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a red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground

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It's been six hours since Hermione replied to her parchment pal.

Well, six hours and twenty-seven minutes, but who’s keeping track?

(She is. She’s keeping track.)

Conversation flows relaxed and easy throughout the Gryffindor common room, but Hermione is decidedly neither of those things. She’s sitting stiffly on a squashy, red couch, her chin resting on her knees and her eyes trained on her parchment.

Harry and Ginny are seated beside each other on a neighboring couch, shoulder to shoulder. They made their relationship official three weeks ago to both Hermione’s delight and Ron’s immense discomfort. But Harry and Ginny have so far been careful to avoid anything that might alienate Ron. They studiously avoid displays of affection, they wait until he’s out of the room to discuss dates, and they’ve made it clear that their relationship won’t get in the way of their friendships. Little by little, Ron is warming to the idea of his best mate dating his sister, and while he still eyes them with wariness from time to time, he’s more or less settled into the new dynamic. Which is why he’s currently sprawled out comfortably on the floor in front of the fireplace, propped up on an elbow as he recounts the story of a long-ago Christmas mishap to the three of them.

Harry laughs loudly at something Ron’s said, startling Hermione out of the broody silence she’s been stewing in for the past few minutes. With considerable effort, she manages to drag her eyes away from her parchment and back to Ron, who’s grinning broadly.

“Every last one of them!” Ron is saying, his eye shining as he regales them with one of Fred and George’s long ago exploits. “To this day, we don’t even know how they managed to do it. Nine-years-old, and they managed to buy twelve Stink Pellets! Where did they get the money?”

“My question is how’d they manage to get them into the Christmas crackers without anyone noticing they’d been tampered with?” Harry asks.

No one knows,” Ron says, his voice reverent. “I’ve asked them, but they refuse to tell me. Say they can’t give away the tricks of the trade, whatever that means.”

“It means they’re planning to sell them in their shop so they can profit off other wankers torturing their families on Christmas,” Ginny puts in with a fond eye roll.

“Sounds about right,” Harry says. “Speaking of…how’d your Mum react?”

“Oh, you know Mum. She’s nothing if not cool and collected,” Ron says, with a sly smile.

“She marched into the living room and cast Bombarda on every single one of their presents,” Ginny says, grinning at the memory. “All that was left was a little smoldering pile of ash under the tree where their gifts had been. Dad was livid. Said they weren’t made of money, so why couldn’t they just return the gifts, rather than destroy them?”

“Mum said it was the principle of the thing,” Ron says. “But Fred and George couldn’t have cared less—the whole house smelled of Stink Pellets for a week, and that was the only Christmas gift they needed.”

Harry laughs, and Hermione makes an effort to smile and look engaged, but her traitorous eyes stray once more to her parchment.

It’s still blank.

Restlessly, she taps a finger against the arm of the couch, tuning out from the conversation once more. She’s starting to feel somewhat desperate, which is honestly ridiculous, and she knows it. She lost any right she had to be impatient when it took her two days to answer her parchment pal’s message.

Heat that has nothing to do with the crackling fireplace in front of her crawls up the back of Hermione’s neck as she remembers the distressed messages she had received.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Robin. I truly never meant to hurt you. Please say something. Anything.

I miss you.

And God, had Hermione missed them, too. Desperately. Two days without their voice in her life had felt like an eternity.

But she hadn’t missed them at first. After she had read the initial message, she had been upset. Upset and humiliated and confused that the person she had trusted so deeply could have been leading her on in such a spectacular manner. Even after a night of sleep and a re-read or two (or three, or four, or five…) of the message, Hermione had remained unreasonably bothered. She had spent an entire day brooding and snapping at anyone who asked her what was wrong, and every little thing had set her off. When she saw Neville writing a message to his parchment pal at breakfast, her glare had been so intense that Ginny had to nudge her and mutter Neville’s our friend, remember? When Harry had noticed her lack of interest in her parchment and asked why she wasn’t spending time with her boyfriend, she had gone on a lengthy rant about the dangers of assumptions. And when her rant was finished and Ron had muttered must be her monthlies to Harry under his breath, she had scrambled to find her wand to teach Ron that there were repercussions to tone-deaf and sexist remarks.

By the next evening though, Hermione had cooled off significantly and had finally taken the time to think logically about the situation. And when she was done, she realized what an absolute fool she had been. Worse than that, she had been cruel. Her parchment pal had been enormously brave, and she had responded with icy silence. Had she witnessed anyone treating another person that way, she would have been absolutely furious and leapt to their defense. But in this case, there was no one to be furious with but herself.

So she was. Furious and ashamed. And that shame had fueled her to finally reach for her quill and start penning a long overdue message. It had taken her ages to figure out what she wanted to say. And once she had finally found her rhythm, she had been interrupted by Parkinson, sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. But by the time she had finally sent her reply during her free period after Potions, she was more or less content with how she had handled the situation. More than anything, she had hoped her parchment pal would be sympathetic as to why it had taken her so long to reply. And even though her parchment is still blank, she’s still somewhat optimistic that they’ll be understanding.

That she’ll be understanding, Hermione thinks, hastily correcting herself.

It’s an odd switch to make, considering that she’s spent the past month absolutely convinced the voice on the other end of her parchment belonged to a man. And not just any man—the man of her dreams.

Which is of course another reason why Hermione had been so taken aback by the message. Because for the first time in her life, she had had actual feelings for someone. They had started slow, but over the past month, they had blossomed into something she had never expected, creeping into her carefully guarded heart like wild growing ivy. And once the feelings had taken root, all logic had flown out the window. Gone were the days of second-guessing herself over whether or not it was wise to have feelings for a voice on a scrap of parchment. Instead, she had welcomed the feelings with open arms. And truth be told, she had never been happier. She’d catch herself humming on her nightly patrols, beaming at students who were out past their curfew before remembering she was supposed to be enforcing said curfew; she’d recall a joke her pal had made and find herself grinning at her dinner plate like a fool, while Harry and Ron had looked on with matching frowns; she’d think about her parchment pal first thing in the morning, when she was still heavy with sleep, and last thing at night, when her thoughts turned soft and dreamy.

So to have the entire fantasy turned upside down with the stroke of a quill…

It had been…confusing, to say the least. And was still confusing, if she’s being honest. Because as much as she wants to deny it, the feelings are still there, lurking deep down inside her. But she knows that there’s a logical explanation for that. After all, it’s not the sort of thing you can just turn off and be done with, like a light switch. Feelings that strong don’t happen every day, so naturally, it’ll take time for her to recalibrate and adjust to the new dynamic between the two of them. That’s all it is.

…Right?

Hermione’s knee bounces restlessly as she thinks about it, the same question ringing in her mind that’s been there for the past two days—should the feelings have gone away immediately? Is it strange that they hadn’t? And if they hadn’t, could that mean…

“Hermione? Are you alright?”

Hermione lifts her head quickly to find three sets of eyes, watching her curiously.

God, she hopes her cheeks aren’t as red as they feel.

“Yes, sorry. Just a bit distracted,” she says, repositioning herself on the couch and wincing as she straightens out her legs. “You were saying something about Christmas crackers?”

Harry and Ron exchange a look, and Hermione knows she’s been caught out. “Yeah, like…three minutes ago,” Ron says, raising an eyebrow. “A bit distracted?”

“Perhaps more than a bit,” Hermione admits quietly. Her eyes tick down to her parchment, and when she glances up again, Ron’s rolling his eyes.

“Ah. Still obsessed with that thing, then?” he asks, having clocked her glance. His voice is gruff and the tips of his ears are turning pink, and Hermione sighs, readying herself for the conversation to come.

Over the past few weeks, Ron’s grown to despise Hermione’s parchment pal. It hadn’t started out that way—he had been interested in them at the start of the experiment. He had asked questions and had seemed eager to figure out who Hermione was talking to. But the more invested Hermione had become, the more annoyed Ron had grown. Snide remarks became the norm, and now, it’s reached the point where anytime Hermione so much as brings out the parchment in his presence, he turns surly and petulant. It’s why she generally tries to answer their messages (her messages, she corrects) in private. But right now, she’s so on edge and so worried that she’s botched everything that she doesn’t particularly care. If Ron wants to be upset, she’ll manage.

Tonight, the parchment is staying in her eyesight.

“I’m not obsessed,” Hermione says. “And I’m sorry. I am listening, it’s just…I’m waiting for a reply to something.”

“Aren’t you always?” Ron grumbles, picking at a loose thread on his jumper with a scowl.

Harry gives Hermione a little wince, like he’s apologizing for Ron’s outburst. “Anything interesting?” he asks, keeping his tone light.

Hermione fidgets a bit under his gaze, but manages a shrug. “No, not really. I just…I asked them something…something rather delicate, I suppose.”

“Ooh,” Ginny says leaning forward, her eyes flashing with interest. “Hermione Jean Granger. You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” Hermione asks with a puzzled frown.

“You finally told him you’re interested?” Ginny asks.

Almost immediately, Ron makes a strangled, violent sound, somewhere between a cough and a yelp.

Ginny rolls her eyes at him. “Alright then, Ron?” she asks dryly, raising an unamused eyebrow as Ron devolves into a small coughing fit.

Once he finally gets a hold of himself, he glares back at Ginny. “Don’t encourage this,” he says, his face flushed. “You don’t know who’s on the other side of that paper. It could be anybody,” he stresses, his eyes narrowing as if he’s considering every single suspect on the long list of dodgy people Hermione could be talking to.

“Honestly, Ron. She’s talking to a Hogwarts student. You’re acting like we’re all penpals with nutters in Azkaban,” Ginny says.

“It could be a future Azkaban nutter, for all you know! And in case you’ve forgotten, Quirrell was a professor. Just because it seems like it’s on the up and up, doesn’t mean it is, and I think we’d all do well to remember that.”

“Please. You’re just being paranoid,” Ginny says.

“I’m not! Harry agrees with me. Don’t you?” Ron asks, turning his gaze swiftly and expectantly to Harry, who seems to shrink back against the couch cushions.

“Oh, does he?” Ginny asks, turning her head to study Harry, who somehow manages to press himself even further into the couch, as if he’s hoping it will take pity on him and swallow him whole. His gaze darts between them and he looks a bit like a trapped mouse caught between two predators. Finally, he glances at Hermione with panic in his eyes, and she sighs heavily, deciding to save him from his predicament.

“It doesn’t matter what Harry thinks, and to be frank, it doesn’t matter what you think either,” she says, gazing sharply at Ron, who seems to wilt under her stare. “You seem to have forgotten that I’m my own person, and I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“I haven’t forgotten. I know all that,” Ron replies earnestly. “I’m just trying to protect you.”

“Oh, spare me. What is this, the Dark Ages?” Ginny asks. “Women don’t need protecting.”

“That’s not what I mean! You’re purposefully twisting my words. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact she’s a girl. I’d look out for Harry in the same way,” Ron says. “It’s just dangerous is all. You don’t know who you’re talking to. Like what if…what if you’re spilling all your deepest, darkest secrets to Malfoy?” Ron asks, looking at Hermione somewhat desperately.

Harry scoffs and shakes his head. “Impossible. Hermione’s got better taste than that. She’d know if she was talking to a Slytherin wanker.”

“Mm. Besides, Malfoy would only talk about himself. Or his father,” Ginny says, dropping her voice to imitate Draco. “He couldn’t manage an actual conversation, even if you paid him.”

“That’s not the point,” Ron says, rubbing the back of his neck in frustration. “Even if it’s not Malfoy, it could still be anybody. And you’re giving them a whole arsenal of information to use against you.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure they’ll be able to do irreparable damage, now that they know I like sticky toffee pudding,” Hermione says, rolling her eyes. When Ron continues to desperately stare at her though, she sighs. “Honestly, you’re getting yourself worked up over nothing. I haven’t told them anything that could be used against me. And I know more about them than they know about me, if that makes you feel any better.”

