, that most of Hogwarts just needed a few weeks before they stopped viewing him with suspicion, and that Ron would eventually get over himself, Harry seemed willing to accept her advice as truth. 

It was clear to Hermione that Harry’s focus was no longer on the present at all, but rather on the future.  Or Hermione’s version of it, anyway.  She could feel his curious gaze on her throughout breakfast and their morning class, having been interrupted in his whispered questions by the sudden presence of Ginny and Neville, who Hermione promptly invited to join them at breakfast.  The four of them did a decent job of ignoring the elephant in the room until Ginny went off to join her year for class, but Hermione could tell that Harry was preoccupied with the revelations from the night before. 

So, she wasted no time excusing them both from Neville’s company the second class was over, leading Harry as quickly as she could back to the library.  They found their way back to her usual table, away from prying eyes.  Once she got comfortable, Hermione simply turned a discerning look on her young friend and asked, “Well then, have at it.  I can tell you have more questions.”

“That obvious, huh?”  Hermione caught the faintest tinge of pink in Harry’s cheeks, but then she was distracted by a noise from a nearby stack.  She narrowed her eyes but didn’t see anyone there.  Even so, she figured it was better to be safe.

She pulled her wand and whispered, “Muffliato,” spinning her wand in three circles of increasing size above their heads, to increase the spell’s bubble of influence.

“Oi, what was that?”

“Just a little something to keep anyone from listening in on us,” she explained.

Harry made a face.  “Don’t remember learning that one in class.”

Hermione just grinned back at him.  “Maybe you should pay more attention in class, then.”  He rolled his eyes but didn’t push it any further.  “Alright then.  Out with it.  What are you just dying to know?”

“Well, I mean … I know McGonagall said that she talked to Dumbledore, a-and that I shouldn’t have to go back to the Dursleys at the end of term, but …”  He glanced up at the ceiling, then down at his hands.   “I mean, do we ever prove Sirius’s innocence?  Do I get to live with him?”

It was a difficult question, given everything that had happened with Sirius in the previous timeline.  Fortunately, Hermione anticipated the topic.  “I’m sorry, Harry, but no.  Not before.”

“But I … I just thought…”

“I know.  And I am sorry.”  She caught his eye.  “But things will be better this time around.  I’m going to make sure of it.  That’s why I told Min—McGonagall about the Dursleys and what they did to you.”

“That didn’t happen back when—”

She shook her head.  “No, you continued going back to the Dursleys every summer until you were of age.  But I’m not letting that happen again.  And I don’t know how we prove Sirius’s innocence, but if I can think of a way, I promise I’ll do whatever I can for him.”

He blew out a frustrated breath at this, then another thought occurred to him.  “Can we tell him? You know, that you’re from the future?”

“I won’t risk telling him via post,” Hermione said firmly.  “And I’m not ready to let anyone else into this circle of trust, not just yet.”  He started to protest, and she cut him off again.  “Harry, no.  And before you get any ideas, you couldn’t tell him even if you wanted to.”

Harry’s eyes widened.  “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

“It’s the Fidelius Charm.  Professor McGonagall, from my timeline I mean, she cast it.  I’m the secret keeper for all my future knowledge, and because of the charm, I’m the only one who can share that secret.”

“Like Pettigrew, with my parents,” he whispered, and she placed a hand on his forearm, trying to soothe away the bad memories.

“Yes.  There is so much at stake, Harry, and I can’t tell you all of it yet.  I really am sorry for the secrecy, but it is dangerous knowledge, and I can’t risk altering the timeline too much, not until the end of the Tournament.”

“What happened?” he blurted out, clearly frustrated by Hermione’s lack of transparency.  “What was so bad that you had to come back?  And why you?”  His voice grew louder with each word, and Hermione could feel her heart pounding in her chest all of the sudden.  “Is it Voldemort?  Is that it?  What does he have planned?”

The room had grown hot, and a thin sheen of sweat covered Hermione’s skin under her school robes.  She could hear her heartbeat in her ears now, she could practically hear it.  Then she was back in the battle.  Bellatrix’s goading haunted her as she watched Hagrid carry Harry’s lifeless corpse behind a procession of Death Eaters.  Red eyes glinted in pleasure as the Dark Lord flaunted his victory over his prophesied foe. 

“Hermione?”

Then it was months later, and she was crying on the floor of her London apartment.  William tried to comfort her, but all she could hear was ringing in her ears.  Ginny was dead.  Harry was dead.  Something had utterly wiped their entire cottage off the face of the Earth.  Tears coursed down her face.  She couldn’t breathe.  Her chest was on fire.

Hermione!

She sucked in cold air as the smell of books returned around her.  Terrified green eyes stared out from behind smudged lenses, frantically searching her face for any indication as to what was going on.  “Hermione, what’s happening?”  She pushed away from him, breaking free of hands gripping her shoulders tightly.  Hermione gasped to catch her breath, her exhalations much too quick.  She found a fixed point on the ceiling to focus on, trying to let everything else go.

Breathe in, she reminded herself.  Breathe out.  Slowly.  She repeated this task, focusing on her breathing and the ceiling until her chest was no longer on fire.  Only then could she face Harry again, and he looked as though he was frozen in shock.

“It’s okay,” she said quietly, settling back into her seat.

“Pretty sure that—whatever that was—is not okay, Hermione.”  Her initial impulse was to shout at him, but that wasn’t fair.  He didn’t know any better, and the panic attack had come out of nowhere.  At least it was only a little one.  She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear away any feelings of resentment or frustration.

“No, it’s not okay, Harry, but it is also not your fault.  And not something you need to worry about right now.”  She placed a hand firmly on each of his shoulders.  “I’m not ready to talk about what happened.  What I’m here to prevent.  It was really bad, and remembering it is … difficult for me.”

Harry looked practically on the verge of tears, and for the first time since she’d come back, Hermione saw a flash of that same burdened but supremely compassionate soul she’d spent months alone in a tent with.  She was determined to be sure that his burden this time was significantly lighter, and that he was more prepared to face it with full knowledge of what he faced, but it warmed her heart to have that tiny reminder that the Harry she had lost still existed in some form or another.

“I’m sorry.  I-I didn’t realize it was …”

She squeezed his shoulders.  “Of course you didn’t.  It’s okay.  I’m okay now.  But maybe you have some lighter questions I could answer.”

His smile was almost bashful.  “Well I was curious whether Cho and I ever get together.”

Hermione couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes.  “Really, Harry Potter?  That’s disappointing.  Knowing the outcome seems like it would take all the fun out of pursuing a girl.”

Harry chuckled, and Hermione could hear the nerves in it.  “You say that almost like you’re speaking from experience.”

“Well, I’ve never gone into it knowing how things would turn out, so no, no experience there.  But I do rather enjoy the chase, as it turns out.”

“You meet many blokes who like that, being pursued?”  Hermione immediately grimaced at the question, not that she was surprised by his assumption.

“No, Harry, I can’t say that I have.”

“But then… what did you, I mean, how…”  Hermione raised a single eyebrow as Harry continued to stumble through a series of increasingly less coherent words.  Eventually he gave up.  “Well then what in the bloody hell did you mean that you rather enjoy the chase?” he spluttered, visibly confused now.

Hermione shook her head, then cast him a playfully withering glare. “Oh come now, this isn’t some impossible puzzle to solve.  I said I enjoy the chase.  I didn’t say anything about blokes.”

Harry’s eyes went wide.  “Wait, you’re not saying that you’re …”

“That I’m what?”  She stifled a laugh at how much he looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming muggle car.

“That you’re … well, you know.”

“It won’t hurt you to say it out loud, Harry.  That I’m what?”

“I just mean that I didn’t know you were a …” he leaned in, and his voice dropped to a whisper, “a lesbian.”  Hermione caught him off guard by patting him teasingly on the head, and he immediately drew back into his seat.

“There you go, now see!  That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“No,” he admitted.  “Sorry, I’m being weird, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are,” she confirmed, but she wasn’t mad about it.  He was handling the revelation well, all things considered.  Hermione’s heart ached a little.  She hadn’t gotten the chance to come out to her Harry.  She had wanted to do it in person.

“Sorry.  I’ve just never known anyone who was gay or anything.”

Hermione couldn’t help the skepticism that wrote itself across her face.  “Well, I know that isn’t true.  You know at least—” she paused, counting in her head, “—five gay, lesbian, or bisexual people, including me.”  She had her suspicions about a handful of others, as well.

“What?!”  Harry’s voice was practically a squeak, but he didn’t seem upset, exactly.  Just surprised, and if Hermione was reading his body language correctly, maybe even a little curious.  “Who?”

“I’m not going to out anyone.  I’m just saying, you shouldn’t assume that everyone is straight.”

Harry scratched at the back of his now rather lengthy hair sheepishly.  “Did you know, you know, back when you were in school?”

She shook her head.  “No.  Honestly, I never really thought much about romance back then.  I think I focused on schoolwork so much because that made sense to me.  I never really understood why other girls cared about boys so much.  And I think some part of me was just avoiding the topic because the more I look back at my teens, the more I can see obvious signs.  But I wasn’t ready to think about it back then.”

“Are you afraid of people finding out?”

Hermione watched the silhouette of another student rummaging around one of the stacks a few rows down from the corner where she and Harry were seated.  It gave her time to collect her thoughts, since it was the first time anyone had asked her a question like that.

“No, I’m not,” she answered, still putting together her answer in her head.  “I’m proud of who I am.  After the—” she caught herself, having almost mentioned the war, “—after Hogwarts, I spent a lot of time with other queer people my age and with other muggles.  And I had never felt more comfortably myself, even though I was also experiencing a lot of sadness at the time.  I think back to school, how much I tended to isolate myself, and I don’t want to be that lonely girl ever again.”

“Lonely?” Harry asked, a little surprised.  “I’m sorry, Hermione.  Guess I never noticed that really.  I mean, I feel lonely a lot too, but I just assumed … with me and Ron and Ginny, that you …”

Hermione smiled brightly at her friend.  “No, no you have a point.  I don’t want to dismiss the friendships I had—have—but the loneliness was still there.  Having friends is one thing, and it is a lovely thing, but it isn’t the same thing as having a community.  Having a confidence and a sureness about who you are and where you fit in the world.  Even with you and Ginny, and especially with Ron, I just never felt like any of you really knew me, deep down.”

His face fell, and she rushed to explain, because she hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings.  “I don’t mean that as a criticism.  You’re fourteen, Harry.  You’re allowed to be focused on your own things, and I never held it against you.  The fact of the matter is that I didn’t even know myself deep down, so how could you have?”

Harry blinked several times, and Hermione wondered at the thoughts she could practically see swirling around in his head.  Harry never did have much of a poker face, but more than anything, he just looked astonished.  Like he was thinking about something big and meaningful in a new light for the first time in his life.

Or maybe Hermione was projecting, who knows?

“What about bullies?” he asked.  His voice was impossibly fragile, and Hermione couldn’t help herself.  She wrapped him into a tight hug.  He hesitated, surprised by the gesture, but then held her just as tightly.

“Don’t concern yourself with the likes of them, Harry Potter.  They only have as much power as we let them.”  She pulled away, and the two of them shared a smile as she sat back down.  “They think it makes me weak when they call me a mudblood, but I am proud of my muggle heritage.  Knowing who I am makes me strong, not weak.  And I’m a better witch than any of them.  I was when I was fifteen, and I am even moreso now.  They have no idea who they’re messing with.”

Harry still seemed concerned, though.  Hermione didn’t know how to assuage his worries, but she was touched at his concern for her.  “Anyways, there isn’t the same stigma in the Magical world as there is in the muggle.  About the gay thing, I mean.”

“Wait, really?”

“I mean, people can still be pretty weird about it, especially people from old pure-blood families.  But it’s nothing compared to how they feel about muggle-borns, and it’s mostly just because if a pure-blood wizard is gay, he isn’t likely to be continuing the bloodline, now is he?  But it’s nothing like the hatred people have in the muggle world, not really.”

“I had no idea,” Harry said, almost wistfully.  “The way Uncle Vernon would talk about … well, people like that, I just thought…  I guess I never really gave any of it much thought at all.”  He smirked.  “Never really seen the appeal in blokes, myself.”

Hermione chuckled.  “On that, we can agree.” 

                                                  

Hermione’s first conversation with Viktor Krum didn’t happen until the end of the week.  Classes were over for the day, and Hermione had already changed into more comfortable clothes before heading to the library.  Her homework for the week was already finished, as was the work she imagined she would need for the next week.  So when Krum found her in the library, Hermione was sitting cross-legged in one of the biggest, comfiest chairs, reading a muggle novel that had only just begun to catch her attention. 

“Excuse me,” he said softly, and Hermione knew from the accent who it was, even before she looked up from the text of the page.  “May I sit here?”  Viktor gestured at the seat that shared a small end table with Hermione’s, and she offered him a soft smile as she nodded.  She had, after all, intentionally chosen to sit somewhere a bit more conspicuous this time around, given that Krum had so far proven unable to find her secluded spot on the third floor.

“Certainly,” she said, grabbing her bookmark and marking her page before closing Le Sabotage amoureux and slipping it back into her bag.  “I’m Hermione, Hermione Granger.”

He shook her hand.  “Viktor Krum.  But you probably knew that.”

“Not really much for quidditch, actually, but I was at the Cup this summer with some friends.  Your name might’ve come up once or twice.”  Rather than laugh at her joke, his face darkened slightly, but he forced a smile to his face as he shook it off.  She guessed the Cup was still a sore subject.

“Vas one of those friends Harry Potter?”  It was the same question he asked her the first time around.  Then, she had been put off by the question, sure he was just looking for an advantage in the Tournament.  Now, things were a bit different.

“Yes, in fact, Harry is my best friend.”  She raised an eyebrow.  “Is this about the Triwizard Tournament?  Surely the famous Viktor Krum didn’t come strike up a conversation with a random girl in the library just for the fun of it.”

“No!” he insisted.  “I mean, yes, but not like that.  I saw you around him a few times, and I vas just vondering, well … how did he get his name in the goblet?”

He didn’t, I can assure you of that.  Harry is a great person and a true friend, but he isn’t a magical prodigy.  He’s not top of our class.  He would have no idea how to confound something like the Goblet of Fire.  And besides, Harry isn’t looking for fame or fortune.  He’s got both already and doesn’t much care for either.”

“You mean to say that you are the same age as Harry?” he asked, surprised.  Hermione hadn’t considered that he never really asked her that the first time around.  When she was 15, she hadn’t given much thought to being pursued by an 18-year-old, a legal adult.  She wasn’t interested in dating Viktor, aside from proving that she was perfectly capable of being feminine and attracting boys the same as any other girl her age.  So she hadn’t thought about whether the age difference was perhaps a bit creepy, not until now.  Maybe he hadn’t ever realized how young she was.

“We’re the same year, yes, but I’m nearly a year older.  I’m 15.”

“You seem older, somehow.”  She wasn’t sure how to take that, honestly, but it did unsettle her a bit.  Even if it was, in a manner of speaking, perfectly true.  She was older, older even than him, but as far as he knew, she was just a teenage girl, more than three years his junior.  For whatever reason, that bothered her more than the three years, at least mentally and emotionally, she had on Fleur.  Not that I think of Fleur that way, she scolded herself mentally.  Not that it would matter if I did.

She glanced back at Krum and shrugged.  “Yes, well … I’m not.”

“And I vas also curious, vhy do you vear such unusual clothes?”  His brow furrowed.  “They are nice, but not like anything I have seen.” 

Hermione glanced down at herself.  She was wearing her favourite sweatshirt and a pair of simple grey running shorts.  The sweatshirt was a bit oversized and well-worn, a deep blue with block white letters across the chest spelling out “LEICESTER CITY.”  The logo, a white outline of a prancing fox surrounded by a circle, rested just below.   Her feet were clad in a pair of simple, white and blue Adidas running trainers.  It was altogether a fairly basic and unremarkable outfit, in Hermione’s opinion.  But she could see how a pure-blood wizard from Bulgaria might think it remarkable.

“They’re muggle clothes,” she explained.  “I’m muggle-born.”

“Oh,” was his quiet reply, and she could tell from his body language that he was taken aback by this information.

“I take it you don’t have many muggle-borns at Durmstrang?”  She tried to keep any bitterness out of her tone, given that she had every intention of trying to befriend Krum or at least enlist him as an ally in her mission.  The first time around she had been much more willing to downplay her heritage, especially at Hogwarts, where people like Malfoy bullied her relentlessly about it.

“Ve have a few.  Not many.  And none of them that wear clothes like these.”  He frowned.  “I apologize if I have offended you.”

“It’s alright.  I know that most muggle-borns aren’t as, um, proud of their heritage as I am.  We’re only required to wear robes in class and at formal events, but I mostly wear muggle stuff in my free time.”

“And vhat is ‘Lie-kest-er’ City?  Is that vhere you are from?”

Hermione giggled at his stumble over the foreign word.  “It’s ‘Leh-ster’,” she enunciated.  “And no, it’s a football club from the muggle city where my dad grew up.  This was his sweatshirt, till he gave it to me.”

“That is the muggle sport vhere they kick the ball around?”

“Yes, exactly!”

“You and your father are big fans then?  Of this muggle sport?  Just not quidditch?”  He seemed a little disappointed by that, but at least he was being polite.  She wondered how rare it was for him to actually talk to someone who didn’t give a rat’s arse that he was a quidditch prodigy.

“We are!  Though they’re having a particularly dreadful season so far.”  She blew out a frustrated breath.  She missed being able to watch the matches with her father.  They used to attend every game the Foxes played in London.  She’d left that mostly behind her in her first few years at Hogwarts, leaving behind most of the trappings of her muggle life.  It’d been hard on her parents, and she knew that her seeming lack of interest in the football standings had especially hurt her father.  Since she came back in time, she had been careful to send her parents regular letters, and her father always included a bit about the club.  

Hermione shrugged.  “It’s hard to keep up with the team up here, so far away from everything muggle.  But I have managed to enchant a magical radio to pick up Muggle stations as well as magical, so I have been able to listen to some of the matches at least.  One of the other Gryffindors, Dean Thomas, is a big West Ham supporter, so I told him he could listen with me tomorrow when they play against my Foxes.”

“Can a sport without brooms really be all that exciting?” Krum asked, and she could tell that the sports talk intrigued him even if the football part of it wasn’t of particular interest to him.

“You’d be surprised,” she insisted, before adding a sly, “besides, it’s certainly more interesting than a sport where the entire game is usually made irrelevant by a single player catching a golden ball with wings.”

Krum’s face turned a surprisingly bright red, but then he cracked up, breaking into a hearty laugh.  “If only that were always the case,” he quipped, and Hermione appreciated that he was finally able to make light of his World Cup performance, at least a little.

Checking her wristwatch (another muggle oddity she was sure Krum found remarkable), Hermione flashed the Bulgarian a wide smile.  “Well, Mr. Krum, this has been an engaging conversation, but I have got to run.  Let’s chat again soon, yeah?”  She gathered her things, and he stood when she did.

“I vould like that, Hermy-own.”  She did her best to stifle her laughter at the outrageously bad pronunciation of her name.

“It’s ‘Herm-eye-own-ee’,” she corrected with a giggle.  “But don’t worry, we can work on it.  See you around, Viktor.”

                                                  

The football match didn’t go well, and Dean did his fair share of gloating.  That’s why she was relieved when Ginny, Neville, and Harry showed up to the Gryffindor common room shortly thereafter. 

“My friends!” she shouted.  “Please save me from Dean being a sore winner.”  She yanked Ginny down onto the sofa next to her, before leveling another glare at the still gloating boy.

“Sore winner about what exactly?” Neville asked.

“Oi, Hermione’s bewitched the radio so that it picks up muggle stations!” Dean shouted, a wide grin plastered across his face.  “We just finished listening to the West Ham-Leicester match.”

“Hermione Granger is a sports fan?!” Ginny gasped, a smile breaking across her lips that rivaled Dean’s. 

“Just Leicester City,” Hermione grumbled.

“Muggle football,” Dean explained to Neville, who still looked completely lost.

“Sorry, I’m still hung up on the ‘Hermione is a sports fan’ bit,” Harry joked, settling down on Ginny’s other side.

“I am not!” Hermione argued strenuously.  “I am a Leicester City supporter, and I’m only that because it’s something I share with my dad.  Otherwise I wouldn’t put up with such blatant incompetence, now would I?”

Dean nearly fell over laughing.  “Granger, I had no idea you were this much fun.  But you’re spot on about the Foxes.  West Ham’s middlin’ at best this season, but at least we aren’t as miserable as your boys.”  Hermione just glared at him harder, and now Ginny was the one to burst out laughing.  She was about to shove the youngest Weasley, until she caught sight of a different head of ginger hair across the room.

In the commotion, no one had noticed Ronald come through the Fat Lady’s portrait.  All of the joy drained quickly from the room.

“Oh, don’t let me disturb this jolly meeting of the Harry Potter fan club,” he sneered.  “Just me, who you all forgot existed.”

“That isn’t fair,” Ginny protested.

“You’re the one who refuses to talk to Harry,” Hermione added.  “Don’t put this on us.  You’re the prat who won’t believe his own best friend.”

“Bugger off, Hermione.  Maybe you like playing sidekick, but I’m bloody tired of it.”  The blood drained from Harry’s face, and his entire body shrank in on itself.  The sight made Hermione that much more furious.  Harry didn’t deserve this, especially from Ron.  Fortunately, Dean seemed to recognize Hermione’s fury immediately, and he moved quickly to intercept Ron.

“Alright mate, maybe we should all just calm down.  I’ve got some sweets up in our room if you want some.”

“Fine, whatever,” Ron muttered, but not before making another face at Harry and Hermione both.  Then he and Dean were heading down the stairs to the boys’ dorms, and the rest of them were left to deal with the awkward silence left in Ron’s wake.

“Hermione, you know I don’t think of you that way, right?” Harry’s voice wavered as he asked, and Hermione could’ve killed Ron in that moment.  

“Of course I know that, Harry.  Please, don’t let him get to you.  Ronald doesn’t really think that.”

“He’s just jealous and stupid,” Ginny assured him.

“It’s fine, whatever, I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”  Hermione wanted to hug Harry, but it was clear he wasn’t looking to be touched right then.  Fortunately, Neville, of all people, came to his rescue.

“Did anyone hear about that wizard in Nepal who's growing gravity-resistant trees?” 

“What?” Ginny gaped at Neville, and he just shrugged awkwardly.

“Yeah, I thought it was pretty cool.  They float about, only thing keeping them from floating away is their roots tethering them to the soil.”

Hermione blinked several times.  “You’re saying they grow like that naturally?  You’re sure this wizard isn’t just charming the trees and making up wild stories?”

“Of course not!” Neville insisted.  “Herbology experts all over the world have gone to see these trees, and they’re real.  It’s just that they only grow under specific circumstances and only in this very small region in Nepal that few people had ever explored before.”

“Is there something special about the wood of the trees?  That makes them resist gravity I mean?”  Harry looked legitimately curious, and it brought a warm smile to Hermione’s face.

“Bloody hell, could they make brooms out of them?!” Ginny practically shouted, and Harry’s face immediately blossomed into a brilliant, toothy smile.

“As far as I know, they haven’t identified what part of the tree has the gravity resistant properties.” He frowned.  “But even if it is was the wood, there are only maybe 50 or so of the trees in the entire world, as far as anyone knows.  Far too rare to waste any of them on making brooms.”

Harry’s face fell, but Ginny looked ready to jump right into a debate about whether broom-making was the best possible future for these rare trees.  Instead, Hermione jumped into the conversation.

“Maybe now that we know they exist, bright young wizards and witches like Neville will be given the time to figure out how they work and under what conditions they might be grown.  Then we can look into all sorts of applications for gravity-resistant wood, without destroying such a rare specimen.”

She looked pointedly at Ginny and smirked.  The youngest Weasley stuck her tongue out in response.  “They’d be damn good brooms, is all I’m saying.  You’re just being mean about it because you hate quidditch.”

“Well, it is an absolutely rubbish sport, after all.”  Hermione didn’t move fast enough to catch the pillow Ginny leveled at her head.  Before she could retaliate, she felt hands at her side and then screeched as fingers dug in.  She swatted at Harry and Ginny as they tickled her relentlessly, demanding that she admit quidditch was amazing before they would let her up.

“Fine.  Quidditch isn’t complete rubbish!” she gasped.  “Are you happy now?”  The tickling stopped, but only Harry took a step back.  Ginny stayed where she was, pinning Hermione against the arm of the sofa.

“Not really, but while I’ve got you here…”  A mischievous grin flashed across her face.  “How are things going with that Fleur Delacour?  Been giving any more castle tours of late?”

Hermione couldn’t help but blush at the insinuation, and she hated how self-satisfied Ginny looked about it.

No,” Hermione demurred.  “As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen her all week.  Though I’m not sure what business it is of yours, Ginny Weasley.”  Hermione shoved her, mostly playfully, and Ginny slid back onto the middle cushion of the sofa.  Hermione didn’t much care for the way Harry was gaping at her like he’d just solved a difficult math equation either.

“Luna’s been talking to Fleur and her little sister a lot this week; did you know that?”  Hermione made a face but didn’t answer.  “She said you’re the one who told Fleur to strike up a conversation with her at mealtime.  Which I thought was a bit odd, considering you’ve barely said two words to Luna in your entire life.”

“But you talk about her plenty,” Hermione countered.  “And since the Beauxbatons students insisted on sitting with the Ravenclaws, I figured I would help her out by introducing her to the only Ravenclaw I knew would at least be able to offer interesting conversation.”

“Are you guys talking about Luna Lovegood?” Neville asked.  “She’s pretty cool, though I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to her much outside of class.”

“Oh, I could introduce you,” Ginny offered.  “She’s probably my best friend other than Hermione.”

“Yeah that’d be cool.  Sometimes it’s frustrating how little we get to hang out with people from other houses.”  Neville shifted uncomfortably in his chair, almost like he expected someone to disagree with him or make fun of him for this opinion.  When no one did, he offered his own rejoinder.  “I mean, not with the Slytherins, of course.”

“I don’t know, Neville.  There are actually a couple of good ones.”  Hermione just chuckled at the immediate shocked looks from all three of her fellow Gryffindors.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover, is all I’m saying.  A lot of the Slytherins are just scared kids who’ve been fed a lot of hatred and nonsense by terrible parents, who are just as afraid of being bullied as any of us.  The difference is that they don’t have the support that we do.  I feel sorry for them.”

It wasn’t a surprise to Hermione at all that Harry was the first one to respond.  “Huh.  I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that.” 

“Whatever, Malfoy is still a dick, and Pansy Parkinson is an evil shrew,” Ginny insisted.  “And you’re just trying to distract us from the topic of Fleur Delacour.  I see right through you ,Hermione.”

“I was nice to a French girl,” Hermione downplayed.  “I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal of it.”  She forgot how insightful Ginny had always been, even at a young age, and it was biting her in the ass now.  But unlike Harry, who was smirking at Hermione’s attempts to downplay her interactions with Fleur, Ginny didn’t actually know Hermione was gay.  Not that Hermione was hiding it.

She just didn’t have a crush on Fleur Delacour.  Not even a little one.  Not at all.

And Ginny should leave her alone about it.

“I didn’t see you going out of your way to help any of the Bulgarian girls though.”

“For your information, I actually had a nice conversation with Viktor Krum in the library just yesterday.”  Hermione felt silly having to defend herself like this, but for whatever reason, she refused to admit defeat.  She wasn’t showing favouritism.  Even if Fleur was the most beautiful woman Hermione had ever seen.

“So, you’re finally admitting that you’re secretly a huge quidditch fan, is that it?”  Ginny’s smugness didn’t wane in the least.  “Making friends at Beauxbatons and Durmstrang then, what are Harry and Cedric supposed to think?”

“Oh come off it, Ginny.  You know I don’t actually want any part of this Tournament,” Harry scolded, and maybe he was finally coming to Hermione’s rescue.  He did, after all, know exactly why Hermione was striking up a friendship with the champions from the other schools.  “We should be proud of Hermione for finally coming out of her shell and making friends.  Or are you just worried she’ll like this Fleur girl better than you?”

“Harry Potter, you shut your mouth right this instant,” Ginny shot back.  She turned to him and put a finger in his face, almost touching his nose.  His eyes went wide.   “I am not jealous, and I am perfectly confident in my friendship with Hermione.  Don’t make me practice my bat bogey hex on you.”

“Fine, fine!” he shouted, a giggle in his tone.  “Geez, Gin, you’re scary when you’re irritated.”

“Whatever, you like it,” Ginny snarked, and then turned a bright red as she seemed to realize what she had said.

“And with that, I think it’s probably about time we all turned in for the night.  Come on, Ginny.”  Hermione dragged the now very embarrassed Weasley to her feet, then turned and gave Harry and Neville both a quick hug.

“Goodnight, boys!”  They didn’t speak again until they stopped on the landing for the third year girls’ dorms.  Hermione stopped Ginny before she could sneak off into her room without another word.

“Hey, hold on a second.”  Ginny’s feet stopped when Hermione’s hand gripped her arm, but it was several more moments before she turned around to face Hermione.  Her face was frustratingly blank.  “Gin, it’s okay.”

“Okay that I let myself get distracted and made a bloody fool of myself in front of … him?!”  Ginny’s voice was somehow both a whisper and a shout.  “I can’t believe I said that!”

Hermione shook her head, and then put a hand on each of Ginny’s shoulders.  Bollocks, this is becoming my go to gesture when I’m comforting friends.  When did I turn into my mother?  She waited until Ginny looked her in the eyes, then said, “You didn’t do anything wrong.  And I promise you, you didn’t mess anything up with Harry.”

“It’s so embarrassing!” Ginny’s cheeks tinged pink again.

“No, it isn’t!  It was cute, and I know for a fact Harry thought so too.  You were just too busy freaking out to notice the way he was smiling at you.”

But Ginny wasn’t hearing any of it.  “You’re barking.”

“Why don’t you just tell him how you feel?”

Ginny’s face scrunched up into an expression of pure incredulity.  “You’re definitely barking.  I can’t just… walk up to Harry Potter and tell him I want to kiss his stupid silly face!  That’s insane!!”

“No, it isn’t.  I know Harry better than anyone, Gin.  And I’m not promising you that everything will work out perfectly and you’ll live happily ever after, but I promise your best bet is to just be honest with him.”

Ginny shook her head.  “I’ve seen the way he looks at Cho.”

“And no one’s ever had a thing for two people at the same time?”  Surprisingly, this seemed to actually get through to Ginny, who suddenly looked much more thoughtful.  So Hermione pushed her luck a bit further.  “Besides, Cho is a nice girl, but she’s no Ginny Weasley.”

Finally, a grin spread across her friend’s lips.  Even if it was just a small one.  “Well, you’re right about that at least.”

“Anyway, Harry’s a coward about this stuff.  He’ll face off against hippogriffs and dementors and Voldemort himself, no problem.  But ask him to approach a cute girl and strike up a conversation, and he’s absolute rubbish.  You’ve got that working to your advantage.  You two already get along well—just tell him.  Be brave, Ginevra.”

Ginny blew out a long breath.  “I really do need to get some sleep.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, but decided not to make any bigger of a deal of it.  All she really wanted was for her friend to know there was nothing wrong with her feelings.  “Okay, but please just promise me you’ll think about it.”

“Fine,” Ginny agreed, “but only because it’ll shut you up.  Goodnight, Hermione.”

Chapter Text

When Dobby apparated in beside her, Hermione did not, for once, jump at the sound.  Instead, she neatly rolled up the scroll she was examining one last time and placed it in her bag.  “The guests are here!!” he squeaked excitedly.  Hermione beamed at his enthusiasm.  “They are walking up from the gates!”

“Excellent, Dobby.  Can you apparate me to Hagrid’s hut?  We need to not be seen apparating though, so be careful.”

“Dobby remembers,” he reminded her, the tiniest hint of exasperation in his voice that did nothing to steal the smile from her face.  He reached out his hand, and she took it.  She barely had time to prepare herself for the sickening sensation before the blackness took them both.

They appeared almost instantaneously in the pumpkin patch behind Hagrid’s hut.  There was no one around, not yet, and only Fang seemed to have noticed their presence, if his agitated whining from inside the hut was any indication.  Hermione looked down to her friend and wrapped his hand in both of hers.  “Thank you, Dobby.  I will take it from here.”

For once, he did not dawdle, and he offered her just a quick, “Good luck, Hermione,” before disapparating.  Alone again, Hermione went over her plan once more, then straightened her back and headed towards the path.  She had barely taken more than a few steps when she saw the massive form of Hagrid coming up over a hill, and she paused so as not to startle him.  He recognized her quickly, and though he gave her a rather befuddled look, he didn’t call her out on her appearance outside of the castle.  There wasn’t technically any rule against wandering the grounds during lunch, but it wasn’t common practice either.  She just smiled and waved, then started towards him.

Close on his heels was Ludo Bagman, who didn’t even seem to notice Hermione.  Which was just fine with her—she was hardly here for him either.  Instead, her gaze focused on the garishly colourful blonde woman trailing a few steps behind them.  The walking embodiment of a high femme, Rita Skeeter wore perfectly tailored silver and magenta robes that accentuated all her curves and stopped just above her ankles, revealing stylish boots with stiletto heels.  Her makeup was flawless and her hair was done up in tight, elaborate curls that Hermione was sure would’ve taken her over an hour to do without magic.  Hermione hated to admit it, but she couldn’t pretend Skeeter wasn’t hot, especially for a woman of her age.  Too bad she’s such a garbage person, Hermione reminded herself, but still found herself a little thrown off by the realization.  Merlin, do I just have a thing for tall blondes or what the bloody hell is going on with me?  She took a deep breath and pushed all those thoughts down, then shot a bright smile at the adults approaching her.

“Hullo!” she greeted the group enthusiastically.  Both Bagman and Skeeter looked down on her with disdain, but Garrick Ollivander offered her a warm smile from Skeeter’s other side.

“Hermione,” Hagrid began, but Hermione cut him off.

“Hullo Hagrid, I was wondering if I could have a quick word with Ms. Skeeter.”

“Well, er, I’m not ‘xactly sure how you—”

“And what could such a bland little girl want with me?” Skeeter butted in.  Her voice was throatier than Hermione remembered, almost smoky despite the snobbishness of her tone.

“Well, ma’am,” Hermione started, fixing a pointed glare on the taller woman, “I have quite a fascination with bugs, you see—particularly colourful ones that like to hang about and listen in on private conversations.  I was wondering if you had a favourite, a beetle perhaps?”

Skeeter’s face lost all colour, and her eyes bulged out from behind her cat eye glasses.  Hermione didn’t bother checking the reactions of the others, since they couldn’t possibly have any clue what she was talking about.  Rita, on the other hand, looked as if Hermione had just told her she had three weeks left to live.  Several awkward moments of silence passed before Rita’s eyes narrowed and her fists clenched and unclenched.

“Ah yes, well… I wouldn’t want to miss out on such a stirring topic with a fan, of course.  Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me I’m sure that…” 

“Hermione Granger,” Hermione introduced herself.

“Yes, I’m sure that Miss Granger can lead me to the castle.”

Hagrid’s brow furrowed and he lifted a hand towards them.  “Yeah, er, I dunno if that’s the best idea—”

“Yes, well, it wasn’t a question.  Move along now,” Skeeter dismissed him.  Hermione could tell Hagrid didn’t much care for her superior attitude, but she nodded at him with the sweetest expression she could muster, to help things along.  She couldn’t afford to dawdle.  After all, if she didn’t get to Potions class early, she wouldn’t be able to stop Harry from letting the Slytherins goad him into doing something stupid.  And she had already fixed her own teeth, so no need to let that mess unfold all over again.  Especially not over some silly badges.

“I won’t keep Ms. Skeeter long, Hagrid, I promise.”  Hagrid hesitated only a moment longer, then allowed Bagman to pull him along back towards the castle.  The other two followed with only a few last looks of confusion back at the witches.  As soon as they were out of hearing distance, long fingers grasped hard at Hermione’s wrist and dragged her close.

“What exactly are you trying to say, little girl?” Skeeter hissed.

“Oh was that not obvious?” Hermione shot back, her voice light and casual.  “I know that you’re an unregistered animagus, and I’m about to blackmail you.”

“Is that so?  And how old are you, exactly?”

Hermione yanked her arm free, glowering briefly before she got control over her expression again.  “That’s none of your business, and also not the point.  I take it that I have your attention now?”

“I’m quite sure you’re going to come to regret having my attention, and very soon.  Miss Granger, was it?”  Hermione nodded, and Skeeter just glared, plump lips twisting into a sneer.  “Believe me when I say that Rita Skeeter is not someone who gets blackmailed, much less by a teenager.  I am the one who blackmails, and what’s more, I am the voice of a nation.  I will crush you, little girl.”

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “Well believe me when I say that I’m not afraid of you, Skeeter.  I know you think you can just bully me with threats of over-the-top rumour-mongering in the Daily Prophet or Witch Weekly.  I don’t much care what people think of me, and anyways, no one will let you write a damn thing from inside Azkaban.  Which is where you’ll end up when I turn you in for being an unregistered animagus who spies on people for stories.”

Hermione could feel the air around them grow colder.  She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination or if Rita’s temper actually had some sort of magical ability, but she wasn’t about to back down.  She returned Skeeter’s harsh stare, and several minutes passed.  Then, shockingly, Rita Skeeter broke.

“Well, then.  What exactly do you want?”  She folded her arms and raised an eyebrow, and Hermione’s lips formed into a wicked grin.  She tried not to focus too hard on the thrill she felt at beating Rita Skeeter so easily. Or how much the whole raised eyebrow and cocked hip pose was really working for Rita.

“Not much.  Just a promise that I’ll have veto power over certain story topics.”

Rita’s expression soured.  “Absolutely not.  I will not be censored by a teenager.  How did you even find out?  Why would anyone even believe you?  I can’t believe I was going to indulge this rubbish.”

“How I found out is also none of your business.  Though I am impressed that you didn’t waste either of our time by trying to pretend you didn’t know what I’m talking about.”  She shrugged, enjoying the way Skeeter bristled at her casual disregard for the intimidation tactics.  “As for whether anyone will believe me, I’m happy to call your bluff on that.  You, more than anyone, should be fully aware how quickly rumours spread.  And I’m sure you know how seriously the Ministry takes matters of registration.  Personally, I don’t understand what the big deal is.  And hey, maybe you’ll get lucky, maybe Improper Use of Magic won’t stun you and dose you with veritaserum just to be sure.”

Rita’s glare was icy, and while Hermione had seen battle and destruction and suffered under the far more horrifying gaze of Bellatrix Lestrange, she had to stifle the urge to look away.  It was clear to Hermione that the older witch, while furious about it, was starting to realize that she couldn’t scare Hermione off of this.  Which is why she wasn’t surprised by Rita’s next words.

“Before I decide to turn you into a berry and toss you into that forest, what story topics are we talking about?”  Her tone had shifted from threatening to dismissive again.  Hermione didn’t give her threat much weight—multiple people had seen them together, and if Hermione went missing, Skeeter would be the obvious suspect.  Moreover, she was confident in her ability to take the vacuous gossipmonger in a duel.

“I promise that my demands are minimal.  All I want is final veto power over if and how you write about myself, Harry Potter, and all of the Triwizard champions.”  Skeeter opened her mouth to argue, but Hermione cut her off with the wave of a hand.  “And before you protest, I am not saying you can’t write about them, just that I won’t let you write a load of slanderous rubbish.  What’s more, I am willing to be a source for you, if you’re willing to show some restraint and tact.”

Rita’s eyes narrowed.  “Why did you single out Potter from the other champions?”

“Because he’s my best friend.  And I trust that’s enough to convince you I really am capable of giving you some worthwhile information.”

A moment of silence stretched slightly as the wheels turned in Rita’s head.  Then she pursed her lips, her body language stiffening.  “You and Potter then.  I can’t possibly be expected to restrain myself when writing about the first Triwizard Tournament in two centuries!”

“This isn’t a negotiation,” Hermione growled.  “I could turn you in right now, and I’m even being so kind as to offer you my services as a news source.  You’ll take the deal, and that’s that.”

“Fine,” Rita spat.  “You have my word.”

“Oh, as if I trust your word.”  Hermione reached into her bag and withdrew the rolled-up parchment upon which she had carefully written and enchanted an airtight magical contract.  She unfurled it and handed it to Skeeter.  “These are the terms, and you will sign this magical contract to ensure you don’t test my willingness to turn you in.  In exchange for creative control over if, when, and how you write about myself, Harry, or the other champions, I agree to not reveal your secret to the Ministry and to provide you with information of my choosing.  Additionally, you will not utilize your animagus form to spy within the grounds of Hogwarts.”

“That is too far, little girl.”  Her long fingers tightened around the edge of the contract, her other hand balling into a tight fist.  Her eyes were alight with outrage.

Hermione just smirked.  “Be thankful I didn’t go further.  I’ve got you over a barrel, and you know it.  And anyway, I didn’t say you couldn’t utilize your form at all, just that you can’t spy.  I am happy to pass information to you in that form, and you’re more than welcome to seek sources from elsewhere in the castle, should they choose to provide you information and should you choose to reveal your secret to them.”  She remembered Malfoy passing information to a particular beetle he held in his hand the first time Hermione had lived this year, and she nearly scoffed.  Skeeter was lucky Malfoy didn’t choose to reveal her secret for some petulant reason or another.

Skeeter continued to glower, so Hermione gently tugged the parchment from her hand and smoothed it out again.  Pulling a book and a ballpoint pen from her bag, Hermione placed the contract flat on the book and held out the pen, flicking down on the top of it to extend the point with a satisfying click.  “Sign it.”

“What the blazes is this contraption?” Rita wheezed, looking askance at the pen.

“It’s a pen,” Hermione snapped.  “A muggle pen.  They happen to write better than a quill and ink, and just because I’m a witch doesn’t mean I should force myself to live in the Dark Ages in all aspects.  Just sign it.” 

Skeeter took the pen, holding it delicately as if it might explode and drench her in ink at any moment.  It was quite an absurd display, but after a huff, Rita pressed the pen to the paper and signed in the appropriate place.  Hermione took the pen and did the same, then rolled up the contract and slid everything back into her bags.

“There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Rita scowled.  “Mark my words, Hermione Granger.  I will make you regret this someday.”

“We’ll see,” Hermione taunted.  “But I think you’ll find you don’t mind my oversight as much as you think.  Now, I believe you have some interviews to conduct.  Why don’t I walk you to the castle?”

                                                  

“So they didn’t even tell you about the First Task?” Gabrielle’s voice was as petulant as it was outraged, and Fleur couldn’t have adored her baby sister more in that moment.

“Non.  They seemed quite uninterested in preparing us for the Tournament.  This was just so some incompetent Englishman could make silly comments about our wands, and then we took pictures and sat for interviews with a rather odd witch.”

Katarina chuckled at the fire in Fleur’s voice and looked up from where her hands were half seriously braiding Gabby’s hair.  “And what exactly makes this Englishman so incompetent?”

“He plucked hairs from a unicorn’s tail without consent!” she raged.  “He said the poor creature nearly gored him, and it serves him right.  I wish it had!”

Gabby was quick to join in on Fleur’s indignation.  “What an awful man!”

“You know that the English do not respect the natural world as they should,” Katarina reminded her.  “I do not know why you are so shocked.”

“The poor creature!” Gabby moaned, ignoring Katarina’s pestering tone.  Or perhaps missing it entirely.  The girl had just reached the age where anything not directly about her lost most of her interest. 

“The fool didn’t even think to ask a female associate to approach the unicorn for him.”

“Or perhaps,” Katarina teased, a glint in her eye.  “He does not know any women he could ask.”  Fleur snorted at that, and Gabby broke into laughter, leaning back against Katarina.

The three of them spoke English usually, as Katarina’s French was quite terrible.  The German witch was two years younger than Fleur, and the only other student of veela heritage at Beauxbatons until this year, when Gabby had started school.  Katarina’s family was from a different coven, in the forests along the German/Czech border, and unlike Fleur and Gabby, Katarina’s half-veela mother had married a human witch.  This was largely the norm among veela who took human lovers, and Fleur’s mother was the unusual one for building a family with a male partner.  For veela, attraction to human men was the exception rather than the rule, as all veela were women, at least as far as human conceptions of gender and sexuality went. 

As with most part-veela, the three students had to navigate the tricky intersections of two sometimes disparate cultures, and attending a human school of magic during adolescence was extraordinarily difficult.  Fleur had learned the hard way that human society was less than compatible with the veela sensibilities she was raised with.  She still remembered the feeling that she had been dropped into an alien world when she began attending Beauxbatons and was exposed for the first time to a predominantly human culture.  Especially after puberty.  And so, when Katarina came to Beauxbatons, Fleur’s protective instincts kicked in.  Fleur took Katarina under her wing almost immediately, hoping to spare the girl some of the tribulations she had gone through trying to acclimate to a majority human environment.  The two had been more or less inseparable ever since, and Fleur had no doubt Katarina would be just as protective over Gabby after Fleur graduated.

“He did seem rather uncomfortable around the fairer sex,” Fleur added playfully, shooting Katarina a wink.  “He had the gall to call veela hair ‘fickle!’  Probably because no self-respecting veela would let him anywhere near her hair!”  Fleur made a face, her chin angled forward as she posed haughtily, then the three of them burst into fits of laughter.

Fleur slipped from her chair and onto Gabby’s bed, taking up the position behind Katarina and slipping her hands into the German witch’s hair.  “Does your English lover prefer pigtails or a single braid?”

“She will have me however I let her have me,” Katarina smirked, leaning into the touch of Fleur’s hands with a pleased hum.  “But I think I am in the mood for a nice French braid from a nice French veela.”

Gabby turned, grinning as she feigned shock.  “And who says my sister is a nice veela?”

“Hush you,” Fleur scolded, while at the same time, Katarina laughed.

“I think that bushy-haired young English witch might say Fleur was quite nice, in fact, young Gabrielle.”  Fleur’s couldn’t stop her hands from tensing, just for a moment, before going back to her work on the thick dark strands of hair threaded between her fingers.  She had no doubt that Katarina picked up on the hesitation, and honestly, she didn’t really mind that the younger witch knew of her crush on Hermione.  Especially not after Katarina shared her late night encounter with the lioness in an abandoned Hogwarts classroom.

“Ugh, must you two be so gay?” Gabrielle pouted.

“Your ‘uman friends must be rubbing off on you.  You say this as if the veela blood does not run in your veins as well,” Fleur teased back. 

“Maybe, but my veela blood doesn’t make me turn all girl crazy the moment we arrive in a strange castle in the middle of nowhere—ow!”  Gabrielle’s head snapped away from Katarina, who had interrupted her with a solid thump on the back of the head, and her half-formed fishtail braid flipped wildly over her shoulder as she whipped around to glare.  “What was that for?!”

“For saying ‘girl crazy’ as if it was a bad thing, little one.  And for that insolent tone.”  As the two dissolved back into their usual banter, Fleur’s thoughts drifted to Hermione.  She had been quite pleasantly surprised when the witch had nonchalantly mentioned that she caught one of the Beauxbatons students snogging a Hogwarts girl in a classroom after hours, the night that the champions had been selected.  She hadn’t run into Hermione for a couple of days after that, but Katarina had teased her relentlessly about the overly confident English girl who had told her to tell Fleur hello.  When they did cross paths again, Fleur had assumed she would be the one to bring it up, but Hermione beat her to the punch. Fleur had been a bit confused, at first, by Hermione’s certainty that the girl—Katarina—had been part-veela, but the bright blush that crossed her cheeks cleared things up quickly.  Hermione knew she was part-veela because she could feel the thrall, which was all the confirmation Fleur needed for the nagging question she’d had about Hermione’s sexual orientation.

Fleur had felt pretty confident in the spark they had shared between them that first night when Hermione took her on a tour of the castle, but she knew that humans had so many anxieties about sexuality, and especially sexuality between women.  So she hadn’t wanted to assume, even after Katarina told her how encouraging Hermione had seemed when she caught her with Daphne.  She knew the sort of trouble such assumptions could cause.  After several unpleasant incidents during her second year of school, Fleur had learned not to assume that human witches would be open to romantic or sexual advances, and she was much more cautious when she felt this sort of spark with someone.  She had learned the hard way that humans were much more conservative than veela when it came to such matters, and that many of them actively avoided their truest needs and desires. Even with confirmation that Hermione experienced attraction to women, as the thrall’s effects were much less noticeable on anyone who didn’t, Fleur couldn’t be sure that Hermione had accepted this about herself.  Nor did she want to push the young witch, despite the instant bond she had felt spring into life between the two of them that first night.  Such a connection was rare for Fleur, who typically limited herself to casual trysts with the few girls at Beauxbatons who were actually interested in other women. 

Truthfully, she didn’t know what to make of it.  But the pull to get to know Hermione better was strong, and while her focus must be on the Triwizard Tournament, Fleur felt no strong desire to resist that pull.  The Hogwarts student was as enchanting as she was beautiful, in her understated and quietly confident way.  Everything about Hermione felt like a mysterious puzzle beckoning Fleur to solve, and while Hermione had been warm and open with her in their few conversations so far, Fleur suspected she had only begun to scratch at the surface.  Hermione was so poised, self-assured in a way most girls their age were not, but she could also be so easily flustered by even the hint of flirtation. 

And then there was the tournament.  Madame Maxime had already made it quite clear that she expected Fleur to make the competition her sole priority.  Her evenings were spent with extra study sessions, and her semi-regular duels with her school rival, Camille Ayo, were now officially overseen by Maxime and Beauxbatons’ own dueling master.  The headmistress seemed to hold little doubt that at least one of the tasks would involve combative magical prowess in one form or another, and she was not quiet about her desire to show the superiority of her academy’s tutelage.  Unfortunately, the attention was grating more than anything else; Fleur had her own reasons for wanting to win, and she needed no additional motivation.  She would win this tournament, but not for Maxime and not for Beauxbatons.  She would prove to herself, and to every single little bigot in her school who looked down on her for her culture, that she was the best this school had to offer. 

She just didn’t see why that meant she couldn’t have some fun on the side.  And, with no new information about how she should be preparing for the First Task, Fleur felt like now was as good a time as any to put herself out there.  Yes, she would keep up her studies and her practical magic sessions, but what Madame Maxime didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.  There was no reason Fleur couldn’t find time to discover new and delightful ways of peeling back the layers of the enigmatic Hermione Granger.

                                                  

«You know, I had not imagined that I would much enjoy the English countryside, but there is a sort of stark beauty to this lake that I can appreciate.»  Fleur’s tone had a playful edge to it, as if she was trying to get a rise out of Hermione, and Hermione was pleased with herself that she had fallen back into her French well enough to be able to pick up on tone already.  She and Fleur had only spoken a handful of times since Beauxbatons’ arrival, but Hermione was already starting to feel more comfortable with the language.

«Well, for the record, we are in the Scottish highlands, not the English countryside.»  Hermione grinned, but kept her eyes focused on the path ahead rather than the beautiful woman beside her.  The two of them were out for a walk, Fleur claiming to have tired of the library and wanting to see more of the ‘natural beauty’ of the grounds. 

Fortunately, it was a pleasant day, especially for November.  The sun shone through the fluffy clouds, and a light breeze played through the cool air.  Fleur had left her heavy cloak behind, and Hermione had already removed her flannel overshirt and tied it off around her waist.  They had already passed over a hill that now cut off the view of the castle behind them, keeping the lake on their right as they neared where the rocky cliffs gave way to gentle banks.  On their left, more hills sloped up into the mountains, sparse trees dotting the landscape.  Hermione decided that she liked Fleur’s description. 

Stark beauty was an accurate way of describing the mix of colours and textures. The dark expanse of the Black Lake was more of a deep navy that shimmered under the direct sunlight, and a thin border of sandy beach separated it from the still vibrant green of the grass where they currently walked.  Ahead of them, a copse of trees sprung up, their darker green foliage blending back into the hills until they gave way to sparser grass and the browns and greys of stony outcrops.  They were far enough from the castle that the sounds of its bustle had given way to the more peaceful odes of trickling water and bird calls.  The atmosphere was calming, and that was why this was one of her most favoured running routes.  She smiled at the thought that maybe Fleur felt similarly, even if she insisted on teasing her along the way.

 «Oh my!» Fleur practically purred, and Hermione pointedly avoided what she was sure was a dazzling smirk turned her way.  «I do hope you will forgive my ignorance.  I forget how particular you English are about such distinctions.»  Hermione shot her a withering glare but couldn’t keep the grin off of her lips.  Fleur’s smirk was waiting as expected, and a twinkle in her eye gave away her mischievous intent.  Hermione quickly averted her gaze once more, refusing to let herself get caught up in the other woman’s beauty.  Doing so had already caused her to trip once on this little jaunt they had undertaken, and she wasn’t looking to give the French witch the impression that she was some ungraceful klutz.

It was Hermione’s first time seeing Fleur in anything other than robes, and she did not disappoint.  Fleur wore a pale red tunic with semi-sheer long sleeves and cutouts that exposed her shoulders to the cool air.  It flowed elegantly down her body and ended just below her hips, but a slit up each side exposed the high waist of her well-worn leathery leggings.  They were an almost black shade of dark burgundy, and Hermione had never seen anything like them.  They seemed at once tough and thick but also flexible and comfortable, and they fit Fleur’s long legs like a second skin.  The leggings ended just above her ankles, exposing bare feet featuring toenails painted a pale pink.  The whole look was like some entrancing modernization of Greek Amazon but softer, and it perfectly suited Fleur Delacour.  Hermione felt almost plain in comparison, with her heathered v-neck, flannel, and jeans.  Her new pair of dark brown Doc Martens, which she was finally starting to wear in, felt clunky next to the natural grace of Fleur’s delicate feet.  Apparently, veela had much more durable feet than humans, and Fleur had been quite adamant that she hated to wear shoes out in nature.

«And where exactly are you taking me?» 

Hermione pointed.  «Just on the other side of those trees, there’s a lovely place to sit and relax.»  She hid a grimace as she remembered the first time she had discovered the cozy little spot.  It was still her first month in this timeline, and she had been exploring the grounds more and more with her morning runs.  That time, she had wanted to see if there was anything of note beyond the line of trees that ran almost up to the lake, and she’d been enchanted by the tiny little cove she had found.  It was almost completely surrounded by trees but had more of a beach than any other part of the lake Hermione had seen, with a patch of soft grass between the trees and the beach that was maybe half the size of a football pitch.  Hermione had been so impressed that she had settled down onto the grass and was almost immediately lulled back to sleep by the gentle ambience.  She had only avoided missing class because Dobby came looking for her, startling her out of a pleasant dream with the wild sound of his apparition.

«Relaxation is exactly what I need,» Fleur sighed.  «I know there are only ten days left until the First Task, but Madame Maxime’s constant scrutiny is not going to help me.  Did you know that they haven’t even told us what we are to be doing?»

«I’m aware.»  Hermione had already considered how she might discreetly slip Fleur information about the task.  She had simply told Harry about the dragons and the strategy he had used the first time around.  There was no reason to deviate from that strategy, though Hermione had asked him to simply concede the task.  The magic of the contract would force him to participate, but nothing compelled him to try and win.  Unsurprisingly, he refused outright.  He said that he understood the tournament wasn’t as important as Voldemort’s plans, but he wouldn’t play the part of a coward either.  The best Hermione could do was convince him to let her put a fireproof charm on his robes and broom. 

Offering assistance to Fleur would be even more difficult, at least if she wanted to maintain her secrets, but it was important to Hermione that Fleur perform better this time around.  She needed backup in the graveyard in June, and she couldn’t risk Harry being there.  She hadn’t yet told him that the true prize for the winner of the Tournament was an ambush by the Dark Lord himself.

«Are Harry’s preparations coming along?»  Fleur’s question was tentative, but it brought a warm smile to Hermione’s lips.  She could tell the French witch didn’t want to pry, but Harry told her that Fleur had stuck up for him after he was selected as the fourth champion.  Hermione knew that Fleur had a good heart, and she could hear the genuine concern in her voice.

«We’re doing what we can.  Working on his defensive magic, mostly.  I wish he would just concede, but I can’t seem to convince him how much danger he’s in.»  Hermione shrugged.  «I never have figured out how to keep that boy from running straight into danger.  Doesn’t stop me from trying, though.»

They shared a look, and she could tell that Fleur understood.  While an instantaneous friendship had sprung to life between the two witches, Hermione was not yet ready to bring her into the circle of trust on her larger plans.  And she hadn’t yet thought of any way to warn her about the dragons without raising Fleur’s suspicions.  The young woman had a keen observational mind, and Hermione didn’t have any intentions on taking unnecessary risks if she didn’t have to.  Hagrid would show the dragons off to Maxime in a week, and she would pass the information along to Fleur then.  Fleur’s performance had been impressive the first time around, and if Hermione could find a way to secretly charm her robes as well, she should have a chance at the win.    

For now, all she could do was continue getting to know Fleur, and hopefully, at some point, earn enough trust to be in a position to help Fleur win the Third Task.  That was the most important thing.  Hermione definitely didn’t have any ulterior motives for taking the gorgeous blonde on a hike around the lake.  After all, Fleur had sought her out, not the other way around.

Fleur gasped as the little cove came into view, taking several steps ahead of Hermione to move beyond the trees and take in the beauty of the spot.  «Is this the place?»

“Oui, Mademoiselle.”  Hermione amplified the goofiness of her accent on the response, and Fleur glanced back over her shoulder, narrowing her eyes and pouting her lips into a silly face in response.  Then she just kept walking, approaching the beach slowly.  Hermione lingered a few paces behind, enjoying the view.  Fleur leaned over as she neared the water, and after a moment, she stood back up, something in hand.  In one fluid motion, her left foot shot forward as her body tilted ever so slightly to the right, her arm coming back and then slinging forward as a small stone rocketed out of her hand and skipped along the surface of the lake.

Hermione was struck with a wave of déjà vu.  For the briefest moment, she was on another beach at a different lake, and the entire situation was much drearier.  It had been fairly early on in the horcrux hunt, not long after she, Harry, and Ron had escaped the Ministry of Magic with that cursed locket of Salazar Slytherin.  Trying for a moment of levity, she had joined Ron where he was skipping stones across the lake.  She’d never done it before, but the physics of it were fairly straightforward.  Even so, she had played along like she was rubbish at it, forcing him to make more and more physical contact as he tried to show her proper form.  She knew Ron needed a win in the moment, and she was trying so very hard to convince herself that it was what she wanted.  That she could be like the other girls.

She really wasn’t, though.

This isn’t a do over, she told herself.  That’s not how the universe worked.  Probably.  Even so, an electric thrill shot through her when Fleur turned and gestured for her to come closer.  «How many skips can you get?»

Hermione took just a moment to look out over the lake, then caught Fleur’s eyes, raising a brow in challenge. «Show me how.»  It wasn’t a lie.  It also wasn’t a question, and Fleur’s cool eyes widened at Hermione’s boldness.  Then she stepped up to the challenge, both literally and figuratively. 

Taking up a position right beside Hermione, only a sliver of space separating them, Fleur instructed her to find a stone.  «It needs to be as smooth as possible, preferably more of an oval.»  They both searched the nearby sand, and Fleur leaned down to search through a nearby pile of stones and dirt, brushing against Hermione as she did so.  «This one will do,» she said, placing a smooth stone in the palm of Hermione’s hand.  Her fingers lingered for the briefest moment before pulling away, and then Fleur took up a position just behind Hermione. 

Fleur’s breath was warm on Hermione’s ear. «Form is key.  Did you see my form when I threw the stone?»  Hermione’s mouth went dry, and her brain froze.  She swallowed, hard, and then tried to answer.

«Uh, yes.  I think so.»

Fleur’s hand came to Hermione’s right arm, gently tugging at it to extend it fully.  «You want to bend just a little at the elbow and then sling the stone forward, almost in an underhanded throw.»  Long fingers traced the outside of her hand and grasped, pulling back and then forward.  «The arc of the stone should be almost parallel to the surface of the water as it leaves your hand, and you have to flip your wrist just so.»  Fleur was so much better at explaining this than Ronald Weasley had ever been, and even so, Hermione couldn’t seem to process a single word she was saying.  All she could think about was the warmth of Fleur’s body now pressing gently against her arse, and the smoothness of her fingertips as her hand traced back up her arm before breaking contact.  «Give it a try.»

Only after Fleur took a few steps back did Hermione realize she hadn’t been breathing.  Time began to flow again, and she sucked in a breath.  She shook her head as she blew it out.  Get ahold of yourself, Granger.  She took one more quick breath, then did her best imitation of Fleur’s form as she whipped the stone around and out towards the lake.  And for the second time that day, she nearly fell over, as her awkward form and momentum briefly unbalanced her.

This time, however, a pair of firm hands caught her at her hips and grounded her.  Fleur chuckled, and Hermione blushed wildly.  «I may have overdone it just a bit.»

«Perhaps.  Your form was still good though.»  Hermione thought she felt Fleur give the gentlest of squeezes before withdrawing from her hips, but it was entirely possible Hermione imagined it.

«I also may have missed how many skips I got.  Assuming I got any.»

«You did.  But I didn’t have a chance to count either.»

«You’re saying I should try again.»

“Oui, mademoiselle.”  Hermione smirked at the other witch’s cheekiness, but her eyes were already searching for another stone.  This time, she managed not to fall over, and her stone hopped three times before finally sinking under the surface of the lake.

«You’re a fast learner.»  Hermione heard the smile in Fleur’s tone before she turned to see it for herself.

«So, I’ve been told,» Hermione hummed in response, lost in her enjoyment of this moment they were sharing.  She could feel a pull towards Fleur almost like a magnet.  «Doesn’t hurt to have a good teacher.» 

«Ah, and who knew Hermione Granger was such a flatterer?»  She was tip-toeing back from Hermione without turning away from her.  Her expression was unmistakably flirty, but Hermione couldn’t stop herself from snorting, then laughing, at the comment.  Fleur’s head tilted to the side, watching as Hermione put up a finger then walked past Fleur, trying to collect herself.  She let herself drop down onto her arse in the grass, and after a moment, Fleur settled down beside her.

«Sorry, I just … If only my mum could hear someone like, well, you call me a flatterer.»  Fleur’s nose crinkled, an expression halfway between puzzlement and amusement.

«She would be surprised by this?»  Fleur grinned at her, and for a moment, Hermione almost lost herself in the view.  Fleur’s lustrous hair seems loose around her face, wisps of it fluttering gently in the breeze coming off the lake, but it came together so perfectly in a thick braid that curved along and down past the dip between her neck and shoulder.  Hermione resisted the urge to reach out and touch it, and instead focused out over the lake again.

«Absolutely,» she confirmed, then shrugged before laying all the way back on the ground.  The sky looked so blue above them, and she smiled at the next thought that passed through her head.  «But I suspect she’d be quite proud of me if she knew I had developed a friendship with someone like you.»

Fleur settled down next to her, and Hermione’s eyes flicked over just long enough to see that Fleur was also looking up at the sky now.  Her next words caught Hermione completely off guard, though.  «Are we?  Friends?»

“Yes.”  The word escaped her lips before she even had time to consider the question, like an instinct or maybe just impulse.  She blushed again, and she was starting to get annoyed at how regular an occurrence that was when she hung out with Fleur.  “I am, uh, I mean… We are, aren’t we?  I mean, I’d like to be.  Your friend, that is.  If we’re not already. Uh.  Merlin, what is wrong with me?”

Now Fleur was the one who couldn’t stop laughing, and Hermione just waited.  She deserved it.  Pretty girl says she wants to be friends, and you become a complete mess.  It was embarrassing, but not the end of the world.  And she did, genuinely, want to be friends with Fleur.

“Sorry,” Fleur apologized, following Hermione’s lead and switching over to English.  “I shouldn’t laugh.  But you are so very cute when you are flustered.”  Hermione sucked in a breath as she felt Fleur’s pinky glance against her own, but she didn’t move her hand.  Fleur’s continued to move, and finally settled lightly over Hermione’s.  It felt so very nice, and Hermione tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach.  “I probably should not tease you so much.  But this is what friends do, no?  Because I would certainly consider you a friend, Hermione Granger.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed, but she refused to face the beautiful blonde beside her.  She was sure that she was smiling like an idiot, but she was also aware that Fleur had just given away more than she intended.  “Hey!  Since when is your English so good?”

Fleur’s hand stiffened, but Hermione twisted her wrist and slid her fingers between Fleur’s, locking them together before the French witch could pull away.  “Oops,” Fleur whispered, but after a moment she squeezed Hermione’s hand.  “Well, since we are friends, I suppose I could let you in on a little secret.”

Hermione gasped.  “Your whole ‘I’m just a silly French gurl ‘oo cannot speek Eengleesh’ thing was just an act!  It’s always been an act.”  Hermione thought Fleur’s English had improved from spending time with Bill and working at Gringott’s, in the old timeline, but even then, it must have been an act she put on for the tournament. 

“Guilty as charged,” Fleur conceded.  “I thought it would give me an advantage if the other champions did not take me seriously.”

“That’s bloody brilliant,” Hermione beamed.  She let herself glance over at Fleur, who was still watching the clouds drift casually across the sky.  But as soon as it seemed like Fleur would turn her gaze, Hermione’s eyes shot back up to the sky. 

“Well, thank you, mon amie,” Fleur answered, genuinely sounding pleased at the praise.  «I confess, however, that I did so enjoy hearing your beautiful voice speaking my native tongue.»  Hermione froze, sure that she must have heard that wrong.  Either way, Fleur didn’t give her time to dwell on it, to her great relief.  «And I am hoping you might keep my secret, even if I am the competition.»

Hermione pretended to think about it for a bit, before agreeing.  «I suppose I could do that, but only because I’m sure Harry wouldn’t have underestimated you in the first place.»

«Ah well, he does seem to be a perceptive one, that young wizard.  At least, so far as I can tell based on his taste in friends.»  Fleur’s thumb stroked softly along the side of her hand.  «I will not lie to you.  I intend to win this Triwizard Tournament.  But I will do everything I can to protect your friend, if I am able.»

An intense wave of feelings passed through Hermione, and she squeezed Fleur’s hand.  Fleur couldn’t understand the weight of what she had just promised—to her this was just about a tournament, and maybe the possibility that someone dark was using it as an excuse to hurt Harry.  But even that wasn’t an insubstantial promise, and if Fleur was half the person William had told her she was, Hermione knew that Fleur would do whatever it took to protect Harry even if it cost her the Triwizard Cup.

«Thank you,» Hermione whispered.  «That means … more than you know.»  They continued to lay there in silence, hand-in-hand, until eventually Fleur let go.  She sat up, and Hermione watched her as she gazed out over the lake.

«What is on the other side?»  Hermione blinked several times, then sat up slightly.

«You mean the other side of the lake?»  Fleur nodded.  «There’s a village called Hogsmeade.  It’s actually the largest all-wizarding community in the United Kingdom.» 

«Do you like it there?» 

Hermione smiled softly.  «I do.  It’s genuinely beautiful.  Picturesque even.  I’m excited to spend some time there next weekend.» 

Fleur turned and met her gaze, a question in her soft blue eyes.  «Students are allowed to spend time in the village only a few times a year, and next weekend is the first time this year.»

«What is there to do in this Hogsmeade Village?»    

«Lots of things.  Shops.  Restaurants.  I’m going with a friend who needs to get himself a new wand and then probably just hanging around with Harry and some other friends.»  Fleur smiled, and Hermione could see some wheels turning.  Even so, she wasn’t prepared for the next question. 

«Would you like to have dinner with me in this Hogsmeade?» 

Chapter Text

“Hermione, are you quite alright?”

She started slightly, then looked up from where she had been picking at her fingernail.  Harry looked at her with a touch of concern, quill still in hand from the paper he had been writing.  Hermione blinked several times, willing herself back into the moment and away from her own nervous mental escapades.

“Erm, yes, Harry, I’m fine.  Why do you ask?”

“Well it’s just that I asked you a question about cross-species transfiguration, and usually when I have transfiguration questions your eyes light up and you jump into a rambling speech about it, but this time you just stared at your hands like you didn’t even hear me.  So, it’s a little unusual is all.”

Hermione groaned.  “I’m sorry.”

“Something on your mind?”

“Yes,” she conceded.  “But it really isn’t important.”

“If it distracts Hermione Granger from transfiguration homework, it basically has to be important.”  He grinned, then leaned closer and whispered, “You might be from an apocalyptic future, but you’re still Hermione.”

“Fleur wants to get dinner in Hogsmeade.  With me.  Next weekend.”

Harry’s eyes went wide.  “Like … like a date?!”

“No!”  Hermione shook her head.  “Definitely not.  Couldn’t be.  I mean, I can’t… A-and she barely knows me.  Probably thinks I’m just a girl, too young.  Definitely not…”  Her words drifted off as her mind raced.

“Are you sure about that?”

Hermione’s brow furrowed as she looked back up at Harry searchingly.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you actually told her how old you are?  I mean, um, not how old you are but like … how old your body is?”  He winced.  “That sounded weird.”

“That’s because it is weird.”  She paused, thinking.  “But no, we haven’t discussed my age.  It’s obvious, though.  Isn’t it?”

Harry leaned back in his chair, blowing sharply upward to get his bangs out of his eyes.  “Not really.  Honestly, Hermione you definitely seem older than you did last year.  I mean, you are older, so …”  He frowned.  “Not that you look nineteen or anything, but you just …  Maybe it’s how you carry yourself or the way you talk, but you definitely don’t seem like just a fourth year.  I bet Fleur thinks you’re older.”

It wasn’t really something she had given much thought.  When Hermione was spending time with her friends—Harry, Ginny, and lately also Neville and Luna—her age was sort of an ever-present thing.  She was constantly aware that they were younger than her, and sometimes she felt more like an older sister than a peer.  But with Fleur, she was just … herself.  Age wasn’t something that came up at all.

“You might be right.”

“Well don’t say it so surprised like that,” he teased, and she made a face at him.  “Wow, so you have a date with the Fleur Delacour.  Can you imagine what Ron would say?”  Immediately, Harry’s face fell, as it usually did when the subject of Ron Weasley came up. 

“He’s still not talking to you?”  Feelings of frustration rose in her gut.  They were a usual side effect of Ron’s antics, but they were tempered by her reminder to herself that he was just a dumb 14-year-old boy with too many emotions.  She hated how he was hurting Harry with his stubbornness, but she tried not to hold it against him.

“No.  He still thinks I hoodwinked the Goblet.  He seems sure that you helped me, actually.  That we did it behind his back.”

“Well, I’ve never accused Ronald of having sense.  I’m sorry that he won’t believe you.  I know he’s important to you.”

“I just don’t understand why you can’t tell him the truth.  About the future, I mean.  It’s always been the three of us, all of us, when this stuff happens.”

Hermione sighed, gaze falling back to her hands.  She and Harry had had this argument a few times already, and Hermione had no intention of changing her mind.  “Harry, this isn’t the same.”  She put up a hand as he immediately began to argue.  “And even if it is, I’m not the same.  I’m not the naïve little girl who followed you and Ron into exciting adventures.  I know what’s at stake now, and I know how real the danger is, and I’m not putting children in danger any more than I have to.”

“Hermione, I am 14.  I’m not a child.”  His tone was both petulant and pleading, and it did nothing to sway her. 

“I know you feel that way, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, but yes, you are.  You are, and Ginny is, and Ron especially is.  I only told you because you’re involved whether I like it or not, and I think you’ll be safer if someone actually tells you what is going on.”  She doubted Harry registered her double meaning, her words a pointed insult to Albus Dumbledore more than anything else.

Harry clearly wasn’t done pouting, though.  “You could at least tell him I didn’t put my name in the Goblet.”

Hermione leaned in, intentionally exaggerating her smirk to try and get a response.  “I did that already.  But you know how Ron can be.  He is dead set on being a stubborn arse, and he’s not going to change his mind until he sees a dragon trying to roast you on your broom.  He has to see for himself that being champion isn’t some illustrious prize, but a very real danger.  I wish I could change his mind with the snap of my fingers, but I can’t.  And I absolutely will not put my plans at risk just so Ron will be your friend again a week earlier.   I promise he will come around.”

“Fine,” he whined.  “But you owe me one.”

“I owe you no such thing,” she responded, grinning.  He shrugged.

“Well okay but you could help me out with this transfiguration homework, if you’re done freaking out about your date.”

Hermione felt like someone punched her in the chest.  “It’s not a date!” she insisted.  “You don’t really think it’s a date, do you?”

“Do you want it to be a date?”

“Yes.  I mean, no.”  Hermione winced at her knee-jerk reaction.  “Harry, I can’t … let myself get distracted like this.  The fate of the world is at stake, and that’s not hyperbole.”

“What’s … you know what, nevermind.”  Harry looked her right in the eye, holding her gaze as he asked, “Do you like her?”

She sighed.  “Yes.  I think she’s gorgeous.  And brilliant, and kind, and mysterious, and … and it doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

Hermione narrowed her eyes.  “What do you mean, ‘why not?’  I just told you.  I didn’t come  back in time to date pretty girls.  I have a mission, and I can’t let myself—”

“Get distracted, yeah yeah,” he dismissed.  “Hermione, do you know what I would do if a pretty girl asked me to dinner?”

Hermione sniggered.  “Depends on the pretty girl.  If it was Cho or Ginny, I’m fairly certain you’d combust on the spot.  Or just stand there with your mouth wide open, unable to move.”

Harry grimaced. “Hah hah.  Very funny.  And worryingly accurate—wait!  Did this happen already?  In your timeline, I mean.”

She shot him a wry grin.  “No, not exactly.  I just know you.  And for the record, you asked Cho out, but it wasn’t until fifth year that you two were a thing.  And yes, you were so very awkward about it.”  He frowned, and she shoved him playfully.  “It was absolutely adorable.”

“Oh.  So then … um, what about Ginny?”

Hermione shook her head repeatedly.  “Oh no.  I am not telling you your entire future, Harry Potter.  Some things are important to figure out for yourself.  All I will say is that it’s a lot easier to deal with your crushes on girls if you try your best to just think of them as friends.  Ginny or Cho or whomever … they’re just people Harry.  Girls aren’t as scary as you think they are, and yes, I do actually understand how terrifying it is to have a crush on a girl.  But if you see Ginny as a friend who shares your love of quidditch, or Cho as a classmate who, I don’t know, shares your love of quidditch… that will make it easier.  They aren’t any different than you; they’re just people.  The cuddling and snogging will take care of itself, if you’re both in it for that.”  She pursed her lips.  “Merlin, you have a type, don’t you?”

But Harry didn’t respond to the joke.  If anything, he seemed like he was the one lost in his own world now.  She gave him a moment, watching as the muscles in his face shifted subtly as the gears turned.  Then she asked, softly, “Harry?”

“Hmm?”

“You okay?”

“Oh, um, yes.”  He blinked rapidly.  “I just … I mean, that’s bloody brilliant, isn’t it?  They’re not really that different from me, are they?”

The response surprised her, as did the almost wistful tone.  For once, Hermione felt like maybe she had no idea what was going on in her friend’s mind.  But she went along with it anyway.  “Yeah, Harry.  We’re all just people, after all.”

“Yeah, um…” He blushed, and again, Hermione felt like she was missing something.  “Yeah, that’s what I meant.  Thanks.  So um, I never really asked, but you said yes, right?  To the date?  With Fleur?”

“Ugh. Yes, okay?  I said yes.  But it isn’t a date.  I can’t …”

“Hermione?”  She didn’t want to, but she met his gaze.  For his age, Harry had these rare moments of genuine insight that continued to startle Hermione.  Years of trauma and lived experience separated them, but in the moment, she felt like he could really see her.  “For once, please just take your own advice.”

She wasn’t sure what he meant, but he explained anyway.  “She’s just a person.  A person who could maybe help you with your mission.  That’s why you wanted to befriend her in the first place, right?  So just … do that.  Be her friend.  And if something else comes of it, don’t run away just because things are complicated.  Believe it or not, you can have a girlfriend and save the world.  I mean, probably.”

His advice left her dumbstruck.  It was almost funny, coming from a boy who, in another universe, broke up with his girlfriend because he had a mission that would put her in more danger than he was willing to risk.  She had gone along with it then, because she had wanted to protect Ginny as well.  But maybe that hadn’t been the right choice.  Maybe Ginny had the right to choose for herself.  Maybe …

“I’ll think about it.”  And that was the best she could promise in that moment.

                                                  

“Well, here we are.”  Hermione locked eyes with Neville.  The two of them had left Harry, Ginny, and Luna back at Honeydukes, venturing to the Hogsmeade branch of Ollivander’s on their own.  It was much smaller than the main store in Diagon Alley, little more than a stone cottage with a single window storefront.  “You ready?”

Neville nodded, a confident look in his grey eyes and a wide smile lifting his round cheeks.  Then he reached forward and opened the door for her, the small bell overhead chiming softly as she stepped inside.  The quaint little shop was lit by a central hanging lamp, surrounded by a metallic framework globe, and there was a second floor of the shop separated by a railing.  The main floor was surprisingly open, and it felt so much less cramped than the main Ollivander’s store.  While there were shelves of wands on the floor above, the ground floor featured very few wands, instead holding displays of polish, wood stains, fancy handles, sheaths, and other wand supplies.  One shelf featured various books for sale, mostly on wand lore.  To their left was a long counter, behind which sat the witch in charge of the store, and the back wall only covered two-thirds of the store.  Beyond the wall, Hermione could see the shop had been magically lengthened, with boxes and boxes of wands in storage, along with (Hermione knew from her previous experiences in the prior timeline) a small door to a back room and a curving staircase up to the second floor.

Hermione was a little surprised to see the sales witch at the counter.  The last time she had visited the store, not long after the end of the war, a young man had been running things.  They didn’t exchange too many pleasantries, beyond his excitement at having the opportunity to interact with a member of the Golden Trio, but she had gotten the sense that he was one of Mr. Ollivander’s grandchildren.  He was a little green, and it took them nearly two hours to find her beech wand.  But now, that wouldn’t ever come to pass, and there was a woman standing in his stead.  She appeared to be middle aged, but with magical folks that didn’t necessarily offer much in the way of identifying someone’s age.  With lifespans well over one hundred years, a 70-year-old witch was often indistinguishable from a 50-year-old witch.  She did seem to share a bit of the Ollivander family resemblance, however: dark, intelligent eyes and a slightly more olive skin tone, hinting at a Greek heritage.  Hermione wondered if she was perhaps one of his children, rather than a grandchild.

The sales witch’s eyes were instantly upon them.  “Hullo, how may I help you today?”  She seemed eager to please, and Hermione wondered how rarely this branch of the store actually got customers.  Most of the students likely purchased their wands elsewhere, before coming to Hogwarts, although Hermione imagined that there had to be more than a few students whose wands broke during the year and required a quick replacement.  Even so, Hermione found herself suddenly struck by wonder at the baffling concept of a wand-making industry.  She wondered if the vast majority of wands made by Ollivander, Gregorovich, and others just sat mostly untouched in these shops.  She knew most wizards and witches used the same wand their entire lives, and the magical population couldn’t be large enough to justify having multiple branches operating year-round.  She guessed this sales witch must spend most days quite bored, so it was no wonder she immediately rose to engage her new customers.

“We’re both in need of new wands, actually,” Hermione answered her, offering the woman a bright smile.

“Oh my, whatever happened to your previous wands?  I assume you both had Ollivander wands, and they’re quite sturdy and reliable—I would hate to think you found a way to damage them.”  Hermione made a face—she knew for a fact that Ollivander’s wands were no more invincible than any other, and it was a little off-putting that the sales witch seemed to be implying they did something wrong.  After all, her best chance at sales had to be broken wands.

