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a red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground

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Hermione Granger loves special announcements. 

They always fill her with a delicious anticipation, bubbling up, up, up until she can hardly stand it anymore. And they almost always bring good news. 

But when she voices this particular opinion to Ron and Harry during breakfast, they both eye her warily.

Good news? What are you on about?” Ron asks. “They’re never good news. It’s always ‘don’t go into the Forbidden Forest, you might get your soul sucked out,’ or ‘steer clear of the massive, vicious three-headed dog we’ve decided to keep in the castle.’ Good news,” Ron snorts into his pumpkin juice. “Bollocks.” 

“It isn’t bollocks! You’re choosing to purposefully omit several data points,” Hermione says. “What about the Yule Ball?” 

“You mean the same Yule Ball that saw me in frilly dress robes? Pink frilly dress robes, in case you’d forgotten?” Ron asks, arching an eyebrow.

“I hadn’t,” Harry says. “All that pink and red . . . really brought out your eyes.” 

“Piss off,” Ron grumbles. Harry just grins and adds a sausage to his already overflowing plate, knocking off a few potatoes as he does. 

“Fine,” Hermione says, determined to win her case. “Just the Triwizard Tournament itself, then! You were just as excited as anyone else. Practically wet yourself over meeting Viktor, if memory serves.” 

The tips of Ron’s ears turn pink as he scowls down at his goblet of pumpkin juice. “I didn’t wet myself. Besides, anyone in their right mind would be excited to meet the Seeker for the Bulgarian National Quidditch team! Proper artist with a broom, Krum is,” Ron adds, his scowl clearing and his eyes turning soft and reflective. “No player alive who’s more effortless. Graceful, even,” he adds thoughtfully. 

“Look what you’ve done, Hermione. You’ve made him wet himself again,” Harry says around a mouthful of sausage.

Ron snaps out of his reveries and glares at Harry. “Piss off, the both of you. There's nothing wrong with noticing artistry. But as for your point,” Ron says, raising a fork loaded with roasted potatoes toward Hermione, “The Triwizard Tournament was terrifying. Harry almost died how many times?”

“Oi! I never came close to dying,” Harry says, his pride clearly wounded.

Ron rolls his eyes. “Come off it, mate. You’re brilliant. But you’d be dead without Hermione. And Neville. And, I don’t know . . . Moaning Myrtle? Who else helped you? The Fat Lady? Peeves? A particularly animated branch from the Whomping Willow?”

Harry grumbles something that sounds like tosser, but it doesn’t deter Ron in the slightest. 

“I’m just saying, even things that seem exciting on the surface end up being awful death traps when you look a little closer. So whatever this is going to be,” Ron says, waving his still-full fork toward the speaker’s podium, “it’s not going to be good.” His point made, he eats the potatoes on his fork, sparing a shrug for Hermione.

“I don’t know. Might be good for some of us,” Harry says. “Depending on what it is, we might get to see you in those dress robes again.”

"Oh, come off it. I should Obliviate that from your memory," Ron says darkly.

Harry shrugs. "Go ahead. I've got the pictures."

"There are pictures?" Ron asks, looking horrified.

Hermione sighs and nibbles on her toast, deciding to tune out the boys’ squabble for now. Besides, it doesn’t matter what Ron thinks. She knows announcements are always something splendid. Like announcing the day of a special exam.

Come to think of it, perhaps that is the special announcement. Perhaps Professor McGonagall is going to announce the first day of the N.E.W.Ts. Or perhaps even a special study group!

Excitement bubbles anew, and Hermione finds herself lost in a daydream about her N.E.W.Ts and which of her seven classes she thinks she’ll do the best in. She’s just decided that she’s most likely to get top marks in Charms, Transfiguration, Ancient Runes, and Arithmancy, and could probably use the special study sessions in Potions, Herbology, and Defense Against the Dark Arts, when she’s yanked out of her daydream by a splash on the sleeve of her robes and a ferocious yell. 

She looks up startled to find Ron, sopping wet and red as a quaffle. His goblet of pumpkin juice is toppled over on the table, and he’s on his feet, yelling toward the Slytherin table. Hermione twists around to find the entire Slytherin table in absolute hysterics. 

“You bloody arseholes!” Ron yells. “Which one of you was it?” 

“Really, Weasley, such uncalled for suspicion!” Draco Malfoy says, holding a hand over his heart in mock surprise. “It could have easily been a Ravenclaw! Fiendishly clever with charms, that lot.”

“And if we’re casting suspicion, let’s not rule out Potter and Granger,” Pansy Parkinson says, her eyes shining. “Why, if I had to sit with you for every meal and listen to whatever it is you like to prattle on about, I’d have emptied gallons of pumpkin juice over your head by now.”

“Oi!” Ron says, his expression like thunder. Hermione notices his hand, twitching toward his wand.

“But look on the bright side, Weasley,” Pansy says, waving an uncaring hand toward him, “this is a time for celebration—the one and only time you’ve ever made Granger wet.”

The entire Slytherin table bursts into a new wave of hysterics as Ron’s expression takes a quick turn toward homicidal. Hermione feels herself flush uncomfortably just as Pansy catches her eye. One sculpted eyebrow is arched in amusement, and her dark red lips are twisted up in a cruel smirk. A smirk Hermione would very much like to smack off of her face.

Before Ron can answer, the amplified voice of Professor McGonagall fills the Great Hall.

“That’s quite enough! Students, you will be seated at once!” 

Ron turns to face Professor McGonagall, looking rather pitiful in his sopping robes, betrayal etched on his face, pumpkin juice dripping from his nose. “But Professor! You can’t let them get away with this!” 

The Hall quiets to hear Professor McGonagall’s reply. She sighs and says, “I’m afraid I didn’t see the incident as it happened, and I don’t make a practice of punishing without the proper evidence. That said...” She takes out her wand, aims it at Ron, and in a moment, he’s clean and dry again. “There. And this is the perfect segue into today’s announcement. Though I am sorry it came at your expense, Mr. Weasley,” she says. 

Ron glares at the Slytherin table one more time before slowly lowering himself back into his seat. Professor McGonagall waits until all eyes are on her, then nods firmly. “Now. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, house tensions have been at an all-time high. And while I’d normally be the first to admit to enjoying the spirit of competition, I believe we’ve reached a point where something must be done. The conduct of certain students has been nothing short of appalling,” Professor McGonagall says, and Hermione is pleased to see her eyes dart toward the Slytherin table for just a moment, “and it can’t be left unchecked. While the mission may have become somewhat...muddled over the years, Hogwarts was founded on the spirit of teamwork. To encourage students to nurture their distinct gifts, all while working together with their fellow classmates, regardless of their house. And so, in that spirit...” 

Professor McGonagall waves her wand, and a blank sheet of parchment appears before every student in the Great Hall. 

“Oh, bloody hell, an essay?” Ron mutters. “See, Hermione? What’d I tell you? All announcements are rubbish.”

Hermione kicks him lightly under the table. “You don’t even know what we’re supposed to do yet,” she says crossly, running her finger over the parchment in front of her and shivering when she feels the familiar tingle of magic emanating from it. Charmed parchment? She knows it’s possible, but she hasn’t run into anything like this since her run in with a certain diary. Her curiosity is piqued, and she looks back toward Professor McGonagall with rapt attention.

“Each of you has been given a piece of parchment, which is magically linked to one other piece of parchment, owned by another Hogwarts student. They’ve been charmed to only let the parchment’s owner write messages. Once you write a message on your parchment, it will appear on the parchment that is linked to yours,” McGonagall says.

Hermione catches Harry’s eye and he lifts an eyebrow in return. “Because that worked out so well for everyone involved last time, didn’t it?” he asks, darkly. “Oh, no. Ginny’s going to hate this,” he adds, looking around the Great Hall with concern to see if Ginny has made it in time for the announcement.

“Each parchment has a concealment charm placed upon it, so your handwriting will be obscured. They’re also charmed to block out any attempts at revealing your identity to your...your parchment pal,” McGonagall says, her face twisting in displeasure. “The name was not my idea,” she clarifies. “In any event, identifying the owner of your linked parchment will be next to impossible, so I wouldn’t recommend you try. You will not be able to read the messages on anyone else’s parchment except for yours and the one your parchment is linked to. Each parchment has been charmed to only be deciphered by the intended reader, so no one else will have access to your conversation. All...parchment pals have been randomly assigned, but you will not have a student from your house.” 

“Great, a magical scrap of paper. What’s the point of this, besides wasting our time?” Ron whispers to Harry. But Ron's whisper carries, and McGonagall immediately turns to him with a sharp look. 