Ron grumbles something that sounds like it doesn’t, but Hermione doesn’t care to ask him to repeat it. Before she can glance down at her parchment again though, Ginny says, “now then! If Ronald’s done with his little temper tantrum, can we get back to the matter at hand?” She leans forward and says, “did you tell him you’re interested?”

Heat prickles again on the back of Hermione’s neck, and she’s acutely aware that they’re all watching her—Harry and Ginny with interest, Ron with wariness. “No,” she says hesitantly, looking down and rubbing the fabric of the couch absently, all while refusing to make eye contact.

Ginny huffs in frustration. “Well, why not? You clearly are, and there’s no doubt he is,” she says, gesturing toward Hermione’s parchment. “You should tell him how you feel.”

Hermione feels the heat from her neck spread to her cheeks at the implication, but before she can reply, Ron mutters, “you know, just because you two are coupled up, doesn’t mean everybody has to be.”

“Obviously,” Ginny says, rolling her eyes. “And no one is saying otherwise. But the fact of the matter is, he makes her happy,” she says, gesturing toward Hermione’s parchment. “Which is a fat lot more than you’re doing right now with all your bloody paranoia.”

“I’m not being paranoid! I’m being a good friend,” Ron says, thrusting a hand through his hair in frustration. “Why is this so difficult for you to comprehend?”

“Oh, honestly,” Ginny says, anger flashing in her eyes. “You’re not being a good friend. A good friend wouldn’t keep harping on the same thing, even after Hermione’s said she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself. What you’re being is a judgmental prick.”

“I’m not—”

“And more than that,” Ginny says, refusing to let Ron get a word in edgewise. “You’re throwing yourself some ridiculous pity-party because you can’t stand that your friends have found people to be interested in and you haven’t. Honestly, just because Lavender saw sense and decided to stop letting you maul her every two seconds doesn’t mean you get to be a massive bellend.”

Ron turns bright red and glances at Hermione with apologetic eyes before turning his gaze back to Ginny. “I didn’t maul her, we were dating! And I’m not being a bellend,” he says hotly.

Ginny scoffs. “You were hardly dating, you were together for two weeks. And yes, you’re a bellend, and it’s annoying. Hermione’s happy, you twat. And you’re her friend, so you should be supporting her. Instead all you’ve done from day one is borrow trouble and try and put doubts in her head, which isn’t something an actual friend would do. So why don’t you do yourself a favor and stop? Try supporting her decisions, for once. Because she’s old enough to make them without you sticking you nose in and offering your unsolicited opinion. Is that understood?” she asks. Her eyes are narrowed and her head is tilted to the side, and in that moment, she both looks and sounds uncannily like her mum.

Ron turns beet red, perhaps cowed into silence by Ginny’s resemblance to their mum. Instead of continuing to argue his point, he simply shrugs and glares at the floor, seeming to give up the fight for now.

Hermione spares Ginny a small, grateful smile, which Ginny returns.

Frankly, Hermione’s still surprised that Ginny had been so quick to support her burgeoning relationship with her parchment pal. Because of all the people to want Hermione and Ron together, Ginny had always been the most vocal. But the past few weeks of Ron fooling around with Lavender, coupled with Hermione’s very obvious interest in her pal seem to have made Ginny reconsider her stance. Ever since, she’s been pushing Hermione to drop subtle hints that she’s interested in her pal, while simultaneously berating Ron for his appalling lack of taste.

(Ginny’s words, not Hermione’s.)

And while it’s become blindingly apparent to everyone that Ron is immensely jealous that his friends have romantic interests while he doesn’t, it’s even more apparent that Ginny has completely run out of patience and sympathy for him. It’s why she’s leapt to Hermione’s defense anytime she happens to be around when Ron starts to glower.

Hermione had asked her two weeks ago why she was so quick to berate her own brother, and Ginny had shrugged. “He missed his chance,” she had said, simply. “He could have asked you out, but he didn’t. So he doesn’t get to act like the world’s biggest arsehole about it when you have the audacity to be interested in someone who’s actually showing interest in you, too.”

“I thought your end goal was for me to be an official member of the family, though,” Hermione had said, tilting her head curiously.

Ginny had rolled her eyes fondly. “Don’t be daft. You already are. With or without Ronald.”

Hermione had been ridiculously touched, and ever since then, she’s been quick to show her appreciation whenever Ginny jumps into battle against Ron on her behalf.

“Right, then! Now that the big baby has settled down…” Ginny says, clapping her hands together and startling Hermione out of her memories. She glances up to find Ginny’s eyes on her, bright and expectant. “No more distractions. I want an answer. Did you tell him? What did he say?”

Hermione frowns and reaches for her long-forgotten mug on the table and takes a sip of her cold tea. It’s honestly revolting, but she needs to buy herself time while she ponders how to reply.

She is going to tell them. She’ll tell them everything, eventually. But right now, she doesn’t want to face the reactions she knows she’d get—wide, surprised eyes from Harry, disappointment from Ginny, and a palpable sense of relief from Ron. Considering she’s still grappling with her own feelings from the fallout, she doesn’t think she could handle theirs.

Swallowing the tea with a slight grimace, she shrugs. “It’s nothing like that.” She reaches for her wand and taps the tip to the bottom of her cup lightly, watching as tendrils of steam rise and curl from her now-hot tea. Lies fly through her mind as she takes another sip and tries to settle on a story that sounds believable, but not gossip-worthy. Finally, she decides on one. “I just asked if they’d like to meet in person,” she says, as nonchalantly as she can manage.

“You did?” Harry asks, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “That doesn’t sound like you. What happened to degrading the assignment is wrong and quite frankly, against the whole spirit of the thing?” he asks, his voice pitched up to mock hers.

“Right, or and besides, we don’t need to meet in person. We’re enjoying things as they are,” Ginny adds, settling against Harry with a grin

“Can’t forget doesn’t the secrecy give you a thrill? There’s something refreshing about communicating like this,” Ron adds, seeming to forget he’s sulking long enough to join the mockery.

Hermione glares at all of them. “Perhaps the reason I asked to meet in person is because I’m desperate for a friend who isn’t a complete tosser,” she grumbles.

Harry laughs. “Oh, come off it. Those were decent impressions. Uncanny, really.”

“Hardly,” Hermione says with a snort.

“Fine, fine. We’ll work on them,” Harry says with a grin. “But really, though,” he adds, leaning forward with interest. “You asked them to meet?”

Hermione’s hands tighten around her mug as she nods, hoping they can’t tell that she’s lying.

All things considered, it’s a believable enough lie. After all, it’s not as though people can’t meet their parchment pals in person before the three months are up. They’re just not supposed to. But like the other, smaller loopholes in the parchment’s concealment charms, this one had been discovered a few weeks ago and abused ever since. All students have to do is sprinkle a thinly veiled invitation to meet up throughout their message, all while avoiding specific days, times, and places, and they’re able to evade the parchment censors. It’s a massive oversight, but one the professor’s can’t seem to figure out how to fix without calling off the entire experiment. Eager students had jumped on the opportunity, and McGonagall had been forced to make a special announcement, strictly prohibiting parchment pals from meeting before the three month time period had elapsed. Anyone caught breaking that rule was automatically disqualified from their house’s tally.

The threat has only been semi-successful; Hermione’s only heard of a handful of people who have been caught and punished. But strangely enough, it seems as though most students are content to let this particular loophole alone. Most participants seem genuinely interested in the process and have made no attempts to meet their pals before the three month mark. Even Ron had shrugged and said what’s the hurry when Hermione had broached the subject with him.

And that’s certainly how Hermione feels about it. There was something magical about the entire process—no preconceived notions, no biases, no outside influences. Just her, her bard, and their messages.

So yes, while the opportunity is there, Hermione and her parchment pal have refused to take advantage of it.

But that doesn’t mean she can’t cling to it as a plausible story.

“Why do you want to meet? You’d risk house points for this person?” Ron asks, suspicious now that the amusement has worn away.

“I don’t know,” she says with a small shrug. “It was just an idea. I wanted to broach the subject and see how they felt about it. Two months is a long time to wait.”

“Little less than two months now, though,” Harry puts in.

“Yes, but still. And it doesn’t have to be immediate. I’d just rather meet them for the first time face-to-face, rather than see their name show up on my parchment. I don’t know why, but that feels a bit…anti-climactic, don’t you think?” Hermione asks, surprised to find a kernel of truth hidden in her lie. She hadn’t thought about it until now, but she’d much rather meet her parchment pal for the first time face-to-face.

“Not really,” Ron says. “You’ll find out one way or the other. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think you should be risking house points over this,” he adds, his tone vaguely supercilious. “What if we end up losing the House Cup, all because you had to meet this person two months early?”

“Oh, since when are you the purveyor of justice and righteousness?” Ginny says, tossing Ron a dirty look. “Hermione’s not stupid. She won’t get caught. And if we lose the House Cup, it won’t be because of her. It’ll be because you lost us sixty points when you decided to transfigure Malfoy’s bag into a massive bloody cockroach,” Ginny says, rolling her eyes when both Ron and Harry grin at the memory of Draco, scrambling to get the huge roach off of his back.

“If memory serves, you bought me a butterbeer for that,” Ron says, smirking at Ginny.

“All I’m saying is, the House Cup isn’t riding solely on Hermione’s shoulders, and it’s daft to act as though it is. So if she wants to meet him early, she should.” She turns to Hermione and glances at her parchment. “But he hasn’t replied yet?”

Hermione follows her gaze and almost spills her tea all over herself.

There, shining in silver ink, is a reply.

Immediately, she sets her mug aside and grabs at her parchment.

“Suppose that answers your question,” Harry says with a laugh.

“I just don’t understand how he sends one message, and suddenly the rest of us are completely inconsequ—”

Ron’s complaint fades into the background as Hermione tilts her body away from them. The sounds of the common room fade away as she starts to read.

Robin,

Your reply was more than I could have hoped for. Not many people would be understanding of what I’ve told you. That’s putting it mildly—most would go out of their way to be cruel. And yet, you didn’t. I had hoped you wouldn’t, of course, but I learned a long time ago never to trust people. Even those you’re closest to.

You certainly have an uncanny knack for surprising me. In every conceivable way, it would seem.

And I did tell you to take as much time as you needed, so I certainly can’t fault you for that. I understand why you needed to take two days—it’s not easy adjusting your views, is it? Especially not ones you’ve held onto so tightly.

If it’s any consolation, know that I’m struggling with the same thing right now.

That said, I find that I don’t want to stop talking to you, either. Even though things may be different or hard going forward. And I must confess, I may be a bit…stilted in the days to come. I suppose it comes with the territory when one is relearning how to interact with someone. But I’m happy to make the change, so from here on out, our messages will be strictly friendly. I’ll be on my very best behavior.

(Hermione tries not to focus on why that sentence makes her feel curiously disappointed.)

But that said, I’m afraid I have to end my note prematurely. I’d like to write more, but my cat has decided the most comfortable seat in our entire common room just so happens to be my hand. As you can imagine, it’s a bit awkward to write with just the one. Perhaps this is his way of telling me to take an early night—you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had. Do you ever reach the end of a particularly long day and feel as if you’ve aged thirty years, all at once? I’m afraid that’s my current lot in life. I have a feeling that I’ll wake up tomorrow and be greying, saddled with a dead-end job in the Ministry, and wearing horribly sensible shoes.

I hope you’ll still want to know me when you eventually see me for who I am.

(By which I mean, a middle aged, Ministry flunkey in dingy brown penny loafers.)

Enough about me, though. How was your day?