Perhaps sensing Hermione’s concern, the sales witch immediately softened.  “Oh my, that came out wrong.  I simply meant that it is unfortunate to lose an Ollivander wand; I know Dad works hard to ensure a perfect fit between wand and wizard.  But I am happy to find you both a perfect replacement.”

“Actually,” Neville offered, his voice tentative as usual, “I never got a wand of my own.  Gran insisted that my dad’s wand would work for me, and …” he blushed, “well, she’s hard to argue with.  B-but my friend Hermione here gave me a book on wand lore, and she thought maybe my difficulty with spellwork wasn’t because I’m just a terrible wizard.  M-maybe it was because—”

“Oh dear of course!” the sales witch—apparently Mr. Ollivander’s daughter—beamed.  “That must be it,” she cooed, her voice taking on a not unpleasant motherly warmth.  “Nice young wizard like you, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with your magic.  It’s unfortunate, but we see this situation far too often.  More conservative witches and wizards get in their head that any old wand will work for anyone, and that’s just not how the magic works.  I’m sorry you’ve had struggles, dear, but no worries!  We’ll get you the right fit.”

Ms. Ollivander’s gaze turned next to Hermione, an eyebrow raised in question.  “And you, Ms. …?”

“Granger.  Hermione.  My story’s more straightforward.  My wand broke.  Tragic accident really, snapped it right in half.”  It was a lie, but Ms. Ollivander had no way of knowing that.  She and Harry had come up with a story about Hermione tripping and falling while they were practicing for the Triwizard Tournament, causing her to land on her wand and break it.  She’d even bandied about a broken twig she had transfigured to resemble her vinewood wand, giving her an excuse to finally return (or rather, visit for the first time, in this timeline anyway) the Hogsmeade branch in search of her second wand.  The vinewood wand was fine, and it worked sufficiently for her.  But it didn’t suit her the way it used to, and it certainly was no perfect match like her second wand had become.

“I’m so sorry to hear that, dear.”  She bowed her head, as if briefly mourning Hermione’s wand, then huffed resolutely.  “No matter, we will get you both taken care of.  If you will follow me to the back, I have just a few questions.” 

Already she could tell this woman was much more experienced than the sales clerk in the future (her son, maybe?), and she shot Neville an encouraging grin.  For once, he seemed at ease, perfectly comfortable and excited about the prospect that a new wand could solve his magical woes.  She was happy for him.

“Now, Mr. … I’m sorry dear, I didn’t catch your last name.”

“Longbottom,” he answered on instinct, then pursed his lips.  “But it’s just Neville.  Uh, I mean, my name’s Neville.”

Ms. Ollivander turned to face them, and Hermione watched as first sorrow, then pity, and finally an encouraging warmth passed over her features.  “Longbottom.  Well, let me just say that I am so sorry about your parents, Neville, and while I certainly understand why your grandmother would want to honour a hero like your father by passing his wand along, I have no doubt he would want you to find your own path.  Be the best wizard you can be.  And that means having your own wand, not a hand-me-down.  Even from as great a wizard as Frank Longbottom.”

Hermione searched Neville’s face, worried that maybe the discussion of his parents would be too much for him.  Fortunately, however, he seemed heartened by the older witch’s words.  For a moment, he had that same courageous expression she remembered seeing on his face at the Battle of Hogwarts, his shoulders back and his chin high in that same valiant stance.  She wonder if that was how his father had looked when he faced off with Bellatrix.  And then she took in a sharp breath, banishing the thought and any others that the mention of that particular dark witch would bring to her mind.

Fortunately, neither of the others noticed her sudden distress.  “Thank you, that means a lot.” Neville answered.  “You knew them?”

Ms. Ollivander sighed.  “Not well, unfortunately.  I’m sad to say that Dad was reluctant to get involved in the war—many of his customers were open supporters of He Who Must Not Be Named, and he didn’t have the stomach for violence.  But I thought it was important to do my part to fight back against the darkness.  I wasn’t a member of the Order of the Phoenix with your parents, but I offered safe passage and a place to hide for several of the members, whenever I could.  Your parents were hiding out from pursuing Death eaters, and I offered them a place in my attic for a night, under a couple of spare invisibility cloaks.  That was … hmmm, how old are you, dear?”

“I turned fourteen this summer,” he responded, clearly fixated on her story.

“Well then, it couldn’t have been more than a year before you were born.  We didn’t speak much, but they made an impression on me.  Kind people, so compassionate, but so brave and so fierce.  And so in love.  Can’t say I know anything of your grandmother, but I have no doubt they’d be proud of you for taking your magic into your own hands.”  She patted him on the back, and he nodded resolutely.  “Now, with that said, is there any particular subject at school that you enjoy the most?  Something you feel naturally good at?”

“Herbology!” he exclaimed immediately, then stood still as she proceeded to pull a tape measure from her robes to measure his arm.

“Your right arm is your wand arm, yes?”

He looked at her with wonder.  “Yes, how did you know?”

She smiled softly.  “You were holding the door open with your right arm, I assumed it was probably your dominant arm.”  Hermione appreciated how observant the witch was.  Ms. Ollivander turned back to one of the shelves of wand boxes in the center of the back room, humming as she slipped the tape measure back into her robes.  “So yes, herbology, how lovely.  And would you say you’re better at charms or transfiguration?”

“Well, I struggle with both, but transfiguration is always the hardest for me.”

“Hmm, well, alright then.  Do you know if perhaps your father’s wand had a unicorn hair for its core?”

“Yes, uh, I think so, yes,” he stammered.

“That makes sense.”  She turned back to them, having selected three different boxes from the shelf, and a fourth from the next shelf over.  “You see, unicorn core wands tend to be the most reliable, but also the most faithful.  I’m sure it was quite a powerful wand for your father, but it was highly unlikely to faithfully serve any other master after it bonded to him.  Even if that master was his son.”

“S-so, it wasn’t my fault?”  Neville looked down at his feet, posture shrinking.  “That the wand wouldn’t work for me, I mean. I always assumed…”

“Of course not, Mr. Longbottom.  You put that out of your mind.  I have little doubt it was the wand’s core.  It’s truly unfortunate that your grandmother never brought you to see my father.  He would’ve told her that your father’s wand was unlikely to be much use to you, or anyone else.  That’s just the nature of unicorn hair, I’m afraid.”  She held out all four boxes.  “Now, that said, each of these has a unicorn hair core.  I have a hunch about this, that if we can just find you the right core, it’ll be quite the match.”

It was the third wand that stood out immediately.  Ms. Ollivander had Neville attempt a simple transfiguration spell, asking him to turn a quill into a paperweight.  The first wand produced a fluffy, feathery object roughly circular but weighing almost nothing.  The second wand didn’t respond at all.  But Hermione could tell by the way he held the third and swished it towards the quill that this was the one.  The length of the wand was a muted pinkish-tan wood, with a darker hilt that ended in a short spiral.  As Neville swished the wand in the direction of the quill, it shrank down into a perfectly round stone paperweight, and Ms. Ollivander clapped at Neville’s success.

“Oh yes, that’s the one for sure,” she beamed.  “Cherry, twelve inches, slightly yielding. It’s a rare wood, I’ll have you know, and cherry wands only work for brave wizards who are known for their self-control and strength of mind.”

Neville shrank again.  “I don’t know if that’s really—”

“Sounds like a perfect description of Neville Longbottom,” Hermione interrupted, shooting him a look that said ‘stop being so hard on yourself.’ 

“You should listen to your friend, Mr. Longbottom, she sounds like she knows what she’s talking about.”

“Well, she’s the brightest witch in the school, so you’re probably right.”  The sheer admiration in his voice took Hermione by surprise, and she waved off the praise.  She knew that she was one of the best students in her class, maybe the best, but she didn’t realize others really gave her much consideration.  Beyond thinking she was a know-it-all, anyway.

Ms. Ollivander gave Hermione a knowing look, then turned back to Neville.  “If you’ll just place the wand back into its box and go set it on the counter, I’ll see what we can do for Ms. Granger here.”  Neville did as he was told, bright smile across his face, and left the two witches alone.  “Now, tell me about your wand that was broken.”

“It was vine wood, dragon heartstring core, 10 ¾ inches, um … slightly springy, if I remember correctly.”  Remembering how much of a pain this process was last time, Hermione decided to see if she could help things along.  “But I’m feeling like something else might be calling to me.  Longer, maybe a bit more flexible and a bit more … uncommon?”

She didn’t want to raise any suspicions, so she tried to play her requests off as curious, know-it-all antics.  Fortunately, Ms. Ollivander just offered her a raised eyebrow and a smirk.  “Oh, you’re looking to challenge me, is that it?  Well then, I suppose I’ll have to step up my game.”  She moved around the shelf and towards the back corner of the store.  Hermione’s eyes lifted to the second floor, where she knew her wand awaited her, but she knew she’d have to indulge the shopkeeper for a bit.  And anyway, her curiosity about wands had been sparked, and she wanted to learn something while she was here.

The first three wands were all from the first floor of the store, and while Hermione knew they wouldn’t be right, she was fascinated to learn about each of them.  The first was an ebony wand, 11 inches and supple, with a dragon heartstring core.

“This is one of three ebony wands in the store,” Ms. Ollivander explained.  “While it has a reputation for combative magic, I think they’re most ideally suited for transfiguration work.  These wands tend to work best for people who forge their own paths and who are not easily swayed from their core beliefs and values.” 

Hermione took the wand into her hand and immediately felt comfortable.  She rolled it in her fingers and tested the movement of it.  It wasn’t noticeably more flexible than her vinewood wand, nor did it feel quite long enough.  “So what effect do flexibility and length have?  Generally speaking, I mean?”

“Well, if I’m being honest with you, Ms. Granger, there is some debate about this among wand makers.  It is commonly believed that shorter wands work better for introverts and tend to produce a more thoughtful, less flashy sort of magic.  In contrast, longer wands are for those who look to stand out, and more likely to produce powerful but someone uncontrolled magic.  Personally, I think it more important that the wand length be generally proportional to arm length—I find that it makes for more precise and elegant spell-casting.”

Hermione nodded along, and she thought Ms. Ollivander’s theory sounded much more logical than the so-called common belief.  “And flexibility?”

“Flexibility is actually quite well-proven to be in tune with personality.  More open-minded witches and wizards do better with flexible wands, while those who are more conservative and traditional do better with rigid wands.”  Hermione repressed a shudder, remembering just how rigid Bellatrix’s stolen wand had been.  She had made it work, but it felt awful to produce magic with the thing.  It took so much effort.

Hermione cast a few spells with the ebony wand, and while they were respectable, they didn’t feel natural in the way magic felt with her beechwood wand.  “I don’t think this one is for me,” she said with confidence, and Ms. Ollivander didn’t argue.

The next wand was 11 ½ inches and made of fir, with a phoenix feather core.  Hermione could immediately tell that it was supple like the last wand, but she appreciated the added length.  Her eyes slipped back to the shopkeeper.  “So if wand length should be proportional to arm length, doesn’t it throw everything off that wands are usually purchased when a person is a child?”

Ms. Ollivander smiled brightly.  “You really are a clever witch, aren’t you?”  She chuckled.  “My father insists that he accounts for expected growth in his measurements of a wizard, and that the bond between a wizard and his wand are cemented in childhood such that a person rarely grows out of a wand, even if it ends up being a less than ideal match, lengthwise.”

“And what do you think, Ms. Ollivander?”

“Oh dear, please, do call me Gytha.  And personally, I think people should be more willing to try a new wand in different stages of their lives.  Yes, the wand chooses the witch or wizard; I believe that, same as my father.  However, people change, especially between adolescence and early adulthood, and it would make sense to me that a new wand might suit someone better than the one that chose them as a child, once they reach their twenties.  And perhaps again as they reach middle age.  Alas, most in the wandmaking community seem to think my ideas are practically blasphemous.  There are some more progressive wandmakers in the Americas and a few in northern Africa who share similar views, fortunately.”

Hermione smiled.  “I’m certainly no expert, but I think I would agree with you.”  She waved the fir wand, making some sparks.  “But regardless, this isn’t my wand.”

The next was pine, also 11 ½ inches but with a curved hilt that Hermione was definitely not sure about.  She felt nothing when she held it, and unsurprisingly, she couldn’t produce any magic from it.  Gytha was quick to shrug, and with a wave of her wands, the three boxes returned to their proper places on the shelves.  She began to head to the other back corner to continue her search when Hermione called out, “What about the second floor?  Plenty of wands up there, right?”

The older witch paused, her eyes shifting to the staircase and her hand moving to her chin.  After a moment, she turned back to Hermione and Neville.  “As you would expect, many of our wands are my father’s creations.  The wands on the second floor are mine, though.  My creations.  Most customers are … unwilling to deviate from the selection of wands made by my father.  But if you’re okay with getting a wand crafted by a lesser Ollivander, I have several that I think might suit you.”

Hermione scoffed.  “You hardly seem lesser to me.  And anyway, I feel like I would appreciate a woman’s touch in my wand.”  She was glad Gytha turned away before a wild blush sprung to her cheeks.  That sounded wrong on so many levels, she scolded herself. 

“Are you worried?” Neville asked quietly.  Gytha disappeared onto the second floor, so it was just the two of them again for a bit.

“What do I have to worry about?”

He looked awkward, but answered, “Well, just that you might not find the right wand, I guess?”

Hermione chuckled.  “Oh, no, I’m not worried.  These things can be tricky sometimes, and I’m not afraid to admit I’m quite picky.  Last time, I must’ve tried thirty wands before I found the right one.  No need to get discouraged so quickly.”  She frowned, a thought occurring to her.  “But you don’t have to wait around for me, if you don’t want to.  I understand if you wanna go find Luna, Ginny, and Harry.”

He hesitated, but only for a moment.  “No, that’s alright.  I wouldn’t even be here without your encouragement, and anyways, I’m actually learning things, thanks to your questions.”

She grinned.  “I wish everyone saw it that way.  Most people find my curiosity exhausting.”

Neville met her gaze for a second, then turned his eyes to a nearby shelf of wands.  “Not me,” he said softly.  “I like it.  I always learn new things around you.  You’re the best witch I know.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, Neville.”  Hermione was distracted as five boxes drifted down the stairs and in her general direction.  She managed to wrangle all of them by the time Gytha rejoined them, setting them up on the display table.

“I know you said you were looking for something uncommon, and I thought to myself, ‘why not let her test a few of my rarer wand cores?’  My father refuses to expand beyond his three tried and true cores, but I think that’s just him being stubborn and set in his ways.  I’ve even got a couple you can only get in America.”

Hermione’s heart soared.  “Which American cores do you have?”

“Oh, I have many, but the two I brought down are snallygaster heartstring and thunderbird tailfeather.  Would you like to try those first?”

“Yes, definitely.  Maybe could I start with the thunderbird wand?”

“Certainly.”  Gytha pulled out one of the boxes and opened it for Hermione.  There it was.  Her wand.  She could feel how broad her smile was as she ran a finger over it.  “Beech, 11 3/4 inches, and reasonably swishy.  You’ll find that this wand has a bit more give than the others you’ve tried, but that makes for quite elegant and complicated spell-casting if it doesn’t bother you.”

Hermione felt the way her hand tingled as she picked up the wand, and it instantly felt like an extension of her hand.  It was a creamy off-white tone, the length of it carved into a slight, tapered spiral.  The hilt was carved to emulate a curving wrapped pattern, with a flowery bulb setting facing up and down, on the top and bottom of the hilt, respectively.  Inset on the bottom of the wand was a triangular lapis lazuli stone that was a deep, smoky shade of blue.  Feeling a desire to show off and remembering how much she had struggled with the spell back in fifth year, Hermione knew exactly what spell she would use to show that this wand was hers.  She conjured all the happiness of this very moment, and with a flick of her wrist and a stern, “Expecto Patronum,” Hermione produced a powerful, glowing silver otter from the beech wand.

Neville looked completely dumbfounded as her otter swam through the air around them, while Gytha’s expression was pure admiration.  Her otter’s light filled Hermione with strength and joy, and it gave her a quick nuzzle to her cheek before disappearing back into her wand.

“Well well well, that was quite the show, Ms. Granger.  I haven’t seen a full patronus in years, I don’t think.  Remarkable for someone so young, and a clear indication that this wand is a perfect fit for you.  I’m honestly a bit taken aback, frankly.  This is one of my more experimental wands, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever find a home for it.”

“It’s beautiful,” Hermione whispered, reluctant to put it down now that it had been returned to her.  “It’s perfect.”

“Well, thank you so much.”  Another wave of Gytha’s wand sent the remaining four boxes back upstairs, and with a gesture, she led the two students back to the front of the store.  As she rang them both up, Gytha offered Hermione one last kind smile.  “If you’d ever like to learn more on wand lore, I tend to have a good deal of free time on my hands.  You’re always welcome to return to the store for a chat.  And we do have books, if that’s more your speed.”

“Thank you so much, Gytha.  I just might take you up on that.  This stuff is so much more fascinating than I previously gave it credit for.”  Hermione waved off the wrapping paper, fully intending to carry the wand normally in the pocket of her jacket.  “I’ll try to swing by the next time we’re allowed to visit Hogsmeade.”

“Sounds lovely.  Thank you so much for your business, young ones, and do enjoy the new wands!”  Hermione and Neville said their goodbyes and exited the shop.

And just like that, Hermione felt a little more complete.  A little more herself.  She breathed a sigh of relief, rubbing her thumb along the shallow grooves curved into her wand.  “Ready to track down our friends?” she asked Neville, and she almost took a step back when she looked up to see him watching her with a goofy smile on his face.

“Oh uh, sure thing, Hermione.  No doubt they’ll want to see our new wands.”

Hermione was a little confused by the look on his face, but she was too happy to care.  “Indeed they will.  Let’s go!”

                                                  

As Hermione walked down the pavement hours later, she nervously pulled at the hem of her blouse.  It was one of her few nice tops, a light blue spaghetti strap tank top under a matching sheer long-sleeve shirt with a plunging neckline that curved just above the top of her tank.  Over it she wore her black satin bomber jacket (with white neck, cuffs, and waist)—she’d had it zipped up most of the day, to avoid any questions about why she was wearing this top, but now she had it unzipped.  It was warm enough for the cold but not freezing weather, and she loved the odd looks she got from witches and wizards at the obviously muggle fashion choice.  She was also wearing her nicest pair of jeans, dark wash denim tucked neatly into her black combat boots.  Hermione wasn’t exactly confident about the outfit, but it was the best she could put together on short notice.

Not that it mattered.  Because this wasn’t a date.  It just sucked that she couldn’t convince the anxious knot in her gut of that fact.  The light teasing from Harry and Ginny hadn’t helped anything.  She hadn’t told anyone other than Harry about her dinner plans, but when the group decided to head back to the castle around 4 o’clock, her stammered excuses about hanging behind to have dinner with a friend didn’t survive Ginny’s intense scrutiny.  She’d been forced to admit that she was having dinner with Fleur Delacour, and once Ginny started teasing, Harry had been quick to pile on.  The two of them really fed off each other’s energy, in the few instances where they could both stop being intensely awkward around the other.  Fortunately, Luna had just offered a quiet “that sounds lovely,” while Neville seemed completely lost as to why Ginny and Harry were teasing.  Fortunately, they kept it fairly tame and pointedly vague, and Hermione had to assume Neville had no clue that she was gay.  Not wanting to have to explain herself any further, Hermione had quickly wished them all a good night and headed in the opposite direction.

She had found a small corner table in Madam Puddifoot’s to spend some time reading and sipping at her tea while she waited until it was time to meet up with Fleur. Grimblehawk’s Café and Restaurant on a side street across Main Street from the tea shop, in the south of the village.  The ten-minute walk had given her entirely too much time to overthink her decision to agree to dinner with Fleur.  The day had been so much easier playing with wands at Ollivander’s and enjoying her time with her friends outside the castle.  It hadn’t been hard to keep her mind in the moment, and away from complicated feelings and the nerves that were now synonymous with time spent with Fleur.

And now, here she was, standing outside of the restaurant and psyching herself up to go inside.  Grimblehawk’s was a nice two-story, white brick building with a dark charcoal roof and matching window frames.  A small awning covered a row of five small tables scattered around the jade green front door, and various potted and hanging plans dotted the building’s exterior.  Hermione breathed a sigh of relief.  It was as cute as advertised, at least on the outside, and she resisted the urge to scold herself for having been so worried about impressing Fleur with her choice.

“Is there a reason you have not gone inside, mon amie?”

Hermione jumped slightly and immediately blushed as she turned to see that Fleur had appeared behind her.  Hermione had been so lost in her thoughts that she must not have heard the French witch’s steps coming up the path behind her.  Which was utterly baffling, Hermione realized as her eyes traced slowly up Fleur’s body.  Fleur wore a dark cloak with pops of bright red accents, but underneath it she wore a remarkably modern outfit.  She was wearing black leather boots with a thick, five-inch heel, so Hermione had no idea how she could move so quietly.  The boots were surprisingly tall, coming up nearly to the knees of Fleur’s oh so long legs.  Several inches of perfectly sculpted thigh were exposed beneath a high-waisted black mini-skirt, into which was tucked a form-fitting, solid pink top.  A long silver pendant was the only adornment at her chest, and her hair fell in waves over her shoulders.  Fleur’s face was mostly bare, save for the intensely dark eyelashes that made the blue of her irises practically shine, but her features were impossibly striking in the warmth of the autumn sunset.  Hermione must have been caught staring, because Fleur’s lips curved into a knowing smirk.

Hermione felt incredibly underdressed and impossibly frumpy next to the apparently intensely fashionable Fleur Delacour, and the fact that, thanks to the heels, she had to tilt her head back a little to look Fleur in the eyes wasn’t helping anything.  So it really wasn’t her fault that she was only barely able to manage a stammered, “Oh uh, h-hi Fleur,” in response.  Fleur just smiled at the effect she had on the younger (or older, really) witch and stepped forward to wrap her in a brief hug.

“You look beautiful, ‘Ermione.”  Hermione’s instinct was to disagree, but the way Fleur’s gaze caught her and held her, so full of sincerity, caused her to hesitate.

“Umm, you too.  I mean, wow, just like … I mean I knew you were gorgeous, but—”  Hermione cut herself off, wincing at how starstruck she sounded.  It’d been a long time since she had found herself turning into this big a gay mess because of a pretty girl.

“Thank you,” Fleur said softly, and if Hermione didn’t know any better, she’d have thought Fleur seemed momentarily almost shy.  “Should we go inside?”

Their eyes met again, and Hermione couldn’t stop the wide smile that broke across her lips.  “Yes, we should.”  Before Fleur could move, Hermione took the remaining steps to the restaurant’s front door and held it open for her.  “After you.”

Fleur’s face lit up, and she whispered a sultry, “Why thank you, mademoiselle,” with a waggle of her eyebrows as she strode inside.  Hermione followed her and quickly stepped forward to address the hostess. 

“We have a reservation for Granger.”

“Ah yes, I see it here,” the woman answered, dressed in crisp formal robes and her hair pulled back into a fashionable ponytail.  Her finger traced the page of her ledger, then she looked back up to them with a smile.  “We have quite a few open tables right now, would you like to sit on the mezzanine or the floor?”

Hermione looked to Fleur.  She was intrigued by the mezzanine but willing to defer to Fleur’s preferences.  Fortunately, the other witch had much the same idea.  “The mezzanine sounds lovely,” Fleur answered for them both.

“It really is,” the hostess replied warmly.  “If you will just follow me.”  She pulled her wand from her pocket and waved it at the pile of menus beside the ledger, and two of them floated into the air and followed her as she led them into the restaurant.

The interior was warm, the light of innumerable floating candles and lamps joining with the dancing glow of a fire in a large black fireplace on the right side of the space to cast cozy shadows in the dim, almost romantic atmosphere.  There was a small bar on the far wall, but most of the floor space was dedicated to small two- or four-person tables covered in elegantly folded white tablecloths.  To the right was a staircase leading up to a second floor that crossed through and overlooked the restaurant’s interior, and above that, Hermione was impressed to see that the entire roof was made of glass panels.  Hanging plants and ivy covering the dark railings of the second-floor seating area gave the entire space a feeling of being outdoors, and small glowing balls of light dotted the plants everywhere.  Her eyes drifted beside her to Fleur, and she could see the other witch was taking in the ambience with a similar look of wonder.  

They were led up the stairs and past a few occupied tables just around the corner of the mezzanine, with a view overlooking parts of the floor and the majestic fireplace.  “Here we are.”  The hostess gestured to the table, and the menus laid themselves to the left of each place setting.  Two tall candles glowed in the center of the table, and Hermione slipped off her bomber jacket to drape it across the back of her chair before sitting.  The hostess, however, stopped her.  “We would be happy to take your cloaks, ladies.”

Hermione paused, but noticed the smirk returning to Fleur’s face in her peripheral vision.  “Oh, that would be lovely, thank you.”  She folded her jacket once and held it out, while at the same time Fleur shrugged out of her cloak.  With a whispered incantation, the hostess floated the coats up and off to a small nook above the hostess desk, where another employee caught them and hung them up.  Hermione grinned at his wide-eyed look at her jacket.  She guessed they didn’t get many muggles in this restaurant.  She turned back to the table, and with a scolding look that did nothing to lessen Fleur’s smirk, she sat down.  Fleur sat across from her with a grace that nearly took Hermione’s breath away.

“Your waitress will be with you shortly,” the hostess promised, but before she left, she flicked her wand again with practiced ease, and two glasses of water appeared on the table.  Hoping to avoid another sputtering gay panic moment, Hermione turned her gaze to the menu rather than looking at Fleur’s perfect face again.  She just needed a moment to collect herself, no big deal.  She could do this.  Because it wasn’t a date.

Then why did you ask Parvarti if she knew what the cutest restaurant in Hogsmeade was? her mind demanded, and she hated when her inner monologue sounded this cocky.  Why didn’t you deny it when she asked if Hermione was looking for somewhere romantic?

“This restaurant is so charming, Hermione.  ‘Ave you been ‘ere before?”  Hermione looked over the top of her menu at Fleur, who was smiling softly.

“Erm, no.  I haven’t.  But my friend Parvarti said it was lovely, so I thought ‘why not give it a try?’”

“It’s rather romantic, isn’t it?”  Hermione looked back down at her menu to try and hide the way her jaw went slack at the question.  Fortunately, rather than stray further down that path, Fleur asked her about the food.  “I am not so familiar with this English food.  What would you recommend?”

Hermione’s mouth sprang into action before her mind could catch up.  “Actually, the main dishes seem to be Scottish, not English, which is unsurprising given that we are, after all, in Scotland.”  She smirked up at Fleur, and the mischievous glint in Fleur’s eyes gave her intentions away.  “Not England.  Which you knew, because I already told you that.”

“Ah yes, but your reactions are so entertaining, I simply cannot ‘elp myself.”  Hermione rolled her eyes in protest, but Fleur continued without acknowledging it.  “It does not change my question.  What would you recommend?”  Her eyes glanced down at the menu briefly, then widened.  “What about this … is it called ‘aggeese?”

“Haggis,” Hermione giggled.  “That’s a traditional Scottish dish, like a … savoury meat pudding, I suppose?  It’s sheep meat, I think, and minced with onions and spices.  It might be a little heavy; I don’t know if that would be your sort of thing.”

Fleur scoffed.  “You think I am a silly girl who limits herself to salads and small plates then?”  She raised an eyebrow, and Hermione found herself blushing again, this time in embarrassment.

“N-no!” she protested, trying to dig herself out of this hole.  “I just meant that… that, well, I know most French dishes are quite a bit lighter than what we eat here in the UK.”

“Hmm,” Fleur hummed doubtfully.  “Nice recovery.”  She grinned wickedly.  “So I should avoid the ‘aggis.  What should I eat then?”

Hermione raised a finger rather than answer, as she could see their waitress approaching.  “Good evening, ladies.”  She surveyed them, maybe trying to get a feel for their age, before asking, “Can I get you anything to drink?” 

Without looking to Fleur, and not trusting her companion not to push the envelope, Hermione blurted out, “Just the water for me, thanks.” 

Fleur looked amused by this, and she said simply, “I am actually quite curious to try this butter beer.  Is it actually made of butter?”

The waitress chuckled.  “I’m afraid not.  It’s a hot brewed drink, not dissimilar to beer, but much sweeter and with a very low alcohol content.”

“It’s quite tasty though,” Hermione added, and while she was feeling courageous, she told the waitress, “Actually, I’ll have one as well.  Two butterbeers, please.  And then just the water.”

The waitress nodded, mirth written across her rosy cheeks.  “And would either of you like to order a starter?”

Fleur looked to Hermione for guidance, and after glancing down at the menu for a few seconds, Hermione asked, “I’d actually love to try the cheddar and walnut beignets, with the labne, if that’s something you’d be interested in.  And, and maybe we could split the main course after that?”

Hermione felt blindsided by the brilliance of Fleur’s smile.  Merlin, even her teeth are perfect.  Hermione had a brief moment of relief as she remembered that she had already shrunk her own front teeth back down to the size she preferred them.  “I would love to, Hermione.  Thank you.”

The waitress looked to them both, then nodded again.  “Okay, I’ll be right back with your butterbeers, and the beignets should follow shortly.”  She headed off, and Hermione thought this was her chance.

“Oh, before I forget, umm, would you mind having tea with me in the Reading Room Wednesday night?” 

Fleur looked confused for a moment, but then grinned wickedly.  “Mademoiselle Granger, are you asking me on a second date when the first has barely even started?”  Hermione’s brain froze, unable to process the overt sensuality with which Fleur asked the question.  But then Fleur shifted gears, as if sensing how stunned Hermione was.  “And anyway, that is the night before the First Task.  Shouldn’t you be ‘elping young ‘Arry prepare?”

The question was like a metaphorical life raft, and Hermione grabbed onto it immediately.  “Yes!  Er, I mean, no.  Harry and I have been working on strategies, and I think the best thing for him is to get some rest that night.”

“But not me?  I do not need rest?”  Fleur’s face scrunched up.  “If I did not know any better, I would think you were trying to sabotage me, Hermione.  Soften me up so that Hogwarts might have an advantage.”

“Hardly,” Hermione retorted, chuckling under her breath.  “On the contrary, I have no doubt you’ll be prepared.  If I was a betting woman, my money would be on you, in fact.”  Fleur’s face lit up, and Hermione felt good that she had for once surprised the other witch.  “I just … I don’t know, I’d like a chance to wish you luck.”  It was the best excuse Hermione could offer, without admitting to Fleur that she already knew what the First Task held for her.  Even though Fleur wouldn’t find out until Monday night, after Hagrid took Madame Maxime to view the dragons.  All Hermione wanted to do was give Fleur the best opportunity to take the lead.  It was just frustratingly difficult to do so subtly.  She just hoped her charm was enough to sway Fleur.

The bright smile on the French witch’s face told her that it was, indeed, enough.  “Well then, I certainly cannot turn down an offer like that.  I will be there,” she agreed. 

And before Hermione could even feel her relief, Fleur winked at her.  Just like that, Hermione felt warm all over again.

                                                  

Fleur couldn’t deny that she was impressed.  She wasn’t sure if Hermione would see her request to have dinner together for what it was—a date—but based on the restaurant she had selected, it was hard not to reach that conclusion.  Hermione may have pointedly avoided Fleur’s question, but there was no denying the romantic ambience all around them.

Their feet had grazed each other under the table a few times, and as much as she tried, Fleur couldn’t decipher whether it was intentional on Hermione’s part.  She wondered if Hermione had ever actually been on a date with a woman before.  Sometimes she seemed so confident in her flirtation, but Fleur had learned to be careful not to assume too much. 

Regardless, the conversation was lovely.  Free-flowing and comfortable, with the same ease the two of them shared most of the previous times they had been alone together.  The only interruptions were the moments when an overly flirtatious comment by Fleur caused Hermione to turn adorably flustered, though a couple of those moments had also resulted in an expression on Hermione’s beautiful face that Fleur could not get a read on.  She tried not to let it concern her.

They had just finished off the last of the beignets, which were good, at least for British beignets, when their main course was laid on the table between them.  They had agreed on the parmesan crusted chicken with roasted garlic rigatoni and vegetables.  After Hermione thanked the waitress, she turned back to Fleur.

«Well then, how should we do this?»  At some point between the butterbeer and the beignets, they had switched back to French.  Fleur was always impressed with and appreciative of Hermione’s willingness to converse in French rather than English, and in a restaurant like this, it also added a dash of intrigue and secrecy that Fleur found desirable.

There was only one chicken breast, but it was quite robust, expertly baked in a crumbly parmesan crust with garlic peppered along the top.  She couldn’t help grinning at Hermione’s care.  It was not the first time that evening that she had gone out of her way to defer to Fleur’s choices and tastes.

Fleur rotated the plate so that the chicken was in front of her, then delicately cut it in two.  «One for me, and one for you.  You’re welcome to take some of the pasta and vegetables onto your plate, but I am also fine with leaving it where it is so we can both pick at it.» 

Hermione’s eyes narrowed, and Fleur kept her face impassive, not wanting to let on that this was a small test.  A few moments passed, neither willing to look away, until finally Hermione reached out with her fork and speared her half of the chicken.  But that was the only item she transferred over to her own plate.  The rest she left where it was, and Fleur couldn’t stifle her smile at the choice.  Not that she would want to—Hermione had just passed her test.

They both took a few bites of their food, a comfortable silence in between them.  Then Hermione spoke again.  «Well then, how do you like it?»  Fleur could read the subtle nervousness in Hermione’s body language, and it warmed her heart that she was so intent on giving Fleur a pleasant experience.  But that didn’t mean Fleur would go easy on her.

«I suppose it is … passable, for English food.»  She tried and failed to keep a straight face, and Hermione’s exasperated expression was too much for her to take.  Fleur broke into laughter, trying to stay as quiet as possible, but Hermione was quick to join her.  As their laughter died out, warm smiles remained plastered to their faces, and Fleur left her hand to linger on the tabletop.  Her hand rested just far enough forward that she had to sit on the edge of her seat, but she didn’t mind.  She wanted to see if Hermione would take the bait.

Instead, Hermione pointed her fork in Fleur’s direction accusingly.  «You’re such a brat sometimes.» 

Fleur chuckled, spearing a piece of broccoli without moving her left hand from its rest on the table.  «If you think I am a brat, just wait until you spend more than a few minutes with Gabrielle.» 

«Runs in the family, does it?»   Neither of their smiles had subsided in the least.

«I suppose you could say that.  But be warned that ma mère may challenge you to a duel if you say this to her face.»  Hermione’s face coloured, and she looked back to her plate as she cut another piece of chicken and lifted it to her mouth.  She chewed thoughtfully, then asked a question.

«Are you close with your family?»   

“Oui.”  Fleur swallowed, then took a sip of water.  «It’s ma mère, mon père, myself, and Gabby.  Mon père—his name is Henri—is my biggest supporter and the sweetest man I’ve ever known.  My relationship with ma mère—Apolline—has its ups and downs.»  Fleur shrugged.  «She has always thought it was her duty as a parent to push me, but she didn’t seem to notice when I became quite capable of motivating myself these last few years.»   

«I’m sorry.»   Hermione’s voice was small, but full of compassion.  «I know how it feels to have an overbearing mum.  Mine’s not exactly the same—she’s never pushed me, exactly—but I’ve always felt like it is impossible for me to live up to her expectations.  We’re quite different people, you know?»   

«How so?»   

Hermione’s lips pursed, then shifted to a small, wistful smile.  «Well, I’m rather bookish.  My mum is definitely the extrovert of the family.  She works at the dental office with my dad, but if you ask her what she does, she’ll tell you she’s an artist.  And I’ll admit, she is capable of some remarkably beautiful paintings when she finds time to sit down and actually finish them.  She’s … eccentric and lively and beautiful, and I think some part of her always imagined her daughter would take after her.  So, the fact that I’m something of a tomboy who would rather sit in the dark corner of a library reading about obscure social movements of the thirteenth century than dress up for a party with my peers has to be rather a large disappointment for her.»   

As Hermione finished her explanation, her whole body slumped ever so slightly, and while her hand came to rest on the table mere inches from Fleur’s own, she resisted the urge to reach out and grab it.  She was always cautious about such things.  But even as her heart went out to Hermione, Fleur couldn’t help but notice that Hermione’s eyes flitted to their hands for the briefest of moments before she stiffened and focused on her food yet again. 

Even so, neither of them moved their hand.

«Well, I have trouble imagining that you could be a disappointment to anyone.»   She glanced over to see Hermione again swallowing her obvious desire to protest, and Fleur stifled a chuckle.  It was unbelievable to her that someone as beautiful and thoughtful and brilliant as Hermione Granger could feel so insecure about herself, but at least she was no longer disagreeing with Fleur every time she offered a compliment.  And so, she decided to push her luck a little further.  «Besides, at least beauty is a trait you share.»   

Immediately, Hermione’s freckles were engulfed in a bright pink blush, and Fleur could see she was in for another adorable flustered ramble.  As much as she enjoyed seeing Hermione so worked up, she decided for once to cut it off, if only because Hermione had lifted her hand from the table.  So Fleur returned the conversation back to the previous topic before Hermione could squeak out a response.

«Are both your parents moldu?»   

All at once, Hermione’s posture relaxed again, and her brow knitted as she shifted back to English for a moment.  “Muggles, you mean?  Merlin, I’m not sure how I feel about the French word.”

“Moldu is a perfectly nice word,” Fleur protested.  “It, um, what is the expression… it rolls off the tongue better.  Do not pretend that I am wrong about this.”  This drew a chuckle from Hermione, and finally, her hand came to rest on the table again, this time with less than an inch of space between their fingers.  Hermione seemed almost bashful as she looked up at Fleur even as she kept her head down.

“Maybe,” she conceded, voice soft again.  “But yes, my parents are muggles.  Both of them.  Needless to say that they were quite skeptical when my Hogwarts acceptance letter came.  Not sure either of them had seen an owl up close like that before.”

«But they still let you onto a magical train destined for a faraway castle to learn spells and potions rather than maths and science?»  Hermione’s expression turned impressed, following the switch back to French effortlessly.

«You know about maths and science?»   

Fleur shot her a playful glare.  «Mathematics is not a strictly moldu discipline, I’ll have you know.  Do they not offer arithmancy at Hogwarts?»   

Hermione’s lips twisted into a cocky smirk.  «Yes, Fleur, they teach arithmancy.  But it isn’t exactly calculus, now is it?»

«Non, I suppose not.  Regardless, Beauxbatons offers a wider variety of study than your Hogwarts, including many of the basics that are also taught in moldu schools.»      

“That’s bloody brilliant,” Hermione blurted out, her dark eyes twinkling.  Just as quickly, she turned self-conscious again.  Fleur used the moment to slip her hand forward again, her middle finger coming just short of brushing the tip of Hermione’s.  As far as she could tell the movement went unnoticed, and she relished in the little butterflies that danced low in her gut.  Hermione continued, her tone energetic and full of passion.  «Sorry, that’s just.  Brilliant.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get Harry and Ronald to supplement their magical education with some science, maths, and at least one foreign language, but they’re hopeless.  My parents only agreed to let me come to Hogwarts if I agreed to complete all the same courses I would’ve taken at my muggle school.  Usually I knock it all out in the summer.»   

Fleur couldn’t stop smiling.  Hermione’s curiosity and passion for learning were some of Fleur’s favourite things about her.  And it didn’t hurt that in her enthusiasm, Hermione managed to push her hand forward into Fleur’s, a couple of their fingers tangling ever so slightly.  If it was intentional, Hermione didn’t give anything away.   

They continued to talk through the evening, finishing off their meal and agreeing to split a slice of black bun.  At no point did they stop holding hands, their fingers growing more and more tangled even though neither of them had the courage to point it out.  When the waitress returned with their bill, Fleur was quick to pull it towards herself.

«Non, non.  I asked you to dinner, and I will pay.»  Hermione opened her mouth to protest, and Fleur just squeezed her hand, raising a finger to silence her.  «Let me do this, Hermione.  It is no trouble.»

Hermione’s eyes darted from side to side, giving away her nervousness.  «Okay.»

With a quick wave of her wand and an «Accio cloak,» Fleur recalled her cloak and withdrew her coinpurse.  She left the amount indicated on the bill, plus a generous tip, then looked across the table.  Fleur very much didn’t want to relinquish her hold on Hermione’s hand, but she knew their evening was drawing to a close.  Hermione didn’t seem in any hurry to withdraw either, though there was another unreadable look on her face. 

“Umm, I actually uh forgot to hold onto my wand.  It’s in my jacket pocket.  Could you …?”  

“Of course!”  She tried not to let her face visibly fall as Hermione finally pulled away, and instead, she repeated her Accio charm to retrieve Hermione’s jacket for her. 

“Thanks,” Hermione said as she stood to catch the jacket and slip it back on.  Fleur stood as well, and had half a mind to step around the table and take a chance, but Hermione stepped aside before Fleur could move.  “I’m, uh, just going to hit the loo really quick.  I’ll meet you outside?”

Hermione’s hesitation and stiff body language threw Fleur for a loop, and she could only just manage a muttered, “Okay,” before Hermione was walking past her, the electric feel of the brush of their hands as she passed only a momentary relief from the rapid onset of confusion forming in Fleur’s chest.

She tried not to take it personally.  Tried not to read anything into it.  As she walked down the stairs and around towards the door to the restaurant, she told herself it wasn’t anything to be worried about.  Hadn’t they held hands most of the night?  Fleur was sure she wasn’t imagining the chemistry between them.  Or the way Hermione looked at her. 

The sun had nearly set, and the air had grown chilly.  Fleur shivered as she pulled her cloak tighter around herself, finding comfort in its warmth.  Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait long before Hermione joined her, shivering and zipping up her jacket as the wind confronted her on her way out of the door.

“Ready?” she asked.  Fleur took a moment to search her eyes, and again had to tell herself that it wasn’t a bad sign that Hermione wouldn’t let herself look at Fleur for more than a second at a time.

“Oui,” Fleur answered, unable to mask the disappointment she was feeling.  “I will walk you back to the castle.”  She tried to stay close to Hermione, her hand open in the hope that Hermione might take it again.  But the British witch kept several inches between them, her hands tucked tightly into the pockets of her jacket.  The whole thing felt all too familiar to Fleur, and her heart sank.

They walked in relative silence, Hermione seemingly lost in her thoughts and Fleur too frustrated and hurt to make an attempt at small talk.  After the easy, flirtatious conversation they had shared all night, Fleur feared that were she to attempt to force Hermione to talk and be rejected, her heart might crumble.  She could sense the night was already going to end in disappointment—there was no point in making it worse.

Even so, by the time they approached the Beauxbatons carriage, Fleur’s equilibrium had been restored.  She refused to take this rejection lying down, because she knew she wasn’t wrong about how well the date had gone.  And yes, she was also very confident that it had been a date, no matter what sort of cold feet had overtaken Hermione at the end of it.  So when Hermione stopped at the carriage, and said that she could make it the rest of the way on her own, Fleur had already rehearsed her speech a few times in her head.

«Hermione, why have you pulled away from me?»  The question caught her off guard, and Fleur took her wide eyes and frozen posture as an excuse to plow ahead.  «I know what I felt tonight.  What I’ve felt every time we’ve spent time together.  I am many things, but unobservant is not one of them.  Please, just be honest with me.  What happened?»

Hermione seemed on the verge of breaking down, and Fleur pushed down her instinct to rush forward and hold her tight.  Instead she just waited, refusing to look away.  Finally, Hermione blew out a long breath and met her gaze.

“Fine.  You’re right.  I felt it too.  Feel it too.  But…” she shook her head, “Fleur, I can’t do this.  I want to be your friend, but I can’t offer you anything more than that.  I’m really sorry.  I … I kept telling myself tonight wasn’t a date.  But that was bullshit.  I was lying to myself.  We both know it was a date.  And yes, I know, it was, well, pretty magical.  But I—”

«Why not?» Fleur demanded.  «What is holding you back?  Would your parents not approve?  I know that sometimes moldu have strong opinions about two women being together, but—»

“That’s not it.”  Hermione wouldn’t meet her gaze again.  Fleur thought about stepping closer, nudging her chin up, making her look at her as she explained why she would ignore the spark growing between them.  But Hermione began to pace, and all Fleur could do was watch.

“I don’t know how to explain it to you, Fleur.  I’m not sure you’d even believe me.  It isn’t you.  You’re the most—” Hermione cut herself off, shaking her head and making a hard turn to pace back in the other direction.  “I really like you.  But there’s so much you don’t know about me.  So much I can’t tell you.  It wouldn’t be fair.”

Fleur glared at her, even though Hermione wouldn’t see it.  «Do I not get a say in what is fair to me?»

“No, not in this instance, no.  I’m sorry.  And when I say it isn’t fair, I don’t just mean to you.  It’s complicated.”  Hermione groaned, and Fleur was becoming more and more baffled by her behaviour.  “I don’t even know what to tell you.”

«The truth would be nice,» Fleur grumbled.

This time Hermione did look at her, and there was an unspeakable sorrow behind her eyes that was visible even in the semi-darkness.  It froze Fleur in her tracks.  She didn’t have words for what she saw in Hermione in that moment.

“You’re right,” Hermione conceded, her voice weak and defeated.  “Fleur, I’m so sorry.  You deserve better than this.  But I just can’t.  I’m not in a place to date anyone right now.  All I want—all I can offer—is my friendship.  And I really hope that, as badly as I’ve clearly cocked this all up, you won’t just hate me.”

Seeing the clear pain in the other girl’s expression, Fleur knew she had only one choice.  She took a moment, sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly.  Stepping up to Hermione, she reached out, and seeing that Hermione was okay with it, wrapped her in a fierce hug.  She switched to English and kept her voice low and soothing.  “Of course, I cannot hate you, Hermione.  If friendship is all you have to give, I will take it.  I do not understand, but I will respect your wishes.”  Her hand tangled in Hermione’s thick curls and pulled her even closer.  Hermione’s grip around her waist grew tighter.

“Thank you,” she murmured into Fleur’s cloak. 

“Of course.”  She let her fingers drag just a little against Hermione’s scalp, and she hummed in pleasure at the touch.  “I just hope that one day things become less complicated, and that you will find me worthy of your trust.” 

With another deep breath, Hermione pulled away, but seemed reluctant to let Fleur go.  Their eyes met, but not before Fleur caught Hermione’s gaze lingering for a moment on her lips.  Fleur nearly slipped and let herself lean down and capture Hermione’s lips in her own.  She sensed that Hermione was also working hard to restrain herself, and only after several lingering seconds did she finally let go and step back from Fleur.

“Are we still on for Wednesday?”

Fleur wanted to say no.  Everything in her screamed that she needed some time to lick her wounds and focus on the Tournament.  But Hermione looked so desperate.

“Oui.”  Fleur nodded, trying not to sound too sad.  «I promise I will still be there.  Wouldn’t want to tackle the First Task without well wishes from my friend.»  She heard the hint of venom in the way she said the last word, and she winced.  She was trying, but the pain was fresh.

“Okay,” Hermione said, sounding defeated.  “I … thank you for a lovely evening.  I’m sorry I ruined it.  I will see you Wednesday.”

Before Fleur could say anything more, she turned away and strode firmly up the path to the castle.  She stared after Hermione, paralyzed.  Only after the castle doors closed behind her did Fleur feel the tension in her body release.  She breathed again, and turned back to the carriage.

Girls, she lamented, letting herself wallow fully in her shallow pool of self-pity.  Why does this always happen to me?

Chapter Text

Hermione had been waiting in the Reading Room for a couple of hours—trying to lose herself in a muggle novel rather than to anxiety about the First Task and how she had left things with Fleur—when she was finally joined by another.  But it was not, as expected, Fleur who showed.  Rather, the loud crack of Dobby’s apparition startled her from her book so violently that she nearly fell out of her chair.

“Sorry!” he squeaked.  He knew that he had this effect on Hermione when he appeared unexpectedly, but she had insisted that he not let it stop him.  Especially after she had finally convinced Dobby to only visit her when he truly had free time off from his job, so that he wouldn’t prioritize her over his duties unnecessarily.  That had been a hard-fought win for her, knowing that he loved his job even though he always tried to be a most devoted friend to her.

“It’s quite alright, Dobby,” Hermione assured.  “Don’t trouble yourself.  Are you done with work for the night?”  He hopped into the chair beside and nodded.  He had come to visit her in the Reading Room a few times previously, and they had developed a routine wherein he told her stories about his day over butterbeers.  “Excellent!  So then how was your day?”

Dobby grinned broadly, then gestured wildly at his torso.  His look was surprisingly understated today, a matching pair of shoes with cropped pink trousers that Hermione was almost certain Luna had made for him.  The most garish piece was what he was gesturing at, the only article of clothing covering his chest.  Hermione guessed that it was a scarf, but it seemed ancient, and Dobby had tied it around himself in such an intricate fashion that it was hard to be sure.  Thick and at least five shades of intricately patterned blue, Dobby wore it as a sash across his chest, and it then knotted and curved into a sort of skirt over the top of his trousers.

“Dobby discovered a closet today, full of treasures and wonders and so many clothes like nothing Dobby has ever seen!”  The elf was practically trembling with excitement at the thought, a bright gleam in his massive eyes.  “I went to Professor Dumbledore immediately, and while Master Severus was very grumpy about me interrupting, Professor Dumbledore said it was alright.  I told him about the closet, and he wanted to see it.  Dobby doesn’t think this made Master Severus very happy…”

His voice trailed off, and a shadow fell upon his previously joyful features.  Hermione felt a familiar anger stir in her chest.  “Does he make you call him that?  Snape, I mean.”

Dobby nodded.  “Professor Dumbledore said the proper title for teachers was Professor and the proper title for students was Mr. or Miss, but when Dobby was cleaning the potions classroom, Master Severus came in and ordered Dobby not to forget the spare cauldrons.  Dobby said ‘yes sir,’ and told him that Dobby was getting to that next, and he yelled at Dobby that he shall call him Master Severus, and that Dobby will know his place even if he is being paid.”

“Bastard,” Hermione hissed.  She hadn’t known he was an anti-elf bigot, but she certainly wasn’t surprised.  “I’m sorry, Dobby.  Don’t mind him—he’s an arsehole to everyone.  Just, if you can, try not to be alone in a room with him.”  Dobby’s answering nod was tentative, unsure, but Hermione didn’t push him.  Instead, she tried to bring back the joy from before.  “So is this—” she gestured at the scarf, “—one of the items from the closet?”

Dobby’s smile reached nearly from ear to ear.  “Yes!  After I showed Professor Dumbledore, he said that it was a good find.  Even Professor Dumbledore didn’t know about the closet, and he said that if I wanted, I could take one item from the closet.  He called it a ‘finder’s fee’ but Dobby doesn’t know what that means.” 

Hermione giggled at this, but Dobby kept going, his enthusiasm driving the story forward.  “Dobby tried not to take too long, out of respect, but there was so much.  And—”

He trailed off as the door to the room opened, and they both leaned forward from their chairs and looked over to see Fleur standing there, a curious look on her face.  “I am sorry to interrupt.  'Ermione, I thought you said 8:00.”

For a moment, Hermione was frozen to the spot.  Fleur was every bit as beautiful as always, and all of a sudden, everything from the other night came rushing back.  It was like a punch to the chest, and she lost her breath.  But she recovered quickly and buried those feelings before forcing a smile to her face.  “I did.  Sorry, please come in.  This is my friend, Dobby.  Dobby, this is Fleur.”

“’Ello, Monsieur Dobby,” Fleur said, stepping into the room without a second thought.  “It is always nice to meet a friend of ‘Ermione’s.”  She offered her hand, and he shook it, smiling.  Fleur’s kindness shone through, not faked or exaggerated for Hermione’s or Dobby’s benefit.  It was disarming, in a way.  Hermione was so accustomed to magical people, especially those who were pure-bloods or wealthy, treating elves with complete indifference, at best.  Her heart felt so full seeing that Fleur’s warmth, rarely shown to anyone other than Gabby or Hermione herself, flowed freely for Dobby. 

She was so caught up in the tumult of feelings stirred up by Fleur that she found herself blinking rapidly to respond to Fleur’s questioning gaze, as Hermione had clearly missed a question by one or both of them.  She quickly searched her short-term memory and stumbled into an answer.

“Sorry, um, Fleur … Dobby was just telling me how he came to possess this fetching, erm… scarf of his.”  Dobby beamed, first at Hermione and then at Fleur, who offered a sincere compliment, noting how beautiful the scarf was.  Then Dobby’s eyes went wide, and he immediately leapt off the chair.

“Dobby is sorry, miss!” he squeaked, scurrying away and gesturing for Fleur to take his seat.  “Dobby does not want to intrude.”

Fleur looked confused by this sudden shift in demeanor, but before Hermione could jump in to relieve the tension of the moment, Fleur slipped down on her knees to be on eye level with Dobby.  “You ‘ave nothing to apologize for.  I am the one intruding, not you.  Please, finish your conversation.  I will simply browse the book selection of this magical room.” 

As Fleur stood again, Hermione felt herself fall a little more for the beautiful witch.  She felt as though her heart was pounding in her chest, and Hermione bit her lip, using the slight pain to focus on resisting the urge to do something foolish.  Like declare her love, or rush over and kiss her senseless.

Instead, she rose and placed a hand on Fleur’s arm.  “It’s okay, Fleur.”  She glanced down at Dobby, who smiled understandingly and nodded.  “Dobby and I talk often, and I don’t want to keep you up late.  You have the First Task in the morning.”

Fleur looked as though she might argue, but Dobby was quick to add on, “It was very nice to meet you Miss Fleur.  I will be rooting for Harry Potter, but good luck tomorrow anyway!”  He smiled at them both, then twisted into disapparition before either girl could say goodbye.

With a raised eyebrow towards Hermione, Fleur sighed and took the seat vacated by Dobby.  “I do believe that was the most eccentric young elf I have ever met,” she chuckled.  “Why am I not surprised that such a wonderfully unusual person is a friend of Hermione Granger?”  Hermione blushed, which she guessed was probably Fleur’s intention.  And for a moment, they were alone, and everything was as light and comfortable as it had been before their date.

Then reality set in, and Hermione felt like she could see Fleur’s walls go up as her spine straightened.  Even though she assumed it was fruitless, Hermione tried desperately to keep them in that place, leaning forward slightly as she explained, “Dobby is probably the bravest, most caring person I have ever known.”

For a moment, Fleur’s eyes softened, her lips parting slightly as though she intended to respond in kind.  But then her mouth snapped shut, and she drew in a breath, eyes fleeing from Hermione’s gaze.  She took a moment to collect herself, and Hermione knew better than to fight it.  She leaned back in her chair, waiting for Fleur to face her again.

Eyes still firmly fixed on the fire, Fleur asked, «Hermione, why am I here?»

Hermione wanted nothing more than to apologize, to tell Fleur how hard she was falling for her, to beg her forgiveness.  But she didn’t do any of that.  Instead, she steeled herself and answered.  «You said that you wanted to be my friend.  Is that still true?»

They hadn’t talked since that night, and for all Hermione knew, Fleur had changed her mind.  For all she knew, Fleur found her mix of affection, confusion, and avoidance of the full truth too much, and she had decided that friendship with Hermione was something she could do without.  Hermione braced herself for the worst.

Instead, Fleur only offered a quiet, «Yes.»

Hermione waited for her to go on, but Fleur merely glanced over at her and then turned back to face the fire, allowing the silence to fall between them.  So Hermione pushed forward herself.  «Then what we are doing here … what I am doing here, is checking in with my friend before a dangerous task, and hoping that she is doing okay.  And that she is prepared.»  Hermione looked down at her hands.  «And though it is late, maybe I just want to offer what help I can, if you want it.»

Finally, Fleur turned back to her.  They locked eyes, and Fleur said, «I believe I am prepared, yes.  Is Harry ready for this?» 

The compassion in her voice nearly broke all of Hermione’s defences.  She glanced away for a moment.  «If you’re asking whether he knows about the dragons, the answer is yes.  And yes, he has prepared a good strategy for them.»

Fleur’s eyes searched her, and much to Hermione’s chagrin, she seemed to see right through her.  «And yet you are worried.»

Hermione made a face.  «Of course I am worried, Fleur.  He’s a 14-year-old kid with far too much already on his shoulders, and now I worry he’s dead set on proving something to the person who entered his name in this Tournament.  A person I am sure wants him dead!»  Hermione bit her lip, turning away again.  She was lucky she hadn’t said too much.

She only turned back from her flickering light of the fireplace because of the soft touch on her forearm.  Hermione couldn’t help the sharp breath she sucked in, her eyes flicking to Fleur’s hand on her arm before rising.  «Hermione.  If I know you, and sometimes I think that maybe I do, you will have prepared him for this.  You can only protect him as much as he wishes to be protected.»

Hermione gripped Fleur’s hand, squeezing as she nodded.  A moment passed, and then Fleur pulled away.  Hermione tried not to miss her touch, nodding her agreement with Fleur’s advice.  «I know.  And I trust that he will be okay.  The reason I wanted to talk to you tonight was to be sure you would be.  I figured … as late as it is… well, um, maybe you would tell me your strategy.»  She blushed under Fleur’s steely gaze.  «It’s late enough that you shouldn’t worry about me spilling your secrets to Harry.  Though I would hope that you know I wouldn’t—»

«No.»  Fleur’s firm tone cut her off, then shook her head slightly, beautiful hair practically shimmering in the firelight.  «I know that you aren’t some Hogwarts spy, trying to undermine my performance.  As much as it hurts a little, after … the date… I still know that you care.»  She sighed, and Hermione tried not to think about the hurt she could sense in the expression.  «I have a spell, a charm, that will… in combination with my natural veela charms, lull the beautiful creature to sleep.»

Hermione smiled softly, despite having already known the answer.  She put all her effort into sounding nonchalant and unrehearsed as she asked, feigning innocence, «How lovely—do… um, do dragons by any chance, er, snore?  In, like … a fiery way?»

Feeling Fleur’s penetrating gaze on her, Hermione’s teeth tugged slightly at her lower lip as she looked up to meet it.  Fleur analyzed her for what felt like an eternity, then a tiny grin sparked along her lips.  «You truly are brilliant, you know?»  Hermione blushed, and Fleur chuckled.  «I am no draconologist, but ... yes, I think such is a possibility.  And not one I had considered.»

Hermione couldn’t stop her smile from forming, taking in Fleur’s soft, admiring expression.  «I, erm.  Well, I … I developed this charm for Harry.  It’s a sort of, um, fireproofing charm, I suppose.  You apply it to your clothes, thirty minutes before you need them to be fire resistant.»  Hermione nearly melted at the way Fleur’s eyes went soft, her lips quirking into the most affectionate smile.  «I could … show you.  If you want.»

«I would appreciate it.»

                                                  

“So, what do you think is waiting for us out there?”  Neville’s tone was equal parts worried and curious, and Hermione kept her mouth shut, since she already knew the answer.  Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Neville were walking together amidst the procession of students walking down to the clearing where the stands had been erected for the viewing of the First Task.  The Forbidden Forest loomed ahead, the castle and lake already having been left behind.

“Well, it’s in the forest, so probably they have to fight whatever dark creatures live there, right?”  Ginny sounded nothing but excited, her bright eyes twinkling with the thought of what the champions could face.  Hermione smiled, knowing that had the Tournament been held a few years later, Ginny would no doubt have been a strong candidate for the Hogwarts champion.

“Unicorns aren’t dark creatures,” Luna corrected offhandedly.  “They just have an aversion to men.”  She shrugged, giggling lightly.  “And that’s perfectly understandable, now isn’t it?  Seems a bit unfair for Cedric and Viktor though.”  Her voice trailed off sadly, her eyes catching on something to their right that Hermione was fairly sure was simply in Luna’s imagination.

Neville seemed a bit offended by Luna’s comment, but Hermione stepped in before he could say anything.  “I doubt they could get unicorns to cooperate.  And they may not be dark creatures, but hippogriffs, thestrals, and acromantulas certainly can be dangerous.  I seriously doubt Professor Dumbledore or the Ministry could have convinced the centaurs to participate, so we’re no doubt going far away from their territory.  Could be anything really—probably the Forbidden Forest was just the easiest place to keep whatever it is hidden until today.”

“Because of course you know exactly what sorts of creatures live in the Forbidden Forest,” Ginny teased.  “Is there anything about Hogwarts that you don’t know?”

“Well, Hogwarts, A History is quite comprehensive, but it leaves out so much.  It hardly even covers the Forbidden Forest at all.  I had to sneak into the restricted section to satisfy my curiosity.”  It wasn’t a lie.  Hermione had absolutely borrowed Harry’s invisibility cloak to sneak into the restricted section to read about the forest.  It was just that it had happened after the First Task in her previous timeline.

“Hermione Granger trash-talking Hogwarts, A History?!  I never thought I’d see the day,” Ginny snickered, leaping out of the way as Hermione moved to shove her.  “Sneaking into restricted areas, mysterious dates with beautiful French witches, strange clothes out of class… who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”

This was only the latest in a long line of teasing from Ginny at the changes she had noticed since Hermione had taken over the body of her younger self.  Hermione rolled her eyes, as usual, and just kept walking as she muttered a sardonic but affectionate, “I’m still me, dummy.”  Eventually, Ginny would get used to the new her and stop with the running commentary.

As they passed into the Forbidden Forest, Luna stepped ahead of the group, taking in every little detail of the thriving fauna around them.  Neville was right behind, probably for similar reasons.  Certainly not just to avoid Hermione’s and Ginny’s bickering.  It took only a few minutes before the trees began thinning out and then the clearing came into view.  Ahead of them, the path split.  One path continued straight ahead, curving slightly towards a door in the massive wooden fence that curved off away around some sort of enclosure.  Two paths went up the sides of the slight hills that surrounded the enclosure, leading to sets of stairs leading up into the stands erected along the top of the fence, where Hermione could see spectators already filling in quickly.  Another path led off to the right, where the champions’ tent had been erected.  Hermione guessed the dragons’ pen was on the other side of the enclosure, with a tunnel leading down into the stony habitat within the enclosure.

Ginny and Neville had stopped to gaze at the massive fence and stands, but Luna had already started down the leftmost path, towards the stands.  Hermione swept in between Ginny and Neville, placing an arm around each and leading them forward.  “Come now, children, I’m sure we’ll find much more impressive views up there in the stands.”  Neville smiled and Ginny scoffed, but neither moved away from her.  They were quick to follow Luna up the stairs and into some open seats. 

At first, they all simply sat there in silence, taking in the sight below them.  They had clearly dug a fairly deep depression into the clearing, the fence giving way to a rocky walls that continued to slope downward a good ten metres or so towards an uneven, stony ground below.  The landscape was harsh, but provided a number of nooks and crannies where the champions could hide.  On the far end of the enclosure, opposite the entrance, there was a raised area that featured a nest of sorts, though none of the eggs had yet appeared.

Neville began immediately to speculate about the nest, but Hermione’s focus was on Ginny, who was searching the crowd.  “Prat,” she scowled, and Hermione followed her gaze to see Ron sitting with Dean, Seamus, and a few other Gryffindor boys.  He noticed Hermione and Ginny glaring daggers at him, and immediately shrank back and looked away. 

From Ginny’s other side, Luna’s dreamy voice said, “Prat is such a nice nickname for your brother, Ginny.  It’s just too bad he is still being so mean to dear Harry.”  Hermione immediately cracked up, and she and Ginny both descended into a fit of laughter.

“Prat isn’t a nickname,” Neville explained gently, leaning over Hermione slightly so that Luna could hear him.  “It’s an insult.  Just means he is being purposefully ignorant and yeah, I guess pretty mean.”

Luna smiled, and if Hermione didn’t know any better she’d call the young witch’s expression knowing.  “Oh, okay.  Thank you, Neville.  It’s still a very nice-sounding word.”  She turned and looked wistfully to the hill rising up out of the forest behind them.  Only the tops of the trees were visible over the top of the stands, which rose up several more rows behind them.  “I’m sure the task will be quite thrilling, but I do wish we could wander the forest instead.”

Beside her, Neville stiffened.  “What, uh, I mean, really?  Why?  Aren’t you worried about, well, a-acromantulas, for instance?”

Luna’s lips quirked thoughtfully, causing her nose to scrunch up adorably.  “Hmm, I hadn’t really thought about them.  I’d be much more concerned about the plimplies, but I would bring gurdyroots with me just in case.”  She smiled kindly at Neville, as if certain that she had relieved him of any worries about the forest and its many dangerous creatures and plants.  Then her gaze shifted to Hermione as she turned and settled back into her seat.  “I haven’t been to see the centaurs yet this year, haven’t found the time for an excursion just yet, I hope they don’t think I’m ignoring them.”

Hermione gaped for several moments before sucking in a sharp breath.  “Luna, please tell me that you don’t go wandering the Forbidden Forest alone.”  Ginny winced, leaving Hermione to assume she already knew the answer, but Luna just smiled dreamily.

“I’m not sure you really want the answer to that question, Hermione.  Your aura seems quite tense all of the sudden.  Perhaps I will just say that the forest is very welcoming to the pure of heart.  And that your concern is so sweet, almost as if we were friends.”

Hermione’s mouth snapped shut, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes.  “Luna, of course we are friends.  But you really shouldn’t—” 

“WELCOME ALL TO THE 1994 TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT!”

Hermione’s scolding was cut off by the booming voice of Ludo Bagman, which caused her to jump nearly out of her seat in shock.  She turned to glare at the judges’ box, positioned over the entrance to the enclosure.  Bagman had his wand to his throat, and he was flanked by the other judges, Maxime and Crouch on his right and Dumbledore and Karkaroff on his left.

“TODAY IS THE FIRST TASK!  I KNOW THERE HAS BEEN MUCH SPECULATION AND CURIOSITY ABOUT TODAY’S EVENT, AND IT IS MY PLEASURE TO FINALLY REVEAL THE CHALLENGE THAT WILL FACE EACH OF OUR CHAMPIONS THIS AFTERNOON.”

Around her, spectators were on the edges of their seats, waiting for the big reveal.  Hermione simply crossed her arms and waited for Bagman to get on with it.  She was trying her hardest to ignore the building anxiety in her chest, hoping that Fleur had taken her advice and used the fireproofing charm.

There was a creaking sound coming from a large, very dark cave off to the side of the nest, and suddenly the eggs appeared.  The golden egg stood out from its cohorts, which were a bit smaller and covered in iridescent rainbow scales.  Hermione glanced around and found a number of smaller caves–which she suspected were in fact tunnels–that she knew housed any number of dragon keepers, prepared to rush in and save the champions if need be.  

Bagman timed his next words perfectly.  As the sonorus charm boomed out Bagman’s excited, “BEHOLD THE SWEDISH SHORT-SNOUT!” the wyvern rushed out into the enclosure, posing threateningly over the nest as her angry golden eyes swept the now hushed crowd above her.  The Short-Snout was massive and easily the most beautiful of the four, with a silvery blue hide that shimmered in the sunlight.  Her posture was elegant, almost calm, and the way her great wings flared out around her was the only obvious show of aggression, at first.  Her long neck swooped downward, her head hung protectively over the eggs as she surveyed her surroundings.  Her distinctive bump of a snout displayed sharp teeth then pulled into the slightest snarl, and the subtle ridges along her cheeks and forehead bristled with the movement.  As they moved back along her head, they gave way to her most distinctive feature: two beautiful, velvety grey antlers.  With a roar, she blew blinding purple-blue flames into the air, and the space in front of the crowd hummed with the subtle energy of the magical barrier protecting them from the heat.

As Bagman’s voice sounded again, the dragon’s long neck swayed this way and that, as she sought to find the source of the loud noise that seemed to come from all around them.   “EACH CHAMPION WILL FACE A DRAGON, WHO WILL BE FIERCELY GUARDING ITS CLUTCH OF EGGS.  AS YOU ALL CAN SEE, ONE OF THE EGGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS.  THE CHAMPIONS’ TASK IS SIMPLE: CAPTURE THE GOLDEN EGG.  CHAMPIONS WILL BE JUDGED ON MAGICAL SKILL, STRATEGY, SPEED, AND A VARIETY OF OTHER FACTORS.”  Bagman, ever the showman, paused for a moment, and the Short-Snout took note of movement in the judge’s box, spitting a harsh fireball right at Bagman.  The fire crashed against the barrier with a loud roar, the flames dissipating quickly, and only then did Bagman continue.  “WE’VE GOT A FEISTY ONE ON OUR HANDS.  SHOULD BE QUITE THE CHALLENGE FOR OUR FIRST CHAMPION, CCCCCCEDRIC DIGGORY OF HOOOOOOOOOGWARTS!”  

The doors to the front of the enclosure swung open as Cedric stepped inside, and the crowd--mostly Hogwarts students--erupted into cheers and bellows.  It was fortunate for Cedric that he had quick reflexes, honed on the quidditch pitch no doubt, because the doors had barely closed behind him before another bright blue fireball was spat with incredible force in his direction.  He barely avoided it, throwing himself sideways behind a large outcropping of stone.

Watching Cedric’s performance was the most vivid experience of déjà vu Hermione had ever experienced, and that was probably the only reason she was able to tune out Bagman’s commentary.  Everything happened exactly the way it had in her timeline–Cedric’s initial dodging around, trying to get a sense of the dragon and develop a strategy; Bagman’s commentary; Cedric’s final strategic attempt, the transfiguration of a large rock into a labrador; the way he finally fully left cover to sprint at the nest as the dog distracted the dragon, at least at first; his stumble over some loose stones as he neared the nest, the sound of which led the Short-Snout’s neck to snap around as she leveled a steady stream of fire towards him.  The whole thing was unsettling in a way Hermione hadn’t expected, though she was sure it was nothing compared to what Cedric felt.  He cried out in pain as the sleeve of his robes caught fire, not having stumbled out of the way quite fast enough.  But to his credit, he didn’t pause for a second, probably realizing that his best strategy at this point was to leap forward for the golden egg and hope that the dragon keepers would save him.

The moment his hand came into contact with the egg, the keepers rushed out in full force, some of them catching the dragon with ear-splitting sounds projected from their wands and the rest turning the full force of at least ten or twelve stunning spells on her.  With a furious shriek that cut off in a pained yelp that actually tugged a little at Hermione’s heartstrings, the dragon collapsed to the ground with a thud.  Parts of the crowd cheered as Bagman’s commentary prattled on, but it was much quieter than before.  None of Hermione’s friends were cheering, their attention firmly on Cedric.  Another dragon keeper had already extinguished the flames on the Hufflepuff’s robes, and they rushed him off quickly to receive treatments for his burns.  Only after he had left the enclosure did the mood of the crowd lift a bit.

“GIVE IT UP FOR CEDRIC DIGGORY, EVERYONE!” 

Finally, Bagman went quiet, turning to discuss things with his fellow judges as the excited buzz of chatter spread across the crowd.  Ginny and Neville were engaged in a breathless conversation about Cedric’s performance, but Hermione chose instead to watch as the dragon keepers gently levitated the now sleeping creature back into the cave, which she knew connected back to the massive pens where they were holding the dragons.  For all her disapproval of Hagrid’s antics in hatching and trying to keep Norberta as a pet, she felt she could better understand his love of these majestic beasts.  Hermione found that the fear and anxiety she had experienced the first time around had been replaced with something more akin to disgust.  The dragons were uprooted, along with their eggs, from their homes and brought to a distant land and for what?  To endanger children for the amusement of other children?

She didn’t have much time to dwell on these thoughts, however, because Bagman’s loud voice had returned.  “VERY GOOD INDEED!  AND NOW THE MARKS FROM THE JUDGES!”  The judges, Bagman included, were facing away from the crowd now, and Hermione had no doubt that Cedric had been patched up by Madam Pomfrey enough to stand outside the enclosure and look on to receive his scores.  The scores were identical to the prior timeline, eights from Dumbledore, Crouch, and Bagman, and sevens from Maxime and Karkaroff.  Having given Cedric his score, the judges turned back to the crowd, and Bagman started up again.

“UP NEXT IS THE CHAMPION FOR BEAUXBATONS ACADEMY, MISS FLEUR DELACOUR, FACING OFF AGAINST THE WELSH GREEEEEEEEN!”

From across the way, the Beauxbatons contingent cheered, and Hermione’s heart leapt into her throat as she watched the doors, waiting for Fleur to enter.  But they remained shut, and the roar that came from the other side of the enclosure pulled her attention almost fully onto the Common Welsh Green.  While certainly bombastic, its roar was almost musical, sounding more like an old cathedral organ than a fire-breathing lizard.  The Short-Snout’s eggs were already gone, now replaced by the brown, teardrop-shaped eggs of the Welsh Green.  This was the smallest dragon of the bunch and the most lizard-like, with four legs instead of two.  When it reared up onto its back legs and spit fire into the air, it was a thin, blistering orange jet.

“Oh wow, Hermione, there’s your girl.”  Rather than glare at Ginny, as was her usual response, Hermione turned instantly back towards the front of the enclosure.  Somehow, someway, Fleur’s gaze found her own.  Hermione’s breath caught, and time stood still.  While still nothing but shades of blue, Fleur’s outfit was different than the first time around.  The leggings--similar those Fleur wore when she asked Hermione to dinner, but a deep blue in colour--were the same, but gone was the thick, well-padded top she had previously worn.  Instead, she wore a pale top, perhaps made of silk, that featured long sleeves and a high neck but was obviously much lighter and more flexible than what she wore in the original timeline.  Gone were the thick gauntlets and heavy boots, replaced with thin gloves and hiking boots.  A beautiful pale headscarf covered her neck and head, leaving only her eyes exposed.  And over it all she wore a massive, billowing cloak of a similar shade of blue as her leggings. 

Based on the attire alone, Hermione had to assume Fleur had utilized her fireproofing charm, and the thought made Hermione smile.  Fleur smiled back, and Hermione mouthed a quick, “Good luck,” hoping that veela eyes were sharper than human ones.  Then a flash of movement in her periphery broke the moment, and Hermione’s chest grew so tight it was a palpable, physical ache.

The Welsh Green was spitting a harsh stream of fire at Fleur, silencing the crowd instantly as everyone immediately feared the worst.  In the original timeline, Fleur had moved to cover before the dragon could do so, but this time around, Hermione had distracted her.  Even though her brain knew better, Hermione’s heart screamed that she had just gotten this beautiful girl killed.  And then, with a quick adjustment of her cloak, Fleur put all her fears to rest.

Fleur practically looked like a superhero, throwing the side of her cloak up and over her head and body as she tucked down to avoid the flame.  A small inferno blazed and snapped all around her, a thick cloud of black smoke billowing up into the air.  Hermione could see the rocky ground heating up, but through it all, Fleur was a small resilient bundle of darkness within, unmoving and seemingly unharmed.  

“MISS DELACOUR APPEARS TO HAVE MADE HER CLOAK FIREPROOF!  I BET MR. DIGGORY WOULD’VE LIKED TO HAVE KNOWN THAT TRICK.”

The Welsh Green spat flames at her for several long seconds, seemingly mystified as to why she did not catch fire.  The instant the flames ceased, Fleur popped back up and threw her cloak back behind her with a flourish of both arms. Soot, ash, and smoke blew back behind her, as if banished solely by her force of will, and Fleur strode forward, her wand already out as she chanted something under her breath.  Hermione wondered if she would attempt the same spell for bewitched sleep as before.  It hadn’t gone perfectly the first time; the Welsh Green fell into a fitful sleep rather than the perfect coma-like state that had befallen the four prisoners at the bottom of the lake in the Second Task.  But Fleur’s pace did not cease, and while the dragon’s gaze followed her, she did not attempt to burn Fleur again.  As she neared, the Welsh Green’s head began to droop, until finally she fell asleep.  

Fleur stroked the dragon’s head softly as she continued onward towards the eggs, as Bagman’s incredulity boomed out.  “I CAN HARDLY BELIEVE WHAT I JUST SAW!  NOT ONLY IS THE GIRL FIREPROOF, BUT SHE PUT THE DRAGON TO SLEEP AS THOUGH IT WERE AN EXHAUSTED BABY!” 

Hermione growled under her breath at the sexism in Bagman’s tone, but her eyes followed Fleur.  Unlike in the previous timeline, Fleur had marched straight towards the dragon rather than arcing around the perimeter of the enclosure as she waited for sleep to take the creature.  As such, while the dragon’s sleep was just as fitful as before, this time it was facing away from Fleur when an errant snore puffed out a short burst of flames.  Meanwhile, Fleur stopped at the edge of the nest and gently accio’ed the golden egg into her hand, avoiding any risk of disturbing the actual dragon eggs surrounding it.  As she held it overhead, the crowd went wild.

“MY GOD, THAT WAS INCREDIBLE!  EVEN KARKAROFF'S GONNA HAVE TROUBLE FINDING A FLAW IN THIS PERFORMANCE!”

Hermione snorted out a laugh at Bagman’s commentary, glancing over to see Karkaroff shoot Bagman a look that could kill.  Then she turned around to find that Fleur’s gaze had returned to her, and this time, Fleur winked.  

Hermione blushed as Ginny shoved her playfully.  “Holy shite, did she just wink at you?!”

“How lovely of her,” Luna added.  “Shouldn’t be surprising.  She’s always asking about you at meals, after all.”  

Shocked at this revelation, Hermione sucked in far too sharp a breath and started to choke.  Ginny and Neville both moved quickly to pat her back, trying to help, but after a moment it passed.  Through watery eyes, Hermione could see that Fleur was skipping confidently back to the front of the enclosure, and Hermione turned bright red at the thought that the witch had seen that embarrassing display just now.

“Hermione, are you alright?” Neville squeaked out, sounding more worried than Hermione felt was merited.

“I’m fine.  Uh, just swallowed wrong, I suppose,” she reasoned, waiving him off.  “I’m fine.”

Bagman cut off any further commentary from the peanut gallery, announcing that the judges were giving their scores and blissfully saving Hermione from any more unwanted scrutiny.  Hermione watched as the judges took turns, wands lifting in the air one by one to shoot forth an ethereal silvery ribbon (or two) that formed into a number high in the air.  Maxime gave her protégé a ten, up from the nine she had given in the other timeline.  Crouch gave a nine, up from a rather harsh six previously.  Dumbledore matched Maxime’s ten, and what happened next filled Hermione with a rage every bit as hot and fiery as anything that had come from either dragon’s maw.  Karkaroff sent up a paltry six, and Hermione was on her feet in an instant.

“What sort of rubbish is that?!”  Hermione was furious, and she didn’t care who knew it, but her shouts were drowned out by the boos coming from the nearby Beauxbatons section.  Ginny had to pull her back down into her seat, and she only just noticed the silvery nine Bagman had given Fleur.  The Beauxbatons continued to boo, as if hoping they could scold Karkaroff into changing his score, and Hermione felt for them, even having known that the former Death Eater was going to be a petulant and biased judge no matter what.

“GUESS I WAS WRONG ABOUT HEADMASTER KARKAROFF, AY?  NOW NOW, LET’S SETTLE DOWN.”  He gestured with his hand for the Beauxbatons to retake their seats, and after a few moments of continued booing, they finally gave up the effort and took their seats.  Hermione caught more than a few rude gestures leveled towards the judges box, however, much to the chagrin of both Maxime and Karkaroff.  Bagman paid them no further mind, however, trying to get the Tournament back on track as he raised his wand to his throat again.  “NEXT UP IS THE CHAMPION FOR DURMSTRANG INSTITUTE, FRESH OFF A REMARKABLE PERFORMANCE IN THIS YEAR’S WORLD CUP, GET ON YOUR FEET FOR WORLD-FAMOUS BULGARIAN SEEKER VIKTOOOOOOOOOR KRUUUUUUM!”