“The point, Mr. Weasley, is to build a bond with someone outside of your house. To strip away all identifying features. No Gryffindors, no Slytherins. No Ravenclaws, no Hufflepuffs. No gender divide. No year divide. Simply two Hogwarts students, carrying out a pleasant conversation.”

Malfoy snorts from the Slytherin table. “I’d rather snog a hippogriff,” he says, loudly enough for the rest of the Great Hall to hear. 

“Please. A hippogriff has standards,” Harry says. 

“What did you say, Potter?” Malfoy asks, his pale face flushed. 

“I said—” 

“Ten points from Slytherin, ten points from Gryffindor,” Professor McGonagall says. Both boys turn to her, outraged, ready to fight, but she holds up a hand. “Would you care to make it twenty?” 

Harry and Malfoy glare at each other a moment longer, and McGonagall sighs. “These kinds of ridiculous outbursts are the entire reason we’re doing this. If you had been able to control yourselves in the past, we wouldn’t be here today. As it stands...” she sighs again and shakes her head, looking discouraged. “Now, while both Professor Snape and Mr. Filch were in favor of a punishment based system to ensure your participation in this project, I rather think a reward system would be a better incentive. That said, I’m capable of changing my mind at any point, and Mr. Filch is always happy to have extra hands in detention. Or in shackles,” she adds, with no hint of a smile. “As for the reward...the house with the most students participating in the challenge, and I do mean actively participating, will be awarded three-hundred house points.” 

A murmur of interest goes through the Great Hall, and Hermione eyes the hourglasses against the wall. Slytherin is in first by a fair margin, something that she’s heard no less than twenty times since last week from Ron. Three-hundred points would completely close the gap and then some. She glances around the other tables to see that most students have perked up and are paying closer attention. Out of curiosity, she turns to see how the Slytherin table has reacted. Malfoy still looks annoyed, Crabbe and Goyle aren’t listening, Daphne is braiding her hair, Blaise is whispering something to a snickering Theo, Millicent is...it appears she’s attempting to bend a fork? and Pansy is idly studying her fingernails, looking bored. 

Hermione turns back to Harry and Ron. “We have to win. The Slytherins don’t even look interested. There’s no way they’ll win, so we have to,” she whispers. 

“Obviously,” Ron says, nodding enthusiastically. “We’ll destroy those Slytherin twats by any means necessary.”

“Completely against the spirit of the thing, Ron, but I can’t say I disagree,” Hermione says, before tuning back into what Professor McGonagall is saying.

“We do have ways to check that you’re participating, though rest assured, we will not be reading your private correspondence,” McGonagall says. “The only two people who will have access to your conversation are you and your...your...”

“Yer parchment pal!” Hagrid puts in happily.

“Yes. Your...your that,” McGonagall says. “Now. Are there any questions?”

Hermione’s hand is first in the air. She hears the murmur of irritation around the Great Hall, but pays it no mind. Let them grumble. She wants to win. 

“Yes, Miss Granger?” 

“What does active participation look like, in your mind? A sentence each day? Or perhaps a paragraph or two a day? Is there a required word limit? And are you penalized if your parchment pal doesn’t reply? Will we be required to report on our learnings about our parchment pals? Is there a reporting system in place if our parchment pal is hostile? Will—”

“Miss Granger. Please,” Professor McGonagall says, looking exhausted and pained. “One question at a time. But active participation means having an actual conversation with your...your pal. There is no required word limit, but you must actually get something beneficial out of this experience, so yes, you will be required to submit a short report of your findings after this experiment has concluded. You’re to discuss what you’ve learned from the experiment as a whole, how it pertains to your journey at Hogwarts, and how your perspective toward other houses did or did not shift over the course of the experiment. Failure to submit your findings will disqualify you from your house’s total.”

“Told you it was an essay,” Ron mutters.

“You will not be penalized if your fellow student fails to reply, so long as you make a worthy effort to reach out multiple times,” McGonagall continues. “There is no official reporting system in place, but if you face any sort of unwanted contact or hostility from your fellow student, please reach out to the head of your house, and we’ll see to it that the matter is dealt with swiftly and efficiently. Any sort of unwanted contact will be severely punished, so do not abuse the privilege of your parchment. I can assure you, you will come to regret it,” McGonagall says. It’s clearly a threat, and one that seems to reverberate around the entire Great Hall if the deathly silence that follows is any indication.

“Now then. If there are no other immediate questions...?” McGonagall doesn’t even bother looking around the room. Instead, she gazes patiently at Hermione who blushes a bit and shakes her head. McGonagall nods and says, “very well. The experiment begins tonight at six o’clock and will conclude in three months time. I encourage you to all see this as a learning opportunity, and to get to know your fellow student without any biases standing in your way. If you have any further questions, please ask your head of house. For now, you may resume your meal. I trust there will be no more interruptions,” she adds, shooting a pointed look toward Malfoy and the Slytherin table, before turning to sit back down.

“So...this is different,” Harry says, turning his parchment over a few times and peering closely at it, as if his parchment pal has already written him a novel. 

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Hermione says. “The lack of inter-house unity is quite frankly, abysmal. We’re all Hogwarts students, aren’t we?” 

“So you don’t see any problems that could arise from this little experiment?” Ron asks, raising an eyebrow. 

“Well, of course. There could always be unforeseen complications. But the reward is great enough that I suspect most students will take this challenge seriously. And for those who don’t, well, it’s their loss, isn’t it?” Hermione asks, scraping her plate clean and finishing her pumpkin juice quickly, just in case any Slytherins try for an encore performance. 

“And say you discover your little parchment pal is none other than Gregory Goyle. What then?” Ron asks. 

“Won’t be a problem,” Harry says with a lopsided grin, his mouth full of potatoes once again. “There’s no way Goyle’s literate. Probably was excused from this activity on sympathetic grounds.” 

Ron snorts. “No way McGonagall would pair us up with Slytherins, though, right?” he asks, his brow creasing in concern. “She wouldn’t be that cruel to students in her own house?”

“Honestly, Ron, she’s not going to play favorites. You already heard her say that the whole thing is randomized. But think of the number of students in each house. The odds of any of us getting someone both in Slytherin and in our year are already fairly slim,” Hermione says, drumming her fingers against the table. “If you do the maths on it, then—”

“Hermione. It’s half past nine. Please don’t do the maths,” Ron says, looking mildly horrified. 

Hermione tsks. “All I’m saying is you’re more likely to be partnered with someone you’ve never heard of. The odds of you getting Goyle are ridiculously slim. Now,” Hermione claps her hands and stands up. “Let’s hurry and get to Potions. I want to get my favorite cauldron. Last time, Greengrass got to it before me, and my potion was absolutely horrid because of it.” 

“But we’re not done eating,” Harry says, his eyes flickering down to his half full plate. 

“You would be if you didn’t insist on depleting the kitchen’s stock every morning. Honestly, Harry, that much food can’t be good for anyone,” Hermione says, frowning at Harry’s plate with concern.

Harry pouts for a moment, then shrugs, shovels the remaining potatoes into his mouth, and pockets a few sausages in his robes. Then he turns to face Hermione, his cheeks bulging, flashes her a thumbs up, and says something that sounds like I’m ready, though Hermione can’t quite make it out.

Instead of asking him to repeat himself, she stares in abject horror at his bulging pockets. “Harry, don’t! You’ll never get the grease stains out of those robes!” 

“Bloody hell, how many times do you think she can forget she’s a witch with magic before we have to have her committed?” Ron asks.

Hermione flushes, then straightens her spine proudly. “It doesn’t hurt for one to know how to do things the old fashioned way,” she says with dignity, before turning on her heel and marching toward the doors, leaving Ron and Harry to hurry in her wake. 

***

“See? The finish on this cauldron is far superior to the rest of them,” Hermione says, running her finger lightly over the rim. “It really does pay to get here early.”

“Hermione, we didn’t even get that cauldron,” Harry says, glancing at his own, dingier cauldron. “It only paid for you to get here early.” 

“Honestly, Harry, the cauldron doesn’t make the potioneer! You can brew an excellent potion in any cauldron you end up with!” Hermione says, brightly.

“Then why did you insist on getting here early to—”

Ron elbows Harry and mutters not worth it out of the corner of his mouth. Hermione glares at him, and is about to reply, when she hears voices echoing off the stone walls outside of the dungeon. She bristles and prepares herself for the arrival of her classmates. 