Your (suddenly ancient),
Bard

Hermione exhales slowly. The knot that’s been slowly tightening in her chest all day has loosened somewhat at her parchment pal’s familiar voice, but it’s not completely gone. Because there’s something about this message that reads differently, and it’s making her feel uneasy. There’s still the same, familiar dryness, and she hadn’t seemed upset by Hermione’s late reply…

Hermione frowns, skimming over the letter again. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but it almost feels…

Stilted, that was the word her parchment pal had used. It feels stilted. Perhaps it’s just the lack of flirtatious comments that’s throwing her off balance, but it almost feels like her parchment pal is trying to navigate a completely new relationship with her. Which is preposterous—they were friends before the messages had turned flirtatious. It stands to reason that they can make the switch back without any issues.

The strange pang of disappointment zings through Hermione once more at the thought, but she pushes it away. After all, there’s no reason for her to want to continue flirting, now that she knows her parchment pal is a woman. And any disappointment she may be feeling over the change…well, it was as her parchment pal had said: it’s not easy adjusting views.

Especially not ones that had taken over her mind and filled her heart to the brim.

“Well? What did he say?”

Hermione glances up to find Ginny watching her with interest. She takes a moment to both remember the lie she had fed to her friends, as well as to create a plausible conclusion to said lie. Slowly, she puts the parchment back down on the table and picks up her mug, gathering her thoughts. “I think we’re both eager to finally meet in person,” she says slowly, “but it would seem my parchment pal is more cautious about breaking the rules than I am. They requested we continue corresponding via letter for the time being.”

Ginny’s face falls, but Ron looks delighted. “Sounds like a sensible bloke,” he says, which is the first kind thing he’s said about Hermione’s parchment pal in weeks. He sits up straighter and grins. “D’you reckon it’s because he’s hideous and he just doesn’t want you to find out yet?”

“Honestly,” Ginny mutters, glaring at Ron.

“No, really! He’s probably squat and sweaty and covered in spots. Balding too, I’d bet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you,” Ron adds, giving Hermione something that resembles an encouraging smile. “If anyone can look past that and see the good inside, it’s you.”

“And what, you think you’re a prize?” Ginny asks sharply, glaring at Ron.

“I didn’t say that, I just said—”

Hermione tunes out the rest of their argument as she glances back toward her parchment, a small frown creasing her brow as she skims over the words. She doesn’t want things to be awkward between the two of them, but she’s worried she’s changed their dynamic for good. But there was no other option; she had to request the change. There was no way she could have continued flirting with her parchment pal, all the while knowing it was a woman on the other end. Just thinking back over some of their earlier messages makes something strange simmer deep down in her gut, and she shifts uncomfortably on the couch, hoping the unfamiliar sensation passes quickly. While she waits for it to pass, she takes a sip of tea and reassures herself for the hundredth time that she made the right choice. Because as hard as it was to tell her parchment pal they’d have to change the cadence of their messages, she couldn’t have kept flirting with a girl.

…Right?

“Hermione?”

Harry murmurs her name quietly, as to not draw any unnecessary attention. He’s scooted away from Ginny and is now seated on the far end of the couch. Ginny and Ron are none the wiser, still fiercely arguing with each other.

“Hm?” Hermione hums, keeping her voice low.

“Are you alright? You look a bit…flushed.”

Hermione absently raises a hand to her cheek, pressing it against the overheated skin. “Oh. I suppose I am. Probably just the tea,” she says, taking another sip.

Harry glances at her mug with a raised eyebrow. “Must be scalding,” he says, amused.

“It’s… ” Hermione trails off and glances at him. He’s watching her with a small smile and she knows he doesn’t believe for a minute that her lukewarm mug of tea is the reason for her flushed cheeks. “I’m fine,” she finally says. “Just…thinking about something, I suppose.”

“You seem to be doing that a lot more nowadays. Anything I could help shed some light on?”

Hermione starts to shake her head, but before she can, her eyes catch on Ginny, who’s jabbing a finger toward Ron in the middle of an impassioned speech. She watches for a moment, then looks back to Harry, whose eyes are still on her, open and attentive.

“How did you know?” she asks.

Harry frowns. “How did I know what?”

“Ginny,” Hermione says, turning her gaze back to Ginny who’s now openly mocking something Ron’s said. “How did you know that…that you had feelings for her?”

Harry follows her gaze and watches Ginny for a moment, his eyes softening. “Oh. I don’t know. I suppose I just…I just knew.” He glances back at Hermione with a wry look. “That’s not very helpful, is it?”

“No, not really,” Hermione says with a small smile.

Harry sighs and runs a hand through his hair, his eyes far away. “I guess…I thought about her. Every second of the day, it felt like. Something would happen and she’d be the first person I’d want to talk to about it. And even when I was in a foul mood, I still wanted to be around her. It was like…like I knew she’d make it better. I’d find excuses to talk about her, just so I could say her name. She was my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night. Sounds a bit obsessive, doesn’t it?” Harry asks, with a sheepish grin.

“No,” Hermione replies, vaguely aware that she sounds a bit breathless. “No, it doesn’t.”

If anything, it sounds horribly and achingly familiar.

Harry nods, and turns his gaze back to Ginny, who’s now off the couch and beside Ron, roughly shoving at his shoulder with her open hand. “She’d sit down next to me and I’d feel like I was on fire, anywhere her body touched mine. Even the slightest touch. It drove me insane. She crashed into me once after Quidditch practice. Practically landed on top of me. I don’t think I took a breath for a solid minute and a half. God knows how I didn’t pass out around her constantly,” Harry adds with a small chuckle. “I collected every fact I could about her. Even the stupid, little things that no one would need to know. I made excuses to talk to her. I’d find myself smiling just thinking about her. …It really sounds a bit obsessive,” Harry breaks off, shaking his head with wonder.

“It doesn’t,” Hermione says. “It sounds…it sounds perfect. And I’m so happy for you. You know that don’t you? You’re lucky. You’re both very lucky,” she adds, reaching toward Harry and squeezing his hand. He squeezes it back and gives her a small smile.

“For what it’s worth, I think you could be that lucky, too. The way I’ve seen you look at that parchment,” Harry says, nodding toward the paper with a small, secretive smile, “it’s the same way I catch myself looking at Ginny.”

Hermione abruptly lets go of Harry’s hand with a small frown. “I’m not sure it’s exactly the same…” she starts, but Harry cuts her off.

“Trust me. It is.” He leans closer to Hermione, his green eyes sincere and open. “Look, I know Ron and I have been worried about all this. And maybe we’ve been a bit overprotective. Well, Ron more so than me,” he says with a small grimace. “But more than anything, I just want you to be happy. And I’ve never seen you as taken by someone as you are by this bloke,” Harry says, smiling at Hermione encouragingly. “I mean, the sheer amount of times he’s managed to make you ignore an assignment in favor of talking to him?” He gives a low whistle and raises an eyebrow with mock-impression. “He must really be something special.”

Hermione manages a weak smile and hopes Harry doesn’t notice the discomfort swimming in her eyes. “I suppose so, but…”

Whatever she’s about to say is cut off by Ron, yelping from the floor. Hermione and Harry both glance over to find Ginny scrambling to sit on top of him with a face like thunder. She’s brandishing a pillow and is walloping him in the face with it, completely oblivious to the fact they’ve managed to draw the eye of everyone in the common room.

Harry frowns at the display before him. He watches it for a moment, then says, “I should probably…”

“Deal with that? Yes, you should,” Hermione agrees, watching as Ron gives a mighty bellow and manages to flip himself over to regain the upper hand to the cheers and shouts of Seamus and Dean, across the room. Harry shakes his head with a sigh, gets up, and kneels on the floor to break up their tussle. Once he’s gone, Hermione's eyes stray to her parchment again, and she can’t help the ache that fills her heart.

Everything Harry had said rang true. Every last thing. From thinking about them constantly, to collecting every fact she could, to smiling for absolutely no reason…

Hermione frowns. There was one thing that hadn’t rang true.

Harry had mentioned the physical side of things. And even though they’ve only corresponded via parchment, it’s something Hermione is confident wouldn’t be an issue. Certainly because she’s never experienced physical attraction toward a woman, but mostly because she’s never really experienced physical attraction period. It’s always been something she’s struggled with. It had seemed to come so naturally to her dorm mates as they sat up and gossiped about boys well into the night, but Hermione had never joined in. Instead, she had rolled her eyes behind whatever book her nose was buried in and had done her best to tune them out. But her own lack of interest had never bothered her; she had simply assumed her classmates were the bizarre outliers, burdened with an abundance of hormones that made them capable of having far too many feelings for far too many people.

But what if she was the outlier all along?

Her frown deepens as she thinks over her one and only brush with physical intimacy. She had gone through all the motions with Viktor and hoped that eventually, something would click into place and she’d finally understand what Lavender and Parvati were always giggling about. She’d feel the way she was supposed to feel. But by the end of the day, the only thing she’d felt when she was with Viktor was a desperate need to get away. Anytime he had come close to her, she’d immediately found a way to put space between their bodies. If she noticed his hand inching toward hers, she’d whisk hers away and use it to hastily fix her hair. The few times he’d tried to put an arm around her, she’d immediately thrown her own arms out in an absurd, comical yawn. And the one time he had tried to kiss her while sitting on the stone ledge of a fountain, in her haste to get away, she’d tumbled backward and landed with an inelegant splash in the water. He had sulked as he offered her his hand and pulled her out of the fountain, and she’d had to pretend she had seen a bee in order to spare his feelings.

Her face warms at the memory. At the time, she had written it all off as a simple matter of not being attracted to Viktor. And surely, that’s what it still is.

But what if it’s not?

The thought enters her mind unbidden, and she bounces her leg restlessly as she desperately casts through her mind for any time she’s felt some kind of physical attraction.

Her eyes fall on Ron, red in the face and speaking animatedly to Harry while gesturing at Ginny, and she cocks her head thoughtfully as she surveys him. He’s…nice looking, isn’t he? There’s certainly something about him—he has clever eyes and strong hands and full lips. She’s not embarrassed to admit she’s imagined those lips against hers once or twice. And each time it had left her feeling…fine.

Hermione huffs at herself impatiently. Because fine is an overstatement. Her imaginings had left her feeling absolutely nothing.

But that’s completely normal, she reassures herself. It just means that like Viktor, Ron isn’t the right one to be fantasizing about.

What she needs is someone that every girl seems to find universally attractive.

There’s Cormac McLaggen, but he’s a complete tosser, and the thought of his perpetually chapped lips anywhere near her own makes her want to gag.

She remembers Lavender had thought Oliver Wood dead gorgeous, but she had never quite understood the appeal. He had been too lanky, like a wooden puppet come to life.

Blaise Zabini is objectively very attractive, but she can’t very well fantasize about a Slytherin, can she?

Hermione’s mind goes blank and she almost scoffs at herself. How is it possible that she can’t come up with one bloody person at this school to think about snogging?

Perhaps you’re thinking about the wrong type of people…

The thought pushes its way to the forefront of her mind, and this time she does scoff. It’s absolutely mad. She’s never fancied a woman. She’s never even looked twice at a woman. Obviously, she can appreciate when a woman is pretty—she’d have to be blind to not notice Fleur, with her shining, silvery hair and captivating eyes. Or Cho, with her perfect skin and dazzling smile. Or even Tonks, who had made Hermione feel like a tongue tied mess more than once with her effortless confidence and self-assured manner. But it’s not because she’s attracted to any of them—it’s simply because she’s able to recognize when a person is attractive. And she certainly has never wanted any of those women to touch her.

The thought alone makes her cheeks burn and floods her stomach with the same vaguely uncomfortable, simmering heat she had felt before. But this time, the sensation isn’t unwelcome. Instead, it makes the tension riding on Hermione’s shoulders vanish, and she sighs in relief.