A booming roar came from the Durmstrang section, and a smatter of cheers came from elsewhere in the crowd, no doubt from overzealous quidditch fans.  The Beauxbatons momentarily renewed their booing, likely more because of Karkaroff than because of Krum himself.  Hermione sank back into her seat, scoffing at the obvious favouritism shown by Bagman, and beside her, Ginny chuckled.

As Bagman continued his bluster, Hermione leaned into Ginny with a harsh sharp, “What?”

That just made Ginny snicker even more, an eyebrow raising over an annoyingly knowing gaze.  “Nothing Hermione, I just think it’s funny how easily annoyed you get about anything relating to Fleur.”

Hermione scowled.  “No, I do not, Ginevra.  Bagman is showing clear favouritism towards Krum, all over stupid quidditch, and since he’s a judge, that’s clearly unethical.”  Ginny smirked, and Hermione rushed to add, “For Harry, I mean.  Obviously.  It isn’t fair to Harry, who is already at a disadvantage because of his age.”

“Haven’t you been pestering Harry all this time about focusing on staying safe, not winning?”  Ginny’s tone was an exaggerated mockery of innocent inquiry, and Hermione felt completely flustered by her refusal to accept any of Hermione’s excuses. So, rather than try and fight it Hermione changed the subject.

“Fine, whatever, just watch the task.”  Ginny started to respond, but she was cut off by the sharp bellow of the Chinese Fireball.  The long, deep red dragon writhed in pain, body contorting midair so that her short talons could scratch at her eyes as balls of white hot flame plumed up out of her nostrils.  Krum had used the Conjunctivitis Curse to temporarily blind the poor creature, but as before, this didn’t entirely work out in his favour.  The snakelike Fireball rolled backwards uncontrollably, nearly trampling Krum.  Hermione knew what came next, and her heart sank again.

She watched with sorrow as the Fireball overcorrected and stumbled into the nest, her writhing tail crushing several of her eggs.  The crowd gasped, and it was obvious that the dragon immediately understood what had happened.  She went hauntingly still, an anguished moan spilling out as she floated up into the air as gently as possible, avoiding harm to any more of her eggs.  As she crashed awkwardly onto the ground as far away as her chains would allow, Krum sprang forward to take the golden egg.

“IT WAS DICEY THERE FOR A MOMENT, BUT HE’S DONE IT!  WHAT A GUTSY SHOW, REALLY BRUTE FORCE STUFF THERE, KRUM!”

The gormless fool clearly had no clue how tragic this had been, though at least some of the crowd was clearly feeling it, especially given the clear anguish the dragon was experiencing.  Hermione couldn’t tear her gaze away from the poor creature, and fortunately, the dragon keepers did not stun her as they did the Swedish Short-Snout.  Instead, they drew inspiration from Fleur, several of them using magic to lull the Fireball to sleep.  They took care in levitating her out of the enclosure, and her bright red eggs (both whole and shattered) disappeared.

Hermione wasn’t sure if it was normal to feel this kind of sorrow over the destruction of some dragon eggs.  She certainly wouldn’t have the same reaction over some cracked chicken eggs.  It hadn’t hit her like this when she was fifteen.  But the dragon—the mother—had sounded so broken, so devastated at the loss of her… Hermione didn’t even know if children was the right word.  But potential children, perhaps.  She had no idea that dragons had such care for their young.  And while she knew it wasn’t entirely Krum’s fault—he had done his best, after all, and it wasn’t like he had decided what the First Task would be—she held some serious anger at him nonetheless.

She hoped she and Fleur could be friends despite the misstep with the date.  Hermione needed to be able to trust her; she couldn’t accomplish her goals without the help of one of the champions, and she had not relinquished her insistence on leaving Cedric and Harry out of it.  No, the more she thought about it, the more she was sure it had to be Fleur.

And deep down, that was what her heart wanted anyway.  The judges gave their scores, and to her surprise, they were not the same as the first time around.  Karkaroff still gave his student a ten, but Crouch joined Maxime in giving him a seven (down from his previous eight), Bagman went from a nine to an eight, and Dumbledore awarded a surprising five.  Karkaroff looked outraged, but the Beauxbatons students all cheered wildly at Dumbledore’s score.  Hermione guessed it had less to do with Karkaroff’s bias and more to do with Dumbledore’s empathy for the dragon’s anguish.  Though he had previously only been willing to go as low as a six for Krum, and Hermione had no idea what had really changed.  Time travel was so weird.

But Bagman was quick to move on, regardless.  “AAAAND NOW, IT IS TIME FOR OUR SURPRISE FOURTH CHAMPION, A FIRST IN THE HISTORY OF THIS TOURNAMENT!  FACING OFF AGAINST THE DREADED HUNGARIAN HORNTAIL, OUR YOUNGEST CHAMPION, THE BOY WHO LIVED, HOGWARTS’ OWN HAAAAAAARRY POTTEEEEEEEERRRRRR!”

As in the previous timeline, the crowd’s enthusiasm was more than a little depressed, especially as compared to the reaction to Cedric.  Part of it was certainly the Slytherin’s smear campaign against Harry.  Part of it was likely also the unease over how Krum’s performance had gone.  But it was largely only the Gryffindors cheering on Harry as the Hungarian Horntail entered the enclosure and Harry followed shortly thereafter.

Harry wore his quidditch robes and gear, which Hermione had carefully fireproofed that morning, the spell being a little too advanced for Harry to handle on his own.  She wished she had been as thoughtful as Fleur, ensuring that Harry had covered his head in fireproof material as well.  But he had been fine the first time around, and Hermione had been lecturing him the entire month on how important it was that he focus on staying safe, not winning.  She had tried her best to convince him to simply concede the task, but Harry’s pride would not allow that.  He refused to cower in fear, and honestly, Hermione hadn’t expected anything different.

He had hardly stepped into the enclosure when he darted for the closest cover, just as Hermione had instructed.  From there, he was quick to call his broom.  Harry crouched down behind the outcropping, but pointed his wand skyward and shouted, “Accio Firebolt!”  Behind him, the Horntail roared furiously, yanking on her chain to try and get at Harry.  Another wyvern, the Horntail was the scariest of the lot, every detail of her body seeming angry and harsh.  Her long snout was beaked but filled with razor sharp teeth, and the way she snapped in Harry’s direction indicated an insanely powerful jaw.  Her head, neck, back, and tail were covered in thick spines, bronze against the nearly black scales of her hide, and her tail swung back and forth viciously, shattering some of the less sturdy rocks around her.

Unable to catch Harry in her jaws thanks to her chains, the Horntail fell back towards her nest and began shooting blistering jets of fire in the general vicinity of Harry’s outcropping.  Less than thirty seconds passed from Harry’s summoning charm to the appearance of his Firebolt from its nearby hiding spot, but they were a terrifying thirty seconds, even for Hermione.

And then Harry was shooting skyward out of the smoke, the previously silent crowd roaring out a raucous cheer.  “A BROOM!  BLOODY BRILLIANT!” Bagman marveled, as Harry came to a stop far above them all, surveying the landscape within the enclosure.  “BET KRUM WISHES HE THOUGHT OF THAT!”  Then Harry dove, and he might as well have been chasing a snitch.  Just as with quidditch, Hermione held her breath at the sheer speed of the dive, worried that this was the time Harry would finally go splat with his dangerous flying habits.  But, of course, that isn’t what happened.

Instead of going straight for the golden egg, over which the Horntail was perched protectively, Harry aimed for the middle part of the enclosure, the Horntail watching his progress and spitting fire the moment Harry came into range.  He dodged easily, spinning away and going off into a series of maneuvers meant to pull the Horntail forward.  “GREAT SCOTT, HE CAN FLY.  ARE YOU WATCHING THIS, MR. KRUM?”

Unfortunately, as furious as the Horntail looked, she refused to move away from the eggs, shrieking at Harry and spreading her wings threateningly as she continued to chase him with wild streams of fire.  The movements were different than in the previous timeline, but as impressive as his flying was, the Horntail refused to take the bait.  A couple of times, Harry seemed to intentionally slow, as if taunting the Horntail to catch him with her fire.  Both times, he twisted and spun so that the fire hit only the back of his cloak, quickly dissipating against the fireproofing charm.  “SEEMS MISS DELACOUR ISN’T THE ONLY CHAMPION TO LEARN THAT TRICK.”

Clearly frustrated, Harry changed tack.  First, he tried moving in closer to the Horntail, spinning and dodging wildly to avoid her snapping jaws while looking for an opening to get under her attacks.  After some close calls, he retreated again, pausing only momentarily to catch his breath and take another look at the geometry of the landscape around him.  Then, after a few maneuvers to dodge more flames and get in position, he sped around the back of the dragon.  He moved quickly, and the Horntail briefly lifted in the air to flip around and face Harry again before retaking her defensive posture over the eggs.  However, the path Harry had chosen brought him within range of the dragon’s tail, and Hermione’s heart sank. 

She had warned him.  Told him several times that the tail would get him, that it could be more dangerous than the fire if he wasn’t careful.  Hermione was furious that he would risk it, and she was sure that this wouldn’t go well for him. 

Except that his wand was out.  As the powerful tail lashed out towards Harry, he shouted, with surprisingly perfect pronunciation, “Alarte Ascendare!” and the tail began to rise, its path towards Harry arrested as if it had been caught by some invisible hand and pulled upward.  Harry ducked under the tail easily, and the Hungarian Horntail shrieked in pure fury, her head whipping around to find out what had the gall to capture her tail.  She snapped wildly at the air around her tail, frantically trying to get at whatever had hold of her, and she was so distracted that she noticed Harry shooting forward towards the eggs far too late.  Her head spun back around, but she wasn’t fast enough.  Harry slipped between her front legs, scooped up the egg, and then shot straight up into the air until he was out of range of the fire from the now completely enraged dragon.

It was brilliant.  They hadn’t practiced that spell in their preparations.  Hermione had no idea where Harry had learned it.  As he shouted happily, pumping his fist in the air, the crowd went wild.  All around her, people stood, cheering and chanting Harry’s last name.  Hermione didn’t move, however.  All she could do was glower at Harry’s showboating, in complete shock at his performance.

Before anyone could take their seats again, Hermione slipped back onto the bench and took off towards the stairs.

                                                  

Harry felt exuberant.  Rather than bother with the door, he flew right over the judges’ box and landed on the other side, where Professors McGonagall and Moody waited for him, along with Hagrid.  They seemed happy for him, and McGonagall even gushed, “That was excellent, Potter!”  He didn’t think he’d ever heard her express that much joy openly in front of a student. 

“Yeh did it, Harry!” Hagrid barked. “Yeh did it!  An’ agains’ the Horntail an’ all, an’ yeh know Charlie said that was the wors’—”

“Thanks, Hagrid,” Harry interrupted, shooting Hagrid a sharp look to warn him against letting slip his decision to secretly show Harry the dragons two nights ago.

Professor Moody’s magical eye was practically dancing in its socket, which Harry found intensely unsettling, but tried to pretend it was just happy about his performance.  “Nice and easy does the trick, Potter,” he growled.

Harry didn’t have any injuries to treat, so the professors led him just far enough up the path that he could see the judges again.  And he didn’t have to wait long.  “FINAL MARKS OF THE DAY,” announced Bagman.  He turned to look at Madame Maxime, who raised her wand and shot a long silvery ribbon into the air, which twisted itself into a nine.  Harry guessed it was out of ten, and his heart filled with warmth.  The feeling only increased as Mr. Crouch and Professor Dumbledore followed suit.  Then Mr. Bagman shot him a cheeky grin and launched a ten into the air, drawing oohs and ahs from the crowd.  Harry’s brow furrowed, remembering the way Mr. Bagman had tried to ingratiate himself to Harry back in the champions tent.  It was confusing, but he almost felt uneasy about the perfect score.  Karkaroff’s seven felt a little insulting, but Hermione had mentioned that he was a former Death Eater, so Harry shrugged it off.  He was lucky it wasn’t a four or something.

“ANOTHER ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR ALL OUR CHAMPIONS.”  Mr. Bagman waited for the crowd to express their appreciation, then continued.  “AT THE END OF THE FIRST TASK, THE STANDINGS ARE AS FOLLOWS:  IN FOURTH PLACE, WITH THIRTY-SEVEN POINTS, IS VIKTOR KRUM.  IN THIRD PLACE, WITH THIRTY-EIGHT POINTS, IS CEDRIC DIGGORY. AND IN A SURPRISING TIE FOR FIRST PLACE, WITH FORTY-FOUR POINTS EACH, ARE FLEUR DELACOUR AND HARRY POTTEEEEEEEER!”

“I won?!” Harry’s voice was equal parts incredulous and overjoyed.

“Ay, that yeh did, my boy!”  Hagrid pulled him into a crushing hug, then immediately took a step back, blushing slightly under McGonagall’s disapproving stare.

“Congratulations, Mr. Potter.  Now, I think you should—” her eyes shifted to behind Harry, and suddenly he felt himself jerked around.

“Sorry professor, but could I please have a word with Harry?”  Hermione’s voice was tense, her body language equally so.  She didn’t wait for Professor McGonagall’s permission either, grabbing Harry by the arm and dragging him away, in the opposite direction from the champion’s tent.

“Harry, what the bloody hell was that?!” she demanded as soon as they were out of hearing range, right at the edge of the tree line.  Harry yanked his arm away, scowling at his best friend.

“Hermione, what is your problem?!” he snapped back.  Harry was incredulous.  He had done what Hermione wanted, he finished the task without getting hurt.  Or … that was mostly what she had wanted.  So what if he enjoyed himself?  So what if he had tried to win, to do his best?  

“My problem is that your priorities are completely off base!”  Hermione wasn’t shouting, but her voice was pointed and angry.  “I told you what is at stake.  I told you that the only reason you’re in this Tournament at all is because Voldemort wants you to be.  That he wants you to win,” she hissed, eyes ablaze.

It wasn’t fair.  Harry had appreciated Hermione’s support when everyone was being mean to him about the Goblet of Fire.  He felt so trusted and in awe of her when she told him about the future, about what she had been through.  He wanted to help.  He didn’t know what it was like to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, despite all of his Boy Who Lived legend, and he only had glimpses of what really happened to Hermione, what she was trying to prevent.  Even so, he’d been nothing but supportive.

So why was she being mean to him right now?

“That’s rubbish!  You said I can’t win the Third Task, and you know what, fine!  You won’t tell me why or what’s really going on, just that Voldemort is trying to come back and he needs me to win, and I don’t push you.  It drives me insane sometimes, but I don’t push.  Because I trust you, Hermione.  And I can see you’re hurting from whatever happened.” 

Hermione took a step back at that, her shoulders slumping slightly.  The fire went out of her eyes.  Harry pressed his advantage.  “You said don’t win the Third Task, and I won’t.  I promise.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t try my best in the first two.  It doesn’t mean I should feel bad about doing my best.  You prepared me for this!  I did great out there, because you made sure I was ready.  And now you’re going to yell at me for it?”

Hermione swallowed, hard, but before she could respond, a voice came from behind Harry.  “Oi, what’s going on?”

Harry turned to see that it was Ron.  He was looking at them both with wide eyes, mouth slightly agape.  Harry bristled.  One friend was bad enough—he really wasn’t looking to get a dressing down from both of them.  “Bugger off, Ron,” he muttered in frustration, turning back to Hermione.

But her demeanor had shifted entirely.  “No, Harry.  Hear him out.  I think he’s done being a git.”  Her voice was quiet, almost sorrowful, and she looked away as Ron approached.  “I, um, need to get some air.  I’ll … see you later, Harry…”  She trailed off as she walked away.  Harry didn’t really understand what was going on with her, but his heart lifted slightly when she whispered a final, “Congrats, Harry.”

Turning his attention fully on Ron, he noticed that the youngest Weasley son was paler than usual, fear lingering in his slack-jawed expression.  He looked at his feet as he stepped a little closer, then finally looked up to meet eyes with his estranged friend.  “Harry,” he said, tone contrite, “whoever put your name in that goblet… I-I reckon they’re trying to do you in!”

Harry couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Still frustrated with Hermione’s reaction, his snarky response slipped out without a further thought.  “Caught on, have you?”  Ron shrank into himself a little further, and Harry realized he was practically yelling at Ron.  He shook his head, but drew in a breath to calm himself a little.  It was infuriating that he had been so happy just moments ago, and now he was struggling not to overly berate his former best friend.  “Took you long enough,” was the nicest concession he could offer at this point.

Ron frowned.  “Hey, I’m trying to apologize at least.”  His tone was borderline whiny, and it definitely wasn’t helping his case.  “Which I guess I should just do.  I’m sorry, Harry.  I should’ve believed you.”

“Bloody right you should’ve.”  Harry sighed, then slipped his arm through Ron’s and led him back towards the path.  He could hear the loud chatter of the crowd existing the makeshift stadium.  “So, why didn’t you?”

“I just got up in my own head, ‘spose.  It’s a shite excuse, I know.  But … I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking about the Tournament being dangerous.  I was just thinking about how cool it would be to win, to be known as the champion or whatever.  The look on mum and dad’s faces.  Being able to rub it in with Fred and George.”  He rolled his eyes, and Harry softened a little.  Hermione had been completely right about Ron’s motivations, and Harry guessed he got it.  But it was still unbelievably frustrating.  “Guess I was fine with it when we were in the same boat, both being underage, ya know, but then …”

“Then I got dragged into something I didn’t want any part of, and you decided that was a great time to stop treating me like I’m your best mate?”

“Well, you had Hermione, didn’t you?  Yeah, maybe I was unfair, but I knew you’d be fine.  Just had to work it out for myself.”  He looked back towards where Hermione had wandered off.  “Bloody hell is her problem now, anyway?”

Before Harry could snap off more of his frustrations with Ron, an arm slipped through his on the other side.  “Oi, is Ron still being a complete prat or what?”  Harry tensed slightly, caught off guard by Ginny’s sudden appearance.  She pressed in close to him, glaring at her brother, and Harry tried not to blush.  Luna came up on Ginny’s other side as Neville appeared beside Ron.  Swallowing the last of his anger, Harry smiled at them all.

“A bit, yeah, but we’ll get through it.”  Ron perked up at this, and Ginny rolled her eyes.  The expression reminded Harry of Hermione, surprisingly, and Harry felt a sharp pang of regret that Hermione wasn’t here with the rest of them. 

“Whatever, Ron’s opinion doesn’t matter,” Ginny shrugged, then smiled brightly at Harry.  “Harry, you were absolutely brilliant.  Maybe the best flying I’ve ever seen from you.”

This time, there was no stopping the hot blush that rose to his cheeks.  Ginny’s response was the one he had been yearning for, and he found that he was genuinely excited that it was coming from Ginny, even if it was what he had wanted from Hermione and Ron instead.

“Uh, really?”  Harry immediately felt like an idiot, having stammered out such a boring response when he sensed he was supposed to be more confident about his success.  That’s how blokes were supposed to act around their crushes, right? 

But Ginny just grinned that much brighter.  “Obviously, dork.”  Their gazes lingered on each other for a lengthy moment, and Harry couldn’t help but mirror Ginny’s enthusiasm. 

“I mean, bloody right,” Ron stammered on Harry’s other side.  Harry didn’t give him much thought, only glancing at him once before glancing back at Ginny and then focusing on the path ahead.  Harry didn’t want to be obvious.  “He was the best, no competition there.”

“Harry was maybe a bit reckless,” Luna countered.  “Not that it wasn’t thrilling,” she added dreamily.  “But Fleur’s tactics were ever so striking.  She shrugged off the fire like she was a dragon herself.  Dragons and veela have more in common than most people realize,” she said confidently, smiling at the thought.

Harry’s eyes darted between the rest of his friends, entirely unsure how seriously to take Luna’s statement.  Neville and Ron just shrugged absently, but Ginny made a face.  “Yeah yeah, Fleur was fine, good even, but nothing like Harry,” she said confidently.  Then she looked around.  “Speaking of which, where’d Hermione get off to?  Is she off congratulating the French girl?”

Ginny’s tone was a teasing sing-song, and Harry could tell she was fully aware of Hermione’s feelings for Fleur.  Or, at least, she had to suspect it, Harry was sure.  “Honestly, Gin, I’m not sure.  She, uh, wasn’t very happy with my performance.”

Ginny huffed.  “I don’t know what’s gotten into her.  She’s been so protective over you lately.”

“I mean, someone is trying to kill me,” Harry answered without thinking.  His eyes widened.  “Maybe!  I mean, we don’t know.  But the stuff with the Goblet picking a fourth champion… and I’m underage… and you know, all the … other stuff.  I just mean, uh, that, you know, she has good reasons to be worried about me.”  He shrugged, feeling like a fool yet again.  “She’s just being a good friend.”

“Unlike Ron here,” Ginny snarked, immediately lifting the mood and distracting Harry from any self-deprecating thoughts.  Luna, Neville, and Harry all chuckled, and to Ron’s credit, he took the teasing without protest.  Thanks to Hermione’s efforts, Harry had been getting closer to Ginny, Luna, and even Neville this year, and he was continuously impressed with how good Ginny was at making him feel comfortable.  At least as often as he made himself feel intensely awkward around her.

And around Cho, who he found himself noticing from afar yet again.  Unlike previous times, however, she didn’t notice him at all.  She had eyes only for Cedric Diggory, seemingly trying to cheer his spirits as he favoured his burned arm amidst the crowd of adoring Hufflepuffs.  Harry tried not to feel jealous.  He had outperformed the older boy after all, and so what if Cho hadn’t noticed?  Ginny had.  Luna had, for as much as she was also impressed by Fleur.  That was enough for Harry.

Right?

                                                  

The atmosphere in the central room of the Beauxbatons carriage, magically expanded from a simple foyer into something closer to a ballroom, full of seating and music and drinks and even some dancing breaking out here and there.  Happy faces surrounded Fleur, with the entire coterie seemingly overjoyed by Fleur’s performance.

She tried to enjoy it.  She really did. 

But it was infuriating that these same people—her classmates, her peers—had practically hated her for years up to this point.  Ever since puberty, the vast majority of these petty, spiteful little people had been her tormenters: vicious rivals, hateful bullies, vapid flatterers, and the indifferent enablers who never rose to her defence.  Those who weren’t actively antagonistic or sycophantic almost completely ignored her.  The majority of the people in this room had been notably upset when she was chosen over them as champion for the school.

And now she was their hero?  Their champion?  What a load of horse shit.

She had accepted the praise from Maxime, and she was continuing to keep on her happy face, genuinely enjoying, at the very least, the enthusiasm and pride from Gabby and Katarina.  But every time anyone else approached her to congratulate her or to talk to her about her performance or skills, it was a continuous effort not to glare. 

As a result, the party felt like more of an obligation than a true celebration.  Fleur wondered how the other champions’ celebrations were going—if they were all celebrating at all.  Cedric had performed much less admirably than expected, at least based on the rumours she’d overheard at the Ravenclaw table over meals.  Based on Katarina’s accounting of Krum’s performance, his efforts against his dragon had ended in something of a tragedy, and regardless, Karkaroff seemed more the type to nag Krum about his mistakes than to praise his successes.

This was how Fleur found her thoughts again wandering to the mysterious Hermione Granger.  Who was no doubt celebrating the success of her dear friend Harry Potter, who was currently tied with her for first place.  Fleur didn’t know the boy well, beyond a couple of encounters, but she knew that Hermione practically doted on him, like a little brother.  Hermione had mentioned several times that she was worried for Harry, that something nefarious was afoot in his entry into this tournament… and yet, the boy had performed admirably.  If stories were to be trusted, he had even been a little showy in his broom-aided bout against the Hungarian Horntail.

So, what was Fleur supposed to think about that?  The more she learned about Hermione Granger and her young friend, the fabled Boy Who Lived, the more questions she had.

                                                  

While the crowds celebrated their champions, Hermione struggled through something of a breakdown.  As she had walked away from Harry and Ron, her mind had been a tempest of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and memories.  She was a patchwork boat barely holding together amidst its violent winds, and eventually, she crumbled under the force of it.

That was when she had to stop her hurried pacing, vomiting all over the forest floor.

Because Harry was right.

This was the point at which Hermione had transfigured her clothes into running attire and took off, straight out of the forest and out along the lakeshore.  It was the only foolproof way she knew of to clear her head, and she took off in the opposite direction from the castle.

Harry was right, but he had no idea.  No idea how difficult it was for her.

She remembered Harry’s face that night.  That first night, cowering in shock, protectively shielding Cedric’s corpse, his eyes tightly closed against everything he had faced and everything else that he was terrified of facing going forward.  Only when Dumbledore got to him and physically pulled him off of Cedric had Harry opened his eyes.  And Hermione could never forget what she saw there, the shadows that haunted those pale green eyes.  Because Harry was changed, fundamentally, that night, in a way that never left him.  Not until the day he died, as far as she knew.

He’s back.  Voldemort’s back.

From that point on, Harry’s life had been consumed by the monster who had murdered his parents.  Who had ended up murdering Harry himself.  Twice.  Hermione remembered how her world shattered when she saw Harry’s body, limp and empty in Hagrid’s arms.  Voldemort had been so arrogant in his crowing, joyfully savouring the pain and anguish of everyone who saw Harry as a symbol of all that was good and right in an increasingly dark world.  But for Hermione, Harry wasn’t that.  Harry was her oldest and truest friend.  Her brother.  And he was gone.

Hermione had known, in a way.  Some part of her had always known, since Harry told her the prophecy.  But she didn’t want to believe it.  Didn’t want to believe that Dumbledore had been manipulating Harry along this path, like a lamb to slaughter.  But she had known, especially after Harry disappeared from the Great Hall during the brief respite Voldemort had granted them to tend to their dead and wounded.  She knew that he was doing his stupid, noble, self-sacrificing thing again, and the worst part had been that he didn’t say goodbye.

Harry Potter went off to die, and she didn’t even have a chance to convince him not to.  Then, miraculously, he had come back to them.  He hadn’t been dead—or he had, but the Hallows truly had made him the master of death, even without physical possession of the Elder Wand.  Either way, there he was facing off against his monster yet again, but this time the only person Voldemort killed was himself.

Or so they had thought. 

Her brother had never really returned to her, though.  After the Battle of Hogwarts, he was different.  Even more isolated before, not in the same tortured way as after Cedric’s death, but impenetrable nonetheless.  He had seemed to be looking for something, and she didn’t know whether it was something inside or something out in the world, but whatever it was, he hadn’t wanted Hermione’s help.  And she had had her own healing to do, just as lost in her own trauma as he had been in his.

She had never seen him again.  When the monster returned, more unimaginably horrible than anyone could’ve foreseen, Harry was the first to be consumed by the darkness.  Hermione never quite forgave herself for not having predicted it.  She had figured out Dumbledore’s schemes.  She had figured out the Hallows, for all of her skepticism.  But she hadn’t figured out that Voldemort wasn’t quite dead.

And so her world had ended.

Through the sheer brilliance of Minerva McGonagall and some good luck, Hermione had been given a second chance.  For everyone she loved, but especially for Harry.  That’s why she was so protective, and also why she had become so secretive.  So dead set on accomplishing her mission and keeping Harry as far away from it as possible.

Only when her legs ached from the exertion of her impromptu run did she finally realize that in doing so, she had become just like Dumbledore.  Hiding things from Harry to protect him.  Keeping herself distant from those who would help her, for fear of losing tight control over her own special knowledge.

How fucked up was that?

As Hermione glanced around, panting heavily, she realized that she could see Hogsmeade in the distance.  She’d run at least four miles.  She didn’t regret it.  Apparently, that was exactly as much distance as was necessary for Hermione to gain some much-needed clarity.

Her strict control over information wasn’t fair to Harry, and her walls and isolation weren’t fair to herself.  She couldn’t do this alone, and she knew that.  But somewhere along the way, she had lost sight of that.  Maybe it was Harry.  Seeing him again, before everything changed.  That beautiful, relaxed naiveté.  Hermione felt such a fierce instinct to protect that.

This, however, was not the way to do it.  She needed to let Harry in, to tell him everything she could about what was at stake, what she had been through, and what she was planning.  Maybe not everything, but most of it.  She owed Harry at least that much. 

And Hermione owed it to herself and to Fleur to figure out how she was going to start letting her in, past her walls.  Even if that meant letting herself live a little.  Otherwise, she might lose sight again.  Things needed to change.

Hermione sighed.  She didn’t feel like running all the way back to the castle, and she didn’t want to bother Dobby for a side-along apparition.  Fortunately, she had another option. 

A few quick transfigurations, a waterproofing charm, and a splash later, and she was well on her way.

Chapter Text

As the ground fell away, Harry felt as though he physically grew lighter.  His thick quidditch gloves and thicker winter cloak protected him from the chilly December air, and for a few blissful moments, he closed his eyes and just enjoyed the freedom of flying again for the first time since the First Task.  He hadn’t played quidditch in even longer, and yet, the warmup maneuvers were like second nature after three years of playing the sport.  It was like a meditation, here alone in the sky, and for these moments, his mind was clear.

The first thought that returned to his mind as he opened his eyes to survey the abandoned quidditch stadium around him wasn’t of the Tournament or of the terrifying prospect of having to dance in front of everyone at the Yule Ball, the existence of which Professor McGonagall had sprung upon all of them after class.  It was of Hermione.

Harry had been processing everything Hermione told him for over two weeks now, and even so, the weight of it still threatened to overwhelm him.  He wondered if he would be that strong—that brave and selfless—when he was Hermione’s age.  He liked to believe he would be.  He was a Gryffindor after all.

Unless that was just what he was trying to be, rather than who he was deep down. 

Harry could still remember that night viscerally—or at least the last parts of it.  After Hermione had yelled at him about his performance in the task, then awkwardly and confusingly run off after the appearance of Ron, the journey back to the castle had been a blur.  Ginny had been very close to him the whole time, and Ron was awkwardly trying to find his way back into a dynamic that had shifted in his absence.  An exuberant Gryffindor House had practically carried him up to their tower, improvising chants about his glorious triumph over the Hungarian Horntail. 

He remembered how embarrassed he had gotten when Fred had called out Ginny for flirting with Harry—but surely that wasn’t what had happened.  Ginny had clammed up after that, just as embarrassed as Harry.  And Ron had seemed surprisingly flustered when he shouted them down, calling their suggestions nonsense.  The whole thing had been so uncomfortable and confusing for Harry that he hadn’t even noticed Hermione entering the common room.

“Hi, Harry.”  Hermione seemed smaller somehow, but her half-smile reassured Harry that she didn’t intend to start up their row again.

“Hermione.  Everything alright?”

“No—erm, I mean, yes, but I just was hoping maybe I could talk to you.  Alone?”

They’d gone back into the hallway, it not having been curfew yet, and Hermione had thrown up that curious Muffliato Charm as soon as they were down the corridor and in private.  That was Harry’s first clue that this was going to be a Big Talk rather than a simple apology for earlier.

Hermione looked at him, mouth slightly open in preparation for what Harry guessed was an apology, but then she just leapt forward and wrapped him up in such a fierce hug that Harry was sure he had no idea what was going on in his friend’s head.  So, he just held her, not quite as tightly as she grasped onto him, but tight enough.  When she released him, her eyes seemed so sad.

“I am so sorry for blowing up at you.  I’m sorry for a lot, in fact.  Could I try to explain, please?”  He nodded, and she went on.  “When I told you the truth, about where I’m from, I left out a lot.”

She had dropped a lot of bombs then.  Voldemort had held onto life after his first encounter with Harry because he had split his soul and left pieces of it in highly dark magical objects called horcruxes.  They tethered him to the mortal realm, in a weakened but still living form.  

Hermione gave him more detail about the aftermath of the Triwizard Tournament in her time.  A Death Eater posing as someone at Hogwarts—she wouldn’t say who—had ensured Harry’s win, adding a middle destination to the Triwizard Cup’s portkey function in order to bring Harry to Voldemort.  She told him the full nature of the ritual that restored Voldemort’s body while also eliminating the protection his mother’s sacrifice had imbued within Harry.  Dumbledore had only begun to trust Harry with information about the horcruxes in their sixth year, after Harry had learned of the prophecy, that one of them was destined to die at the hand of the other because neither could live while the other survived. 

Her inner turmoil obvious throughout, Hermione continued to tell him more and more, things getting darker and more painful to hear.

That Dumbledore’s choice to keep Harry in the dark during fifth year had led Harry to underestimate the importance of occlumency lessons meant to keep Voldemort out of his head.  That Sirius had died as a result, and Harry had blamed himself.

That the diary had been a horcrux, along with a cursed ring that Dumbledore had destroyed, but not before it marked him for death. That after Dumbledore’s death, she, Harry, and Ron had left school to hunt for the remaining horcruxes. 

“We’ve always been close, Harry.  We’d become better and better friends over the years, ever since you and Ron saved me from that troll first year.  But things changed, during the horcrux hunt.”

Harry’s brow furrowed, and Hermione giggled.  “No, not like that!  Lesbian, remember?  I mean … you were my best friend.  Or one of them—you and Ronald and Ginny.  But being on the run together, especially after Ron abandoned us—”  Harry reacted, and Hermione put a hand on his forearm.  “He came back, eventually… but I don’t think I ever quite trusted him in the same way after that.  I don’t know if you did.  Anyway… for almost three months, it was just you and me against the world.”

Hermione had been looking down as she said this, but then her eyes raised, a couple of tears spilled out.  “You’re my brother, Harry.  My family.  As much as I love my parents, you’re … you became the most important person in my life.  Wherever either of us go, you’ll always be home to me, Harry Potter.”

She hadn’t been able to hold back a sob after that, and for a while, Harry had just hugged her.  He’d felt intensely awkward, but it had filled him with warmth to know that he had family.  Even if it was in an alternate timeline, even if it never came to pass like that now that things were changing… Hermione loved him like family.  He didn’t really know how to handle it.  Even now, the magnitude of everything weighed on him, but Hermione’s love most of all. 

Then she had told him how it all ended.  Or at least, how they had thought it ended.  They had taken out horcrux after horcrux—the locket, the cup, the diadem—and believed that Voldemort’s strangely intelligent snake, Nagini, was the final step between them and finally being rid of the Dark Lord once and for all.

Then a dying Snape showed Harry a memory that changed everything.  His revelations had completely altered Harry’s understanding of the prophecy, and while Harry—the other Harry—had only ever told her the important points of the story, it had broken her trust in Dumbledore forever.

Harry was, himself, a horcrux.  Of a sort.  Murder split the soul and allowed for the creation of a horcrux.  The murder of Lily Potter and the subsequent reflection of the killing curse from a one-year-old Harry had lodged within him a splinter of Voldemort’s soul.  And Dumbledore had known, or at least suspected, all along that Harry would have to die for there to be any chance at vanquishing Voldemort.

“You didn’t even say goodbye,” Hermione whispered.  “There was a break in the battle, and I was with Ginny.  Sh-she was inconsolable over Fred’s death, and at some point, you were just gone.  The evil bastard announced to the entire battlefield that you were dead, and I knew it.  I realized in that moment that everything—your scar, your connection to Voldemort, your ability to speak Parseltongue, all of it—was because there was a bit of his soul in you, too.”  She chuckled wryly, then started crying again.  “You always did have that self-sacrificing, saving-people thing.”

Harry didn’t know what to say.  He had guessed that things didn’t end well for him in Hermione’s timeline, but how could he have known how permanently it had scarred his friend?  The overwhelming sorrow in her tone shook him to his core.  And it didn’t help knowing that he had died a hero, because he could see how much it had hurt his friend.

“Voldemort and the Death Eaters came to claim their victory, and Hagrid was with them.  He…” Hermione’s voice was barely there anymore, and Harry had to lean in to hear her.  “He had you, in his arms.  And then Neville…”

Hermione had told him so much about Neville.  That in another universe, Neville could’ve been the Boy-Who-Lived, that both he and Harry fit the parameters of the prophecy, having been born to members of the Order of the Phoenix at the end of July, 1980.  That Neville grew into the epitome of a Gryffindor, leading an underground resistance at the Death-Eater-controlled Hogwarts, along with Ginny.  That when everything seemed lost, Neville stood up defiantly to Voldemort and struck down Nagini, who seemed to be the final horcrux left.

But it was you, wasn’t it?” Harry asked, feeling sure that he was right.  Hermione shook her head, brow furrowed as her lips quirked slightly.

“What was me?”

“Who killed Voldemort, in the end.  After the horcruxes were destroyed.”  He frowned, not expecting her utter confusion.  Then he remembered that, of course, she hadn’t.  No one had.  Otherwise she wouldn’t have needed to come back in time.

“No, Harry, it was you.  Just like that old bat Trelawney predicted.”

“But you said I died.”

“You did.  And then you came back.”

He’d been startled and then more than a little thrilled as Hermione told him how he had suddenly appeared again in the middle of the battle, calling Voldemort by his given name and mocking him to his face.  She sounded proud as she told him that he had calmly explained to him why he was going to lose, and then when Voldemort flung the killing curse at him yet again, it was he who ended up dead this time.

“But how?  How was I alive?  And… how did I beat him?”

“The Deathly Hallows.”  She made a face as he gaped at her.  “Ancient magical artifacts… honestly, Harry, I don’t know if they’re just really impressive inventions or honest-to-Merlin mystical artifacts of legend, but the person in possession of all three is the Master of Death.  You never did tell me what exactly happened.  But the only thing I could figure was that it was true.  They saved you.”

“And how exactly did I get my hands on something like that?”

Hermione had smiled mischievously, but it morphed quickly to an angry, almost venomous expression.  “One of them you’ve always had.  Your dad’s invisibility cloak.  The other two… well, Dumbledore got them to you, but the complete and utter arsehole went about it in such an obtuse, complicated way that it could all very well have been for naught.  Instead of trusting you, or anyone really, he set up a bunch of elaborate plans that continued on even after his death, and it’s only by sheer luck that everything came together just right for you to survive that Battle.”

Hermione told him how much harder Dumbledore had made everything with his secrets and manipulations, her frustration, weariness, and sheer fury coming through in her body language and the way she talked.  She told him that while the seemingly good-hearted old headmaster was on the right side of things, and probably had the best of intentions, he wasn’t to ever be fully trusted.  Because she knew he would willingly sacrifice anyone and anything to ensure Voldemort’s eventual demise.

“Okay, but …”

“But if you lived and we defeated Voldemort, then what am I doing here?”  Her smile was knowing, and he just shrugged. 

“Well, yeah.”

“We didn’t defeat Voldemort.  We trusted Dumbledore, and it bit us in the arse, again.”  She closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and releasing it.  “Seven.  I know you’re not taking arithmancy, but just trust me when I say that seven is the most magically powerful number.  So, Dumbledore was certain that Voldemort had split his soul in seven.  Six horcruxes, plus what he retained in his own body.”

“And he was wrong?”

“He was right about seven and about Voldemort’s valuing of its power.  But that magic of horcruxes doesn’t work the way Dumbledore thought.  At least, that’s our working theory.  There’s no precedent for this.  No one had ever made two horcruxes prior to Voldemort.  The theory was that the soul was split in two, with one half retained in the body while the other half was maintained in the cursed object.  Dumbledore therefore theorized that the piece of soul in Voldemort’s body was in fact the smallest piece, having been split in half six times, and that it would therefore factor into his calculation of seven.” 

Hermione sighed heavily.  “But that’s not how it works.  Probably.  Instead, each time a horcrux is created, only a piece of the soul is torn away and sealed within.  Voldemort’s soul is his self, and it remains within him.  It is simply torn and mangled with each murder, warped with each piece ripped away but still fundamentally him.  The horcruxes tether that soul to this physical plane of existence, keeping it from moving on when his body is killed.”

“He had seven horcruxes, then?  Not six?”

“Exactly.”

“But what happened?”

Seven months had passed, and then tragedy struck.  Hermione had struggled to hold it together as she had explained that Harry had left shortly after the Battle of Hogwarts, while Hermione was in Australia retrieving her parents.  He went with a girlfriend, but Hermione refused to tell him who she was.  Only that he had needed to get away from everything, to heal.  They had traded letters over the next months, but they needed to heal in their own ways.  Then, in January 1999, there was an attack.

“We didn’t know what it was.  It was all over the muggle news—they called it a freak weather event.  A darkness descended upon the small island town in Greece where you had been living.  Temperatures dropped, hurricane-level winds kicked up.  Lightning and fire and earthquakes.  Honestly, it resembled a crowd of angry dementors or a massive obscurial more than a storm.  But the epicenter was the cottage where you were living.  It was completely wiped from the Earth.  The dark magic left a scar in the fabric of reality there.”

Hermione paused, and Harry’s chest was tight beyond measure.  She could feel the terror, sorrow, and hopelessness radiating off of his friend, and she looked more broken than he could’ve imagined, sitting there almost lost to her tragic memories.

“It only got worse from there.  It appeared again and again, and as the destruction spread, it became more powerful.  Minerva and I guessed what it was after the first few targets.  You, then Hogwarts.  Then the Ministry.  Godric’s Hollow.  Little Hangleton.”

“Voldemort.”

“Yes.  Our best guess is that with all but one horcrux destroyed, his soul was so tattered and his tether so fragile that his soul collapsed in on itself from the struggle between passing on and remaining.  No one had ever pushed the Dark Arts so far, and whatever he did, it caused a tear in the magic of the world itself.  He became something unheard of, something dark and malevolent and corrosive.  Things continued to get worse.  Whole cities destroyed.  There was no stopping it.  So, we came up with a different solution.”

Hermione broke down again, and Harry moved closer, putting his arm around her and pulling her close as she cried into his shoulder.  His mind raced, and he couldn’t process the horror that she was describing.  Finally, she settled and looked back up at him.

“You died twice, and I wasn’t there to save you either time.  That’s why I freaked out earlier.  That’s why I’m always so bloody protective over you.  You’re my family, Harry Potter, and I didn’t come through all of this to lose you again.  Never again.”

“I thought I’d find you here.”  Harry nearly fell off his broom.  He’d been so lost in thought that he hadn’t heard Ginny flying to meet him, riding one of the school’s Shooting Stars.  As he righted himself, her face turned worried.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to… Are you okay?”  Harry blinked rapidly, realizing that his cheeks were wet.  He wiped at them, embarrassed, as he tried to offer Ginny a forced smile.

“No, it’s okay.  I was just thinking about… my family.”  Their eyes met, and Ginny didn’t look away.  Moments passed, and then Harry drew in a deep breath, not having realized that he wasn’t breathing up until that point.  “Erm, you were, uh, looking for me?”

Ginny’s eyes went wide before she turned bright red and looked away.  “Uhh, yeah, I did.  And I’ll tell you why I came to find you.  I will...”  She glanced back at him just long enough for him to see a toothy grin spread across her lips, before she dropped out of the air.  “But first you have to catch me!” she shouted in her wake.

Harry didn’t think, he just dove.  He closed the distance in seconds.  “You know that I’m on a Firebolt and you’re on a Shooting Star, right?”  She laughed, a sound that made Harry’s stomach feel pleasantly unsettled, but before Harry could tag her, she stopped on a dime.  He shot past her but pulled into an arc that brought him up and around as he searched for where she had gone.

He spotted her weaving around the goals on the opposite side of the pitch.  She was a really good flyer, even on an ancient broom.  As Harry approached, he called out, “How come you’ve never tried out for the team?”

Ginny never stopped moving, but he caught the frustrated look on her face.  “Because I’m never gonna beat out Angelina, Katie, or Alicia on this Shooting Star!”  He moved in again, trying to tag her, but Ginny anticipated his angle perfectly.  She dodged around a goal at the last minute, and he had to react to avoid colliding with it, and she was already well out of reach towards the other goals when he got control of his broom again.

“Really, Gin?” he shouted, before darting off after her again.

“Mum won’t let me have a broom.  Says it’s too dangerous.”  She growled, a real, genuine growl like she was a caged animal.  “Never told Fred or George it was too dangerous.”  Harry wasn’t moving at full speed anymore.  He was more interested in this conversation that whatever had brought her to the quidditch stadium.

“You know, I could—”

“Don’t finish that sentence, Harry Potter.”  Ginny glared at him, hovering as she kept the central goal between them.  But he could see from the smile teasing at the corners of her mouth that the look was a playful one.

“But—”  She shook her head emphatically, cutting him off again.

“No buts.  I appreciate the thought.  It isn’t like it matters right now anyway, what with your Tournament stealing quidditch from everyone.”

Harry scoffed.  “It’s not my Tournament.”

She grinned, then pulled at her bottom lip with her teeth.  “Could’ve fooled me, with all that fancy flying in the First Task.”

Now it was Harry’s turn to blush, and Ginny pounced.  She flew right at him, catching him off guard, and he only just barely managed to get out of the way.  She was toying with him, he realized, and he wondered if she really wanted to be caught.

Only one way to find out, he thought.

Harry made full use of the Firebolt’s absurd speed, coming alongside Ginny within seconds, well before she could make it back to the other goals.  He had a hand on her shoulder before she could try another maneuver, and she shrieked playfully at the contact, feigning anger at having been caught.

Even so, she slowed down immediately, and he spun around to face her.  “Caught you.”

“That you did,” she congratulated.  “Guess I have to tell you my secret.”

Harry felt something bubbling up inside of him, and he didn’t know whether it was good or bad.  He felt suddenly nervous but didn’t know why.  “Oh?” he stumbled out.  “It’s a secret now?”

“Well,” she glanced away for a second, and her head tilted down slightly as she looked back to Harry again.  “It’s a little embarrassing.  Maybe.  A little.”

The nervous feelings continued to grow, and Harry still had not a single clue why.  He barely managed to ask, “Why’s that?”

“Because Neville told me and Luna about the Yule Ball and I may have immediately run off to find you—well I mean I may have run into Hermione on the way but—" Ginny blushed wildly, then shook her head, "anyways, I tracked you down so that I could ask you to go with me before anyone else got a chance.”

The words came out of Ginny’s mouth in one quick gasp, and Harry was sure he had heard her wrong. 

“Wait.”  He blinked several times, and Ginny would no longer meet his gaze.  “Ginny… did you just…”

Her eyes were on him again, steady and full of warm energy.  “Harry, would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?” she enunciated carefully.

Harry felt his face break into a huge smile.  He had definitely heard her right.  It still seemed impossible, though.  Why would she want to go with him?  Why would she rush off to find him like that?

“H-how did you know I would be here?”

Ginny shot him a look like it was the dumbest question she had heard.  “You weren’t in the common room with Ron and Hermione.  Where else would you be?”  She shrugged.  “I like to go flying when I have things on my mind, too.”

He grinned at that but didn’t know what else to say.  He felt more bashful than at any previous moment in his entire life.  When he had first found out about the ball, it was because he was terrified of the idea of trying to ask someone.  He didn’t understand why he was the one expected to do the asking.  And even now, having been asked, the prospect of dancing in front of everyone, the eyes of the entire school and all the foreign visitors on him… he stifled a shudder.

But if Ginny wanted to go with him…

“Okay,” he whispered, and their eyes met again.  And Ginny’s smile was just as wide as Harry’s.

                                                  

«So, you have finally been made aware of the yuletide ball your school is putting on, yes?»

Hermione raised an eyebrow.  «Why, are you going to ask me to go with you?»

Fleur smiled slyly.  «If I was, I’d certainly do so in a more romantic place than the Hogwarts library.»

They were in the library, at Hermione’s usual table.  They had gotten into this routine since after the First Task.  Hermione had come to her the next day, ostensibly to congratulate her on her performance, but the conversation had turned quickly to an apology.  Hermione spoke of trauma that she was still working through, that she wasn’t ready for anything like a romantic relationship, but that she desperately wanted to be Fleur’s friend.  Because she really liked her, and she felt it too, the spark between them.

Fleur still found Hermione entirely mysterious.  But her decision to get honest had fixed whatever the outburst after their date had broken.  So, ever since that day, more evenings than not, they found themselves studying together in the library.  Sometimes Harry or Katarina and Gabby joined them, and once Hermione’s other little friends—Luna, Ginny, and a bashful young boy whose name Fleur couldn’t remember—had joined as well.

Today, it was just the two of them.  Both had finished their school studies for the day, and they had moved on to their usual banter and casual conversation.  Finally, Fleur had worked up the nerve to ask about the ball.  They had been told before coming to England that there would be a formal ball on Christmas, but apparently this information had been kept from the Hogwarts students until earlier in the week.

Fleur had made this discovery when suddenly every single English boy, and more than a few girls, had begun to ask her to go with them to the Yule Ball.  Several had tried to gain her affections in the months since she had arrived at their castle, but nothing like this.  She had, of course, rejected them all.  She had eyes only for one witch in particular.

«Honestly, I don’t know if I even want to go.»

«Ah, if only we all had the option to simply respectfully decline.»

Teasing Hermione had become a favoured pastime.  One that Hermione had only recently started playing along with.

«Maxime would be quite upset if you were to, say...»  Hermione paused, her nose scrunching up adorably.  “How do you say ‘skive off’ in French?”

Fleur chuckled. «I’m not sure I know this phrase.»

«It’s like … skipping class.  Or in this case, a fancy ball.»  Hermione smirked, and it sent the tiniest thrill up Fleur’s spine.  «Either way, your headmistress would be grumpy.»

«That is her primary state of being, mon petit chou.  Even without the scandal of her champion missing the fancy ball.»  Fleur shrugged, playing casual.  «And maybe I want to go.  Hermione, think of all the pretty girls who will be at this ball.»

Hermione raised a playful eyebrow.  «And what makes you so sure I wouldn’t be more curious about the pretty boys?»

Fleur offered a cocky grin, acting more confident than she felt.  «I have learned not to assume such things.  But I am beginning to know you pretty well, and let’s just say I have a good sense of this about you.»

Hermione beamed at her, and it was like warm sunshine on a chilly day.  Then she intentionally toned down her smile and looked coyly down at the desk.  «Yeah well, maybe your sense about me is right.»

«Boys never really did it for me either,» Fleur admitted.

«If I’m not mistaken, that’s fairly common for a veela, is it not?»  She glanced up, finally, and Fleur fought not to laugh at her attempt to hide her palpable curiosity.

«You are not mistaken, Mademoiselle Granger.  I am, however, only part veela, so perhaps you are the one who should not be making assumptions.»  Hermione rolled her eyes in the most Hermione way, and any bashfulness disappeared.

«I mean, you basically just told me that you’re a lesbian, so I wasn’t exactly off the mark, now was I?»  She grabbed the two books remaining on the table and slid them into her bag carefully. 

«So defensive.  Have I scared you off?»

Hermione gathered her bag and stood, offering Fleur only a droll look in response.  Fleur shrugged playfully, exaggerating her expression of confusion.  Then they both chuckled, and Fleur stood up, too.  Hermione explained, «We are not too far off from curfew, and I told Ginny and Luna I’d check their transfiguration work for them.»

«Very important business, I see.»  She moved back slightly and gestured for Hermione to move past her.  They walked together out of the library, passed a number of tables but very few students, and once they were out in the empty corridor, Fleur grabbed Hermione’s wrist.  She turned, and their eyes met.

“Go with me to the Yule Ball.”  Hermione gave her that look of hesitation, the one that said she felt she had to resist the urge to follow her heart.  Still, she smirked, even if Fleur could tell it was forced.

“I didn’t realize that the third-floor corridor was so much more romantic than the Hogwarts library,” Hermione teased.

Fleur blushed.  “Forgive me, I am French.  I can be a bit impatient sometimes.”  She took a step forward and took Hermione’s other hand in hers as well.  “I respect your decision, you know this.  To be friends, I mean, and nothing more.  If that is what you want, that is enough for me.  We can go to the ball as friends.”  She tried to project all of her confidence and allure into her smile, and she saw the edges of Hermione’s lips lift in response.  “But all the champions must have dance partners, and please believe me that there’s no one else I would rather go with than you.”

Fleur could sense the conflict in Hermione’s body language, but the English witch didn’t pull away.  And as she searched those warm brown eyes, she saw none of the pain and turmoil that were there when she had rejected Fleur after the date.  “I’m still working through some things, Fleur.”  She squeezed Fleur’s hands.  “But I treasure this friendship, even if I haven’t known you long.”  A look passed over Hermione’s face that was impossible to read, but it came and went almost immediately.  “Let me think about it?”

When Fleur moved to pull away, feeling that this was Hermione’s way of letting her down easy, Hermione didn’t let her.  “I mean it.  I’m not saying no.  I just … I meant it when I said I hadn’t really thought about going.  But if I were to go to the ball, there’s no one else I would rather go with, either.”

And that was a good enough answer for Fleur.  At least for now.

                                                  

Hermione’s heart was still pounding.  She wanted to say yes; everything in her was screaming at her to just say yes.  But she had asked Fleur for time.  Why did she do that?  Why delay the inevitable?

She could still smell Fleur’s perfume lingering around her.  Or maybe that was the aftereffects of her thrall?  Hermione couldn’t be sure.  She’d read what information she could on veela, but there were surprisingly few reliable sources on the species.  The so-called experts disagreed on whether the thrall was something the veela had control over. 

Surely, Fleur isn’t doing it to me intentionally, Hermione thought.  Maybe that isn’t thrall you’re feeling at all.  Maybe you’re just that gay, Granger.

She shook her head in exasperation at herself, and she was so distracted by the recent memory of Fleur that she didn’t see Neville until she ran right into him.  She dropped her bag in shock, but fortunately it remained closed, nothing falling out of it.

“Oh gosh, Hermione, let me help you!”

“No no, uh, I’ve got it.”

Their heads bumped, and Hermione fell backwards with a shrieked, “Ow!” rubbing at her forehead where sharp pain had blossomed.

“Sorry!  So sorry!”  Neville, on his knees and now holding her bag, shuffled closer with sad eyes.  “Are you okay?”

Hermione continued to clutch at her head but leaned away from Neville.  “I’m fine, or I’ll be fine, I suppose.  Just a bump.”  She pushed off the ground and stood, Neville quick to do the same.  Only an inch or two of space separated them, so she took her bag from him and then stepped back.  “My fault, anyways, for running into you.”

Neville looked abashed, but he explained, “I said hullo to you, but you just kept walking.”  He cracked a small smile.  “Though sometimes I do think I’m quite invisible to people.”

Hermione winced.  “Sorry, Neville.  You know I don’t see you that way.  I was just, er, distracted.  Very distracted.”  She shook off the resurgence of the Fleur thoughts.  “I’ll see you around.  So sorry for running into you.”

“Er, um, actually … I was hoping to ask you something.”  Neville rubbed at his forearm and he wouldn’t meet Hermione’s gaze for more than a second at a time.  She narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what was going on with him.  He didn’t normally seem this fidgety.

“Alright, what is it?”

He blushed, eyes continuing to dart about, but he did manage to look right at her for exactly as long as it took him to stammer out, “Would you go to the Yule Ball with me?”

Hermione’s face felt hot, and several moments passed before she became aware that her mouth was hanging open.  She closed it, sucking in her lips uncomfortably as she processed the question.

More than anything she was confused.  She was certain that Neville had been present on multiple occasions in which Ginny teased her for her crush on Fleur.  Surely he knows I’m a lesbian?  Or maybe he’s hoping I’m bisexual?  Oh Merlin, please don’t let him be so daft as to have not noticed…

“Erm, Neville, you do know that I’m a lesbian, right?”

He frowned, eyes void of recognition or understanding.  “A what now?”

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath.  Well, fuck.  She glanced around, and then gestured towards a nearby bench.  “Let’s sit.”  He followed her over to the bench, and Hermione took care to maintain a good amount of distance between them as they sat.  She wasn’t exactly sure where to start.

“Hermione, uh, what’s a… a les..”

“Lesbian,” she explained.  “And I’ll get to that.  First, no, I’m sorry, Neville, but I won’t go to the ball with you.”  His face fell, and she quickly added, almost as an afterthought, “Someone already asked me.”

That seemed to ease his mind a little, and she wasn’t sure how to feel about it.  “Okay, well, uh, don’t worry about it.  I just thought it would be fun, maybe.”  His voice was fragile, and her heart was with him.  The last thing she wanted was to hurt this brave young boy.

“Neville, you’re a great ki—boy,” she corrected herself, knowing that it would sound weird to call him a kid, given that she was supposed to be less than a year older than him.  “But that’s just it.  You’re a boy.  And I only like girls.  That’s what a lesbian is.  A girl who likes other girls, instead of boys.”

His brow furrowed, but his eyes remained glued to hers.  “When you say ‘likes,’ you don’t mean…”

“Yes, I do.  I mean likes.”  She grinned.  “Holding hands, snogging, all that.  I only want to do that stuff with girls, not boys.”

“But, but, but…” he shook his head, blinking rapidly.  “Hermione, no, that can’t be right.  You’re so smart and nice and pretty…”

Hermione’s hand tightened into a fist, and she had to make a conscious effort to unclench it.  “Neville, that has nothing to do with anything.  You’re right; I am smart, and yes, I try to be nice, and I suppose some people might find me pretty.  But I am all those things, and I am a lesbian.”

“But people like that … are unnatural.  Wrong.  Not like you.”  He seemed confused, not hateful, and Hermione again swallowed her instinct to get angry. 

“Is that what your Gran told you?”  Neville turned bashful again, and Hermione knew she’d hit the nail on the head.  Then she remembered.  “Your family’s pure-blood, right?”  He nodded, but his frown betrayed his confusion.

Oh boy.  This will be fun.

“Right, okay, so you know how a lot of pure-blood families think that muggle-born witches and wizards are bad?”  He nodded, lightening as she moved into territory with which he felt more familiar.  “And you know that’s utter rubbish, right?”

“Of course!” he huffed.  “You know I hate those bullies and-and Death Eaters more than anyone.  My p-parents…”

“Hey hey hey,” Hermione soothed, placing a hand on his forearm.  “I know.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”  She withdrew her hand.   “I just mean … I think this is the same thing.  It’s a pure-blood belief that is wrong.”

“The, um, lesbian thing, you mean?”

She chuckled.  “Yes, Neville.  The lesbian thing.  You know how pure-bloods are obsessed with staying pure-bloods and maintaining their lines and families and all that nonsense?”  Again, he nodded, and finally it seemed like he was following her.  “Well, because of that, they having children is important to them.  And … when two men or two women love each other and get married, they can’t have children.”  She shrugged.  “Well, they can adopt, and that’s perfectly good and lovely, but they can’t carry on the line, at least as far as pure-bloods are concerned.  So, for them, because of their warped priorities, they think people like me are ‘unnatural.’”

Neville seemed trapped between wanting to believe her and still feeling confused by ideas that ran contrary to the worldview he had been raised with.  So, she pushed a little harder.  “Neville, it’s not any more true than the idea that pure-bloods are better than muggle-borns.  It’s just another form of the same bigotry.  The same hateful, bullying shite, okay?”

He had been staring at his hands, clasped in his lap, but finally, he glanced back up at Hermione.  Only for a moment.  “Yeah, okay.  I, um… yeah, okay, just maybe let me think about it for a while?”

Hermione was annoyed.  She didn’t think it was that difficult a concept to understand, really.  Especially given how smart and compassionate Neville usually was.  But it wasn’t really her problem.  She didn’t owe him anything.

“Fine, Neville.  I’ll see you around.”  And she left the silly straight boy to his thoughts.

                                                  

“He just … never caught on?”

Harry’s voice was incredulous, mouth open despite the teasing smile pulling at his lips.  Hermione shook her head, trying to hide her blush.  “I guess not.  I mean, at first I thought, ‘maybe he just thinks I’m bisexual,’ but no, I don’t even think he’d ever heard the word ‘lesbian’ once in his entire life.”

“What’s bisexual?”  Harry’s vibrant green eyes swam with curiosity, and Hermione felt the sudden strong urge to wrap him up in a tight hug.

Instead, she answered the question.  “So, you’ve got straight people who like people of the opposite gender.  And then you’ve got gay people—including lesbians, like me—who only like the same gender.  So then, bisexual people like both, right?”  Harry nodded along, clearly enjoying himself.  “I mean … I’ve read that maybe gender is more complicated than that—than just boys and girls—but I don’t really know anything about that.”

Suddenly, Harry clammed up, hunching a little into himself.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”  She wrapped an arm around him and pulled him close, but his eyes were looking around the common room, where a number of other Gryffindors clustered in different groups, laughing or playing and even a few studying.

“Can we go somewhere else?”  He didn’t say it, but Hermione could tell he meant somewhere private.  She squeezed him reassuringly, then kissed the top of his head.

“Sure thing.  I know just the place.”

Hermione hadn’t ever taken Harry to the Reading Room in the original timeline, and so far in this one, she had maintained it as her place of isolation.  Except for the couple of times with Fleur.  She didn’t let herself think too hard about how quick she’d been to let an almost complete stranger in like that.  But it was beyond time to bring Harry into this secret as well. 

They walked in silence, Harry following along as Hermione led the way.  When they finally reached the bright purple door at the end of the secret passageway.  “I’ve been meaning to share this place with you for a while now.”  She opened the door and held it for him.  “Harry Potter, welcome to the Reading Room.”

She could see the awe as he walked in, chin tilted up as his eyes searched the space.  Harry walked around, surveying the fireplace, the furniture, the bookshelves, and finally the southeast window facing the Black Lake.  “Hermione, this place…”

“It’s great, right?”

Harry smiled devilishly.  “It’s very you.”

Today, the furniture was sparse.  A simple little sofa facing the fireplace.  It was the same purple as the door, which Hermione thought was a nice touch.  “This couch is so comfy,” Harry beamed, pulling a leg under him as he turned slightly to face Hermione. 

“The furniture here is always super comfy.”

“So how long have you known about this place?”

“A while.”  She shook her head dismissively.  “Not the point.  What’s up with you?  What couldn’t we talk about back in the common room?”  Harry immediately looked back down to his hands, shoulders raising up defensively.  “Hey, it’s okay.” She took his hands in her own.  “It’s okay.”

Harry looked nervous but didn’t pull away.  “Look at me, please?”  When he did, she squeezed his hands.  “I promise, you can always talk to me about anything.  No judgment.”

Hermione waited, tolerating the silence while Harry collected his thoughts.  Eventually, he pulled away, shuffling back until he was against the arm of the sofa.  He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, eyes watching Hermione warily over his knees.

“I’m just … trying to wrap my head around this,” Harry said softly, his eyes cutting away.  It almost felt like he was hiding something, but Hermione couldn’t get a good read on him.  “You talked about people being bisexual.  So … like, would that be like … hypothetically… like Ginny would like me whether I was a boy or a girl?”

Harry wouldn’t meet her gaze, and if anything, he pulled even tighter into himself.  All she could do was speak honestly and hope that whatever was bothering him would resolve itself.  “Yeah, I think.  I mean … I’m not bisexual, and I don’t really know if Ginny is, but I think that’s what it must be like.  Something like that, anyway.”

Harry blushed.  “Yeah, sorry.  I didn’t mean Ginny specifically.  I just meant, like, in general.”

“But Ginny was the first person you thought of?”  She poked his knee gently.  “Any reason for that?”

“She asked me to the Yule Ball,” Harry admitted.

Hermione beamed at him, and as much as she tried, she couldn’t hold back her enthusiasm.  She gripped Harry’s elbows, his arms still wrapped around his knees.  “And?!”

His eyes darted around, then settled back into focus on Hermione, and a wide smile broke across his lips.  “And I said yes.”

Hermione continued to grin like an idiot.  She didn’t know if Ginny and Harry were meant to be or anything so fantastical as that.  She didn’t know how things had ended up between them during Harrys’ extended vacation at the end of his life.  She didn’t know if things would work out for them in this new universe she was trying to create for them.  But she did know these two dumb kids had the most adorable crushes on each other, and she was excited to see what came of it, now that they were both maybe letting themselves explore it.

Harry let his defences down a bit, making a face at her.  “You know … it almost seems like you knew before I told you.”

“Who me?” Hermione teased, completely unable to hold back her wide smile.  “I had no idea.  I’ve definitely not been noticing the both of you being so intensely awkward around each other for over a month now.”

“Shut up.”

“And I definitely didn’t tell Ginny she should take the first step and just ask you to the ball.”

“You didn’t?” he gasped.  Hermione faked humility, glancing away until Harry surged forward and smacked her arm.  “You arsehole!”

“Hey!”  They playfully slapped at each other for a bit, then settled down.  Hermione put her arm around Harry, and he leaned into her.

“So, are you going to go with Fleur?” 

“Honestly, I don’t know yet.  I’m not ready to tell her everything yet, and it doesn’t feel fair to start anything … romantic … if I’m not willing to be honest.”

“That makes sense,” he conceded.  “But I do hope you change your mind.”

“Is that so?” Hermione could feel her heart picking up its pace, beating away in her chest. 

“Yeah.”  Harry shrugged.  “I’m just a dumb teenager, but I can see the way you two act around each other.  I know that the weight of the world rests on your decisions.  You’ve got to be sure you trust the right people.  But it feels inevitable.  I feel like Fleur can be trusted.”

Me too, Hermione thought.  But she wasn’t quite ready to admit that out loud.  Not yet.

Silence settled in between them again, and both were comfortable to let it be.  Eventually, Harry elbowed her ribs playfully.  “Do you think there will be other, um, gay couples there?”

“Honestly, Harry, I don’t know.”  Hermione hadn’t paid much attention to details like that the first time around, and she blushed slightly at the reason for that.

“What do you mean?  You went to the ball in your timeline, right?”

“Well yeah.”  Hermione was glad Harry was cuddled up against her, so he couldn’t see how much she was blushing in embarrassment.  “But I was in a weird place.  Trying to prove to everyone—but maybe especially the girls in my dorm and to Ronald—that I was a girl.  Which meant convincing myself that I totally had a thing for boys.”

Harry pulled away in a hurry, eyes searching hers.  “No, you didn’t!” he squealed.  “Who?!”

Hermione blew out a frustrated breath, trying to make it clear to Harry how much of a burden it was to admit this.  But deep down, she didn’t really care.  It was part of her story, and she didn’t regret it, as misguided as her feeling had been.  “Viktor Krum,” she admitted, and Harry gasped in shock.

“WHAT?!”

She pursed her lips and shrugged her shoulders.  “Yeaaaahh.”

“Wow!  Did Ron freak out?”

They both burst into laughter.  “Of course he did, the clueless boy.”

“I can almost picture it,” Harry chuckled.  They continued to laugh until the amusement settled a bit, and then Harry turned contemplative again.  “So you really don’t know if you and Fleur will be the only gay couple?” 

Hermione rolled her eyes at Harry’s presumptiveness, but she answered the question anyway.  “I know Fleur’s friend Katarina is dating a Hogwarts girl, but I don’t know if the girl—and no, Harry Potter, I will not tell you who she is—I don’t know if she’s out.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Out?  Oh, it’s like … out of the closet, ya know?”  Harry’s confusion was evident, and Hermione searched her brain.  “Actually, I really don’t know where that particular phrase came from.  I should do some research.  Hmm.  Oh, but it just means that a person is openly queer, instead of hiding it or pretending to be straight.”

“Oh.”  Then Harry let loose a lengthy yawn, and Hermione checked her watch to see that it was nearly curfew. 

“I think it’s definitely past your bedtime, little brother.”

Harry rolled his eyes, but smiled brightly.  “Ugh, fine.”

“Come on, let’s get going.”  She poked him just under the ribs.  “I’m not carrying you back to Gryffindor Tower if you fall asleep on me.”

                                                  

Hermione was in the library again when Viktor approached her.  For as much as she told herself that she wasn’t putting all her eggs in the Fleur basket, so to speak, she had actually spoken to Krum less in this timeline than the first time around.  She was trying, on the off chance that he could be an ally when the time came, but he made her feel a little uncomfortable in myriad subtle ways.

He always sat a little too close, mirroring her even as she tried to subtly shift away from him.  Conversations were always more about him than her, and his interest in her never went deeper than surface level.  And she had had to tell him more than once that she wasn’t interested, and while he never made a scene, he was always displeased, always pushed her on it, and inevitably always asked her again eventually.

So it was hardly a surprise when he asked her to the Yule Ball.  Hermione had hoped he wouldn’t this time around, given that things were so very different between them than in the first timeline.  But the git was persistent.

“Hello, Hermione, how are you doing this afternoon?”

She glanced up at him from the book she was reading, but her gaze didn’t linger.  “Quite fine, Viktor.  I see you’ve managed to duck your horde of admirers again.”

He chuckled charmingly.  “You know I have eyes only for you.”

Hermione choked back a rude response, but she had nothing to offer him that would fill the now tense silence.  After a moment, he took the seat next to her, scooting it closer once seated.  She stiffened, and Viktor either didn’t notice or ignored her body language entirely, choosing to reach forward and place a hand on her knee.

“Hermione, I vould like to ask you something.”  Hermione sighed aggressively, and then looked up at him.  She already knew where this was going.  “You are the most unusual, most stubborn, most passionate girl I have ever met.  You are not like the others, vith their giggling and flattery.  You are a true voman.”

Hermione tried not to gag at that.  For all he had reason to know, she was a fifteen-year-old girl.  She forced a smile to her face and waited for the punch line.

“I vould be honoured if you vould be my date to this Yule Ball.”

Hermione thought about it.  She remembered the internal insistence her fifteen-year-old self had relied on to convince herself she enjoyed his attentions, how she had told herself this was what girls were supposed to enjoy and that she would prove herself to be more than just a bookworm know-it-all.  She remembered the thrill at having people stare at her with shock and then, in some cases, desire—both for how she had looked in her overly feminine dress robes and for being on Viktor Krum’s arms.  But she also remembered how quickly the rush faded, and how uncomfortable those gazes became as the night went on.  The soreness and pain of walking for over a week after Krum repeatedly stepped on her during their dancing. 

None of it was worth it.

But Hermione was wary of how Krum would take it if she told him she simply wasn’t going to the ball.  She had little doubt he would keep insisting, keep trying to praise her and woo her and convince her that it will be fun, no matter that she kept saying no.  The only thing he might respect would be an unequivocal statement that she was already going with someone else.

Fleur’s beautiful face immediately sprang into her mind’s eye.  The way her full lips pulled into a slightly crooked grin when Hermione would surprise her with a brazen double entendre.  The subtle narrowing of her eyes and crinkle of her nose when she would feign offence or derision about something.  Her gentle grip that told Hermione she was appreciated without a single word.

“Please believe me that there’s no one else I would rather go with than you.”

Hermione stood abruptly, Krum’s hand falling away as she closed her book and slid it into her bag.  “I’m sorry, Viktor, but no.  I am already going with someone else.”  She forced another smile onto her face, before adding, “I just have to tell her that.”

She didn’t wait to see how he would respond.  She had somewhere much more important to be. 

Hermione hurried down the stairs and out the first-floor exit of the library, across the aqueduct bridge and down the stairs in the entrance hall.  A group of students were entering the castle, and a kind Ravenclaw held the door open for her as she rushed through, leaving a breathless, “Thank you!” in her wake.

It took focused willpower not to break into a sprint.  It felt like ages to cover the short walk down to where the Beauxbatons carriage was parked.  She didn’t break stride until she reached the door, and she rapped on it with three short, precise knocks.  More ages passed before the door finally opened, revealing a gorgeous witch with large brown eyes and curious eyebrows.

“Yes?  How may I help you?”  The accent wasn’t French.  Spanish maybe, or Portuguese.  Hermione had always been rubbish at telling the two apart.

“Hullo.  I, um, was hoping I could have a word with Fleur.”  There was a pause, and Hermione rushed to add, “Delacour, I mean.”

The Beauxbatons girl’s eyes hardened ever so slightly, which was an odd sight on such a seemingly open and friendly face.  “Yes, I know who Fleur is.  And I am not her errand girl.  Come in, I will show you to her room.”  Despite the accent, the girl’s English was polished.  Her stride was confident, and she carried herself with the air of a girl who was used to getting her way.  Hermione followed her into the carriage, which had, of course, been enlarged inside.

“I have seen you,” the girl noted, not turning or slowing her pace in the slightest.  “Talking to Fleur.  What are your intentions with her?”

“What?” Hermione gasped, startled.  The tone with which the girl said it made it clear she assumed the intentions were anything but pure.

“It is a simple question.”  Her voice was almost playful, despite the edge in her tone.

“We’re friends,” Hermione answered warily.

“Friends?”  The girl hummed thoughtfully, leading Hermione down a spiral staircase and into a long hallway that Hermione could tell was modeled after the girl’s dormitory at Beauxbatons.  It was much more beautiful than the modest hallways of Gryffindor Tower.  “Perhaps.  I know that you are not a spy, trying to undermine her performance in the Tournament.”

They stopped in front of the final door on the left.  Hermione’s curiosity was piqued.  “And how do you know that?”

The girl shot her a knowing smirk.  “Because you are still alive, chavala.”  Then she turned her attention to the door.  “Fleur, a strange English girl is here to be your friend!  Try not to fuck it up as you usually do!”  With a bright grin and a waggle of her eyebrows, the girl headed back down the corridor, leaving Hermione completely mystified in her wake.

The door opened, and Fleur smiled brightly at her.  “Hermione, what a surprise.  Come in, please.”  She grabbed her hand and pulled her into the room.  It was a nice room, simple but with attractive, antique-styled furniture.  There were two small beds, and Hermione guessed that the Delacour sisters shared the room.  One side of the room was impeccable; the other slightly less so.  Fleur led Hermione over to sit on the bed that was perfectly made, moving aside a book to make room.

“Fleur, who was that girl?”  Fleur scowled at the question, but Hermione could tell the expression was one of mixed emotions, positive as well as negative.

“That is Camille.  We are … we shall say rivals.”

“Oh.”  Hermione gazed into the distance.  It hadn’t occurred to her that Fleur might have anything like a rival.  She had noticed that she was somewhat brusque with many of her fellow students, and outside of the cheering in the First Task, Hermione hadn’t noticed many Beauxbatons students chatting with Fleur, much less laughing or playing around with her.  Only Gabrielle and Katarina, in fact.  It struck Hermione suddenly that Fleur seemed quite lonely, in a way that Hermione hadn’t picked up on until just now.

“Hermione?”  She started at Fleur’s hand on her knee, but quickly placed her own hand over it to hold it there.  “I take it you did not come ‘ere to talk about Camille.”

Hermione chuckled.  “No, no I didn’t.”  She took in a deep breath, then met Fleur’s deep blue eyes, so striking under her slightly wild brows.  She tried not to lose herself in them.  “I wanted to talk to you about the Yule Ball.”

One of Fleur’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly.  “Is zat so?”

“Let’s go together.”  Hermione didn’t mean for it to sound so breathlessly hopeful.  She definitely didn’t mean to imply anything more than going as friends.  I don’t.  Right?  No, I can’t. 

Her internal argument caused her to miss Fleur’s sultry smile and the subtle brush of her thumb against the inside of Hermione’s palm.  Only her teasing words brought Hermione back into the moment.  “And what if I have already agreed to go wiz someone else?” 

For the split second it took Hermione’s gaze to move from the wall to Fleur’s face, her heart sank.  Then she couldn’t help but pout when she saw the way Fleur smirked, so cocky and knowing in a way that often had Hermione feeling tingly all over.  Instead of dwell on the feeling, Hermione teased back.

“Then tell them they will have to find someone else.”

“So demanding, chérie.”

Hermione did her best Fleur impression, back going straight as she looked slightly down at the other witch imperiously.  “You’re going with me, Fleur Delacour.  You already asked me, and I simply refuse to let you take it back.”

“Ooh la la. So romantic.  I do so adore it when you take charge, Mademoiselle Granger.”  Hermione’s façade shattered at the husky undertones in Fleur’s voice, and she blushed as wildly as ever.  Fleur grinned victoriously at the display.

“So,” Hermione said, more vulnerable now, “you’ll go with me?”

“Of course, I will.  I already told you, there is no one I would rather spend the evening with.”

Hermione smirked, feeling proud of herself now.  “Bien.”

                                                  

Harry was sitting with Hermione when Ginny and Ron entered the common room, Ginny supporting an ashen-faced Ron who barely seemed capable of moving his legs.  Hermione elbowed Harry gently and whispered, “Oh this will be good!”

Harry glanced at her with a furrowed brow, unsure what she meant, but he looked back up at the Weasleys just as Ginny settled Ron heavily onto the sofa beside Harry.  “What happened to you?”

A look of sheer horror crossed Ron’s still somewhat purple face.  “Why did I do it?  I don’t know what made me do it!”

Hermione stiffened beside him, and a peek sideways told him she was stifling laughter.  Fortunately, Ginny explained as she knelt down in front of her brother.  “He, er, just asked Fleur Delacour to go to the ball with him,” said Ginny, her eyes twinkling as she shot Hermione a look as she enunciated Fleur’s name.  When she turned back to Ron, it looked as though she too was fighting back a smile, but she kept patting Ron’s arm sympathetically.

“You what?” Harry gasped.  Hermione was right—this was absolutely hilarious.

“I don’t know what made me do it!” Ron complained, his shoulders slumping. “What was I playing at?  There were people, all around! … I’ve gone mad … everyone watching!  I was just walking past her in the entrance hall, she was standing there talking to Diggory … and it sort of came over me!  And I asked her!”

“Actually, he sort of screamed at her.  It was honestly a bit frightening,” Ginny explained, tone full of faux solemnity.  She winked at Harry when Ron wasn’t looking, and butterflies sprang to life in his gut.

Ron moaned, and he looked like he was going to be sick.  He refused to look at anyone, finally just putting his face in his hands.  He continued to mumble into his hands. “She looked at me like I was a sea slug or something.  Didn’t even answer.  And then, I dunno, I just sort of came to my senses and ran for it.”

“You know she’s part-veela,” Harry reminded him, looking to Hermione and then Ginny.  “You probably just got too close and got caught up in her thrall.”  Ron looked up, but not at Harry.  His eyes fixed on Hermione.

“Is that what happened?” 

Hermione was still very obviously holding back laughter, biting down on her lower lip.  She sucked in a breath and grinned widely.  “Oh poor Ronald.  Your raging teenage boy hormones probably rendered you completely daft.”  Harry wasn’t entirely sure if Hermione was telling the truth or just taking the piss out of Ron.  He didn’t actually know how the veela thrall worked.

“This is mad,” said Ron, focus shifting back to Harry. “I’m starting to worry we’re the only ones who haven’t got dates yet.”  Harry couldn’t keep the hint of guilt off his face at that comment, but Ron didn’t seem to notice.  He cracked a smile and teased, “I hear Neville asked out Hermione, and it didn’t go well for him.”

Before Hermione could jump down his throat, Harry answered quickly, “Yeah, I know!”

Ron shrugged, making a face at the way Hermione was glaring at him.  It didn’t stop him from prattling on, though.  “He told me after Potions!  Said she’s always been really nice, helping him out with work and stuff.  But she told him she was already going with someone.”  He barked out a laugh.  “Ha! As if!  She just didn’t want to go with Neville, right Hermione?”

“Ronald, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you to be nicer to Neville.  He’s our friend, regardless of whether I wanted to go to the Yule Ball with him.”  Ron grimaced, and when he opened his mouth to argue, she cut him off.  This time she held nothing back.  “Anyways, what’s wrong, were all the good-looking ones taken?” she sneered, calling back to an argument they’d had a few days earlier. “Eloise Midgen starting to look quite pretty now, is she?”  

But rather than rise to the bait, Ron was now staring at Hermione as though she hadn’t just insulted him to his face.  “Hermione—”

“Let me just stop you right there,” she interrupted.  “No, I will not go with you to the Yule Ball.”

His eyes widened.  “Oh, come on!  We need partners, we’re going to look really stupid if we haven’t got any, everyone else has …”

“Even if I wanted to go with you—which I very much do not--”  Ginny snort laughed at that, and Ron shot her a dirty look.  “I am already going with someone,” Hermione finished.