“It’s like a pack of violent baboons, roaming the halls,” Ron says. “Just once, I’d like to have Potions with the Hufflepuffs. Or the Ravenclaws, even if they’d wipe the floor with us. But no. It’s always Slytherins. Why is it always Slytherins?” he groans, burying his head in his hands. 

The Slytherin group comes through the doorway and immediately start jockeying for position around their chosen work stations. Hermione watches with her lip curled in disgust. She really does try to be kind to everyone, but she just can’t with this particular group of Slytherins. She’s never met such a foul, vile bunch of people. They take pleasure in causing pain, in calling names, in tormenting. And the worse the tormenting gets, the more gleeful they seem to become. Hermione hesitates to call it evil per se, but she feels it in her bones that she’s sharing this classroom with future Death Eaters. 

“See something you like, Mudblood?” Crabbe sneers at Hermione. 

Hermione startles. She realizes she’s been lost in thought while staring at the Slytherin’s table, and they’re all looking back at her like she’s a decaying carcass that had the audacity to die in their presence. She’s barely registered Crabbe’s slur by the time Harry and Ron are on their feet. They’re both furious on her behalf, and Harry’s wand is out and pointed at Crabbe’s chest.

“Say that again,” Harry says, his voice low and dangerous, his wand steady.

“What are you going to do, Potter? Hex Crabbe in a classroom? Think you’ll get away with that?” Malfoy says with a smirk. “Then by all means. If you insist on defending the Mudblood’s honor.” 

Hermione reaches out and places an arm on Harry’s shoulder. “It’s not worth it,” she says urgently. “Harry, it’s not. Please sit down.”

Harry doesn’t lower his wand. “They can’t call you that. They can’t do it and get away with it,” he says, never taking his eyes off of Crabbe, who is leaning back in his seat, a grin stretched wide on his repulsive, greasy face. 

“I’d rather they call me that than see you in detention for the next month,” Hermione says, tugging on Harry’s arm to no avail. Years of Quidditch training have made him surprisingly strong despite his lanky stature, and she’d have better luck trying to move the statue of the one-eyed witch guarding the Hogsmeade passage. She’s still tugging on his arm when a dry voice cuts through the air.

“My, my. What have we here?”

Professor Snape stands in the doorway of the Potions classroom, surveying the scene in front of him, his dark eyes glittering in the dim light of the dungeon. Malfoy smirks one more time at Harry before turning to Snape. 

“Potter’s threatening us,” he says easily, as if he’s delivering the daily weather report. 

“We’re all terribly frightened,” Pansy drawls next to him, studying her fingernails again. Self-absorbed twat, Hermione thinks coldly.

“Professor, it wasn’t like that,” Ron says, still flushed with fury, his fists clenched at his side. “Crabbe called Hermione a...a...” 

“Mudblood,” Hermione says, quietly. “He called me a Mudblood. And Harry was just—”

“Defending your honor?” Snape says, his lip curling in distaste. “How very noble of you, Potter. But much like your esteemed head of house, I’m unwilling to punish without the proper evidence. There is no evidence that Mr. Crabbe used such foul language toward Miss Granger. In fact, the only evidence I see here is you, Potter, holding a wand on an unarmed student, in the middle of my classroom. I am inclined to trust my own eyes, rather than specious arguments. Fifty points from Gryffindor, and a detention for you, I think,” Snape says to Harry, his dark eyes shining with barely tempered delight. 

“But Professor—“ Hermione starts, outrage in her voice. 

“Would you care to join him in detention, Miss Granger?” Snape asks. 

Hermione looks to Harry, who shakes his head. “Not worth you getting in trouble, too,” he murmurs, slowly taking his seat and putting his wand away. She closes her mouth and glares at Snape instead, hoping to make him feel even the slightest tinge of remorse. Fifty points and detention. How dare he give Harry such a harsh punishment without punishing the people who instigated the situation in the first place? She has half a mind to bring this up to Dumbledore, but she has a feeling he’d agree with the “no evidence, no punishment” rule the faculty seems to have grown very keen of in the past hour. 

“Now if everyone has settled...” Snape says, turning his back to the students to sweep to the front of the classroom. He waves his wand, and ingredients fly off the shelves and land gently in front of him beside his cauldron. Ground scarab beetles, cut ginger roots, armadillo bile, and newt spleens. Once he’s assembled everything, he looks back up at the class. 

“Who can tell me what potion we’re making today?” he asks, gazing apathetically at the class. 

Hermione knows the answer. Of course she does. It’s on the tip of her tongue, begging to be voiced, but she doesn’t want to volunteer when she’s still furious at Snape. But when the silence starts to stretch on, and even Ron mutters, “just say it,” out of the corner of his mouth, Hermione sighs, and lifts her hand. 

“Yes, Miss Granger?”

“Wit-sharpening potion,” she says, her words coming out harsh and clipped. She doesn’t even volunteer any of the extra information she knows about this particular potion, which is quite frankly, killing her. But she holds strong as Snape nods, and says, “correct. Five points to Gryffindor. For the rest of you—the future of the wizarding world—perhaps a draught of this will do you some good. Gather your ingredients. You’ll find the potion listed on page 342.”

Snape sits down, and the class breaks into a low murmur of conversation. Hermione gets up from her seat, but before she can move, Snape says, “and one more thing. In the spirit of...inter-house unity,” he says, his lip curling, “you’ll no longer be working with your current partners.” 

The low murmur of conversation grows louder, and Snape holds up a hand. “That was not an invitation for idle chatter,” Snape says. “The faculty has decided to enrich the...parchment pals assignment," he says with a grimace, "by requiring students work with partners outside of their house during class. So...” 

Hermione feels her stomach drop in anticipation of what’s about to happen. She doesn’t often wish to be wrong, but she finds herself desperately hoping the next words out of Snape’s mouth aren’t what she thinks they’re going to be. 

“You’ve all been assigned new partners. Until further notice, Slytherins will be working with Gryffindors.”

There are immediate cries of outrage from around the room, equal parts Slytherin and Gryffindor. Snape looks at them coldly and says, “you’re wasting your breath. This decision was not mine. But it will be respected as if it were.” The room quiets, and Snape waves his wand lazily. Names appear on the board behind him. “You’ll find your name written beside your new partner’s name. I expect you to all be on your best behavior,” he adds, but he doesn’t sound as if he means it or even cares.

Hermione looks up at the board. She sees Ron is partnered with Theo and Harry has Daphne. She glances to them to show her sympathy, but they’re already watching her with twin pained expressions. 

“Maybe it’ll be okay?” Ron says, more as a question than a statement. 

“She’s not...I mean, she’s... Harry says, trailing off and rubbing his neck. 

Hermione frowns, then realizes with a sinking feeling that she hadn’t found her own name on the board. She looks back and there it is, near the bottom of the list. Written next to it in neat print is PANSY PARKINSON. 

Oh, no. 

Oh, no

Of all the people. There isn’t really a good Slytherin to be partnered with, per se, but Pansy is most assuredly the worst. For the past seven years, Pansy had made it her mission to torment Hermione at every opportunity. She’s taken every excuse to mock her viciously, she’s shot furtive jinxes at her in the hallways, she calls her a Mudblood on what feels like a daily basis...there’s no way this is ending without one of them in the hospital wing. And she knows she won’t be allowed a switch. After all, Neville has been partnered with Malfoy, and he’s already white as a sheet and trembling. If anyone deserves a switch, it’s him. So Hermione decides to dig down deep and tap into her Gryffindor courage. After all, she can give as good as she gets. And if there’s one thing she knows, it’s that Pansy Parkinson will not break her.

She can manage this.

***

She can’t manage this. 

They’re forty minutes into their potion and Pansy is being a complete and utter cow. She’s purposefully been moving as slowly as she possibly can, but all the while tossing rapid-fire insults at Hermione. If Hermione wasn’t so frustrated and angry, she’d find Pansy’s seemingly endless string of nasty remarks rather impressive. But as it is, she’s one insult away from emptying the entire cauldron over Pansy’s head. The one saving grace of the whole situation is Pansy seems to be relatively invested in getting high marks on this potion, so even though she’s moving slower than a flobberworm stuck in toffee sauce, she hasn’t made a mistake yet. All things considered, it could be worse, even if she is forcing Hermione to find reservoirs of patience she didn’t think existed.

“I’ve always know your blood was filthy, but I didn’t think the rest of you would be, too,” Pansy says, grinding the scarab beetles in the mortar, taking care to make the most obnoxious, slow scraping noises she possibly can.