Well, then, there’s your answer, she thinks. If the feeling is any indication, it’s clear she’s uneasy with this train of thought, which means she absolutely made the right choice in calling things off with her parchment pal. Honestly, she doesn’t even know why she’s doubting it. She knows herself, and she knows that while this will be a strange adjustment to make, it’s the right one. And it’s one she knows she can do. After all, Hermione Granger is no stranger to facing down difficult situations.

So what if she had been just a little bit in love with her parchment pal?

She’ll get over it.

***

“Come on, Hermione. Just this once?”

Hermione shakes her head as she walks toward the Potions classroom, keeping her gaze trained straight ahead. Ron has been trying to persuade Harry and Hermione to skip class today and take full advantage of the most beautiful day they’ve seen all year, but his pleas are falling on deaf ears.

“You’re wasting your breath,” Hermione says flatly. “It wouldn’t matter if today was the only day of sunshine we get all year—I’ve never skipped a class, and I don’t plan on starting now.”

“It’s just one class!” Ron says, stepping ahead of Hermione quickly and walking backwards to maintain eye contact with her. “And you wouldn’t have to deal with Parkinson! Come on, doesn’t a whole day without her sound amazing?”

“It wouldn’t be a whole day without her. We’re both on Tuesday and Thursday night patrols,” Hermione says, rounding a corner on her way to the dungeons and getting in front of Ron once more.

“Yes, but not together!” Ron whines from behind her. “You could avoid her tonight, and you could avoid her today. What do you reckon, Harry? Fancy sitting outside and enjoying the sunshine?”

Hermione glances over her shoulder to find Ron gazing at Harry hopefully. Harry however, shakes his head ruefully. “I want to, but we don’t need Snape docking even more points from us than he already has. But if you want to skip, we can tell him you took sick at breakfast?” he offers.

Ron scoffs. “And what, I’d sit outside all by myself? No thanks.” He turns back to Hermione with desperation. “I just don’t understand. You of all people should want to skip, rather than be stuck with that cow for an hour.”

“Of course I’d like to skip,” Hermione says, lowering her voice as they approach the Potions’ doorway. “But I can’t take the easy route every time something difficult pops up.”

“Yes, but—”

"And we’re brewing Felix Felicis today. That’s a N.E.W.T.-level potion,” she adds, her tone turning serious. "Wouldn’t you like to get an O in Potions this time around? Not that there’s anything wrong with an E, mind you, but there’s room for improvement! And if you want to improve…”

“Which I don’t,” Ron mutters.

“Then you’ll come with us to Potions,” Hermione finishes brightly, ignoring Ron’s comment.

She turns from Ron and walks through the doorway, but immediately stops short and stares at her table. Pansy is already seated in front of the cauldron and Daphne is in Hermione’s seat beside her, whispering something urgently. Pansy looks tense and uncomfortable, and she shakes her head harshly at something Daphne’s said.

“What do you make of that? Reckon they’re up to something?” Ron asks, following Hermione’s gaze.

Hermione shrugs. They probably are, but she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. “Who knows?” she says, then squints toward the cauldron on their table. “I just hope Parkinson picked out the right cauldron for once. She knows I have a favorite, but she’s ignored it every time to spite me.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. A wise witch once told me that the cauldron doesn’t make the potioneer,” Harry says with a smirk.

Hermione rolls her eyes at the familiar words. “And I stand by it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a favorite. And I can’t tell if that’s…” She tilts her head as she studies the cauldron on the table, ignoring Harry and Ron as they make fun of her in the background. But before she can pass judgment on the cauldron, Pansy glances over her shoulder and catches sight of her.

Their eyes meet, and Pansy’s body visibly tenses. Her gaze tracks quickly over Hermione and comes back to rest on her eyes for a moment. They stare at each other for a beat, then suddenly, Pansy whips her head back around. Daphne must notice something is amiss, because she glances to the back of the room with confusion to see what’s spooked Pansy. When she notices Hermione, she smirks, gives a small wave, then turns back to Pansy, whose shoulders are practically level with her ears.

Bewildered, Hermione turns to ask if the boys had noticed the strange display. Before she can though, Neville arrives at the door, panting and red in the face.

“Am I late?” he asks, putting his hands on his knees and bending over to catch his breath. “I was tending to the Mandrakes and lost track of time,” he wheezes. “If I’m late one more time, it’s detention for me.”

“Snape isn’t here yet. You live to fight another day,” Harry says, patting Neville on the back.

“Thank goodness,” Neville says, straightening back out and putting his hands on top of his head, his chest still heaving. “Blimey, I don’t know how you two manage to stay in shape for Quidditch,” he says. “I feel like my heart might explode.”

“Not sure Pomfrey can fix that, mate,” Ron says.

“Best to play it safe and sit down, then,” Harry adds with a laugh, and starts forward toward his table. Ron and Neville follow, leaving Hermione, standing in the doorway, frowning at Pansy’s still-tense back.

“Hermione? You coming?” Harry asks, glancing over his shoulder.

Hermione tears her gaze away from Pansy and nods. She starts toward her table, eyeing Daphne and Pansy suspiciously. It’s been quite a while since Hermione was jinxed in the halls by a Slytherin, or was made the butt of some cruel, practical joke, and she has an uncomfortable sensation that today might be the day to change that.

When she arrives at her table, she drops her bag on the stone floor to announce her presence. Daphne turns to eye her with something akin to curiosity, and Pansy looks almost…afraid? Her face is slightly pale and her leg is bouncing restlessly.

Hermione’s eyes narrow as she glances between the two of them. Ron was right—they’re definitely up to something.

Maybe she should have skipped Potions, after all.

“Granger,” Daphne says, surveying her cooly. “You’re looking well.”

“Greengrass,” Hermione replies. She bends to pull her Potions book from her bag. “You trained your owl to land in my hair last year because it was practically the same as a nest,” she says, her tone measured. “You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

Daphne smirks. “Nashira still misses you, you know. She glances your way with such longing, every time she drops off a letter. It would seem that every nest pales in comparison to you, Granger.”

Hermione straightens up, her gaze hardening, and Daphne lifts her hands. “A compliment, I assure you. Nashira is accustomed to only the finest things in life.” She tilts her head and scrutinizes Hermione closely, letting her gaze slowly wander her entire frame. “But really. There’s something about you today…I don’t know what it is. Can’t seem to put my finger on it, though. Can you, Pans?” Daphne asks, turning to Pansy with wide, innocent eyes.

Hermione turns to Pansy and readies herself for whatever insult is about to fall from her lips, but surprisingly, Pansy doesn’t even spare a glance toward her. Instead, she glares at Daphne. “No. But perhaps you can try to put your finger on it from your own seat,” she murmurs, her green eyes flashing dangerously.

Hermione glances at Pansy, surprised by her dark tone. Because in all the years she’s known them, they’ve always been thick as thieves. So what could have happened to make Pansy react so vehemently to Daphne’s question?

Suddenly, Hermione remembers the commotion that had occurred yesterday at breakfast. She had missed most of it as it had happened, too distracted by her reply to her parchment pal, but she had been treated to a full reenactment from Ron on the way to Transfiguration. And it had been quite a decent reenactment, too—Ron had raised his voice and said “fuck you, Pansy,” with all the fervor of a stage actor. Unfortunately, he also had all the projection of one—McGonagall had overheard and immediately docked fifteen points from Gryffindor for spreading gossip and had refused to overturn it, even when Ron launched an impassioned defense that he had simply been keeping his fellow students abreast of the current news, as was his civic duty. For her part, Hermione had assumed Ron was blowing things out of proportion, simply to amuse her. But if the way Pansy is currently glaring daggers at Daphne is any indication, they might still be sore at each other.

Except Daphne doesn’t look angry at all. She looks…almost giddy, Hermione thinks, more puzzled than ever.

“Oh, you’re no fun. If you’d only look at her, you’d see there’s something different,” Daphne says, turning back to Hermione. “A sparkle in the eyes, perhaps? A flush on the cheeks…” Suddenly, Daphne’s mouth falls opens and her eyes shine. “Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were in love.”

Hermione frowns, completely taken aback. Of all the things she expected Daphne to say, this certainly wasn’t one of them. Why on earth would she think she’s in…

Oh.

Parkinson. Parkinson and her big mouth. She must have told Daphne about her long letters to her parchment pal, and now they’re both going to mock her mercilessly for it.

Hermione feels a fire flicker in her. It’s been an emotional few days, and she doesn’t have the patience for this.

She slams her book down on the table, slightly pleased when both Pansy and Daphne jump at the noise. “That’s what this is about? My parchment pal? God, you’re relentless,” Hermione says, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at Pansy. “I know it must drive you absolutely mad to see me happy, but let me assure you—if you think you’re going to make me feel embarrassed or guilty over this, you’re sorely mistaken. You can make fun of me all you like, but it won’t make a bit of difference to me. And you know what? If you were so bloody keen to talk about parchment pals all day, perhaps you should have made the effort to write to your own.”

“Mm, she’s got you there, Pans,” Daphne says, pulling a rueful face at Pansy.

Pansy glares at Daphne for a moment, then turns her eyes to meet Hermione’s gaze. She opens her mouth to reply, but before she can, Snape sweeps past their table.

“One would think that after a month it wouldn’t be difficult to remember who you’ve been partnered with,” he says as he walks. “That said, if you continue having issues Miss Greengrass, I’m happy to assist you with a wit-sharpening potion,” he finishes smoothly, turning to face Daphne as he reaches the front of the class.

Daphne’s cheeks turn pink and she huffs. Then she stands up primly and spares one more amused glance at Hermione. She turns to leave, but before she’s taken a step, she pauses, then leans toward Pansy and murmurs something in her ear. Something that sounds suspiciously like remember what we talked about.

Hermione stiffens.

So they are planning something.

She watches Daphne as she sits down beside Harry, then turns her attention back to Pansy.

“I don’t know what you’re planning, but if I see you make even one move…” she murmurs as she slips into her seat, taking care to both keep her voice low and to put as much space between her body and Pansy’s as she possibly can.

Pansy glances quickly at her, then immediately lowers her gaze back down at the table. “We’re not planning anything,” she whispers back, her voice curiously flat and her shoulders tensed.

Before Hermione can reply, Snape crosses in front of his desk and begins his lesson on Felix Felicis, effectively shutting down her line of questioning for the time being.

Hermione remains on edge throughout the lecture. When she raises her hand to answer a question and feels Pansy’s gaze on the side of her face, her other hand closes around her wand in her pocket, almost instinctively. An attack in the classroom would be brazen, but not out of the question, so she remains alert. But when the lecture comes to an end and Snape tells the Slytherins to gather ingredients, Pansy simply slips off her stool and heads toward the ingredient cupboard without a word.

Hermione watches with a small, suspicious frown as she disappears from view. She’s up to something. She doesn’t know what, but she’ll figure it out.

Slowly, she thumbs through her Potions book until she lands on Felix Felicis, skimming the steps, all the while waiting for Pansy to pounce.

A minute ticks by, and nothing happens.

Hermione re-reads the steps, wondering if she should also be keeping an eye on Daphne. Either one of them is liable to strike without warning.

Another minute, and still, nothing happens.

She reaches for her wand in her pocket and places it on the table. She feels safer, having it so close at hand.

One more minute gone.

Hermione glances up from her book to find Pansy, returning with the ingredients. She reaches their table and carefully places the jars and vials down, all while Hermione scrutinizes her face in silence. Pansy is purposefully avoiding her gaze, but there’s still a slight flush on her cheeks which is enough to further Hermione’s suspicions.

“Why did Daphne ask about my parchment pal?” she says quietly, noticing as Pansy’s hands hesitate for the briefest of moments.

“I don’t know.” Pansy says, placing down the last of the ingredients.