“No, you’re not!” Ron snapped back. “You just said that to get rid of Neville!”

“Oh did I?” Hermione spat, and her eyes flashed dangerously. “Just because you’re incapable of getting a pretty girl’s attention, doesn’t mean I’m not.”

Ginny snickered again, and this time Harry joined her.  Ron just looked at Hermione like she had grown a set of horns or something.  Guess he hasn’t gotten the ‘Hermione’s a lesbian’ message yet, either.

Fortunately, Ginny spoke up before Ron could get around to forming words.  Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly make anything better.

“You’re wrong you know,” she tittered, punching Ron’s shoulder.  “You’re the only one who doesn’t have a date.  I asked Harry last week.”

Ron turned scarlet, and he spun around to face Harry again.  “What’s she going on about?”

Harry was confused.  He thought Ginny’s explanation had been pretty straightforward.  “Uh,” he stammered.  “It’s like she said.  Gin asked me to go to the Yule Ball with her, and I said yes.”

Ron grimaced, leaning away like Harry had just offended him somehow.  “Third years can’t even go!”

“We can if we’re going with an older student,” Ginny protested.

“Which is why Harry should’ve asked you!” Ron bellowed.  “What kind of queer rubbish is this, girls asking boys out?”

Harry felt like he needed to hide.  Needed to get away.  He should’ve known.  He always missed things like this.  He hated it.  All the joy and energy he’d felt out on the quidditch pitch when Ginny had told him she had tracked him down just to ask him, it was like Ron had just sucked it into a black hole. 

Refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, Harry started to pull away, intent on running.  Anywhere.  Anywhere but here.

But Hermione wrapped her arms around him before he could get up.  “Hey, hey, it’s okay.  You’re okay,” she whispered soothingly.  “Don’t listen to Ron.  He’s being a prat.” 

Ginny was already dropping blows on Ron, beating him along his chest and arms, each punch punctuating a word as she yelled, “What. Is. The. Matter. With. You? You. Complete. And. Utter. Git!”  Ron leapt off the couch, stumbling over the arm in his rush to get away from his sister.  Harry felt a little reassured seeing how quick she was to defend him. 

“Oi! Gerroff me!” Ron shouted back at Ginny, using his longer arms to try and hold her off.  “What the bloody hell has gotten into everyone?!”

“You shouldn’t talk shite like that to your best mate, you giant arsehole!”  Ginny kept trying to get at him until Fred and George rushed over to pull her off of him.

“I don’t know what you did to piss her off this time, Ron, but I’d run if I were you,” George warned, and Ginny kept struggling in their arms.

“Yeah, mate, she’s more rabid than usual, I wouldn’t push your luck.”  Ron sulked, and Fred playfully mussed Ginny’s hair.  “You got him good enough already, kiddo, let him go lick his wounds.”

“Whatever,” Ron pouted, looking around at them all like they’d lost their marbles.  Then he huffed off down the stairs to the boys’ dormitory. 

“What did we walk into?” Fred pondered.

“Loads of fun, looks like,” George answered, making a face at the three younger Gryffindors.  For once, none of them were particularly amused by the twins’ antics.

Ginny came over and took the seat Ron had vacated.  Hermione hadn’t let go of Harry, and he had settled back against her comforting warmth.  Ginny put her hands on Harry’s knees and looked him right in the eyes.  “Hey, screw him.  He’s just jealous that no one wants to go to the ball with him.”

Harry looked away.  “But what if he’s right?”

Hermione stroked his hair.  “When has Ronald ever been right about anything?”  The quip pulled a grin to his face, and Ginny chuckled.

“Yeah.  There’s nothing wrong with me asking you.”  She squeezed his knees.  “Hey!  Were you excited when I asked you?”

Harry crossed his arms tightly across his chest.  “Yes,” he admitted, barely more than a whisper.

“Do you still want to go with me?”

He nodded, but still couldn’t quite look her in the eye.  Hermione patted him on the head.  “Harry, it’s okay.  Just be honest.”

He sighed, then met Ginny’s gaze.  “Yes.  I’m sorry.  I was just really excited that you asked me, and then Ron had to go and ruin everything and make me feel like I did something wrong—”

“You didn’t,” Ginny reassured.  “I promise.”  And then she leaned in and kissed Harry on the cheek.  For a heartbeat, her breath lingered there, and Harry felt at once like he might explode or instead sink down through the floor.  His face felt so hot, but Ginny just smiled at him as she pulled away.  “I’m really excited to go with you, too.”

Hermione pulled him into a hug from behind.  “You dorks are cute.  Now, let’s go down to the kitchen.  I bet Dobby would love to whip you up some toffee pudding.”

And just like that, Harry felt safe again. 

Chapter Text

“It’s so unfair!” Gabby whined from her bed, where she was pretending to read a book.  Fleur didn’t bother looking away from the mirror.  She was too focused on finishing off a perfect silvery smokey eye to match her dress robes—she didn’t need to look to know exactly what Gabrielle’s pout looked like. 

Behind her, Katarina continued to toss a ball in the air.  “I don’t know why you even care, little girl.  The whole big farce is just an excuse for all the fake people to pretend they’re so fancy and special and—”

“Oh enough, both of you!” Fleur glared back at Katarina through the mirror, who rolled her eyes without interrupting the rhythm of her tossing and catching.  “Gabrielle, I am truly sorry that you are not invited to this ball, but you are a Delacour.  You must handle your disappointment with grace.”

“Oh, like you did after that date with the weird English girl?”

“Matters of the ‘eart are different, Gabrielle, and do not call ‘Ermione ‘weird.’”

“Don’t think that just because you’re going to the ball together it means I will forgive ‘er for making you cry.”

The sentiment warmed her heart, as did Gabrielle’s fire, so Fleur pushed the topic no further.  Instead, she focused back on her best friend.  “And you.  Why are you letting this insecure girl keep you from having a fun evening?”

Dark eyes flashed, and Katarina spun forward to point an accusing finger at the back of Fleur’s head.  The small blue ball hardly made any sound at all as it plunked down onto the bed.  “I am not letting that brat keep me from doing anything!” she roared.

Fleur pursed her lips as she stared pointedly back at Katarina.  The German witch held her gaze for several seconds and then turning with a grimace and a growl to pluck the ball up again.  This time, she began bouncing it angrily against the wall.

“She’s going with some daft boy from her house.  All because she thinks that’s what is expected of her.  She is dead fucking wrong, obviously—”

“Obviously,” Fleur agreed, quietly.

“—But I am not going to torture myself by going—alone—and watching her prance about faking it for the idle whims of her bigot peers.”

This was the point at which Gabby decided to join in the conversation.  «What are you two yelling about?!»

“English!” Katarina shouted, tossing the ball at Gabrielle’s head and missing it by a hair.

“Learn French!” Gabby spat back, grabbing the ball and throwing it as hard as she could at Katarina.

“Learn German!” Katarina retorted, but fortunately she fell back on the bed, choosing to resume her tossing and catching rather than escalate the bickering with Gabrielle.  This was not the first time such an argument took place between them.

Fleur pressed her lips together, smoothing out the pink lipstick she had just finished applying.  Then she turned to her sister.  “Katarina’s … friend, Daphne—”

At this, Gabby snorted, crooning, “Friend,” in a long, teasing singsong.

“Yes, that sort of friend. ‘Ush now,” Fleur glanced at Katarina to confirm that she wasn’t going to start throwing the ball at anyone’s head again.  “You see, she is what some people call a ‘pure-blood’ ‘uman witch—”

“What makes her blood so pure?” Gabby interrupted, curiosity overtaking her.

“Nothing,” Katarina grumbled.

“True, nothing at all,” Fleur agreed.  “It is an ‘orrible belief, mostly among stodgy old English wizards, that there is a difference between magical blood and moldu blood.”

“What?!”  Gabby’s look was of a girl who couldn’t believe anyone would actually be stupid enough to believe that.

“It is true, unfortunately.”  Fleur shrugged.  “It is not a belief that comes from rational thinking or academic study, but rather old bigotry passed down from generation to generation.  And the point is, that for some in English magical society, being pure-blood—zat is, coming from a family that is made up of people whose parents are all magical 'umans, without anyone marrying or ‘aving children with moldu—is an important status symbol.”

“It is all a load of horse shit.”

“Language, Katarina.”

“B-but Katarina is not moldu,” said Gabby, trying and failing to connect Fleur’s explanation with the predicament at hand.

“No, I’m just a girl,” Katarina answered, and Fleur could hear the hurt in her voice.

“For people, like Daphne’s family apparently, who care about these things, it is considered unnatural for two women to be together, romantically, because these pure-blood people are also obsessed with bloodlines and continuing their family lines.  A daughter who would choose to be with another woman, and thus not have natural-born children, is likely to be shamed by her family, if not thrown out altogether.”

Again, Gabrielle’s brow furrowed with confusion.  “But why can’t they?  It is not like they are two men—”

“’Uman women are different than veela, Gabrielle.”

“Oh,” Gabby sighed.  “Right.  I forgot.”

“And this is why the dumb English girl is depriving herself of Katarina’s company this evening.  She is afraid that her friends in Slytherin House might bully ‘er, or even tell ‘er parents that she is romantically involved with a foreign woman.”  Fleur stood, having finished getting ready, and faced Katarina.  “And that is why you are coming to the ball, and you are going to have fun, and flirt with every ‘Ogwarts girl whose eyes settle on you, and you are going to make Daphne so jealous that she will regret letting these bigots make her feel uncomfortable about her feelings for you.”

Katarina huffed, but Fleur could see her considering the idea.  Leaving her to her decision, Fleur faced her sister.  “’Ow do I look?”

Gabrielle’s smile was wide and bright, and a matching look of wonder and love shimmered in her young eyes.  “Oh Fleur, you look like a beautiful queen.”  The sentiment filled her with hope that Hermione might feel similarly, even if she knew she shouldn’t get her hopes up.  It was rare for a veela to wear makeup, and Fleur worried she was out of practice.

Feeling suddenly more confident, Fleur’s lips curved to match her sister’s smile.  “Oh, a queen, hmm?  And what would that make ‘ermione?”

Gabby pouted, folding her arms over her chest.  “If she must be involved, then I suppose she can play the part of gallant knight trying to earn the queen’s affection.”  She shot Fleur a playful scowl.  “But you better make her work hard for it!”

Fleur chuckled at her sister’s antics.  “I think I can manage this.”

                                                  

“Oi, what the bloody hell happened to your robes, mate?”

Harry had been surveying the changes to his dress robes made by Hermione’s skillful transfiguration work only a few days prior.  Apparently, at some point, Ron had stopped whining about his own robes long enough to glance over at Harry’s.  The tone of Ron’s question had Harry on his toes immediately, wary of what the boy might say.

“Oh, uh, nothing… I just.”  He forced a grin, hoping it was convincing.  “Well they were a bit boring, weren’t they?  Just like green school robes.  Hermione said she was going to spruce up her own robes, something about adding some muggle style, so I asked if she could fix up mine too.”

It was a lie.  There was nothing muggle about Harry’s robes.  They were still bottle green, but the shape and styling were almost entirely different.  The usual, shoulder-length cape had been transfigured to resemble something more like graceful, draping leaves across his shoulders, hitting around mid-biceps and connecting in the back.  The sleeves were more fitted through the forearm, where they loosened and draped down around his wrists and hands.  The collar and torso of the robes were made of the same stiff but breathable wool as before, but at Harry’s waist, they split and fell to just above Harry’s knees, almost like an overcoat.  Underneath, the skirt of the robes was much more daring, almost dress-like in the way it flowed elegantly down his legs to meet perfectly with the floor.

Ron gave the robes a long look, narrow eyes betraying a skeptical mood.  He grimaced.  “S’pose the coat or whatever is pretty cool.  Still looks weird though.  Kinda girly.”

Harry looked away.  He hated it when boys did that.  He never understood why “girly” was supposed to be an insult—almost all of Harry’s favourite people were girls.  Hermione was the strongest, best person Harry had ever known.

Fortunately, Harry didn’t have to think of a response.  Instead, Neville jumped in. 

“You’re one to talk, Ron.”  Harry moved away from the mirror, using Neville’s uncharacteristic fortitude as a cover to begin removing himself from the conversation.  “Your dress robes look like my Gran’s nightgown.”

Off in the corner, Harry could hear Dean and Seamus snort, but neither got involved in the conversation.  Nor did Neville’s retort make Harry feel any better, not really.  Even if he was right.  Ron’s efforts to sever the frilly lace from the collar and cuffs of his robes did nothing to improve the look, reducing it from something out of a stuffy old Elizabethan play to, yes, something more like what Neville’s grandmother probably slept in.

Before Ron could say something stupid, Neville added, “You know, if you hadn’t pissed Hermione off, she could’ve fixed up your robes as well.”

“Now you’re defending Hermione?  Thought you’d still be all huffy that she wouldn’t go out with you,” Ron taunted, clearly trying to get the upper hand again.  Harry tried to stay out of focus.

“Yeah, maybe I was for a bit there, but I’m getting over my crush.  Pointless, innit, since I’m not her type.”  Neville sounded like he was still nursing a bit of a wound there, but he didn’t sound like he had a problem with Hermione being a lesbian anymore.

“What’s that even mean?” Ron pushed.  “Everyone’s been so weird lately, especially Hermione.  What is going on?”

Neville glanced over at Harry, eyes questioning.  “Has Hermione not told him?”

Harry chuckled, enjoying Ron’s ongoing mystified expression.  “Oh, she definitely has.  In her own way.  Ron’s just a bit thick when it comes to things like this.”

Neville turned back to Ron, who was starting to look a bit like he was ready to explode.  “Hermione’s a lesbian, Ron.  Yeah, that threw me for a while, but you know what?  She’s right.  It doesn’t matter.  There’s nothing wrong with it, no matter what Gran says.”  He smirked.  “I mean, I get it.  What’s not to like about girls?”

Ron huffed as he turned back to the mirror, pointing his wand at his collar as if he was going to try to alter it further but not actually performing any magic.  He winced, then pouted noticeably.  Harry didn’t catch everything he said under his breath, but he was sure he heard the words, “barmy,” “unnatural,” and “big ole lesbo.” 

Then Ron gave up, grumping, “It’s probably not even true.  Hermione’s too pretty to be like that.  Probably just an excuse so she could turn you down.  I bet she isn’t even going.”

If Hermione was in the room, Harry had no doubt that Ron would be hexed within an inch of his life, but Harry just wanted to get out of this conversation.  So, he did just that.  There was no convincing Ron he was still being a huge prat about all of this, after all.

                                                  

“Hermione, are you sure—”

The latest in what had become a long string of Ginny’s worrying over her appearance was cut off as Hermione reentered the dorm room, as Ginny was now staring at her, completely slack-jawed.

“I look that bad, huh?”

“N-n-no.”  Ginny’s mouth closed, but her wide eyes hadn’t left Hermione’s body.  “You look…”  Her voice trailed off again, her gaze frozen on Hermione’s exposed shoulders.  Hermione tilted her head and waited for Ginny to snap out of it, and when the younger witch continued to stare, dumb-founded, Hermione clapped in her face.

“Gin!  What has gotten into you?”  Ginny took a step back, her now even wider eyes shooting up to Hermione’s face.

“Holy shite your hair!”  Hermione couldn’t keep the grin off her face as Ginny continued to ogle her, now walking in a perimeter around her.  Hermione hadn’t styled her hair in any particularly novel way, avoiding the straightening potion she had used the first time around and going with her usual tight curls parted perfectly to fall just so and frame her face the way she liked best.  However, they were no longer a dark brown, but a deep auburn, a change that Hermione decided to take a chance on at the last minute.  Clearly, it had been the right choice, if Ginny’s adoration was any indication.

Unfortunately, Ginny’s antics caught the attention of Lavender and Parvati.  “What on Earth did you do to your robes, Granger?!”  Lavender’s voice was shrill and demanding, and Hermione had to slap her hands away as she moved to touch where Hermione’s robes split below her natural waist, flaring out over her hips to reveal the trouser legs she had transfigured into the design of the outfit.

“Bugger off, Lavender.  I think these are bloody brilliant!” Ginny practically growled.  Hermione allowed her hands to explore a bit, as Ginny seemed to appreciate the work Hermione had put into transfiguring the standard set of girl’s dress robes into something a bit more whimsical.  Her fingers traced the design of the ornate silver buckle to the dark blue belt dividing the flowy periwinkle material of the largely unaltered top of her robes from the more dramatic alterations below.

“Thanks, Gin.”  Hermione stepped forward, ignoring Lavender’s continued scrutiny, to where Crookshanks was perched on her bed.  He purred loudly as she scratched behind his ear, which she took as a vocalization of his approval of her altered robes.

“Whatever,” Lavender huffed.  “Must be another bizarre muggle thing.”  She stomped back to the other end of the room, and Parvati followed after a brief apologetic glance to Hermione.

Hermione took a seat on her bed, facing Ginny.  The back of the robes, flowing down and out around her hips to form a sort of train, with her trouser legs exposed in the front, settled down loose against the bed as she sat.  The legs were fitted, tapering off just above her ankles and exposing a sliver of skin above her stylish, shimmery grey ankle boots with a short stiletto heel.  Hermione’s finger traced absently along the delicate, swirly magical pattern stitched into the legs.

“You did this yourself?” Ginny asked, breathless.

“I did,” Hermione beamed, proud of her work.  The only alteration to the top of the robes she had made was to do away with the flimsy sleeves entirely, shifting to a halter top with a high neck that made the otherwise loose and flowy top a bit more daring.  Perhaps the slit from just above her collarbone to the middle of her chest was a bit risqué for a 15-yr-old, but the overall effect was hardly inappropriate for a teenager. 

Ginny sighed wistfully as she moved her hands over her own robes.  They were simple, but beautiful, and they suited the thirteen-year-old well.  Molly had modified one of her own dress robes from when she was a girl, in a style similar to what Hermione would’ve imagined teenage girls wearing in the Middle Ages, fitted around the bust but otherwise loose and flowing in an effortlessly pretty way.  Though she imagined that Molly didn’t anticipate Ginny’s insistence on loosing two of the four buttons, opening the collar of the robes past her collarbone.  The robes were a deep navy colour, with a pop of bottle green to match Harry’s robes. 

“Mine are a bit, well, boring, aren’t they?”  Ginny’s voice was small, and Hermione stood quickly, causing Crookshanks to yowl at the sudden disturbance.

“Absolutely not!” Hermione reassured, lifting Ginny’s chin to look up at her again.  “Gin, you look absolutely gorgeous.  Harry’s gonna lose his mind.”

Ginny blushed, her usual confidence abandoning her briefly.  “You think so?”

“Yes, dork.  Would you like to place bets on it?”

Ginny looked incredulous at that, and instantly, all her usual swagger returned.  Unfortunately for Hermione, she also shifted the topic subtly.  “So, are you and Delacour officially an item yet?”

Hermione fought back the blush, knowing that was precisely the reaction Ginny was going for.  She had only moderate success.  “We are not,” she insisted.  “We’re going as friends.”  Ginny’s hum of a response felt more skeptical than thoughtful.  And Hermione was quick to cave under her young friend’s scrutiny, unconcerned with anything more than simply having a nice night for once.  “But … I’ll admit that maybe I’m ready to put that on the table.  So to speak.”

“More like you want to put her on a table,” Ginny snickered.

“Ginevra Weasley!”  Hermione’s face felt impossibly hot.  She had forgotten how saucy Ginny had been, even at a young age.  “We will not be discussing anything of that sort, young lady.”

“Yeah okay, Mum, but I’ve seen the way you two look at each other.”

“Hush you.”  Hermione shoved her playfully.  “It’s not my fault that she’s gorgeous, now is it?”

“I suppose not.  If you’re into tall, blonde, and impossibly hot, that is.”  Hermione’s eyes narrowed.  In the previous timeline, they’d never had a conversation about sexuality, and Hermione had only known Ginny to date boys.  Even so, the ways in which Ginny talked about Fleur’s looks hadn’t escaped Hermione, nor had the younger witch’s reaction to Hermione’s new hair and robes.  Curious.

Harry was waiting for them in the common room, amongst a number of other Gryffindors either not attending the ball or not yet ready to head down to the Great Hall.  The room was so much more colourful than usual, which Hermione appreciated.  While students were only required to wear the official black school robes in class and at formal events, few students took advantage of the freedoms this rule technically allowed them.  While Hermione took every opportunity she had to express herself through her everyday muggle attire, many students—especially the boys—didn’t bother with anything other than the boring black robes.

But not tonight.  The crowd was a mix of bright pinks, purples, blues, and most of all, reds—Gryffindor pride was a powerful thing, after all.  Harry’s green robes stood out uniquely, and they found him quickly.  A wide smile broke across his lips as he noticed first Hermione and then Ginny.

Hermione hung back as Ginny and Harry took each other in.  She had to admit, her alterations to Harry’s robes had turned out even better than she had imagined.  The almost androgynous look suited him in a way that was unexpected and yet so obvious. 

And much to Hermione’s delight, Ginny seemed to agree.  If she noticed the unusual cut and styling of Harry’s robes, she didn’t point them out.  In fact, Hermione could almost literally see the heart eyes.  “Holy shite, Harry you look lovely.”

Harry blushed, and Hermione could see that he didn’t really know what to say in response.  It was fucking adorable, and Hermione did the best she could not to wrap them both in warm hugs like a doting mum.  “You… uh …”  He blushed wildly.  “You’re beautiful, Gin.”

Hermione stifled a squeal as they continued to gape at each other, dumbstruck looks painting their features, and finally, she had to step forward.  “Alright, lovebirds, let’s get going now.  I have a pretty girl to meet up with, after all.” 

She led her now stuttering friends out of the common room, and as she did, Hermione chose to ignore most of the looks she was getting.  Reactions to her own attire ranged from stunned silence to jeering disgust to more than a few wolf whistles.  But Hermione’s focus was on her friends, who had eyes only for each other.

For the first time in a long time, Hermione felt as if magic was really in the air.  Not the mundane stuff that made up her everyday existence—potions and charms and oh so many subtle transfigurations—but rather the magic that Harry used to discuss with such wonder when they were kids.  The night felt alive with possibility and hope and most of all, something suspiciously close to love.  And as the trio reached the entrance hall, it seemed their timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The front doors to the castle swept open, and there, radiant in the burgeoning moonlight, was Fleur.

                                                  

The veela were a romantic people, and despite more than a few hardships Fleur had experienced while learning to fit herself into human society, she was no different.  Not at heart.  Even so, nothing could have prepared her for what happened as she stepped into Hogwarts castle on December 25, 1994.

The doors swung inwards as always, the magic of the castle propelling them into motion, and a healthy contingent of Beauxbatons students stepped out of the cold.  As Fleur slipped out of her heavy cloak, preparing to let it disappear to whatever cloak closet the castle maintained for guests on such occasions, she felt her breath leave her lungs in a sharp exhale, without any thought to when it might return.

From behind her, the pale light from the quarter moon shone down to mix with the various torches of the castle interior to create an almost ethereal feeling.  To the right was the entrance to the Great Hall, but Fleur’s eyes were fixed resolutely on the stairs directly in front of her.

Hermione Granger was like something out of a dream.  Her warm skin contrasted beautifully with the cool blue of her stunningly eccentric formal attire.  Her exposed arms were radiant, willowy but subtly muscular, and her stance was both poised and loose in a way that was rare for the mysterious young woman.  Dark curls, redder than usual, framed soft features, and a wide smile broke across her beautifully freckled face, dark eyes full of life as they found Fleur’s own.

It was only once she was within a few short steps of Hermione that she realized the English witch was not alone, and if anything, her smile widened at the sight of the way Hermione’s two young friends kept making eyes at each other as they approached her. 

“Hi.”

“Hi.” 

Neither of them had looked away from each other since their eyes first met.  Students continued moving past her, but her hands found Hermione’s, as far as Fleur was concerned, no one else was in the room. 

A sharp cough that sounded suspiciously like the word ‘gay’ broke the spell.

“Nice to see you as well, Ginevra,” Fleur teased, her eyes still not moving from Hermione.

“Ginny, stop being cheeky and go see if Professor McGonagall needs you and Harry anywhere in particular.”  Hermione’s gaze didn’t waver either.

“Should I ask her if she has any tables you two could commandeer?”

Hermione’s cheeks turned a hot pink, and she spun around to slap wildly at Ginny’s shoulder.  “You. Little. Shit! Get. Out. Of. Here.”

“Gerroff!” Ginny shouted, slipping away from Hermione with the tell-tale grace of a quidditch player.  Meanwhile Fleur and Harry watched the exchange in amused silence.  Eventually, Ginny evaded Hermione by weaving through a number of other students until she eventually found her way to Fleur’s other side.

“Hullo, Fleur Delacour.”  Hermione came to a halt beside Harry, glaring daggers at Ginny.  “You’re looking quite elegant this evening.”  Fleur met her gaze, and the young teen cracked a knowing grin.  “Almost good enough for my best friend.”

Hermione bristled at this, but Fleur shot her a pacifying look before turning back to Ginny.  “Is that so?  Almost?”  Fleur cracked a practiced grin, pushing out just enough thrall to get a reaction, and then cut her glance back and forth between Ginny and Hermione.  “And here I was thinking it was fate, given how well our outfits appear to match this evening.”

She wasn’t wrong.  Fleur was quite pleased by the fact that she and Hermione coordinated so well without any planning.  Hermione was a vision in periwinkle, with hints of darker blue and shimmery greys and silver.  Fleur had never seen robes like hers, but they certainly went well with Fleur’s own.  Hers were a more traditional style, but similarly sleeveless.  Delicate, pale blue satin was covered by a grey robe of velvet, with satin detailing and a pearly belt drawing the entire look together.  The high neck of grey velvet combined with a tasteful amount of cleavage to create a regal but flirty look.  The blues, greys, and silvers could’ve fooled all but the most scrutinizing eye that Fleur and Hermione had planned to match.

Ginny sighed.  “You’re a sweet talker, Frenchie.”  She winked at Hermione, then switched places with her.  “I like it.  But even so, you should watch your ass.”

Fleur chuckled.  “Oh, don’t worry, young Ginny.  I think more than a few others have that particular task covered.”

At that moment, a group of students came up the stairs from the dungeons, a pompous little boy with greasy, platinum blonde hair making a face as his eyes fell on the four of them.  Fleur’s glare kept the boy at bay, and she guessed this was Draco Malfoy based on the few times she had heard Harry and Hermione discuss him.  Behind her, the great doors opened again, and Fleur turned to see Viktor and the other Durmstrangs enter.  Despite having a pretty girl on his arm, his eyes immediately sought out and found Hermione, widening in shock as he saw her with Fleur.  He glared daggers at her, then turned as one of the Hogwarts professors called for the champions.

Cedric and his date, a cute Asian girl, were already waiting by the tall professor in red tartan robes.  As the four of them walked over, Fleur whispered in Hermione’s ear.  «You look truly magnificent, ma belle.  Your robes, I take it, are your own creation.  What a lovely balance of moldu and magical.»

Hermione blushed so prettily, catching her eye with a bright smile and then leaning in as they came to a stop behind Ginny and Harry.  «Thank you.  That’s exactly what I was going for.»  Her hand slipped into Fleur’s, sparking a tingly thrill up her arm.  «And I adore that you caught on immediately.»

«But of course,» Fleur whispered, pleased with herself.  Students continued to flood into the Great Hall while the champions and their dates waited to the side of the entrance.  More than a few stopped to gape at them, and Fleur couldn’t say for sure whether it was due to her thrall, Hermione’s enchanting appearance, or the sight of two witches together, hand-in-hand.  Fortunately, Ronald Weasley was not one of them, as he had ushered a tall, raven-haired girl who was far too pretty for him into the Hall without a glance at the champions.  Fleur couldn’t help but note the way the girl’s eyes had lingered on Harry even as Ron dragged her inside.

Finally, the Hall had settled, and it was time for the champions’ entrance.  They moved in pairs, guests first.  Viktor and his date walked forward to massive applause, then Hermione and Fleur followed.  The pause in the clapping was almost imperceptible, but through her thrall, Fleur could feel the shift in the crowd.  The stunned mix of emotions ranging from awe and desire to jealousy and outrage at the sight of Hermione Granger on Fleur’s arm.

Ron had finally noticed them, thick eyebrows furrowed over eyes wide with shock and, if Fleur wasn’t mistaken, anger.  That could be a problem, but they continued onward and she lost sight of the boy.  At the end of the hall waited a large round table, already half-full with the Tournament judges and school officials.

The Great Hall was almost unrecognizable.  The head table was one of hundreds scattered around the now seemingly more open space, each lit with delightful little lanterns that hung suspended in the air.  The walls were covered in a shimmering silver frost that defied the comfortably warm air inside.  The starry sky projected above was obscured by a patchwork of mistletoe garlands and ivy.  It was hardly the most impressive décor Fleur had ever seen, but it had a humble charm about it.

Madame Maxime greeted the two of them with a bright smile that didn’t reach her eyes, and Fleur could feel rather than see her judgment at her choice in date for the evening.  She took the seat next to Maxime, but not before holding out Hermione’s chair for her, much to the other witch’s delight.  Following her lead, Ginny did the same for Harry on Hermione’s other side, a cheeky grin across both their faces as he bowed playfully at the gesture before sitting.  On their other side was a young man Fleur didn’t recognize, though he bore a clear resemblance to Ron, so she guessed he could be another Weasley child.  Hermione had mentioned there were more than a few, though Fleur couldn’t begin to guess what he was doing at their table.  Mr. Crouch was apparently missing, so perhaps the young man was a stand-in.

Fleur kept her eyes on Professor Dumbledore, expecting the host to say some words before the feast, but instead, he simply stared down at his plate and summoned pork chops.  Fleur made a face at the breach in etiquette, as those around them began to follow his lead.  «I suppose we will not be getting any kind of welcoming speech this evening,» she whispered to Hermione.

Hermione gave her a knowing side-eye before glancing at Professor Dumbledore and then leaning in so close to Fleur’s ear that her breath tickled.  It sent shivers down her spine in the best way.  «Professor Dumbledore is many things.  A student of etiquette is not one of them.»  Something about her tone, even in such a faint whisper, spoke to a more serious dislike of the man that caught Fleur’s attention.  Yet another mystery to unravel in the case of one Hermione Granger.

                                                  

The feast was nice enough, though Percy had been quick to pry into what was going on between Harry and Ginny, and Madame Maxime had seemingly given Hermione the same treatment.  Maybe—it wasn’t like Harry spoke French.  But they all muddled through it pleasantly enough, and then Dumbledore asked them all to stand.

In a fluid motion, the headmaster disappeared the bulk of the tables from the center  and right of the room, much to the shock of the people left standing there, and then directed them to move back towards the walls.  As the crowd relinquished the center of the hall, the stone floor transfigured into smooth, polished wood and a raised stage rose out of the floor along the right wall, already adorned with several musical instruments.  As the Weird Sisters took the stage, Hermione and Fleur stood beside him.  His eyes met Ginny’s, and she smiled as she said, “Guess that’s our cue, huh?”

However, as he stood, Harry’s heart sank.  “Uh… bollocks, uh Gin?” he whispered as he took her hand and began to approach the floor.  “Do you know how to lead?”  His face grew hot, and the words fell out of his mouth without grace or flow.  “I practiced with Hermione and she insisted on leading and I’m only just realizing that probably you’re not used to leading and we’re going to make complete—”

Ginny cut him off with a squeeze to his hand, and as they came to a halt in formation with the other champions and their dates, she cast a mischievous look at Hermione, who unfortunately had eyes only for Fleur.  Then she placed a hand loosely on Harry’s waist, directing his arm to rest on hers just like Hermione had in practice.  “That’s funny.  When I was practicing with Hermione, she insisted that I take the lead.”

Yet again, Ginny’s confidence had a settling effect on Harry’s stomach, and as the music began, he focused on his footwork and following Ginny’s lead.  Surprisingly, the whole thing felt almost natural, and after a few moments of awkward adjustment, they both fell into an easy rhythm.  Ginny was the same height as Harry, which certainly helped things along.  Before long, the four couples were joined on the dance floor by a horde of others, and Harry was having so much fun that it didn’t even occur to him to try and retreat once his duties as champion were completed. 

As one song ended, another began, and their pace shifted to match.  “Hey, check out the lovebirds.”  Harry followed Ginny’s gaze to Fleur and Hermione, who had come into view again to his right.  They were standing much closer to each other, Hermione’s hands around Fleur’s waist and Fleur’s around Hermione’s neck, clasped just under her curly hair.  Their eyes were locked, and they were speaking softly as they moved together as one, almost as if they were well used to dancing with each other.  It was beyond cute, and Harry smiled for his friend.

“You think they’ll finally get around to snogging tonight?”  Harry chuckled.

“You think they haven’t already?”  Ginny’s eyes narrowed at this, and her lips turned pouty.

“Harry Potter, have you been holding out on me?  What do you know?”

“Nothing!” Harry insisted.  It was only half a lie.  As far as he knew, Hermione and Fleur hadn’t done anything of the sort yet, given that Hermione refused to get out of her own way.  But he couldn’t tell Ginny any of the context that he knew.  Even though part of him wanted to.  Hermione’s secrets were heavy, and Harry didn’t know if it was fair to put any of them on Ginny’s shoulders.  Harry just knew that he trusted her, aside from whatever feelings he was developing.

Ever since Hermione had replaced her younger self, she had worked hard to grow their friend group beyond the two of them and Ron, going out of her way to include Neville, Ginny, and Luna as much as possible.  At first, Harry wasn’t sure about Luna, but she was Ginny’s best friend outside of Gryffindor, and the more he had gotten to know the two girls, the more he liked them.  Ginny had quickly become Harry’s favourite Weasley, especially once Ron started antagonizing him about the Goblet of Fire.  Ginny was fierce, witty, and brash, but she also understood him in a way Ron never quite seemed to. 

Harry thought that maybe the reason he had hit it off so well with Ginny and Luna of late was that they had all experienced some darkness despite their young ages.  Luna understood losing a parent at a young age, though Harry didn’t know much about her relationship with her mum.  Ginny and Harry shared a history with Voldemort, though they still hadn’t had anything close to a real conversation about everything that had happened with Riddle’s diary and the Chamber of Secrets.  For whatever reason, Harry felt comfortable around her in a way he never quite had with Ron.

Or at least he had, until things got complicated by the crush that completely caught Harry off guard.  He’d started feeling weird, awkward things about Cho Chang last year, and he had a vague understanding that this was a normal occurrence for a teenager, but he hadn’t really given Ginny much thought since everything with the Chamber.  She had become a bit withdrawn, especially from him, and he just assumed that she didn’t want to be his friend.  Things had only changed recently, when she started coming out of her shell at the Quidditch World Cup.

Everything between them since then had been a confusing whirlwind of awkwardness, sweaty palms, and stifled grins, leading up to when she had asked him to the ball.  Ginny had come out of nowhere to become a super important person in Harry’s life, and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with that realization.

“Ugh, Ron won’t stop staring at us.”  Ginny’s words broke into Harry’s train of thought, and he followed her gaze to where Ron was sitting with his date, a girl in Ginny’s year who Harry didn’t know.  She was trying to talk to him, but he looked stiff and uncomfortable.  It seemed like he was also pointedly ignoring where Hermione was dancing with Fleur in favour of watching Harry and Ginny’s every move.  “Should we go see about the stick up his arse?”

“I suppose,” Harry sighed, and he broke their stance to lead Ginny off the dance floor.  They wove their way through the crowd to the table.  “All right, mate?”  Ron grunted something that Harry was pretty sure wasn’t an actual word, and Ginny smacked him in the arm.

“Ow!  Fine, whatever, it’s fine.”  They settled down beside Ron and the girl.  “What’s going on between you two anyway?”

“Hi Harry!” the girl offered, practically talking over Ron and completely ignoring his question. 

“Erm, hi, uh…”

“Harry, this is Romilda,” Ginny explained, shifting her chair a bit closer to him and leaning over him to make eye contact with Romilda.  She almost sounded a bit possessive, not that it really bothered Harry.  “She agreed to come with Ron because otherwise she wouldn’t get to come.”

“Oi!” Ron grumbled, but he didn’t contradict the statement, and Romilda didn’t seem to pay him much mind.  Then Ginny pushed it even further.

“Actually, Ron, didn’t Romilda ask you to bring her?”  Ginny snickered.  “And after you gave Harry so much crap.  You’re so full of crap, brother.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Ron answered, finally lightening up a bit.  He chuckled as he caught sight of George and Angelina making a scene out on the dance floor. 

“Harry, your performance in the First Task was so brilliant,” Romilda gushed, leaning over Ron to place a hand on Harry’s knee.  Harry’s eyes went wide, and he looked to Ron, who was now making a face.  Harry moved his knee away without thinking, scared of Ron’s reaction.  Neither of them were really sure what to do about Romilda, who wasn’t exactly being subtle in her appreciation of Harry or her complete disregard for Ron.  Harry felt bad, because he knew that this would just play into Ron’s own insecurities.  Which sucked, because they were just starting to become friends again.

Fortunately, for once Ron didn’t rise to the bait.  “Damn right it was.  A sight bit better than any of the others, if you ask me.”

Harry looked up from the table until he found Fleur and Hermione again.  They moved across the floor so elegantly, it was almost enchanting.  He wished he could move like that, and he thought about what he’d heard of her amazing performance against the Welsh Green.  “That’s nice of you, Ron, but I’d say everyone but Krum was pretty brilliant in their own right.  Especially Fleur.”

“She was whatever,” Ron muttered, but he forced a smile to his face as he met Harry’s eyes again.  “Your flying’s what really impressed the crowd though.  Bloody unfair that you’re so good at that.  Now you’ve got dance moves too?”  He cracked a grin, this one genuine, and Harry didn’t know if it was a genuine compliment or a tease, but it was a huge relief to see the playful side of Ron again.

“Ah, I may have practiced a bit, but it’s mostly Gin out there making me look good.”

“I can outfly Harry too,” Ginny bragged teasingly.  “Too bad they canceled quidditch this year.”

Ron glanced at his pint of butterbeer wistfully.  “I was thinkin’ about trying out myself actually.”  He looked up, almost bashfully.  “What with Wood’s keeper spot open now.”

Ginny snorted, and when Ron looked affronted, she rushed to soothe his ego.  “I’m not laughing at you, dumb dumb.  I was just thinking that we might have to steal Harry’s Triwizard winnings so that we can buy ourselves decent brooms for tryouts next year.  Not like we’ll be able to get our hands on Fred and George’s brooms till they graduate.”  Ron chuckled at that, and he and Ginny shared a meaningful look, much to Harry’s delight.

Then Romilda inserted herself back in the conversation.  “So, Harry, are you and Ginny dating then?”  Ron immediately began to choke on his drink, and Harry slapped him on the back several times until he started breathing again.  On his other side, Ginny had gone quiet, and Harry glanced back at her to see she’d turned scarlet.

Harry had no idea what to say.  He hated being on the spot like this, and he didn’t want to assume anything, just because she had asked him to the ball.  And she seemed just as embarrassed as he did.  Ginny stared at him, unblinking, and he stared right back, frozen.  Harry felt as though he couldn’t breathe all of the sudden, as if the silence would continue to grow all around them until it consumed the entire Great Hall and everyone was watching him make a complete fool of himself.

“Ginny!  Ginny, there you are.”  Luna’s lilting voice shattered the awkwardness like an angel from heaven.  “You and dear Harry disappeared from the dance floor, and I was worried the nargles had taken you.”  Luna wore a thin, sheer scarf around her nose and mouth, which she only pulled down from her face after she turned a stern expression upwards, as if warning away whatever nargles were supposed to be.  She and Neville took seats on the other side of Harry and Ginny.  “Remarkably short-sighted to set up so much mistletoe in one place, especially around so many nice people and pretty things.”

“What the bloody hell are nargles?” Ron sputtered, looking utterly lost.

“A nuisance,” Luna answered matter-of-factly, as if that answered everything.  Harry didn’t particularly care whether she made any sense though; he was just glad she had appeared when she had.  Otherwise, he and Ginny might still be gaping at each other.  At the very least, it was nice that Romilda’s attention was now firmly on the other third-year, allowing Harry a moment to breathe outside of the limelight.

Luna’s robes were a jarringly bright, almost neon, purple, cut fairly similar to Ginny’s but with sheer sleeves that draped down and connected, almost winglike, with the bottom portion of her robes.  Her earrings were—unless Harry was mistaken—miniature frosted eggplants, and they went surprising well with her robes, unlike the butterbeer cork necklace along which her fingers traced almost nervously.  Her long hair was loose, save for two round buns wrapped loosely on either side of her head.

“Did they serve the pudding yet?” Neville asked, and for whatever reason, this felt even more ridiculous than Luna’s rantings about the nargles.  Harry, Ginny, and Ron all burst into a ruckus of laughter.  “What?” Neville asked, dumbfounded.  “What did I say?”

                                                  

“Hullo everyone!”  Hermione felt a little breathless from all the dancing.  She had lost herself a bit in the press of her body against Fleur’s and the pulse and rhythm of the music all around them.  She didn’t know how long they had been dancing, but her body felt heavy with the exertion of it.  Even so, Hermione felt more energetic than she could remember feeling in years, and she could no longer ignore the reason for that.

Dancing with Fleur was magical.  Being in proximity to Fleur always felt at least a little charged, but the closeness of dancing with her was something else.  Subtle movements, soft touches, lingering gazes… Hermione felt alive.

She turned a bright smile on the entire table, from Neville and Luna, to Harry and Ginny, and then finally on Ron and Romilda Vane.  “Hi Romilda, I’m Hermione Granger, and this is Fleur Delacour.”

“Bonjour,” Fleur greeted the table warmly, and Hermione led her around to sit on the other side of Neville. 

“You two looked pretty cozy out there,” Ginny teased, and Hermione didn’t even bother with her usual glare.  She was feeling too good, and besides, Ginny wasn’t wrong.

“Yes, well, ‘Ermione is an excellent dancer.”  Under the table, Fleur’s hand landed gently, almost hesitantly, on Hermione’s.  A pause, an intake of breath, and then Hermione made a decision.  Rather than freezing or, worse, pulling away, she turned her hand over so that her palm met Fleur’s and delicately laced their fingers together.

“So, it’s true then?”

Ron’s voice was at once petulant and cutting, and everyone’s eyes were on him now.  He looked every bit as ridiculous as he had the first time around, his ancient, mangled robes ill-suited to his rapidly growing frame and his angry scowl likewise marring his normally amiable features.  Hermione had hoped to avoid this sort of a scene, but it wasn’t like she’d ever had to actually come out to Ron in the prior timeline. 

“Got something to say, have you?”  Fleur’s hand squeezed hers, but otherwise she left Hermione to the confrontation they had both sensed coming ever since they’d entered the Great Hall. 

Ron glanced around the table, as if sensing he was making a scene, but then he just scowled and went on with it anyway.  “Were you gonna tell us you’re a great big lesbian?”

“Ron, don’t.” 

“Ron, you prat.”

Harry and Ginny talked over each other to shut Ron down, but neither Ron nor Hermione looked away from each other.  Ron seemed on the edge of a tantrum, while Hermione felt perfectly calm.  Hundreds of kilometres away, the shriveled up husk of the most powerful evil wizard to ever lived was plotting his return.  Hermione was the only person in the world who fully comprehended the magnitude of the horror that awaited them all if she didn’t accomplish some truly remarkable things in the next months.  It was beyond absurd that a fourteen-year-old Ronald Weasley thought he could get under her collar by calling out her sexuality in front of everyone. 

The whole thing was almost laughable, and it wasn’t like Hermione had been hiding it in the first place.

“Actually, Ronald, everyone here already knew I was a ‘great big lesbian,’ except for maybe Romilda—”

“I mean I just assumed,” Romilda inserted, a bit cheekily.  Hermione couldn’t help but crack a grin at the girl, nodding ever so slightly in recognition.

“It isn’t something I’m ashamed of, nor can you make me feel bad about being who I am,” she finished, her eyes snapping back to Ron.  He looked more than a little flustered, not having expected her to take ownership of that which he had considered an easy insult against her.

Then he focused on Fleur.  “And did it have to be her?  Blimey, Hermione, she’s from Beauxbatons!”  He looked for support from Harry, who just gaped at him.  “You’re… you’re dating the enemy!”

Fleur snorted in amusement, and Hermione stifled a giggle of her own.  “Really?  The enemy?  And I never said that we’re dating.”

“Neither did she deny it,” Fleur pointed out slyly, and rather than justify the comment with a response, Hermione just waggled her eyebrows at Ginny, who cracked up immediately.

“Oh, you lot are fun,” Romilda quipped, and Luna, who had ended up sitting beside her, offered a hand for an unexpected and startlingly exuberant high five.

Ron, meanwhile, was growing increasingly flustered.  “When did this even happen?  You didn’t even say anything after I…”  He blushed wildly and looked away again.

“After you made an ass of yourself,” Fleur supplied, feigning sweetness.  Ron bristled, but he still couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Not like that was my fault,” he muttered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hermione chided, and his eyes met hers again.

“Bloody veela thrall is what it means,” he growled.  “Not my bloody fault her lot are going around with their unnatural whatever it is, luring in unsuspecting blokes they aren’t even interested in.”

The entire table went quiet, horrified at his sentiment.  But their table wasn’t the only one who had gone silent.  Sensing something off, Hermione shifted her gaze towards the open doors to the Great Hall, where a lone figure was entering with impossible grace.  All of a sudden, Hermione couldn’t tear her eyes away.  For all of Ron’s complaints about Fleur’s thrall, it was nothing like this.  This was much more along the lines of what Hermione had felt at the World Cup.

Katarina’s robes were almost otherworldly.  They looked like a single garment that flowed around her body, tightly fitted to her form in all the right places and loose and billowy in all the others.  The fabric seemed to float around her, sheer in places but solid through the silhouette of her entrancing figure.  And as she strutted into the hall, Hermione could feel Katarina’s thrall thrumming through her like a physical force.

The German veela’s eyes settled on a nearby table, where Daphne Greengrass was sitting next to Blaise Zabini.  The two locked eyes, and Katarina’s thrall pulsed as she dragged her tongue tantalizingly along her teeth, before blowing a pointed air kiss at Daphne.  Then she winked at Fleur and announced to the captivated audience, “Alright, now the party can begin.”

And just like that, the Weird Sisters struck up again, and Katarina disappeared into the crowd of dancing teenagers.

“What was that?” Hermione gasped, turning to face her date.

Fleur shrugged nonchalantly.  “Katarina does not like being asked to hide.”  Hermione didn’t need her to elaborate.  A glance at Daphne showed how uncomfortable the girl felt in her own skin, how she shrank from the now accusing stares of the other pure-bloods around her.  The girl couldn’t risk a trip out of the closet, not right now.  Hermione wished she could go to her in that moment.  She didn’t blame Katarina, but she felt for Daphne.  She managed to catch the girl’s gaze, and for a moment, a flicker of understanding passed between them.

Bravery was not an easy thing.  Nor was letting yourself chase happiness in the face of unspeakable horror.

And in that moment, Hermione made another decision.  Daphne Greengrass flet that she could not yet embrace herself, but Hermione had no such qualms.

“Hey, Fleur, I want to dance some more.”

Fleur didn’t resist Hermione as she pulled her to her feet, and while she led them towards the crowd, that wasn’t the final destination Hermione had in mind.

                                                  

Fleur could feel it.  This was it.  This was the moment when Hermione would begin to let her in.  To see past her walls.

This was when the mystery of Hermione Granger would begin to unravel, for better or worse.

Hermione hadn’t wanted to dance more.  Instead, she’d led Fleur through the crowd and then out of the hall, the two of them walking in comfortable silence along the familiar path to Hermione’s hidden Reading Room.  All the way there, they held hands tightly, and there were other fleeting touches.  A brush of shoulders.  A sway of the hips just so against their joined hands.  So on, and so forth.

By the time they were through that purple door, the air around them was charged with potential, and Fleur felt tingly all over with anticipation.  She could no longer pretend she didn’t want more than friendship from Hermione.  That she wasn’t vibrating with the desire for more.  Tonight.  In that way, Fleur was hopeless.

“Fleur, I…” Hermione trailed off, turning to realize just how little space was left between them.  A soft smile tugged at Fleur’s lips.

“You are so beautiful, Hermione.”  On other nights, this sort of vocal praise would’ve flustered the English witch.  But tonight, fierce brown eyes sparkled intensely as Hermione refused to look away, refused to back down from whatever was building between them.

“You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever known,” Hermione confessed, her voice quiet but sure.  Her hands found purchase at Fleur’s waist, and she stepped that extra little bit into Fleur’s personal space, bringing their bodies flush.

Fleur lifted a hand to stroke her cheek, leaving it there as Hermione leaned almost imperceptibly into the touch.  “I would very much like to kiss you.  And I ‘ope that this time, you might let yourself want it, too.”

Hermione’s breath hitched.  Her eyes lowered, and she whispered, “I’ve thought about it.  Kissing you.”  She smiled and looked back into Fleur’s eyes.  Fleur leaned in, and for a moment, Hermione’s nose brushed against her own.  “I’ve thought about it a lot, actually.”

“And now?”

The anticipation threatens to overwhelm her.

“Now, I can’t think about anything else.”

Fleur was going to say something in response.  Probably something teasing and flirty and perfect.  But she didn’t get the chance.

Instead, Hermione closed the scant distance left between them and kissed her.  Her lips were soft and impossibly gentle.  Her lips slid over Fleur’s bottom lip, and Fleur tilted her head, leaning into the contact.  She felt Hermione’s fingers press and drag slightly along her lower back.  As she kissed Hermione, Fleur picked up on the slight scent of berries, sweat, and butterbeer.  Hermione’s lips parted, opening further, and a delicious hum sounded in the back of her throat as Fleur’s fingertips played along the nape of her neck.  Their lips moved, testing and measuring the different ways they fit together.  It was playful and sweet and, above all, romantic.

Hermione kissed her deeper, a slip of her tongue against Fleur’s teeth.  She could taste Hermione now, and she wanted more.  And then she drew away.

Fleur’s face felt hot.  She and Hermione looked at each other as they let the air back into their lungs, breaths only the slightest bit ragged. 

“I want this.”  Fleur could hear the resolve in her voice, but she could also see the shadow of that pain she had glimpsed after their date.  She wondered what would come next.

“I want this, and I want you, and I just…”  Hermione lifted a hand to Fleur’s face this time, tracing her jaw up to the lobe of her ear.  “You deserve the truth, and I can’t let this go any further until I tell you everything.”

Fleur took Hermione’s hand from her jaw and pressed her lips to Hermione’s knuckles, lingering slightly.  “I am all ears, mon amour.”

Chapter Text

“Can we sit?”  For the first time since they entered the Reading Room, Fleur looked away from Hermione, noticing the lovely sofa sitting in front of the fireplace.  “There’s … well, I have quite a lot to tell you, and honestly, you’re probably going to think I’m mental.  So … let’s sit.”

Fleur didn’t know how to respond to that, and she tried to keep her racing mind under control.  Don’t jump to conclusions, she reminded herself.  Let her tell her story in her way.  Help her feel safe enough to do so. 

They sat together, and when Hermione scooted back against the arm of the sofa to create a bit of distance, Fleur let her.  But not before she reached across to put a reassuring hand on Hermione’s, and promised, “I will do nothing quite so dramatic as accuse you of being mental, ‘Ermione.  Please, just say what you need to say, and I will be 'ere.”  With that, she withdrew her hand, got comfortable, and waited on Hermione.

For several moments, Hermione fiddled with her hands.  Fleur resisted the urge to fill the silence, urging herself to be patient.  Whatever Hermione had to say, she seemed unsure of how to begin.  Until, after a cute little hum of approval to herself, she turned to Fleur and asked a most unexpected question.

“How old do you think I am?”

Fleur blinked several times.  “Really?”

Hermione smiled softly.  “I promise, this is leading somewhere.”

Fleur was skeptical, but she decided to play along.  “Okay.  Well, I ‘adn’t given it much thought before.”  She did so now and found herself more than a little unsure.  “If you ‘ad asked me the day we met, I would’ve said you seemed about my age, maybe younger.  Sixteen or seventeen.  Now… I am less sure.  You feel older than me, but you still have the look of youth about you at times.”

“And if I told you that I am nineteen years old?”  Hermione frowned, doing the math in her head.  "Er, maybe twenty at this point."

Fleur’s eyes narrowed.  “I would ask you why you are still in school at such a ripe old age,” she teased.

“And if I told you that was because I am from the future?”

Whatever Fleur had expected Hermione’s big secret to be, it wasn’t this.  In fact, her first instinct was that Hermione was joking, hoping to break the ice a bit before telling her about something traumatic or difficult.

“You do not seem the type to steal a time-turner.”

Hermione chuckled.  “No, I’m really not.  Though, I think you’d be surprised at some of the … less than legal adventures I’ve been involved in.”  Fleur was intrigued, but she imagined that if she played her cards rights, she might get to hear more about those adventures.  She still wasn’t sure whether Hermione was joking, but she moved right along. “That’s … maybe a conversation for another day, assuming you still want to talk to me after all this.”

“Hermione, why wouldn’t—”

“I told you, there’s a good chance you’ll think I’m mad.  Though you seem to be humouring me quite well so far.”  They shared a soft smile, and Fleur hoped it reassured Hermione.  “I didn’t use a time-turner,” she explained matter-of-factly.  “Though, I did have the opportunity to use one in my third year, so that I could take extra classes.”

When Fleur made a face, Hermione grinned.  “I know!  Shockingly irresponsible, trusting a fourteen-year-old with that kind of magic.  But I would never accuse Dumbledore of being responsible, especially not when it comes to allowing children access to insanely powerful magical artifacts.”  She shook her head.  “Sorry, still not the point.”

“A time-turner could not accomplish what we needed to accomplish.  And anyways, the Ministry’s entire supply was destroyed.  So, we had to find alternative means.  Old magic.”  That caught Fleur off-guard, and now she was sure Hermione wasn’t joking about any of this.  Old magic was not a subject of interest for most humans, and what Hermione was suggesting—some sort of time ritual—was not something even the veela considered possible.

“You’re really saying that you’re a … time traveler?”

“Yeah, I am.”  Hermione breathed in and out.  “I left my timeline in January 1999, my consciousness transferred into the body of my fifteen-year-old self on September 19, 1994.”

The information was staggering.  But Fleur believed her.  She had no reason to lie about this, no matter how far-fetched it sounded.  “So you’re older than me?” was the question she asked, and she immediately felt silly for asking it.

Hermione just smiled.  “Technically, yes.  In a way.  Physically, I’m fifteen, but mentally—experientially—yeah, I’ve got a few years on you.”

“Why?”

“Why the time traveling?”  Fleur nodded, and Hermione slumped, as if something impossibly heavy weighed on her.  It seemed unfair that a woman so young—even at twenty, rather than fifteen—should have to carry whatever this was.  Then she cracked a wry smile.  “Someone had to stop the end of the world.”

Fleur’s heart sank.  “What?”

“Honestly, Fleur, I don’t know where to begin.”

“Was I… I am sorry, but you said ‘we.’  Was I someone who helped send you back?”

“Oh.”  Hermione sounded legitimately surprised by the question.  “No, erm.  It was Minerva—Professor McGonagall—and my friend William.  Ginny’s oldest brother.  You weren’t … Paris was hit, but I don’t remember anything about Dijon.  William hadn’t heard from you in months, but…”  She sighed, motioning with her hand as if to ward off bad thoughts. 

Fleur’s mind spun.  William hadn’t heard from her—what was her relationship to this William?  Did she have any kind of relationship with Hermione in the future?

“It was Voldemort.”  Fleur’s internal monologue went silent.  It was a stunning revelation.  “He isn’t dead.  He’s hardly alive either, but he’s out there.  Plotting.  If I don’t stop him, he will be restored to full power in June.  He’ll have control of the British Ministry in a couple of years.  And that isn’t close to the worst of it.”

Fleur didn’t know what to say.  Everything in her wanted to deny it, to insist that it couldn’t be true.  Voldemort’s terrorism had been born in the United Kingdom, but it did not limit itself to the British Isles.  Human pure-blood supremacists had come out of the woodwork, emboldened by the Dark Lord, and France had seen its fair share of violence and hate crimes.  Her family hadn’t suffered, but she knew her parents had feared the anti-moldu sentiment turning against non-humans as well.

She wanted Hermione to be wrong, but deep down she knew the young witch spoke the truth.  She could hear it in her tone, see it in her posture and the look in her eyes.  Fleur’s hand trembled slightly as she brought it to her chest, fingers playing along the tiny sapphire setting of her necklace.   “Why … why now, Hermione?  Why September 1994?”

“The Tournament.”  Hermione’s voice was thin, almost like she was confessing something.  “Voldemort, or one of his servants rather, placed Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire.  I have to keep Harry from winning the Tournament.  I have to stop Voldemort from returning to power.  I have to face him…”  Hermione glanced up at Fleur, and her eyes were awash with sorrow, trepidation, and something worryingly close to fear.  “And I need help.”

As Fleur’s mind began connecting dots, a certain conclusion sprang to mind.  It felt like a body blow when it hit her.  But as she thought back on her interactions with Hermione over the past months, it felt inescapable. 

Hermione kept explaining.  “I knew when I came back that I couldn’t do it alone.  But Minerva knew that neither she nor any of the other professors were likely to believe me, and if they did, they would try to take things into their own hands.  Too much could change, making my future knowledge worthless, and … well, it was just too big a risk.”

Hermione took Fleur’s silence as an excuse to keep rambling through her explanation, as if she felt compelled to get it all out now that she was on a roll.  Fleur felt a familiar frostiness forming in her chest.

“You were a member of the Order of the Phoenix—the resistance to Voldemort during the Second War—and William had told me a lot about you—”

“Who is this William?” Fleur demanded, her voice breaking through Hermione’s ambling story.  “Who was he to me?  Were you and I not … did we truly not know each other?”

“Not all that well, unfortunately.  After the war, William kept trying to set us up, but you were in France and I wasn’t ready for anything…”  Her eyes went wide as she realized that Fleur’s gaze was harsher than she had realized.  Fleur held herself rigid, no longer comfortable around Hermione. 

“You and William were married,” Hermione hurried to explain, and it felt like a slap in the face.  “For purely practical reasons!  You and he… well, I mean he’s gay.  It was a dark time, and you were the best of friends.  He needed his mum off his back, and you needed a cover to stay in the country despite increasing anti-muggle and anti-non-human sentiment.”

Fleur processed this information silently.  She didn’t know what to say.  Hermione drew in a deep breath.  “We figured that one of the Triwizard champions would be my best choice for an ally.  You were the obvious choice.  I just … Fleur, I didn’t expect to fall—” she paused, her voice hesitant.  “I have my mission, and I didn’t think there was room for…  I was so clueless, really.  I knew that I needed to get to know you better, but I never guessed I might catch feelings.”

“Because that would make it ‘arder for you to manipulate me with a clean conscience,” Fleur answered, her voice flat and cold.

“What?”

“I noticed your attention that day.  When we first arrived.  I figured it for attraction, I am used to that.  But then you surprised me.  You spoke French.  You were kind and easily flustered, but you didn’t back down from my obvious advances.  You took the opportunity to lead me all over the castle, and then you brought me here.  To earn my trust.”

“Fleur, no, it wasn’t—”

“Oh, I see now.  I see what it was.  You knew about Dijon.”

“I didn’t,” she protested, but Fleur wasn’t buying it.  Not anymore.  She’d been used before, and she had a very low tolerance for it.

“You did.  You knew who I was, but you pretended to be meeting me for the first time.  You pretended, the whole time.  You knew my ‘ome.  You knew to ask me about my sister, my family.  You gave me the charm for my robes, before I faced the dragon.  So that I would win.”  Fleur chuckled bitterly.  “You must ‘ave been so very furious with young ‘Arry for doing so well.  It must ‘ave interfered with your schemes.”  Hermione looked as though she wanted to protest, but she wilted under Fleur’s glare.  “Tell me, Hermione, did this William teach you French just so you would ‘ave an easier time worming your way into my ‘eart?”

“No,” Hermione gasped.  “Fleur, of course not.”  Her eyes were soft, pleading.  Still so beautiful.

Fleur’s heart felt heavy, and she knew that as much as she hardened it, she was in danger.  She could feel how much she wanted to trust Hermione even now.

“I can’t be ‘ere any longer.”  She stood, but she had to shake off Hermione’s grasp as she moved past her, the younger—older, she reminded herself—witch springing into action almost as quickly as Fleur herself.  «Do not touch me!» Fleur growled.  «Do not try to contact me either.  I need time.»  She paused, her hand on the knob of the door.  «I believe you, about the Dark Lord.  About what is coming.»  Her fist tightened on the knob, her knuckles going white.  «I will help you.  But right now, I cannot look at you.  Please, do not follow me.»

                                                  

Hermione slept fitfully.  Her conversation with Fleur had gone completely sideways, in ways she hadn’t anticipated, and that wasn’t the worst part.  She hadn’t stopped Fleur from leaving, staying in the Reading Room for a long while afterwards to cry quietly to herself and let all her increasingly depressing thoughts spiral.  She still beat her roommates to the dorm, but her brain wouldn’t let her sleep.  Anxiety kept her mind racing and once she did fall asleep, her nightmares returned in full force.

Sitting up in bed, her silencing charms keeping her now sleeping roommates from hearing her ragged breathing, Hermione felt trapped.  Her heart pounded in her chest, which felt increasingly like it might collapse in on itself, it had grown so tight with anxiety.  She couldn’t steady her breathing, setting Crookshanks on edge as well.

So, she decided to leave.

Winter break was shorter this year, thanks to the Yule Ball, but the Hogwarts Express was available for students who wished to spend a few days at home with their families.  Hermione’s bags were packed and she had them and Crookshanks out of the room before anyone could wake up and question her.  It wasn’t until she was halfway back to London, thankfully in a compartment all by herself, that she thought about her friends.  Fortunately, elf magic was capable even of apparition onto a moving train, and Dobby was more than willing to pass Harry a short message.

It was a short apparition from King’s Cross to her parents’ home—she hardly even had to think about it, and she was standing on that familiar porch.  Her house key was already waiting in the pocket of her wool coat, and she retrieved it rather mechanically, acting on instinct rather than intention.  She stepped inside, waiting for Crookshanks to follow before she closed the door behind them, and only when a sharp “Oi, who’s there!” rang out from the sitting room did it occur to her that she hadn’t warned her parents she was coming home. 

Crookshanks darted towards the voice, leaving Hermione alone in the entryway.  “It’s me!” she called back, unmoving.  “It’s Hermione!”  Seconds passed, and then Rose Granger’s head popped into the hallway.  She wore no makeup, and her short brown hair was a mess of lazy waves.  Thin lips quirked into a puzzled expression under round cheeks.

“What are you doing here?”  Her eyes flicked up and then back down.  “I love the new hair, impressively daring.” 

“Nice to see you too, Mum,” was the best she could offer in response.  Hermione felt suddenly awkward, having forgotten that she changed her hair colour the night before.  She left her bags where they lay, walking forward as her mother ducked back into the room.  A pleasant tune reached Hermione’s ears, notes from a soothing jazz piece wafting out into the hallway.

“It’s okay, Ian, it’s just your daughter.  We’re not being robbed or invaded by the Irish or anything.”

“Oh good, I was really worried about the Irish, dear.”  As Hermione entered the sitting room, her father offered her a soft smile.  “Welcome home, sweetie.  Can I get you some mulled wine?”

“Oh fuck, yes,” Hermione gasped, slumped down onto the chaise opposite her father’s leather reading chair.  “Please.”

The record didn’t skip on the player, but it may as well have with the way her parents went immediately silent.  Hermione played back what she had just said in her mind and winced at the language she had used.  Oops.

“I take it back.  I have no idea where your daughter is, but clearly it is my daughter who has elected to grace us with her presence this Boxing Day.”  Hermione groaned but looked over to see the bright smile her mum was flashing her.  “What on Earth has gotten into you, dear?”  Meanwhile, her dad rather nonchalantly set his bookmark in place and stood, glancing between mother and daughter before walking out of the room without a word.

“Sorry.”

“Oh no, don’t apologize.  I’m quite proud, in fact.  Every good woman should learn the value of a well-placed swear.”  She closed up her sketch book and came to sit beside Hermione.  “I was beginning to worry that you might not have it in you.  Only in my wildest dreams did I imagine my severe young daughter appearing out of nowhere and tell me to fuck off when I ask her where she came from.”

Hermione knew she was teasing, but she didn’t have the fortitude to resist the bait.  “I absolutely did not tell my mother to ‘fuck off.’  There’s no need for hyperbole,” she scolded.

“There’s the daughter I know and love.” 

Ian Granger reentered the room carefully holding Hermione’s favourite mug, wisps of steam rising from within.  “Here you go.”  She took the mug and blew on it before taking a sip, appreciating the way the warmth immediately spread through her body as she swallowed.  He settled back into his chair across from them, a slight raise of an eyebrow the only indication that he was curious about the unexpected appearance of his daughter.

When Hermione explained her muggle dentist parents to non-muggles at Hogwarts, she doubted that the truth of the Grangers was what any of them could’ve imagined.  Her dad was closer to the stereotype than her mum, for sure—the only thing that might’ve given her away were her perfect teeth.

Primrose Granger née Waller was more artist than medical professional, and she would not hesitate to punch you in the nose if you called her Primrose to her face.  She went to dental school more to prove to her parents that she could, and she hadn’t expected to fall in love while she was there.  She shared the family practice with Hermione’s father, but she only worked a few days a week.  She much preferred to be out on the town or at home with a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

Hermione and Rose had always struggled to understand each other.  Rose was a wild spirit, an extrovert, and a rule-breaker at heart.  Hermione was the opposite, in so many ways—or at least she had been, for most of her life.  She had much more in common with Ian, a quiet, thoughtful man with a kind face.  Hermione found that she and her dad could communicate without words; they had just always had this inexplicable bond and understanding of each other.  Her happiest early memories were of sitting on her dad’s knee, insisting on having a hand on whatever book he was reading to her so she could point to words or pictures and ask questions.

Her parents were such an odd couple, but it worked for them.  As much as her mother drove her up a wall sometimes, Hermione loved them desperately.  And she felt a sharp pang in her chest as she realized that deep down, she yearned for what they had together.

“Is everything alright?”  Her father’s question was simple but insightful.  Hermione felt like she was drowning in her feelings, and she had no idea how to respond.  Nothing was alright, but if she told her parents a quarter of what was wrong, they might toss her in the loony bin.

“No, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” she admitted, always terrible at lying to her father.  “I had a rough night, and I just wanted to come home for a bit.  I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” he reassured her, then cracked a knowing smile.  “The match is coming on soon.  You want to watch with me?”

“Oh Christ, yes, of course let’s waste the day away watching a silly game of football on the telly.  Not like I wanted to hear about all the magic my witch daughter is learning on a daily basis.”  Ian and Hermione gave Rose an identical side-eye, and she sighed in exasperation as she shook her head at them.  “Fine fine, I know how it is.  I’ll just have to occupy myself until Hermione is in a better mood.  Good thing I’m so bloody brilliant, or you two might’ve actually hurt my feelings.”

Hermione laughed a little at that, and it felt nice.  She felt safe.

“So,” she asked her dad, “who’re the Foxes playing today?”

He let out an exasperated sigh of his own, and Hermione remembered that the season was not exactly going well this year.  “Liverpool,” he admitted.  “But they’ve hit a bit of a slump the last few, so I’m trying to stay hopeful.”

“Me too, Dad.”  She smiled.  “Lemme go change into my jersey.”

                                                  

“I really don’t know about this one, Mum.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.  I sat through all the grunge bollocks; you owe me this one.  Now come out of there.”  Hermione sighed.  There was no harm in branching out a little, she supposed.  That’s why she was willing to try it on, after all.

Hermione stepped out of the stall barefoot, padding down the short hallway to where Rose waited impatiently to get a good look at her.  She hadn’t been exactly sure what to do with her t-shirt, eventually just deciding to tuck it into the high waist of the black leather skirt her mum had insisted that she try on.  She didn’t hate the look, but if she was going to keep the skirt, she’d have to try to find some ways to dress it down a bit.

“Gorgeous.  Perfect.  Spectacular,” Rose praised as Hermione came into view.  She made an insistent motion for Hermione to spin around, and she did so.  “Well, I mean not with that ratty tee-shirt, obviously, but still.”  She smirked.  “Very hot.”

“Mum!” Hermione squeaked.

“What?  If you’re going to insist on growing up, I’m going to enjoy myself at your expense while you do so.”

Hermione sighed.  “I suppose I can stomach that, but only if you keep buying me more clothes.”

This little excursion to the mall had been Hermione’s suggestion.  Despite it being the second straight day of cold, dreary rain, she’d insisted.  When she told Rose that she was looking to change up her style, represent her muggle heritage more while in school, the older woman had been too intrigued to say no.  Even if she had complained the entire drive about how gross the weather was.

It had been surprisingly pleasant.  Hermione knew that Rose had been thrown off by her sudden appearance on Boxing Day, and both her parents had been a little baffled the past couple of days at the unexpected changes in her personality.  They had said goodbye to their fifteen-year-old daughter a few months ago, but for Hermione, that was five years in the past.  She wasn’t that girl anymore, and what was incremental personal growth for her must have seemed like a bafflingly sudden and radical shift to them.

And it would seem that the Hermione she’d become over the last few years had more of Rose Waller in her than either of them had expected.  Excepting her fashion choices, of course.  For all of Rose’s complaints about the overalls that Hermione had insisted were cute, shopping had been quite the bonding experience.  It was, in fact, exactly what Hermione had needed after everything with Fleur.

“Tell you what,” Rose conceded.  “Promise me that you’ll find a way to work this into your new style, and I won’t make you take back those hideous studded belts that should’ve stayed dead in the ‘70s where my generation left them.”

The bargain was struck, and they were out of the mall less than an hour later.  But Rose was not done making deals, and when Hermione asked if they were headed home, her face turned thoughtful.  “Well, we could do that.  Or you could indulge me in my motherly eccentricities a bit.”

Hermione pursed her lips.  “Do I want to know?”  The devious grin across her mother’s face suggested that she very much did not want to know.   

“You know I’m not really the sort of person to pry into her daughter’s personal life—”

“Oh, is this some sort of early New Year’s resolution?” Hermione interrupted snarkily.

“My my my, Hermione, I do enjoy this new bolder side of you.”  Hermione looked away, not used to this sort of enthusiasm from Rose.  “But maybe it has me more than a little curious as well.  So, here’s my proposition: I will take you to eat absolutely anywhere you want, sky’s the limit—my treat.  You can get as boozy as you like, get completely pissed if you want to, and all I ask in return is that you open up a little.  I have questions, and I’d like honest answers.”  She caught Hermione’s gaze again, then smirked.  “Or at the very least, interesting ones.”

Hermione was wary.  The idea of getting sloshed was certainly appealing, given how she continued to struggle with the pain and guilt over how things had fallen apart with Fleur.  And she couldn’t deny that a certain amount of unburdening was attractive as well, especially since she and Rose were genuinely bonding.

“Okay.  But there are a few secrets that are mine.  I know you think I can be …”  Hermione had to think to find the right phrasing.  “—Unnecessarily guarded.  Perhaps even painfully introverted.  You always tried to push me out of my comfort zone when I was younger, and maybe you were right to do so.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say that,” Rose teased, and Hermione smiled.

“But some things I’m just not ready to talk about, okay?  And it isn’t me being that shy little girl, I have my reasons.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Rose conceded.  “I just want to know what’s going on in my daughter’s increasingly bizarre life.  So, where to?”

“Somewhere French.”  The words came out on instinct, as if her subconscious was taunting her.  But she didn’t take them back; instead, she leaned in.  “Somewhere dark and gorgeous and with good wine.”

It was hard to tell from Rose’s expression, but Hermione thought just maybe she had impressed her mother with the selection.  “A decisive choice.  So it shall be.”

The conversation was light on the drive over, her mother apparently deciding to save the more probing questions for once she got Hermione a bit liquored up.  So to speak—Hermione was much more interested in red wine than any particular spirits, assuming her palate didn’t change radically between fifteen and twenty.

The interrogation didn’t begin until they had a full spread of cheeses and a glass of wine each, tucked away in a little corner booth in a gorgeous restaurant with a silly name.  Hermione, deciding that she was just a glutton for punishment, had asked if they had any red wines from the Dijon region.

“So, how is school going?”

“Starting nice and vague, are we?”

“Well you insisted on having dinner in a place that demands quality social etiquette, so here we are.”  Hermione rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t keep the grin completely off of her face as she took another sip of her wine, which had a faint but surprising cherry note to it.  Hermione wasn’t a wine expert, but she was used to less fruity wines.

“School is fine.”  Hermione pondered her answer for a moment before deciding to skew as close to the truth as she could.  The prices on the menu were well over what Hermione was used to seeing when she would go out to dinner with her parents, so she knew that Rose was actually worried about her, for all of her snark and nonchalance.  Hermione figured she would put her mind at ease if possible.  “I’m top of my class at everything.  Doing much better in Defense and Potions than the last few years.”

“Defense is the class where you learn about protecting yourself from werewolves and things, yes?”

Hermione chuckled.  “Well, that is one aspect of our study, yes.  Most werewolves are fairly harmless, other than those few days a month.  It’s a condition that is treated with a potion called Wolfsbane, in fact.”

“How fascinating,” Rose said dryly.  “And what do we have to owe for your improvement this year?”

“Experience,” Hermione answered instantly, recalling flashes of the war followed by more pleasant memories of her potions experimentation in her brief post-war life.  She’d retreated to a mostly muggle existence after passing her N.E.W.T.s, but she’d set up a potions lab in her flat, finding the experiments a soothing way to stimulate her still restless mind.  She was loath to admit it, but the so-called Half-Blood Prince was right about potion-making—it was an art as much as a discipline, and not so simple as following precise instructions from a book.  “I’ve had to realize that not everything can be learned from a book,” she conceded, anticipating her mother’s exaggerated reaction.

She wasn’t disappointed.  Rose’s eyes sparked with mirth, a wide, almost gloating smile cutting across her red lips.  “You can say it, you know?”  She paused to watch Hermione expectantly, and Hermione offered a pointed side-eye.  “Fine, I’ll say it for you.  ‘You were right, Mum.’  There, was that so difficult?”

The conversation continued like that through the cheese and a second glass of wine and into the main course.

“Any new friends?”

“Harry and I have been hanging out with Neville, Ginny, and her Ravenclaw friend Luna more this year.”

“That’s the nerd house, right?  The one you thought you would’ve been in even though I told you one day you’d find your inner me?”

“Yes, mother, that one.”

“Your school is making children fight dragons now?!”

Hermione grimaced.  “No.  Only legal adults are allowed into the Tournament, and only the best of the best were selected to represent their school.”  She hadn’t told her mum that Harry was in the Tournament, too, because that was a can of worms she wasn’t prepared to address with her parents.  “Cedric was the only one who got hurt, and the burns were magically healed within a few hours.”

“Christ, what was I thinking, sending you to a medieval castle for schooling.”

“So, when do you start thinking about what comes after?”  Hermione gaped at her, feeling like a kid caught breaking curfew.  Fortunately, Rose completely misunderstood the expression.  “I mean, you’re halfway through.  You graduate in a few years.  Then what?  Is there a magical uni?”

“Ah.”  Hermione giggled.  The wine was affecting her.  She felt loose, and the word ‘after’ just made her think of her time after the war.  That brief sliver of peacefulness.  She’d almost let slip something that could actually make her mum suspicious.  Her gut reaction thought had been, I don’t know if I get an after, in fact.  Not sure how I’d explain that one to Mum, she thought, snickering.

“Oh dear, you are enjoying the wine, aren’t you?”

She smirked.  “You’re the one who offered, Mum.  But yes, this one in particular is quite lovely.”  She’d asked if they had anything other than French wine, trying not to let Rose know why it really mattered to her.  The waitress had brought her a chianti, something she’d never had before, and it was maybe the best thing she’d ever put in her mouth.  Hermione snickered at the thought.  The best thing you can drink out of a glass, anyway.   

“Magical uni,” Hermione hummed, bobbing her head slightly from side to side as she thought.  “Not exactly.  Most Wizarding society doesn’t pursue education beyond passing the O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s.”  Rose made a face like Hermione had suddenly shifted into pig Latin without warning, which didn’t help with Hermione’s sudden fit of giggles.

“Sorry, yes, I know how ridiculous it sounds.  The Ordinary Wizarding Level exams are taken in Fifth Year, and they test to ensure you have a minimum acceptable proficiency in—at the very least—the basics of magical life skills.  Charms, transfiguration, potions, herbology, defence against the Dark Arts, and history.”  Hermione didn’t really feel like getting into the eccentricities of the scoring system.  “You pass your O.W.L.s, and you’re qualified for the majority of career paths available to witches and wizards.”

“So, what’s the point of the last two years, then?  They require two whole years of academic faffing about just because?”  This time Hermione’s laughter filled the booth, and she nearly slipped sideways into the seat. “Yes, I am quite amusing,” Rose muttered to herself before helping Hermione sit up properly again. 

Hermione was chewing on a bit of broccoli, surprisingly flavourful for one of the final bits left on her plate, when Rose asked the first question that felt more like an interrogation than curiosity.  “Are you dating anyone?”  Hermione froze at the question.  She should’ve known it was coming.  It was an obvious question.  But a vision of cold blue eyes and the shimmer of silvery hair walking away from her took her breath away.

“No.”  Her answer was quieter than intended, and Hermione worked to lock down her emotions quickly.  She didn’t want to give anything away, but one glance at her mum told her that it was too late for that.

“But there’s someone, isn’t there?”  Hermione’s silence gave Rose a chance to sip thoughtfully at her wine.  “Is that why you changed your hair and wanted a whole new wardrobe?”

Hermione frowned.  “Of course not.  I’m not some love-struck idiot.  I’m allowed to have my own identity, to grow and change, without it being the result of some foolish crush.”

Rose smirked.  “Foolish, eh?”

After a long, frustrated exhale, Hermione took a lengthy gulp of her wine to give herself time to formulate a strategy.  She was feeling quite pleasantly drunk at this point, and some part of her wanted desperately to pour her heart out to her mum about all her dumb feelings and heartbreak and just how damn beautiful and brilliant and perfect Fleur was.  But that would require coming out to her parents.

Hermione had no idea how that conversation would go.  In her own timeline, they had only just gotten onto the path of repairing their fractured relationships when the world had gone to hell.  Rose and Ian had both been hurt by Hermione’s decision to alter their memories and send them to the other side of the globe without their consent or awareness.  They’d been supportive of the steps she took to try to deal with her PTSD, but mostly from afar—paying for her small London flat and meager living expenses, checking in once a week, that sort of thing.

But they never visited.  Never caught her in a compromising situation with a half-naked girl in her bed the next morning after one of her one-night stands.  A twenty-year-old Hermione had nothing to fear from telling her parents she was a lesbian; it simply hadn’t come up.  It was an entirely different situation for a twenty-year-old Hermione forced back into her fifteen-year-old body in order to try to save the world.  There was a lot at stake, and her parents could make life difficult for her if they didn’t take it well.

She wanted to believe they would be supportive.  In her head, she was almost certain they would be.  But her heart was wary, skittish after opening herself up to Fleur had blown up in her face so spectacularly.

So, she hedged her bets.  “There was a big formal Yule Ball this year.  That’s why my school list included dress robes.  I … we went together, and it was magical.”  She smiled, genuinely, remembering how easy it was to lose herself in Fleur’s touch and the beat of the music out on the dance floor. 

“But?”