“What?” Hermione asks, teeth clenched at the sound, three seconds away from hexing Pansy into next week. It would be worth the detention. Perhaps even the expulsion. 

“You. You smell awful. You do know there’s a prefect’s bathroom, right?” Pansy asks, somehow managing to grind the scarab beetles even louder and even slower. It sets Hermione’s teeth on edge. 

“You know perfectly well it’s the armadillo bile and not me,” Hermione says, now only two seconds away from hexing Pansy.

Pansy leans down toward the rancid smelling bile, takes a deep sniff, cocks her head to the side, then shakes her head. “No, that’s not it at all. Perhaps it’s your blood, after all.” She sniffs the air. “Yes. Definite hints of mud.”

“Have you finished with the beetles?” Hermione asks, refusing to give into Pansy’s incessant needling. Pansy makes a show out of grinding the beetles one last time, dragging the pestle as slowly as she can against the granite mortar. The sound is so awful, it makes Hermione shiver involuntarily, which makes Pansy smirk. She slides the mortar and pestle toward Hermione, who picks it up and adds the contents to the cauldron, satisfied when the potion turns a deep, dark red. 

Pansy peers into the cauldron. “Looks like Weasley’s face this morning. Do you know, I’ve never seen him so angry! Must have touched a nerve, then?” she asks, turning to look at Hermione with wide, innocent eyes.

Hermione has no idea what she’s referring to. She frowns, thinking back on this morning’s debacle. Then, she remembers Pansy’s overtly sexual comment. The steam from the potion has already made her flushed, but she feels her face grow warmer at the memory. 

“Ooh,” Pansy says, noticing the darker flush. “I did touch a nerve. I suppose a you’re welcome wouldn’t be out of place, since it sounds like that’s the only part of you that ever gets touched.”

Hermione glares at Pansy. “For your information, Ron and I aren’t together,” she says, making sure to keep her voice low so Ron, two tables over and looking absolutely miserable, doesn’t hear what they’re talking about. 

“Oh? Well, it can’t be because you’re a Mudblood. That’s never bothered the Weasleys. Notorious blood traitors, the lot of them. Oh, I know!” Pansy says, snapping her fingers. “Perhaps he thought he was shagging you this whole time, but it was actually a troll. Easy mistake to make,” she says as she slowly chops the ginger root. 

Hermione exhales heavily, but decides not to answer. Anything more will just give Pansy more ammunition. Ignoring her will make her petulant, but Hermione can deal with a petulant Pansy Parkinson easier than she can a sadistic one. 

“It’s truly astonishing, though,” Pansy says, chopping the last ginger root with a faraway expression. “Because I’m sure you’ve entertained the idea. You and Weasley. Late at night, in your bed. Curtains drawn, a quick Silencio, an awkward fumble or two while you desperately try to get off on the idea of sucking his ginger prick. But to give so much time and energy to someone who doesn’t care about you at all,” Pansy says with a shake of her head. “Extraordinary.”

Hermione raises her head at this and looks at Pansy with confusion. “What do you mean? Of course he cares about me. He and Harry are my best friends.” 

Pansy hums, finishes chopping the ginger root, and pushes the pile toward Hermione. “And how did that come to pass?” she asks, turning the knife on its point against the table. “When they realized there was a brain under that horrid pile on your head you call hair? A brain they could use to coast through the next seven years?”

Hermione shakes her head, depositing the ginger roots into the cauldron and watching as the potion turns green. Once she’s satisfied with the hue, she begins to stir clockwise. “No. As a matter of fact, that was the reason they disliked me when we first met. They thought me an insufferable know-it-all. And they were right, I suppose. Social skills weren’t exactly my forte when I was eleven,” she says, ignoring Pansy’s muttered nor are they now. She lets the potion sit for a moment and looks toward Pansy. “I’ve never let them copy my assignments, if that’s what you think. I help them, but I don’t let them use me,” she says. 

“Oh, please,” Pansy scoffs. “Spare me, Granger. They’ve used you at every turn, whether you care to admit it or not. Just because you don’t let them copy your assignments, I’m sure that doesn’t stop them from asking incessantly. And tell me, how often has Weasley bothered to remove his oversized head from his oversized arse and take notice of someone other than himself? To ask about you, or your day? He’s a tactless, self-centered, lazy twat who found the one girl in this entire school willing to put up with it. Because that’s what you do, isn’t it? You desperately cling to anyone willing to give you the time of day. It’s why your hand is always the first up in class—you’re desperate for attention, desperate to be loved, desperate to please. Poor little Mudblood. No wonder you’re desperate to be fucked by Weasley,” she says, her eyes glittering. “You’re still the same ugly little girl you’ve always been, crying out for someone to want her. And when he eventually decides you might be slightly more tolerable than the troll, he’ll use you one more time and leave you behind when he’s done.”

Hermione knows Pansy is looking for some kind of reaction. And she’d be lying if she said some of Pansy’s diatribe didn’t cut a bit deeper than she’d like. Particularly the bits about her desperate needs to be loved and to please. But she also knows that giving Pansy the reaction she’s looking for will mean she’s lost this little game they’re playing. 

And Hermione Granger is not a loser. 

So she simply snorts in mild amusement and shakes her head. “You seem to have spent a fair amount of time thinking about my personal life, Parkinson. But I’m sorry to say, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know me, and you’ve certainly no idea what my relationship is like with Ron, so you don’t get to make assumptions. Just as I wouldn’t make assumptions about your relationship with Malfoy Though if I wanted to, I’m sure I could reasonably assume most of the same things you just did. I’ve seen the way you hang off of Malfoy. What was it you said about me? Desperate to be noticed and desperate to please? Sound familiar?” Hermione notices Pansy tense beside her, and she feels emboldened. She stirs the potion and says, “I could assume even more, if I tried. Like how you and Malfoy were probably promised to each other as children for the sake of blood purity or whatever nonsense your families like to prattle on about. And judging by the way you’ve always fawned over him and his complete lack of reciprocal interest, I’d say he’s not too keen on the arrangement. I could even assume from the way he looks at Greengrass that he’d rather be with any number of Slytherin girls than so much as lay a finger on you. So if I were to make wild assumptions, I’d say you have more knowledge than most about what it’s like to desperately want someone who wants absolutely nothing to do with you, and most likely, finds you completely repulsive. But you know that, don’t you, Parkinson?” Hermione asks, unable to stop herself from twisting the knife in further. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember you ever dating anyone other than Malfoy, if you can even call what the two of you do dating. Performance theatre, more like. So perhaps it’s more than just Malfoy. Perhaps the entirety of your house finds you positively repulsive. Certainly would explain why no one has ever wanted to be with you voluntarily. No, the only way the great Pansy Parkinson can land a man is if there’s a binding magical contract involved.”

Hermione glances at Pansy and sees a muscle flexing in her jaw. She’s staring straight ahead, her eyes dark with fury, her face flushed, and her fists clenched at her side. Hermione bites her lower lip, trying to keep the smile at bay. But she can’t help it—she feels flushed with pride and the thrill of victory. She’s never spent enough time with Pansy to actually engage in any sort of conversation with her. It’s usually a one-off insult tossed her way during class or a meal that Hermione almost always chooses to ignore. This is the first time she’s ever kept up her end of a conversation, and judging from Pansy’s expression, she’s done quite well.

“Aw, touched a nerve, Parkinson?” Hermione asks, deciding to see if she can stick the knife in any deeper “Don’t worry. I’m sure you can touch something else later tonight when you’re in bed and pretend it’s Malfoy touching it,” she adds, pleased when Pansy’s flush grows even darker. Normally, Hermione wouldn’t stoop to such childish, sexualized insults, but in this case, she’s glad she made the exception. 

Pansy turns to Hermione, eyes blazing, leans forward just a bit and hisses, “fuck you, Granger. Where the fuck do you get off, you filthy—”

“Miss Parkinson. Miss Granger. I trust that the Slytherin and Gryffindor prefects will be able to set an example for the rest of their classmates?” Snape asks, glancing at their cauldron. He’s approached so quietly, and both girls jump slightly at his unexpected presence. Hermione collects herself quickly and nods, even though her heart rate hasn’t quite recovered.

“Of course, Professor. And our potion is complete, if you’d like us to bottle it?” Hermione asks, desperately hoping Snape didn’t hear the last thing she said to Pansy. Because while she’s proud of it, she’d never want a professor to hear her make such dirty comments, least of all Professor Snape. 