“You’re lying.”

Pansy exhales sharply. “I…may have mentioned something about it yesterday.” She glances at Hermione quickly, then looks back toward the vials. “It’s nothing nefarious, though. You were right—she just wanted to have a laugh at your expense. You can relax.”

“Oh, that’s rich. Do you tell mice to relax around cats, too?” Hermione asks coldly, lighting the fire underneath their cauldron. Once she’s adjusted the flame, she turns back to Pansy. “I know you’re up to something.”

“I’m not,” Pansy says, flipping her own book open to the recipe and trailing a perfectly manicured finger down the list of steps. The flush on her cheeks has spread down her neck and Hermione’s suspicions double at the sight.

“I heard what Daphne said.”

Pansy grows rigid and her finger pauses on the last step in the book. “Oh? And what do you think you heard?” she asks. Her tone is light, but she can’t disguise the undercurrent of tension running through the words.

“She said remember what we talked about. And right after all that nonsense about my parchment pal. I’m not daft. It’s all obviously connected, so…what is it? What’s your end game?”

Pansy’s body seems to relax as she reaches for a frozen, bright red Ashwinder egg and adds it to the cauldron with a small splash. “I already told you, there’s no end game.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Which is your prerogative,” Pansy says, opening a vial of horseradish and carefully measuring out the required four grams. Once she’s packed it down, she deposits it into the cauldron, then glances to Hermione quickly and somewhat expectantly.

Hermione immediately tenses under her gaze. Is this it? she wonders. Is Pansy about to strike? Her hand twitches toward her wand, but before she can reach for it in earnest, Pansy sighs. “You need to adjust the heat,” she says.

“…What?” Hermione asks.

Pansy sighs again, clearly realizing that Hermione isn’t focused on the task at hand. “The heat, Granger? You need to increase it.”

Hermione blinks a few times before glancing stupidly toward her open Potions book. Once she’s confirmed what Pansy’s said is true, she picks up her wand and adjusts the flame under the cauldron accordingly.

Once it’s done, Pansy gives a nod and turns away from the cauldron, reaching for a squill bulb and a press. Once the bulb is secure, she squeezes the handles of the press together and collects the juice in a clean, empty vial, which she then holds out toward Hermione without making eye contact.

Hermione doesn’t take the vial. Instead, she simply stares at it, long enough that Pansy has to turn to her to see what the hold up is.

“…Are you going to—”

“What are you doing?” Hermione asks, keeping her voice low.

Pansy glances down at the vial in her hand, then back up at Hermione. “I’m…passing you the squill bulb juice,” she says, slowly. “For the potion? You know…the one we’re supposed to be brewing?” she adds, the tiniest bit of irritation finally seeping into her tone.

“You’re up to something.”

Pansy places the vial down between them and exhales sharply. “I’m not. Merlin, Granger, what do I have to do to convince you? Let you use Legilimency on me?” She sounds annoyed, but as soon as the words leave her mouth, she glances at Hermione with a concerned frown. “You’re not a Legilimens, are you?”

“So you are hiding something,” Hermione says, almost triumphantly.

“Bloody hell…”

“Well, why else would you ask if I’m a Legilimens? And you’re acting bizarre. You haven’t even insulted me once today—”

“Merlin knows how…” Pansy mutters, picking up the glass vial of squill bulb juice and reaching past Hermione to deposit it into the cauldron.

“So I’ll ask you one more time—what are you planning?”

Pansy exhales sharply and glares at Hermione. “Currently? I’m planning to fail this potion, because my bloody partner is refusing to do her job. So you know what?”

Suddenly and without any warning, Pansy reaches for her wand. Hermione immediately scrambles for hers, but before she can close her fist around it, Pansy flicks her wrist.

Hermione’s eyes squeeze shut as she braces for the impact of whatever spell Pansy’s fired at her.

But nothing happens. No pain floods her body, all of her limbs feel intact. Hesitantly, she cracks open an eye to find a wooden spoon in their cauldron, enchanted to vigorously stir their potion. She glances at Pansy with a puzzled frown, but she’s already watching Hermione. Her eyebrow is arched and something that looks suspiciously like amusement dances around the corners of her mouth.

“And here I thought you were a competent dueler,” she says.

“I am,” Hermione replies defensively, as she watches Pansy turn away from her to begin chopping the anemone-like growth from the back of a Murtlap.

“Mm. Is that one of your signature moves, then? Closing your eyes and waiting to be hexed?” Pansy asks, this time with an actual smirk. “Shame I didn’t know about that back in our Dueling Club days. I might have had a better record.”

“I…what?” Hermione asks, completely confused.

Pansy sighs and puts down her knife. “I’m not going to hex you, Granger. And I’m not planning anything awful, so can you do us both a favor and just…relax? I’d rather not fail this potion. It’ll be on the N.E.W.T.s., you know.”

Hermione blinks at her. Of all the people to know the contents of the N.E.W.T.s., she would never have expected Pansy. “I know, but…”

“And I’ve already told you, I don’t make a habit of doing things that land me in detention. Do you honestly think I’m going to attack you in the middle of class?”

Hermione hesitates for just a moment, and Pansy’s eyes flash with something that almost looks like guilt. She turns away from Hermione and quietly says, “well. I suppose that’s only fair.” She pushes a brown glass bottle toward Hermione. “Tincture of thyme,” she says. “Three drops, then stir slowly.”

Hermione takes the bottle, unscrews the top, and squeezes three drops into their cauldron. Once it’s done, her eyes widen as she finally takes in what she’s neglected to notice up until now. “You picked my favorite cauldron,” she murmurs with surprise, running a finger gently over the rim.

“What?” Pansy asks, glancing toward her, an Occamy egg in her hand.

“Nothing, I just…” Hermione sighs and scrutinizes Pansy through narrowed eyes. “What’s wrong with you today?”

Pansy raises an eyebrow at the question. “Nothing? I’m perfectly fine.”

“You’re not. You’re acting bizarre.”

Pansy snorts. “Need I remind you that I’m not the one who marched in here like the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, hurling accusations left and right?” she asks without a trace of rancor.

“Like that!” Hermione says, taking hold of the wooden spoon and starting to stir. “That sentence, right there. Why did you say it like that?”

Pansy stares at her blankly. “Like what?”

“Like you don’t think I’m dragon dung, stuck to your shoe! You’re acting strange. And if you’re not up to something…”

“Merlin, you’re like a dog with a bone, aren’t you?” Pansy says, shaking her head.

“Oh, I’m sorry. You’ll have to forgive me for being suspicious. It’s not as if the past seven years of torment have led me to doubt your intentions,” Hermione says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “You’ve treated me horribly, day in and day out. So logically, you must have a reason for acting like this,” Hermione says, gesturing toward Pansy. Her eyes narrow. “You haven’t been Imperiused, have you?”

Pansy scoffs. “Don’t be daft.”

“Well if you haven’t been cursed, then that leads me back to my original conclusion—you’re planning something. Why else would you be treating me so…” Hermione trails off. She knows that kindly isn’t the right word, but she finds herself at a loss in regards to the best way to describe Pansy’s current mood. “So…so differently?” she finally settles on.

“You’re not going to drop this, are you?” Pansy mutters, her voice tight.

“I’m not.”

“Even at the risk of spoiling our potion?”

“There will be other potions,” Hermione replies evenly, all the while desperately hoping her eyelid doesn’t twitch at the statement. She’s never meant a sentence less in her life, but she can pretend that failing a second potion doesn’t bother her if it means getting to the bottom of this mystery.

Pansy squints at her, the reply seeming to take her by surprise. “Merlin, Granger. You’re sure you haven’t been Imperiused?”

“Stop deflecting,” Hermione says, refusing to break eye contact. “Tell me what you’re up to.”

Pansy sighs, frustrated. “I already told you, I’m—”

“You’ve called me Mudblood filth more times than I can count,” Hermione interrupts, her tone even and her eyes hard. “Called me pathetically inadequate. Insulted my looks, insulted my intelligence. You’ve implied that I only have friends because they want to use me. Worse than that, you’ve implied that I’m so desperate for love, I’d let someone use me in the worst possible way. And you’ve reminded me at every turn for the past seven years that I’m beneath you. But for some reason, today, you’re acting like we’re…what? Casual acquaintances? Not one insult, not one snide comment.” Hermione removes the spoon and taps the excess liquid off on the side of the cauldron, then turns to study Pansy. If she didn’t know any better, Hermione would almost think she looked ashamed at hearing her long list of insults rattled off with cold precision. Hermione sets the spoon down on a cloth beside the cauldron and says, “despite what you might think, I’m not stupid, Parkinson. I know you’re up to something, and I’m going to find out what, mark my words.”

“I…”

Pansy frowns and trails off. A muscle in her jaw works as her gaze flits around the room for a few moments, before finally landing on the back of Draco’s head. Her gaze seem to lock onto him, and a new, determined glint enters her eyes. She places the egg on the table and turns to Hermione. “Fine. You want to know what you overheard? Then fine. If it’ll get you to focus on the bloody potion, I’ll tell you. Merlin, if it makes you focus on the potion, I’d tell you how to break into our vault at Gringotts,” she adds. She glances around the room to make sure no one is listening. Hermione waits patiently.

“What you overheard…what Daphne said…it had nothing to do with you. It’s…I…”

Pansy takes a deep breath, then slowly exhales. “I’m…I’m breaking up with Draco,” she mutters. As soon as the words are out, her shoulders slump a bit, as if she’s released whatever long-held tension has been riding on them, and she glances at Hermione out of the corner of her eye. “Happy? Now you know. Nothing sinister at play, I’m just a bit…out of sorts over it, I suppose. And I don’t feel like picking a fight with you today, because I just…” she breaks off and shakes her head, looking tired. “I just don’t. All you overheard was Daphne giving me a pep talk. And as for your parchment pal…” Pansy trails off for a moment, then shrugs again. “Like I said, I discussed it with her yesterday. She was just…giving you a hard time, I suppose. She’s a twat, though. It’s in her nature. She’d do it to anyone, me included,” she adds.

With that, Pansy reaches for the egg again, cracks it open, and carefully deposits the contents into a waste bin before tossing the shells into a stone mortar. Her movements are fluid and casual, almost as if she hadn’t just revealed something massive to Hermione. The only sign that she’s divulged anything lies in her jaw, which is tightly clenched.

Hermione bites her lower lip as she watches Pansy grind the shells with vigor. She glances away from her and studies the table, lost in thought.

She knows what Pansy would do, if their situations were reversed—she’d gleefully mock Hermione for the rest of class, finding new and increasingly inventive ways to slip pointed, gouging insults into their standard Potions discussion. It would become something of a game for her: how far can she push before Hermione shatters into pieces? So knowing all of that, it’s positively absurd that Hermione is sitting here, feeling almost guilty for having forced the information out of Pansy.

No part of her should feel guilty. Not after Hermione herself had just listed out the long list of grievances she holds against Pansy. She despises her with a passion, so all things considered, she should be positively delighted that Pansy’s hurting. She should be reveling in it.

But she’s not. Had she just left well enough alone, Pansy wouldn’t have felt the need to confide her secrets to her worst enemy. And while Hermione knows that rationally, she should never feel guilty around Pansy Parkinson for any reason whatsoever, there’s still a little, niggling part of her, whispering at her to apologize. Because while someone like Pansy might take delight in mocking a person when they’re at their lowest point, that’s not who Hermione is. She’s not cruel. She’s better than that, and she was raised better than that. So with a small nod, she straightens her shoulders and makes up her mind to say two words she never thought she’d say to Pansy.

“…I’m sorry.”

“Why? It’s not your fault,” Pansy says without looking up from her task.

“No, but I shouldn’t have pushed you. Or jumped to conclusions. It wasn’t fair of me,” Hermione says, somewhat stiffly.