Hermione’s eyes snapped back up to Rose.  “How do you know there’s a but?”

“Hermione, you showed up unannounced at our doorstep, I’m guessing the morning after the ball, looking disheveled and dropping f-bombs.  There’s definitely a but.”

She sighed, glancing down at their mostly empty plates before surveying the last few gulps of wine left in her glass.  “Fine, you’re right.  Again.  But …  if we’re going to have this conversation, maybe we should loop Dad in.”

“Ooo,” Rose cooed.  “Finally, things are getting juicy.  We could just tell your father later; you know he won’t mind.”

Hermione didn’t answer, just leveled Rose with a stern expression.  “Oh, alright.  I can be patient, you know.”  She signaled the waitress to bring their bill.  “I just don’t enjoy it.”

Continuing the theme of the night, Hermione was shocked to find herself spending the drive home loudly singing along to terrible 80s music with her mum.  If she had told her younger self—or older self for that matter … past self? Hermione’s fuzzy mind didn’t much care for the intricacies of time travel—that she could have this kind of relationship with Rose one day, she’d have accused herself of being drunk.  Hermione snorted.  Guilty as charged.

Rose shouted out into the home as soon as she had the door open.  “Ian!  Where are you?  Your daughter is delightfully smashed, and she has something important to talk to us about!”  Her tone was a sing-song, and Hermione briefly wondered if she was also drunk.  She waved off the thought—Rose was eccentric, but she would never endanger Hermione’s life.  She was just being herself.

“Rose, if you’re trying to embarrass Hermione again—”  His voice cut off suddenly as he came around from the stairs and saw the condition they were in.  More specifically, the condition Hermione was in.  “Dear, I tolerate a lot, but if you took our daughter out partying…”

Rose hit him with a withering glare, and Hermione burst into laughter again.  Both her parents turned amused gazes on her, and she bent over, resting on her knees until she could breathe again.  “Sorry.  Your faces.”  She took a satisfied breath.  “I missed you guys.”

Ian stepped closer and offered his arm for Hermione to take.  It steadied her, and she let herself be led into the sitting room.  “Dad, have you ever heard of chianti?”

“Why yes, I have, in fact,” he answered softly, that usual subtle hint of humour in his tone giving away his delight at seeing his daughter so much lighter and more carefree that at any point in her visit so far.

“S’good,” she informed him, slurring slightly.  “Almost as good as—”  Her eyes went wide as her mouth snapped shut to prevent any more incriminating words from slipping free.  “Chocolate!  Almost as good as chocolate.” 

Rose chuckled, and Hermione winced.  But her dad let it go, helping her into his reading chair so that he and Rose could sit across from her on the sofa.  Hermione felt a sinking feeling low in her gut, but the reasons for it were hazy.  Hermione felt warm and safe, and she could see the love in her parents’ eyes.  Surely, everything would be okay.

Right?

“Okay, fine, stop staring!  I’ll tell you.”  Her eyes widened, feeling awkward as she shrunk into herself just a little.  Rose and Ian just watched her, clearly amused at her antics.  Feeling increasingly on the spot by the second, Hermione finally just blurted it out.  “I’m a lesbian!”

Hermione couldn’t meet their eyes, but she couldn’t look away either.  She needed to know how they would react.  Ian’s eyes widened a little, a sure sign that the news was surprising to him, but the soft smile across his lips didn’t so much as flinch when she said it.  Rose, meanwhile, was grinning like an idiot, like her cheeks were struggling to keep her smile from floating completely off of her face. 

“I knew it,” Rose beamed, her voice quiet but distinctly triumphant.

Hermione’s response was more of an indignant squawk than a coherent statement.  “What do you mean, you knew it?!”  Rose scoffed, then pointed at Hermione’s waist, where she had tied her flannel shirt after she got a little warm from all the wine.   “Oh come on,” Hermione protested.

“We spent the entire afternoon shopping, and you got nothing but overalls, baggy flannel shirts, baggy utility pants, and tennies.  Oh and that leather jacket from the men’s section.”  Rose continued to maintain that insufferable know-it-all look, and Hermione forced herself not to think about how many times her own face had probably made the exact same expression.

“Grunge is in right now, that doesn’t prove anything.”

“What, you’re denying it now?” Rose teased.

Hermione pouted.  “No, but I think you’re full of shit.”

“Language,” Ian scolded.

“Sorry Dad.  It’s Mum’s fault!” she exclaimed, and he looked unimpressed.  She wilted.  “Blame the wine?”  She grimaced, then glanced back at Rose.  “You really thought I was gay?  Before I told you?”

“Hermione, whether you realize it or not, I do actually pay attention to you.  Enough to notice how different you’ve been the past few days.”  Hermione opened her mouth, but Rose lifted a single, silencing finger.  “And it isn’t just the morose sulking or the impressively filthy mouth.  You’re looser, more comfortable.  More confident in yourself in all these subtle little ways.  You seem like you know who are.”  She shrugged.  “But I wasn’t sure until you went out of your way not to use pronouns when discussing your date to the ball.”

Hermione was dumbfounded.  Then her father made it even worse.

“Plus you paid quite a lot of attention to that female tour guide in Dijon last summer,” he quipped, amusement clear in his voice.  She gaped at him.  “What?  You caught me off guard with this, true, but a few things make a lot more sense now.”

‘Yeah, well, I guess I have a thing for French women.”

“Your Yule Ball date was French?” Rose asked.  Hermione felt an invisible hand squeeze painfully at her heart.

“Maybe.”  Hermione blew out a frustrated breath.  “This is very anticlimactic.  You’re not bothered that your only daughter is a big fat lesbo?”

Rose’s eyes glittered.  “Would you like us to be bothered?”

Ian chuckled.  “You know, Hermione, I’ve always wondered if your mother might have a few, erm, sapphic tendencies herself.”

“You literally walked in on me making out with my roommate our first year of dental school,” Rose scoffed.  Hermione felt like her head might explode. 

What?!?”

“Hermione Jean Granger, you are a bloody witch, for Christ’s sake.  Is it really that difficult to believe that your mum had a love life before she fell for your dad?”

Hermione made a face.  “Yes!  … I mean, no.  But why didn’t you tell me?”

A glance over at Ian told her he was perfectly content to sit back and enjoy the show.  Hermione, on the other hand, felt like someone had shoved her into freezing cold water blindfolded.  She thought she was going to be the one shocking her parents, not the other way around.

“When was it supposed to come up, darling?  You spend most of the year away at that medieval castle, and until this trip, you’ve never really opened up to me.  If I’d known we could’ve been bonding over ogling pretty girls this entire time, believe me, I would’ve given it a shot.”

“Hermione.”  Ian’s voice was firm and warm and felt like a life raft.  “How long have you known this about yourself?”

She clammed up at that.  Almost a year, at this point.  It hadn’t occurred to her that they might want to know about her journey, how she figured herself out.  She wasn’t prepared with a fake story, and she was far too tipsy to think well on her feet.  But she couldn’t very well just sit there staring at her dad like an idiot either.

“A few months ago?”

“Around the time the French school arrived at Hogwarts?” Rose asked.

“Maybe.”  That wasn’t a half-bad explanation, honestly.

“What’s her name?” Ian asked, gently.

Hermione blushed.  “Fleur.”

“That’s a pretty name.”  Ian smiled.  “You always did like flowers.”

“Did my husband just make a pun?” All three of them cracked up a little at that, and Hermione felt a little easier, even with the way her chest tightened up at the thought of Fleur.

“And you went with this Fleur to some sort of dance?”

“Oh yes, dear,” Rose answered before Hermione could.  “She started to tell me about it, then insisted we come home and loop you in.  There’s some big multi-school magical tournament Hogwarts is hosting this year, and students from a French school and an eastern European school are visiting.  Each school has a champion—who Hermione assures me is legally an adult, as if that matters—and they compete in dangerous magical tasks.”

Ian’s expression turned worried, and Hermione rushed to reassure him.  “Not that dangerous.  Nothing the champions can’t handle.  They’re all brilliant, skilled, and well-prepared.  Fleur in particular was quite stunning in the way she handled her dragon.”

“Wait, you’re dating the French champion?” Rose practically yelled.  Hermione winced.

“Well, we’re definitely not dating.”

“But you want to be?” Ian inquired. 

“Merlin, yes,” Hermione admitted.  “But I fucked it up royally.”

“Ian, let it go,” Rose chided before he could scold her, placing a hand on his knee.  “Let our big fat lesbo daughter express herself in this moment of passion.”

“Ha ha ha,” Hermione grumped.

“Well then, what happened?”  Hermione almost smiled at how invested her dad suddenly was in her love life.  He’d always been her biggest supporter, and apparently that was true even in this.

“There was this … spark between us from the very beginning.  I gave her a tour of the castle, we got to know each other, there was a little flirting here and there.  We started hanging out, and then she asked me to dinner on one of our weekends.”

“My little girl on a date with a hot Frenchwoman, ooo la la.”

Hermione glared daggers at Rose, who put her hands up in the air as if telling her not to shoot.  Hermione scrunched up her nose, but decided to keep moving.  “It went really well, but I kinda had a melt down at the end of it.  I wasn’t ready…”  She drifted off, unsure how to explain any more of the story without raising questions she refused to answer.  Maybe it was better to let them think it was uncertainty about her sexuality.

Which is exactly what they assumed.  “But you came to your senses and asked her to the big dance?”

“She asked me, actually.”  Her dad smiled at that, and she almost preened at the pride in his gaze.  “I apologized quickly, and we decided to be friends.  B-but then they announced the Yule Ball, and the champions all had to have a dance partner, a-and she just … she said there was no one she’d rather go with, even just as friends.  So I said yes.”

“Well then, how was the ball?”  Rose was just as entranced by the story, and Hermione wondered if this was how kids felt when their parents applauded and cheered their performance at a school play.  She could get used to it.

“It was magical.”  Rose chortled at that.  “Not a pun,” Hermione insisted.  “It was one of the best nights of my life.  Dancing with Fleur was just …”  She couldn’t help the massive smile that overtook her face.  “I don’t have words.  She’s … no one’s perfect, but honestly, she’s close.  Perfect in her own way.  And the connection between us is just … I’ve never felt this way before.”

“Oh Ian, our daughter’s falling in love for the first time.”  Rose planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek, patting his arm in excitement.  Hermione’s cheeks felt hot.

“Now, Rose, no need to embarrass the girl.” 

“Sorry dear, I just got excited.”

Hermione didn’t interrupt because her mind had already skipped ahead to the end of the night, when everything went to shit.  When Ian looked back, he could clearly see the pain written all across her face.  As she realized she had slumped back into the couch, she figured that was probably a dead giveaway, too.

“So, how did you go from the most magical evening to running back home in the span of a few hours?”

“I … lied about some stuff.  Some really important stuff that I don’t want to talk about.  But when she kissed me… I couldn’t keep lying.  I wanted to be with her, and I didn’t want it to be based on lies.”  Tears spilled down onto her cheeks.  “She didn’t take it well.  She assumed I made up my feelings, I think, that I was just manipulating her.  She told me to leave her alone.”  A sob escaped her chest, and before she knew it she was wrapped up in the warmth of both her parents.  They hugged her tightly, and a hand rubbed her back soothingly.  She didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but they didn’t let her go until her tears began to dry.

Rose and Ian were knelt in front of her, each grasping one of her hands.  Rose was the first to speak.  “Hermione, you’ll work this out.  You are brave, brilliant, and resourceful, and this is just a bit of a misunderstanding.  If you love this girl—or if you think maybe you’re falling in love with her,” she corrected, offering a knowing half-smile.  “I know how hard that admission can be, especially the first time.  But what I’m saying is… you just don’t give up, okay?  Apologize and then do whatever it takes to make her understand that your feelings are real and that you regret lying to her.  Then bring her home to meet your cool mum this summer, yeah?”

Hermione couldn’t help but laugh a little at that.  Ian squeezed her hand.  “Your mum’s right.  It really is that simple.  I know it feels like the end of the world right now—” Hermione choked back a bitter laugh at his phrasing, fully aware of the irony.  “—but all you can do is be honest with her.  Put your best foot forward, and just hope that she’s brave enough not to ignore this connection between the two of you.”

She felt like she was going to cry again, but happy tears this time.  Hermione squeezed both of their hands.  “Thank you.  Coming home was maybe the best idea I’ve ever had.”

“We’re always here for you, Hermit.”  She grinned at her childhood nickname, feeling reassured by it rather than annoyed.  “Thank you for letting us in.”

                                                  

By the time January 2 came around, Hermione was almost feeling completely herself again.  Her new clothes were already packed away, her bags ready for the train ride back.  She wished that she didn’t have to play the part of underage witch—it would’ve been much easier to simply apparate to King’s Cross than have her parents drive her.  But even though whatever magic powering the Trace seemed to recognize her actual age rather than her physical one, her parents had not a clue, and Hermione wasn’t looking to read them in any time soon.

And honestly, she didn’t mind one final morning tea with them before they headed out.  “You know,” she suggested, drawing the attention of both Rose and Ian, “I was thinking I might get an owl.”

“Grown tired of poor Crookshanks already?” Rose teased.

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “No, he’s perfect.  But he can’t deliver mail, and I’d like to stay in touch more often than we have been the last few years.  I can send you letters via school owl, but there are only so many available for students, and they aren’t really meant for regular correspondence.”

Ian practically beamed at her.  “Well, I think that’s a lovely idea.  You know how much I miss you during the school year.”

She nodded, feeling the guilt bloom in her chest.  “I’m sorry that I got so caught up in all of my school stuff.  I haven’t exactly been the best daughter of late.”

“Rubbish,” Rose scolded.  “You were a twelve-year-old who just found out that magic exists; you’ve got nothing to apologize for.  It’s lovely to see you maturing like this, love, and we’ll be glad to help facilitate increased communication, but we were aware of what we were signing up for when we said you could go.”

“Okay,” she conceded.  “I doubt they sell owls anywhere in Hogsmeade, but I’ll check.  Otherwise, I’ll just write to the Weasleys—I’m sure Mr. Weasley would love to escort one or both of you to Diagon Alley to purchase an owl.”  Her face scrunched up into thought.  “I’ll just leave a few galleons behind for you to use, just in case.”

“That’s the funky magic coin money, yeah?”

“Yup!”

“Joy,” Rose deadpanned before sipping at her tea.  Hermione spared a thought for her Cassandra, the short-eared owl she had purchased after the war.  She’d needed a way to stay in touch with Harry and Ginny, even though correspondence had been minimal once they reached their mysterious vacation spot.  She wasn’t even sure if Cass had hatched yet, so she wasn’t an option, but the two had struck up a mutual affection.  She’d been one of the quietest, calmest owls Hermione had ever met, and she served her well on those few long trips to pass letters to her distant friends.

One more piece of her old life that she could never get back.

“Alright, Hermit, have you got a good game plan in mind for winning back that girl of yours?”  Her father’s gentle tenor pulled her out of her sad memories.  She offered him a small smile.

“No game plan.  Because this isn’t a game.  I’m simply going to march right up to her and demand an audience.  Then tell her the truth.  She has a temper, so the hardest part will be getting her not to run off before I finish again.”

“A fiery Frenchwoman.  I like this girl more and more.  If you tell me she’s a blonde on top of it all, I’ll be really impressed.”

“She is, in fact,” Hermione beamed, ignoring the snarky voice in her mind that scolded her for  actually caring about her mother’s approval.  “More of a silvery blonde though.”  She hadn’t told them that Fleur was part veela.  That was a topic for another day, if there ended up even being any need for it at all.

“That’s my daughter, folks.  The lady killer.  I raised her right.”  Rose preened as if for an audience, and Hermione tossed a scone at her face.

“Hermione, don’t throw food at your mother, even if she deserves it.”

As her parents descended into the kind of flirtatious, teasing bickering that used to make Hermione uncomfortable, she thought about how lovely she found it to be now.  It reminded her of conversations with Fleur, in fact, and yet again, Hermione appreciated that she had been able to take these few days to have a break from everything.

Hermione felt refocused and reenergized, not just for her pursuit of Fleur’s heart—Merlin, I’m such a sap—but also for her broader mission.  She wasn’t quite sure yet how she was going to balance and prioritize everything, but she knew she didn’t want to do it alone.  For all his flaws, Dumbledore had always been right about one thing: love was their strength, and it was the thing that set them apart from Voldemort and his followers.

And here, having one last holiday breakfast with her parents, Hermione could definitely feel the love.

Chapter Text

Harry had been happy when Hermione and Fleur had disappeared from the Yule Ball.  He’d more than enjoyed Ginny’s ebullient speculation about where they had gone off to snog, and whether this was Hermione’s first snog, and if they would be dating after tonight.  Harry knew it was a good deal more complicated than all that, even if he couldn’t tell Ginny.

He hoped that Hermione had finally gotten out of her own way and told Fleur the truth.  Hermione was his best friend, and while it’d taken him a while to get used to the new Hermione, he felt like he could read her pretty well by now.  And it was obvious how much she wanted to tell Fleur everything.  It was almost funny how she went out of her way to keep from realizing just how much she adored the French witch.  Hermione already trusted Fleur enough to tell her everything, but getting Hermione to realize that wasn’t an easy thing.

So, maybe they just went off and found a dark corner to snog.  That was something people their age did, right?  But that was something people Harry’s age were starting to do also, he thought.  He wasn’t sure, because he mostly hung out with Neville and Ron, who weren’t exactly social butterflies, and Ginny and Luna, who were both a year younger.

But maybe Hermione had told Fleur everything.

Either way, as Ginny came down without Hermione, Harry couldn’t help but get a sinking feeling in his stomach.  Where could she be?

“Do you think our dear nerdy Hermione spent the night in the Beauxbatons carriage?” Ginny gushed, her voice hushed but clearly excited. 

Ron’s face immediately turned purple, as was becoming his habit anytime the topic of Fleur and Hermione came up.  Harry couldn’t exactly comment—it was certainly within the realm of possibility, based on the few scraps of information Hermione had shared about her post-Hogwarts life in her original timeline.  But he didn’t know Fleur well enough to predict how she would’ve handled Hermione’s story, if she chose to share it.  Anyways, the thought of Fleur and Hermione snogging made him uncomfortable, because he felt like he probably wasn’t supposed to be as interested in knowing more about it as he was.

“Ugh, you two are no fun.”  Ginny looped an arm through each of theirs and pulled them forward.  “Come on, then, bet she’s already having breakfast with the Beauxbatons.  I absolutely must know everything!”

Unfortunately, Hermione wasn’t downstairs with the Beauxbatons, and neither was Fleur.  Neither of them turned up for breakfast.  It wasn’t until they arrived back at the common room after breakfast that they finally got some answers.  Ron practically jumped a foot in the air when Dobby apparated in between him and Harry, but the determined elf hardly even noticed.  His eyes were only for Harry.

“Harry Potter!  I have a message from Hermione.”  A neatly folded note was held protectively in his tiny hands, and Harry was quick to take it.

Harry,

So sorry to disappear like this.  I told Fleur everything.  It didn’t go well.  I’m spending the rest of the holiday with my parents.  We’ll talk when I get back.

-H

“She went home for the rest of break,” Harry muttered, mind processing the new information.

What?!” Ginny shouted, reaching for the note.  But the second she touched it, the note disappeared, and momentum slid Ginny’s fingers along the edge of Harry’s hand.  It sent a sharp tingle up his arm, to match with the resurgent butterflies in his stomach.  Ginny’s shock at the disappeared note shifted momentarily to a hesitant grin before Harry pulled away, blushing.

“Only Harry was to read the note!” Dobby squeaked.  He looked up at Harry, and his huge green eyes almost looked sad.  Sadder than usual, anyway.  “I am worried about my friend.”

“Hermione?” Harry asked.

Dobby nodded.  “She seemed very sad.  Very quiet.”  Harry sighed, and Dobby took his hand and held it for just a moment.  It occurred to Harry that Dobby's behaviour had become decidedly less submissive each time he interacted with the elf.  He wasn't sure what to think of that, but he appreciated the surprisingly sweet moment of comfort.

“Thank you, Dobby.”  The elf nodded, and then he was gone.

“Guess things didn’t go so well with the French bird after all,” Ron said, more than a little smugly.  Ginny immediately smacked him on the arm.

“Harry, what did it say?”

“No, Ron’s right.  Hermione and Fleur had an argument.  Hermione wanted to take a few days away, so she went home for the break.”

“What, without saying anything?”  Ginny sounded a bit hurt, and honestly, Harry felt the same.  The difference was, Ginny just figured it was a silly fight, and Harry knew it was probably something so much more. 

Harry didn’t meet Ginny’s gaze.  They’d had such a great time at the Yule Ball, but the night had also left him feeling more than a little confused and unsure of himself.  He’d hoped to have a chance to talk to Hermione about it, but now he supposed he would have to wait a few days.  The problem was that he wasn’t exactly sure how to behave around Ginny in the meantime.  “I’m gonna go talk to Fleur.”

“We’ll come with!”

“No.  I don’t want to gang up on her.”  Harry looked pointedly at Ginny, then cut his eyes at Ron, who continued to look like he wished he could pretend he didn’t know anything about Hermione and Fleur.  When Ginny nodded hesitantly, he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Okay.  Well, I guess I’ll go see what Luna has gotten herself up to.”  They both looked to Ron inquisitively.

“Oh, remembered I’m still here, have you?”  They both watched him, neither wanting to indulge him when he got whiny like this.  So, he just shrugged.  “I’ll go see what Dean’s up to.”

Harry headed back to the dorm to grab his heavy cloak before heading down through the castle and out the front doors of the entrance hall.  He hardly noticed anything around him, focus firmly on the swirling thoughts in his head.  What had Hermione told Fleur?  How bad must her reaction have been for Hermione to run away like this?  What was going to happen?  Should he be worried about his own safety?

A shiver of icy wind pulled him from the thoughts.  He didn’t know how long he had been standing at the stairs leading up to the carriage door.  One of the Beauxbatons students let him in, one of the girls, but only after he had made up a story about needing to discuss the Tournament with Fleur.  He was fully aware of the eyes upon him as they moved through the magically enlarged carriage.

It wasn’t a new experience, and Harry had gotten used to ignoring the way people’s eyes always caught on him in public, widening slightly before lingering on the scar now covered by his fringe to avoid precisely this situation.  But this was different.  Harry felt distinctly in enemy territory all the way down to the long hallway to the last of a series of identical doors.  The girl knocked tersely.  “Fleur, the boy from Hogwarts is here to see you!”

The way she practically sneered the word ‘boy’ felt like someone had kicked Harry in the chest, and he didn’t really understand why.  He told himself it was just the contempt in the girl’s voice and had nothing to do with the word itself.

The girl stalked away as Fleur opened the door, without a word to either of them.  Harry hardly even noticed, though, because he couldn’t look away from the scrutinizing glare of Fleur’s icy blue eyes.  Fleur stood against the door frame, blocking him from entering the room.

“Did you know?”  The words were harsh and biting, accusatory in the worst way.

Harry didn’t feel like he had done anything wrong, but even so, he felt the urge to shrink away and confess to a crime.  That was the power of Fleur Delacour’s voice.  He stared pointedly down at his feet as he answered with a soft, “Yes.”

“I see.”  He could feel her eyes burning into him.  “And what are you doing here?”

It was a good question.  Coming to see Fleur had seemed like the obvious choice only minutes ago, but now Harry felt like it was the exact wrong thing to do.  Nevertheless, he fought the urge to run away.

“Hermione went home, er, to London.  To see her parents.  Without telling anyone she was going.  …  The last time I saw her she was with you, and she left a note saying she told you everything, and so I just …”  He shrugged, risking a glance up at Fleur, but her expression was unreadable.

“I fail to see why that required you to visit me.”

“I don’t understand.”  Harry felt suddenly brave, sure that this was all a misunderstanding, and since Hermione wasn’t here to sort it out, Harry would have to handle it.  “I know it’s a lot, and it’s scary, but I heard about how you faced down that dragon.  You’re brave and strong an-and you can help us, I know you can.”  Fleur’s eyes had turned cold again, but Harry didn’t see how anything he’d said could’ve set her off.

“You think me a coward, then?”

“No, of course not.”  The question was almost ridiculous, and Harry didn’t know why Fleur was being so cold.  She’d always been nice to him before this, and she seemed almost angry now.  But he couldn’t imagine why she would be angry.  “I’m literally saying the opposite, Fleur—I just called you brave.  But I don’t understand what could’ve happened that would make Hermione so upset she just leaves like this, and I don’t know why you’re acting like this right now either.”

“I understand what is at stake, ‘Arry.  I understand what sort of pressure ‘Ermione is under.  But that is no excuse for her to use me like this.  Maybe you were not involved.  Maybe you didn’t know ‘ow she was using ‘er knowledge of my future to try and trick me to fall for ‘er, so that I’d be ‘er ally in this whole scheme—”

“Wait, that’s what you think?”  He blinked rapidly, incredulous at the wild conclusion to which Fleur had jumped.

Her eyes narrowed, but her body language loosened noticeably.  “What else am I supposed to think?”

“Look.”  Harry leaned back against the wall, suddenly feeling awkward.  “I don’t know exactly what she told you or what she did or didn’t know about your future.  She won’t tell me much about mine, as much as I ask her.  B-but I know she didn’t, like … trick you or anything.”  He ran a hand through his hair.  “Hermione wouldn’t do that.  Especially not to you.  If she’s secretive… it’s because she puts all this pressure on herself.” 

Harry shook his head.  Maybe he was more worried about Hermione than he had realized. “She’s scared to put people at risk, scared of the great big terrible thing she’s trying to prevent.  To the point where she doesn’t think she can let herself be happy.”

“’Arry, you’re just a—” He thought the next word out of her mouth was going to be ‘boy,’ and he couldn’t handle it.  So he interrupted her. 

“Don’t!  I get that I’m … just a kid.”  He closed his eyes, which felt suddenly hot.  “I’m just a dumb kid who is only now having a crush for the first time in my life.  Maybe there’s some stuff that goes over my head with you and Hermione.  But I know how she is when she is with you, when she talks about you.  She’s my best friend, and I can see it.  She’s never giddier than when she’s talking about you.  Like in those moments, the weight is a little less.  Don’t tell me that’s not real.”

Fleur blew out a frustrated breath and lifted her hand to rub at her temples.  “I don’t know what to believe.  I know you want to believe in your friend.  You see the best in ‘er.  I … girls ‘ave ‘urt me before.”  Harry’s eyes went wide at this admission, not having expected this sort of vulnerability.  As they locked eyes, he realized that maybe she hadn’t meant to show it either, and her posture straightened, eyes going cold again.

“I’ll think about what you’ve said.  Can you find your way out?”

Harry didn’t know if he could or not, but he got the distinct sense that he didn’t want to test Fleur’s patience any further than he already had.  He simply nodded, then turned and hurried down the hall.

                                                  

This feels stupid.

I don’t know what to say.

But you aren’t here for me to talk to, so I guess this is the next best thing.

Harry looked up from the page.  Hermione had given him a journal for Christmas, along with a couple of really nice muggle pens.  It was a simple gift, but a thoughtful one.  Harry still wasn’t sure how to feel about it.  Hermione had put a number of helpful charms on it.  It would appear blank to anyone attempting to read it without his permission.  With the right incantation, it would record his voice, writing down what he thought aloud.  It also had a search function, whereby Harry could write a question, tap it three times with his wand, and the journal would produce an answer.  The functionality was somewhat limited, but it was kind of cool, he guessed.

Where is Hermione Granger?

Harry tapped the question three times, but the letters simply vibrated for a moment to indicate the journal couldn’t answer.  He sighed.  Oh well.  He felt awkward.  He’d never had a diary before, and he wasn’t really sure what he would want to write.  He remembered that you were supposed to date entries, maybe, so he put a small ‘26/12/94’ in the top corner of the page.

I understand why you left.  Fleur assumed the worst.  Did she even give you a chance to explain?  That must have hurt.

But it hurts that you ran off without saying anything either.  I have so many questions.  I wanted to talk to you about Ginny.  I don’t know what to do, what to feel.  I feel things, but what does that mean?  How did you know how much you liked Fleur and that it was that kind of feeling?

She’s so pretty, and she’s cool, and things are never dull when I’m with her. 

I feel weird though.  Like … she’s so pretty and I’m just bluh.  Her hair is so long and straight and it looks so cute in a ponytail, and I just have this gross shaggy whatever and I can never figure out how to make it look good.  How could she like me like that?

She can’t.

Is that what a journal is for?  So I can write mean things about myself?  You would tell me not to think that way.  That clearly she likes something about me or she wouldn’t have asked me to the ball.  But I don’t get it.  I don’t get how anyone could like me like that. 

Maybe I should talk to Sirius about it.  It’s embarrassing.  And he’s all worried about my scar hurting and the tournament and stuff.  I’m sure he never had trouble with girls when he was in school.

Harry closed the journal and dropped the pen.  This wasn’t helping anything.  If anything he just felt more confused.

                                                  

27/12/94

Things are still weird with Ginny.  I feel so aware of myself when I’m around her.  She smiled at me at breakfast and I felt like I couldn’t move, like I was just frozen there looking at her like an idiot.  Which is so stupid, because she smiles at me all the time.

Sometimes, it’s like we’re friends and I’m fine.  Normal.  Not hyper aware of everything that my stupid body is doing.  Like when I’m around Hermione or Luna.  But other times, it’s like my whole body just freaks out.  I get all sweaty, I can’t think of the right thing, I keep getting stuck just like thinking about how her hand looks or something

Stupid.

I think maybe she wanted to kiss me after the ball.  There was that moment right before Ron came into the common room.  I don’t know what it would’ve been like.  How do people just know how to kiss?  Do you just like press your lips together and it magically feels good and you just know what to do then?

I know Hermione would tell me to just talk to her.  To be honest.  But I don’t know what to be honest about.  I don’t know how I feel or how she feels and I know I’m just gonna end up looking like a complete moron babbling about not knowing anything.

It’d be so much easier if I could just always act normal, like when it’s us and Luna and Hermione.  Sometimes it even feels flirty, even when other people are around.  But like … friend flirty?  Is that a thing?  Is there a difference?

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong.  Sometimes I can just be myself around her.  And Luna and Hermione.  In ways I can’t be around anyone else.  Not even Ron.

Especially not Ron.

But other times, it’s like I’m a different person around Ginny.  I feel like I should be super annoyed at myself for being all flustered or whatever, but I actually kind of like it.

I’m such a weirdo.  I wish I understood.  It all feels so confusing.

Guess that’s a running theme in this journal.

                                                  

They were halfway through the winter break, and Hermione’s absence continued to hang over them.  Harry, Ginny, and Luna were hanging out in Hermione’s back corner of the library.  None of them were studying, but it was easier for the three of them to spend time together there without people bugging them in the Ravenclaw or Gryffindor common rooms.  Ginny and Luna were sprawled out on the sofa against the wall, while Harry sat cross-legged in the chair at the table.

“Have you tried setting the egg on fire?”

Ginny and Luna were trading theories on how to make sense of the ear-splitting yowling that came out whenever Harry opened the golden egg.  Harry thought Ginny was joking, but Luna nodded thoughtfully.  “That’s a good idea.  Baby dragons don’t develop inside the egg unless kept over a steady fire for at least five hours a day.”

Harry smiled over at Luna, because for once, he was absolutely sure she was right about a magical creature.  After all, they’d seen it happen in first year, when Hagrid had gotten Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback to hatch by keeping his egg in a constantly roaring fireplace.

“That’s not a bad idea.  And no, I haven’t tried it yet.  We could do it now—where’s the nearest fireplace?”  Hermione had promised to give him the secret to the egg, but they hadn’t discussed it just yet.  And she had run off anyways.  No harm in exploring the question himself, especially if he could have fun with his friends while doing so.

“Let’s not run off just yet,” Luna sighed contentedly, leaning back to rest her head on Ginny’s lap, her legs propped up on the arm of the sofa they shared.  “I’m comfy.”

Ginny grinned at Harry, her eyes curling up and to the side as if to silently say, ‘oh Luna.’  Harry returned the grin, ignoring how unsettled his stomach felt. The touching between the two was something his mind wouldn’t stop focusing on the last couple of days.  His emotions felt heavy and confusing, and the easy affection between Ginny and Luna made him feel … something.

Ginny and Luna had always been affectionate with each other, since they were very young.  More touchy feely than most friends, at least as far as Harry could tell.  Certainly more cuddly than Harry had ever felt comfortable being with Hermione or Ron.  They’d been friends almost their entire lives.  The Lovegoods lived fairly close to the Burrow.  Luna was an only child, and Ginny was the only girl.  And they were the same age.  Harry didn’t really know what was normal for two girls who had grown up together like that, and he knew he shouldn’t be so curious about it.  That’s just how they were.  When Ginny and Luna hung out, they were always holding hands, or one would have an arm around the other, or they’d just lean against each other when they sat.  But now that Harry was starting to see Ginny in a different light, he really wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

How he should be interpreting it.  He didn’t know if he was jealous or if he just wanted to join in.  Or both.  Or something else entirely.

Luna lifted Ginny’s arm in the air above her head, her head cocked slightly as if studying Ginny’s forearm thoroughly.  “Ginevra, I think your arm is getting longer.”  She prodded Ginny’s elbow then traced her finger slowly up her arm to her wrist.  Ginny wiggled at the touch, and Harry wondered if it felt nice.

Ginny giggled as she pulled her arm out of the other girl’s grasp.  “Luna, of course it is.  I’m only thirteen.  I’m still growing.”

Luna hummed.  “Maybe.  Harry what do you think?  Will Ginny be tall like the twins or tall like Bill?”

He chuckled, still feeling slightly uneasy, but wanting so desperately to be included.  “Are those the only two options then?”

“I’m the only girl in the family, Lune, probably I’ll end up more like Mum than any of the boys.”

Luna made a face.  “I suppose you might be the only girl, yes, but I don’t think you’ll look like Molly.  You spend too much time up in the air, and that changes the way the body processes radiation.”

Ginny grinned wryly.  “Oh of course, why didn’t I think of that?”

Luna poked Ginny right on the nose.  “Because you spend too much time ogling Harry, of course.”  Ginny turned scarlet, wide eyes flitting to Harry, but as her gaze shifted uneasily back to Luna, embarrassment shifted to mischief.  Luna shrieked as Ginny’s fingers went to work on her sides, tickling relentlessly.  “Ahhhh, G-Ginny n-noooo.”  She giggled and giggled, doubling over and frantically wiggling to try and get out of Ginny’s grasp.  “Ah!  Ginny!”

They were so cute together, and Harry felt suddenly like he was some kind of peeping tom, watching something that wasn’t for him to watch.  He felt distinctly like a third wheel, and his heart was pounding in his chest.  He had thought something was happening between him and Ginny, but it looked more like Ginny’s place was here with Luna, whether she realized it yet or not.  Maybe he’d been wrong about all of it.

Harry’s feet moved of their own accord.

“Wait wait wait, stop.”

“Harry, where are you going?”

Harry knew it was stupid.  It was a huge overreaction.  But being there felt wrong, and he just had to leave.  He made it almost all the way down the third-floor corridor before soft steps came running up behind him.

“Harry, please wait.”

Harry nearly tripped, he stopped so fast.  It wasn’t Ginny’s voice.  Harry turned, and it was Luna facing him, her breathing slightly more rapid than usual.

“You didn’t have to run away.”  She looked at him so matter-of-factly, like he hadn’t just been super awkward for probably no reason.  Then she smiled as if he wasn’t continuing to stand there like the most awkward person in the world.  “Can I hug you?”

“What?”

“I think you’ll feel better.”

As was usually the case with Luna, her request felt utterly ridiculous and yet Harry knew she was probably right.  And as he stood there, gaping at Luna, he couldn’t think of a single reason why not.  So, he opened his arms.

Luna’s grip was surprisingly strong—not painful, but firm.  Reassuring.  They were about the same height, but Luna was wearing these platform shoes that left Harry’s head right at her collarbone.  She smelled strangely nice, like evergreen trees and pumpkins, and Harry’s mind felt clear for a moment.

As they pulled apart, Harry found that he was breathing easier, and Luna fixed him with an indecipherable expression.  “It’s important to think positive thoughts.  I think you’ve got a pretty bad wrackspurt infestation.”

“Oh, is that why I feel so weird?”

“Probably,” she giggled.  “They are known to make your brain all fuzzy.  Can I tell you something?”  He nodded, and she led him over to a nearby bench.  There was no one around.  “You don’t have to sit all awkward off by yourself, you know?”

He blushed.  “What—”

“Are we friends, Harry Potter?”  Luna’s face was impassive but curious, as if Harry’s answer couldn’t faze her either way.  For as much as they’ve grown closer the past couple of months, Luna was still mostly a mystery to him.  But yes, she was probably also a friend.

“Yes.”

“Well then, it’s lovely if you want to join in on our cuddle fest.  It’s fun!  Cuddle friends are the best sort of friends.”

Harry’s face felt hot, and he didn’t know what to say.  He suddenly understood what it meant to feel like a deer in the headlights.  It was like Luna could see right through him to the parts of himself he kept buried so deep that even he wasn’t allowed to think about them.  And it almost sounded like she was saying that it was perfectly fine for him to feel that way.

“I’m not supposed to.”

Her expression turned confused.  “Hmm why’s that?” 

Harry’s brain blanked.  The answer felt obvious, but nothing came to mind.  He just stood there and gaped at her.  

“Do you think it’s bad that Ginny and I are close like that?”

He shook his head.  “No, it’s brilliant.  I mean … I don’t know, it makes me feel kinda funny, but I don’t really know why.”  Harry couldn’t really say why he was getting this honest with Luna.  Maybe it was because so few people took her seriously, or maybe it was just that Luna was the most relaxed person Harry had ever met.  But whatever it was in his brain that usually screamed at him to shut up—to hide, to run away—was silent under the appraisal of Luna’s reassuring doe eyes.

“If it’s brilliant for us, then why aren’t you supposed to?”  The question didn’t sound rhetorical, and Harry didn’t feel like Luna was pitying him or anything.  She just sounded curious, as odd as that sounded.

Harry thought about it, and Luna seemed perfectly content to wait.  Eventually, it came down to one thing, and Harry didn’t even know if that was really it, but it was the only answer he had.  “Because you’re both girls, I guess.”

“You’re being silly.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me.”  Luna smiled a bright, genuine smile, and he just blinked rapidly, lost as ever.  So, of course, she changed the subject.

“I never really understood why they call you the Boy Who Lived”

“I’m not following.”  If Harry didn’t know any better, he would’ve thought Luna almost looked coy.  But surely Luna Lovegood didn’t do coy.

“You just never really seemed like a boy to me.”  Harry felt his heart turn to ice as his insides froze over.  “You’ve got a distinctly feminine aura to you.”

Luna said it so effortlessly, as if she had said the grass was green.  But Harry felt like the ground had opened up beneath him, and he was falling into a deep abyss familiar only because it was something he sensed he had been avoiding his entire life.  What did Luna even mean?  It didn’t sound like an insult, but it … if anyone else had said, it would have been, right?  It didn’t mean anything.  It was just Luna.

“That’s funny, Luna.”  Harry had no idea if his voice sounded normal.  What would his voice normally sound like anyway?  “I mean, yeah, I’m not gross or obnoxious like Ron, but… but…  And I’m, uh, sure you mean that as a compliment, right?” 

“Sure!  I think you’re magnificent, Harry Potter.”  Luna just continued to watch him, and he felt naked.  Impossibly naked.  But Luna was completely unfazed.  The worst part was that she seemed worried about him, which made no sense, because there was nothing wrong with him.  He was normal.  Mostly.  It was just a funny joke, right?

“Um, yeah… so, anyway.  Thanks for the chat.  I’m gonna go … somewhere else.”

He didn’t turn around to face her when she called out after him, voice still as musical and sweet as ever, “It’s okay, you know.  To be a girl.  We’re quite lovely!”

“Okay, but I’m not!” he shouted over his shoulder and ducked around the corner. 

Harry Potter rushed back to his dorm room and locked himself behind the curtain of his four-poster bed, and his heart didn’t stop racing for the rest of the afternoon.

                                                  

29/12/94

Fuck.

Sorry. I've never said that word.  But I just needed to say that.  Fuck. fuck fuck fuck fuck

I don’t know what to write.  But I don’t know what else to do.

She’s insane.  Ruddy fucking starkers mad.  It’s a joke.

Fuck.

                                                  

30/12/94

Let’s just pretend.  Pretend it’s possible.

I’m not.  I mean.  I’m just me. 

It’s not a real thing.  But what if it was?

Girls are … wonderful.  The coolest.  And pretty.  And their clothes are nice.

That’s not weird, right?

But not Aunt Petunia.  It’s not like I ever wanted to be like Petunia.  She’s the worst.  If I was … I would’ve, right?

Harry looked up from the page.  His heart was racing again just writing these things.  It felt dangerous.  He felt lost.

Hermione.  Where are you?  How could you disappear on me like this?  It isn’t fair.  It isn’t fair that I have to think about this. 

Whatever.

It isn’t like you could tell her anyway.  You can’t tell anyone.

This isn’t real.  It’s wrackspurts and nargles and all the rest of Luna’s nonsense.

She just got in your head. 

Things were fine before.  They weren’t that bad.  Everyone feels weird.  It can’t just be me.  Can it?

He was hiding out in Hermione’s Reading Room.  Not like she was using it.  She had disappeared, and Luna had dropped that massive bomb on Harry’s brain, and now nothing made sense.

Harry had run away every time he caught even a hint of dirty blonde hair in his line of sight.  He’d done his best to avoid Ginny, too, for good measure.  She’d tried to check up on him—he didn’t know what Luna had told her, but she was worried about him.  He’d blown her off.  He didn’t know what else to do. 

Harry felt so trapped.  Even more trapped than before he’d known this.

Not that Harry knew anything.  Because it wasn’t possible.  Harry kept writing.

No one else knows.  Luna wouldn’t tell anyone.

How the hell was she so calm about it?  Didn’t she know how bad it was, what she was saying?  Didn’t she know you weren’t supposed to say things like that?  How can she just be so normal about things that were so entirely not normal?

I’m not normal. 

But I have to pretend.  I can’t draw attention to myself.

Frustrated, Harry banged his head against the soft padded high back of the chair he had snuggled up in.  Maybe the Room knew he was going to need something soft to bang his head against.  Harry closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing again.  Then he had a thought.

Are there people who are born as boys but who are really actually girls?

Harry closed his eyes.  His hand trembled as he dropped the pen in favour of his wand.  He could only barely steady it enough to tap the question three times.  As Hermione had shown him, the question pulsed and then faded.  One word rose up in its place.

Yes .

                                                  

Harry didn’t look at the journal again after that.  It was too much.

For years, certain things had been confusing.  A great big stormy cloud of confusion that never made sense no matter how Harry tried to put it together.  A terrible, emotional hurricane of feelings that couldn’t be real and desires that marked Harry as something other, something alien, something wrong.

And this was all far too close to making sense, of casting the great storm into sudden and stark order, and Harry Potter was in no way ready for that.

The date was January 2, 1995.  It was a new year, and Harry hadn’t touched the journal since the previous year.  Harry hadn’t talked to Luna since days before that.  And now Hermione would be back.

Harry wasn’t ready to tell her about any of this either.

Not yet.

Chapter Text

Hermione had only been gone for a few days.  So how had everything gone to shit so fast?

“What do you mean he’s been avoiding you?  Both of you?”

Luna frowned.  “I’m worried.  The wrackspurts have poor Harry confused and unsure what’s real or not.”

Sensing Hermione’s incredulity, Ginny patted Luna’s hand and explained.  “We were all just hanging out, talking about that silly egg, and then Harry just kinda freaked out and ran away.  Luna went after him, and neither of them will tell me what they talked about.”

“Luna, what happened?”  The girl’s eyes were bright, dancing with hidden knowledge, but her lips pulled into a worried expression, like she was sucking on the inside of her lip.  Luna Lovegood was always more perceptive and empathic than anyone ever gave her credit for, save perhaps Ginny, so if anyone knew what was going on with Harry, Hermione guessed it’d be her.

She suppressed the guilty, angry voice in her head, yelling that it should’ve been her.  That she should’ve been there for whatever Harry was going through.  He’d been withdrawn since she got back.  He’d been the first person she sought out as soon as the thestral-drawn carriages dropped them off in front of the castle.  Her heart felt sort of light and inspired, seeing all the other students walk past the thestrals without a single sidelong glance.  It was nice to be back in a world where death hadn’t touched the majority of these students—these children.

That light feeling lasted right up until she found Harry in her corner of the library.  Harry wouldn’t meet her gaze.  Harry barely said two words to her—three in fact, “Guess you’re back”—before he slipped away, ignoring her calls to come back.  So now she was just trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

Luna’s voice was tentative, which was startling.  Hermione had never known her to be unsure of herself, even on the most ridiculous topics.  She found herself leaning in as Luna tried to explain.  “I don’t know anything.  I just wanted to help.  I don’t think the wrackspurts were letting Harry see …”  She trailed off, thoughtful, and misty blue eyes followed the path of … something Hermione couldn’t see.  Or maybe nothing at all—with Luna, you never knew.  “I wonder if Harry likes butterflies.  They’re so pretty, but I think the chrysalis is just as wonderful.” 

“Lune,” Ginny interrupted, and the Ravenclaw blinked rapidly, focusing on her friends again.

“Sorry.”  She smiled softly.  “I think, probably, Harry just needs to know that it will be okay to talk about it.  Harry needs…”

“To know that I’m here, when he’s ready to tell me.”  Luna nodded.  Hermione felt heavy again.  She didn’t know what had come over Harry in the days she was gone.  All she wanted to do was fix it.  “Dobby?”  A few moments passed before the elf appeared at her side, a bright smile on his face.

“Hermione is back!” he squealed joyfully, and she grasped his outstretched hand for a moment.  She’d found that while hugs were too much for him, a squeeze of the hand was exactly the right amount of friendly physical affection.  “I was worried.  You seemed sad on the train.”

“Quite sad, yes,” Hermione conceded.  “But I’m feeling a bit better now.  It’s Harry I’m worried about, and I was hoping you could pass a note to him.  Surreptitiously.”

Dobby’s nose scrunched, his ears flopping as his head tilted curiously.  “I don’t know this word.”

Hermione chuckled, sharing a delighted glance with Ginny.  “I need you to be sneaky.  Can you drop the note in his hand without Harry knowing you’re there?”

Dobby smiled brightly.  “Yes!  Of course I can do this!”

“Brilliant.”  A whispered, “Accio,” and wave of her wand had a small piece of parchment out of her bag, along with a pen.  She scrawled out the quick note, but she put her heart into it.  As much as possible, anyway, without scaring Harry off.  For whatever reason, he was skittish right now, and all Hermione wanted was for him to come to her with his problems.

 

 

 

 

 

Harry,

I don’t know what is going on, but I want you to know that I love you.  I’m sorry I disappeared, but I will always be here for you when you need me.  You can trust me with anything.  I promise.  I’ll be here if you want to talk about anything.  Anything at all.

Love,
Your Big Sis

She folded the note to shield it from Ginny’s prying eyes, then handed it to Dobby.  “Remember, don’t let Harry see you.”  Dobby nodded, gently taking the note and disappearing with a sharp crack.

“Do you think it’s my fault?” Ginny blurted out. 

Hermione shook her head, blinking in surprise.  “How?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe I did something wrong?  I mean, Harry seemed to have a really good time at the Yule Ball and we didn’t kiss or anything, after I mean, but it felt like maybe we could have—there was this spark, you know?—but what if I misread it?  What if Harry wanted me to kiss him?  Or what if he really really didn’t?  And I just made him feel weird or like—”

“Enough.”  Ginny sucked in a deep breath, having forgotten that she needed air during that long-winded ramble, and Hermione held back the urge to laugh.  “You’re adorable.” 

“That’s not funny,” Ginny protested, pouting.

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “Luna, you were the last one to talk to Harry before he started avoiding all of us, did he give you any indication it was about whether or not he wants to be kissing Ginny?”

Luna did laugh at that.  She slipped her hand into Ginny’s, intertwining their fingers.  “Ginny, you’re being silly.”  Her thumb rubbed soothingly across the top of Ginny’s hand.  “It isn’t about you, I promise.”

Ginny smiled at Luna and squeezed her hand before pulling free.  “Okay then.  Well I hope he starts talking to us again soon.”  Mischievous eyes cut over to Hermione.  “But in the meantime, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.  What happened with Frenchie?”

“Okay well first of all, don’t call her that.”  Ginny mouthed Hermione’s words back to her mockingly, and Hermione glared pointedly.  “As for what happened…. We kissed.  It was amazing.  And then I told her some things that made her really upset at me, and she ran off.”

“You kissed?!”

“Hermione, if kissing made her run away, I suspect you may be doing it wrong.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed.  “Luna, was that a joke?”

But Luna was fluffing the feathers on her quill, as if she hadn’t heard Hermione’s question.  Ginny smirked at Luna, then Hermione.

“What did you say that scared her off?”

“That’s none of your business, Ginevra Weasley.  But I’m going to fix it.”  Hermione sighed.  “Somehow.”

                                                  

Come seek us where our voices sound,

We cannot sing above the ground,

And while you're searching ponder this;

We've taken what you'll sorely miss,

An hour long you'll have to look,

And to recover what we took,

But past an hour, the prospect's black,

Too late, it's gone, it won't come back.

Fleur had recognized the Mermish language for what it was the moment she twisted the clasp at the top of the egg, springing it open.  She had waited until she and Gabby were alone in their cabin, after the celebrations.  Gabby had flinched away, shouting at her to make the somewhat screechy wailing stop, but Fleur had just laughed.  She closed the egg and took Gabby by the hand, leading her into the bathroom.  Gabby had impatiently waited for the tub to fill, nagging Fleur to tell her what was going on, but Fleur made her play along.

Gabby had been most displeased when Fleur had dropped the open egg into the tub and, without warning, pushed her head underwater so that they could both hear what the egg had to say.  Gabby hadn’t had the opportunity to go with their grandmère on one of her trips to spend time among the selkies whose tribes were ancient allies of the veela, and so she had never been exposed to the Mermish language before.  It was worth it to see the startled joy spread across her sister’s face as she began to understand the beautiful, but haunting song coming from the egg.

The thought made her smile before she dove back under the frigid water of the Black Lake.  Fleur hadn’t done a lot of smiling the past week.  She had been lucky, that night.  Gabby was already asleep, and Fleur was free to throw up a curtain and cast a silencing charm.  She cried angry tears for hours and finally tired herself out shortly before sunrise.  She’d snapped at Gabby when she woke her up, excitedly demanding to hear all about the ball.  She’d isolated herself in her room.

Until Harry Potter showed up and made everything even more confusing.  So, she focused on the task.  The egg.  The merpeople.  Endurance training.  Underwater magic.  That had been her focus.  Not the future.  Not Hermione.

Fleur sensed eyes on her as she broke through the surface of the water.  They followed her as she swam towards the shore.  “You’re still thinking about the girl.”  Fleur ignored Katarina as she stepped out onto the beach.  She could feel the steam rising off of her in the cold air, thanks to her warming charm.  “It’s okay.  Don’t acknowledge it.  But I know you.  You’re still thinking about her.” 

“You’re one to talk,” Fleur shot back.  Katarina scoffed, and Fleur just raised an eyebrow. 

“I don’t care.  I’m over it.  Her,” Katarina protested.

“You should be.”  A few quick waves of the wand had Fleur’s hair and swimsuit dry, and she slipped into her heavy cloak before sinking down beside her friend.  She slung an arm around her and pulled her close.  “You deserve a girl who will be proud to be with you.  Who will take joy in your presence.”

Katarina sighed, then leaned in.  “It’d be so much easier if you just dated me.”

Fleur chuckled.  It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation.  “I certainly take much joy in your presence, darling.  But I know you’re the jealous type.”

“And you can’t stop making the heart eyes at the girl who hurt you.”  Fleur blew out a harsh breath at that, feeling her entire body tense as the night of the Yule Ball rushed back into her consciousness.  She couldn’t escape it.  Katarina was right.  But so, so wrong.

“I don’t know how I feel,” Fleur admitted.  Katarina’s hand stroked across her back in soothing motions, and Fleur rested her head on her shoulder.  “I was so sure…”

“You always have had a temper.”  Fleur hummed her agreement.  “You think you were wrong.  Deep down, you want to trust her.  You want to believe her feelings are real.”  Katarina knew, all of it.  She’d been there for some of it, and she’d heard Fleur’s angry rants about the rest.  Girls for whom Fleur had been an experiment.  Girls who pretended to care about her just long enough to get her to sleep with them.  Girls who talked about her behind her back.  Deep down, Fleur Delacour was a romantic, and each time she’d opened up her romantic heart, some uncaring girl had trampled on it. 

But deep down, she knew this wasn’t that.  It probably wasn’t that. 

Right?

“I could give better advice if you told me what was really going on,” Katarina added, trying not to sound prying.  Fleur had told her that Hermione was keeping something from her, something huge, and that it had felt manipulative.  She hadn’t gone into any more detail than that.  Not only was she sure that Katarina wouldn’t believe her, there was something else in play here.  She could feel it along the edges of her knowledge, something magical.  Fleur didn’t know for sure, but she felt that she couldn’t have told Katarina about Hermione’s future even if she wanted to.

“It isn’t my story to tell, Katarina.”

“That’s how I know.”  Their eyes met, and Fleur knew Katarina meant it.  She could see the understanding there.  “It’s how I know that you trust her, even if it scares you.  You wouldn’t protect her like this if she was like the others.”

Merde.  I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll have time to think about it once you figure out this bubble-head charm.  It will be a long swim down to the merpeople.”

Fleur shrugged.  “Then let us keep working.”

                                                  

“Does anyone else know?”

Hermione felt instantly put on the spot, Fleur’s gaze heavy and penetrating.  She hated the suspicion she could feel radiating off of her.  Maybe she deserved it.  Maybe it was fair.  But she only now realized how she had taken for granted the level of ease and comfort that had come into being almost instantly between herself and Fleur.  She’d seen how cold Fleur could be with others, but it was a different experience altogether having it turned her way.

“No,” she assured.  “It’s just us.  Only the people I absolutely trust.”  Hermione must have imagined the way Fleur’s eyes momentarily softened, before she imperiously surveyed the two smaller figures in the room.  Dobby seemed downright excited as his round eyes darted to and fro between the witches, while Harry seemed every bit as withdrawn and avoidant as he had been since Hermione returned to Hogwarts.

It had been a long week of this—dealing with both Harry and Fleur distancing themselves from her.  At least with Fleur, Hermione understood why.  But she had at least finally gotten them all in the same room, and she was determined that there should be no more secrets between them.

“I appreciate being included in this very important meeting, miss!”  Hermione cracked a half-smile, amused at his excited slip of the tongue in calling her ‘miss’ again.  He was practically shaking with enthusiasm, tiny in the massive chair he’d perched on.

“Dobby, don’t be silly.  You’re absolutely essential.”  He preened under the praise, but Hermione sighed.  She hated what she had to ask of him.  “But you have to know that this is going to be impossibly dangerous.  I want to be sure you’re not going along with my plans because you feel like it’s your duty.”

“I want to help!” he insisted, hands splayed wide to grip firmly at the arms of his chair, as if needing to anchor himself.  “The whole world is at stake!  I can handle danger.”

Hermione nodded, resisting the urge to hug him again.  She hadn’t expected any less—certainly she didn’t doubt his courage—but she wanted Dobby to be sure. 

“What exactly is this danger you speak of?”  Hermione couldn’t meet Fleur’s gaze for long.  It felt impossibly sharp, cutting through to her soul and searching her for any hint of deception. 

“The Third Task is a trap meant to bring Harry to Voldemort.”

Fleur sucked in a sharp breath, eyes cutting from Hermione to Harry and back again.  They were no longer cold, but Hermione couldn’t read the emotion there.  Not until Fleur accused, «Surely you do not intend to use the boy—your friend—as bait, Hermione Granger!»

And that, for Hermione, was a step too far.  Gone was her grief about the misunderstanding between herself and Fleur, along with all the guilt about hiding things and, yes, manipulation.  In this moment, Hermione felt nothing but outrage. 

«How dare you accuse me of that!  You have no idea what I’ve been through to protect him.  I am here to prevent catastrophe, yes, but I am here first and foremost to save the most important person in my life.  My brother!  Don’t you dare think for one second that I would put him in unnecessary danger, Fleur.  Don’t you dare!»

Fleur backed down immediately, and for a moment, Hermione felt proud of herself.  But only for a moment.

“If you two are going to shout in French, I don’t see as I really need to be here.”

“No, Harry.  It’s alright.”  He still wouldn’t look at her, so she cut a pointed look at Fleur.  “I think we’re quite done with the shouting in French.  I’m sorry. …  Right, then.  The Third Task.  It’s a maze, filled with magical obstacles, traps, puzzles, and creatures.  You’ll enter based on the standings from the first two tasks, and the first person to navigate the maze and reach the Triwizard Cup will win.” 

“So the first two tasks are largely pointless,” Fleur muttered.

“More or less, yes.  Sorry about that, I know this Tournament was important to you, Fleur.”

Fleur stiffened.  “It hardly matters any more.  We have more important aims to consider now, you’ve made that clear.  So then, what is the trap?”

“The Cup is a portkey.” 

“How—”

“It is supposed to be a portkey.  That’s how they will know who won: the first to touch the Cup is taken back to the beginning of the maze.  A clear winner.  Unfortunately, someone will manage to hoodwink the portkey.  Add a destination, far, far away from Hogwarts.”

“This is the same someone who put ‘Arry’s name in the Goblet of Fire, yes?”  Hermione nodded, and Fleur shook her head in frustration.  “’Ow?!  ‘Ow could the Dark Lord ‘ave gotten to someone at ‘Ogwarts, convinced them to do this to poor ‘Arry?”

Hermione and Dobby exchanged a knowing glance.  The elf had been keeping an eye on the false Moody for months now, keeping Hermione informed of his comings and goings.  But he knew it was unsafe to reveal that secret just yet.

“A servant of Voldemort is posing as someone else,” Hermione answered, hesitating.  She knew Fleur wouldn’t like what she had to say next.  “I can’t tell you who it is, not yet.”  Fleur bristled, and Hermione reached out to put a hand on her arm.  She paused, thinking better of it, and for an awkward moment, her hand hung there in the air, both witches staring at it.  “I’m sorry, Fleur.  I promise, no more deception.  But I also can’t take unnecessary risks.  I can’t have any of you acting strangely around this person, even unintentionally, in a way that could tip them off that we suspect them.”

Fleur’s glare was harsh, but this time, Hermione refused to flinch away.  She was right about this, she was sure of it.  Several tense moments passed, and finally, Fleur looked away.  She sighed.  “Fine.  That makes sense, I suppose.”

“Thank you,” Hermione practically whispered. 

“Where does the portkey go?” Harry butted in impatiently.  He sounded sullen, and Hermione was struggling not to get angry with him.  Whatever was going on, it had completely changed everything about Harry’s demeanor, and she had no idea where her beautiful, caring friend had gone.

“To a muggle graveyard, in the town of Little Hangleton.  Where Tom Riddle, Sr. is buried.”

Harry gasped.  “Voldemort’s dad?”

“Yes.  He and Wormtail are hiding out with that great big snake in the old Riddle house.  The graveyard is where they intend to perform the ritual that will restore Voldemort to his body and his full power.”

“What is a wormtail?” Dobby asked.

“Pettigrew,” Harry growled, anger bubbling through whatever mood had captured him the past weeks.  “The man who betrayed my parents.” 

At Fleur’s mystified look, Hermione realized that the other witch didn’t have a clue as to what any of them were talking about.  Nothing about the Potters or Sirius or Wormtail.  Perhaps it had been big news in England, but Harry’s legend was apparently not so thoroughly well-known abroad.

“It’s a very long story,” Hermione explained.  “Peter Pettigrew was friends with Harry’s father in school.  He was also a mole for the Death Eaters, who betrayed the Potters’ location to Voldemort and got them killed.  However, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, was framed for the murder.”

“Sirius Black is a bad man!” Dobby shrieked, clearly having heard the rumours about Sirius’s involvement in the Potters’ betrayal and Pettigrew’s alleged death. 

“No, Dobby.  He isn’t,” Harry shouted, eyes flashing passionately.  Dobby immediately shrank into his chair.  “That’s a load of rubbish put out by the Ministry.  Sirius is a good man.”

“I fear we ’ave gotten off of the track,” Fleur noted, stumbling over the idiom slightly.

“Yes, we have,” Hermione confirmed, and Harry retreated back into himself.  “Fleur, Dobby… all you need to know is that Sirius was unjustly accused, and Pettigrew, who people still believe to be dead, is a sniveling little rat who is currently tending to Voldemort’s every little need.”

“While we’re on this topic, I feel like I need to understand this better.  ‘Ow is the Dark Lord even alive?  I thought ‘e was killed by ‘is own spell, when ‘e faced ‘Arry all those years ago.”

“Merlin,” Hermione groaned.  Fleur had run off before she’d had an opportunity to explain any of this, really.  “Okay.  Another long story.  Em, where to start?”  She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.  “Have… have you heard of a horcrux?”

“Non.”

“I guessed not.  It’s a disgustingly dark object.  Deeply unnatural.  Wrong.”  Hermione could feel the familiar chill in her chest.  “Horcruxes are the reason I’m here.  Horcruxes ended the world.  Horcruxes tethered his soul to the mortal plane far longer than it had any right to stay here.”

Hermione could feel Fleur’s eyes on her again.  Could feel the way she could see through her, to the pain hidden within.  It was too much.

She rose from her seat, pacing away towards the window.  Outside, a thick fog hung over the Black Lake.  “A horcrux is a dark artifact that houses a tattered piece of a dark wizard’s soul, torn free by an act of absolute malice.  Voldemort’s body was destroyed that night, all those years ago, but he remained alive—an ugly, mangled wraith as ugly as his soul.”

“And he needs ‘Arry to restore ‘imself to full power?”  Fleur’s voice was distant, and Hermione appreciated that she hadn’t left her seat.

“Yes,” Hermione shrugged.  “Or … I don’t know if he needs Harry specifically.  But it’s Harry he wants.  For his blood.”

“Blood magic?”

“I think so.”  Hermione could only speculate, really.  Harry had told her about the graveyard, but not in thorough detail.  And the ritual itself was unlike anything Hermione had discovered in all her studies.  Still, the purpose—the outcome—was something she understood quite well.

“When Harry’s mum sacrificed herself for Harry, it created a powerful protection.  Old magic, blood magic … I honestly don’t know.  But it made it impossible for Voldemort to harm Harry, and so his killing curse backfired.  Even now, Voldemort cannot touch him.”

“But if ‘is new form is crafted from ‘Arry’s blood, ‘e would negate that protection,” Fleur guessed, sounding as if she had some knowledge of such things.  Hermione couldn’t help but wonder what sorts of ancient wisdom she could learn from a people like the veela.  Now, however, was not the time to dwell on her curiosity.

“That’s why we can’t let Harry end up in that graveyard.  Not this time.”

“Can’t trust me with anything,” he muttered.  “I’m just a kid, after all.  I don’t know anything about … anything really.”

Hermione turned back to where the other three were still seated.  “Harry!  You are a kid, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”  To her surprise, Fleur was already in motion, coming to kneel in front of Harry.  She pressed lightly at his chin to get him to look at her, and as Hermione approached, she could feel the air around them suddenly warm.  Comforting.

“’Arry, it is not an insult to have friends who love you and want to protect you.”  For the first time in weeks, Hermione saw her friend smile.  And it warmed her heart that it was Fleur who made it happen.  “Voldemort has put you through more than enough already, mon amie.  Do not give ‘im the opportunity to ‘arm you further.  Not when you have friends to ‘elp you.”

He nodded, almost bashfully, and the two shared a most beautiful smile.  Then Fleur turned back to Hermione.  “Why is ‘e so fixated on ‘Arry?”

“There was a prophecy.  Voldemort believes Harry is the only one who can defeat him.  Or perhaps he believes that the prophecy was fulfilled that night, and he only wants Harry now because of his wounded pride.”  Hermione’s fists tightened.  “It doesn’t matter.  He won’t have Harry.  Not this time.  Never again.”

“So, you intend to ambush the most dangerous dark wizard of all time in a graveyard?”  Hermione felt frozen in place by the blunt nature of Fleur’s question, caught by the inquisitive raise of the beautiful witch’s eyebrow.  She took her bottom lip between her teeth, then blew out a long exhale.

“That’s exactly what I intend.  And I will need your help—” her eyes shifted to Dobby momentarily, “—both of your help, to do so.”

“And you will have it,” Fleur promised, rising to her feet.  Hermione didn’t realize how close she had let herself get to the other witch, barely a step left between them.  She couldn’t figure out the expression on Fleur’s face, but the blonde was quick to put some distance between them.  “I assume that once we disrupt the ritual, this will not be our final task.  We will still have to deal with the horcrux, yes?”

“Horcruxes,” Hermione corrected.  “There are seven.”  Fleur’s face fell.  Hermione understood.  She was asking a lot.  But if Fleur wanted to go back home, after the graveyard, that would be okay.  Hermione tried to believe that.  If they could capture or kill the remnant of Voldemort waiting in that graveyard, she knew that she could handle the remainder of the horcrux hunt herself.

She ignored the small, persistent voice of hope, whispering how much she wanted Fleur along for the entire ride.  And beyond.  Because that would be foolish.

“I see,” Fleur said, giving Hermione no indication what was going on in her mind.  “Your task is a difficult one.  I may have underestimated it.  And I perhaps …”  Fleur’s voice cracked slightly, and she shook her head.  When their eyes met again, her façade was back in place.  “We will need to plan.  Thoroughly.”

Hermione nodded.  “Fleur, I…”

“This is enough for now,” Fleur cut her off.  “I must go.  We will talk again later.”

Hermione felt lost as she watched Fleur walk away yet again.  The purple door closed behind her, and silence settled back into the room. 

“Dobby, can I have a word with Hermione?  Alone?”  Harry’s plea was so quiet, Hermione barely heard it. 

“Of course.  Anything for Harry Potter.”  Hermione heard a sharp intake of air, and she turned to see Harry looking completely distraught.  She hated not knowing what was going on with him.  She guessed Dobby did too, as the elf met her gaze with a frown, then disapparated.

“Harry, what is wrong?”  She strode forward and knelt before him, just as Fleur had before.  “Please, talk to me.  I’m worried about you.”

She waited, trying to be patient, but still Harry would not look her in the eyes.  “Harry, please.”

“Has Professor McGonagall said anything about the Dursleys?”  Hermione breathed a sigh of relief.  Of course, she thought.  Of course, that is what’s bothering him.  Hermione felt like an idiot—she had gone home to her family, and when she came back, Harry was withdrawn and angry at her.  How did she miss that this was clearly about his own family?

It made so much sense.

“No.  I’m so sorry.”  She took his hand, and she felt him start to pull away, but he stopped when she squeezed.  He let her hold onto him.  “I’m sorry.  I got caught up in Fleur and all of this, and then I just went home.  I’m sorry, Harry.  I’m so sorry.”

Tears tracked down Harry’s cheeks, and Hermione felt like such a terrible friend.  But even with his issue revealed, Harry wouldn’t look at her. 

I have to fix this.

“I’ll go talk to her now, okay.”  He nodded, wiping at his tears, but otherwise not moving.  “Wait here.”

                                                  

Hermione had thought to call Dobby to wait with Harry, but she thought better of it when she remembered that something about the elf had set Harry off.  Instead, she simply pulled out the Marauders’ Map, gifted to her by Harry shortly after she told him the truth about her history, and checked to find the location of one Minerva McGonagall.

Unsurprisingly, she was in her office.  A storm followed Hermione across the castle as she made her way north to the Defence Against the Dark Arts tower.  How had she let this get away from her?  It’d been months since she talked to Minerva about this.  What did it say that Minerva hadn’t come to her with an update—hadn’t come to her or to Harry?  And how could she have just let it drop, let it slip through the cracks?

Some friend you are.  Protect Harry from Voldemort only to send him back to that abusive household.  Brilliant.

It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, so she didn’t have to avoid people or sneak around.  She made her way down stairs and corridors quickly and easily, and she found herself knocking on the door to Minerva’s office before she realized it.  Which means that when the door opened to reveal a curious Professor McGonagall, Hermione was completely unprepared.

“How can I help you, Ms. Granger?”

“Uh, right …” Hermione glanced around.  “Can we, er, talk in your office?”  Minerva hit her with one of those penetrating gazes, but Hermione was well accustomed to those, and had long since (mostly) stopped being affected by them.  She just waited, and after a few moments, Minerva moved aside and gestured her in.

Hermione hadn’t been back in this office since the last time they had discussed Harry, and suddenly, it felt like no time had passed since then.  She wondered if Minerva felt the same way.  Hermione realized, as the older witch sat and surveyed her with an overly prying gaze, that she hardly knew this version of her mentor.  Hermione had gotten to know Minerva McGonagall better over her fifth and sixth years, but she wasn’t sure she would’ve felt comfortable calling her a mentor—a friend—until after the war.  And as much love and care as she felt for that woman, this was not her.  Not exactly.

That became even more clear as they began to talk.  “I was wondering when I would see you again.”

“You talked to Professor Dumbledore about Harry, then?”

“Indeed, I have.”

“When?  Why didn’t you say anything to Harry?”  Hermione’s chest tightened as she realized the obvious answer, as Minerva’s eyes narrowed in the way they did when she thought a student wasn’t being sufficiently respectful.

“Ms. Granger, I know you’re worried about your friend, but I assure you that Mr. Potter will be perfectly safe returning to stay with his relatives over the summer.”

“Bollocks,” Hermione spat back, not caring about decorum in that moment.

“That’s quite enough, Ms.—”

“No, Professor.  Clearly it isn’t!”  Hermione stood and paced away from Minerva so that she couldn’t interrupt her and tell her that a fifteen-year-old had no business questioning her decisions as a professor or as deputy headmistress.  Because Hermione didn’t give two shits about authority when it came to Harry’s safety. 

“He isn’t safe there!  He was starved for the first decade of his life.  His home was a dirty cupboard infested with spiders!  He was beaten, told that he was a freak, that he was nothing!  He didn’t experience love for the first time until he was eleven years old!  He’s being kept with people who hate him because his godfather, who might actually give him the love he deserves, is unjustly imprisoned for something the great Albus Dumbledore knows for a fact that he didn’t do!” 

Hermione turned back to her professor, and she knew she must look like the picture of childish rage in that moment.  She knew that Minerva couldn’t understand where she was coming from.  But it didn’t matter, because Hermione knew she was right.  “So don’t stand there and tell me that he is safe!”

She could read Minerva’s body language, could see that she wasn’t going to get anywhere.  To her, Hermione was a child, and for whatever reason, she believed the lies of Albus Dumbledore.  No matter how furious that made Hermione, there was nothing she could do about it.  Nothing in this moment, anyway.

“I’ve had quite enough of this disrespect, Ms. Granger.  Twenty points from Gryffindor, and count yourself lucky that is the worst that I do.”  Hermione glowered, but she bit her tongue.  “Now, have a seat.”

Hermione considered yelling some more.  She considered leaving the office.  She considered a great many things, but ultimately, she sat.  “You think I don’t understand.  Because I’m young.  You think you know something I don’t.  You and Dumbledore.  But you’re wrong.  Whatever Dumbledore told you, you know as well as I do that his priority is the bigger picture, not Harry.  Not a single adult has had Harry’s best interests in mind since he was a year old.”  Hermione blew out a frustrated breath.  She felt gutted.  Powerless.  “But I do.  I’m not letting this go.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, and Hermione could tell Minerva was letting the moment breathe.  It was how she handled conflict, when she wasn’t sure where she stood on things.  As frustrated as Hermione felt, she knew it was a good sign.

“Hermione.”  Minerva’s voice was soft, and she didn’t use Hermione’s first name lightly.  “I admire your care for your friend, as well as your bravery in defending him, even to me.  And I confess, I have my own concerns about Mr. Potter’s home life.  I will personally promise you that things will be different.  We had no idea the extent of …”  Minerva sighed, and Hermione could tell that the thought of Harry’s abuse pained her.  They both took a breath.

“There are worse things out there.  So much worse.  Worse than … worse than the Dudleys, I’m afraid.  I’m sorry, I can’t tell you more.  But he is only safe so long as he calls that house home.”  Hermione felt like throwing something.  She felt like marching straight up to Dumbledore’s office and hexing him. 

Because that was how he had convinced Minerva.  The bullshit story about how Petunia’s blood—Lily’s blood—supposedly kept that house safe for Harry until his seventeenth birthday.  Hermione wondered if Dumbledore actually believed it.  She doubted it.  There wasn’t any real proof one way or the other.

And regardless, it wasn’t good enough.  It wasn’t bloody good enough.  Harry deserved better.  It just sucked that she couldn’t tell Minerva any of that.  Not without telling her everything.

So, she would have to think of something else.  Dumbledore and Minerva weren’t going to protect Harry.  Hermione would have to do it herself.

                                                  

Harry wasn’t sure how long Hermione was gone.  Harry was alone in the Reading Room for either a very long time, or hardly any time at all.

Just a girl alone with her thoughts, and not sure what to do about anything going on in her life.  Her thoughts spiraled, as they tended to do when Harry was left alone and without her journal.  The storm gathered and raged, and everything was confusing and scary.

Harry wondered if things had been better before she’d realized that she was a girl.  She’d never felt right—she’d certainly never felt anything close to a real sense of self or self-worth—but she’d also never been so acutely aware of just how wrong she was.  Now that she knew, everything felt like a reminder.  And she couldn’t tell anyone else. 

No one else even noticed!  Everything was wrong, and no one could see it written all over her face.  They couldn’t even see her face.  Only his.

Even Hermione.  When she looked at Harry, she saw him.

Harry didn’t blame her.  For fourteen years, Harry had looked in the mirror and seen him, not realizing, never realizing that he was an illusion.  But he wasn’t an illusion anymore.  Now he was a trap—a prison—and Harry had no idea how to escape him.  She didn’t know where to begin.  She had barely begun to even process her own realization that she existed—that she was real and very not him, and how was she supposed to handle figuring that out?

So, she chickened out.  She admitted to nothing, confided nothing, trusted Hermione with nothing.  Instead, she asked Hermione about the Dursleys.

Because Harry knew for sure that if the Dursleys hated her before, it was nothing compared to how things would be if they knew.  Freak.  Pervert.  Queer.  She’d heard the insults they had leveled at magical people, at gay people, at others.  The journal said that transgender people were a real thing, that Harry wasn’t the only one, and yet she still wondered.  After all, she had never heard of transgender people before she asked the journal, and she was sure that the Dursleys had never heard of such a thing.  They would think she was lying or insane, but more than anything they would think she was disgusting and wrong and hateful.

If it was hell before, it would be exponentially worse now.  No matter what, Harry knew that she couldn’t go back there.  She would live in this Reading Room if she had to.  With the Marauders’ Map and the invisibility cloak and Dobby’s help, she could hide out there until she was an adult, and figure it out from there.

Unless Hermione rejected her.

Harry didn’t know what she would do then.

She couldn’t think about it.  One thing at a time.  Hermione would be back, and she would tell her that she never had to go back to that place.  Even if she didn’t really see Harry when she said it.  Even when she looked at Harry and saw that boy from the mirror.  The Boy Who Lived.

Harry chuckled.  What a stupid nickname.  Did that boy ever really live?  Did he even exist?  Harry didn’t really know.  She’d been thinking herself in circles for weeks, and she still had no idea.  About any of it.

The door opened.  Harry Potter wasn’t alone with her thoughts anymore. 

Harry couldn’t look at Hermione, couldn’t bear to see her look back and see him instead of her.  It was too hard.  So, Harry avoided her friend’s gaze, just like she had been avoiding every person’s gaze ever since that day when she’d been unable to ignore the truth of herself anymore.  Because now she knew, but no one else could see it, and that was somehow worse than anything.

Because she couldn’t look, she felt Hermione’s presence before she saw it.  She felt Hermione take her hand and pull her from her chair, and she let herself be pulled.  She felt Hermione cuddle in against her on the sofa and pull her in tight and hold her protectively.  Like Harry imagined a big sister was supposed to.  She wanted to feel safe and loved in Hermione’s arms, but she couldn’t stop the thought.

She’s going to tell me I have to go back.  Then she’s going to look at me and see that boy, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.

“Harry, you know I love you, right?”  Hermione’s voice was soft and in Harry’s ear, her bushy hair piled onto Harry’s shoulder.  Harry couldn’t answer.  She knew Hermione loved her, or she thought she did.  But love was a fairly new concept in Harry’s young life.  And as such, it seemed a tremendously fragile thing.

Harry’s mum had loved her, but Lily Potter’s love was something she was told about, not something she had ever felt.  It was the same for her dad.  She supposed Sirius felt something like love for her, but that was … new and confusing and uncertain, because she barely knew the man.  He certainly didn’t know her.

If you had asked her at the beginning of term if Ron loved her, she probably would’ve said yes.  She thought Ron was her best friend.  But then Ron had treated her like dirt for a month. 

The only real love she had ever experienced, for herself, for sure, was the sisterly love she felt from Hermione.  And in this moment, Harry was terrified that she would lose that love as well.

Hermione wouldn’t hold her tight and ask if she knew Hermione loved her if the conversation with McGonagall had gone well.  Hermione was about to tell her that she would have to go back to the Dursleys.  And Harry didn’t know if she could keep all of this hidden inside any longer.

“You’re not going back there.” 

Harry’s entire body stiffened.  It was a shock.  She’d expected the opposite.  She’d been sure of it.  For a split second, she looked up and her eyes met Hermione’s.

“She said that?” 

I’m saying that,” Hermione answered, and all the fears roared back to life, louder than before.  Because that wasn’t the right answer.  That meant…

“They’re g-g-going to make me go back,” Harry whispered, and she hated the stutter that cut through her words.  Hermione’s arms wrapped that much tighter around her, and Harry turned and let Hermione pull her into her chest.  Then she was crying, and she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to stop.

But Hermione didn’t let go, and her fingers stroked soft, reassuring paths across Harry’s shoulder and side.  “I won’t let them,” she promised.  “You’ll come home with me, or the Weasleys will take you, or-or we’ll get Sirius’s name cleared… I don’t know exactly what we’ll do, but I promise, promise, promise you that you will not have to step back into that house again.”

“I can’t go back there,” Harry cried into Hermione.  “Not now.  Th-they won’t… they c-can’t…”  She sucked in a breath, struggling with the sobs that wracked her body.  “They’ll k-k-k-k—”

“Shhhhh.”  Hermione kissed the top of Harry’s head.  “They won’t do anything.  I won’t let them.  You’ve got me.  I’m here, and I will make sure we figure this out.  Whatever it takes.”

Harry just shook her head and cried that much harder.  It felt too good to be true.  A fleeting hope that she couldn’t even hold onto it, because Hermione still didn’t know.  She didn’t know, and it would change everything, and Harry couldn’t stop crying.

Harry Potter cried until she thought she had nothing left in her body, until she felt completely dried out, and then she felt like she might choke.  Because the only thing left was to just tell Hermione.  Harry didn’t know how she could go on without telling her, and she also felt like she would choke on the words if she tried.

“Harry, why won’t you look at me?”  Hermione sounded scared.  Maybe.  Maybe not scared, but worried.  Harry’s mouth opened.

“Because you won’t see me!”

Shit.  The words were out before she could stop them.

Hermione’s head lifted from Harry’s shoulder like she’d been stung.  Harry worried that this was it.  This was when Hermione would pull away.  Instead, she rested a finger on Harry’s chin, gently asking Harry to look up.  But Harry couldn’t.  It was too scary.