Snape looks at the potion, then nods. “It looks...satisfactory. I assume you took the lead, Miss Parkinson? Well done. It seems you’ll be an excellent influence on Miss Granger,” he says, before sweeping off to check another cauldron. Hermione digs her fingernails into the palm of her hands to keep the frustration at bay. I assume you took the lead. Honestly. And when Hermione’s the one sat in front of the cauldron. She shakes her head a bit and shrugs it off. All that matters is she made it through her first class period, their potion was correct, and quite surprisingly, she managed to get the upper hand on Pansy. 

“I’ll clean up, you bottle a sample,” she says, getting up quickly to collect the ingredients and re-shelf them. Pansy doesn’t make eye contact with her, just nods tersely and takes Hermione’s place in front of the cauldron. Hermione’s a bit surprised that there’s no cutting remark, no attempted jinx from Pansy, but she decides to take the victory and get through the rest of this class as quickly as possible.

She strides away from the table, walking past other Gryffindor-Slytherin pairs, all of whom seem to be failing miserably at working together. Ron even mouths help at her as she passes, and she grimaces in sympathy. Once she reaches the storage closet, she stashes the leftover ingredients back in their proper places, leans against the cool, stone wall for just a moment, and takes a deep breath, trying to center herself. 

“That bad, eh?” 

Hermione jumps about a foot in the air. She glares at Harry, who’s chuckling as he replaces his leftover ingredients. 

“Harry Potter, you nearly gave me a heart attack,” she says, rubbing her chest. “Honestly. I should put one of Crookshanks’ spare bells around your neck.” 

Harry grins, tips the last of his leftover scarab beetles back into the tall, glass jar they came from, then turns to face her. “Not sure it’d go with my style,” he says, ruffling his hair. 

“Hm. Well, if you ever find one, I’ll be sure to weigh in,” Hermione says. “And as to your question, it...wasn’t pleasant. But I think I may have had the upper hand on her at the very end. She looked like she wanted to hex me, which I think is Parkinson for you win this round,” she says with a small shrug. 

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Blimey. What’d you say to her?” 

Hermione flushes a bit, thinking about her last insult. “Oh, nothing to be repeated in polite company. But I must have hit my mark. I’ve never seen her so angry.” 

“Good for you,” Harry says, nudging her with his shoulder.

Hermione hums in agreement. “And you? How was Greengrass?”

Harry shrugs. “Didn’t do any work. She bossed me about while I did everything and insulted me at every turn. About what I expected, if I’m honest. Maybe even better than I expected, considering she didn’t deliberately sabotage our potion.”

Hermione chuckles and starts back toward the tables with Harry in step beside her. “Well, one class down, only three months to go,” she says, then stops short. Harry glances at her, questioningly, then follows her gaze toward her table. It’s completely clean, save for a bottle of their potion, neatly labelled and sitting on the center of the table. Pansy is nowhere to be found. 

Harry whistles. “Must have done a number on her. Not sure I’ve ever seen Parkinson accept defeat before.”

Hermione feels a twinge of guilt for a moment, but then she scoffs at herself. If anyone deserves to be thoroughly insulted for once in their life, it’s Pansy. Let her lick her wounds. It’s not like she’ll come back a changed person. 

She pushes the guilt aside and resumes basking in her glory as she packs up her satchel. She has bigger things to worry about than Pansy Parkinson’s mental state. 

She slips her Potions book into her satchel, right next to her magical parchment and decides to focus on that instead. After all, she has to figure out what to write to her parchment pal. But she has the rest of the day to figure it out. She’ll come up with something. 

***

She’s come up with nothing

Hermione stares at the blank sheet of parchment in front of her. It’s two minutes past six and she’s in the library, desperately racking her brains to come up with a fun, interesting opener that will make her parchment pal want to continue the conversation. She taps her quill against the table and bites her lower lip, willing the words to come to her. When her mind stays blank, she groans and buries her head in her hands. 

“Writer’s block?” 

Hermione lifts her head. Ginny is looking at her, her brow crinkled in sympathy. She drops her bag on the ground and pulls out a chair, then flops into it with a sigh. 

“I’ve spent all day trying to come up with a good opening line for mine,” she says, placing her blank parchment on the table. “Dunno why I’m making it so much harder than it needs to be.” 

Hermione chuckles. “You’re in good company. Everything I try sounds desperate, overly cheerful, or horrid and fake.”

“We need to be more like Rita Skeeter,” Ginny says, ignoring Hermione’s look of absolute horror. “She churns out shite articles all day and night. Probably never agonizes over her opening line. The best one I have so far is, ‘what’s your favorite Quidditch team?’” Ginny says, then looks at Hermione with a grimace. “It makes me sound like I’m six years old.” 

“Better than me. I was going to start with ‘what’s your favorite class subject,’” Hermione says. 

Ginny snorts. “Yeah, best not give away it’s you that early on,” she says. She looks down at her blank parchment again and exhales sharply. “Right. Sod it. I’m going in. Now or never,” she says. She picks up Hermione’s quill, grabs her parchment, scribbles something down on it, then taps it with her wand. The black ink seals into the parchment and turns to a shimmery gold, gleaming on the paper.

Hermione and Ginny both stare at the parchment like they’re waiting for it to burst into flames. But it just sits on the library table, Ginny’s message shining in gold ink. Hermione leans forward to read the message, but finds herself curiously unable to decipher it. She looks up in confusion, but Ginny’s one step ahead of her. 

“Charmed so only me and my pal can read it, remember?” 

Hermione nods, remembering that McGonagall had said something to that effect. “What did you write? If you don’t mind my asking,” Hermione adds quickly, not wanting to overstep her bounds. 

So what do you think about this whole parchment pal business?” Ginny says with a shrug. “Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, is it?”

“That’s not bad,” Hermione says with a shrug. “Gives you a good idea of what kind of person they are based on their response. I might copy that.”

“Hermione Granger, copying my schoolwork? I never thought I’d see the day,” Ginny says, with a grin. 

“First time for everything,” Hermione says. “By the way, how do you feel about this whole thing anyway?”

“You mean is it giving me bad flashbacks to a certain cursed diary?” Ginny shrugs. “Not really. It’s different enough and the idea behind it is innocuous. If I was corresponding with Tom Riddle again, mind you, I might feel differently. Maybe that should’ve been my opening line—do you now or will you ever harbor a deep desire to get rid of your entire nose?” 

Hermione laughs out loud, then claps a hand over her mouth when she sees Madam Pince turn to glare at her. She mouths sorry, then turns back to Ginny. “You almost got me banned from the library,” she says, laughter still shining in her eyes. 

Ginny grins. “Might do you some good. There’s a whole world outside of these walls, you know. But no, I’ll be alright. Harry was worried about me, too,” she adds, her smile turning a bit softer. 

“Stands to reason. Seeing as he’s completely besotted with you.” 

Ginny flushes, and shakes her head. “He’s not. We’re mates. Good mates. And he’s a mate I don’t want my brother to kill for looking at me the wrong way.”

“Ah, so you want him to look at you the wrong way?” Hermione asks, raising an eyebrow. 

Ginny’s flush darkens. “Sod off. Besides, you’re one to talk. I heard there was quite a commotion this morning about whether or not my brother has ever made you...” Ginny’s face contorts, and she shakes her head. “No. No, I can’t actually say it. But what’s the story there? Did he finally ask you out?” 

Hermione frowns down at the table and fiddles with the edges of her parchment. “No. We’re just friends. And that’s all I want.” She looks up to find Ginny gazing at her, sympathy in her eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. It is all I want. Besides, he’s been making eyes at Lavender for weeks now. God knows why, she’s got as much depth as a puddle.”

“Mm, and that would be a struggle for someone like Ronald, so famously known for his depth,” Ginny says. 

“Well, he’s got more than she does! But no. We’re just friends. And that’s fine,” Hermione says, ignoring the pity in Ginny’s eyes.

Has she secretly wanted more? Of course. She’s thought of it from time to time (and not in the privacy of her own bed, as Pansy had so crudely insinuated). But she’s happy with things the way they are. She doesn’t want to risk ruining her friendship with Ron, so she sees no need to change things now. And to be fair, it’s not as if she’s desperate for things to change. She’s just seen other students, holding hands in the hallways, whispering to each other, exchanging glances, and...it looks nice. Quite nice. Like something she might want to experience herself. But no boys have ever particularly interested her outside of Harry and Ron, and Harry is both practically her brother, and completely smitten with Ginny. So that leaves Ron. He’s certainly nice looking, he’s protective, and he makes her laugh. And there’s definitely passion between them, which she knows is a key ingredient in a successful relationship. She just sometimes wonders if that passion should stem from something other than getting in fights over whether or not Ron can copy her homework. 