Pansy’s hand pauses for just a moment. She glances at Hermione and studies her face for a second, looking for any sign of mockery or derision. When she doesn’t find anything to make her doubt Hermione’s intentions, her jaw relaxes and she shrugs. “It’s for the best, really. He and I…we were never going to work.” With a final tap of the pestle to the mortar, she passes the ground eggshells to Hermione, who adds them to the potion, picks up the spoon, and resumes stirring.

“Why? Because he’s a massive bloody git?” Hermione mutters bitterly and without thinking. But once her brain catches up to her mouth and reminds her of who she’s talking to, her eyes grow wide. She looks to Pansy, certain that she’ll find fury in her eyes for defaming not just a pureblood, but her soon-to-be ex. But instead, Pansy’s regarding her almost wryly.

“He can be,” she agrees with a nod, reaching for the last vial on the table, a dark blue bottle of powdered, common rue. “But it’s not his fault,” she adds, studying the back of Draco’s head thoughtfully. “Not really.”

“Is that right? It’s not his fault that he’s a horrible, intolerant prick? Pray tell, then, whose fault is it? No, let me guess,” she says coldly. “It’s my fault, for having the audacity to be a Mudblood studying at Hogwarts.”

Pansy’s knuckles grow white against the glass bottle as she tightens her grip on it, and she shakes her head. “No. It’s not your fault. It’s…” she sighs. “He’s just the product of his raising. As are we all.”

Hermione snorts. “And what, you think that conveniently excuses yo…his behavior?” she asks, catching herself from saying your behavior at the last moment.

Pansy shakes her head. “No. No, it doesn’t excuse anything, but…” Pansy exhales heavily and opens the bottle of rue. “There are things people like you wouldn’t understand.”

“Mudbloods?” Hermione asks, the word coming out harsh and sharp.

Pansy hesitates, then slowly nods. “Yes. Things about pureblood families. Expectations. Sometimes, in our mad attempts to appease our family, we do things we might ordinarily not. Believe things we might ordinarily not,” she adds, quietly. She shakes a bit of the powdered rue into a silver spoon, levels it out, then places it on the table. “We’re all carefully taught from a young age how the world works,” she says, staring at the spoon, speaking quietly, as if she’s forgotten Hermione is there. “But it’s our parents’ idea of how the world works. They teach us that people who aren’t like us are horrible, wicked abominations. That they’re going to destroy our families. And when you’re a child, what else are you to do but believe them? And even if you don’t…even if you fight against those ideals, it’s…” she pauses and the muscle in her jaw jumps again. “It’s ill-advised,” she finishes.

Hermione gazes at her, stunned into silence. It’s certainly the most Pansy has ever said to her without an insult or two being slipped in, but that’s not why she feels as if someone’s cast a particularly strong Stupefy on her. No, Hermione is gobsmacked because if she didn’t know any better, she would almost think that Pansy was showing…remorse.

Which is ludicrous. She knows Pansy Parkinson. She’s never shown remorse for a single thing. She takes delight in stomping others beneath the heel of her expensive shoe, and she’s never shown any indication that she doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in pure-blood supremacy.

Or…had she?

Hermione thinks back to their detention over a month ago, and a moment that had stood out to her at the time as being strange. She remembers telling Pansy something along the lines of how Muggle borns couldn’t help the blood they were born with, and how those simple words had practically frozen Pansy in place. Her face had paled and when she had spit back some half-baked line about how pure-blood supremacy was never to be questioned, she had seemed…

Shaken, was what Hermione had thought at the time. And something else, too, but she had been too mad to think about it in depth. But now, she remembers the slight tremble in Pansy’s hand, and the haunted look in her eyes. Had she been…scared?

Hermione scrutinizes Pansy now. She’s gazing at her open book, her jaw clenched and her eyes guarded. But there’s also something different in her energy…something that seems almost vulnerable. And there had been something real and almost raw behind Pansy’s words.

A voice within Hermione urges her to fight against her natural instinct to be harsh, cruel, and antagonizing. She has a feeling this is the first time Pansy has ever voiced these particular thoughts to another person before, and she doesn’t want to immediately berate her, or deride her for coming to these conclusions far too late. While it could be a stupid miscalculation—there’s an excellent chance that Pansy’s just become an extraordinarily good actress and is baiting Hermione for her own twisted amusement—she decides to listen to her gut.

She dickers back and forth on how she wants to reply, all the while feeling like one of those bomb disposal people in Muggle movies, staring at a tangled mess of wires. If she snips the wrong one, everything might blow.

“I can understand that,” she finally says, reaching for the spoonful of rue and taking care to reply in a calm, measured way. “But at a certain point, he’s responsible for his own actions. Draco’s parents aren’t here. There are no expectations to live up to, but he still chooses to act the way he does.” She deposits the rue into the cauldron and watches as the potion turns a muddy yellow, then she begins to stir it vigorously. “Sympathy can only go so far, especially when faced with the reality of the world. Had y…had he,” Hermione says, correcting herself again, “decided to change his views at any time over the past few years…had he made even the slightest effort to show change or growth, then I’d be far more sympathetic to his upbringing and his home life. But at a certain point, that can’t be the thing he clings to to excuse his intolerance. I told you once before—my forgiveness is given to those who show genuine remorse. And much as I’d love to be proven wrong, based on every interaction we’ve ever had? I’m just not sure I can believe that’s the case with…with Draco,” she finishes awkwardly, again fighting the urge to say with you. She puts down the spoon, adjusts the flame beneath the cauldron once more, then looks toward Pansy, who very surprisingly, shrugs.

“You’re right,” she says.

Hermione raises her eyebrows. “I’m what?” she asks, mildly stunned.

“You’re right. Everything you said…it makes sense. But that doesn’t negate what I said. There are things you wouldn’t understand. And at a certain point, it’s easier to fall in line with a particular way of thinking if you know it will spare you from…from things you wouldn’t wish on anyone. Horrid things,” Pansy adds quietly, with a small wince. “But it’s a dangerous game—once you fall into that line of thinking, once you genuinely make yourself believe in it, it’s almost impossible to see outside of it. To admit that you might be wrong, or that all the people you’ve ever loved and trusted were wrong. When something is the cornerstone of your life, it’s…it’s not easy,” Pansy finishes, staring down at the table.

Hermione doesn’t reply. Instead, she puts down the wooden spoon, stares at Pansy’s profile, and lets herself fully comprehend the insanity of what’s currently happening.

She’s having a conversation. With Pansy Parkinson. And somehow, against all odds, it hasn’t devolved into a mess of insults and slander.

Hermione glances down at their cauldron, wondering if they’ve mistakenly brewed Essence of Insanity and the fumes are starting to get to her.

This is impossible. It’s absolutely mad. It’s…

“Why are you telling me this?” Hermione asks suddenly. “I mean, of all people…why me?”

Pansy frowns. “I…I…” She lifts her gaze and stares at Hermione. There’s a storm of emotions swirling in Pansy’s eyes that takes Hermione by surprise, but she can’t make heads or tails of it. Before she can try and work out what any of the emotions might be (pain? Longing? Anger? Fear?), Pansy blinks and shakes her head. “I don’t know. I guess…it’s like I said—I’m out of sorts. This whole ordeal…it’s been mad, and it’s made me a bit…” Pansy trails off and stares into the distance. Then all at once, she seems to return to herself. She shrugs, her guard up again. “Anyway. You asked what was wrong with me. I told you.” She glances at the cauldron. “The potion needs finishing,” she says, nodding toward it.

Hermione watches Pansy for a few seconds, then nods, deciding not to push her luck. She can think about whatever just happened between the two of them later. For now, she picks up her wand, waves it over the cauldron in a figure-eight pattern, and says Felixempra. The potion immediately begins to bubble and Pansy and Hermione watch closely. Once the bubbles clear, they can see that their potion is against all odds, perfect. It’s a thick, molten gold, and every now and then, tiny droplets rise from the surface and leap and sway, like dancing water.

“Huh. Not bad, Granger,” Pansy says, sounding genuinely impressed. “Perhaps even good enough to get us an O on the N.E.W.T.s. Had I known spilling all my sordid secrets was the key to a perfect potion, I’d have started long ago.”

Hermione raises an eyebrow at the remark. Once again, there’s that strange hint of dry amusement lurking in Pansy’s words. Which doesn’t stand to reason, because if there’s one thing she knows, it’s that Pansy hates her. And what’s more, she hates Pansy. That’s how it’s always been. They don’t have cordial conversations, and they certainly don’t joke with one another. So they’ve finally managed a civil conversation after seven years—that’s hardly something to be celebrated. And even if Hermione is right, and Pansy is finally putting some thought into her awful, intolerant views, it doesn’t mean she has to be nice to her.

But that said, Hermione isn’t in any hurry to disturb this very strange, very tenuous peace that’s somehow settled between them. And if by some miracle, she can get through the next few weeks of Potions without wanting to pull out her hair or hex Pansy into oblivion, then she can play along with whatever madness has descended upon their table. After all, it’s one less stress on her overflowing plate. So for the time being, she simply hums in agreement. “I believe you said something about the secrets to your Gringotts vault?” she asks innocently.

Pansy turns to her with surprise in her eyes. It’s clear Hermione’s comment has taken her off guard, but she seems to quickly find her footing. “I did. Maybe if we don’t botch the next one, I’ll let you in on the secret. But let’s just say, however you managed to keep Potter from getting killed in the first task of the Triwizard Tournament? It might come in handy,” she says, with the smallest hint of a smile. Then, as if she’s just realized she’s smiling at Hermione, she abruptly stands. “I’ll just…return all this,” she says, beginning to gather their unused materials.

“I’ll…I’ll bottle,” Hermione says, more baffled than ever. Both by the knowledge that an actual dragon is guarding the Parkinson’s vault in Gringotts, and that Pansy had actually told her about it.

Pansy finishes gathering their ingredients, but before she can leave, Hermione looks up swiftly. “Wait. How did you know I helped Harry with the first task?”

Pansy rolls her eyes. “You’re the only one of his friends with a brain, Granger. And Flitwick hadn’t taught us The Summoning Charm yet. I sincerely doubt Potter mastered it on his own, and you’re the only student in our year both clever enough and capable of teaching it to yourself, so…” she shrugs. “Simple deduction.” With that, she walks away, leaving Hermione to stare after her in stunned silence.

Was that…a compliment?

Hermione once again looks at their potion. It must be Essence of Insanity. Because if it’s not, then…

What the bloody hell is happening?

***
A week passes by quickly, and the following Tuesday, Hermione finds herself trudging into the Great Hall for dinner at a quarter to seven. Tuesdays are always exhausting—minus her free period post-Potions, she’s in back to back classes until six-thirty. Normally, she can make it to the Great Hall with plenty of time for dinner before her patrols at seven, but Ancient Runes had run long today. And while she’s usually delighted when classes run long, today, it’s just made her exhausted. It would seem that the stress of a busier than usual Spring semester, coupled with her less than stellar sleep schedule are finally taking a toll. She knows she told Ron that she’s never skipped anything in her life, but she’s seriously considering asking one of the prefects to cover her shift tonight so she can catch up on her long-neglected sleep.

Once she reaches the Gryffindor table, she sits down heavily beside Ginny and pulls a plate to her without so much as uttering a greeting.

“Well, hello to you, too,” Ginny says.

“Alright then, Hermione?” Neville asks with an amused smile.

“Sorry, just…exhausted,” she replies, putting a thick slice of roast beef on her plate, followed by a hefty spoonful of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. “And seriously considering making someone else take my patrols tonight,” she adds, pouring a ladle of thick, rich gravy over her plate.