“What does that mean?”  Harry’s eyes tracked across curl after curl of Hermione’s hair, frantically ignoring the deep brown eyes searching her face for understanding.  It was terrifying.  Everything had changed, and if Hermione knew, she might change too.

“Harry, what do you mean that I won’t see you?”  Hermione ran a hand through Harry’s hair.  It felt nice.  It felt soothing.  It felt right.

So Harry closed her eyes and spoke.

“When you look at me, you see him.  You see … th-that boy in the mirror.  You see who you think you’ve always seen, but he isn’t me.

Silence settled in, but Hermione’s hand continued to stroke through her hair.  Her other arm stayed wrapped around her, and she could still feel Hermione’s warmth.  One moment passed, and then another.  And another.  Harry kept her eyes shut.  She felt like her heart would pound out of her chest.

“If you’re not… him … then who are you?”

“I’m me,” Harry gasped, and she wasn’t even sure her voice was audible, but it was the best she could manage.  “I’m … I’m … a girl.”

The hand in her hair stiffened, and for the most terrifying moment in Harry’s life, she thought Hermione would pull away.  But she didn’t.  One moment passed, and then another, and Harry couldn’t breathe.  Another moment passed, and Hermione’s hand switched directions, pushing back through Harry’s hair again.

“Can you tell me more?”

Harry’s lip trembled, and she didn’t dare open her eyes.  Instead, she tried to think about what she had wanted to say.  When Hermione wasn’t there.  When Harry couldn’t ignore it anymore and her brain wouldn’t shut up telling her that she was a girl, that it was so obvious.  When all the pieces fell into place, and she had just wanted to tell Hermione everything.  And Hermione wasn’t there.

What had she wanted to say then?

“I always knew.”  She shook her head, because that wasn’t exactly right.  “I mean, I-I didn’t know, not until a couple of weeks ago.  I had no idea, b-but … even so, I knew … s-something.”  Harry swallowed.  She kept her eyes clenched shut.  “I knew that I wasn't like oth—like b-boys, but I told myself maybe it was just because of Dudley.”  

Harry took in a steadying breath, and Hermione’s hand kept smoothing through Harry’s hair.  It was the only thing that kept her going.  “My mind told me I wasn’t like the boys, but I told myself it was just that I’m not like Dudley, but he was the weirdo.  It couldn’t just be that I wasn’t … you know.”

Harry shook her head.  “Um, uh, but in hindsight, you know, I also … I mean, it wasn’t like I felt like Petunia.  She was the only…”  Some words felt scary to even say, and Harry worried that she wasn’t making any sense.  “I just … definitely didn’t want to be like her.  So I didn’t know what it was.  I just knew I was weird.  Different.  Alien.”

She smiled wanly.  “And then I got my Hogwarts acceptance.  I thought that was my answer.  I thought ‘finally, this will explain all the weird confusing emotions.’  I’m different because I’m a wiz—because I have magic.  I was raised muggle, but my parents were magical, and I was supposed to be raised with them, and so of course, I felt wrong and weird and different.  It finally made sense, and also … they treated me so badly, and I didn’t realize how badly until I met the Weasleys and I saw what a real family was like.  But there was that too.  And that was enough, for a while.  I thought it made sense.  I thought I was just a broken weirdo, and I-I thought magic would fix things.  I would get better.”

Harry felt like she was spiraling now, and she hadn’t even gotten to the point yet.  Hermione probably thought she was absolutely batshit insane.  Harry’s heart was racing.

“It’s okay,” Hermione whispered, and her hand didn’t waver.  “I’m just listening.  Go on.”

“It wasn’t until …”  She wasn’t ready to tell Hermione about Luna.  Not yet.  “All the confusing, weird feelings were still there.  I still felt wrong and different, and I realized… recently… that I guess I always felt more similar to you than Ron, and m-maybe, um, maybe that scared me, so I tried so hard to be best mates with Ron, and … and I love quidditch, so-so that meant I’m a boy, right?  But…”

Harry’s fingers played nervously at a loose thread on her robes. “Ginny loves quidditch.  So does Cho.  I couldn’t figure it out.  No matter what I tried, everything was weird and confusing and wrong.  I tried to think of something else.  Anything else.  I definitely couldn't be a girl, and not just because my body is wrong.  B-b-but there was Cho, and then Ginny.  And I was definitely sure about that.  I like girls, and I definitely, definitely don't like boys.  So there, that was obvious—I like girls, so I can’t … be a girl.” 

For a split second, Harry blinked.  Only long enough to even see the vague outline of Hermione’s face, right in front of her.  She couldn’t even tell if Hermione was puzzled or disgusted or … something else.  But even so, Harry felt bashful.  Part of her expected rejection.  Because she had to admit something that she was terrified Hermione wouldn’t accept.  “Except there’s you, Hermione.  You told me you were a lesbian, and that girls could like other girls … and then … and I couldn’t … it just—it fell into place, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore, and you probably think I’m mad, but I can’t—”

“I don’t think you’re mad.”  Hermione’s voice was solid and sure, but Harry still felt frozen in place.  She concentrated on her breathing, trying to get her heartbeat under control.  Hermione’s hand stilled, and then it slid down to her cheek.  “Harry, please look at me.”

She shook her head, but Hermione’s hand stayed firm on her cheek.  “Please.”

Finally, Harry opened her eyes.  Hermione’s gaze was soft, and Harry’s vision blurred.  Tears streamed down her cheeks.  “I promise it’s a real thing.  I asked the journal and everything and it’s really real, and I’m not crazy, I really am—”

“A girl,” Hermione finished.  Harry nodded, and Hermione nodded too.  “I believe you.”

“You do?”

Hermione smiled, so brightly, and Harry felt the weight lift from her chest.  “I do.”  Her hand slid around to the back of Harry’s head, and she pulled her into the tightest hug.

“I mean it Harry Potter.  I love you, and I believe you, and you’re my sister, and I will always, always be here for you.  We will figure this out together.”

Chapter Text

Hermione wasn’t sure how long she held Harry close, stroking her hair and offering soothing, supportive words as the sobbing slowly died down.  The girl—Hermione was amazed at how right that descriptor felt for her friend, since the very moment she had admitted this truth about herself—gripped Hermione tightly, almost painfully.  Even after Hermione had told her she believed her, anxiety and terror seemed to radiate off of Harry, and she was holding onto Hermione as if physical contact was the only thing keeping her safe.  Feeling more protective than at any point in her life, Hermione was happy to do whatever it took to make Harry feel safe, even if it meant she had to endure a bit of pain.

When Harry’s grip eventually began to loosen, Hermione raised a quick hand to her own cheeks.  She wanted to present a happy, supportive façade to Harry, and it would do the girl no good to see that Hermione had been crying as well.  The fear and anxiety in her friend—her sister—had been heartbreaking to endure, and when that mixed with the sheer joy and astounding humility she felt at being trusted with something like this, it turned Hermione into an emotional mess.  Fortunately, Harry had been too caught up in her own emotional turmoil to notice, and when the two locked eyes again, Hermione felt sure that she had locked her maelstrom of emotion behind a quiet mask of solid love and support.

They shared a long look, until Harry’s eyes darted away.  Her hands returned to nervous motions, popping a few finger joints.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Hermione reassured, resting a hand on Harry’s knee.  The girl kept fiddling with her fingers, though, and refused to look up.

“You … you really don’t think I’m some kind of freak?”

Hermione moved without thought, pulling Harry into her arms again as she scolded, “Of course not!”  She shook her head emphatically.  “Absolutely not.”  In truth, Hermione had never heard of anything like this.  A girl who had been born into a boy’s body.  In the abstract, it seemed a rather strange notion.  But at the same time, she believed Harry, believed that she knew this about herself, and for whatever reason, the idea that Harry was a girl—had been a girl all along, though no one realized—felt right, deep in her gut.  She wondered at the sensation, pondering whether magic had anything to do with it.  Regardless, it was something they would figure out together.

Unfortunately, she didn’t sense the same certainty in Harry.  It was as if the girl felt a deep instinct towards shame, leading her to doubt herself and immediately rush to self-judgment and insults like freak.  Hermione was sure it was a product of the abuse Harry had been raised with, and more than ever, she felt the urge to hex Albus Dumbledore within an inch of his life.  Her mind raced, searching for some way to prove to Harry once and for all that she was right about herself, and that this wasn’t something to be ashamed of.

Nothing immediately presented itself, but she did catch on something Harry had said earlier.  “Harry, you said the journal told you ‘it was a real thing’—what did you mean by that?”

Harry’s nose scrunched up, and her fingers came to a halt.  When she looked back up at Hermione, she seemed tentative but noticeably hopeful.  “I … when I couldn’t ignore it anymore, couldn’t avoid the obvious, um, conclusion … you weren’t here.  You were back in London, and I felt lost.” 

Hermione felt Harry’s despair like a knife in the gut, every bit as painful as the cursed dagger Bellatrix Lestrange had dragged across her arm.  She had been so caught up in her own pain, she hadn’t been there for Harry when she had needed her most. 

“So… I guess I did the next best thing.  I remembered you said I could ask the journal questions, and I-I don’t really know where it gets answers from, but it felt … I don’t know, just the tiniest bit like you were there, answering my questions.  And… and I asked if there were people who are born as boys but who are really girls, and it said ‘yes.’  So, uh, I guess … I’m not crazy, it must be a real thing, but it’s not something I’ve ever heard of, and it’s just hard to…”  Her voice trailed off, the momentary spike of energy dwindling.

“Wow,” Hermione gasped.  The journal was, apparently, way more powerful than she had intended.  That or the Hogwarts library had a much more varied and interesting selection of books than she had imagined.  But then she realized what it had to be.  The Reading Room. 

Hermione had been working on Harry’s birthday present for quite a while.  It had been fun, dealing with an actual magical challenge.  As a brilliant and skilled twenty-year-old witch whose talents had been honed by an actual war, fourth-year coursework was intensely dull.  Finding a way to tie an object to a repository of information like the Hogwarts library and then to have it not only distill information into concise but comprehensive bites, but also respond in nuanced and particular ways to the emotions and intentions of the person asking the question—it had been an ambitious project.  And one that Hermione was not entirely sure she had succeeded in.  She’d been so excited at getting the journal to work correctly with the Hogwarts library that she had added the connection to the Reading Room as an afterthought.

She had never guessed that she was actually creating a powerful magical engine to search through … well, apparently every book in existence.  Maybe even more, since she had no idea what the full power of the Reading Room even was.

And now, that journal was turning out to be exactly what Harry needed.

“Let’s go get the journal.  Do some research.”

“Really?”

“Definitely.  Have you done any research on your own yet?”

Harry shook her head.  “I’ve been doing a lot of journaling.  Thinking about myself and my feelings and … no.  I was … too scared.”

Hermione took Harry’s hand.  “You have nothing to be afraid of, sweetie.”  She almost cringed, but held it in.  The endearment had slipped out, and she worried Harry would find it patronizing, but the girl smiled softly.  Hermione smiled back.  “You don’t have to take this journey alone.  I will be with you every step of the way, okay?  We’ll figure this out together.”  She made a goofy face and was pleased to see it draw an even bigger smile out of Harry.  “But the only way this gets less scary is if we learn more about it.  Knowledge is power.”

Harry snorted.  “That’s the most Hermione thing you’ve ever said.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment, Harry Potter.”  She stood and then pulled Harry to her feet also.  “Come on, we’ll grab the journal and then come back here.  A little walk will be good.  Clear your head.” 

“Okay.”

Harry stayed close to Hermione’s side as they left the Reading Room, but Hermione could see a noticeable difference in her posture and energy.  The past couple of weeks, it was like Harry had caved in on herself.  Like she was hiding from everyone, even when everyone could see her.  But not anymore.  If anything, she was standing even taller than before any of this.

“This is why I can’t go back there.”

The statement caught Hermione completely off guard.  At first, she had no idea where “there” was.  But then she remembered how this whole conversation got started.

“The Dursleys?”

Harry nodded.  “Life there was already hell.  I can’t … now that I know this about myself, I can’t … I won’t be able to hide it.  Things were already unbearable.  I can’t live in that house anymore.”

“Harry, I know it’s … I can’t imagine what they’ve put you through, and you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.  But I will always, always be here if you need to talk about any of it.  And I promise you, no matter what, I will make sure that you never step foot in that awful house with that evil family, ever again.”

Harry nodded, but said only, “I’m not ready for that yet.”

They had slowed so that Hermione could lock eyes with Harry as she spoke.  They turned a corner just as they picked up their pace again, and Hermione’s heart froze in shock when they collided straight into someone on the other side of the corner. 

“Whoa now, steady there, Potter.”  It was Moody—not Moody.  Crouch. Junior.  Sometimes it was easy to forget that this wasn’t the real Moody.  For being an evil bastard, he was a shockingly decent teacher and an impeccable actor.  But even with her moment of forgetfulness, Hermione was immediately on her guard.  She needed to get Harry away from this man, as unobtrusively as possible.

“I can see you two are clearly in a hurry, but while I’ve got you here, how are you doing with that egg?”

Harry’s eyes darted to Hermione, and the anxiety was rolling off of her in waves again.  Hermione gave her an encouraging nod, and Harry swallowed audibly.  “It’s, uh, going just fine, sir.”

“Feeling good about the next task, are you?  Got a plan in place?”  His magical eye rolled relentlessly around in his head, but Hermione had not a clue what else could be of any interest in this corridor.  She got a sick feeling in her gut that maybe it could see through walls.  She had to suppress a shudder.

“Don’t worry, Professor,” Hermione piped in, trying to protect her fragile friend.  “Harry will be more than prepared for the task.  We’re working on it, and we’ll keep working on it.  Constant vigilance, right?” 

Hermione thought she caught Crouch on his back foot with her response—or his back … peg, as it were.  She smiled at the thought but kept it on the inside.  She yearned to just pull Harry away and keep walking, briskly, for Gryffindor tower.  But that might set off alarm bells for Crouch, and she forced herself to wait patiently to be dismissed, as if she actually believed he was a real professor.

Unfortunately, Crouch refused to take the hint.  “You know, I may have overheard you two before you came barreling around that corner.  Potter, you having trouble at home?”

Hermione tried to give Harry a look to keep her mouth shut, but Harry had returned to looking at her feet.  And as such, she didn’t notice Hermione’s pointed glare as she began to ramble nervously.  “Oh, it’s just the, erm, the muggles I live with.  My mum’s sister and her husband… and their son.  They, um, don’t like magic, and they, uh, well they … give me grief about it, is all.”

“Okay, well, we’ve gotta get back to the common room now, sorry Professor.  Please excuse us.”  Hermione rushed Harry past the Death Eater disguised as one of the best aurors in British history.  And she didn’t look back to check and see what his expression looked like, either. 

It was several corridors and a staircase later when Harry pulled her to a stop and asked, “Okay, that was weird.  Why did you pull me away like that?”

Hermione rolled her eyes, trying desperately to hide her moment of panic.  “Because,” she covered, “I could tell how anxious you were feeling, and we’ve got more important things to do than talk to Moody about the Triwizard Tournament.”

They reached Eunice’s portrait—Hermione thought it quite rude to not even bother with the simple respect of using the so-called Fat Lady’s given name—and Hermione offered her a pleasant greeting.

“Hullo, Eunice!  How’s your afternoon going?”

“Oh hello, Hermione dear.  It’s going well enough, I suppose.  Now why aren’t you down in the Great Hall?”

Hermione checked her watch and saw that more time had passed than they realized.  They were late for dinner.  But that also meant that the common room would likely be empty, possibly saving them a trip back to the Reading Room.

“Oh, I suppose we lost track of time.  But we can look after ourselves, right Harry?”

Harry nodded, and Hermione smiled brightly.  “Fig tree.”

“Very well then,” Eunice answered, then her entire portrait swung forward. 

As they walked into the common room, Hermione shouted back, “Oh and tell Violet I said hi!  It’s been a while since I’ve seen her around!”

Eunice’s muffled voice offered assurances that she would do just that, and as Hermione and Harry stepped into the common room, Hermione could see that she was right about the room being deserted.  “Harry, go grab the journal.  I’ll set up a few detection and privacy charms so we’ll know if anyone is coming, but we can just hang out here, right?”

Harry shrugged and whispered, “I guess so,” before turning towards the staircase.  And that’s when it hit her.

The staircase.

Her mind whirred.  Magic recognized that I’m 20, not 15.  When the trace didn’t report my apparition.  What if Magic recognizes the truth of Harry too?

“Harry, wait!”  Harry paused halfway into the left of the two doors at the back of the common room, the stairs down to the floors of the tower containing boys’ dorms.  “Try the other door.”

“But that’s the girl’s stairs.  It’s enchanted to reject—”

“Boys, I know.  That’s the point.  You’re not a boy, remember?”  Harry’s eyes widened, the edges of her lips lifting slightly.

“You think… you think it will work?”  Her voice was tentative at best, as if she was terrified to even try.  Terrified that it would prove once and for all how wrong she was about herself, Hermione guessed.

Hermione, on the other hand, felt strangely certain that this was precisely what Harry needed.  So she felt plenty confident when she nodded dramatically, then gestured for Harry to go ahead.  Harry hesitated, just outside the door.  Hermione could hear Harry’s breathing pick up pace.  In a heartbeat, she raced to her side, took her hand, and led her through the door and onto the landing.  “We’ll do this together,” Hermione reassured.  Harry nodded, but she continued to look at the stairs as if they would bite her. 

“Hey.  Look at me.”  When Harry complied, Hermione gave her her biggest smile, and squeezed her hand.  “Do you trust me?”  Harry nodded again, this time more convincingly.  “Okay.  We’ve got this.  I promise.  Now, let’s go.  Just a few steps.”  And before Harry could clam up again, Hermione led her up the stairs.  One step.  Then another.  And another.  Hermione could feel Harry stiffen, preparing to be rejected.

Nothing happened.

For a moment, they just stood there.  Then Harry’s face broke into the widest smile Hermione thought she had ever seen.  “I knew it!” Hermione practically shouted with glee, and then they were both shouting and jumping up and down.

“It’s real.  I’m real!”  Tears were streaming down Harry’s cheeks, and Hermione could feel her own eyes heating up in response.  They hugged, fiercely, and they didn’t let go for a long time.

When Hermione loosened her hold, she wiped away the tears left on Harry’s cheeks.  “It’s been an emotional day, huh?” 

Harry chuckled.  “Yeah.”

“Okay well.  I tell you what.  Go grab the journal and your invisibility cloak.  We’ll hang out in my room, and Dobby can bring us some food, and if people start showing up, you can sneak out under the cloak.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, okay.”  Harry still sounded choked up, but Hermione let go of her hand as she turned and headed back down the stairs.

Five minutes later, they were eating together on Hermione’s bed, the journal nearby and the curtain drawn to ensure complete privacy should anyone enter the dorm room.

                                                  

A few days passed.  Harry and Hermione continued doing research and making plans for Harry’s transition.  The Second Task and the larger mission against Voldemort took a backseat, and that, more than anything else, was what made Harry so sure that Hermione meant it when she said that she loved Harry.  When she called her a sister.

It was one of the best weeks of her life, even if it was awkward for the two of them to navigate in public.  Hermione quickly learned to get very clever in her avoidance of pronouns, which filled Harry with joy while also forcing her to stifle a chuckle now and again.  Now, they had finally found some time when Harry didn’t have homework to catch up on, and they could finally try out a rather … unorthodox… suggestion that Hermione had thought of.

“Where did you even get this polyjuice potion?  Who were you planning on impersonating, Hermione?”

Her nose scrunched as she half-grinned at Harry.  “No one.  Dobby stole a bit from the Death Eater impersonating M—someone in the castle.  Just enough for this little experiment.”

“You’re really just never going to tell me who it is?”  It didn’t really bother Harry, not after Hermione assured her that she was absolutely safe until the Third Task.  But that didn’t alleviate her curiosity.  Harry had no clue who it could be.

“I will tell you before the Third Task.  Probably.  Or maybe after.  We’ll see how our plan works out.”  Hermione made a goofy face.  “I will tell you as soon as I know there are no risks of ruining the plan.”

“Fiiiiine,” Harry drawled.  Then her eyes tracked the vial of polyjuice in Hermione’s hand.  “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“I’m sure.”  Hermione smirked, then pulled on a hair from her own head and dropped it into the vial.  It frothed and bubbled and smoked for several seconds as it resolved into a deep indigo that looked more like a fizzy drink than its previous muddy consistency.  “Seems only fair, honestly.  I took a ride around in your body once before.”

Harry choked on her own spit.  “What?!”

“It was a few days before your seventeenth birthday.  Actually, you know what?  It’s a long story.  Basically, we needed to distract the Death Eaters if they attacked us while we were trying to move you, so a bunch of us took Polyjuice to split their attention.”

“You put yourself in danger to protect me?”  Harry wasn’t sure how she felt about it.  She tried really hard not to think about other people in her body.  It was bad enough she had to be in it herself.

“Of course we did, silly.  We loved  you.”  Hermione made a face.  “Well most of us.  Pretty sure Mundungus was only there because Mad-Eye threatened  him, and Fleur was there because it was the right thing to do, and she knew that you were important.”

“Fleur Delacour turned into me?!” Harry shrieked.

Hermione winced.  “Yikes, I really shouldn’t have opened this can of worms.”

“B-but you said that you and Fleur weren’t—”

“Oh, we weren’t,” Hermione blurted, shaking her head.  “I mean, I hadn’t even realized I was gay yet.  And she was actually, erm, married to William—uh, Bill at the time.”

“Bill Weasley?!”  Harry knew that she was shouting now, but it wasn’t really her fault.  How could Hermione keep dropping bombs like this, as if it were totally normal that Fleur Delacour somehow married Ginny’s oldest brother.

“You know what, Harry, this is all really beside the point.”  Harry just gaped.  It wasn’t fair for Hermione to just expect her brain to work properly after all that.  “Fine!” Hermione conceded.  “Quick rundown.”

She began listing off things while counting on her fingers.  “Fleur stayed in Britain to help with the war against Voldemort.  She got a job at Gringotts and met William.  Their marriage was one of convenience, not love.”  Her face scrunched up thoughtfully, then she corrected, “Not romantic love, anyway—I’m sure they loved each other, but as dear friends.  Fleur wanted to fit into British society a little easier, and William … well, he had some issues he needed to work through, things he was hiding from his family, and he needed Molly to think he was in a serious relationship.  I … the specifics aren’t for me to tell.” 

Hermione took a breath and kept going.  “Once Voldemort was out in the open, it felt like it was only a matter of time before they started going after muggle-borns and foreigners and people with non-human blood.  Fleur was concerned about being deported or worse, so she and William agreed to get married until after Voldemort was defeated.”  Hermione paused, chewing momentarily on her lower lip.  “Does it make more sense now?”

“I suppose.”  In truth, none of it made much sense to Harry, but she hadn’t really given much thought to pure-blood politics or societal prejudices.  If anything, it made her that much more worried about her own path.  “Erm, Hermione?  What was it like … uh, being me, I mean?”

Hermione’s mouth opened into the shape of a silent ‘oh.’  Her eyes darted around as she collected her thoughts, and then she said, “Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention.  We were fighting for our lives.”  Harry frowned, thinking it must be nice to just be able to ignore how wrong her body felt so easily.  But then Hermione kept talking. 

“I guess the first thing I noticed—” she blushed, “—well, the second thing I noticed was just that I felt kind of off, ya know?  Like … I mean it’s obvious, I was a girl in a boy’s body, and you were taller than me and the center of gravity was different and bigger feet and hands and … whatever.  But it isn’t anything I can really point to; I just felt weird.  Wrong feels too strong a word, but just … very conscious that I was not myself anymore.”

Her eyes flicked up to Harry’s.  “Does that make sense?  Are … are you worried about how it will feel to be me?”

Harry couldn’t help but chuckle.  “Actually, I was going to say that sounds a lot like how I feel on a regular basis.”  She pursed her lips.  “I mean, not the center of gravity stuff, but just feeling conscious—all the time—that I’m not myself, that my body feels wrong and off and like clothes that don’t fit right, but so much worse.”

That made Hermione frown again, and her face went thoughtful.  Then she smiled softly as she held out the vial to Harry.  “Well, I hope that maybe this helps you feel a little more right, even if only for a little bit.”

Harry took the vial, and her insides felt like they were throwing a party in her gut.  It was the first time she could remember not knowing whether her nerves were good nerves or bad nerves.  She glanced around the room until she found what she didn’t quite realize she was looking for: a door.  Tonight, the Room of Requirement had turned itself into an intimate, comfortable sitting room.  The door was probably the reason they came here instead of the Reading Room.  All the books in the world, but no loo.  Or dressing room, or whatever was behind that door.

“That should be a comfortable place for you to, um, explore things.”  As Harry looked back to her best friend, she saw that Hermione was blushing.  Which of course got Harry thinking about what was about to happen, and then she was blushing too.  “Look,” Hermione locked eyes with her for just a moment, just long enough that Harry felt sure Hermione was being deadly serious here, and then she was staring down at her hands again. 

“I know this is … well, unavoidably awkward in a lot of ways.  But please know that I am okay with … whatever.  This is your chance to see how it feels to have, erm, to see if a girl’s body is what feels right for you.  This is about helping find solutions for your dysphoria.  So just … think of it as your own body, okay?  Look and touch—” Hermione’s whole face went red, and Harry was sure her own had a matching complexion.  “And whatever, just whatever feels right or interesting or curious, okay?” 

Neither of them could look at the other, so Harry doubted Hermione saw her nod softly.  Then she stood up and hurried towards the door, desperate to escape the awkwardness.  Just before she reached the door, however, Hermione added one last bit of awkward.  “And have fun!  I’ll be here to chat about any of it—or none of it—afterwards, whatever you want.  We have an hour, remember.”

Harry hummed something like agreement, then pulled open the door and walked inside.  It was nothing like she expected—something halfway between a loo and a dressing room and almost as spacious as the sitting room she had just left.  The walls were a royal blue, and most of the floor was covered in a soft, fluffy cream-coloured carpet.  Only the cutesy, stand-alone sink to Harry’s right and the toilet stall in the far right corner featured tile flooring of a soft mint green.  Between them was a tall curtain, maybe a couple of feet wide, hiding something that Harry couldn’t help but imagine was probably a full-length mirror.  The far left corner featured a very comfortable-looking mint-green couch, with a matching chair, and to Harry’s immediate left was a rack of hanging clothes.

Resisting her initial curious impulse to rush over and see what sort of clothes were there, Harry turned her attention back to the polyjuice potion in her hand.  And before she could overthink or let her nerves call this whole thing off, she downed the entire potion in one long gulp.  Unsurprisingly, it tasted much better than the Goyle potion she took in her second year, but Harry couldn’t put a name to the exact constellation of flavours she experienced.  Nor did she have the time to dwell on it, as the moment it hit her throat it began to burn, and then she was lost in a haze of heat and pain as her body reshaped itself.

When she felt like she could breathe again, her perspective had shifted in a host of subtle ways.  Surprisingly the first thing she noticed was not anything inherently feminine about her changed body—rather, it was that her vision had gone blurry, new eyes not having any need for her well-worn spectacles.  Only after she had removed them, pointedly ignoring the mirror over the sink as she moved to set the glasses down on the tiny little table between the couch and the chair—only then did she begin to realize how different she felt.

The changes weren’t visibly obvious, not in the slightly too large unisex school robes she was wearing.  But the feelings—she was so much more aware of how the fabric felt against her chest, and the boxer shorts she was wearing squeezed ever so slightly against her hips where they had been loose before.  As an athlete, she could feel her center of gravity was just different enough to feel weird.  And as she looked down, she could see fingers that were ever so slightly longer and more delicate than before.

Bloody hell.

Harry took in a deep breath to try and center herself, but all that breath escaped in shock as she felt the extra weight on her chest as it rose.  Her hands moved before she could even think about it.  She had boobs—breasts.  Harry wasn’t actually sure which word was more respectful.  Her first thought was that they were squishier than she expected, and it was such a ridiculous thought that she broke into a complete giggle fit.

And like that, all her nerves released.  Her hands moved around her new boobs, seeing what it felt like to push them together and then lifting them up, seeing the outline of them for the first time.  It was surreal.  The most surreal part was probably that it just felt normal.  Nice.  Even so, that didn’t mean she was ready for … anything else.

So, she sat down so that she could take off her trainers.  Hermione’s feet must have been close to the same size as Harry’s—the shoes hadn’t gotten tighter or looser, the fit was just a little different.  Harry bent forward to untie them, and as she did so, she felt them again, pressing against her thighs.  And that just made her giggle all the more.

Harry quickly sobered up though, when she stood again, barefoot and with nothing left to do but just … take off the robes.  She pulled the hem up to the knee of her new legs before she lost her nerve and dropped the hem back down to the floor.  Instead, she tried to talk herself through it.  You can do this.  You can do this.  You can do this.

Contrary to her inner monologue, Harry felt terrified.  She didn’t even know why.  It was fun and games to touch the boobs, why is it suddenly scary to actually look at them?  She snickered at that, and then her eyes caught on a small chest of drawers she hadn’t previously noted, on the wall next to the door.  Padding over, Harry thought she felt different just in the way she walked.  There were two drawers.  The top had a selection of women’s knickers.  Harry had been forced to do the Dursleys’ laundry for years, so she had seen her share of pants, but Petunia’s were nothing like this.  These were simple, but cute, and cut like the bottoms of a bikini.  Harry ran her hand over them gently, appreciated how soft they felt.  She wondered if they were comfortable.

Harry had always worn baggy boxer shorts growing up.  They weren’t comfortable, but she had always preferred them.  In hindsight, maybe that was because they hid her.  Clothes were never cute; they were something to hide her body behind.  Honestly, she’d never been happier than when she was able to start wearing the billowy school robes all the time.

These knickers wouldn’t really hide anything.  They were sort of the opposite.  They were cute, and they felt nice on her skin.  But Harry wasn’t sure she could actually … wear them.

She sucked in a breath as slowly as she could, then blew it all out loudly.  This time she whispered the chant out loud, “You can do this.  You can do this.”  Then she ducked her head through the collar of the robes and pulled them over her head in one motion, before she could chicken out again.  It was more difficult than expected, thanks to her hair.  The robes gathered on the floor, and Harry shivered, gooseflesh breaking out across her body.

Then she looked down.  A wild array of thoughts went through her mind as her eyes explored all the differences in her form.  Her hands, though, stayed frozen in the air.  There was a particular difference that she had been subconsciously avoiding, and now, with her borrowed body exposed to the cool air, it was getting increasingly more difficult to ignore it.  The absence between her legs.

Finally, Harry let her gaze settle on the boxer shorts, which shockingly looked almost cute on her now subtly curvier frame.  And she couldn’t fight the way her face broke into a wide smile of its own accord.  Her pants hung there on her hips, perfectly flat against her body all the way down.  She was free, even if only for an hour, from the growth that had formerly occupied that space.  Something that had been attached to her body without her permission, that had always been an inconvenience at best.

And now it was gone.  Harry’s whole being felt lighter.  Freer.

Even so, the thought of exploring with her hands, rather than her eyes, felt impossible.  Try as she might to avoid the thought, some part of her brain nagged at her that this wasn’t her body.  That it was beyond strange, bordering on perverse, that she was looking at her best friend’s body this way.

But Hermione had been emphatic and heartfelt when she said that it was fine.  Good, even.  Harry knew she meant it.  And as long as Harry didn’t look at the face in the mirror, she could maintain just enough cognitive dissonance not to freak out.  She just didn’t think she had the willpower to extend beyond not freaking out and into anything close to an ability to just comfortably touch.

Start small, came a small voice in her head, different than the nagging one.  Her eyes went back to the drawer of knickers.  They suddenly looked so inviting.  Start small.  You can do this.

Harry quickly tugged the boxer shorts down and off, pointedly looking anywhere else than at herself as she did so.  She stepped free of the pants pooled on the floor and rifled through the options available in the drawer.  Only then did it occur to her that the knickers seemed brand new.  Meaning the Room of Requirement had created these clothes just for Harry.

The realization was nearly overwhelming.  Harry had never felt true affirmation before, and it was fantastical, to be hit with a wave of it from a magical room, of all things.  And just like that, the nagging voice was gone, along with her nerves.  She felt almost euphoric.

Harry selected a simple but sleek plum-coloured pair.  Still possessed by the strange sense of confidence that had taken her over, she savoured the way the fabric felt as she slipped her legs into them and pulled them up.  They fit her body perfectly—none of the excess, clunky fabric on her legs.  And it was honestly an accident, at first, when her fingers slipped a little bit lower as she traced how the fabric felt against her body.

She didn’t jerk her hand away, though.  For years, she’d been so curious.  There had been a lot of time alone with her thoughts in that cupboard, and more than once, her mind lingered on what it would feel like, to have a girl’s body.  She dreamed of waking up one day magically transformed, how she would have to pretend to be freaked out but secretly would just be curiously excited.  This was different from her dream, and she’d never really given much thought—not in detail—to what things might feel like … down there.

It was squishier than she expected.  Girls’ bodies were squishy in a lot of places, it seemed.  Her fingers lingered for just a few moments, getting a sense for how it felt, both to touch and be touched, and then she let it go.  She decided that she didn’t want her exploration to go any further, not until it was her own body.  For real.

Because she was sure now, that this was what she wanted.  Any lingering doubts were gone.  This was who she had always been meant to be.

Harry took her time trying on clothes.  She knew Hermione was probably getting nervous, waiting out in the sitting room for however long it had been.  Finally, she settled on a simple dress.  Short sleeves, a scoop neck, black with a pastel floral pattern, and a loose hem that ended just above her knees.  She had even managed to pull back the curtain and take a look at herself in the mirror, focusing on the dress and avoiding the face and the cloud of bushy hair.

Harry felt like such a girl, and she couldn’t stop smiling.

She walked out, barefoot, and found Hermione pacing.  She turned to face Harry at the sound of the door, and she halted in place, her mouth falling open.  “Wow.”  Harry froze, unsure what that meant.  Hermione immediately smiled, stepping forward to wrap Harry in a hug.  “Sorry, I just meant that it’s weird looking at myself, and in a girly dress like that.”

For a long moment, Harry let herself revel in the comfort of Hermione’s arms.  It was nice being the same height again.  Hermione had grown a bit since the beginning of the semester, quick enough that part of Harry wondered if her body was trying to catch up to her mind, agewise.

They moved to sit, and Hermione grinned broadly.  “So, how does it feel?”

Harry opened her mouth, but nothing came out.  How was she supposed to translate her feelings into words?  How could she describe this feeling deep down in her soul?  She sighed.  “I don’t even…  Hermione, it’s like … this is the closest I’ve ever felt to feeling … not wrong.”

Hermione made a face.  “Not wrong.  Hmmm, that almost sounds like … right?”

Harry shrugged.  “It’s close.  As much as I try, I can’t escape that it’s your body, not mine.  Especially now that I’m speaking out loud, with your voice.”

“Huh,” Hermione mused.  “Your voice isn’t something I had thought about.  But you know, your voice is perfectly fine.  It may even be a bit higher than mine, honestly.  Is it something you think about?”

“Actually no,” Harry admitted.  She hadn’t really thought about the way she sounded.  “I still feel like it sounds like a boy’s voice though, in a way I can’t explain.  Can we look at whether there’s a way to fix that too?”

“Sure.  But there may not be any need.”  She smirked.  “It may be that you’ll feel differently about it as the context changes.  As your body and your experience of the world shifts.  Assuming that is what you want.”

“It is.  It definitely is.  I’m sure of it now.”

Hermione smirked.  “Well then, I’d consider this little experiment a roaring success.”  She glanced down at her watch.  “Now, we’ve got about 20 minutes left.  Anything you wanna talk about?  Any questions?”

Harry looked down as she pondered that, and she remembered Hermione’s reaction to the dress she was wearing.

“I guess you don’t really wear dresses like this, huh?”

Hermione’s nose scrunched up a little as she admitted, “Well, no.  Dresses aren’t really my thing.  I’m more of an athletic wear and plaid sort of girl.”

Harry’s heart sank a little.  “Is that … like, a lesbian thing?”

“I suppose so,” Hermione chuckled.  “I mean, let’s not go overboard with stereotyping here, but—”  Her mouth formed a silent ‘oh,’ and she fixed Harry with that look, the one where she could see through into Harry’s soul.  “Harry, there are plenty of lesbians who are quite feminine—dresses, makeup, heels, the whole package.”

“So, just because I like dresses doesn’t mean I have to, like, date boys or anything?”

This time Hermione fell over, she was laughing so hard.  Harry glared, but it was several moments before Hermione calmed down again.  “Honestly, Harry, that might be the most lesbian thing you’ve ever said.  You have nothing to worry about, sweetie—you don’t have to date boys unless you end up liking boys—”

“Yeah no,” she interrupted, sparking more chuckles from Hermione.

“Don’t worry, Harry.  You’re not a straight girl; you’re just a femme.”  Her eyes lit up.  “Like Fleur!  Her style is impeccable and girly and fantastic, and she definitely doesn’t like boys, right?”

That actually made Harry feel a lot better. "How are things going with Fleur?" she asked, tentatively. 

Hermione sighed. "Well, she hasn't forgiven me yet.  We've only had a few short conversations, and every time I try to apologize or bring up my feelings, she shuts me down.  I might've blown it."

"Don't give up.  Not yet.  Fleur seems pretty stubborn, but I've seen the way she looks at you.  And anyways, you're great!  She'd be lucky to date you."

"We'll see."  Hermione shook her head.  "But enough about my sad love life.  What else is on your mind right now?" 

The answer popped into her head immediately.  “How is the potion coming?  The one to fix my hormones?”

“I’m not sure fix is the right word.  It will rebalance your hormone production to more closely resemble that of a female body, so that you can go through the correct puberty.  Or … it should.”  Hermione sighed.  “I’m still doing the research.  I’m way better at potions than I was when I was in… well, than the first time I was in school, but I’m hardly a master.  I mean… I only got an exceeds expectations on my potions N.E.W.T., but I sort of took up potion-brewing as a hobby after the war and—”

“Hermione!  Focus?”  Hermione pursed her lips, but they both knew Harry was right.  Hermione got off topic sometimes, and Harry was well accustomed to reeling her back in.

“Fine.  The point is, I’m trying to understand everything about these potion recipes I got from the journal: what the different ingredients do, how they interact, all that, because I’m not going to test something on you until I’m sure I’ve gotten it perfect.  I know you’re sure now, and that’s great, but I love you, and I’m not going to risk screwing this up for you by rushing it.”

The joy she always felt at Hermione’s fierce protectiveness outweighed the momentary disappointment and impatience at not being able to start fixing her body immediately.

“Speaking of not rushing things, how is it going with figuring out your new name?”

Harry hummed.  “Well, I know that I want it to start with H.  I’ve got a few possibilities, but I haven’t settled on anything yet.  I do know that I want to honour my mum with my middle name, but …”  She played nervously with her fingers.  “I don’t know if I want my middle name to be Lily or Evans.  Which, uh, do you think sounds better?”

“Why don’t you just wait?  See which feels better with the first name that you choose?”  Harry nodded, thinking it was a great idea, and then Hermione glanced at her watch again.  “Okay, we’re almost out of time.  How are you feeling?”

Harry felt like she was going to be sick.  “I feel like I don’t want to go back.”  She could feel heat behind her eyes, and something wet on her cheeks.  “I feel so, so good like this, and I don’t—”  Hermione wrapped her arms around Harry, who let herself sink into the warmth of her body.  She drew in a shaky breath.  “But I know now.  I know that this is what I want.”

“Any worries?”  Hermione’s voice was gentle, almost soothing.

“Just that people will think I’m a freak.”  Before Hermione could rush to comfort her, Harry shook her head.  “No, it’s fine.  Honestly.  At this point, I’m used to being gawked at.  Bullied and ostracized… I’ve dealt with all of that my entire life.”  She pulled back and offered Hermione a wry half-smile.  “Maybe it’s about time I got bullied for something I actually chose for myself.  Something that actual means something to me.”  She giggled.  “Something that maybe means … everything, actually.”

Hermione’s smile grew wide.  “I’m so proud of you.”  Then she frowned.  “But you know, the potion is only a temporary solution.”

“I know,” sighed Harry.  “It just means I’ll have to tell Professor McGonagall sooner rather than later.  Assuming she’ll even agree to perform the transfiguration work for me.”

Hermione stroked her hand along Harry’s forearm.  “She will.  I will make sure of it.  But I was thinking maybe it might be a good idea to hold off on the major changes until the summer.”

“Make a clean break,” Harry agreed, having had similar thoughts.  “Start fresh in the fall.  New school year, new me.”  Unfortunately, that also forced her to think about the summer, and more specifically, where she would be spending it.  “Umm, Hermione, do you have a plan yet… for making sure I don’t have to go back to the Dursleys’?”

Surprisingly, Hermione’s entire body language brightened.  “I absolutely do.”

                                                  

Hermione probably should’ve discussed her plans with Harry before she went ahead and set them up, but there hadn’t really been time, not with everything going on.  Besides, Hogsmeade weekends only came around a few times per semester, and Hermione already knew that Rita Skeeter would be in the village on this particular weekend.

So, she had already coordinated the meeting with Skeeter at the Hog’s Head before she told Harry it was happening.  Fortunately, instead of blowing up at Hermione for not discussing it with her first, Harry was unbelievably excited.  She had to take a break from her excitement when she began to feel her body shifting back, but regardless, she was fully on board with the plan.

Convincing Ron was nowhere near as easy.  As much as things had improved between the three of them since the First Task, it wasn’t like before.  Probably, it never would be.  Hermione wasn’t that person anymore, and it was quickly becoming clear that neither was Harry.  These days, Ron spent as much time with Dean and Seamus as he did with Harry and Hermione, if not more.  When they told him that they wanted to meet with Rita Skeeter, he had looked at them like they were absolutely batshit insane.

But Hermione knew Ron pretty well, after years as friends, and she knew how to sell him on something.  It helped that it was the right thing to do, even if Skeeter wasn’t the most trustworthy conduit for the story, and ultimately, Hermione didn’t even have to tell Ron about her deal with Skeeter in order to get him to go along with it.

Now they were on the outskirts of the village, and Hermione could see the skeptical look on Ron’s face as they approached the shoddy pub and inn.  His eyes lingered on the old wooden sign over the door, depicting a severed, bleeding boar’s head, and he asked, “Are students even allowed here?”

“Yes,” Hermione answered, “but Professor Flitwick recommended that we bring our own cups.”  She pushed past him and opened the door, holding it for Harry to enter first.  Harry shot her a quick grin at the gesture.  The interior was dark, dingy, and exactly how she remembered it.  There were a couple of patrons at the bar, a few more at one of the tables.  Hermione’s gaze briefly met the familiar crystal blue eyes of the establishment’s owner, and an unexpected sense of discomfort washed over her as no look of recognition formed there.  But Aberforth Dumbledore had never met her in this timeline, so he had no reason to know who she was. 

Skeeter was already seated in the corner farthest from the bar, unveiling a predatory smile as she focused on Harry in particular.  Hermione glared at her, but Skeeter just made an unimpressed face in response.  Things between them were notably different than in the original timeline.  Last time, the three of them had run into her at the Three Broomsticks and made a huge scene, with both Harry and Hermione berating Skeeter angrily about outing Hagrid as half-giant.  Fortunately, with Hermione’s magically enforced contract prohibiting Skeeter from buzzing around the Hogwarts grounds in beetle form, she hadn’t had the opportunity to learn about Hagrid’s heritage, much less write a trashy exposé stoking all the worst bigotry in magical Britain against him.  No, this time, Rita Skeeter’s talents were being directed towards much more useful and worthwhile endeavors.

“Hello again, dear Harry,” Rita greeted, her voice full of faux warmth that Hermione could see through quite easily.  Her wardrobe was decidedly more drab this time around, robes of a pale blue, and Hermione at least appreciated the effort to stand out less than usual. Harry offered a tentative greeting as the three of them sat, and Aberforth came over to take their orders.  Hermione produced three clean mugs out of her bag and asked for butterbeers for each of them.  She swore she saw a subtle grin hidden away in his beard as he took the mugs with a grunt of acknowledgement.

Hermione cast a quick muffliato to protect their privacy, and while Aberforth poured their drinks, Rita pulled out her bright green Quick Quotes Quill, which poised itself over her notebook to take down what would no doubt be an overblown exaggeration of whatever they said.  “The last story you passed me got quite the attention, Granger.  I hope you’ve got something equally as juicy for me this time.”

“Oi!” Ron exclaimed, eyes bugging at his head whipped around towards Hermione.  “That Lockhart story was from you?”

Hermione shrugged, blushing a little.  She had promised Skeeter information, and she had to deliver something.  The story about Gilderoy Lockhart was relatively harmless, though it wasn’t like Lockhart was even well enough to be bothered by an article revealing him for the fraud he was.  Ultimately, it was perfect Skeeter bait, just scandalous and gossipy enough to brighten her day.

Lockhart was the vainglorious author who had served as the Hogwarts Defense Against the Dark Arts in Hermione’s second year.  Hermione didn’t have any solid evidence to give Skeeter, but she was more than happy to reveal that Lockhart was a fraud, who had become famous by stealing information, knowledge, and discoveries from others, obliviating their memories, and then publishing the work as his own.  That pattern had blown up in his face when he had accidentally let his secret slip to Ron and Harry, then stole Ron’s broken wand and tried to use it to obliviate them.  The wand backfired, leaving Lockhart with a severe case of magical amnesia, and someone—probably Professor Dumbledore—had covered most of the story up.

It had made for quite the gossip around the school, and most likely in the wider magical community, and Hermione didn’t regret it for a second.  “Yeah, Ron, that was me.”

“Granger and I have something of an understanding, young man.”  Ron looked completely gobsmacked by this information.  Harry stifled a chuckle; she already knew about Hermione’s magical contract with Skeeter.  But Ron still thought of her as the rule-obsessed, know-it-all bookworm.

“Blimey,” he muttered, and before he could say anything else, Aberforth returned with their butterbeers.  Harry handed him a handful of sickles, paying for all three. 

“Yes, well then.  What do you have for me?”

“No Quick Quotes Quill on this,” Hermione demanded.  Rita opened her mouth to protest, and Hermione held up a hand.  “No.  This is too important, and I’m not going to have that thing misrepresenting anything.  The details must be precise, and trust me, we will give you more than enough information to work with.”

Skeeter glared daggers at her, but put away the Quill, replacing it with a normal quill and bottle of ink.  Then she gestured for Hermione to get on with it.

“Sirius Black.”  Hermione intentionally played up her nonchalance to see if she could get a rise out of Skeeter.  It worked.

“Please,” she scoffed, voice shriller than usual.  “What would three underage students know about the most famous dark wizard in the country?”  Her eyes turned harsh as they focused on Harry.  “If any of you knew anything about Sirius Black, I suspect young Harry here would already be dead.”

“You’re wrong,” Harry hissed.  “About all of it.”

Rita pursed her lips, a perfectly manicured eyebrow raising skeptically.  Hermione rolled her eyes.  “While I don’t know why you bother with this pretense that I would waste my time trying to lie to you, it really doesn’t matter.  We’re about to tell you a lot of information, all of it true, and we can provide additional witnesses to corroborate the story.  You’re already here—you may as well listen.”

Skeeter shrugged, exuding disappointment and skepticism, but even so, she agreed with a haughty, “Fine.”

“Harry, do you want to start or should I?”  Harry hadn’t stopped glaring at Skeeter, and as such, she didn’t notice the way Ron huffed a little that Hermione didn’t let him be the one to tell the story.

“You go ahead.”

“Okay.”  Hermione turned her attention back to Skeeter.  “First of all, everything you know about Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew, and the betrayal of the Potters is wrong.”  She didn’t think Skeeter could look more doubtful, but it turned out she was wrong about that.  She kept going anyway.  “The official story is that Sirius Black volunteered to keep the secret of the Potters’ location under the protection of the Fidelius Charm.  That part is actually true, but at the last minute, Sirius recommended that James make Pettigrew the Secret-Keeper.  No one would expect it, and anyone suspecting the use of the Fidelius would go after Sirius.  It was a smart plan, except that Pettigrew had been a double agent for the Death Eaters for over a year at that point.”

“Okay that’s enough.  I read up on Pettigrew—he was a weak, cowardly little man.  There’s no way he was spying for You Know Who.  Besides, he died.”

“No, he didn’t!” Ron blustered.  “He faked his death, then he hid as our family rat for years!” 

“Oh, and now he’s an unregistered animagus, on top of everything else,” Skeeter derided.

Hermione snorted.  “As if that’s a difficult thing for you to believe.”  Skeeter paled, and Hermione continued with the story, savouring the opportunity to put the older woman in her place.  “Pettigrew is an unregistered animagus, and yes, he is still alive.  All three of us saw him transform, and he confessed everything.  You’re right that he’s a coward, and that’s why he sided with the Death Eaters.  He didn’t think Voldemort—” she smirked at the way Rita and Ron both squirmed at the use of his name, “—could be beaten, and he wasn’t brave enough to face those fears.  He chose the easy path, and he has been a groveling servant ever since.”

“He confessed all this to all of you?”  They nodded.  “Why?  None of this makes sense.  Why would he reveal himself to three children and then confess to heinous crimes?”

“It wasn’t just us,” Harry answered.

“Ah yes, the mysterious other witnesses.”

Hermione waved her hand dismissively.  “We’ll get there.  Suffice to say, Pettigrew was forced to reveal himself and then to admit to what he had done.”  She took a sip of her butter beer, and she could see that she had Rita’s attention now.

“Pettigrew faked his death to frame Sirius for everything.  They only found a finger left of him, because he severed a finger and escaped in the turmoil, as a rat.  People close to the Potters thought they knew that Sirius was the Secret-Keeper, and only Sirius, James, and Lily knew otherwise.  Sirius was mad with grief and guilt, and he was so furious at Pettigrew, and that’s all those muggles who saw their duel could remember.”

“Then why didn’t any of this come up at his trial, when he was less… mad?”

“He never got a trial,” Harry growled.

Her passion took Skeeter by surprise, and Hermione put a hand on Harry’s forearm.  “Sirius is Harry’s godfather,” she explained.  “We’re all a little protective over him, now that we know the truth.”

Rita’s eyes sparkled.  “You know where he is, don’t you?”

“No.  But if we can reach an agreement, we can get you in touch with him.”

“Ah.  So, he’s using you to try and prove his innocence.  I write a big story, people start asking questions, maybe he finally gets a real trial, is that it?”

“Wait, what?” Ron gasped.  “That’s what this is all about?”

Hermione fixed him with a sharp look.  “Yes, that’s the idea.  But no, Sirius doesn’t know anything about this at all.  I suspect if anything, he would have strongly recommended that Harry avoid you at all costs.”

Skeeter actually chortled at that, and Hermione was a little surprised to discover that she was capable of what appeared to be self-awareness like this.  “I suppose you lot should tell me the whole story.  And be careful to make it abundantly clear why I should stick my neck out on this story.  Make it worth my while.”

Hermione sighed.  “How very typical.  Fine.  The important parts of the story took place last June, at the end of the semester.  You see, Sirius escaped Azkaban because he noticed a little detail in one of his guards’ copy of the Daily Prophet.  A familiar-looking rat, missing a finger, in the Weasley family photo published when they won a vacation to Egypt.  He came to Hogwarts for Pettigrew.  Everything finally came to a head in June.”

“We got caught up in Sirius’s attempt to get Wormtail—” Hermione shot Harry a look, and she rushed to correct herself, “Sorry, Pettigrew.  He was still posing as Ron’s rat—”

“Scabbers,” Ron added, shuddering a little at the thought.

“Right.  Anyways, it was the three of us and the rat and Sirius.  We were terrified, because we still thought Sirius was a murderer who was after me, but he was disarmed, and we weren’t.  But then, Pro—”

“The second witness,” Hermione interrupted, not quite sure she wanted to give away Lupin’s identity yet.  “Showed up.”

Harry and Ron both seemed a little confused, but they continued to follow Hermione’s lead.  She nodded to Harry, who kept telling the story.  “Anyways,” her eyes stayed on Hermione, as if she was afraid to reveal too much now, “he was, um, a friend… of Sirius.”

“It’s okay, Harry.  He was a close friend of Sirius, James, Lily, and even Pettigrew.  He showed up and hugged Sirius.  We thought it was a betrayal, but then they exposed Pettigrew.  Performed a spell to reveal his human form.  And that changed everything.”

They both looked to Ron.  “Oh, I get to talk now?”

“Don’t be a prat, Ron.”

“Fine,” he sighed.  “Right, so, they made Wormtail tell us everything.  That he was the Secret-Keeper.  Gave You Know Who the location of Harry and his parents.  When Sirius confronted him, he killed a bunch of muggles and faked his own death.  Harry wouldn’t let them kill him.  We were gonna turn him over to Dumbledore, so that Sirius could be free.  But then Sn—”

“Shh,” Hermione interrupted, again.  “His name isn’t important either.  Not yet.  Another professor found us, and everything fell apart,” Hermione explained to an increasingly amused Rita Skeeter.  “Pettigrew escaped, and no one could corroborate Sirius’s innocence but me and Harry because Ron and the other witness were indisposed.  And the Minister wouldn’t listen to reason.  He insisted that Sirius receive the dementor’s kiss immediately.”

Harry tensed up.  Hermione knew that the dementors still bothered her.  She hated them too, but she wasn’t affected as badly as Harry.  Those things were like magically condensed depression monsters, and it was horrific that the Ministry of Magic used them as guards to feed on the happiness of prisoners in Azkaban.

“Now this, this is juicy.  Do tell me more,” Skeeter urged.

“Okay well no, because that’s basically the whole story.  Sirius got away again, and Fudge won’t believe us, and no one seems interested in clearing the name of an innocent man.  Barty Crouch sentenced Sirius to a lifetime in Azkaban without a trial, for a crime he didn’t commit.  Dumbledore believes our story, but he won’t stick his neck out for Sirius.  And Minister Fudge will do anything to ensure that Sirius has his soul sucked out by a depression monster, because if the truth got out, it wouldn’t look so good for the man whose political career took off when he was the one to catch the man responsible for the Potters’ deaths.”  She took in a frustrated breath, not having meant to dial it up quite that far.  But, for once, Skeeter looked authentically impressed.  So, Hermione pushed her luck.

“This isn’t one of your salacious tales, alright?  This is about justice for a good man.  This is about Harry getting a real chance at family.  But if you promise to give the story the care and attention it deserves, there should be some scandal there to really hold your attention.  Promise us you’ll do this, and we’ll set up an interview with Sirius and the other witness.  They might give you enough to interview Dumbledore, the professor we mentioned, and even Fudge, if he’ll talk to you.”

A long moment of silence passed before Rita smiled widely and reached for Harry’s hand.  Hermione resisted the urge to bat it away.  “Maybe I’m just feeling overly sentimental right now, or maybe your friend Granger has a better way with words than I gave her credit for.  But I think we’ve got something here.  Something big.  So, let’s do it!  Let’s prove that your poor dear godfather is an innocent man!  And we’ll bring down Fudge’s entire administration if we have to!”

The over the top fervor worried Hermione, but she had no attachments to Minister Fudge, and she doubted Rita would really find enough to get Fudge out of office.  All that really mattered was getting enough of the story out there that the Department of Magical Law Enforcement would have to give Sirius a fair trial.  Harry deserved a parent who would protect her and support her and love her.  Sirius was the best candidate for that job.  And whatever her many flaws, Rita Skeeter had a knack for investigative journalism that could finally bring all this out in the open, so long as Hermione didn’t let her get too far off in the weeds.

“So, tell me about this second witness.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s Professor Lupin,” Ron answered without thinking.

Hermione glared at him as Skeeter’s eyes went wide.  “Remus Lupin?  The werewolf?”

“Merlin,” Hermione sighed.  This is going to be a nightmare.

Chapter Text

The next month passed with startling swiftness.  Hermione’s schedule was so packed that for once, she genuinely missed her time turner.  Between her research into hormone modulation potions, planning for the Third Task, helping Harry prepare for the Second Task, and trying to both make amends with and help Fleur with her own Second Task strategy, Hermione felt like she could hardly breathe.

But somehow, they had made it through.  Hopefully.  As much as Fleur’s icy façade had started to melt again, she had been surprisingly tight-lipped about her tactics for the task.  Hermione had insisted that she be sure to avoid the dark forests of tall weeds and their grindylow infestations, but she couldn’t get any details from Fleur on what she actually would be doing.

Now, it was the night before the task, and Hermione found herself being led by the hand by a very excited, very secretive Harry Potter.

It wasn’t curfew yet, but it was late enough that the corridors were mostly deserted.  Most students were hanging out in their dorms or common rooms.  “You’re really not going to tell me what’s going on?” she teased, already sure she knew where Harry was taking her.

“Patience,” Harry scolded.  Hermione just shrugged and let herself be led to the Reading Room.  The usual set up was waiting for them, and Hermione took a seat on the sofa next to Harry.

“Okay, enough with the games, dork.  What’s up?  You nervous about the task tomorrow?”

“No.”  Harry shrugged, smirking.  “Well, yes.  But that’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

Hermione made a face, even more curious now.  “Then what?”

“I figured it out.”  She reached out and gripped both of Hermione’s hands, tightly.  “Took me a month, but I’m finally sure.”

Hermione pursed her lips, her nose scrunching up as she did so.  “Sure about…. what, exactly?”

Harry just grinned and withdrew her hands, then held out her right one, as if asking for a handshake.  “Hullo.  My name is Hailey Evans Potter.  It’s so nice to meet you.”

The smile that spread across Hermione’s face was so big that it hurt.  She shook Harry—no, Hailey’s—hand, then smacked her playfully on the shoulder.  “You’re such a dork!”

“What, you don’t like it?”

“I love it!” Hermione corrected.  “But did you have to be so dramatic about it?”

“Maybe Hailey is more fun than Harry was,” she quipped, and Hermione thought that just might be the case.  She hadn’t seen Hailey this light and comfortable … well, maybe ever, actually.

“Well, in that case, maybe I’m excited to get to know this Hailey Potter.”

Then Hailey clammed up, familiar anxious patterns reasserting themselves as her gaze fixed on nervously shifting fingers in her lap.  “But we have to be careful.  I’m worried that if you get used to calling me Hailey in private—”

“That I’ll slip up when we’re around others,” Hermione finished the thought.  It was a valid concern, but Hermione had been practicing already with avoiding pronouns or, if completely unavoidable, using he when talking about Hailey to others.  She was proud to say that she had never once slipped up when talking to Hailey, though.  “I promise you that I will be careful, Hailey.”

The younger girl’s eyes shot up to meet Hermione’s, and a wide smile broke across her lips at the use of the name.  Hermione wondered if there were legal options they would have to utilize in order to make the name change official or if it was something Magic would address without the need for human intervention.  She had a sneaking suspicion that even now, whatever official records kept by the school and the Ministry had seen the name “Harry James Potter” mysteriously replaced by “Hailey Evans Potter.”  If she was right, Hermione found herself wondering how long it would be until someone noticed.

Hailey had other concerns on her mind, however.  “So, erm, have you made any progress with the potion?”

Hermione frowned.  She knew that Hailey was getting frustrated with Hermione’s caution regarding the potion.  Hermione felt bad, but she wasn’t going to risk giving Hailey an experimental potion until she was absolutely sure it would do what they wanted, without unwanted side effects.  Besides, the regulation unisex swimwear for the Second Task didn’t exactly leave much to the imagination, physique-wise.  It was probably better that the process was still being delayed, all things considered. 

“Progress, yes.  But it isn’t ready, and no, I can’t say when it will be.”  Hailey scowled, and Hermione tried not to take it personally.  “I’m sorry.  I know it’s hard, feeling trapped in your body, especially now that you know what it feels like having the right sort of body for yourself.  But the Second Task is tomorrow, and after that, we have only a few short months to be sure everything is right for the confrontation with Voldemort and Wormtail.  I know months feel like ages for you now, but we have to balance everything, or there will be no future for Hailey Potter at all, you know?”

Hermione hated being so blunt about it, but Hailey was young, just starting to hit puberty, and a mess of trauma, overwhelming emotions, and confused anxieties on top of all of it.  She needed help to keep the bigger picture in mind sometimes.  But even so, Hermione hated feeling like a scold when her best friend was just being hopeful and eager for a better life.  “Besides, it makes sense to delay the big changes until the summer.  Clean break between school years, fresh start.  That’s what you said, right?”

Hailey nodded, still visibly glum.  Hermione blinked back a sudden heat behind her eyes.  “Hey.”  She took Hailey’s hand.  “I promise, I will figure this potion out as soon as I possibly can, even with everything else going on.  And we can decide then if it’s something you want to start immediately or put off until the summer, okay?”

Finally, Hailey brightened, if only a bit.  “Yeah, okay.”

“Good, well in that case, let’s head back to Gryffindor.  You need to be well-rested for tomorrow.”  Hailey followed her as she stood and moved towards the door.

“Hey, you’re going to need rest too, if you still want to get into that lake and help out.”  It was a fair point that Hermione couldn’t much argue with.  Her younger body was no longer used to working through exhaustion in the way her past self had become accustomed during the war.  Regardless, the only sign of concession Hermione offered was a nod and a shrug as they exited the room.

It was only after Hailey had gone to bed that Hermione realized the Second Task would not be going according to the plan she had so meticulously designed.  “Ms. Granger, could you come with me?”  After a bit of reading in the common room, Hermione had just decided to head up to bed.  She hadn’t heard the portrait open, so the voice of Minerva McGonagall behind her had startled her.  Managing to keep her balance, Hermione turned away from the landing.

“Of course, Professor.”  Hermione kept her features blank.  “Is something wrong?”

She felt the vaguely sick sensation of dread settle into her gut.  There was only one reason Minerva would come and find her this late in the evening, on this night. 

“The headmaster needs to see you,” was the cryptic response that Minerva gave her as they walked back out into the castle.  Hermione had to actively stop her eyes from rolling.  She missed the relationship she had with the older witch in the previous timeline, when Minerva had lowered the walls she kept in place to maintain a strict, formal boundary between herself and her charges.

“Right.  Any particular reason?”  Hermione knew the answer, but she couldn’t help prodding.  Her mind raced nervously.  How could I have been so wrong?  Everything she could remember about the Second Task rushed through her mind, and she focused especially on the first time she had lived this night.  She nearly gasped when she realized her mistake.

Hermione had taken her own assumptions as fact.  To her fifteen-year-old mind, it seemed as though Dumbledore had confirmed that observations made during the Yule Ball had determined who was selected as hostages.  Hermione had asked at the time, because as much as she had enjoyed Viktor’s company at the time, it had seemed unbelievable to her that she could be so important to him.  Though the line, “We’ve taken what you’ll sorely miss,” didn’t necessarily signify some massive importance in a person’s life, all things considered.

But whose hostage was she this time?  Hailey’s or Fleur’s?

The answer to that was immediately obvious as they entered the headmaster’s office.  Professor Flitwick had arrived at the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to the office, Cho Chang in tow, just before Minerva and Hermione.  That much hadn’t changed at least.  Neither had the presence of young Gabrielle Delacour, a tiny, sleepy figure dwarfed by the presence of Madam Maxime behind her.  Hermione tried to ignore the thought that Gabby’s presence felt like a stab in the gut.  After all, even if things between herself and Fleur were not in turmoil, they had only known each other a few months, and the connection between the Delacour sisters was obvious to anyone who spent more than a few minutes in their company.

Hermione barely registered Dumbledore’s explanation of why they had all been summoned, a dull haze setting in as she struggled to accept that her plans were worthless now.  It was probably the same speech as in the previous timeline.  Listening wouldn’t do anything to alleviate the frustration at knowing she would be kept asleep during the task—present in the lake as planned, but without any ability to lend Fleur her aid.

Not that Fleur would’ve known it was her.  No one but Hailey knew that Hermione was secretly an animagus.  An otter showing up with a bubblehead charm to fight off grindylows would certainly have been an oddity, but there was no reason for Fleur to guess that it was Hermione.  Now, however, she’d have to wait to spring that secret on her another time.  And hope that Fleur was ready to handle everything on her own, given how poorly she had done in this task the first time around.

It was beyond frustrating, and not just because Hermione was a tiny bit of a control freak.

“Professor, why us?”  The words passed by her lips without conscious thought.  She needed to know, needed to understand where her planning had fallen short.

Everyone looked at her awkwardly, and Hermione blushed, guessing that she might’ve interrupted something.  Furrowed brows conveyed Dumbledore’s confusion at her outburst, but that tell-tale twinkle lingered in his otherwise cold blue eyes.  “Come now, Ms. Granger, I’m sure you’ve listened to the song contained in young Harry’s egg by now.”

Hermione frowned at his insistence on being cryptic, even though she was sure most people found it charming.  Hermione herself had fallen prey to it for most of her school career, back when she had trusted Dumbledore’s motives, before she had realized how manipulative he had been, how much danger he had placed them all in because he refused to trust anyone else with vital information.  Now was neither the time nor place to express any such misgivings.

“Yes, of course, but the champions could miss a lot of things.  Why people?  Loved ones?  And why us in particular?”

“I assure you that you will all be quite safe, as I explained just moments ago.”  Hermione tried not to blush at the subtle call-out.  “As for why, well, there’s nothing quite so powerful or motivating as love.  And not love for a favourite broomstick or lucky trinket, but for the important people in our lives.  Proper motivation provides for a more exciting task, that will better test our champions.  Bring out the best in them, as it were.  That’s why we’re all here, is it not?”

It sounded so inspiring, and she was sure it put the other hostages at ease.  But Hermione wasn’t worried about her safety.  And she believed that both Hailey and Fleur had prepared themselves well enough not only to survive the task, but to thrive in it.  At this point, she just needed her curiosity satisfied.  She needed to know why it was her, and not Ginny.

Hermione dialed up her overly curious schoolgirl act and asked sweetly, “But professor, why me?  The Yule Ball explains Cho and …” she smiled apologetically at the girl she recognized as Krum’s date to the ball, “I’m sorry I don’t know your name.”

“Oksana,” she supplied, but without returning the smile.

“Right.”  Her gaze shifted back to Dumbledore, who seemed amused by the exchange.  “So Oksana and Cho were Viktor and Cedric’s dates, but why Gabrielle and me?”

“There is no one Fleur will fight ‘arder to save than ‘er sister,” Maxime explained, leaning down to place a comforting hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“And I am fully aware that you’ve become like a sister to Mr. Potter,” Minerva said.

“I had originally planned to select Mr. Weasley, believe it or not,” Dumbledore confessed.  “It would seem that I’ve lost touch with my students, I’m afraid.  Professor McGonagall had to inform me of the falling out Mr. Weasley had with you and Mr. Potter.  Though I believe that things are improving on that front, correct?”

Hermione nodded, though she was sure it wasn’t particularly convincing.  It was a bit of a relief to know she hadn’t miscalculated by much.  Ron had been Harry—no, Hailey’s hostage in the original timeline, but she had at least anticipated that Dumbledore and the others wouldn’t go that way, not this time.  Especially not after Hailey spent the entire Yule Ball wrapped up in Ginny, the two of them so clearly happy together.  In the original timeline, Ron and Hailey had spent the entire evening sitting together, feeling awkward and lonely because neither of them knew how to relax and have fun at an event like that.

That was Hermione’s undoing.  She’d thought it was all about the Yule Ball, save for Fleur.  Surely Madam Maxime could see that the silly boy she brought with her in the original timeline meant nothing to her, and so Gabby had been the appropriate substitute.  So she had depended on the assumption that things would go largely the same this time around.  She was not Krum’s date this time, and Hailey and Ginny had seemed every bit as happy together as Cho and Cedric.  So, it seemed obvious that Dumbledore would select Ginny as the hostage, as ridiculous as she found it that teenage hormones were the obvious explanation for how Viktor and Cedric’s hostages were chosen.  Clearly, however, she had overestimated Dumbledumb.

And she had underestimated Minerva.  Hermione’s eyes flitted back to her once and hopefully future mentor, and a moment of frustration must have shown through on her face before she locked it down.  Because Minerva clearly noticed.  “I assure you, Ms. Granger, no one is in any real danger.  You can trust us.”

“Of course,” Hermione agreed, stuffing down all her frustration and locking it in a tight box.  “Of course I do.”  She just hoped her bright smile was believable.  

                                                  

Fleur woke to the shrill chiming of her mechanical alarm clock.  Her hand reached out to silence it before her eyes opened.  Today was the day.  Today she would dive into an icy lake, rescue her sister, and prove that she was the best of the champions.  And she would prove to Hermione that she could handle herself, that she didn’t need her help or her future knowledge, that all she needed was her own willpower, skills, intelligence, and magic to do amazing things. 

Today, she would take control of her life again, and then maybe she could apologize to Hermione for overreacting.  Two months of distance and keeping Hermione at arm’s length had done nothing to lessen her feelings for her, but it had given her some clarity.  Time to sort out how much of her reaction to Hermione’s revelation felt justified and how much of it was her own insecurities and trust issues.  In the end, Fleur had gotten to a place where she could no longer pretend she didn’t know it was mostly the latter and almost none of the former.

Even so, Fleur had her pride.  If she was going to admit she had been wrong, she would do it only after proving herself worthy of being forgiven.  She needed victory today, and she was pleased to realize, as she opened her eyes to greet the cool light of her and Gabrielle’s cabin, that her body thrummed with a feeling of confidence.  Today was going to be a good day.

Then her breath caught in her throat as she glanced over to the clearly empty bed on the other side of the room. 

“Gabby?” she called out, but the open door to the en suite bathroom betrayed the dark emptiness within.  Where is she?   Then she remembered.  Hermione had warned of this.  Despite Fleur’s insistence that she did not need or want Hermione’s help, the English witch had nevertheless managed to offer two warnings: first, that Gabrielle would be taken as the thing which Fleur would sorely miss, but would be safely in an enchanted sleep in the selkie village at the bottom of the lake, and second, that Fleur should be wary of the grindylows hiding out in any tall forests of weeds underwater.

However, knowing why Gabby was missing did not reduce Fleur’s anxiety at waking up alone, and regardless, she had to keep up appearances.  Fleur dressed quickly, pulling her hair back into a tight ponytail and throwing on a simple, but stylish robe.  She kept her iciest exterior on display as she walked the path up to the headmistress’s quarters, unwilling to stop even for well wishes.  She didn’t knock before entering either.

«Where is my sister?» she demanded.  Maxime was already dressed, in full makeup and formal robes.  Clearly she had been expecting Fleur, which confirmed her suspicions.  Even so, she wanted to hear from Maxime how she would try to spin the decision to abduct her sister from her bed in the middle of the night.

«She will be participating in the task today.  But she is safe, I promise.»

Fleur glowered at her headmistress.  «She is to be that which I will sorely miss, then.  Is that it?»

«Yes, but—»

Fleur didn’t wait to hear the explanation.  She didn’t care.  She turned on a dime and walked out of the room, as if she was too furious to even look at Maxime any longer.  Truthfully, she had already worked through her anger about Gabrielle being taken.  And while she didn’t necessarily trust Maxime’s assurances that she would be safe (Maxime likely had no hand in the design of the task or whatever protections were in place for the hostages, after all), she trusted Hermione.

However, if Fleur didn’t trust Hermione, if she didn’t know that Gabrielle was fated to survive the task, then she would have been the epitome of icy fury.  So that was the part she would play for the rest of the morning. She moved about her morning preparations in silence, refusing company and declining to join her fellow students for breakfast in the castle.  She had food brought to her cabin, and then began working on charms that would keep her warm, enhance her reflexes and agility, and improve her vision for the long, dark swim ahead of her.

On her bed, she found an unusual garment that had not been there previously.  It was similar in design to the wet suits moldu used for scuba diving, but the fabric felt thinner.  She found that it fit her perfectly, with a sleeveless design that exposed the edges of her collarbones and shorts that covered the top half of her thighs.  It was a deep blue, with subtle silvery accents, and Fleur assumed this would be her uniform for the Second Task.

It fit comfortably enough and moved well with her body, but the shorts bothered her.  Fleur transfigured them several centimetres shorter, and performed a few yoga poses to test the outfit further.  It felt right.  She strapped her wand holster to her thigh, disillusioned it, and slid her wand into place, the length of it disappearing along with the holster.  Then she slipped into a comfortable pair of shoes, tied her hair up in a tight bun, and as she reached for a winter cloak, there was a knock at her door.

«It is time.»  It was Maxime.  Fleur tightened the cloak around her and steeled herself.  She opened the door, fixing Maxime with a cold stare, then shut the door behind her and headed down the hall.  She didn’t say a word to Maxime as they met with the rest of the Beauxbatons contingent and walked to the lake as a group.  She could reconcile with her headmistress later.  For now, she was focused purely on strategy.

Stands, similar to those that had been erected around the dragon habitat, now stood along the banks of the Black Lake, and Maxine directed the rest of the Beauxbatons students and teachers towards the stands, but Fleur never stopped, turning to head over to the gold-draped table where stood Dumbledore, Cedric, Harry, Bagman, and the pinch-faced, bespectacled ginger who Fleur now knew as one of the Weasley siblings.  Hermione’s least favourite of the Weasleys, who was Bartemius Crouch’s assistant and filling in for him as judge.  Fleur was still unsure what had happened to the stiff older man that Percy Weasley was acting in his stead, but maybe once she fixed things with Hermione, she could ask about it.

“‘Ello, ‘Arry,” she greeted as she approached the table.  Fleur drew smiles from three of the four men at the table, but she had no intention of paying them any mind.  Her steely demeanor gave her cover to ignore them, and honestly, the only person at the table she cared about at all was Harry.  “’Ow are you?”

He looked worried.  He drew her away from the others and whispered, “They took Hermione.”  The response confused her.  After Hermione had told her that she would have to save Gabrielle in the Second Task, Fleur had naturally assumed Hermione would be Harry’s hostage.  She couldn’t imagine anyone else was more important to him.

“But … of course they did.  Who else would they have taken for you?”

Harry blew out a frustrated breath.  “She was sure it would be Ginny,” he hissed.  “She had a plan.  She was supposed to be down there with us.”

A wry grin stretched across Fleur’s lips, for just a moment, before she locked down her expression again.  Because of course Hermione Granger had a plan for all of this.  Now she was curious how Hermione had intended this all to play out.  “Was Ginny your ‘ostage in the other timeline?”  Fleur kept her voice equally quiet.

“No, it was Ron.  But Hermione thought it had something to do with the Yule Ball, and who we spent our time with.”

“Yes, you and Ginny certainly seemed quite close,” Fleur teased.  “But that doesn’t explain why Gabrielle is my chosen one.”

“In the other timeline, you went with Davies.”  Fleur made a face, and Harry held up his hands.  “Sorry, uh, that’s the captain of the Ravenclaw quidditch team.  Point is, you didn’t show much interest in him after the ball and Hermione guessed that Maxime knew Gabrielle would be a better match.  And well…”  Harry frowned, “Well, I mean, the pattern basically repeated itself again this time around, just with Hermione instead of Davies.”

She didn’t know if Harry intended it as such, but it was a punch to the gut to hear that.  Fleur could already imagine what her other self had done.  It must have been so lonely, playing a part, keeping people at a distance and playing with expectations to try and give herself an edge in the tournament.  Prancing about with some boy, playing the part of a frivolous veela girl… she could so easily see herself doing that, if she hadn’t met Hermione.  But the thought that Harry could think she would use Hermione like that … it made her sick.

Fleur needed to explain herself.  But instead, Bagman’s grating voice called out to them.  “Alright, ‘nough small talk, kiddos.  Mr. Krum’s here, so let’s get this task going, yeah?”  He gestured for them to take their places.  Beyond the judge’s table was a freshly constructed dock, with four individual pathways leading out into the lake.  Each of the champions shed their outer layers, revealing similar uniforms of varying colours.  Harry’s was a dark charcoal with red accents.

As Fleur took her place on the leftmost dock, she pulled her wand free.  Bagman’s voice boomed out behind them.  “WELL, ALL OUR CHAMPIONS ARE READY FOR THE SECOND TASK, WHICH WILL START ON MY WHISTLE.  THEY HAVE PRECISELY AN HOUR TO RECOVER WHAT HAS BEEN TAKEN FROM THEM.”  Fleur cast the bubble head charm on herself, the cool, impermeable membrane forming loosely around her head to provide her with a constant supply of breathable air.  As she glanced to her right, she saw Cedric do the same, while Harry was chewing on something that, based on his expression, was quite terrible.  She couldn’t see what Krum was up to on the far right platform.

“ON THE COUNT OF THREE, THEN.  ONE. … TWO. … THREE!”  As the stands erupted with cheers, Fleur slid her wand back into its holster and dove into the lake in one fluid motion.  From the moment she passed into the water, she shut out the rest of the world.  Now there was only Fleur and her mission.

Fleur knew which direction to swim towards the selkie village.  She’d swam to it several times already, from a variety of different starting points, but she had been right in her hunch that the judges would have them start from the north shore, between where the Durmstrang ship was docked and the front gate of the castle grounds.   The water felt pleasant against her skin, thanks to the warming charm, and her enhanced reflexes helped her swim even faster than usual.  All around her swam different varieties of fish, but she had no time to stop and appreciate the view.

Following the incline of the lakebed, Fleur stayed on as straight a path as she could manage, up until she came to the first forest of weeds.  For a moment, she wondered if it would impress the judges more for her to take on and defeat a pack of grindylows, but it seemed clear that time was more important to this task than magical prowess.  Fleur silently cursed herself, as she darted to the side to find a way around the forest, that she had insisted on keeping Hermione at a distance.  She no doubt knew exactly how the task would be scored.

The deeper she swam, the darker her surroundings became, but her enhanced eyesight handled the gloominess just fine.  And her bubble kept her from experiencing the discomfort of the change in pressure.  On guard in case she was approached by the giant squid rumoured to be in the lake, Fleur kept a grueling pace as she swam on for a good twenty minutes.

Then finally, she heard it. 

“... your time’s half gone, so tarry not. Lest what you seek stays here to rot...”

She tuned out the singing, finding it to be more than a little creepy that rather than simply guarding the hostages in their village, the selkies insisted on singing the song from the egg, like some sort of ominous group chant.  Fleur pulled her wand free as a cluster of stone dwellings came into view in the distance, unsure if she would have to battle with the selkies in order to free Gabrielle.  As she grew closer, she could make out their forms.  Beautiful in their own way, the selkies were varying shades of grey and pale green, with long, algae-like hair and wide, yellow eyes.  Some watched from their homes while others swam around, armed with spears and other simple weapons.  None were singing, though the eerie song remained in the water around them.

Fortunately, they simply watched Fleur as she swam by, none of them moving to stop her or engage her.  For this, she was quite thankful.  She wasted no time weaving her way around and above the various buildings until she reached the village square.  There, she found both the hostages and the source of the song.  A choir of selkies were settled comfortably in front of a massive statue of an overly muscled selkie.  He reminded her of ancient Greek statues, depicting heroes like Perseus or Achilles. 

For the first time since she had hit the water, Fleur halted.  All four hostages were tied to the tail of the statue, but it was the sight of Hermione that had stunned her into stillness.  She was asleep, and bubbles rose from her nose and slightly parted mouth.  Fleur had no idea how the hostages were breathing, but in that moment, it hardly mattered.  Hermione’s dark auburn curls floated in a thick cloud around her head, and in her enchanted sleep, she looked so very different.  Every bit as beautiful as always, but lighter somehow.  For the first time, Fleur thought she actually looked the age of her body, free of the weight of everything she carried.