“If you ever want me to talk sense into him, say the word. Or send a letter to Mum. She’d be more than happy to send a Howler. She’s absolutely desperate to make you a proper member of the family. We all are, if I’m being honest,” Ginny says, reaching across the table to squeeze Hermione’s hand.

Hermione smiles and squeezes Ginny’s hand back. “Thanks. I’ll let you know.” 

Ginny nods. She releases Hermione’s hand, slips her parchment back into her bag, and stands. “Please do. But I’ve got to be off. Practice tonight. If you want, I’ll ask Peakes and Coote to send extra bludgers Ron’s way?” 

Hermione smiles, but shakes her head. “Tempting as that is, I think I’ll pass. Thank you, though.” 

Ginny shrugs. “Suit yourself. Might do it anyway, just for a laugh. See you later tonight?” 

Hermione nods. “Maybe by then, I’ll have decided on an opening line.” 

Ginny glances down at Hermione’s parchment. “Might not need to,” she says, nodding at it. “Looks like your pal did all the hard work for you.”

Hermione looks down quickly to see a silver message, shining up at her from her parchment. She looks back to Ginny with wide eyes. “Oh, no. No! Ginny, they’ll think I’m bad at time management! Or worse, that I don’t care about assignments,” she says, looking positively aghast at the idea. 

Ginny laughs loudly, ignoring Madam Pince shushing her across the room. “Look on the bright side—it’s the perfect cover. No way Hermione Granger wouldn’t send a message at six o’clock on the dot. By not sending it, you’ve completely disguised yourself. Flawless, really,” she says. “Anyway, that’s me off. Good luck answering, hope they wrote something good,” she adds over her shoulder as she walks away.

“Thanks,” Hermione says absently, staring down at the paper. The message written there is simple, but she’s able to pick out a few things from it. It reads:

I can’t say I ever expected the school to resort to bribery to make us all get along, but I also can’t say I’m completely against the idea. 

She can already tell by the language and tone that her pal is most likely an older student, probably a fourth year or above. Everything is spelled correctly, so not Crabbe or Goyle, thank goodness. Perhaps a Ravenclaw? And the fact her pal isn’t against bribery as a tool doesn’t exactly scream Hufflepuff, but there are certainly quite a few Hufflepuffs she knows that would be more than open to the idea of bribery. 

She picks up her quill, taps it against her lips a few times, then scratches out her reply. She reads over it, edits a few words here and there, then taps it with her wand and watches as the ink sinks into the page and turns to gold. 

I wouldn’t put anything past Hogwarts. This is the same school that decided a proper detention would consist of traipsing eleven-year-olds through the Forbidden Forest at midnight. 

She reads over the message again. While this detention did happen to her, it’s also a fairly standard detention at Hogwarts, so it doesn’t give anything away. She feels confident her identity is still under wraps, at least for the time being. She watches the parchment for a moment, but when no new words appear, she puts it aside and opens her Arithmancy book, determined to get some work done. She’s read about a page when glistening, silver ink catches her eye. She immediately drops her book and pulls the parchment toward her, desperate to see how her pal has answered.

At the risk of exposing my identity, I’m proud to say I was never subjected to that particular pleasure. But I will (somewhat shamefully) admit to having served a detention or two under Filch’s watchful eye. Next time you see the trophy case, I hope you stop in reverent awe, knowing that the trophies are shining because of me. 

Hermione is reaching for her quill with a small smile on her face, when another message comes through. 

And you? Have you ever served a detention, or are you a pinnacle of virtue and goodness? In which case, I hope I haven’t scared you off. I promise, I’ll be on my best behavior from here on out. For instance, whereas before I would have told you about the time I slipped a hiccoughing sweet into Snape’s morning pumpkin juice, now, I wouldn’t even dream of saying such a horrid thing.

Hermione’s smile widens as she quickly writes out her reply, tapping it with her wand when she’s satisfied. 

I’m afraid I’ll never be mistaken for a pinnacle of virtue and goodness, and I’ve never used any of Zonko’s wares against our esteemed professors, though I’m very glad you’re on your best behavior and would never mention such a thing to me. And yes, I’ve served a detention, but just the one. Which all things considered is rather impressive, if I do say so myself.

She bites her lip, then adds an extra line and taps it with her wand. 

The trick is to not get caught. Perhaps I can give you lessons? 

She abandons her book to stare at the parchment, willing the next line to come through in record time. She feels like she’s been staring at the parchment for ages when the new message finally appears. She reads it quickly, trying to pick out clues here and there. 

Such hubris! And you offer lessons in mischief after I promised to be on my best behavior. A right terrible influence, you are. This experiment has already corrupted me beyond repair. But as far as I can tell, there are three options here—one, that you’re embellishing your exploits for the sake of our conversation, as you’re too embarrassed to admit you’ve never broken any rules and are altogether, a remarkably decent sort. Two, that you’re some sort of brilliant, troublemaking savant. Filch’s worst nightmare. A Robin Hood-esque figure, bringing hope to the masses through your adventures and close calls. Three, you’re a prefect or a head boy/girl. Can’t get into trouble if you’re the one enforcing the rules. So tell me, Oh, Robin Hood of Hogwarts . . . am I close? 

Hermione raises an eyebrow at the last guess. Her pal has figured out a piece of her identity in less than fifteen minutes. She won’t admit to it being correct, obviously, but she’ll have to be more careful moving forward. But she herself has learned a clue—her pal mentioned Robin Hood, and that’s something that only a student with some knowledge of the Muggle world would know. She sighs in relief as a knot in her stomach loosens. Probably not a Slytherin, then. It’s also something she can use to further disguise her identity. She picks up her quill and answers as quickly as she can, not wanting to keep her parchment pal waiting. 

It’s not hubris if you can back it up. As for your guesses, I’m not familiar with Robin Hood, but through your description, I feel a certain kinship. I certainly don’t think I bring hope to the masses, but I must say that when it comes to close calls, I’m unmatched. Would this Robin Hood of yours know secrets about Hogwarts no one else would? If so, you may call me the Robin Hood of Hogwarts, as I could tell you things you’d never believe. 

Hermione taps the message with her wand, watching as the ink turns to gold. It’s not technically a lie—she could tell her parchment pal about the Room of Requirement, the secret way to sneak into the kitchens, or the numerous hidden passages revealed to her by the Marauder’s Map.

She bounces her leg restlessly under the table, waiting for a reply. The sun has long since set, and the library will be closing soon, but she’s already fascinated by the mysterious presence on the other side of her parchment. She finds herself liking them immediately. Liking their dry, sardonic tone, liking the way they use words, liking the gentle humor every now and then. She glances at her Arithmancy book, forgotten in the center of the table, and frowns—this little experiment could set her back in her studies, if she’s not careful. Because strange as it is, she already finds herself desperate to continue this conversation, even at the sake of schoolwork. 

She barely recognizes herself.

Silver ink blooms on the parchment, and Hermione eagerly reads the new message. 

Robin, I’m afraid you now must put your money where your mouth is, so to speak. I’ll let you keep almost all of your secrets, but you must indulge me in at least one. After all, how is a myth to become the stuff of legend if not for the faithful bard, whispering splendid tales for those willing to hear? 

I jest—your secret would be safe with me. That is, if you’d care to share it. But if you think I may be vying for your title, dear Robin Hood, I’ll understand your hesitation. 

Your humble servant, 
The bard

Hermione grins foolishly at the new message, then tilts her head, trying to decide which fact to share.  She finally decides to share the most mild secret she knows, and the only one she never makes use of, as a matter of principle. She secretly hopes her pal won’t use this knowledge either, but she can’t exactly control that. And besides, sharing this particular tidbit doesn’t seem like something the founder of S.P.E.W. would ever do, so it’s yet another layer of deception. She picks up her quill and writes.

Dearest bard,

I don’t give my secrets away to just anybody. But I suppose for the sake of house unity, and as a gesture of goodwill, I’d be willing to share one with you. Are you familiar with the painting depicting a bowl of fruit, underneath the Great Hall? If you tickle the pear, you’ll find the the answer to all your late night cravings.

She pauses, sorely tempted to add but please don’t, as the house-elves deserve more freedom than they’re granted, and even if they think they’re happy, it’s only because this is the only way of life they’ve ever known, isn’t it? So on the whole, it’s actually quite a dreadful practice. P.S. Would you be interested in joining S.P.E.W?

She doesn’t add it. 

But she’s tempted. 

Sorely tempted.

She continues where she left off.