As expected, Ron snorts. “Oh, now it’s okay to skip. But when I wanted to last week, it was unheard of. What happened to I couldn’t possibly take the easy way out just because something is difficult?” he asks, putting on a ridiculously posh accent to mimic her words.

“That was a week ago. And why is it you all seem to remember everything I’ve ever said, verbatim?” Hermione asks, cutting the roast beef on her plate with a small smirk. “Honestly, it’s like you’re all obsessed with me.” She takes a bite and says, “for the record, I’m not considering skipping because it’s difficult. It’s because I’m completely knackered.”

“Still not sleeping then?” Neville asks with a sympathetic wince.

Hermione shrugs, but before she can reply, Ginny jumps in. “Yes, but it’s not insomnia that’s keeping her awake…” She wiggles her eyebrows suggestively, and Hermione feels heat creep into her cheeks at the reference to her late night chats with her parchment pal. Hastily, she takes a sip of water to avoid replying.

She glances at Neville to find him staring at her, his fork hanging in midair with a forgotten roasted potato skewered on the end of it. There’s a small flush on his own cheeks and his eyes are strangely wide, but then he seems to snap out of whatever strange trance he’s in and he begins to nod furiously. “Right! Well! I mean…good for you, that’s…that’s really…I mean…” He glances at Ron uncomfortably, then back to Hermione. “So I suppose that would mean you two are…?” he asks, trailing off and raising his eyebrows.

Hermione frowns as she glances at a red-faced Ron, then back to Neville. “We’re what?” she asks, trying to understand what on earth Neville’s going on about, and why Harry is suddenly smirking at his plate.

“I mean…I just assumed, if you’re up at night…doing…doing…well…you know,” Neville says, his face turning bright red. “Who else could it be?”

Harry is now grinning broadly, and Ginny looks between Ron and Hermione slyly. “Why, you cheeky bastards,” she says. “Were you planning on telling us?”

Hermione’s frown deepens, as she glances around the table. Ron and Neville are now the same shade of red, but she doesn’t know why they’re both being so…

Oh.

Oh.

Honestly. What are you, twelve?” Hermione asks Ginny, crossly stabbing at another piece of roast beef. “That’s not what she meant,” she adds, glancing at Neville, who by now looks completely miserable. “She meant I’ve been staying up late to talk to my parchment pal, and you can stop laughing at any point now, thank you very much,” she adds, tossing a glare toward Harry across from her, who’s still trying to stifle his laughter.

“It’s not that funny,” Ron mutters, pushing a roasted carrot around his plate with a small, irritated frown.

“Sorry, it’s just…blimey, I’ve never met someone with such a knack for getting the wrong end of the stick,” Ginny says, grinning at Neville.

“Well, what else was I supposed to think? You did that…that thing with your eyebrows, and Hermione and Ron have always been…” he trails off and looks at Hermione desperately.

The implication makes her a bit uncomfortable, but she still manages a small shrug as reaches for a roll. “It was a perfectly valid assumption to make, given the delivery of the statement,” she says, cutting the roll open and smearing fresh, salted butter into the still-warm interior.

“It was?” Ron asks, glancing up at Hermione with a mixture of surprise and hope glimmering in his eyes. It’s clear this is excellent news to Ron, and Hermione feels a little flicker of anxiety race through her as she considers why he looks so optimistic. Before she can either confirm or deny anything, Neville clears his throat.

“So your parchment pal, then?” he asks, seeming desperate to steer the conversation to safer waters. “Still going strong?”

“Oh, more than strong. Last week she asked him to meet,” Ginny says, lowering her voice like it’s some big, dramatic secret. “Head over heels, she is,” she adds as she uses her roll to soak up the leftover gravy on her plate.

“I’m not—”

“Really? Blimey. What’d he say?” Neville asks, cutting Hermione off before she can protest what’s just been said.

“No,” Ron says, too quickly to be casual. “He said no, I mean,” he adds, quickly correcting his tone to something nonchalant as he cuts himself a thick slab of apple pie. “I reckon that means he’s trying to hide something, don’t you?”

Hermione glances down at her plate as Neville replies, hoping they don’t notice her blush. She could tell them right now what her parchment pal had actually been hiding and why she’d felt the need to concoct a story in the first place, but…

It’s a lot of people to tell at once, she reasons to herself. It’s just one in a long list of convenient excuses she’s been creating over the past few days, but she doesn’t let that deter her from clinging to it. After all, if she’s going to confess this, it’ll be to just Harry and Ron, or maybe just Ginny. Less people leads to less questions, and less confusion, too.

Questions about what? Why are you so hesitant? a voice in her head asks. It’s been popping up more often than usual as of late, always with some variation of the same questions.

She takes another bite of roast beef and chews it slowly, thinking over tonight’s question. It’s not that she’s hesitant, it’s just that…it’s just…

You’re afraid that if you tell them, they might think you’re gay, too?

Hermione stops chewing and frowns at the thought. How absurd. She’s not afraid of that, because it’s preposterous. They might make fun of her for the whole debacle, but they wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. And anyway, she’s not. She already figured that out days ago.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. She’s actually been pondering starting a new society to help her parchment pal navigate life at Hogwarts as a gay woman—she’s thinking of calling it Students of Hogwarts Against Gay Slander. She might even make buttons again, with a cute little abbreviation.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is, she shouldn’t be hesitating to tell anyone that her parchment pal is actually a woman. It has absolutely no bearing on her.

But even though it’s been well over a week, you still have feelings for…

It has no bearing on her, she repeats to herself firmly, stopping the pesky voice in her head in its tracks. No one will think she’s gay, and if they do, well…she’ll just set them straight.

…Pun not intended.

“It’s five minutes till seven,” Harry says, shaking Hermione from her thoughts.

“Sorry?” Hermione asks.

“Patrols?” Harry says, studying Hermione carefully as he rips off a piece from his roll and pops it into his mouth. “Maybe you should ask someone to swap. If you’re that tired, I mean.”

“Hannah will probably swap with you. She’s good about things like that,” Neville says, peering over Hermione’s shoulder toward the Hufflepuff table. “And she’s here right now, if you want to ask her. Or I could?” he adds, somewhat eagerly.

Hermione shakes her head as she quickly eats the last of her dinner. She eyes a piece of apple pie sadly, wishing she had had the time to enjoy it, then sighs. “No, I’ll manage. It’ll be a slow night, I’m sure. And God knows I’ll sleep well tonight if I’m exhausted,” she adds.

“Not if he writes to you,” Ginny says with a smirk as Ron glowers and taps his foot restlessly.

Hermione rolls her eyes as she finishes the water in her goblet. “At least I won’t have to put up with your gossiping on patrols,” she says as she gathers her things from the floor.

“Please. You love it,” Ginny says.

Hermione scoffs, then stands up. “Right, then. That’s me off. See you two later,” she says to Ginny and Neville. “And as for you two,” she says to Ron and Harry, “remember your Transfiguration essay is due tomorrow.” They both stare up at her blankly, and she sighs. “Principles of Re-Materialisation? Honestly, how you two manage to scrap by year after year…” she says, shaking her head with an amused smile. Then, with a small wave, she starts off toward the main doors.

She’s just outside of the Great Hall when she hears hurried footsteps behind her.

“Hermione!”

Hermione turns to find Ron, panting a bit and looking nervous.

“What is it? Did I forget something?” Hermione asks, frowning as she checks to make sure her wand in her pocket.

“No, I…I…” he bites his lower lip and gazes at the floor, and Hermione watches with concern as his face turns red.

“Are you alright?” she asks, watching as the flush spreads down his neck.

“Yes? I think so, I…” he pauses and shifts restlessly from foot to foot. “I was just thinking…I mean, not just thinking. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, actually…I just didn’t know how to…” he breaks off and rubs at his neck.

Hermione tries to wait patiently, but when Ron doesn’t continue speaking, she gently says, “patrols are starting, Ron, can we…”

“Right. Right, sorry. I just…”

He takes a deep breath and gives the tiniest nod, like he’s working up the nerve for something. When he looks back up at her, his gaze is determined.

“What are you doing? This weekend, I mean.”

Hermione’s sure the surprise is evident on her face, because Ron immediately says, “if you have plans, that’s okay. I mean, you probably do, and I wouldn't want you to change them, but…if you don’t have plans…would you maybe want to…”

Something twists uncomfortably in Hermione’s stomach. She knows what the next words out of Ron’s mouth are going to be, and she knows that the thought of saying yes is already filling her with more anxiety than she could have imagined.

“Would you want to go to Hogsmeade? Just the two of us,” he adds quickly. “We could go to Madam Puddifoot’s, if you like? Or…or…Tomes and Scrolls? If you’d want to look for a book?”

He’s gazing at her with so much hope, and she feels dreadful that she’s actively trying to come up with a reason why she can’t go on a date with him. But then she realizes that there’s an obvious reason right in front of her, so she schools her face into something she hopes resembles resignation and says, “Ron…what about Lavender? I know you’re upset about everything that happened, and perhaps you’re feeling lonely, but I don’t want to be your…your…rebound relationship.”

It’s true. Perhaps at one point, she would have considered it. But now, she has too much self-respect. Now, she knows what it feels like to be the actual center of someone’s world. To be the person someone actually thinks about first, day and night. To be the person someone might have been a little bit in love with…

Not the time, not the time.

She shakes her head a bit before her thoughts can fully stray to her parchment pal and looks back at Ron to find him wincing.

“You wouldn’t be. I’ve been thinking about that. Really thinking about it, I mean. And I think the whole reason I was with her in the first place was because I was…I was afraid.”

“Afraid? Of what?” Hermione asks.

Ron looks at her with surprisingly soft eyes. “I was afraid of asking you out.”

Hermione stares at him, completely taken aback. Before she can answer, though, she’s distracted by Pansy, storming out of the Great Hall with her head down. She looks deeply annoyed about something, and Hermione watches her go, idly wondering if she’s finally managed to break things off with Malfoy. Ever since she had confessed her plans to Hermione last Tuesday, Hermione has been waiting for Draco’s mood to change. But as far as she can tell, it still hadn’t happened. They still sit side by side in the Great Hall and Draco still obnoxiously drapes his arm over Pansy’s shoulders any chance he gets. Hermione wonders if Pansy’s changed her mind about breaking things off. She’s even thought about asking her during Potions, once or twice.

Because that’s another thing—Pansy’s off-day was quickly turning into an off-month. Much to Hermione’s immense surprise, she’s continued to be more or less reasonable during Potions. Every once in a while, she’ll even slip in dry remarks that make Hermione’s lips twitch against her will. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows, of course—they still snap at each other from time to time. But nothing has managed to turn into anything that even remotely resembles one of their standard arguments. And it’s been…nice, actually. To not have to worry about keeping her guard up at every turn. Though Hermione’s still a bit cautious around her. She still doesn’t trust that this isn’t an elaborate long con, intended to make Hermione the butt of yet another cruel joke. But for now, she’s happy to keep her head down and continue this bizarre peaceful dance they seem to be doing together. At least until the end of the year, that is. Then, she’ll never have to work with Pansy again.

“Erm…Hermione?”

She glances back to Ron, who is watching her with confusion. “Did you…did you hear what I said?”

Right. Ron. Asking her out. Right now.

She shelves her thoughts of Pansy for the moment and sighs.

“I did, it’s just…Ron, I don’t know—”

“I know it’s mad,” Ron puts in quickly. “It doesn’t make sense but…well, Lavender was…she was safe.”

“Safe?” Hermione repeats stupidly.