The sight took her breath away, and Fleur blinked back tears.  She felt like such an idiot for denying her feelings this long, for keeping this strong, beautiful young woman at a distance.  For ever doubting her good heart.

Fleur’s heart hammered in her chest, and her body moved of its own accord, diving straight for Hermione.  She raised her wand to cast a severing charm on the rope holding her prisoner.  Immediately, there was a flurry of movement around her, and strong hands gripped both of her arms as several selkies cut her off from Hermione.

“She is not yours, veela,” one of the men told her.  “You may only take the little girl.”

Their intervention brought Fleur back to herself, and she was embarrassed by how caught up in the moment she had become.  Hermione would be safe—Gabrielle was her goal.  Stay on mission, she scolded herself.

Even so, she couldn’t help but look around, hoping to see young Harry approaching.  There was movement off to the right of the statue, but unfortunately, it was the wrong Hogwarts champion.  Diggory had used the bubble-head charm as well, though it appeared he was struggling a bit with the cold and the pressure.  He made his way fitfully towards the statue, and Fleur wondered what Harry and Krum had gotten themselves into that they could not get here faster than this admittedly spirited, but noticeably shivering young man. 

Her heart was in her throat.  Even though she knew Hermione was in no danger, her body screamed at her not to leave her behind.  But her pride was equally vocal in its insistence that she couldn’t let Cedric Diggory beat her to the surface of the lake.  She shook her head, trying to clear it, and turned to where Gabrielle was tied to the statue.  As she performed the severing charm on the ropes, movement in her periphery told her that Diggory had reached his target as well.

Fleur took Gabrielle’s dead weight into her free arm and moved away from the statue again.  Her eyes darted around in every direction, searching for any non-selkie figures making their way towards the statue.  «Where are you, Harry?»

                                                  

How did I get myself into this position? Hailey scolded herself, dodging another massive tentacle.  The giant squid filled her vision, and she wanted nothing more than to flee as quickly as her webbed flipper feet would carry her.  But shark-Krum clearly couldn’t use magic, and she was afraid that the now very angry squid could kill him without her aid.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, everything had gone to plan.  The gillyweed made her feel like she belonged here in the water.  Perfectly webbed hands and flipper-like feet helped her move fluidly and easily, something had changed with her skin such that the icy water felt pleasant and comfortable all around her, and her gills made breathing underwater feel perfectly natural.  The water even had a pleasant, almost sort of minty taste.  The changes to her body had been fascinating, enough so that her dysphoria had slipped back, quieting in the depths of her subconscious. 

Hailey knew she had headed the right direction for the village, and she had been careful to avoid the grindylows, per Hermione’s instructions.  She had lost sight of Fleur early on—Hailey thought she would have the advantage with her flippers, but Fleur sped through the water without any obvious enhancements to her body.  She hoped she would have the opportunity to ask her about it later.  Fleur’s need to push Hermione away hadn’t been hard on only Hermione.

Regardless, Hailey’s swim to the village had been nearly pleasant, until everything had gone to hell.  First it was just movement in the distance, enough that she pulled out her wand just to be safe.  Ideally, she would’ve just kept moving towards her goal, but her gillyweed-induced super underwater vision let her see what was happening in the distance.  Someone—either Krum or Cedric—had transfigured their head into a shark, and now he was struggling to fend off an increasingly aggressive giant squid.  And for whatever reason, he wasn’t using magic, relying only on his bite to try to fight back.  She had approached, wand at the ready, realizing it was Krum when she got close enough to see the deep maroon of his uniform.

And so here she was, trying desperately to get an effective hit on the squid with the full body-bind curse while struggling with keeping a firm grip on her wand despite her webbed hands. So far, she’d only succeeded in diverting the squid’s attention and making it angry, and her attempts to get closer and improve the accuracy of her spell-casting have put her in a much more vulnerable spot.

“Watch out!” she shouted at Krum, who had used Hailey’s distraction to try and make his own escape.  In doing so, he couldn’t see the tentacle reaching out to secure him again.  Hailey almost felt like the jerk deserved his fate, but she didn’t know for sure that there were protections in place against the squid killing or seriously maiming one of the champions.  Hermione hadn’t said anything about the squid in all of the time they prepared for this task.

Fortunately, just as the squid grabbed Krum, she managed to evade a tentacle and push off another into some open space just above the squid.  “Petrificus totalus!” she shouted, flicking her wrist to move the wand through the appropriate motion, and finally, the spell landed perfectly, hitting the squid in the top of its head.  Immediately, the massive creature began to stiffen, releasing Krum and beginning a slow descent further down towards the lakebed.

Adrenaline now pumping, Hailey wasted no time in checking up on Krum.  She swam as fast as her flippers would take her, and it wasn’t long before she started to hear the merpeople song.  She had no idea how far behind her Krum was, but she was determined to beat him after he tried to leave her to handle the squid alone.  As the merpeople and their dwellings became more visible around her, she noticed Cedric in the distance, swimming away as fast as he could with the dead weight of Cho in his arms. 

Fleur was nowhere to be found at least not until Hailey could make out the center of the village, some sort of town square featuring a large statue of a particularly manly looking merman.  Hermione and another girl were still tied to the tail of the statue, floating lifelessly.  The only sign that they were okay was the steady stream of bubbles rising from their faces.

Hailey thought to shout out to Fleur, unsure why she was waiting there.  But as soon as Hailey caught sight of her, sister in one arm and wand in the other, Fleur disappeared, leaving nothing but a huge jet of bubbles in her wake.

                                                  

As Fleur emerged from apparition into the cold air above the lake, the bubble around her head burst and dissolved to nothing.  Gabrielle woke from her slumber almost immediately as they splashed back down into the surface of the lake.  Fleur had been correct in her guess that this was the fastest way to wake her sister, but it remained to be seen whether doing so completed the task or if they would have to swim back to the shore first. 

Even though she had tested it beforehand, Fleur was still quite proud of this last part of her strategy.  More than a few people had warned her about the anti-apparition charms on the Hogwarts grounds, but she had a sneaking suspicion, as she fleshed out the parameters of the Second Task, that the selkie village was sovereign territory.  Meaning it was not a part of the Hogwarts grounds.  The first time she tested it out, she had been ecstatic.

But she and Gabrielle still had a major swim on their hands if they had to make it back to shore to claim victory.  «Fleur?»

«It’s okay, ma petite sirène.  Can you swim?»

Gabrielle moved her legs experimentally, then nodded, “Oui.”

«Okay,» she glanced around, finding the blurry form of the stands in the distance. «We will head that way and—»

“And it looks like Beauxbatons’ champion Fleur Delacour may be our victor today!”  Bagman’s voice, previously booming, was barely audible thanks to the distance.  “She’s quite a way out there, still, but she freed her sister and broke the surface of the lake well within the time limit!  We’ll have to wait until we hear from the Mer… chief… tainess to hear about the many feats of the champions while under the lake.  Timing is only a portion of their scores, after all!”

«Well, I guess we don’t have to hurry back, then,» Fleur quipped, drawing a grin from her sister even as she began to shiver, her teeth chattering.  «Oh, you poor thing.»  Fleur cast the warming charm on her, then followed it up with the spells to increase her agility and reflexes.  «That will make the swim easier.»

They didn’t bother rushing back to the shore, but as they approached the shore, water not yet shallow enough to stand, Harry and Hermione burst through the surface of the lake a few meters ahead and to the right of them.  As Hermione drew breath, Fleur froze again.  She looked bedraggled, her hair a mess of heavy, soaked curls, but to Fleur, she may as well have been an angel.

«You are so gay,» Gabrielle teased, pulling her onward.  «Come on, I want to be out of the water.  You can kiss your girlfriend later.» 

This time, Bagman’s voice was much louder.  “AND THERE’S ONE OF THE HOGWARTS CHAMPIONS, THE BOY WHO LIVED HIMSELF, SECOND TO MAKE IT TO THE SURFACE!”  Fleur noticed that Harry flinched, noticeably enough to interrupt his swim stroke.  She wondered if he had pulled a muscle or something.  Behind them, she heard more splashing, followed quickly by dramatic breathing.  “CEDRIC DIGGORY IS NEXT TO SURFACE, BUT UNFORTUNATELY, HE JUST MISSED THE HOUR LIMIT.  NO SIGN YET OF MR. KRUM.”

Fleur and Gabrielle reached the dock and pulled themselves up out of the water at the same time as Harry and Hermione.  As Maxime rushed forward with two thick blankets in hand to wrap around her students, Fleur couldn’t take her eyes off of Hermione.  She was only barely resisting the urge to run to her, wrap her up in a tight hug, and shower her with desperate apologies.  But it wouldn’t be proper, and she needed to get her scores before she could let herself relax.

Deep brown met cool blue, and immediately Fleur blushed.  Her eyes went wide, and she spun on her heel, facing away from Hermione and drawing the blanket snuggling around her.  She was furious with herself; she was the one who made girls blush, not the other way around.  From the way Gabrielle was leering at her, a mocking smile on her face, she had seen the entire ordeal.  Fleur blew out a frustrated breath, and straightened out her posture, summoning her icy façade back into place until after the scores.  The healer for Hogwarts—Madam Pomfrey, she had introduced herself— scurried about fussing over the lot of them.  Everyone but the Delacour sisters had needed a draft to warm them.  Fleur had already insisted that she was fine, needed to keep her attention on the scores lest her emotions lead her to do something foolish like drag Hermione off into the woods and kiss her senseless.

Another five minutes passed before Krum surfaced with his hostage.  It was something of a ghastly sight, to be honest.  He had transfigured his head—and only his head—into that of a shark, so the initial appearance seemed straight out of a horror story: some folktale monster escaping a haunted lake, the dead body of a young woman carried limply in its arms.  But then the girl had started to breath again, and after a few horrifying moments of the shark head thrashing back and forth in the cold air, it began to shrink and reform into the recognizable visage of Viktor Krum.  Overall, the scene was quite unpleasant.

“AND FINALLY, HERE IS THE DURMSTRANG CHAMPION VIKTOR KRUUUUM!  THAT TRANSFIGURATION WAS SOMETHING ELSE, NOW WASN’T IT, FOLKS?”

Fleur maintained her straight back and impassive expression while Krum and his hostage climbed back onto the dock and received similar blankets to the rest of them.  In the clear daylight, Fleur could now see that Krum had a few cuts and scrapes, along with some very colourful bruises.  Glancing around at the rest of them, she could see that Harry also had a few bruises.  Fleur wondered what they had faced that had injured them so.

Shortly thereafter, the merchieftainess appeared in the shallow water at the end of one of the long docks, Dumbledore, Bagman, and Percy Weasley rushing out to confer with her.  From what she could see, only Dumbledore spoke Mermish.  He beckoned for the other two judges to come out, and they conferenced in hushed whispers for several minutes.  In particular, Karkaroff seemed quite unhappy about whatever the merchieftainess had told Dumbledore.  Nevertheless, he eventually gave in with a huff, having apparently lost whatever argument was had, and the five of them made their way back to the judges table.  After another short conference, in which Dumbledore took notes, a quill and parchment having appeared suddenly in his hand, Bagman turned to address the champions.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE HAVE REACHED OUR DECISION.  MERCHIEFTAINESS MURCUS HAS TOLD US EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED AT THE BOTTOM OF THE LAKE, AND WE WILL AWARD MARKS OUT OF FIFTY FOR EACH OF THE CHAMPIONS, AS FOLLOWS.“

He glanced down at Dumbledore’s notes, then locked eyes with Fleur.  “FLEUR DELACOUR DEMONSTRATED EXCELLENT USE OF THE BUBBLE-HEAD CHARM—AND, IF WE ARE NOT MISTAKEN, ALSO MANAGED TO USE A WARMING CHARM AND MAGICALLY ENHANCED REFLEXES AND STRENGTH—”  Fleur nodded, so they would know they were correct in that assumption.  “YES, WELL-DONE.  AS SUCH, SHE WAS EASILY THE FIRST TO REACH HER HOSTAGE, AND AS YOU ALL KNOW, WAS THE FIRST BACK TO THE SURFACE.”  He shook his head, as if in wonder, and Fleur kept her face impassive despite the blossoming warmth of victory in her chest.  “MOREOVER, SHE WAITED TO ENSURE THAT BOTH MRS. DIGGORY AND POTTER REACHED THE VILLAGE AS WELL, BUT BEAT THEM BOTH TO THE SURFACE BY THE STUNNING USE OF UNDERWATER AND SIDE-ALONG APPARITION!”

He paused, letting the whistles and cheers and applause from a clearly impressed crowd, and Fleur allowed herself a small smile.  Then Bagman continued.  “FOR HER STUNNING PERFORMANCE, WE AWARD HER A SCORE OF FORTY-EIGHT POINTS!”  The cheers swelled, and Fleur raised her arms proudly in recognition of the support she was receiving.  She had no doubt a bitter Karkaroff was the only reason she didn’t receive a perfect score.

“HARRY POTTER WAS SECOND TO SURFACE WITH HIS HOSTAGE, WITH JUST A COUPLE OF MINUTES TO SPARE BEFORE THE HOUR DEADLINE.  HE USED GILLYWEED TO GREAT EFFECT AND NO DOUBT WOULD HAVE BEEN RIGHT ON MS. DELACOUR’S HEELS IF HE HAD NOT STOPPED TO RESCUE A COMPETITOR FROM THE CLUTCHES OF THE BLACK LAKE’S RESIDENT GIANT SQUID.”

The crowd gasped at this revelation, and Fleur couldn’t help but turn to look at the brave young boy who continued to impress, despite not having wanted anything to do with this tournament.  Suddenly the bruises made sense, and she had no doubt that Krum was who Harry had rescued.  She wondered if Krum would have done the same were the roles reversed.

“IT WOULD APPEAR THAT SOMETHING ABOUT MR. KRUM’S TRANSFIGURATION SET THE SQUID OFF, AND MR. POTTER DEMONSTRATED SKILL IN UTILIZING THE FULL-BODY BIND TO ALLOW HIMSELF AND MR. KRUM TO ESCAPE FROM THE TERRIFYING CREATURE.  FOR HIS SKILLFUL USE OF MAGIC AND BRAVE HEROICS, WE AWARD HIM FORTY-FIVE POINTS!”

Harry received even louder adulation than Fleur had, despite the lower score, but even so, she couldn’t bring herself to take it personally.  Instead, she just smiled softly at him before turning back to the judges.

“CEDRIC DIGGORY ALSO USED THE BUBBLE-HEAD CHARM, AND WHILE HE ENCOUNTERED NO MAJOR OBSTACLES, HE REACHED THE SURFACE A GOOD THIRTY SECONDS AFTER THE HOUR LIMIT.  WE THEREFORE AWARD HIM FORTY-ONE POINTS.” 

Cedric received some cheers, but some boos also sounded, and Fleur didn’t know whether they were intended for Cedric or the judges.  The attractive young man performed admirably, and she felt a little bad for him.  Compared to the showy and daring performances by Fleur and Harry, his showing no doubt appeared a bit boring and lackluster in comparison.

“VIKTOR KRUM USED AN INCOMPLETE FORM OF TRANSFIGURATION THAT APPEARS TO HAVE RENDERED HIM UNABLE TO USE HIS MAGIC DURING THE TASK, WHICH OF COURSE GOT HIM INTO TROUBLE WITH THE GIANT SQUID.  NEVERTHELESS, IT WAS AN INTERESTING CHOICE AND HE MANAGED TO RETRIEVE HIS HOSTAGE AND COMPLETE THE TASK.  THOUGH WELL OUTSIDE OF THE HOUR TIME LIMIT.  WE AWARD HIM TWENTY-EIGHT POINTS.”

A few quick mental calculations told Fleur she had a narrow lead over Harry and was beating the other two quite handily.  Bagman concluded, “THE THIRD AND FINAL TASK WILL TAKE PLACE AT DUSK ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF JUNE.  THE CHAMPIONS WILL BE NOTIFIED OF WHAT IS COMING PRECISELY ONE MONTH BEFOREHAND.  THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SUPPORT OF THE CHAMPIONS.”  The crowd continued to shout and cheer, and Fleur basked in it, turning to shout and hug and jump with Gabrielle, her emotions finally given room to wash over her.  Then, a hand came to rest on her arm.

Fleur turned to find herself face-to-face with Hermione Granger, whose hair was now dry and who was nervously tugging the corner of her lower lip between her teeth.  Out of nowhere, Fleur’s heart began to pound in her chest, and for all her planning, any words she might say to Hermione had seemingly fallen out of her head.

Finally, and just as Hermione opened her own mouth, Fleur remembered some words.  Shockingly, they were the same words Hermione had in mind, as the two young women both asked, almost in unison, “Can we go somewhere and talk?”

                                                  

Hermione hoped she wasn’t reading too much into a simple question, but she couldn‘t stop grinning.  That she and Fleur were so in sync had to be a good sign, right?

“I was thinking maybe a walk.  Around the lake.  Away from,” she gestured at the stands and all of Fleur’s adoring fans, “this.”

Fleur nodded breathlessly.  “Okay.”  She stared at Hermione for several seconds, then blinked rapidly.  «I just need to grab my cloak.» 

Hermione’s gaze immediately fell and traced the shape of Fleur’s body, tight swimsuit giving way to long, gorgeous legs.  Then she was blushing wildly and looking away as she realized how rude it was to ogle Fleur like that.  “S-sorry,” she stammered.  “Yeah, you just grab that, and umm… I’ll be right over here.”  Hermione walked away quickly, hiding her face.  She could hear Gabrielle’s teasing laughter behind her, but actively avoided listening to what she said to Fleur.

Get your shite together, Granger!

She smiled at Hailey as she passed her, and Hailey shot her a thumbs up and a whispered, “Good luck.”  She hadn’t made it far when she sensed Fleur behind her, and she glanced back to see her withdrawing a hand, having apparently reached out to Hermione but stopped herself short.

“Hey.”

Salut,” Fleur responded tentatively.  She almost seemed nervous, which was such a 180 from how she had been the last couple of months that Hermione wasn’t sure how to react. They continued walking, side by side but with just enough distance between them to prevent their hands from brushing, remaining silent long after they left the sounds of the crowd behind.

And then, finally, “I am sorry.”

Hermione froze.  Fleur’s voice was clear and powerful and so full of feeling that it felt suddenly overwhelming.  Fleur turned and faced Hermione, her eyes noticeably watery.  “I have been absolutely ‘orrible to you.”  She blinked back the tears.  “And this is long overdue, but I wanted to explain myself.”

“Okay, but let’s keep walking, because you standing there looking all tall and gorgeous and emotional is making me weak in the knees, and I’d like to get through this conversation without a gay fainting spell.”  Hermione winced, but the words were already out of her mouth.  She kept her eyes on the ground and started walking.  Fleur fell in beside her and matched her pace, and thankfully, she didn’t laugh. 

“I won’t pretend that that reaction wasn’t adorable, so thank you for that,” Fleur admitted, and Hermione kept her gaze forward.  “I know that I owed you this apology ages ago—”

“Fleur, I don’t know that you—”

“No,” Fleur cut her off.  “I do.  I do owe you an apology.  Not for my immediate reaction, but for being so cold to you, long after I realized that I didn’t blame you for keeping the secret.”

That felt like a gut punch, but Hermione tried to keep her expression under control.  “Then why?”

Fleur sighed.  “I’m not perfect, ‘Ermione.  I hide behind the appearance of strength because I have trouble letting people in.  Trust issues.  Insecurities.  And honestly … well,” she shrugged, “I’m a prideful woman.  I’m not afraid to admit it.”

“So, you kept me at a distance because of your pride?”  That hurt, and Hermione knew she couldn’t keep her emotions out of her voice.  Her eyes felt hot.  “Didn’t you care how I felt?  How you made me feel?  I know that I hurt you by keeping this from you… I-I can imagine that you felt manipulated, b-but—”

“But that doesn’t excuse how I behaved, not after I had time to think about things.” Fleur finished, and she placed a gentle hand on Hermione’s arm, asking her to stop.  Hermione blinked furiously before she could look up at Fleur again.  “This is why I am apologizing.  I feel awful.”  A few tears escaped her lashes, and that did nothing to help Hermione keep her own emotions in check.

She grabbed at Fleur’s elbow, maybe gripping it just a little too hard.  “Then please, explain it to me.  Why did you freak out when I told you?  Why did you keep me at a distance?  And why apologize now?”

Fleur didn’t flinch away from the touch, and if Hermione was holding on too tightly, Fleur gave no indication that it bothered her.  But Fleur didn’t speak up either.  Hermione couldn’t tell if she was thinking or if she had gone back to being distant again.  She dropped her hand away and took a step back.  She tried to be patient, but this conversation was not going the way she anticipated.  Hermione had wanted to make one final apology and plea for forgiveness and a return to the friendship they had before.  A romantic relationship seemed out of the question, but now Fleur seemed to be both putting it back on the table and also continuing to be intentionally impenetrable.  Hermione didn’t know what she was supposed to do with this, and she was starting to feel like Fleur was just playing games with her. 

And there was far too much at stake for Hermione to get bogged down with games like this.

So, when Fleur sucked in a deep breath and took a step away, Hermione assumed the worst.  Then Fleur caught her completely off guard, with a staggering show of vulnerability.  “I ‘ave ‘ad a rough time of things, when it comes to love.  Every girl I’ve ever let myself care for ‘as ‘urt or betrayed me.  I learned very quickly to guard my ‘eart.” 

The pain and sorrow Fleur had experienced was evident in her voice, even as she faced away from Hermione.  Her shoulders hunched, and Hermione didn’t know that she’d ever seen Fleur look so small.  She honestly didn’t know Fleur was capable of this much vulnerability.  Hermione wanted nothing so much as to wrap her arms around Fleur and hold her, but she knew that it wasn’t the right time.

Fleur took a few moments to collect herself, then glanced back at Hermione.  “I don’t know ‘ow much you know about my people.”

“The veela?”  Hermione felt butterflies in her gut.  “Truthfully, I didn’t know much before we started getting to know each other.  Let’s say I developed something of a curiosity after that.” 

With Fleur half facing her, the grin was unmistakable, and it filled Hermione with a sudden warmth.  “Well, then perhaps you know that puberty is a much more overwhelming experience for veela than ‘umans.  Or at least, for part-veela like myself, who spend most of our adolescence among humans.”

“Because of the increased need for touch and community, I imagine.”

Fleur looked surprised, a soft smile along her lips.  “Curiosity, hmm?”  Hermione blushed.  “Well, yes, that’s part of it.  Veela are much more physically affectionate than ‘umans.  Physical touch is not just a part of our culture, but a part of who we are, individually.  That’s true before puberty, but the need isn’t as intense and sexual urges aren’t yet a part of it.”  Fleur sighed.  “Not that it becomes all about sex either, though we’re certainly much less uptight about it than ‘umans, especially the British ones.” 

Hermione snorted at that, chuckling under her breath.  It was a fair point.  For a moment, their eyes met, and they shared a smile.  Fleur shrugged.

“You might also know that veela have a fairly unique experience of gender.”

“I thought you were all women.”

“That is a common mischaracterization, though I suppose it isn’t very far off.  Especially not in my case.  I certainly identify as a woman, but that’s probably because I was raised as much among ‘umans as I was the veela.  But full-blooded veela don’t think of themselves as female.  They don’t have a concept of gender, not really.”

“Fascinating,” Hermione whispered, without thinking.

Fleur laughed at that.  “That is such a you response.”  Hermione felt a tingle up her spine at that comment.  “And I suppose I’ve … um, I don’t know the correct English idiom.  I am off topic.  My point was that while veela don’t necessarily have a gender, we do all tend to present in ways that ‘umans read as female, and we are also, for the most part, only attracted to such features and qualities in a person.”

“In human terms, you’re all mostly lesbians,” Hermione interpreted.

Fleur smirked.  “More or less.  There are a few of us who do experience attraction to ‘uman men.  Ma mère, for example.”

“But not you, I take it?”

“No.”  Fleur shuddered.  “I tried … things… with a boy once, early on.  It was awful.”  Hermione couldn’t help but laugh at that, but Fleur’s expression soured.  “I was popular, my first two years.  Before puberty set in.  My physical affection and desire for … cuddling, I think is the word, was normal and accepted among my classmates, all of them ‘uman girls.  But then I started making out with other girls…”

“And the cuddles took on a different meaning,” Hermione finished the thought.  This, she understood.  It had been a fear, initially, when she came back.  Whether being an out lesbian would cause the girls in her year, and Ginny, especially, to treat her differently.  But for Fleur, as a person of mixed heritage, the bigotry and the potential fallout must have been far worse.

“You ‘ave perhaps experienced something similar yourself,” Fleur mused.  “Whether in this life or the previous one.”  It was the first time either of them had referenced Hermione’s big revelation in this conversation, but Hermione was content to let Fleur keep driving the conversation.

“Anyway, this was not the only problem caused by puberty.  That is also when I began to develop my thrall.  I ‘ad two close friends at the time, rather like you, ‘Arry, and Ronald, I imagine.  Early on, the thrall is not very powerful, but it also takes time to learn control over it.  My friend Bellamy began to act differently around me, and it quickly began to make me feel uncomfortable.  I ‘ad thought I could turn to my other best friend, Laurel, to ‘elp me deal with it, but alas, it became clear that she ‘ad a thing for Bellamy.  The thrall did nothing to assuage ‘er jealous tendencies.”

“Fleur, I’m so sorry.”  This time Hermione did place a hand on her arm, and Fleur leaned ever so slightly into the contact.

“Thank you.  It was ‘orrible.  I was young, and for most of my life, I ‘ad only experienced positivity in my interactions with others.  I was very … is gregarious the right word?”  Hermione nodded, smiling as she imagined a younger Fleur.  “Yes, then that.  Bold, likeable … I got along with everyone I met.  So, to suddenly ‘ave my best friends treating me differently, one giving me attention I did not want and the other pushing me away for things outside my control… it was all very confusing and painful.”

Hermione’s heart hurt for that little girl Fleur had been, who didn’t deserve any of that.  “That’s when my trust issues started, probably.  The first girlfriend I ‘ad was ashamed of our relationship, maybe ashamed of ‘erself or me or both.  I do not know if it was because I am a woman or because I am part veela or something else entirely.  But she broke my fragile young heart.  The next few girls were just using me, whether to experiment with another girl or earn themselves attention.  I learned not to trust anyone at school anymore.  And in particular, I learned not to trust pretty girls who work hard to try and woo me.”

“So, when I admitted that I had been keeping secrets, and that I knew things about you from another timeline, it felt like one more obvious example of how terrible people can be when you let them in.”  Hermione’s voice was a fragile thing.  Everything made so much sense now.  She didn’t know what she could have done differently, but even so, she felt tremendously guilty that she made Fleur feel betrayed or manipulated.  “Fleur, I—”

“Can we sit?”  The question was unexpected, but they had walked a long way and Fleur had just swum to the bottom of the Black Lake and back.  Hermione blushed wildly at having been so inconsiderate.

“Of course, I am so sorry, Fleur.  You must be so knackered.”  They sat on the soft ground just beyond the shore. 

“This word, knackered, is delightful,” Fleur murmured, drawing a wide grin from Hermione.  Then Fleur’s hand found Hermione’s, in the small space between them, and after a tentative touch, entwined their fingers.  “I know you are not like them, ‘Ermione.  I ‘ave seen the way this burden weighs on you, the amazing strength you ‘ave to carry it.  I had a bad reaction, and while I am sorry, it probably could not be ‘elped.  But I feel like I understand you, and deep down, I think I always knew you weren’t like those other girls in my past.”

Hermione let herself sink into the pleasure of the physical contact, savouring the way Fleur’s thumb began to stroke soft patterns.  As much as it still hurt that Fleur had been distant for so long, Hermione felt relieved that Fleur knew that her feelings were genuine.  She does, doesn’t she?  Hermione felt the sudden urge to make sure that she did.

“I didn’t mean to fall for you,” she blurted out.  Fleur’s thumb halted, but when Hermione stiffened, Fleur squeezed her hand reassuringly.  “I mean, I came back to save Harry.  And my parents and friends and … the world.  I had no idea that we would hit it off the way we did.”  She shot Fleur a wry smile.  “It’s a bit infuriating, you know?  How easy it was to fall for you.  There was just something about you.”

This time Fleur froze, eyes shifting away.  “Because of my thrall.”  She sounded disappointed, and Hermione could feel her hand relax as if to pull away.  But Hermione held her tight.

“No, definitely not because of your thrall,” Hermione insisted.  “I told you, I got curious.  Did some research.  I figured out what was and wasn’t thrall, at least according to the leading experts.  Now, admittedly, they’re all human, so I know to take it with a grain of salt, it not being their culture and …” Hermione realized she was rambling, and she made a concerted effort to find her bearings again.  “The point is, the thrall definitely had a strong effect on my initial attraction to you.  But that connection I felt in the Reading Room that first night, that was real.  It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced with another person.”

Fleur nodded, both agreeing with Hermione’s assessment and asking her to continue.  “I knew that I would need allies this year, for what is to come in the Third Task, and I had it on good authority that you would make for an excellent one.  But then things just got so bloody complicated when I realized I had feelings for you.”  She paused, still holding tight to Fleur’s hand.  “Have feelings for you.  And … I know that I haven’t handled it well.  Just look at our disaster of a first date.”

Fleur chuckled.  “You know, it was one of the better dates I’ve been on, up until you tried to run away.”

“I did not try to run away.”

“Oh, of course not,” Fleur teased.  Hermione decided to let it go.

“I’m really sorry I kept things from you for so long.  Hai—rry,” Hermione tried to downplay the mistake she had almost made, because of all people, it’d be Fleur who made her slip up, “kept telling me to just tell you.  I think he realized how I felt about you before I did.  But I wanted to be sure I was telling you for the right reasons, and not just because I… well, you know.  And it’s a lot to put on anyone.  You would’ve been perfectly justified to say I was completely off my rocker.”

Fleur shook her head.  “Non, I knew.  I knew you were telling the truth, at least about that part.”

“But because I was so secretive, you felt you couldn’t trust my intentions.  I know you have this baggage, and I understand your reaction better now.  And I just … I hate that it all spiraled out of control like this.”  She lifted their conjoined hands and settled them in her own lap, before beginning to trace soft patterns of her own with her other hand, finger gliding along the back of Fleur’s hand.

“I don’t know how to tell you what I’ve been through.  you don’t know what I’ve been through.  Torture, malnutrition, the horrors of fighting in a real war.  Nearly everyone I ever loved died, and now I am the only one who can prevent it all from happening again.  It's—” Hermione blinked back tears again and swallowed hard to keep herself from choking up.  “It’s just such a huge burden to bear, and I was scared.  B-but… none of that means that you didn’t have every right to feel hurt, and I promise that in spite of everything, my feelings for you are real.  They have been since the first night, I just didn’t want to see it.”

“Shhhh,” Fleur scolded gently.  She pulled their hands out of Hermione’s lap and kissed her knuckles before settling them in her own lap.  “I know, chérie.  I felt it too, I just let my bad experiences and insecurities keep me from trusting that feeling.”

“I’m not trying to manipulate you or use you.  I could use your help in my mission, and yes, the fate of the world is at stake, but that’s not what this,” Hermione looked pointedly at their interlaced fingers, “is about.”  Fleur made a face, like she already knew.  But Hermione needed to be sure.  “I just genuinely think you are remarkable, and I want to be with you, and I promise I won't lie or hide things ever again.”

With that proclamation, Fleur sat up a little, and her eyes searched Hermione’s.  One moment passed, then another, and then Fleur was leaning in.  She moved slowly, so that Hermione could stop her if this wasn’t what she wanted, but in this moment, it was everything that Hermione wanted.  Their lips brushed, and it was gentle at first.  Exploratory.  Both of them wanting to be sure that it still felt right, and both wary of pushing too hard too quickly.

But gradually, Fleur and Hermione sank into each other, eager to explore as they both realized this was absolutely what they wanted. They lost themselves in the tenderness of the kiss, like they could both finally breathe again.  Finally, when they pulled apart, both witches were breathing plenty, neither able to control the wide smile across her face.

“You promise, no more deceptions?”  Fleur’s voice had gone all vulnerable again, and she was still close enough that Hermione could feel the question on her own lips.

“I promise.  With all my heart.”

Fleur pecked her on the lips, then leaned back out of her personal bubble again.  “Then I will be happy to ‘elp you.  As you can see from my tournament performance, I am quite the talented and resourceful witch.  I will be a true asset to your mission to save the world.”

Her voice was light and playful, and Hermione huffed in response.  “Is that what this was all about?  You felt you had to prove something to me before you could apologize?”

It was absurd and a little infuriating, but Hermione already knew it was absolutely true and that she didn’t really care anymore.  Things had worked out.  And Fleur looked very cute in the very few occasions in which she looked bashful.  It made Hermione want to kiss her again.

So she did.

Chapter Text

“Hey! Gin, wait up!” Hailey had just managed to catch her as she was leaving Gryffindor tower, and Ginny stopped to face her, smiling widely.  Neville paused to wait on her.  “You wouldn’t happen to know where Luna is right now, would you?”  Ginny’s smile shifted to a curious smirk.

“If I had a guess, she’s up in the clocktower working on homework.” Ginny chuckled fondly.  “Says all that mechanical racket soothes her.”  She glanced back at Neville.  “We were headed to the library, but we could swing by and grab her on the way.”

Hailey swallowed.  “Erm, actually, I was kind of hoping to talk to her alone.”  Ginny’s entire face fell in a way that Hailey couldn’t really understand, but she recovered immediately. 

“Oh.  Yeah, sure.  Everything alright?”

“Yeah. I just, uh, have to apologize for something.”

Ginny frowned.  “Okay then.  Well, we’ll be in the usual spot if you want to join us after.”

Hailey smiled, but stopped the hand that wanted to reach out and entwine her fingers with Ginny’s for some reason.  The way Ginny’s eyes shifted said that the movement hadn’t gone unnoticed.  “Thanks, Gin.  See you ‘round.”

She turned and moved swiftly in the other direction, trying not to dwell on why the brief conversation had felt so weird at the end.  Hailey was nervous enough about talking to Luna.  They hadn’t had a genuine conversation in months, and it was all Hailey’s fault. 

When she reached the clocktower, Hailey took the steps up carefully.  When she came up onto the landing, she looked around until she found Luna.  All she could see was a mess of wavy blonde hair framing the column Luna was leaned against.  She wore a bulky lilac hat, like a fluffy beret or a tam cap, and she sat cross-legged with her head bowed over a rather large book held in her lap. 

As Hailey approached, Luna looked up from her book slowly, blinking several times before offering her an ever so slightly lopsided smile.  “’Ello there,” she murmured pleasantly.  The warmth in her voice put Hailey at ease, more than she had thought possible. 

“Erm.  Hi Luna.  How are you doing today?”  Butterflies fluttered in Hailey’s stomach.

“I’m enjoying a sudden warmth in the room.  Though I’m not sure if it’s coming from you or the concept of the cheering charm I was reading about.  Either way, it’s very nice.”

Hailey glanced away, eyes tracing the moody circles of the pale blue glass clock.  She wet her lips as she turned back to Luna.  “Could I … maybe, I mean would you mind if I sat?”

“I would quite like it, in fact.”  Hailey settled in against the column on the other side of the alcove from her.  A few inches of bare stone separated their feet in the middle.  Hailey played with her fingers, hands resting on top of her bent knees. 

“Luna, I’m really sorry.”  Luna’s head tilted slightly, her hands fiddling absentmindedly with a long lock of her hair.  “For freaking out, I mean.  An-and then kind of ignoring you for two months.”

Luna hummed softly.  “I was wondering where you had gone for so long.  I thought maybe the castle was moving passageways, leading you away.  You’re saying you avoided me on purpose?”

“Yes,” Hailey confessed, “and I feel really bad about it.  Here, you went and did something for me—maybe the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, and then I freaked out about it.”

“I did a nice thing?”  Luna sounded curious rather than confused.

“You told me the truth,” Hailey said.  “And you changed my entire life.”

Luna brightened at that, her legs untangling as she shot up and leaned forward.  Her book tumbled off to the side and her fingers laced together under her chin.  “And how did I change your life, Harry Potter?”

The openness of Luna’s expression, the shimmer in her crystal blue eyes, drew Hailey in.  She felt her own lips quirk, then she whispered, “My name is Hailey, actually.”

There was a loud, happy squeal, and then Hailey was tumbling to the ground under the weight of Luna, her arms wrapping tightly around Hailey’s neck.  After a moment, Hailey wrapped her arms around Luna, who was now all the way on top of her, but surprisingly didn’t find the hug awkward in the least. 

Then Luna was smiling down at her, a curtain of sandy hair falling down and tickling Hailey’s hands.  “Of course you are.  Hailey makes much more sense.  Curious that your parents didn’t think of it.”  A soft pang thumped in her chest at the mention of them.  “I’m sure they did their best.  These things aren’t always as obvious to everyone.” 

It was at this point that Hailey began to become aware that Luna was straddling her, and she found herself blushing wildly.  Luna seemed completely oblivious to the sudden tension in Hailey’s body, though, and she squeaked as Luna poked her in the side.  “Hmmm, yes.  You even feel a little softer.  Feels right.”

This caught Hailey off-guard, distracting her momentarily from the overly excitable blond on top of her.  Hailey had been feeling a little different lately, physically.  But she thought it was just in her head.  Then Luna shifted slightly, and Hailey blushed again.

“Okay, uh, Luna could I maybe get up now?”

Her brow furrowed slightly.  “I don’t see why not.”  Luna did not, however, make any move to get off of Hailey, who continued to feel entirely awkward. 

“Could you maybe get up first?”

Luna looked down at where she was resting on Hailey’s abdomen and then back up at Hailey.  “Okay!”  She sprang up, taking a step back so that she wasn’t treading on Hailey’s robes, and only then was Hailey able to finally stand again.  Then Luna was hugging her again.  Hailey let herself get lost in the warmth of her enthusiasm.

They sat back down on the alcove, this time side by side, and Hailey rubbed at her neck.  “Is there… I mean, do you have any questions?”

“Who cut your hair?  It is delightful.”  Hailey grinned, even if the question was totally unexpected.  Her hair did look a bit different, but not enough so to raise any alarm bells.  Her wild mess of shaggy hair had been trimmed up slightly to more closely resemble a cute little bob, with fringe.  It wasn’t obviously a girl’s cut, especially not after a quick fly on her broom, but it felt closer to right than not.  She was taking things in little steps.

“Actually, Dobby cut it.” 

Luna seemed delighted at this information, and Hailey wondered how many of the Hogwarts elves Luna knew by name.  “Something artsy about him, I could see it in the movement of his ears.”

“But you know, um, when I asked if you had any questions, I meant, like, questions about me being … you know, a girl.”

Luna’s lips pursed slightly.  “Weren’t you always a girl?”

“Um.”  Hailey swallowed, then ran a hand through her hair.  “I guess maybe?  But I mean… I didn’t know that until just recently.  When you basically told me.”

“How odd,” Luna commented gently.  “Are there questions I’m supposed to ask in this situation?  I’ve never had a friend who took so long to figure out that she was a girl.”  Luna shrugged.  “Never had many friends at all until this year.”

Hailey didn’t know how to respond to that.  Except to be honest.  “I’m glad you’re my friend.”  Luna bounced a little at that, then rested her head on Hailey’s shoulder.  “But right now, you have to keep this between us.  Only you and Hermione know that I’m a girl.”

Luna turned her head, looking up in puzzlement.  “No one else noticed?”

Hailey chuckled wryly.  “I guess not.  I just mean that, um, until I’m ready to, like… tell everyone, I need you to still call me Harry and all that, when you’re talking to other people, or when anyone else is around who isn’t me and Hermione.”

“So I should lie?”

“I’d like to think of it more as a secret between friends, but I mean—”

“Oh, I like that.”  Luna smirked.  “A secret between friends.  I will keep your secret, friend.”  Then, before Hailey realized what was happening, Luna craned her neck upward and planted a soft, sweet kiss on her cheek.  Hailey felt her eyes go wide in shock, but Luna was collecting her book and walking away before her brain started to function again.

“Er, Luna, where are you going?”

“I have secrets to keep… elsewhere!  Bye, Hailey!”

                                                  

The weight of Fleur’s body on top of her felt like heaven.  Her thighs bracketed Hermione’s thighs, one hand gripped onto her hip, and the other was buried in her hair.  Hermione reveled in the contrast of the soft way Fleur’s breasts pressed against Hermione as she pulled Hermione’s ear lobe gently between her teeth, drawing out a hiss of satisfaction.

«You like that.»  Fleur’s voice was sulky, breath warm in Hermione’s ear.

Hermione squirmed a little against her.  “You’re really good at it.”  Her hand rose a little higher on Fleur’s back, pressing her in closer, and Fleur took the hint, tracing searing kisses along Hermione’s jaw until their lips met again.  Hermione breathed in the smell of her—sweat, black currant, and something like leather—as she put the tiniest bit of space between their lips.  Her heart was pounding, and she smiled into Fleur’s lips. 

«Need a break?»  Hermione nodded gently, her forehead against Fleur’s.  She pressed their lips softly together once more, then Fleur shifted over so that her legs draped over Hermione’s lap, bringing an arm around her shoulders.  Hermione wet her swollen lips with her tongue, trying to catch her breath.

“That was… wow.” 

Fleur giggles.  «You’re very cute after I’ve had my way with you.»  Hermione shot her a side eye.  «I also like kissing you.  Very much.»

Hermione couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled this much.  After dinner, they had retreated back to the Reading Room.  A few kisses had turned into full on snogging, and time had gotten away from them.

Fleur leaned into Hermione’s ear and whispered, «You have the most brilliant smile.»   A pleasant tingle shot down Hermione’s spine at that.  She turned, nose-to-nose with Fleur again.

Switching to French, Hermione teased, «Are you trying to seduce me, Mademoiselle Delacour?» 

“Oui,” Fleur purred, then kissed Hermione on the nose.  Hermione’s smile widened so much that her face almost hurt from it.  Fleur watched it happen, a matching smile breaking across her own face.  Hermione blushed and looked down.

She felt Fleur’s fingers scratch gently along her neck.  «Hey, where did you go?» 

Hermione’s gaze flitted up, finding what she thought might be a hint of insecurity in Fleur’s eyes.  Hermione stroked her fingers along Fleur’s thigh.  «Nowhere, I just.»  For once, she actually felt like a teenager again.  «No one’s ever kissed me on the nose before.  And it was really …»  She blushed.  “I don’t know, it felt really nice.  I haven’t felt like this before.  Just like really cute and cheesy and romantic.”   

«Aww, mon petit chou, come here.»  Fleur pulled her head against her chest, and Hermione loved it.  She breathed in deep, then released it slowly, letting herself sink into Fleur’s warmth.

«You called me that before.  What does it mean?» 

Fleur’s fingers played in Hermione’s hair.  «It is like a…»  She switched to English, trying to explain.  “A small pastry.  Like a … um, cream puff?”

«I like it.» 

Fleur chuckled.  «Well, you are quite delectable.» 

That made Hermione laugh, and she slapped playfully at Fleur’s arm.  “What’s the French word for ‘temptress.’”

Tentatrice.”

“For once, I think I prefer the English.”

“Ah, would you prefer séductrice?”

Hermione nuzzled against the skin just below Fleur’s collarbone.  “Mmm, yes.  My French seductress.”

«Is this your first time, being with another woman?» Fleur asked.

Sitting up, Hermione made a pointed face.  «Is this your way of telling me my kissing skills could use some work?» 

«Absolutely not,» Fleur replied, almost vehemently.  Then her eyes turned soft again, as she switched to English.  “You said that you ‘adn’t felt this,” she grinned wickedly, “‘cheesy and romantic’ before.”

“Ah,” Hermione responded, trying not to be bashful.  She pursed her lips.  “Well, yes, I’ve been with other women.  In the other timeline, after the war.  But I’ve just never been in anything like a serious relationship before.”  Her eyes went wide, her heart racing as she realized what she had just said.  “N-not that I’m saying this is a serious relationship.”  Fleur raised an eyebrow questioningly.  “I mean unless it is?  I just mean, you know, I’ve had a few flings.  Never a girlfriend.  That’s what I meant.”

“You are cute when you are flustered,” Fleur teased.

Hermione rolled her eyes.  “What I’m getting from dating you is that you think I’m cute no matter what I do.”

“For the most part, this is true.  At least so far.”  Fleur shifted around so that her feet could hang over the arm of the sofa, and she leaned back to rest her head in Hermione’s lap.  Hermione couldn’t help grinning.  “I am a very physically affectionate girlfriend, so you will simply ‘ave to get used to this,” Fleur warned.

“Oh no, that sounds so terrible,” Hermione snarked, reaching out to twine her fingers through Fleur’s.  “And did I just hear you use the term ‘girlfriend’?”  Fleur pouted, and Hermione giggled before leaning down to kiss her.

“Am I wrong?  ‘Ave I spoken too soon?”

“No,” Hermione replied, firmly.  “Girlfriends suits me just fine.”

Fleur looked back at her thoughtfully.  “So when did you know?  That you preferred women?”

Hermione glanced away without thinking, her stomach fluttering.  “You’ll think me a great big nerd.”

“You are a great big nerd, chère.  You say it as if it is not one of your more attractive qualities.”

It was remarkable how easy it was for Fleur to fill Hermione with warmth.  She met Fleur’s gaze again.  “In hindsight, it should have been obvious from an early age.  But I didn’t have that ‘ah hah’ moment until—” Hermione found herself doing mental calculations in her head, which was annoying.  “Ugh, time travel makes things so complicated.  I’ve known this about myself for almost a year now.”

Fleur pulled Hermione’s hand into her lap and began fiddling with it, giving Hermione a subtle nod to continue.  “It was the summer after the war.  I was … do you know what PTSD is?  Post-traumatic stress disorder?”

“Pretend that I don’t.  I want to ‘ear about your experiences in your own words.”  The way Fleur’s touch on her hand shifted from playful to soothing told Hermione she at least had some idea what the term meant.

“During the war, I … suffered.  We lived in a tent with only what food we could scavenge or hunt for months.  Constantly afraid to be caught, tortured, and killed.  Constantly worried about our friends and family, none of whom we could reach out to.  And that’s not even…”

 Her body stiffened as her mind found itself back on the floor of Malfoy Manor.  She could feel the pain of the cursed knife carving the slur into her skin.  Tears streamed from her eyes as ragged screams tore from her throat, but she could hardly move.  Her torturer’s body held her down, a harsh grip trapping her arm in place.

A soft hand on her cheek brought her back to reality.  “There.  Just breathe.”  Hermione blinked rapidly.  Fleur’s face was close by, one hand on her cheek and the other on her chest.  Hermione focused on the pressure, slowing her breathing.  She took Fleur’s hand from her cheek and kissed it.

“I’m okay.” 

“May I ‘old you?” Fleur asked tentatively, and the care in her voice made Hermione smile.  Instead of answering directly, Hermione curled herself against Fleur’s chest, wrapping an arm around her as Fleur pulled her tight.  One hand held Hermione, and the other stroked soothing paths through her hair. 

“Does this ‘appen often?”  Hermione shook her head.

“I have nightmares sometimes, less than I used to.  But it’s only when I talk about what happened that I get little flashbacks like that.”

“You don’t ‘ave to tell me,” Fleur whispered.  “I do not want to put you through the pain of it.”

Again, Hermione shook her head.  “No, it’s good to talk about it, at least sometimes.  With the right people.”  She blinked back any remaining tears.  “There were several months, after the war but before the darkness, when I went to regular meetings with other veterans of the war closer to my age.  It was difficult, but healing.  For the most part.”

Hermione pulled back to look Fleur in the eyes.  “You make me feel safe enough to try to talk about it.”  For a moment, she could almost hear the soft sounds of ocean waves.  “It’s funny.  You were my safe place before.”

She could feel Fleur tense ever so slightly, her head tilting.  “Before?”

“During the war.  I was tortured.” Her voice wavered, and she drew in a calming breath.  “We escaped to Shell Cottage, where you and William were hiding out.”  Her fingers scratching gently against Fleur’s back.  “You took care of me.  I had a few broken ribs, a ghastly slur carved into my arm, and I was suffering the aftereffects of repeated bouts of torture under the Cruciatus Curse.” 

Fleur sniffled and held Hermione tighter.  Hermione didn’t know if she’d ever been quite this close to someone, physically speaking.  “We were there for a couple of weeks, and you were the only person I could bring myself to talk about it with.  You even cuddled me through a few nights when the nightmares were particularly bad.”

Relaxing her hold, Fleur pulled back to look down at Hermione.  “Is this the part where you tell me that I turned you gay?”

Hermione burst into laughter at that.  “Oh, is that what you think?”

“It seemed a likely outcome,” Fleur purred, flashing a bright smile.  Hermione rolled her eyes in response, but she couldn’t keep her own smile from showing.

“Well, I guess you’re not wholly wrong.  I did develop one hell of a crush on you, even if I didn’t realize it then.”  She shook her head.  “Honestly, it’s my own fault for getting off into the weeds.  I was supposed to be telling you the nerdy tale of how I came to realize that I’m a lesbian.”

Fleur smiled softly, then leaned in slowly to press a gentle kiss to her lips.  “I am ‘appy to listen to any tale you wish to share with me, ‘Ermione.”  Hermione nodded, then curled back against Fleur.

“That summer, I was struggling with anxiety and depression and flashbacks, and I really didn’t want to be around anyone.  For a couple of months, Minerva—Professor McGonagall, our deputy headmistress—allowed me to live in the castle during reconstruction.” 

Minerva had been the only one who seemed to understand what Hermione needed at that time.  Other than perhaps Har—Hailey, but she was going through her own trauma at the time.  “She was a mentor and a friend to me that summer,” Hermione explained.  “Anyways, among a few of my other habits, I spent a lot of time reading.  Just for fun.  I was surprised to discover an urge to reconnect with my muggle side, and I ended up tracking down quite an odd collection of muggle fiction novels here in the Reading Room.  One of them turned out to be a sort of formative work in what became known as the genre of ‘lesbian pulp.’  A story about a shy girl in uni who found herself drawn to an older popular girl, and they fall in love.  I had no idea what the book was about when I picked it up—I rather think maybe the room sensed that I needed it.”

“And you identified with this shy girl?”

Hermione chuckled.  “Intensely.  I’d never felt so enamored with a story before.  I must have read ten or so books about lesbian love stories in just a couple of days, and it was like I could see myself clearly for the first time in my entire life.  I felt more passion and desire for these fictional women than I had ever for a real, live boy.  Eventually, I got up the courage to talk to Minerva about it, and she helped me come to terms with that side of myself as well.”

“Is Minerva also someone who prefers the company of women?” Fleur asked casually.

“That is not for me to say,” Hermione responded, though the answer was a definite yes.  She didn’t know if Minerva was out as a lesbian, and in this timeline, Minerva had not confided to her about that aspect of her life.  “The important thing is that she was the support I needed.  And she’s the reason I ended up becoming good friends with William.”

“My future gay ‘usband William, you mean?”  Fleur’s voice sounded playful, but Hermione worried that she could still hear a tinge of hurt remaining from their previous conversation about William.  Hermione decided not to dwell.

“Yes, that William.  Though ideally we can avoid that particular fate for you both.”  Fleur chuckled, and Hermione enjoyed the way it felt with her head resting against Fleur’s chest.  “Minerva thought I should connect with some other queer people my age, and William was willing to meet with me.  We’d met a few times before, but I didn’t really know him that well.”

“You said ‘e was the oldest of the Weasley siblings?”

“Yeah.  He’s nine years older than me.  Or … he was.  Before the time travel.  Now age differences feel sort of relative.”

Fleur hummed thoughtfully.  “It must be strange for you.  You and ‘Arry were peers, and now ‘e is more like a little brother.”

Hermione tried not to cringe.  Hailey’s gender was hers to reveal.

“I’m getting used to it,” Hermione said, before returning to the topic at hand.  “William and I became fast friends, despite the age difference.  I found a flat in London, and we spent many an evening together at a little pub for magicals like us, hidden away right in the middle of Soho.  I can still remember how nervous I was the first time I went home with someone.”

“Lucky girl,” Fleur teased.

“Hardly.”  Hermione blushed.  “She was an excellent kisser, but I’d had to drink a lot of wine to work up the courage to ask her to take me home with her.  Let’s just say that things got a bit awkward after the second time my hand cramped up and we both passed out not long after.”

Hermione could tell that Fleur tried not to laugh, but she failed, tremendously.  Hermione did her best to pout, but every time Fleur tried to say something, she just started laughing again.  Only when Hermione started to pull away did Fleur manage to get ahold of herself.

“I am sorry, mon petit chou!  I am not laughing at you, just at the situation.”

Hermione shook her head, muttering under her breath, “Just great, Granger.  You finally get a girlfriend and then immediately tell her your most horrifying sex story.”  And that was the point at which Fleur pushed her back against the sofa, straddling her once more as she leaned in.  Fleur accomplished this in one fluid motion, and Hermione hated how much the grace and strength of it turned her on.

“I think you are perfect, ‘Ermione Granger, and I am ‘onoured that you feel comfortable enough with me to share such a story.”  Fleur leaned in and pulled her bottom lip delicately between her teeth, drawing a hiss from Hermione.  “So do not mistake my laughter for any sort of insult.”  She kissed Hermione gently, and they continued like that for long enough that any embarrassment was long forgotten.

                                                  

“There you are!” Ginny hissed, equal parts shout and whisper.  Hailey flinched, not having heard her approaching the back corner of the library where she was studying.  Luna trailed just behind Ginny, making an apologetic face.  “We’ve been looking all over for you!”

Hailey’s brow furrowed.  “I am not that hard to find, Gin.  You know all my usual spots by now.”  Ginny sat beside her, and Luna moved around to her other side.  Ginny made sure to sit just close enough that her shoulder brushed against Hailey’s, while Luna just smirked as if she knew exactly the effect Ginny’s closeness would have on Hailey’s nerves. 

Ginny was confusing to be around lately.  Hailey could still remember all the butterflies she felt after the ball, when she and Ginny had parted ways to head to their different dorms.  Hailey hadn’t known what to expect, unsure if going to the ball together meant that their relationship had changed, had grown somehow from friendship to something more romantic.  The dancing had been nice, and conversation with Ginny was always easy when Hailey got out of her own head, but they hadn’t discussed anything about being a couple.  And Hailey didn’t really know if that was something Ginny would want.  In the end, Ginny had just smiled and told Hailey what a great time she had, before kissing her on the cheek and disappearing up the steps.  Hailey had felt that kiss linger on her cheek until she fell asleep that night.

But now, it felt like everything was different.  Because, as far as Ginny knew, she had gone to the Yule Ball with a boy named Harry Potter.  If she had feelings for Hailey, maybe they weren’t for Hailey at all.  Hailey wanted to be hopeful, but truthfully, she had no idea if Ginny would want to be her friend anymore—once she found out that she was Hailey, not Harry—much less her girlfriend.  Hailey had no idea if Ginny was bisexual, and in fact, she didn’t know if liking boys and girls like that necessarily included girls who used to be boys.  Even if Ginny liked the person she knew as Harry Potter, letting her in felt like such a big risk.

Hailey hadn’t been avoiding Ginny.  Not exactly.  But she couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t easier to be alone with Luna and Hermione, who both knew who she really was.  Hailey just felt like a complete mess around Ginny.  The part of her who felt excited and nervous and giddy about every little touch with Ginny was at war with the side of her who was terrified that Ginny would figure out her secret at any moment and completely reject her for it.

As Hailey glanced from Luna to Ginny, she wondered if Ginny could sense how awkward Hailey felt.  She was sure Luna knew, because Luna just seemed to know that kind of stuff.  If Ginny noticed, she didn’t acknowledge it.  Instead she asked about something entirely different.

“Have you talked to Hermione today?  It feels like all the gossip is about our two favourite lesbians.  Apparently people saw them holding hands around the castle today.” Ginny pulled out a tin of sugared butterfly wings and popped one in her mouth, despite having been reminded on more than one occasion (by both Hermione and Madam Pince) that sweets weren’t allowed in the library.

“Other than in class, no, and she didn’t say anything about it,” Hailey admitted.  She had a strong suspicion that she hadn’t seen Hermione because she and Fleur had disappeared to the Reading Room to make out as soon as Hermione got out of class.  But she wasn’t going to tell Ginny about Hermione’s secret room.

“I just hope the pure-blood students aren’t too mean to her and Fleur,” Luna sighed, worry in her voice.  “You know that pure-bloods are deathly afraid of homosexuals.  They think it’s contagious, like werewolves.  Something muggles created a long time ago to prevent witches and wizards from procreating.”

As far as Luna’s various conspiracy theories went, this was one of the most realistic that Hailey had heard.  Ginny, however, made a weird face at the suggestion.  “Oy, I’m pure-blood, and I don’t believe that.”

Luna just smiled and reached across Hailey to reassuringly grip Ginny’s forearm.  As Luna did so, her arm brushed against Hailey’s chest, and Hailey felt an odd twinge of pain that she had never felt before.  Hailey held in her gasp but couldn’t stifle the way she stiffened at the sensation.  Fortunately, no one seemed to notice.

“You’re one of the good pure-bloods, Ginny.  Your parents clearly aren’t tied down by silly superstitions.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Ginny scoffed, albeit playfully. 

Finally, Hailey worked up the courage to jump into the conversation.  “Well, regardless of why people like Malfoy might be awful about it, I am pretty sure Hermione and Fleur can take care of themselves.”  She shrugged.  “I doubt Hermione will really get any more grief for being gay than she has always gotten for being muggle-born.  At least, I hope not.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” Ginny conceded.  Hailey wondered if Ginny might be willing to talk more about her own views on gay people, but she had no idea how to bring it up without, she worried, seeming too invested in the answer.

Fortunately, Luna either read Hailey’s mind or was on the same page, because she again leaned in to ask Ginny, “So then, how do you feel about Hermione having a girlfriend?”  As Luna leaned forward towards Ginny, she settled her arm around Hailey’s shoulders, possibly to hold herself up or just to be more comfortable.  By now, Hailey had gotten used to how tactile Luna could be once she really trusted someone, and the gesture barely even registered until a now blushing Ginny looked at Luna’s arm like it had personally offended her.  Hailey’s brow furrowed, and Ginny immediately looked away, her blush growing hotter.

“What do you mean, how I feel?”  Ginny seemed flustered all of the sudden, and Hailey wasn’t sure why.  She was really hoping it wasn’t because Ginny was uncomfortable with Hermione’s relationship.  She thought Ginny already knew Hermione was a lesbian, but she wasn’t sure how read the look on Ginny’s face or the visible tension in her shoulders.

“It’s a very simple question, Ginny,” Luna pushed, her voice particularly melodic, as if she was trying to soothe Ginny.  “You don’t think homosexuality is contagious, but what do you think?  Are you happy for her?”

Ginny frowned.  “Of course I’m happy for her.  Hermione’s one of my best friends, and she seems happy.”

“But?”  Now it was Hailey’s turn to blush.  She only registered that she was the one who asked the question after it was already out there.  Hailey immediately pulled her bottom lip into her mouth, biting down nervously as she waited for Ginny to get mad at her.

Which is why it was strange that Ginny seemed every bit as flustered as Hailey.  The two sat there, gaping at each other, for entirely too long, before Luna finally saved them from themselves.  She squeezed Hailey’s shoulder before smiling widely at Ginny.  “I think Hermione’s a lucky girl.  Fleur is incredibly beautiful, isn’t she?” 

Luna’s eyes were clearly focused on Ginny when she asked, and her cheeks turned a darker red than her hair.  Ginny’s eyes became suddenly very shifty, flitting from Luna to her hands to the middle distance to Hailey and back around again.  She sucked in a breath and then muttered, so quietly and rapidly that it was barely even understandable, “ImeanofcourseFleurislikeimpossiblygorgeous.”  She slid ever so slightly away as she uttered this, and Hailey couldn’t understand why Ginny seemed so embarrassed.

But Luna wasn’t done with … whatever she was trying to do.  “I bet girls’ lips are super soft when you kiss them,” she hummed dreamily.  Her hand momentarily rested on Hailey’s bicep and gave a quick squeeze, as if to signal that Luna included her in this odd statement about girls’ lips.  Ginny noticed, and Hailey thought she saw something like anger flash across her face.  But Luna didn’t pause long enough for Ginny to voice any concerns.  “Much more so than boys’ lips,” Luna continued, “though I’m sure they have their own special appeal.  Gin, do you remember—”

“Luna!” Ginny exclaimed, only exasperating Hailey’s state of confusion.  “Whatever you’re thinking of, I’m sure that was different.”

“Er, what are you talking about?” Hailey asked. 

Luna giggled, winking at Ginny before explaining, “Oh, I think that will stay our secret for now, cutie.  At least until Gin is ready to tell you.”

“Wait wait wait,” Ginny interrupted again.  “Are you… Lune, are you saying that you like boys and girls?!”  Ginny sounded incredulous, as if she had no idea that was a thing people could do.

Luna made a face, her lips quirking into a thoughtful expression.  “I can’t really say for sure, yet,” she admitted.  “I like different people in lots of different ways, and I don’t think gender really has anything to do about it.  The difference between friendship and the other thing is really confusing to me sometimes.  I bet it will make more sense when I get older.” 

She didn’t sound too worried about it, and Hailey smiled softly at her.  Luna was probably the coolest person she knew, in her own Luna way.  Hailey admired and envied how sure of herself Luna always seemed to be, and how nothing seemed too scary for her to face with a dreamy smile and half-baked theory.  Meanwhile, Hailey had trouble not getting lost in her own head.  Hailey hadn’t ever noticed Luna until Ginny introduced them and Hermione basically forced a new friend group together while Ron was being a prat.  And now her friendship with Luna felt nearly as important as her relationship with Hermione.  Hailey’s head spun sometimes with just how radically her life had changed in a very short time.

Ginny, however, continued to gape at Luna like she was some sort of perplexing magical creature.  Not an uncommon reaction to Luna, all things considered, but Hailey didn’t think this particular statement warranted such a reaction.  Luna was saying that she was bisexual, or something like it.  Probably.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?!  I didn’t even know that was a thing!”  Ginny then turned to Hailey and frowned.  “And why doesn’t Harry seem surprised?”

“It never came up,” Luna explained nonchalantly, but Hailey’s heart was racing.  She rushed to explain, even though she didn’t really know why she felt like she had to defend herself.

“I knew it was a thing.  Or, I mean, something like it.  Hermione told me.  She said that s-some people like only the opposite gender to themselves and some people like only the same gender and other people like both.  Or I guess like … gender doesn’t matter to who they like.”  She glanced awkwardly to Luna.  “Hermione didn’t really explain it like you did, but it seems similar.”  She shrugged, turning back to Ginny.  “Anyway… I dunno, just doesn’t seem that surprising to me, I guess.”

Ginny continued to look confused, and her eyes tracked back and forth between her two friends suspiciously.  “Are all of our friends gay?”  Suddenly her eyes widened, and her whole body slumped.  “Harry, are you?”

Hailey frowned, because the answer was yes, just not how Ginny meant.  And clearly the thought pained her, either because Ginny had weird issues with gay people or because she wanted to date the boy called Harry and hated the idea that he wasn’t interested in girls at all.  “Er, no, I definitely don’t like boys, uh, like that,” Hailey assured. 

Immediate relief flooded across Ginny’s face, but the possible confirmation that Ginny did, in fact, see her as a possible romantic partner didn’t do anything to assuage the anxiety in her chest.  Luna took the opportunity to reach across and poke Ginny in the ribs, causing her to flinch away.  Rather than pull back, Luna laid down across Hailey’s lap, with her head resting on Ginny’s thigh. 

“Alright then Ginny, it’s your turn!”  Luna’s hand reached out and began to play with Ginny’s hair, and this caused Ginny to noticeably relax.

“Fine, well, if you must know, I’ve had two big crushes in my life, and one of them was on a girl.  I think.  I don’t know… it was really similar to how I felt about the boy, so I guess that’s what it was.  I didn’t really think that was allowed.  Mum certainly wouldn’t approve.  But … I don’t have a crush on her anymore!  So … like whatever that means.”

Luna and Hailey shared a look.  They were both pretty sure who the “boy” crush was.  Hailey was the one to ask, “Oh my god, who was the girl crush?” 

Ginny scowled.  “I’m not telling you.”  Luna and Hailey both slipped into their best pouting faces, but Ginny’s scowl did not lessen.  “No!  And it doesn’t matter.  She’s really different this year, and I don’t like her like that anymore.”

Hailey’s eyes went wide.  “Bloody hell, you had a crush on Hermione!?”

The return of Ginny’s blush was all the answer either of them needed, and Hailey got the feeling that if Luna’s head wasn’t holding Ginny down she might have run away right then.  So, Hailey’s body reacted, and her hand was tracing soothing patterns on Ginny’s forearm before she could think too hard about it.  A soft smile crossed Ginny’s lips, and the tension dissipated from her shoulders.  She still wouldn’t look at either of her friends though.

“Whatever, so what if it was?”

“I think it’s lovely,” Luna beamed.  “In some other world, maybe you two would have been the cutest couple.  And maybe,” her eyes flitted to Hailey and back so quickly that it hardly registered, “there’s a new girl waiting just around the corner.”  Hailey glared at Luna pointedly, but when she started to pull her hand away from Ginny, the redhead stopped her, gently resting her own hand on top of Hailey’s.  The touch was electric, and Hailey could feel her heartbeat pick up ever so slightly.

“I don’t think so,” Ginny answered softly, meeting Hailey’s gaze.  And yet again, Hailey felt at war with herself, so many emotions about Ginny rising up all at once.

“Erm, okay, well…”  Hailey pulled away, then scooted out from under Luna.  “I’ve still got some homework to finish, and I could use Hermione’s help.  I’m going to go track her down and check to be sure no one’s been bullying her or Fleur today.”  She rushed to pack up her things, feeling two pairs of eyes watching her the entire time. 

Glancing about nervously, Hailey decided to just go, and she leaned down to give first Luna, then Ginny, a quick hug goodbye.  But Ginny held her just a little bit longer, and Hailey felt like she couldn’t breathe.  As she pulled away, Ginny smiled at her.

“Okay, but let’s talk soon?  Just the two of us?”

Hailey blinked rapidly, completely thrown off balance.  She licked her lips, then swallowed.  “Uh, yeah.  Definitely.  Definitely.  Soon.”  Then she retreated as fast as she could.

                                                  

Hailey didn’t waste time searching.  She went straight to her dorm, pulled out the Marauders’ Map from where she kept it hidden under her bed, and confirmed that Hermione was indeed in the Reading Room again, with Fleur. 

She almost barged straight into the room, but she hesitated at the very last moment, hand hovering over the doorknob.  There is a very good chance there’s an intense snogging session going on behind this door, she reminded herself.  So, instead of opening the door, Hailey knocked.  Several moments passed, and she could hear various muffled sounds and words behind the door, and then finally, it opened to reveal a disheveled Hermione with a look somewhere between frustrated and confused written across her face.

“Hailey, what are you doing here?” Hermione hissed, keeping her voice low so that Fleur couldn’t hear the name she used.

Hailey blushed, thinking that her face had been on fire like this far too many times in the past hour.  “Um, I just really need to talk to you about something.  It’s important.”  She looked down at her feet and shuffled awkwardly.  “And then I got here and I figured it was probably a good idea to knock because… you know.”  Hermione’s lips quirked into a little smirk, and she glanced back at Fleur, who was approaching the two.

“If ‘Arry has something important to discuss, I can leave.  Katarina is dying to practice more offensive spells to help me practice for the Third Task.”  She leaned over Hermione’s shoulder to press a kiss to her cheek.  “I will come sit with you at dinner, if that is okay, ma belle?”

A huge, dorky smile spread across Hermione’s face, her eyes tracking Fleur’s movement as she nodded in agreement.  Fleur smiled at Hailey, briefly placing a hand on her shoulder as she walked back down the corridor away from the two friends.  Then they were alone. 

Right away, Hailey knew that Hermione saw through her by the instant shift in her expression.  Her head tilted as she pondered Hailey, her lips turning downward in a worried quirk.  “Come on, let’s sit,” she said, and Hailey followed her into the Reading Room.  The furniture was different than usual, noticeably more muggle.  There was a big spacious sectional sofa, most of its pillows askew or knocked aside onto the floor, and off in the corner sat an elegant chaise that Hailey somehow knew would be incredibly comfortable to lay on.  Alas, Hermione led Hailey instead to the two familiar chairs by the fireplace, with the small table in between.  “What’s on your mind?”

Hailey just sat there.  She didn’t know where to start, lost in a storm of insecurity and uncertainty.  “It’s … about Ginny,” she murmured, at least able to be sure about that particular truth.  Ginny was absolutely the source of her emotional turmoil. 

Hermione gave her plenty of time to elaborate, but after a rather lengthy silence, she finally prodded Hailey for more information.  “What about Ginny?”  For a moment, Hailey’s attention focused back on her friend, just long enough to see the obvious empathy in her warm brown eyes.  Hailey drew in a deep breath, then let it out heavily.

“I don’t know.  I mean… what to do.  Everything about Ginny is confusing, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

“Is this about your feelings for her or about the fact that she doesn’t know you’re a girl?”

“Both!” Hailey shouted, then immediately winced at the pitch and tone of her own voice.  “Sorry.  I … everything is so confusing, Hermione.”

Hermione reached across the little table to take Hailey’s hand.  “I’m sorry, Hailey.  I can’t even imagine.”  Her voice was soothing, full of care.  “Why don’t you just talk it out?  It doesn’t need to make sense—just tell me what you’re feeling.”

Hailey felt herself nod in response to the idea.  “I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve got feelings for Ginny.”  Hermione snorted, holding back pointed laughter.  “Right.  Well.  But I don’t know if she feels the same way about me.”  Hailey shook her head.  “No.  I think she definitely has feelings for me.  But not … for me.  She’s got a crush on Harry Potter, right?”

Hailey left the thought open, eyes refocusing on Hermione as she waited for an answer.  Some part of her hoped Hermione would tell her that she was wrong.  That maybe Ginny could see through the surface appearance to the girl within.  However, Hermione’s response was probably more reflective of reality.

“I think it’s more complicated than that, luv.  I’ve got no doubt that she cares about you, Hailey, even if her concept of you is … well, muddled, I s’pose.”  Hermione sighed.  “I’ve no doubt she sees you.  Trust me that, in some ways, she always has, especially after all that business with the Riddle diary.  But—”  Here Hermione paused, as if considering her words.  “But I have no idea how much of those feelings are tied into her conception of you as a boy.”

Hailey felt her heart sink.  It wasn’t as though she wasn’t asking exactly the same questions within her own mind, but she had hoped for some clarity and guidance from Hermione.  Hermione’s hand squeezed hard, drawing Hailey’s attention back to her face, which was twisted into deep concern.

“Hailey, I …” Hermione sighed.  “I don’t want to discourage you.  Please understand that what I’m about to tell you is purely guesswork on my part, okay?”  Hailey looked at her curiously, nodding subtly in agreement.  But when Hermione tacked on a careful, “And please try not to freak out,” Hailey’s expression twisted into something of a scowl.

Hermione let go of her hand, scoffing at Hailey’s reaction.  “I said don’t freak out,” she huffed.  “All I wanted to tell you is that in hindsight, I think there was definitely some flirtation between Ginny and me, back in my timeline.”  Hailey was flummoxed.  First Ginny admitted to having a crush on Hermione, now Hermione was admitting she and Ginny had flirted back in her timeline.  Hermione started to continue, but she hesitated when she saw Hailey’s face.  Her mouth hung open for a moment, then she frowned.  “What?” she demanded.

“Oh nothing, it’s just that it wasn’t only in your other timeline that Ginny had a crush on you.”

Hermione’s eyes went wide.  “She said that?!”

“Yup,” Hailey answered, popping the p.  “But don’t worry, she’s not interested in the new you.  And she was being so weird about everything, so I don’t really know what to think.”

“Well, shit,” Hermione cursed, and she sunk into her chair, suddenly seeming smaller than usual.  “Can’t say I saw that coming.  But that’s a good thing right?  She all but admitted that she’s attracted to girls, even if she was weird about it.”

And technically, Hermione was correct, but Hailey couldn’t find it in herself to find reassurance in her words.  Deep down, it didn’t resolve any of her fears about her feelings for Ginny.  “What’s it matter?” she whispered.  “Not like I’m a real girl.  Maybe she fancies girls and boys, but I feel like I’m trapped somewhere in between.  How could she really like me, if she knew?”

She shut her eyes tight, holding back tears.  She hardly noticed that Hermione had risen immediately, not until she blinked rapidly to clear her eyes only to find Hermione knelt before her.  Hermione gripped at Hailey’s arms, rubbing them firmly.  “Hailey, you are absolutely a real girl.”  One of her hands slipped up to Hailey’s cheek, and she couldn’t help leaning into Hermione’s touch.  “You are my sister.  And you don’t have to take my word for it—think about the stairs.  Magic knows who you are, and despite your worries, you do too, deep down.” 

Hailey sank into Hermione without even thinking about it.  The next thing she knew, she was sobbing into the familiar scent of Hermione’s now auburn curls, held tightly in her big sister’s lap.  Gentle fingers kneaded through her hair, working immediately to soothe her internal conflict.  So, Hailey let it happen.  She let herself fall apart a little, her confusion and fear releasing through her shuddering sobs and the increasing dampness of Hermione’s robe against her cheek.

After a while, when Hailey was able to speak clearly again, Hermione asked her what prompted this emotional breakdown.  Almost as if she could just tell that Hailey had gotten overwhelmed by some interaction with Ginny and came running straight to Hermione to talk about it.  Sometimes, it was really unfair how well Hermione knew her.

So, Hailey just closed her eyes, leaned her head back against the chair, and spilled the beans.  “I was in the library when Ginny and Luna showed up looking for me.  They immediately sat down on both sides of me and everything was normal.  Not normal.  Ugh, nothing’s been normal with Ginny since I figured myself out, and I think she’s catching on that something’s up.  I don’t know how to be around her anymore, not with this secret between us.  I’m terrified that she’ll think I’m a freak and want nothing to do with me if I tell her.  But it sure seems like she’s going to try to see if I want to be a couple or whatever, and soon, and Hermione, I just don’t know what to do!”

“Whatever you choose to do, I know it’ll be the right path for you,” Hermione assured her.  “You know I believe in you, right?”  Hailey couldn’t bring herself to answer, sighing heavily instead.  She didn’t doubt that Hermione believed in her, but that didn’t make believing in herself any easier.  “Hailey, look at me.”

Hailey opened her eyes.  Hermione’s expression was open and earnest.  “If you’re not ready to tell Ginny about your gender, there’s nothing wrong with that.  If that’s what you choose, then I agree that now probably isn’t a good time for you to try to have that sort of a connection with her.”  Her soft smile turned bittersweet.  “But if you want to be brave, I think you can trust Ginny.  I can’t promise that she’ll understand.  Or that she will want to go out with you.  Even so … only you can decide if it’s worth the risk.  Sharing our truest selves with others is hard, believe me.  But I speak with experience when I say that it is absolutely worth it.”

Hailey smiled at that.  She wanted to be as hopeful as Hermione.  As confident.  As brave.  It was just so scary.  She wished she could just snap her fingers and become the girl she was always supposed to be.  It would be so much easier to share her truth then.

But that wasn’t how life worked, even with magic.

“Maybe I want to be brave,” she admitted, barely able to vocalize the words.  “And maybe not just with Ginny.”  Immediately, Hermione pulled her into a tight embrace.

“I love you, dear girl, and I will be with you every step of the way.”

Chapter Text

During Hailey’s second visit to the raggedy Hog’s Head Inn, she and Hermione did not bother finding a seat or bringing their own glasses.  Instead they headed straight upstairs, Hermione nodding briefly to the elderly bearded bartender who grunted at them as they walked by.  But before they could reach their destination, Hailey pulled Hermione to a stop.

“Hey, umm, after this, could we talk about something … in private?”  Hermione had to lean in to hear her, but she nodded.

“Of course.  Before we meet up with Fleur and Dobby, or after?” 

Hailey thought about that for a second, then quickly answered, “Actually, we’ll see how things go.”

“Okaaay.”  She drew out the vowel skeptically but turned back to the door.  Remus Lupin answered the door moments after Hermione’s soft knock, a concerned look on his face as he greeted the two students.

“Alright, get in here, you too.”  They slid past him, finding Sirius seated comfortably in one of the chairs opposite the door.  Tired eyes lit up as his gaze shifted from Hermione to Hailey, but his expression shifted to puzzlement as he took in her appearance.  She tried not to show any outward sign of noticing, offering him a tentative smile. 

“Hullo, Sirius.” 

A smile broke across his face, and he stood, stepping towards Hailey.  “Harry, my boy!  It’s so good to see you.”  Hailey cringed at the greeting but did her best to relax into his warm hug.  Sirius couldn’t know how painful his words were.  But Hermione did, and Hailey took solace in the brief squeeze she gave her hand as she pulled away from Sirius. 

He continued to kneel in front of Hailey, searching her face before glancing back to Lupin.  “Admittedly, I was a bit off my nut last time, but does Harry look different to you?

Hailey cringed again, shrinking away from the attention as she moved slightly behind Hermione on instinct.  Sirius continued to look befuddled, and Remus simply asked, “Different hair style?”  Hailey couldn’t tell if this was directed towards her or Sirius, but Sirius was the one who answered.

“Yes, certainly, but it’s something more.”  He pondered her appearance a bit long, then waived it off.  “That’s not important, sorry to embarrass you, kiddo.”  He settled back into his seat.  Remus leaned back against the wall next to Sirius’s chair as the girls sat on the bed across from them.  The Marauders had identical looks of concern written across their features. 

“Well then, why are we here?” Lupin inquired.

“Because Sirius was going to show up here sooner or later, trying to look out for Hai—uh, Harry, and we have something we need to discuss with the both of you,” Hermione answered. 

Sirius chuckled.  “Well, she’s got me there, Moony.”

“Yes, well, you could have been hiding out with me this whole time and been in a much better position to help Harry than from whatever tropical island you found your way to,” Lupin scolded in answer.

“I’m not going to put you in more danger than you’re already in.”

“That isn’t your choice to make for me,” Lupin retorted, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Enough!”  All eyes turned to Hermione, who shook her head.  “If you boys are done bickering, we have a plan that could solve all your problems.” 

“What now?”

“Really now?”

Sirius and Remus spoke over each other, both a little surprised by Hermione’s tone.  Then they glanced at each other and shrugged, before turning back to Hermione.

“Ready to listen?” she chuckled.  They both nodded.  “Alright then, but hear us out before you dismiss us as naïve children, okay?”  She glanced to Hailey, who took it from there.

“We’re working with Rita Skeeter to get out the full story of what happened with Sirius and Pettigrew.”  Both men immediately made to interrupt, but Hermione held up a sharp finger, glaring them both down.  Hailey continued explaining.  “I know about Rita Skeeter, and we definitely don’t trust her, if that’s what you’re worried about.  But Hermione’s got something over her, and we just need you to trust us that she will follow through on this.  And between us, Ron, and you two, we have enough eyewitnesses to get the truth out there and have people genuinely listen to it.”

“But we need both of you to be willing to talk to Skeeter on the record,” Hermione continued.  “If we get the story out there, there’s enough evidence to get Sirius a real trial and hopefully clear his name.”

“Bollocks,” Sirius muttered.  “Look, I’m sure your hearts are in the right place here, but it’s been over a dozen years.  Everyone thinks of me as the worst of the Death Eaters, and a tall tale told by three children, an escaped convict, and a werewolf isn’t going to convince anyone, even if it’s the truth.”