I must ask you to keep this secret to yourself, as I’m sure you could imagine the chaos that would descend upon the school if students were granted full access to the kitchens. I myself have only benefitted from this knowledge once, and don’t plan to in the near future. 

Now, what say you, bard? Have I earned my title?

Yours, 
Robin (?)

She taps the message, and before she can even look up, she hears the harsh sound of someone clearing their throat from above her. She jumps and looks up to find Madam Pince, staring down at her like a bird of prey, her beady eyes, cold and dark. 

“The library is closed,” she says. “Please gather your materials and leave. Quietly.” 

“I’m sorry, I must have lost track of the time,” Hermione says, quickly gathering her books and her parchment and shoving them all into her bag. She stands up quickly, her chair scraping against the hardwood floor. Madam Pince exhales sharply at the noise and Hermione quickly apologizes before she can say anything else. She hurries toward the doors, and once she’s through them and safe on the other side, she slumps against the wall, letting her heart rate return to normal. After she feels more or less collected, she adjusts her bag on her shoulder and sets off toward the Gryffindor common room, eager to continue her correspondence. She practically flies through the hallways, ignoring the fact that as prefect, she should technically be reprimanding herself for running through the halls. But as her pal said, you can’t get in trouble if you’re the one enforcing the rules. 

She arrives in front of the Fat Lady’s portrait a few long minutes later, completely out of breath. She bends down, hands on her knees, and tries desperately to catch her breath, trying not to dwell on how embarrassingly out of shape she is. 

“Goodness! Whatever is the matter? Is someone chasing you?” the Fat Lady asks, peering at Hermione in concern. 

Hermione shakes her head and manages to wheeze “toad in the hole.” The Fat Lady sighs, mutters, “never a conversation with these students,” and swings open to admit Hermione. She clambers inside, drops her bag on the ground by the nearest open chair, sinks into it, and immediately reaches for her parchment.

“Blimey. You alright, Hermione?” Neville asks from a few chairs away. 

Hermione nods. “Just rather involved in a conversation with my parchment pal and didn’t want to keep them waiting for my answer,” she says, her hand closing around the page in her bag.

“Oh. Mine hasn’t answered yet,” Neville says, sounding a bit despondent. “Nice you’ve got one that wants to chat, I suppose.”

Hermione makes a vague sound of agreement as she puts the parchment down on the table in front of her, barely registering what Neville’s said. She only has eyes for the new, silvery message from her pal, which reads: 

Dear Robin,

You’ve satisfied this bard’s curiosity, but you have my word, I won’t share your secret with anyone. I doubt I’ll even make use of it myself, as I’ve never been one for late night cravings.

I must confess, though, I’m terribly tempted to hide in the corridor and see if a mysterious, cloaked figure passes that way. Perhaps you utilize this knowledge frequently, and are trying to throw me off the scent. There’s no need for that—I’m rather enjoying the aspects of secrecy this particular method of communication offers. To that end, I won’t ask any more probing questions about you. Just simple things. Like this: what’s your favorite color? 

Yours, faithfully, 
Bard

Hermione smiles, tracing her finger over the silver signature. 

“Good letter, then?” 

She looks up in surprise to see Neville gazing at her, his Potions assignment strewn across the table in front of him. He’s the only other one in the common room, his back to the crackling fire, and his hair slightly mussed from where he’s undoubtedly thrust his hands through it in a Potions-induced frustration.

Hermione nods. “A very good letter. But that’s no excuse for blowing in here and ignoring everything and everyone in my path. I’m sorry. You said your parchment pal hasn’t replied? What did you write to them?”

Neville shrugs. “Nothing much, just a how’s it going. With my luck, I probably got Goyle,” he says, looking a bit worried. 

Hermione shakes her head. “I very much doubt that. It’s still early, I’m sure you’ll hear back soon.”

Neville nods, then glances at Hermione’s parchment, and his eyes grow wide. “Blimey,” he says, a bit stunned. “You’ve written that much in an hour or so?” 

Hermione glances down and sees that the parchment is almost completely filled with gold and silver writing. “Oh. Yes, I suppose so. They’re quite easy to talk to.”

“So not Goyle, then,” Neville puts in, with a laugh.

“No, definitely not Goyle. I don’t think this is a Slytherin,” Hermione says, skimming the last message again. 

“Oh? Why?”

“Just a hunch. Some of the things they’ve referenced are things only someone with an interest in the Muggle world would know. And they seem...kind. Intelligent. Genuine. Things I don’t often associate with Slytherins,” Hermione says, her mind briefly flickering back to her horrid Potions experience with Pansy. 

“Lucky you,” Neville says. “I hope mine is—” he glances down at his parchment and he grins broadly. “Well, you were right! Patience pays off. I just heard back. All they wrote is Avoiding transfiguration homework. You?” he says. 

Hermione chuckles. “Sounds like you’ve got a scholar on your hands. If McGonagall hadn’t already told us we wouldn’t be matched with members of our own house, I’d think you were matched with Ron.” 

Neville grins at her, then grabs his quill and bends down over the parchment. Hermione takes this as a cue to do the same. She reads over her pal’s last message again, then begins to write. 

Dear bard, 

I wish I had your strength, but unfortunately, I’m not above the late night calling of a cream horn. It would seem that even legends are terribly human at times.

I’m also enjoying the secrecy, so there’s no need to stalk the halls late at night and try to uncover my identity, though you’d never manage to catch me even if you tried. But perhaps my favorite color will give you a clue. It’s green. But a specific green. A deep, dark, forest green. The kind of green you see when you look at the Forbidden Forest from afar—dark, mysterious, hypnotic, yet somehow tranquil at the same time. I love how alive it feels. Can a color feel alive? I think it can. There, bard, did that reveal my identity to you?

I want to know your favorite color, but I think it only fair I get to ask a question as well, don’t you? So here is yours—do you have a pet? Whether here or at home? You don’t have to specify where the pet is, if it even exists in the first place. 

Yours, 
Robin

Hermione taps the message and watches as the ink turns to gold. She sighs, stretches in the chair, and reaches into her bag for her forgotten Arithmancy textbook. 

“You were writing a while. You’ll have a novel done soon enough,” Neville says with a smile, standing from his own chair, leaving his Potions assignment behind, and heading toward the common room entrance. “Hungry?” he asks. 

Hermione shakes her head. “Not right now. Besides, I need to do my Arithmancy reading. I keep getting distracted. But that was a slightly longer message, so hopefully, I’ve bought myself some time.” 

Neville nods. “Best of luck. Hope you get your work done,” he says as the portrait opens. He gives her a quick wave and climbs out, and the portrait swings shut behind him. 

Hermione settles into the chair with her textbook, and is about ten pages in when the portrait swings open once again, and the members of the Gryffindor quidditch team come into view, laughing raucously and trailing mud in behind them. Ron catches sight of Hermione and gives a little wave before heading toward the boy’s dormitory, presumably to shower. The rest of the team, save for Ginny and Harry, head toward their rooms, their voices growing fainter as they disappear from sight.

Ginny drops down next to Hermione heavily, sweat still glistening on her brow. “So? Figure out your opening line?” Ginny asks, peering at the parchment beside Hermione to see if there’s anything written on it. When she sees the amount of text there, her eyes widen. 

“I did, as you can see,” Hermione says with a laugh. “The conversation has been quite natural. They seem lovely.” 

“Lucky you. Mine answered. Said they thought the program was a load of rubbish and they wouldn’t be participating, house points be damned. Just my luck to get a Slytherin,” Ginny says. 

“Could be a Ravenclaw,” Hermione says with a shrug, putting her Arithmancy textbook aside once again. “They seem like the sort to find this kind of thing unworthy of their time.” 

“Unworthy of whose time?” Harry asks, joining their conversation. He crouches beside the fire to warm his hands.

“Ravenclaws,” Ginny says. “I was telling Hermione about my parchment pal’s reply. She thinks it could’ve been a Ravenclaw.”

“Really? Seems like a Slytherin, through and through. But I suppose I should write to mine. My parchment is still blank. Might as well make the first move,” Harry says turning from the fire to flop onto the overstuffed, red couch in the center of the common room. “Right after I rest my eyes,” he adds, stretching out comfortably.

Ginny rolls her eyes fondly, watching Harry with a small smile, which makes Hermione shoot her a sly grin. Ginny notices, rolls her eyes, and stands. 

“I’m going to shower. I’m covered in muck. Someone thought it’d be a good training exercise to douse the field in water and stimulate rainy day conditions,” Ginny says.

“Always good to be prepared,” Harry says from the couch, his eyes closed but a small smile playing on his face.

Be prepared. For rain. We’re in bloody Scotland, and Harry wants to make sure we’re prepared for rain,” Ginny grumbles, grabbing her bag from the floor and swinging it over her shoulder. “When I’m done, I'll meet you lot for dinner in the Great Hall, yeah? I want to hear all about your parchment pal. Practically written an essay to them so far, so you better have something interesting to share,” she says.

“Dinner sounds lovely. As long as I get my Arithmancy done, that is.” 

Ginny nods. “Get on with it, then. I don’t want to eat alone.”

“I could come with you,” Harry says from the couch.

“You could, but who knows? You’d probably decide it’s best to always be prepared,” Ginny says, mimicking Harry’s voice, “and flood the entire Great Hall. Never know when you’ll have to eat in a storm,” she adds, dropping her voice again.

“It was a good learning experience!”

“It would’ve been if we didn’t live in bloody Scotland,” Ginny says. Harry grumbles, but doesn’t reply. Ginny grins at Hermione, mouths ridiculous, then heads toward the stairs. Hermione turns to her book with a smile, but decides to check her parchment before she starts. Just in case. She’s sure there won’t be a new message. Her message was fairly long, and her parchment pal probably has things to do, they can’t possibly have already—

There’s a new message, and it’s by far the longest one yet. Hermione’s eyes widen, and she wonders how on earth her parchment pal managed to write so much so quickly, but she decides not to question it. She’s just glad they did, so she has more to enjoy. She settles back, nestled into the chair, and with the fireplace crackling and popping in the background, she begins to read. 

Dear Robin, 

A deep, dark, forest green. I expected nothing less from the noble Robin Hood. After all, the forest is where he makes his home. Something tells me he’d agree with your description, which by the way, was lovely. For a student at a school that decided rudimentary skills weren’t worth teaching past the age of eleven, you have a happy way with words. Sometimes I think it a wonder that we’re not all woefully illiterate.

Your identity remains a secret to me, at least for the time being. Surprisingly, your favorite color wasn’t enough to crack the case (though if I were to be collecting clues, it might give me a hint as to what house you’re in . . .?) 

(Hermione, ever the proud Gryffindor, crinkles her nose in distaste at the implication, but notes that her pal must not be a Slytherin if they think she could be one.)

As for my favorite color . . . normally, I wouldn’t admit to this, as I have somewhat of a reputation to uphold amongst my circle, but for you, Robin, I’ll tell the truth: my favorite color is dusty rose. You know those brief moments, just after the sun has set, when the world is illuminated in pinks and purples? That’s the color. Sometimes I find myself staring at the sky during twilight, lost in my own thoughts (none of which are befitting of the performance the sky puts on, I assure you). I suppose if any of my friends were to ask, I’d answer blue, or green, or black. But here I am, my soul laid bare to you on a scrap of parchment. I trust you to keep my secret.

As for your question, yes. I have a pet. A fat, lazy, menace to society. He’s a six-year-old cat who’s absolutely awful—a listless, tetchy, pugnacious brat, and I love him desperately. I’d give my life for this beast, though he has no qualms about using my shoes as a cat box. If there was ever irrefutable proof that love doesn’t make an ounce of sense, it’s currently purring contentedly at the foot of my bed. Do you have a pet? I sincerely hope if you do, it’s more appreciative of you than mine is of me. 

I hate to make this even longer, as I’m sure you have better things to do with your night than read an essay, but here is my question for you— what’s your least favorite subject? And you aren’t allowed to pick History of Magic, as that’s everyone’s least favorite subject. So let me rephrase: what’s your second least favorite subject?

Please don’t feel the need to reply tonight. I realize I’ve written a fair amount. Once I start, it seems I can’t stop. The life of a bard, I suppose—there are always words at hand. I hope you don’t mind.

Yours, ramblingly, 
Bard

“Are you smiling at your homework?”

Hermione looks up to find Harry, sitting up and watching her with a small, confused smile. “I mean, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Not exactly out of the ordinary for you, is it?”

“What? I’ve never smiled at my homework,” Hermione says. 

“Yeah, you have,” Ron says, walking into the room, his hair damp and tousled. “You do it all the time, actually. Did you not know that?” 

“I...” Hermione trails off, and thinks of a particularly fun Ancient Runes essay she was working on a few nights ago. She flushes and says, “Well, maybe I do, but I enjoy learning!” 

Ron snorts. “Barmy, she is. Positively barmy. But I’m positively starving. Dinner?” 

“Please,” Harry says. “Hermione? You almost done with your Arithmancy?” 

She glances down at the parchment in front of her. She desperately wants to write more, but just as she’s coming up with an excuse to stay behind, her stomach emits a long, low rumble. She winces in embarrassment. “I can always come back to it later,” she says.

The boys start toward the portrait, but Hermione doesn’t feel right leaving her parchment pal without a reply. “Just give me one moment,” she says, and leans down to write out a quick reply. The boys shrug and start talking about something that happened during their quidditch practice, as Hermione’s hand flies across the page.

Dear bard,

The length of your messages doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, the longer they are, the more delighted I am to read them. If you really want to know the truth, I could hardly contain my smile while I read your most recent message, and I was viciously mocked by my housemates because of it.

Though I desperately want to ignore the real world and reply to you straight away, unfortunately, duty calls. But rest assured, I’ll respond in full soon. I hope it will be worth the wait when I do. 

Until tonight, then.

Yours,
Robin

“Right! That’s me sorted. Ready?” Hermione asks, straightening up and putting her parchment in her bag. 

“I could eat Hagrid right now. That’s how hungry I am,” Ron says. 

Hermione rolls her eyes, but follows them through the portrait. She tries to keep her mind on the conversation at hand as they walk to the Great Hall, but she finds herself thinking back on her parchment pal’s message, looking around the hallways to see if any of the passing student might be her mysterious pen pal. Their most recent message was Hermione’s favorite yet. From their favorite color, to the way they spoke of their cat, Hermione found herself utterly entranced the entire time. 

“Hermione?” 

She jumps a bit, and finds both boys peering at her. They’re almost at the Great Hall, and she’s barely registered any of the walk. 

“Sorry,” she says. “My mind was somewhere else. What did you say?” 

“I asked if you’ve made contact with your parchment pal,” Ron says, raising an eyebrow at her. 

“Oh. Yes, I have.”

“And? What have you said?”

Hermione frowns, suddenly a bit unwilling to divulge too much information. It’s not that she doesn’t want to share, per se. She does. She wants to tell both of them about how thoroughly interesting her parchment pal is, and how she’s desperately wishing she had replied to them before she left. But there’s something delicious about being the only one to know about the wonderful person on the other end of her parchment. She doesn’t want the boys asking her to relay every message, to try and collect as may pieces of information as they can, or to sit through Ron’s attempts at sleuthing out her pal’s identity, as she knows he’d attempt to do. She wants this person to be just hers. Hers and hers alone. To talk to, to confide in, to learn inside and out. It feels slightly ludicrous, to already feel a connection with someone she’s only sent a handful of messages to, but she can’t stop the feeling that this person is something special. And so for now, she’ll be selfish. Why not? She deserves a little something, just for her. 

“Oh, not much,” she says with a shrug. “Mostly about the assignment, and whether or not we’re both keen on participating. It seems they’re interested, though I doubt we’ll be exchanging messages with any frequency. And you? Have you heard from yours?” 

Ron nods. “I asked if they like Wizard’s Chess. They do, so we started up a game. We’ve just been sending moves back and forth. Pretty sure I’m going to win, though,” he adds with a grin. 

Hermione smiles fondly at him as they arrive at the Great Hall. They walk toward their usual seats, and Hermione glances toward the Slytherin table. Greengrass, Bulstrode, and Nott are there, but there’s no Malfoy, no Crabbe, no Goyle, and blessedly, no bloody Pansy Parkinson. She’s glad. She doesn’t want a repeat of lunch. 

They take their seats, and Ron and Harry immediately begin shoveling food into their mouths. Hermione grimaces at the display, sets her bag down beside her, and takes a reasonable portion of steak and kidney pie. But before she starts eating, she glances at the parchment, visible in her bag.

There’s a new, silver message.

She lifts the corner of the parchment out of the bag so she can make out the message without arousing the boy’s suspicion, but they’re not paying attention anyway, too lost in their own plates. 

Robin, 

Something tells me you’ll always be worth the wait. 

Until tonight. 
—Your bard

Hermione flushes at the message, and a warmth spreads through her. 

Yes. This person is definitely someone special.

***