“As much as I think Sirius is probably a bit too cynical on this point, I have to agree.  Even with five eyewitnesses, Fudge has it out for Sirius.  If we had been able to hold onto Peter, everything would be different, but I’m afraid we’re not in any better position today than we were when he escaped last year.”

“Seriously?” Hailey practically shouted.  “You won’t even try?  You were only thrown in Azkaban because you never got a trial in the first place!”

Hermione joined her in her outrage.  “There’s so much more to this than just the testimony of three kids and a werewolf!  Dumbledore and Snape can both testify.  They can put us under veritaserum!  We can share our memories in a pensieve!”  She growled, and both the men looked taken aback by their ferocity.  “How can you not even try?  Did they ever find your wand, Sirius?  What about Pettigrew’s?  Couldn’t they prove which spells came from which wand?  How did no one ask these questions back when they first decided to throw you in Azkaban?”

Neither Remus nor Sirius could meet their gaze at this point.  Hailey opened her mouth to continue, but Hermione stopped her with a gentle squeeze of her hand and a shake of the head.  An uncomfortable silence settled in, until finally, Sirius spoke, his voice muted and strained.  “I was just in so much pain.  So full of anger and sorrow and I … well, I didn’t much care what happened to me.  I pray you never know what it is like to lose someone you love that much so tragically.”

Hailey looked to Hermione, whose face had gone pale, and her heart ached for everyone in this room.  Each had lost a best friend to Voldemort, and each bore the scars of that loss.  It wasn’t something she had ever experienced, and she agreed with Sirius—she hoped she would never have to.  And as much as she still couldn’t understand how that sort of loss could have kept Sirius from wanting to prove his innocence and be a father to her, she tried not to take it personally.

“I took it hard, too,” Remus admitted, glancing at Hailey before returning his gaze to the floor.  “I had just heard about your parents’ death when the news came that Sirius had betrayed them and then murdered Peter and a number of muggle onlookers.  I believed it without much of a doubt, I’m ashamed to admit.  I was in shock, and I never knew that Sirius had convinced James and Lily to use Peter as the Secret Keeper.  I let my own pain and anger consume me, and with Voldemort dead, Sirius was the obvious target for all of my hatred.  I never questioned whether he might be innocent, not until last year.”

“See!” Sirius declared, looking haunted by Remus’s words.  “If even my … uh, best remaining friend immediately assumed my guilt, no one in wizarding Britain is going to give me any benefit of the doubt.  So, what is the point?”

“The point is to change that narrative!” Hermione insisted.  “Surely you know how Skeeter is with words.  I hate it, but she has tremendous sway over public opinion.  And honestly, isn’t it worth a shot?  It’s not like she can make things worse for you.”

Sirius still looked rattled by the trip down memory lane, but Lupin’s expression had grown thoughtful.  “You know, she might have a point.”

“What?!”  Sirius looked at Remus as though he had personally stabbed him in the back.  “You’re not serious.  I’m not trusting Rita bloody Skeeter to keep me out of Azkaban a second time!”

Hailey tried to reassure her godfather.  “We told you—”

“That Hermione’s ‘got something on her,’ yes, I bloody well remember,” Sirius snapped.  “Excuse me if I’m not ready to risk my freedom on a fifteen-year-old trying to blackmail England’s most slippery journalist.  I hardly think I’m being unreasonable.”

Remus reached out and grasped Sirius’s shoulder.  Oddly, Sirius leaned into the seemingly comforting touch, then immediately stiffened as he glanced almost frantically between Hailey, Hermione, and Remus.  Sensing the sudden, strange discomfort, Remus withdrew his hand, tucking a strand of his long hair behind his ear.  But he didn’t back down.  “I’m going to speak to Skeeter, whether you choose to or not.  But please, consider the opportunity this is.  You can finally say your piece on everything that happened, Sirius.  Finally set the record straight.  And we can take precautions.  Tell Skeeter that she will only be meeting me, and I will lead her to somewhere of our choosing.  I’ll only bring her back to where you’re waiting if I’m sure she’s not bringing a team of aurors along.”

Hermione brightened.  “The Shrieking Shack would be perfect!  Sirius, you can enter in your animagus form through the secret passage, and wait there until Remus—”

“Oh, am I ‘Remus’ now, young Hermione?” the former professor chuckled, crooked grin only growing wider when Hermione answered the interruption with a swift glare.

“As I was saying, Sirius can hide, no one has to know he was ever in the shack at all, and if Remus is confident that it is safe, he can lead Skeeter in through the front door, and Sirius can reveal himself.”

“You see, Sirius?  Nothing to concern yourself with.”  Remus grinned widely at his best friend.  “And if something goes wrong, you’re more than capable of apparating out of there.”

Sirius rolled his eyes, but Hailey could tell he was coming around.  Hermione, however, had other thoughts.  “Wait, so you’ve got a wand now?” she asked, causing Hailey to frown in confusion.  She’s from the future; should she know this?

“Oh, yes, got a new one in Grenada.  Surprisingly helpful old wandmaker there.  I was skeptical that there would be anything there that would fit me, but I’ve grown to like this ebony wand,” he explained, sliding a simple black wand out of his sleeves. 

“Okay but just so that we’re clear,” Hailey interrupted, growing a little impatient.  “You’re saying that you’ll go along with the plan?”

“If I say yes, will you drop it and tell us about the goings on at Hogwarts?”

And with that, the conversation shifted.  Hailey relied on Hermione to convey most of the juicy Hogwarts gossip, only responding when Sirius or Remus specifically addressed a question to her.  She felt so very uncomfortable in her own skin around these two men who were, at this point in her life, probably the closest to father figures she had ever really had.  Other than maybe Arthur Weasley.  But they thought of her as a boy, James Potter in miniature, and she had no idea how to deal with that.

 Then, when Hermione assured Sirius that she was doing everything she could to help Hailey stay safe in the tournament, including finding her a fireproof charm for the First Task, Hailey’s mouth was responding without a thought.  “Oh please, like you didn’t give Fleur that exact same charm!”

“The Beauxbatons champion?” Remus asked.  “Why would you help her?”

Hermione was too busy blushing to answer, so Hailey continued, suddenly more than happy to lead the conversation.  “Because Fleur’s her girlfriend,” Hailey practically sang, grinning mischievously over at Hermione.

That pulled Hermione out of her flutter.  “Excuse me, but I’m not sure where you get off thinking you can tease me for having a gorgeous, talented, brilliant girlfriend who is an excellent kisser and is also beating you in the tournament, thank you very much.  I’m quite proud.”  Hermione stared challengingly back at Hailey, who was now struggling to keep the smirk off of her face.

“Well, I don’t know that I needed to know about the Delacour girl’s snogging prowess,” Sirius snickered, seemingly joining in on the fun.

Remus, however, just seemed confused.  “Hermione, you’re … gay?  I thought that was an even bigger taboo in the muggle world than it is in the magical?”

“Oh it is,” Hermione confirmed, then shrugged.  “But that’s their problem, not mine.  My parents are quite supportive, and that’s all that matters.”

Things got especially curious after that.  Remus’s expression shifted from confused to something very close to smugness.  Then he turned and slapped Sirius across the back of his head.  His shaggy curls swung as his eyes snapped over to Remus, leaning away as if expecting Remus to take another shot at him.

“Ow, bloody hell, what was that for?!” Sirius sniffed, almost pouting.  It was a side of him Hailey hadn’t ever seen.  Glancing over at Hermione, who was also clearly baffled by this sudden turn, Hailey had no idea what, exactly, was going on between the two men.

“I told you!” Remus practically shouted, though his tone was somewhere between pleading and scolding.  “No one is going to care!”

“Come now, it’s hardly the same.”  Sirius wouldn’t look at Remus anymore. 

“Bollocks,” Remus scoffed.  “Delacour comes from a big fancy family and is the Triwizard champion of one of the most prestigious schools of magic in the world.  And Hermione is a brilliant young witch who is unjustly discriminated against because of her birth in the muggle world.  It is exactly the same, except that unlike Delacour, there’s no family left for you to disappoint!”

“Wait,” Hermione gasped.  “Of course!  That makes so much sense.  Maybe if I had…”  Her voice drifted off, her face displaying the look Hailey had come to interpret as her ‘lost in my memories’ face.  But Hailey was still lost.

“What makes so much sense?”  

“Nothing,” Sirius insisted, but he refused to meet anyone’s gaze.

Remus stepped closer to where the girls were seated.  “What Hermione has no doubt realized is that Sirius and I have feelings for each other.”

“Speak for yourself, Moony!”

Remus rolled his eyes but kept his attention on Hailey.  “And I’m guessing, based on your playful teasing about Hermione and her girlfriend, that you don’t have a problem with the fact that Sirius and I are both …. Well, romantically interested in other men?”

Hailey felt her eyes grow wide as she realized what Remus was saying.  The thing she didn’t understand was why Sirius seemed so grumpy about it.  “I think it’s brilliant!” Hailey exclaimed happily.

She couldn’t really explain how over the moon she felt about this.  She was so worried about Remus and especially Sirius finding out her secret—whether because she told them or because she couldn’t hide it well enough anymore.  But if they were gay… maybe Hailey’s gender stuff wouldn’t seem so weird to them.  Maybe she could actually hope that they would accept her for who she was.

And suddenly, she understood why Sirius was behaving this way.  Hailey was up and across the room in a heartbeat, as if possessed by a courage she definitely hadn’t been feeling of late.  Her hand found Sirius’s jaw and lifted his head just enough to get him to look her in the eyes.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” she whispered.  “Everyone who really cares about you will be happy for you.  You’ve been through so much—it’s okay to let yourself be happy, even if it’s scary.”

For the briefest moment, she thought she saw tears in his eyes, but they were gone just as quickly.  Instead, Sirius smiled softly at her, then placed a hand on her shoulder.  “When did you get so wise, young one?”

It was a great question.  Hailey couldn’t really be sure where her advice had come from, and she certainly wasn’t used to speaking so eloquently.  But it was enough that she understood what Sirius was going through.

“I’ve learned a lot from my sister,” was the answer Hailey managed to come up with, smiling sheepishly back at Hermione.  Unlike Sirius, the older girl made no effort to hide her emotions, smiling widely as her eyes grew watery.

Remus seemed quite pleased himself.  He looked fondly towards Hailey, then Hermione, before turning his attention back to his oldest living friend.  “I dunno, Sirius.  Sounds like the children know what they’re talking about.  Maybe we should listen to them.”

                                                  

Hailey and Hermione stayed in Hogsmeade just long enough to have a meal, then headed back to the castle.  Along the way, they talked in hushed whispers about what had been on Hailey’s mind just before their meeting with the Marauders.  That and the unexpected revelation that there was something potentially romantic going on between the two men.

Rather than stop over in Gryffindor Tower, they went straight to the Reading Room.  They had a while until Fleur and Dobby joined them, so they settled in with a hot cuppa while they waited.  Thinking about what Hailey had said, and what she intended to say shortly, Hermione smiled.  She was proud of her little sister.

“So, you must be feeling pretty good lately, to be ready to take this step?” Hermione inquired.

Hailey shot her a puzzled look, lips quirking slightly. Then, “Oh!”  She gave it some thought.  “I dunno about ‘good,’ but yeah … I guess that I feel better, maybe?”  She sounded unsure, like she was untangling her feelings as she talked to Hermione.  “Honestly, Hermione, I just,” she hummed thoughtfully, “I think maybe I feel more sure.  Like I’ve always felt so confused—about who I am, where I fit in, why I always felt so uncomfortable, even after I came to Hogwarts.  Even after …” Hailey blushed.  “Um after I started to realize that I wasn’t a boy, not really … anyway, even then I was confused.  It felt to weird to be true.  Then maybe, uh, too good to be true.”

Pausing, the young girl blinked rapidly, and Hermione reached out to take her hand.  “But something changed recently.  I don’t even think I fully got it until I saw Sirius so insecure about who he was.  It felt like looking in a mirror, almost.  And now … I dunno, I just.  I know who I am.  I’m Hailey Potter.”

Hermione found her hand pressed against her own chest, feeling the soft pitter patter of her heart as a single warm tear slipped down her cheek.  She’d never quite felt anything like this before—she was so proud of Hailey that it felt like the emotion might completely overwhelm her.  So that’s what she said, even though her voice trembled a little.  “I’m so damn proud of you.”

For several moments, they just looked at each other, with wide smiles and watery eyes.  Then Hailey’s expression turned bashful again, and she pulled her hand free of Hermione’s, reaching for her tea and taking a long sip.  “Okay, what was that?” Hermione probed teasingly.

“Nothing, I just, um, wanted to ask you something, th-that I can’t really talk to anyone else about.”  Hailey frowned.  “I guess I could just ask the journal—”

“Absolutely not, not after you’ve gone and piqued my curiosity like this!”

Hailey’s face burned an even brighter red, but Hermione waited patiently for the girl to open up about what was in her mind.  Finally, Hailey huffed out a sigh as she pouted ever so slightly, then asked, “Is it weird that my, umm, well, uh, my…” Hailey’s voice dropped as she almost silently choked out a word that sounded a bit like ‘nipples,’ then immediately rose back to its normal tenor as she finished, “… have gotten kind of bumpy and achy and like … sensitive… the last few days?”

Hermione smirked, realizing immediately why Hailey, who was now studiously avoiding looking anywhere near her, felt so embarrassed.  But then her logical brain kicked into gear, and Hermione gasped before exclaiming, “Hailey!  You’re growing breasts!”

Hailey’s eyes went wide.  “B-but I … I mean, I thought you said I would need that potion!”  Her voice was an unusual mix of anxiety and wonder, and she continued to gape at Hermione unblinkingly.

“I did!” Hermione answered, just as astonished.  “I mean, all the research, everything I could find—nothing ever said anything about any sort of … unaided magical transition.”  Her mind was racing.  “I mean, there were some stories, but I was sure they were just ancient legends.  Folklore, that sort of thing, like they just left out the potion stuff because that didn’t make for as good a story.”

“Are you sure?  Could it be anything else?”  Hermione frowned, pondering the question.  After a moment, she could see the concern on her young friend’s face.  Like she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Hermione felt the instinctual urge to say something, anything, to ease her mind.

“Have you noticed any other changes?”

“Maybe?” Hailey responded.  “My body feels a little different—better—but not in any way I can describe.  I just figured it was because I was feeling better about stuff.”

Hermione mentally checked through the things she could remember from her research, then reached out and gently stroked a finger up the length of Hailey’s forearm.  Hailey twitched and then pulled away, looking at Hermione like she was nutters.  She smirked, then explained.  “I think maybe your skin feels a bit softer.  That’s something that happens early in transition too.” 

“A-and Sirius!  He said I looked different.  I just thought it was my hair, but maybe my face is changing a bit?”

“That makes sense!  I think I read something about subtle facial changes because of fat redistribution or something.  It may be too subtle for someone who sees you every day to really register, but Sirius hasn’t seen you in almost a year.”  She hummed thoughtfully.  “Let’s just keep an eye on it.  It’s still really early, but I honestly can’t think of another explanation.”

They chatted a bit about Sirius and Remus and other random things until Fleur and Dobby arrived to meet them.  Fleur swept into the room through the bright purple door with her usual graceful elegance, drawing and holding Hermione’s full attention as it always did.  As a result, she nearly jumped out of her seat in fright at the sharp crack of Dobby apparating in, and Hermione frowned at how regular an occurrence that was as well.

“Mon dieu, it would appear you ‘ave scared the life out of my very distracted girlfriend, Monsieur Dobby,” Fleur quipped, smirking at Hermione even as she settled down next to her.  Before Hermione could scold Fleur, Dobby hurried over to stand directly in front of her, his hands gripping firmly at her knees.

“Hermione, I am so sorry!”  She could tell by the strength of his grip that he was fighting the urge to physically harm himself, and Hermione silently wished a number of horrifying curses upon the pure-bloods who had brainwashed that instinct into him at a young age.  Together, she and Dobby had discovered a great many horrifying things about the treatment of elves in magical Britain.  The more she learned about how the elves of Britain came to be in their current situation, the more she began to believe that the Unforgiveables could be quite justifiable in certain circumstances.

“Dobby, I am absolutely fine.  Please don’t worry yourself; Fleur was just joking.”  Dobby seemed confused by this, and as they both glanced over to the woman in question, they were startled to find Fleur gaping at them with an absolutely shocked expression.

“Monsieur Dobby, please tell me why you ‘ave reacted so strongly.  I appear to ‘ave caused great offense, but I do not understand how.” 

Dobby blinked several times, seemingly dumbstruck by Fleur’s confusion.  Hermione felt the urge to rush to his defence, but she knew that it wasn’t her place.  She knew he could handle Fleur’s questions himself.  When he spoke, his voice was hardly more than a whisper, cracking in places as he struggled to find the right words.  “Dobby thought … I thought I had truly scared my … friend, Hermione, when I know that she gets startled by my apparition.  I am learning, but sometimes I still get caught up in the urges to be a good house-elf, to punish myself for causing distress in my mast—”  He broke off, frustrated with himself.  “… in humans.”

Fleur’s eyes widened.  “Urges?” she questioned, voice tight and outraged.  “Monsieur Dobby, I apologize for being so forward, but what was done to you that you feel an urge to ‘arm yourself?”

Dobby looked just as confused as Fleur at this point, looking for clarification from Hermione and Hailey.  Hailey looked just as lost as everyone else, so Hermione took it upon herself to try and clear up the misunderstanding.

“Erm, Fleur, do you have h-house-elves in France?”

Fleur’s cool eyes narrowed.  “Well of course we ‘ave elves in France, though the term ‘ouse-elf seems quite belittling to me.  We would not call them this.”

Hermione drew in a sharp breath.  Is it only Britain that treats its elves so horrendously?  That had never occurred to her, and her mind raced with the possibilities.  All thoughts of planning had fallen away completely.  “Do you mean that elves are not … Fleur, are elves free in France?”

An angry flush sprang to Fleur’s cheeks as her eyes darted between her British friends, almost accusingly.  “Do you mean to tell me that the British ‘ave enslaved the elves in this country?!”  No one answered her, all of them exchanging sheepish looks amongst themselves.  «I knew the British were close-minded, hateful bigots, but this is outrageous!  Slavery?!  Elves are such lovely, helpful beings, kind and loyal and deserving of nothing but the best—how could anyone be so evil as to twist their natural instincts in this way?!  To make them feel guilt, to make them hurt themselves!  Hermione, tell me how do we stop this?  My family and the veela will gladly respond to a call to arms in defence of our fellow magical beings!»

Fleur’s French was so impassioned, so furious, that Hermione almost couldn’t follow it.  And the substance of her words were so earth-shattering that Hermione felt as though she was falling, untethered from her previous misconceptions about the nature of human-elvish relations around the world.  She had no idea that Britain was so isolated in its prejudice, or at least that it was so unique in the extremism of its bigots.

Dobby was the first to speak, his ears hanging low in distress.  “Miss Fleur, have we said something wrong?  Dobby is a free elf, but I am still learning what it means to be free, and I don’t always say things right.”  He glanced down at his feet.  “And I don’t speak French.”

Immediately, Fleur was knelt before him, on eye level.  She placed a hand on his slim shoulder, and while his instinctive reaction was to flinch away, he managed to stand there and make it clear that he accepted her gesture of support.  “You ‘ave said nothing wrong, Monsieur Dobby.  You are perfect in every way.  I let my temper get the best of me.  I am afraid I did not understand that there was such evil—” she spat the word with more contempt than Hermione had ever heard, “present on this awful island.”

Fleur glanced up to Hermione, who still felt completely shaken, then back to Dobby.  “Yes, in France, elves are free.  There are free everywhere, I ‘ad thought.  The idea that the British are mistreating elves … I ‘ad no idea.  In France, ‘umans and elves tend to ‘ave a great and joyful partnership.”

“They pay their elves in France?” Dobby asked, suddenly very curious.  But Fleur looked even more befuddled.

“Non, of course not.  They would not let us pay them even if we wanted to.  I thought elves ‘ated the idea of money and capitalism.”

The three British beings all looked at Fleur as if she had slipped back into a foreign language, this time one that even Hermione didn’t understand.  Then Dobby shook his head.  “I am thinking that Miss Fleur wants to help, but I don’t understand what you are saying.  I want to know more about elves in France, but later.  We have a mission to complete first.  Elves are deserving better, but Voldymort is the bigger bad.”

Fleur blinked rapidly, her watery eyes shimmering with emotion, but she nodded firmly.  “You are right, Monsieur.  We shall discuss this more at another time, non?”

Dobby nodded so vigorously that his ears jiggled, drawing a smile from the humans he called his friends.  But Hermione knew there was one more thing to discuss before they again took up discussing their plans for the confrontation with the false Moody and Voldemort.

“Erm, actually, there was something that Hai—that Harry wanted to discuss with you both, before we get going.”  She met eyes with her younger sister.  “If you’re still sure that you’re ready.”

Hailey’s face was tentative, but she nodded confidently.

“Right, uh, well I guess first of all, my name isn’t Harry.  Not anymore.”

Fleur’s brow furrowed, and Dobby tentatively inquired, “I didn’t know humans could change their names.  What should I be calling you now?”

Hailey’s confidence waned slightly, and seeing it in her body language, Hermione rushed to her defence.  “Yes, well, I suppose it is about time I, um, re-introduced the both of you to my best friend and honourary little sister—” Hailey shot her a petulant look at the term ‘little,’ and Hermione couldn’t help but smirk, “Hailey Evans Potter.”

That stunned both of them into silence, and Hailey reacted to the silence with humour.  “That’s right, folks.  I’m a girl.  Surprise!”

And with that, Fleur smiled.  “Ahhh.  Yes, it all makes sense then.”

“I’m sorry, what now?” Hailey stammered.

“I’ve noticed the differences, my young friend.  Your body language, your presence, that month where you were so sullen…  You ‘aven’t been subtle, ‘Ailey.  Not with those of us paying attention.”  She giggled.  “And you ‘ave chosen a beautiful name.”

Hermione had to fight against the urge to mount Fleur right then and there.  Her entire body was alight with joy and pride at how effortlessly Fleur had accepted Hailey and put her at ease.  Hermione felt tingly all over.

Dobby, meanwhile, still seemed a bit lost.  “So then, Hailey Potter is a miss, not a sir?”

For once, Hailey didn’t wince at the word.  Instead, she chuckled.  “Yeah, that’s about right, Dobby.”  The elf pondered this for a moment.  Then he shrugged.  “Dobby doesn’t really understand, but if miss says she’s a miss, then who would know better than her?  Dobby will protect Hailey Potter every bit as much as he protected Harry Potter.”

That got Hailey all choked up, and before Dobby could react to the movement, she had rushed over and pulled him into a fierce hug.  “Thank you, Dobby,” she sobbed, and the little elf seemed completely overwhelmed by her emotions.  “Thank you.”

Hermione and Fleur exchanged fond looks over the top of them, and Hermione mouthed, ‘thank you,’ towards Fleur, who just rolled her eyes fondly.  Hermione nodded, taking a moment to savour the positive emotions shared between this unlikely group of friends.  However, they still had a lot of work to do.

“Okay, Hailey, I think you’re overwhelming poor Dobby.  And as lovely as you have both been in accepting her news, it is perhaps time for us to take up the more serious matter at hand.”

Hailey wiped away her happy tears, grinning wildly.  “Yeah, s’pose we’ve still gotta figure out a strategy for that maze, huh?”

“That we do.”

                                                  

It was a few days later that Hermione received an unexpected bit of mail.  She had already made the introduction between Skeeter and Remus, so every morning, she waited on the mail with anticipation.  Most mornings she received only her Daily Prophet subscription, and this morning had been no different (and again, there was nothing of note in the Prophet).  However, when she headed up to her dorm room after the midday meal, Hermione’s attention was immediately drawn to the window on the far side of the room, where an owl had begun pecking loudly at the glass the moment it caught sight of her.

Glancing around for Crookshanks, who generally had no issue with owls unless the owl tried to get familiar, Hermione moved towards the window.  The feline was curled up on his bed atop her trunk, clearly unconcerned with the presence of the owl.  Hermione opened the window slowly, not wanting to hit the beautiful creature.  It bobbed its head appreciatively, and with a couple of soft trills, it flew into the room and came to rest on the perch Parvati kept on her dresser for her own owl. 

“Hullo there, gorgeous,” Hermione greeted softly.  Gesturing to the letter tied to her leg with a bit of twine, she asked, “Is that for me?”  The owl surveyed her with pale yellow eyes, the natural sharpness of its brow giving it a discerning appearance.  She reached out her hand, and with another soft cooing sound, the owl leaned its soft, feathered head into her touch for a moment, then stuck out its leg.

“Thank you.”  She untied the letter, which was addressed to “Hermione Granger, Gryffindor House, Hogwarts Castle, Scotland” in beautiful calligraphy that immediately gave away its author’s identity.  Hermione smiled and rooted through Parvati’s things until she found a treat she could nick and offer to the owl.  It took it, quickly yet delicately, but did not make any move to fly off yet.  “Hmm, you must be the newest member of the Granger family.  I was wondering when Mum and Dad would get around to getting an owl.”

Opening the letter as she settled down onto her bed, Hermione began to read.

 

My dearest daughter,

Meet Clementine.  I still think this whole sending mail via bird thing is absolutely bonkers, but she’s quite the sweetheart.  I had no idea owls were so intelligent or affectionate.  And don’t worry, Arthur helped us into that magical back alley just fine, though your father may have gotten a bit embarrassed by my enthusiasm for the vivacity of the unusual folks and goings on there.  Arthur explained that we were muggles, and that seemed to excuse any concern about my interest in things that I imagine must seem quite normal to them, but seemed quite odd to me.  Lovely people, these wizards. Daft, but lovely.

But enough with the pleasantries.  How are things going with the gorgeous Frenchwoman?  I simply must know.  It’s taken us nearly two months to get ahold of this owl so that we could correspond with you, and frankly, I am dying with anticipation.  Have you smoothed things over?  Used a bit of that Waller charm, I’m sure.  Tell me everything!

Oh, and of course, how is school going and blah blah blah?  (But seriously, tell me about this Fleur!)   

Love,
Your Impatient yet Captivating Mum

She chuckled at Rose’s lack of tact, then set the letter aside as she looked back to the owl.  “It’s very nice to meet you, Clementine.  A beautiful name for such a beautiful owl.”  Hermione couldn’t tell what sort of owl Clementine was.  She was a bit smaller than Hedwig, with a dark, brown-grey plumage and a streaked white breast.  She appeared almost hawkish, at least as compared to most owls she had seen, and Hermione found herself captivated by Clementine’s unusually expressive face.  She was a pale grey under her eyes and around her beak, which was a yellow that almost perfectly matched her eyes, but above her sharp brow was a dark crest mottled with pale spots.  Lines of nearly black down, darker than any other feathers on her body, framed the curves of her face.  Hermione stood and walked back to the striking bird.

“You’re getting along with Mum, huh?  You must be a special sort of owl indeed.”  Clementine’s head tilted to the side at Hermione’s words, and it occurred to her that she’d never really given much thought to whether the owls used in the magical world were actually capable of understanding spoken language.  “Can you understand English, Clementine?” 

The bird simply watched her, neither confirming or denying the truth of her question, and Hermione shrugged.  Research for later.  “I suppose you have instructions to be sure that I respond to Mum’s letter promptly?”  Clementine offered two small clicks of her beak in affirmation, and Hermione smiled.  “Well, lucky for you, I have a bit of time before class.”  She ruffled Clementine’s head affectionately, then went searching for parchment and a pen.

 

Mum,

I am tempted to keep you in suspense about everything with Fleur, given how completely over the top your letter was.  It’s not like you can come to Scotland and punish me for it, after all.  That said, because I am such a kind and caring daughter, I will tell you that things have gone wonderfully with Fleur.

My tall, beautiful, brilliant, bad ass girlfriend, Fleur Delacour.

Things were a bit rough at first.  A close friend had some serious personal issues that she needed help with, so that drew my focus, but Fleur was mostly not talking to me during that time anyway.  She came around after the Second Task a couple weeks ago (which she won).  Turns out she thought she overreacted when she got mad at me and was only keeping her distance because she thought she needed to prove her worth before approaching me again.  Which I of course told her was rubbish.  I wonder if it’s a French thing.  We finally talked after that, and things have been absolutely wonderful ever since.

Well, mostly wonderful.  I’m not sure who else to talk with about this, so I’m taking a chance.  Please don’t be all you about it, as I’m letting myself be vulnerable.  It’s a new relationship—my first relationship—and I find myself worrying that I’m doing it wrong.  Maybe the romance novels have set unrealistic expectations.  Or maybe we’re both just very busy people.  When we’re together, it’s like I’m in heaven.  I’m so happy the entire time.  But I worry I’m not making enough time for her, because of everything else going on.  I expected it to be this sort of big romance that swept me up in the excitement of it, where I would have to struggle to remember to do the important things, like class and eating.

Is there something wrong with me?

Sorry, this took a rather tragic direction.  Honestly, I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, even with everything, so please don’t worry.  Perhaps I just needed to put my concerns to paper.  I look forward to your advice.

Love,
Hermione.

P.S.

I trust that you made sure to ask the shopkeeper everything you need to know about housing an owl.  Clementine is a delight.  Write back soon.

She managed not to agonize too much about what to say to her mum and how much to tell her about the goings on with the tournament, Hailey’s transition, and things with Fleur.  Before she could rethink anything she wrote, Hermione summoned an envelope and sealed the latter inside.  She addressed it simply to Rose, knowing Clementine didn’t need any further information, even if she could read English (which Hermione doubted).

Letter in hand, Hermione approached the now-dozing owl, whose eyes fluttered open as she neared.  “Would you like to take this back to Mum right now or do you need some rest and hunting first?  I’m happy to hold onto this and find you in the owlery later today.”

Clementine fixed her piercing gaze on Hermione for several moments, then released a throaty whistle as she took off from the stand and back out the window.  Hermione closed it behind her, and suddenly feeling a bit less weight on her shoulders, she smiled as she petted Crookshanks and gathered her things for afternoon classes.

                                                  

Another week and a half passed before Rita’s article dropped on what was otherwise an exceedingly normal Tuesday morning.  Catching sight of the headline, “SIRIUS BLACK INNOCENT? What The Ministry Doesn’t Want You To Know,” Hermione immediately opened the paper and began reading voraciously.

 

Sirius Black is a name known and feared throughout Magical Britain.  Nearly 15 years ago, the once proud son of the Great and Noble House of Black gained infamy for his devious betrayal of James and Lily Potter to He Who Must Not Be Named, which he allegedly followed up with a grisly spot of mass murder. Sentenced to Azkaban without a trial—yes, dear reader, you read that right—Black again made headlines in 1993 when he became the first person to ever escape the bleak prison.  Many feared Black would return to his murderous ways, starting with payback against his most hated foe: the Boy Who Lived.

Yet here we are, nearly two years later, and somehow, one of the most dastardly Death Eaters of all time has managed to stay completely under the radar.  How is this possible?  Could it be that we all got it wrong?  What if Sirius Black is not who we thought he was?

In truth, the reality of Black’s story is much more insidious.  After perhaps my most comprehensive investigation ever and multiple interviews with eyewitnesses, including the Boy Who Lived and Mr. Black himself, your trusty correspondent has uncovered the most shocking injustice committed by the British Ministry of Magic in centuries: the framing of Sirius Black.

On November 1, 1981, Sirius Black was arrested for the murder of Peter Pettigrew and twelve onlooking muggles.  Testimony from Black’s best friend, Remus Lupin, and Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore sealed his fate, as both confirmed that Black had been the Secret-Keeper entrusted with the Potters’ location.  The Ministry painted Black as You-Know-Who’s right hand man, and he was immediately given a life sentence in Azkaban.

However, even a cursory examination of the evidence would have shown this account of the events to be false.  For starters, Sirius Black was not the Potters’ Secret-Keeper.  When James and Lily Potter became known targets of You-Know-Who, Dumbledore advised them to go into hiding.  Anyone who was close to the Potters knew that Black was James Potter’s best friend and staunchest ally, and a vocal opponent of You-Know-Who.  This is what led him to volunteer as Secret-Keeper in the first place—Black was sure that he would die before giving away his friends’ location.  Unbeknownst to Dumbledore and Lupin, the only two who were told that Black was to be the Secret-Keeper, he was merely a decoy.  Knowing that he was the obvious choice as Secret-Keeper, Black suggested to the Potters that they choose another family friend instead.

Black says this was the biggest mistake of his life, and that he will never fully forgive himself for it.  As for the Potters, they paid for this mistake with their own lives.  As it turns out, the worst thing any of them could have done was to place their trust in the weak, unassuming little man known as Peter Pettigrew.  He had been a family friend ever since he began riding along on Potter’s and Black’s coattails back in their Hogwarts days, and after his supposed death at the hands of Black, he was awarded the Order of Merlin, First Class as a brave martyr to the cause.

Unfortunately, Pettigrew was nothing of the sort.  Despite coming from Gryffindor House, whose members hold themselves out as the bravest of us all, Peter Pettigrew was a coward who betrayed everyone who had ever been kind to him, and he remains a coward to this day.  That is right, dear readers: not only is Pettigrew to blame for every crime attributed to Sirius Black—the traitor lives.

The night of their confrontation, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge—then the junior minister for the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes—was the first to arrive on scene.  And what a gruesome scene it was.  Corpses littered the cracked pavement around a small crater, clear evidence of the use of a Blasting Curse or similar spell, and in the thick of it all was an emotionally distraught and (allegedly) maniacally laughing Sirius Black. Finding a bloody finger on the ground that he assumed was all that was left of Pettigrew, Fudge arrested Black on the spot, accusing him of using the Blasting Curse to nearly obliterate Pettigrew and take those poor, innocent muggle onlookers with him.

However, little is known about what happened after this.  Based on nothing more than the testimony from Fudge, Dumbledore, and Lupin, then-Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement Bartemius Crouch, Snr. had Black tossed in Azkaban for life.

One might laugh at the idea that the unremarkable Pettigrew could be a spy for You-Know-Who and orchestrate such an elaborate framing of his former friend Black.  The truth, however, is a strange thing.  But how, you might ask, did Pettigrew escape?  And where has he been these last thirteen years?

The simple answer is that Pettigrew was nowhere nearly as unremarkable as he seemed.  In addition to being a secret Death Eater and You-Know-Who’s most valuable spy, Pettigrew was also, shockingly, an unregistered Animagus. Fittingly, he took the form of a rat.

Multiple eyewitnesses, including Black, Lupin, Harry Potter, and two other Hogwarts students, encountered Pettigrew on the grounds of Hogwarts in June of last year.  Pettigrew himself confirmed that he had been the spy, that he framed Black for his crimes, that he removed his own finger and escaped the scene in his rat form after murdering those muggles, and that he then spent the intervening twelve years as a rat.

In a bizarre twist of irony, the man responsible for the murders of Harry Potter’s parents had been living in close quarters with the Boy Who Lived for three years, posing as the pet rat of Potter’s best friend, Ronald Weasley.  Several members of the Weasley family confirmed that the family’s pet rat had lived much longer than expected—rats rarely live more than a year or two—and that, like Pettigrew, this rat only had 9 fingers and toes.

A conflict between Black and Lupin on one side and Professor Severus Snape on the other resulted in Pettigrew’s escape.  Without any hard evidence of his innocence, Black was forced to flee from the hordes of dementors placed at Hogwarts by Minister Fudge to catch Black.  He has been on the run ever since, but has nevertheless taken care to keep a watchful eye on his godson, Harry Potter, whom he has sworn to protect with his life.

Neither Fudge nor Crouch was willing to answer the questions of your humble correspondent.  In fact, Crouch has become a shut-in of late, refusing to leave his home despite ostensibly being in charge of the ongoing Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts.  However, these are the facts the Prophet has been able to verify:

There is no evidence that Sirius Black was ever questioned after his arrest.  No one bothered to hear his side of things or to confirm, under veritaserum or via memory extraction, that Black was working for He Who Must Not Be Named, that he betrayed the Potters, or that he had killed Pettigrew and the twelve muggles.

There is no evidence that anyone tested Black’s wand to confirm it had cast the Blasting Charm used that night.

Black does not bear the so-called dark mark, branded into the skin of every one of You-Know-Who’s supporters. 

Black was the first to arrive at the Potters’ home shortly after the attack by You-Know-Who, and Dumbledore was willing to confirm that it was Black who informed him that both the Potters and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named were dead.

The last person to see Black before his confrontation with Pettigrew was Hogwarts groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid.  A large and bumbling, but sincere man, Hagrid recalled the night in question quite clearly.  He was sent by Dumbledore to retrieve young Harry Potter, and he found a grieving Sirius Black holding tightly onto James Potter’s corpse, sobbing and making wild promises of protecting Harry and avenging James’s death.  Black wanted to take Harry away to safety, fearing retaliation by Death Eaters for You-Know-Who’s mystifying demise, but Dumbledore had other plans to keep the boy safe.  Hagrid convinced Black to turn the boy over to him, but says Black remained fierce in his desire to protect Harry.  Black gave Hagrid his most prized possession, a magically augmented muggle motorbike, so that he could whisk Harry away quickly.  Though rather uncouth, Hagrid was determined and full-throated in his opinion that the man he encountered that night could not have betrayed the Potters.

In the opinion of this correspondent, Sirius Black is the victim of a great injustice.  Though wary to reveal himself or speak to the press, Black was sincere, thoughtful, and almost handsome in his appearance.  At times angry and at others quite sorrowful, Black never once gave the impression he could turn violent, even when pressed with difficult questions.  He is, in short, the epitome of a man unjustly accused by a negligent justice system.

Both Dumbledore and Lupin regret their prior testimony against Black, ashamed of their willingness to believe that he was capable of such vile betrayal and evil acts.  They have both expressed willingness to testify on behalf of Black in order to prove his innocence. Black was never tried for his crimes, and it is shameful that this brave young man, devastated by the loss of two of his best friends, was forced to suffer twelve long years of imprisonment in Azkaban for crimes he did not commit.  How he managed to survive over a decade in the presence of the dementors without losing his mind, this correspondent will never know.

Bartemius Crouch Snr. is no longer the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and we can only hope that his successor will right the wrongs of his tenure in that office. Sirius Black deserves not only justice, but peace.  Peace to live out the rest of his life without the stigma foisted upon him, and peace to reconnect with his godson, who is also his fiercest proponent. The Ministry of Magic must act, and do so immediately, to investigate the truth of what happened that night and make reparation for the tremendous harm it has caused.

To Hermione, this was honestly the most incredible piece of writing Rita Skeeter had ever produced, and she was shocked both by the tone of the piece and the amount of additional information Skeeter was able to unearth.  As she looked up from the paper, she couldn’t help but clap loudly in excitement, grinning wildly across the table.  Several nearby students shot glares at her sudden exuberance, but Hermione couldn’t care less.  “We did it,” she cheered, but frowned when she realized that Hailey hadn’t yet arrived to their table. 

“Has anyone seen H—Harry?” she asked, glancing at Neville, Ron, and Dean.  Ron and Dean shrugged, looking at her like she had sprouted a third ear, but Neville spoke up.

“I left him at the dorm.  He said he’d head down soon.  But I haven’t seen him since.”

“What is going on, mon amour?” 

She turned to Fleur and handed her the paper.  Then she kissed Fleur on the cheek and whispered, “I’ve got to go find Hailey.  We’ll talk later.” 

                                                  

Hailey had, in fact, been on her way down to the Great Hall for breakfast, when she unexpectedly ran into Ginny.  She had woken up feeling positive and confident, and so, the surprise meeting felt serendipitous. 

“Hey you,” Ginny greeted tentatively.  Hailey could tell the other girl half expected her to make up an excuse to sprint in the other direction.  But Hailey was tired of avoiding Ginny and keeping her at a distance.  Once again, she was ready to be brave.

So instead, she answered warmly, “Hey Gin.  Do you, uh, think we could talk?”  Hailey smiled nervously.  “In private?”

“Really?”  Ginny’s face lit up.

“Yeah, really.”  Ginny didn’t need any further encouragement, and she grabbed Hailey’s hand and pulled her into a nearby empty classroom.  Closing the door behind them and locking it, Ginny turned quickly to face Hailey.

“Are you finally going to tell me why you’ve been so weird and avoiding me all the time?”

Hailey winced a little at the clear frustration in her voice.  She felt bad about the situation with Ginny, but she didn’t know how else she could’ve handled it.  Everything was so complicated.

“Yeah. Um.  I’m really sorry about that.  And yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk about.”  But then Hailey clammed up, her stomach doing nervous somersaults.  As she ran a hand nervously through her hair, Ginny crossed her arms against her chest and leaned back against the professor’s desk.

“Well then, you better have a good reason.  I thought we had something good going after the Yule Ball.  What gives, Harry?” 

Hailey couldn’t halt her grimace at the name.  Unsure what else to do and unwilling to continue standing there like an idiot, she just started talking.  “Look, I’ve been going through something… something, uh, really personal and private, and I’m just really scared.  I’ve wanted to tell you this thing for a while, but I can’t shake the fear that you won’t see me the same if I do.  That you’ll hate me or think I’m a freak and you definitely won’t want to date me, and so I’ve been avoiding you and—”

“Woah woah woah,” Ginny interrupted, her face shifting to an expression of concern.  “Slow down.  Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”

“It isn’t bad.  It’s really really good, actually.”  Hailey frowned.  “But you might not get it.”

“What do you mean?”

Hailey looked down at her feet.  She could hear her own heart pounding in her ears, a thin sheen of sweat coating her palms.  She wanted to answer.  She wanted to be brave.  But her mouth wouldn’t open.

“Harry, seriously—”

“I’m not Harry!” Hailey blurted out.  “I’m not a boy at all!  My name is Hailey, and I’m a girl.”

And just like that, everything changed between the two girls.

Chapter Text

Hailey became more and more aware of the way her chest had begun to heave the longer Ginny continued to gape at her without saying anything.  The youngest Weasley stood there slack jawed and wide-eyed, and her whole body appeared stiff with a sudden emotional tension that filled Hailey with dread.  Her instincts screamed at her to run away as quickly as possible, but she felt frozen to the spot.  Her mind raced with all the worst possible things Ginny could say.  To the point where Hailey had no idea how to feel about the single, incredulous word that finally came out of Ginny’s mouth.

“Wot?”

None of the tension left Ginny’s body, even as she blinked furiously in Hailey’s direction.  As the silence stretched out between them again, Ginny shook her head and asked again, this time a little bit less shocked, “What the bloody hell does that even mean?”

Heat boiled up her spine.  “You know, I am speaking English here, Gin.  Not sure which part is really confusing you.”  Hailey was surprised at how confrontational her voice sounded. 

Ginny’s brow furrowed.  “Your voice…”  Hailey’s emotions had really caught her off guard, so much so that she had even let herself slip into the subtly more feminine version of her voice that she used only around Hermione.  She blushed, but refused to back down from Ginny’s scrutinizing gaze.

“Yeah well, what of it?  I told you I’m a girl, didn’t I?”

“You’re really serious,” Ginny muttered pensively, more to herself than to Hailey.  Before she could respond, Ginny spun and started pacing.  “I don’t even know what to say, Har—” she cut herself off.  “Fuck.  I’m sorry.  You said Hailey, right?”

Hailey nodded, but Ginny was avoiding looking at her, so Hailey answered, “Yes, that’s my name.”

“Right,” Ginny muttered, continuing to pace with frantic energy.  “Because you’re a girl.  Which is a thing … I guess.”  She did a couple more passes, then stopped in her tracks.  “Fuck it.”  She stepped up to Hailey and met her gaze.  “I don’t understand.  How does this happen?  A spell gone wrong?  Is this some sort of weird muggle thing?”

Ginny’s tone was all over the place, so Hailey had no idea whether she was genuinely asking or making fun of her.  She wanted to believe that Ginny wouldn’t do that, but all her worst fears were currently running rampant throughout her mind. 

“Look, I know you’re confused, but you don’t have to mock me. I thought we had more—”

Ginny grabbed her arm before she could walk off.  “Harry wait!”  She let go of Hailey’s arm and scowled.  “Goddammit, I’m sorry.  Hailey. Fuck, this is confusing.  I’m not trying to mock you or be an ass or anything, okay?  I just really, really don’t understand.”

Hailey huffed, but tried to calm herself.  Finally, she answered, and once she started, it felt like she couldn’t really stop.  “People like me … it’s called being transgender.  It’s like … my body didn’t develop right before I was born or something, so my … ugh, what did Hermione call it?  She understands the science better than I do, but it’s like the blueprint or whatever, the map for what my body was supposed to be like got messed up so it made me develop like a boy, even though I’m a girl on the inside, but now that I realized it, it’s like magic is fixing it for me.  Or that’s what we think anyway, it’s all a little confusing, and…”

“Wow.” Ginny interrupted, and Hailey’s eyes rose from the wall she had been staring at.  Ginny’s face was inscrutable. 

“What does that mean?”

Ginny blushed, her eyes wide like she’d been caught stealing something forbidden from Snape’s private stores.  “I… I-I mean, I don’t …”  She trailed off, her fingers clenching and unclenching and clenching again.  “Dammit, I don’t know what I’m fucking doing, okay?  I thought I was falling for this cute boy and now you’re telling me … this … and I don’t think I’m gay.  Or like … I don’t know, you say you’re a girl now, so that’s what I would be, gay, right?  If I was into you.  And I’m kinda done with playing coy about that, except that I wasn’t expecting any of this, okay?!”

“It caught me by surprise too, you know?  That’s why I got all distant back in January.”  Hailey took a few steps and leaned back against the wall.  “And you don’t have to be gay, remember?  Bisexuality is a thing.”

Ginny sighed.  “I don’t know what’s gotten into everyone lately.  Why can’t anyone just be normal?  Look, I’m sorry, but this is just too much right now.”  She started walking away. 

“Gin…”

Ginny shook her head, eyes watery.  “No, please.  I need some time.  But I p-promise I won’t tell anyone, I just can’t…”  She swallowed hard, blinking rapidly.  Their eyes locked for several heartbeats, and Ginny’s lips parted ever so slightly, like she was thinking of saying something else.  But instead, she drew in a sharp breath and spun around, running away as fast as she could.

Hailey’s heart sank.  So that’s it, I guess.  She had no idea where to go now.  She certainly wasn’t about to try and head down to the Great Hall and have breakfast with everyone like nothing was wrong.  Sniffling as she looked around, Hailey found that she honestly wasn’t even sure what classroom this was. 

It didn’t really matter.  She had neither the energy nor the motivation to move from her spot against the wall, letting her back slowly slide downwards until her bum rested against the floor.  Hailey felt entirely numb, other than the continued feeling of dread settling in the pit of her stomach.  She wondered if this was what she had to expect from now on.  Hermione and Dobby and Fleur had all been supportive, but they were easily explained away as exceptions, each as weird and unique as herself in their own way.  Fleur was part-veela.  Dobby was an elf with an almost unhealthy attachment to Hailey and a penchant for subverting norms.  And Hermione was Hermione.

Ginny Weasley was a normal pure-blood witch from an average magical family.  Hailey shuddered as she suddenly realized what she stood to lose.  She had no reason to believe that any of the other Weasleys would react any better, and deep down, she felt terrified in the near certainty she had that at least Ron and Mrs. Weasley would very likely react much worse.  The Weasleys had been the closest thing to a real family Hailey had ever experienced, and now, she worried that would never be the same.  And even if Sirius was absolved of his alleged crimes, Hailey had no idea if he would react any better.  Sirius was a man, and more importantly, a Black.  Even if he didn’t hold to his family’s pure-blood prejudices against muggles or their old traditions of dark magic, he had been brought up with a lot of the same notions as someone like Ginny. 

Where would Hailey go in the summer?  Hermione would want her to stay with her and her parents in muggle London, but what if her parents didn’t approve either?  What was her future going to be like?  Even if they stopped Voldemort, would the public ridicule her?  She couldn’t avoid the spotlight forever—whether she liked it or not, she was a celebrity.  Hailey’s gut twisted into knots at the thought of Skeeter finding out.

What if she had to leave the country?  What if it was all too much, and Hermione wouldn’t go with her?  What if—

“Hailey, there you are!”  She’d been so lost in her thoughts of despair that Hailey hadn’t noticed Hermione as she entered the classroom.  “What are you doing in here?  I have the best news—”  Hermione’s voice cut off, and she rushed forward, dropping to her knees in front of Hailey.  “You’re crying!  What happened?”

Hailey blinked several times, only just noticing how watery Hermione looked.  She brushed at her cheeks to find them soaked—Hailey hadn’t even realized she was crying.  She barely felt Hermione’s hands on her. 

“Hailey, sweetie, talk to me.”  Her words barely registered, sounding fuzzy in the background of Hailey’s consciousness.  Only once Hermione slipped around to Hailey’s side and pulled her into her body did Hailey’s mind come back into the present.  With her big sister’s arms wrapped around her and the comforting coconut and flowery scent of Hermione’s thick curls in her face, Hailey suddenly felt entirely grounded.

So, she let herself completely fall apart.

Hermione held her tightly while she sobbed into her hair.  By the time she got it all out, Hailey had no idea how much time had passed.  She pulled away from Hermione to wipe at her face with the sleeve of her robe.  Finally, their eyes met, and Hailey whispered, “I told Ginny.”

“Oh.”  Fingers tangled with Hailey’s, then squeezed.  “I guess she didn’t handle it well.”  Hermione’s face turned harsh.  “Did she hurt you?  Say something mean?  I will hex her into next week, then obliviate her memories of this.”

“Please don’t.”  Hailey rested her head on Hermione’s shoulder until she could pull herself together.  “She wasn’t mean,” Hailey explained, finding it easier to talk into Hermione’s shoulder than to face her again.  “She was confused.  She freaked out.  She said she wasn’t going to tell anyone, but she ran off.”  Hailey teared up again.  “She’s probably never going to speak to me again.  W-what if she tells one of her brothers?  W-w-what if the Weasleys end up hating me?”

“Don’t even think that,” Hermione soothed, holding Hailey tight again.  Then she kissed Hailey’s head softly as she leaned back, wiping away her tears with her thumb.  “You’re jumping to conclusions.  Letting your fears get to you.  If Ginny told you she wouldn’t tell anyone, I believe her.  Give her time, maybe she’ll surprise you, okay?”  Hailey nodded weakly, trying to believe what Hermione was saying.  “No matter what, I will always protect you, okay?  You’ll never lose me.”

Hailey smiled at that.  Hermione sounded so sure.  She always did, at least about the important stuff.  Hailey had no idea how Hermione could be so confident, so steadfast, after all the horrible things she had seen.  And she always seemed to know how to make Hailey feel safe again.

“Okay.” 

Hermione’s head tilted slightly, her lips pursing for a moment before pulling back into a mischievous smile.  “I have an idea.  Something that might make you feel a little better.”

“Umm, okay.”  They stood up, and Hailey followed Hermione out of the classroom.  As they approached a very familiar second-floor lavatory, Hailey halted.  “Yeah, no.  You want to explain how going into…” Hailey glanced around to be sure no one was around them, “the bloody Chamber of Secrets is supposed to cheer me up?”

Hermione made a dismissive face and took Hailey’s hand to pull her forward.  “I just need to grab something out of there, really quick, and we’ll be on our way to the actual cheery part.” 

The door closed behind them, and Hailey pulled away again.  “Nope, not enough.  Tell me what’s going on.”

“There’s a horcrux in the castle, and I thought we could destroy it together.”  She grinned, and Hailey just stared.

“If there was a horcrux in the castle, why haven’t you taken care of it already?”

Hermione shrugged.  “I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  It isn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t have anything to destroy it with.  I could have asked Dobby to steal the sword of Gryffindor for me, but I don’t want to make Dumbledore suspicious.”

“Right, you still haven’t explained why you’re so wary of Dumbledore.”

Rolling her eyes at that, Hermione retorted, “Not important right now.  Anyways, a basilisk fang can destroy horcruxes, all I needed was someone who speaks Parseltongue to get me into the Chamber.”

Hailey sighed.  At the very least, she wasn’t thinking about Ginny anymore.  “Alright, may as well get down there then.”  She stepped up to the sink and, focusing her attention on the snake carved subtly into the copper of the tap, she said, “Open.”  As expected, the word came out in the hissing sounds of Parseltongue, and the sink moved aside.  Hailey’s nose wrinkled at the darkness of the pipe.  “I really hate this part.”

She slid down into the darkness.  When she heard a muttered, “Lumos,” and a bright light pushed away the darkness as they continued to slide along in the muck, Hailey knew Hermione was right behind her.  When she finally slipped out at the pipe and into the open air of the grimy stone hallway leading into the Chamber, she prepared for a hard landing.  But instead, she heard, “Molliare,” from behind her and landed softly on the air above the floor, allowing her to shift herself and get her feet beneath her before the magical cushion evaporated.

“Thanks, Hermione.” 

“Sure thing.”  They didn’t waste any time in the Chamber, as it gave them both the creeps.  Hermione procured a few fangs from the now mostly skeletal corpse of the basilisk, and they made straight for the hidden exit to the Chamber that Hermione apparently only knew about because she and Ron had found it during the Battle of Hogwarts.  After she explained this, Hermione went quiet, then after a few moments shuddered.

“What’s wrong?” Hailey asked.

Hermione blushed, but immediately turned away to lead Hailey up and into a winding, sloped tunnel that she assumed would lead them ultimately out of this subterranean hellhole.  The older girl was clearly trying to hide her embarrassment, which only piqued Hailey’s curiosity.  “Just remembering old mistakes that I’d rather not talk about, lest you tease me too harshly.”

Hailey waited expectantly, sure that Hermione would admit to something hilarious, but she just pressed forward without a look back to Hailey.  Finally, Hailey stomped forward, brushing against Hermione in the cramped space as she tried to look her in the eyes.  But Hermione kept walking, so Hailey got in her face a bit.  “Oi!  You can’t just say that and not tell me anything!  S’not fair!”

Hermione chuckled, which did nothing but fire Hailey up.  “Yes well, I’ve never claimed to be fair.  You want fairness, you should’ve befriended more Hufflepuffs.”  Unsurprisingly, Hailey refused to drop the subject.  She pestered Hermione relentlessly throughout the trek steadily upward, but the more she pressed, the more fun Hermione seemed to have keeping her in the dark.

Eventually, Hermione pulled them to a stop, silencing Hailey’s near constant stream of pestering.  “Do you have the invisibility cloak on you?  I really don’t want to deal with Snape or any of the more irritating Slytherins.”

Hailey’s eyes narrowed.  “Wait, this comes out in the dungeons?”

“Oh, I didn’t mention it?”

“Ugh, you’re s’posed to be cheering me up, not dragging me around to evil chambers and dungeons full of bigots and prats.”

“You answer my question, Hailey Potter.”

Hailey huffed, “Of course I have it.  Not sure I’m in the mood to share with you right now, though.”

“Don’t make me hex you when I’m trying to be a good friend.”  Hermione couldn’t keep the grin off her lips anymore, but Hailey kept a straight face, only rolling her eyes as she slipped the cloak out from one of the hidden pockets in her robes. 

“Fine, but only if you tell me where we’re going.”

“The Room of Requirement,” Hermione responded, wasting no time in grabbing one edge of the cloak and pulling it over the both of them.  It spilled down to the floor around them, the tell-tale shimmer settling in between them and the outside world.  As it turned out, they made it out of the dungeons without sharing a hallway with anyone else.  Even so, they didn’t slip from under the cloak until they reached the seventh-floor hallway.

When they stepped into the Room of Requirement, it was unlike anything Hailey had ever seen.  It was massive and ancient, almost beautiful in its solemnity. To her left and right, in the distance, pale light, like moonlight but warmer, streamed in through impossibly tall windows.  The ceiling was so high that she could barely see its vaulted arches, shadowy beyond the reaches of the windowlight.  Within these vast confines was a dreary metropolis built from the most eclectic catalog of items imaginable.  Odd furniture stacked at weird angles, almost artfully placed.  Assortments of books piled high.  A stuffed troll with an arm raised high in challenge.  A looping, pale-green, cylindrical object made of curved reflective material that could have been some sort of art or maybe like an old piece of weird muggle technology.  Piles and piles of things ranging from the average to the bizarre, stacked in groups with walking paths between them.

“Wow.”  Hailey stood gaping until Hermione took her hand.

“Come now, get a move on Miss Potter,” she joked, drawing a small smile to Hailey’s face.  Hermione led them past the stuffed troll and deeper into what Hailey could now see was a labyrinth of lost, hidden, or abandoned items.  “Keep an eye out for a tiara.  It’s an ancient bronze circlet, simple but pretty, resting on a bust somewhere.”

They searched, minutes passing by one by one by one, but eventually, it caught her eye.  “Hermione!”  Hailey pointed up to the stone bust of a pock-marked warlock standing atop a worn old cupboard.  It wore a dusty, faded silvery wig, and the tiara nestled within the front of this wig totally fit Hermione’s description.  It was simple, a dark metallic colour faded by time, and was inset with several small, deep blue gemstones.  “Is this it?”

Hermione, who had gotten a bit ahead of her, turned and looked up as she returned to Hailey’s side.  “That’s it!” she cooed.  “Ravenclaw’s diadem.”

“That was Rowena Ravenclaw’s?”

“Once upon a time,” Hermione confirmed.  “But it isn’t hers anymore.  It’s a horcrux now.”

“Oh.”  Hailey frowned a little.  “So we’re going to destroy it?”  The thought made her sad.  While it didn’t draw your attention the way some gaudier jewelry might, it was beautiful in its simplicity.  She had a brief mental image of herself, face softer and hair longer, wearing the diadem as a simple accessory, more headband than tiara, and she felt an odd, unexplainable connection with Ravenclaw’s treasure.

Clearly, her uncertainty came through in her voice.  “I’m sorry, Hailey, but yes.”

Shame gnawed at her gut.  I’m really feeling sorry for an evil object cursed with a piece of Voldemort’s soul?  What is wrong with me?  She tried to laugh it off.  “Good,” she chuckled, worried that she probably wasn’t selling her disinterest.  “Let’s just get it done with then.”  She pulled her wand and performed the summoning charm.  The diadem stayed firmly in place, however.

“You can’t summon items in this room,” Hermione explained.  “And I’d feel better if you didn’t handle it.  Nothing happened last time, but some of the horcruxes have been thoroughly evil and cursed items.  One of them cursed Dumbledore, causing him to die a slow, painful death.”

Hailey winced, hanging back as Hermione rummaged around the piles of stuff.  As she retrieved a fire poker of all things, Hailey couldn’t help but ask, “But the diadem isn’t cursed, right?”

Hermione stood on an old trunk and reached out with the fire poker to try and slide the diadem off the warlock’s head.  “Not that we noticed, no, but it was destroyed almost immediately after we found it.  And I’d rather not take any chances with your safety.”  Hailey sighed, both warmed and annoyed by Hermione’s overprotectiveness.  It was just a trinket, after all.  Still, Hermione looked pretty silly as she worked again and again to try and hook the diadem.

Finally, she got it, stumbling slightly as she caught herself slipping off the trunk and landing clumsily on her feet with the diadem spinning erratically around the poker.  Hermione was careful to place the diadem on the trunk without touching it herself.  Then, dropping the poker and reaching into her bag, Hermione withdrew a basilisk fang and held it out to Hailey.  “Would you like to do the honours?”

Hailey took the fang, eyes shifting warily from Hermione to the diadem.  “What do I do, just stab it like I did the diary?”  Hermione hadn’t identified all of the horcruxes yet, but she did tell Hailey that Riddle’s diary had been one.  Hailey could still remember the piercing shriek of the book as it gushed out ink like blood, the long, sharp basilisk fang sizzling into the pages as the life seemingly seeped out of it with the ink.  She shuddered at the thought.

Hermione didn’t answer immediately.  Instead, her expression turned thoughtful as she stepped up to the diadem.  “Actually…”  She traced a finger along the diadem’s curves, barely any space separating the skin of her fingertip from the metal.  “Let’s experiment a little, yeah?”  Hailey didn’t know what that meant, so she just stared, waiting for Hermione to explain.  “Just try pricking it.  Softly, just enough to make a nick.  Somewhere along here, on the inside.”  Hermione pointed as she spoke.  “I just have a theory I want to test.”

“Um. I guess, if you’re sure…”

“I can do it if you’re worried,” Hermione assured, but Hailey immediately shook her head.

“No, no.  I’ve got it.  I can handle delicately scratching at something,” she snarked.  Hailey turned her attention to the diadem.  She cautiously pressed the tip of the fang to the metal, but as she pushed, the fang just moved the diadem along the surface of the trunk, without scratching it.

“Here,” Hermione said, then pulled her sleeve forward to cover her hand, then set her hand along the front of the diadem to hold it in place.  “Try again.”

This time, the tip of the fang scraped along the inside of the diadem just fine, and when it immediately let out a faint but chilling scream, Hailey’s hand jerked back.  Like the diary, a dark, blood-like substance leaked out from the diadem, but the show was altogether much less dramatic than with the book.  The tar-like substance settled into the wood of the trunk for the briefest moment, then with a hot sizzle and a concussive blast of heated air that knocked Hailey back a step, it was gone, angrily evaporating into the air.  The diadem continued to rest on the trunk, as if nothing had happened.

“Brilliant!” Hermione exclaimed, then with the briefest hesitation, picked up the diadem with her bare hand.

“What happened?”

“You killed it!”

“How can you be sure?  The diadem looks fine.”

“That’s what is so remarkable,” Hermione responded, some of her trademark know-it-all tone seeping in.  She held out the diadem.  “Scratch it again.  Just try not to do any more damage than you have to.”  Hailey rolled her eyes but did as she was told.  Anticipating a repeat performance, she dropped the briefest of scratches along the inner metal of the band of the diadem before flinching back.

But nothing happened.

“See!”

“It’s really gone,” Hailey whispered.

“It is.”  Hermione grinned brightly.  “All the literature—or at least, what little of it we could find—indicated that you have to destroy the object beyond repair to destroy the horcrux within.  But logically, it doesn’t really make sense why basilisk venom would work.  It isn’t particularly corrosive, and it didn’t fully destroy the diary or the cup.  But basilisk venom isn’t particularly destructive for objects—that’s not why it’s so dangerous!  It is dangerous because it’s the most deadly magical poison out there.  It will kill anything living without a quick application of phoenix tears.”

Hailey followed along with her logic, but it took her a few seconds to realize the importance of what Hermione was saying.  “It’s alive.”

“Something like that,” Hermione confirmed, nodded enthusiastically.  “We don’t have to destroy the object so long as we find a way to kill the soul piece within.” 

“Brilliant,” Hailey marveled, and the two shared a satisfied smile.  Then, Hermione stepped closer and slipped the diadem onto Hailey’s head, brushing her hair a bit as it settled in just the right place.  Hailey imagined an idealized version of herself again, the diadem a subtle but distinctive fixture in her thick, wavy hair.  As Hermione pulled her into a hug, she briefly felt like it was real.  She felt her confidence returned, even if it wouldn’t last.  Maybe they really could bring down Voldemort.  And maybe Ginny would come around.

Hailey squeezed her big sister harder.  “Thanks, Hermione.”

                                                  

Fleur felt fully and wholly content.  The feeling was not a frequent friend during her time in Scotland, but one she had been experiencing more often of late.  Her eyes were closed, allowing her to bask more fully in the warmth of the sun on her skin.  Spring had come to the highlands, finally, and the school grounds had been unseasonably sunny the last week or so.  She felt so comfortable that she could have easily let the subtle, repetitive sounds of the lake lapping against the shore lull her into a lovely afternoon nap. 

However, she was too pleased by the sensations of Hermione’s soft skin to bother with sleep, her fingertips drawing soft patterns across Hermione’s exposed midriff.  A nap felt like a dreadful waste of a free afternoon with her girlfriend.

Hermione had met Fleur at the Beauxbatons carriage, dressed in Muggle attire as usual.  The eclectic clothing was strange to Fleur, whose style was curated mostly from French magical fashion and veela traditional garb.  But she couldn’t deny that Hermione pulled off the unusual outfits, always managing to look almost effortlessly sexy and cute.  Today, she wore a pair of dark sweatpants (an odd pair of casual trousers with an elastic waist, a regular staple of Hermione’s wardrobe) and a loose, baggy garment on her torso, bright red with a black, grey, and white plaid pattern, and held together with buttons in the front.  When Fleur met her outside the carriage, the plaid garment was only held together by two of the lowest buttons, exposing a black sports bra and a flash of midriff.  Hermione enjoyed teasing her as they walked together, somehow catching Fleur every time her gaze slipped down Hermione’s torso.

So of course, Hermione had hardly been surprised when, after they settled together on a comfortable blanket by the lakeside, Fleur’s fingers had found themselves playing with, and eventually undoing, the remaining buttons of Hermione’s shirt.  Currently, Fleur was quite enjoying the way that Hermione’s breathing changed depending on the direction and pressure of her fingertips tracing along her taut stomach.  Fleur’s back rested against a tree (magicked to be a bit more cushioned), and Hermione had settled in her lap, leaning her head back against Fleur’s chest.

“Fleur?”  Her fingers stilled at the nervousness in Hermione’s voice.  Fleur could feel the brunette’s shoulders tense ever so slightly.

“What is on your mind, ma choupette?”  For several moments, Hermione didn’t move, until finally, she pulled away from Fleur’s body and turned to face her.  Fleur sat up, and Hermione’s leg tangled with one of her own. 

“Are we okay?”  Hermione watched Fleur’s face from under her eyelashes, nerves obvious from each and every mannerism Fleur could see.  Fleur’s hand rose to Hermione’s cheek, her thumb stroking reassurance as she lifted Hermione’s gaze to meet hers fully.

“’Ave I given you any reason to think that we are not?”

Instantly, Hermione’s cheeks heated, and she leaned into Fleur’s touch.  “No.  No, of course you haven’t.”  She sighed.  “I’m sorry.  I’m probably just being a dumb teenage girl—” Hermione snorted, and it brought a smile to Fleur’s face.  “For once, in my entire life.”

Fleur’s hand moved up to scratch playfully at Hermione’s curls, pulled into a thick bun on top of her head with a scrunchie.  “You are allowed your insecurities, ‘Ermione.  Whether 15 or 20, you are still quite young.  I know you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you are still just a person.  A beautiful, enchanting young person.  So just tell me, what ‘as you concerned?”

Despite Fleur’s reassurances, Hermione shook her head, still appearing embarrassed.  “It’s just …”  She blinked, then rolled her eyes in the cute way she did when she was being too hard on herself.  “I’ve never done this before.  Like a real relationship.  I’ve flirted with girls, had a few one-night stands.  And I know for sure that I’ve never felt this way about someone before, and even so, I guess I'm worried that it doesn’t feel more … magical?”  Hermione groaned.  “Wow, I so did not mean to make a pun there.”

Fleur chuckled under her breath, tracing her hand back down Hermione’s profile, along her ear and jaw.  “Ah I see.  Is our romance not living up to those lesbian stories you told me about?”

Hermione’s gaze dropped again, and she fidgeted with her fingers.  “I’m a rubbish girlfriend, aren’t I?  Too distracted with saving the world and helping Hailey on her journey to put the proper effort into the, er, romance of it all.”

Fleur did her best to constrain her reaction to nothing more than a wry smile, despite feeling absolutely enchanted by Hermione’s concerns.  She was still getting to know the other witch, but this was all just so very Hermione.  Rather than continue to fight back her delighted laughter, Fleur leaned in and placed a very pointed kiss on Hermione’s lips, teasing her tongue along the inside of Hermione’s top lip just long enough to have her girlfriend wanting more.  She broke the kiss but didn’t move her face from Hermione’s.  Eyes still closed, she whispered, “You see, ‘ere is your mistake.  Unlike magic, romance is not something you can achieve with ‘proper effort.’  It simply is.”

She kissed Hermione again, then pulled away.  The girl hadn’t moved, her lips parted ever so slightly and her eyes still closed.  Fleur’s heart fluttered at the sight.  “You are beautiful, mon amour, and very romantic when you ‘ave the time to be.  Do not fret.”

Hermione opened her eyes, a flustered smile shifting quickly to a dramatic pout.  “Well, it’s not at all helpful that you’re being so understanding about it.  Now I feel like even more of a dimwit.”

“Perhaps, but you are my dimwit,” Fleur teased, and Hermione pounced on her with a fierce glare.  Her fingers found Fleur’s sides, seeking a sensitive spot to tickle.  Fleur gasped at the sensation (she was, in fact, ticklish), but she was more than happy to turn the situation to her advantage.  As she squirmed under Hermione’s touch, she bucked her hips up and against Hermione’s weight.  She felt Hermione’s hands still momentarily, and then Hermione was at it again.  But this time, her body moved in time with Fleur’s, grinding down as Fleur’s hips bucked.

Even with the tickles, it felt amazing.  Fleur played as though she was trying to get free, shoving lightly at Hermione as if trying to catch her hands.  But she had no intention of stopping Hermione, and she suspected her girlfriend knew that.  It was a bit of silly, arguably immature fun, but even so, Fleur had to admit that it felt thrilling.  It only added to the excitement that they both knew what they were doing—basically dry-humping each other at this point—but neither yet moved beyond the charade that it was simply tickling. 

Still, as their movements continued, the tickling slowed.  Hermione shifted so that a leg came between Fleur’s thighs, and as her hands shifted from frantic to exploratory, their hips continued to move in a slow, almost tentative rhythm.  Hermione’s wide brown eyes met her gaze, and she licked her lips.  A thrum of pleasure stole up Fleur’s spine, causing her breath to hitch.  Something wicked flashed through Hermione’s expression as she briefly took the edge of her bottom lip between her teeth.

Then, as she leaned down, her leg pressed into Fleur’s center through her robes.  Fleur gasped as Hermione’s breath tickled her jaw and ear.  “Now then, are you going to stop teasing me, or will I just have to keep tickling you until I’ve made my point.”  Her voice was hot and husky in Fleur’s ear, and she felt her entire body prickle with gooseflesh.  Her breathing turned shallow, but she wanted to play along.

“I believe it is you who are teasing me at this point, Mademoiselle Granger,” she purred, shifting her head to nuzzle into Hermione’s hair.  “And I must say, I am rather enjoying it.”

At no point did their bodies stop moving against each other, and Hermione very intentionally pressed into Fleur again as she responded with a throaty, “oh?”  Fleur hummed at the sensation, grinding into the touch. 

“If you are not careful, I may turn these tables on you,” she threatened playfully.  “I am a lady, but I confess, I will not be able to control myself if you continue with this.  We veela are a very passionate people.”

Hermione’s movements stilled, and she met Fleur’s gaze again.  She had the brightest smile across her face.  “See now this feels magical, Fleur.”  She loved the way her name sounded coming from Hermione’s lips.  “I’m sorry I let myself get caught up in my worries.”

“If we are to end up like this every time that you find yourself feeling insecure about us, I think I will be more than ‘appy for you to continue getting caught up in it.”  A second passed, and then they both broke into a fit of giggles.  As they let the moment pass, Hermione slid off of Fleur and settled in beside her, both of them laying down on their side to face the other.

“I take it you’re not worried then?” Hermione asked.

Non, you ‘ave given me nothing to worry over.  There is much that is expected of the both of us; I do not want you to feel the pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations in our relationship.” 

A bright smile erupted across Hermione’s face.  “How is it that you always have the perfect thing to say?  Are the veela secretly goddesses full of wisdom and grace?”

“We certainly do not lack for grace,” Fleur demurred.

Hermione shifted her arm so that her head could rest on it.  “Could you … would you like to tell me more about your culture?” 

“I thought you said you ‘ad been to France already.”  Fleur couldn’t keep the smirk from her lips, and Hermione immediately shifted a bit closer so she could thump Fleur on the arm.

“You know very well that that’s not the culture I’m talking about,” she huffed.

“Ohhh.  Well you do not ‘ave to get so violent.  You could ‘ave just said so.  You English, always so quick to anger.”  Now they were both grinning like idiots.

“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” Hermione insisted.  “Now stop teasing and let me get to know you better.”

“As you wish,” Fleur agreed.  She thought for a moment, then asked, “I am curious what you know, or think you know, about my people.”

Rather than answer, Hermione snarked, “Oh I see.  Your strategy to make girls fall in love with you is to have them make a fool of themselves in front of you as often as possible.”

Fleur knew that her poker face was impressive, and she imagined that Hermione could almost believe Fleur didn’t find her comment as hilarious as it was endearing.  “Well, now that you ‘ave found me out, I simply must know—” her eyes narrowed, but that didn’t stop them from flashing mischievously in the bright sunlight, “—is it working?”

Hermione fought the stupid grin that forced its way across her face, only making her more annoyed at how Fleur managed to hide her own mirth so effortlessly.  In the end, Hermione can’t help herself.  “No comment.”

“I’ll ‘ave you know that this flirting technique is a tradition of my people.”

This time, Hermione laughed out loud.  “No, it isn’t.  I may not be particularly confident in what little I’ve read about the veela, but I am quite sure that you’re full of shite right now.”

Fleur made an outraged face, but finally, her façade cracked.  “Okay, yes, perhaps I was leading you on a bit.”  She shrugged, then turned to face the sky, slipping back fully onto her back.  “What of it?”

Hermione considered smacking her.  Considered continuing the playful, flirty banter.  Instead, she mirrors Fleur’s movement, shifting onto her back and closing her eyes.  “Are you close with that side of your family?” she asked, softly.  She considered that the question might be too vague, and added, “In my timeline, I never saw any family members other than your parents and sister.  Didn’t have a good sense of whether you spent much time with your veela relatives.”

Fleur sighed.  “Yes, well, the British are … I shall be charitable and say they are uncomfortable with the veela.  With most non-human beings, I suppose.  No doubt my extended family would not have risked coming here for something so mundane as a silly wizarding tournament.  Not even if I was in a position to win.”

“You weren’t.”  Hermione immediately blushed, as if she hadn’t meant to be so blunt.  Fleur wasn’t sure whether she should feel insulted.  “Hardly your fault, though,” Hermione blurted.  “Other than Hailey, you were the best of the bunch with the dragons.  Your robes were hardly singed, and the dragon only breathed on you after you had put it to sleep and grabbed the egg.  The judges really cheated you out of a better score, the sexist pigs.  A-and the Second Task, well, I know how much Gabby means to you, so I can understand if you were a bit panicked, thinking she was in danger.  No one could’ve seen all those grindylows coming.”

Hermione blushed again, suddenly finding herself out of breath after the long-winded explanation, and Fleur smiled.  She reached out, delicately, and traced the line of Hermione’s jaw.  “You were looking out for me this whole time, weren’t you?  The fireproofing spell, and you even tried to warn me about the dragon’s snores.  So subtly, too.  Even though I was cross with you.  Merde!  I was so awful to you after you told me, and even then, you tried to warn me about the grindylows.”  Shame gripped at her heart, and Fleur subconsciously began to pull her hand back, away from Hermione’s face.

But Hermione was quicker, and Fleur relished in the feeling of her soft, moist press of her lips against Fleur’s knuckles.  “It’s in the past, luv.”  Fleur’s heart skipped a beat, even as Hermione released her hand.  It was the first time Hermione had ever used a term of endearment for her.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about the particular endearment chosen, but even so, she felt an electric shock go through her at the care contained in the word.  They continued to stare at each other, comfortable with the naked affection in the air between them.  Until Fleur remembered that she hadn’t really answered Hermione’s question.

“You asked me if I am close with the veela.”  Hermione’s eyes, warm in the afternoon sunlight, glinted in anticipation, and Fleur tried not to wince.  Other than her father, she had never talked to a human about her veela family.  “I ‘ave spent every summer of my life in the forests held by my grandmére’s coven, if that is what you mean.”  Fleur’s words were soft, tentative, and she smiled as she felt a graze of skin against her pinky finger.  Given the positions the two young women had been in just moments before, this simple brushing of fingers against each other really shouldn’t have made Fleur’s stomach flutter like this.  It was a good sign, the romantic inside of her whispered happily.

Perhaps mistaking Fleur’s quiet satisfaction for an awkward silence, Hermione pushed a little.  “Can you tell me more?  In the research that I have managed, it seemed to me that the veela are quite, well, insular.  I can still remember how angry you got when you found your book in the Reading Room.”

Fleur hummed, pondering her response.  She had been wanting to open up to Hermione in this way for a while, but she also wanted to be sure Hermione understood the weight of her choosing to do so.  When Fleur finally answered, it was in French.  «Our reputation as being insular and secretive is a complicated one.  It is true that we do not publish information about our people, our history, or our culture.  However, with those we trust, we are very open and transparent.  And those we trust are very respectful of our wariness of certain factions within human magical society who view us with suspicion, jealousy, or false superiority.»

Fleur paused, curious how Hermione would interpret this information.  Hermione seemed content to take her time in turning this notion over in her head.  Eventually, she asked the obvious question.  «Do you trust me?»

As her lips parted into a smile so bright that it almost hurt, Fleur knew the answer already.  Somewhere between the castle tour and now, even amidst all the drama and angst surrounding Hermione’s revelation of her big secret, Fleur’s whole heart had opened to this mystifying young witch.  Fleur was not one to trust easily, and yet …

Oui,” was the only answer Fleur gave, but she could tell by the way Hermione’s eyes went impossibly soft that her tone conveyed the depth of emotions underlying the simple response.  Then she moved in closer, and to Fleur’s amused surprise, pushed against Fleur’s shoulder so that she was laying on her back.  As Fleur adjusted her hair so that it was no longer trapped under her, Hermione curled against her side.  Her head fit almost perfectly into the dip between Fleur’s shoulder and her breast, and their legs tangled together as Hermione’s hand found a comfortable place on Fleur’s stomach.

“So then, tell me something,” Hermione whispered, nuzzling into Fleur.

«I suppose I should start with something relevant.»  Hermione hummed inquisitively, but Fleur just slipped her fingers into that thick tangle of now-auburn curls and kept talking.  «Knowing you, you have already read every book on the veela you could get your hands on, but since those are all written by foolish humans, you are probably under the misapprehension that all veela have one single soul mate.»

«Mmm. It came up in a few texts, but the more reputable sources all acknowledged that there was no verifiable proof for what was, in all likelihood a folk superstition.»

«Superstition is right.  Though I suppose I understand where the idea came from.  We are not a particularly prudish people.  We love physical intimacy of all forms.  We thrive on touch, and we can be quite promiscuous.»  Fleur swallowed back a sudden feeling of bile in her throat, painful memories flashing in her mind.  «But when we fall in love, we tend to fall hard.  It is not uncommon for us to settle down with the first person we fall deeply in love with, and many of us have tremendous difficulty moving on when such a relationship does not work out. But this is just our nature—there is nothing magical or fated about the way we love.»

Hermione did not speak for long enough that Fleur began to worry she had said something wrong.  Maybe it was too soon to give her this information.  Maybe she was having second thoughts about getting involved with Fleur.  While Fleur understood that the idea of devotion like that could be overwhelming, particularly at their relatively young age, she didn’t know if keeping this information to herself would have been a better choice.  Would it?  Maybe Hermione would have an easier time accepting this knowledge later on, when she had fallen fully in love with Fleur.  If she fell in love with Fleur.  Her heart began to pound in her chest as her mind argued back and forth, and she hardly even noticed her breath picking up pace.

At least, not until Hermione’s head rose, and their eyes met again.  “Hey,” Hermione soothed, hand pressing flat against Fleur’s chest as if to help calm the storm that had stirred up inside.  “Your heart is racing.”

Fleur licked her lips and swallowed, feeling as nervous as she’d felt in a long time.  But Hermione never broke their gaze, and as the moments passed, her hand on Fleur’s chest felt like a tether, keeping her grounded against these swirling anxieties.  She couldn’t quite bring hers