Ron nods. “I didn’t have any strong feelings for her, so there was nothing to lose. But with you…” he breaks off and smiles at her, sheepishly. “Well…Neville said it already, didn’t he? Who else could it be?” He shakes his head. “I think it’s always been you, Hermione. I’ve just been too much of a stupid twat to see it. But this business with your parchment pal has made me…well, it’s made me a right jealous arse, if I’m being honest about it. But it’s made me realize a few things, too. Plus, y’know, Harry and Ginny are happy, and it’s because they took a chance on something more than friendship. They were brave. And we’re Gryffindors, aren’t we? We can be brave, too. So…here’s me, being brave, I suppose,” he says, looking at her with a small, nervous smile.

“Ron…” Hermione starts, with a small shake of her head.

“I know. I know I was a twat with Lavender. And I’ve been…what did Ginny call me? A massive bellend? I’ve been a massive, massive bellend as of late. I have, and I know, but just…tell me you haven’t thought about this,” Ron says, taking a step closer, his gaze earnest. “Tell me that this, that you and me together, has never crossed your mind. Because it’s crossed mine. All the time. I mean, we’re good together. We make each other laugh…we push each other…you keep me from failing every class I have,” he says with a grin.

“I…”

“Just one date. If it’s awkward, or you’re miserable the whole time, then we never try again. But at least we can say that we did try.”

Hermione looks at Ron, whose eyes are shining with hope, and she feels her heart break a little. Because the idea of dating Ron had crossed her mind. Quite frequently, if she’s being honest. But as of late, she hasn’t given it a single thought. She wasn’t even slightly jealous when he started seeing Lavender, much as everyone in her life had assumed she’d be. Why should she have been jealous, when she had her parchment pal?

And now that she knows what it should actually feel like to have proper feelings for someone, she knows that she has to let him down. She’s done some difficult things in the past few years. Things that would give even the bravest of Gryffindors pause. But turning down this sweet, lovely, good man before her? It ranks among the hardest things she’s ever done.

Hermione shakes her head slightly and looks at the ground. “Ron, I…I’m…”

Ron must read the look on her face, because immediately, his face falls. “No…Hermione, please. Just think about it.”

“I have, it’s just…”

“Is it because of Lavender?”

“No,” Hermione says, nervously fiddling with the strap of her bag.

“Well, then…what? Because I’m not rich and famous, like Krum?”

Hermione looks up at him, surprised. “Absolutely not. That has no bearing on—”

“Or is it just because I’m not him.”

Hermione pauses in the middle of her reply and frowns at Ron’s statement. “Not who? Krum?” she asks, confused.

“No. Him. Your parchment pal,” Ron mutters, scuffing his shoe against the floor miserably. “I know you have feelings for him. I mean, we all know that, but I guess I just hoped…I don’t know…I guess I hoped that you might have had some feelings for me, as well,” Ron says quietly. He glances up at Hermione with a small, sad smile. “Stupid, I know.”

A strange, prickly heat creeps up Hermione’s neck as she begins to fully realize the absurdity of what’s happening right now.

Is she really turning down Ron, one of the best blokes she knows…because of her parchment pal?

Her very female parchment pal?

No. Obviously not.

It seems like you are.

Hermione blinks uncertainly at the thought. She supposes it’s true enough…it does seem like she is. But she’s not.

Then why not go out with Ron?

Because she doesn’t want to go out with Ron.

Because he’s not your parchment pal?

Well…

Or just because he’s a man?

No, Hermione thinks furiously. Obviously not because of that. It’s as she said before—she doesn’t want to be anyone’s second choice. Which is a perfectly valid reason to turn down a date.

But he explained that away, the annoying voice in Hermione’s head helpfully supplies. And in a very logical manner, too.

Yes, but…

Hermione frowns when she can’t complete that thought. He had explained it away, and while Hermione isn’t a Legilimens, she’s certainly good enough at reading Ron by now to know that he hadn’t been lying. She had honestly believed him when he said that Lavender was the safe choice, and that he had had feelings for Hermione all along.

So then…why not say yes? Hadn’t this been what she had wanted, not even two months ago?

It was. But that was before you decided you desperately wanted your parchm—

No, Hermione thinks crossly. Why won’t that bloody thought leave her head?

Fine then—you’re not attracted to him.

That’s not it either. She is. Or at least, she could be. She’s always thought there was something pleasant about Ron. There had been times when he had draped his arms around her and Harry as they were walking, and it had always made her feel pleasantly warm inside. Plus he’s tall, he’s funny, and he always smells nice, like fresh air and sandalwood soap. There are so many wonderful things about Ron. So what if her imagined kisses with him hadn’t done anything for her? That certainly doesn’t mean that actually kissing him would result in the same outcome.

And perhaps the best reason to say yes is that this date might finally put all the newfound and pervasive worries ignited by her parchment pal to rest. She can assure herself once and for all that her feelings for the mysterious woman are just a curious one off. Surely once she’s actually on a proper date with Ron, she won’t find herself thinking of her.

Hermione glances back up swiftly to find Ron staring dejected at the floor. She straightens her back and takes a deep breath.

“Ron…I never actually said no,” she says, trying for small smile.

Ron looks up at her, gobsmacked. “You…you didn’t?”

“No, I just…you took me by surprise. But yes. I’d love to go to Hogsmeade with you this weekend,” she says, ignoring the uncomfortable twist in her gut that tells her she’s lying.

“You would?” Ron asks, his eyes widening comically.

I wouldn’t.

“I would,” Hermione says firmly. “Saturday, then?”

Ron nods slowly as a grin spreads across his face. “Saturday,” he repeats, then he laughs. “Saturday! Brilliant. Yes. Saturday.”

“Okay, then. Saturday,” Hermione repeats weakly, though she’s trying hard to sound even a tenth as excited as Ron currently looks. She glances over her shoulder toward the staircase. “I’m sorry, I should…”

“Right! Patrols. You’ve got to…y’know,” Ron cracks his knuckles and pulls an intimidating face. “Keep them in line, and…and whatnot.”

Hermione stares at him. “Ron, I don’t beat students,” she says with a raised eyebrow.

Ron flushes. “No, of course you don’t. I mean, obviously, I know. I don’t know why I said…” he rubs his neck and looks at her sheepishly. “Well, then. I’ll just…I’ll leave you to it. But I’ll see you on Saturday.”

Hermione nods and forces another smile. “You do know it’s only Tuesday, don’t you? I’d expect you’ll see me loads before Saturday.”

A strangled and strange laugh escapes Ron as he nods. “So it is! Tuesday! That’s…that’s quite…I mean, that’s brilliant, Tuesday is. It’s really a…a brilliant day,” He starts walking backward into the Great Hall. “But you need to…” he gestures vaguely toward the third floor, “so, I’ll just…be going then.”

“Right. Yes, I’ve got…yes. I’ll…I’ll see you later,” Hermione says, giving him an awkward wave, which he returns.

“See you later, alligator,” Ron says cheerfully, then he shakes his head a bit and looks annoyed with himself. “I don’t know why I said that either,” he mutters. Then, he gives her another little wave and turns around.

Hermione watches him go with a new knot in her stomach, but she quickly convinces herself that it’s just due to excitement. Excitement and nerves. After all, it’s not every day that she finds herself redefining a relationship with someone. And certainly not with a dear friend like Ron.

Not the dear friend you wanted though.

Hermione exhales sharply, shakes her head, then turns toward the staircase. All the while, the uneasy feeling in her stomach seems to grow.

Butterflies. That’s what the feeling is, Hermione decides. There are butterflies in her stomach because she’s just anxious to go on the date. And if there’s one thing she’s learned from being the unwilling spectator to Lavender and Parvati’s late night chats, it’s that butterflies are a very common feeling when you’re attracted to someone. So really, this feeling is perfectly normal.

Isn’t it?

Do you really think this awful feeling is the same as what you feel for your parchment pal?

Yes. It’s the same. This is what she wants, Hermione tells herself firmly as she climbs the stairs toward the third floor where her patrols are to begin. And any other feelings she may be having…well, they’ll fade with time. Right now, it makes sense to focus on the relationship that has potential. And that’s Ron.

She’s making the right choice.

With her thoughts momentarily quieted, she steps off onto the third floor landing to find Pansy, leaning idly against a door.

Pansy’s eyes flick up to Hermione immediately. “Shirking your duties are we, Granger?” she asks, her tone a bit cold but her gaze, curiously blank. “Patrols started five minutes ago, you know.”

“I know. I was…detained,” Hermione replies.

Something dark flashes in Pansy’s eyes. “So I saw. What, Weasley was whispering sweet nothings into your ear and you couldn’t tear yourself away?” she asks, an eyebrow quirking up.

Oh, no. Pansy had heard that?

Hermione tries to ignore the embarrassment trickling through her. Instead, she straightens her spine and crosses her arms. It would seem Pansy’s in a belligerent mood, and Hermione’s too bloody tired to put up with her tormenting tonight, so she says, “no. But I don’t need to explain myself to you.” She narrows her eyes as she surveys Pansy. “Why are you here, anyway? You know I always start on the third floor on Tuesdays.”

Pansy shrugs. “Flitwick and McGonagall are talking on the second. Figured as long as that floor was covered for the time being, I’d start on the third. You know, since you were clearly otherwise occupied.”

“Oh,” Hermione says. She does remember hearing Professor Flitwick’s voice as she climbed past the second floor. “Well, I’m here now,” she says, turning to unlock the room where prefects and the Head Girl and Boy store their bags during patrols and dropping hers on the floor. “So you can go,” she adds, closing the door and locking it again.

Pansy pushes off from the wall. “What’s the rush? They’re probably still talking and the other floors are covered. And I’d imagine you’re absolutely gagging to tell someone the good news,” she adds, her lips twisting into a cruel smirk. “You and Weasley, together at last, hm? Congratulations. Where’s the first date going to be? Diagon Alley to beg for spare Knuts? I’d imagine he’ll have to scrounge up the money to pay for dinner somehow.”

“Just because his family’s money isn’t guarded by a dragon doesn’t mean they’re destitute. And more importantly, this isn’t any of your business,” Hermione says tersely. She’s not about to stand here and let Pansy mock Ron for any reason, especially not his family’s financial status.

“No, but neither was Draco, and you managed to get that out of me,” Pansy says, glaring at Hermione. “So Zonko’s, then?” she asks, crossing her arms.

Hermione frowns, moving out of the way to let a small group of Ravenclaws pass by. “No, I…why Zonko’s?” she asks, against her better judgment.

“Zonko’s is a joke shop, and I can’t think of a bigger joke than going on a date with Ron Weasley.”

Hermione grits her teeth. “Oh, please. Ron is wonderful. He’s kinder and more talented than any member of your house, and you know it.”

Any member of my house? I’m afraid not. I’ll give you Crabbe and Goyle, though—a recently deceased flobberworm would be more talented than those two, put together. But hang on…” Pansy says, cocking her head to gaze at Hermione. “I thought he was manhandling Brown?”

Hermione exhales sharply at the reminder. “He was, until she called things off,” she says, then she realizes how that just sounded. “I mean, he wasn’t manhandling her,” she amends hastily while giving an awkward smile to a confused third-year Hufflepuff passing by. “But he was seeing her. And again, this isn’t any of your business. So if you’d excuse me,” she says, straightening her back and holding her head high, “I’d like to start my patrols.”

“Merlin, Granger. Do you really not have any self-respect?” Pansy asks, sounding somewhat…dismayed?

“I…what? Of course I do,” Hermione says, startled at the abrupt shift in Pansy’s tone. “Which is why I’m telling you, this conversation is over. So by all means, feel free to stay and…guard the staircase, or whatever it is you want to do,” she says, waving a hand toward the marble stairs behind her, “but I’m going to start my—”

“No one with an ounce of self-respect would have said yes to Weasley after the way he’s carried on with Brown for weeks now,” Pansy interrupts with a frown, as if she hasn’t heard anything Hermione’s just said. “And yet he snaps his fingers and you come running?”

“He had a perfectly reasonable explanation for that,” Hermione says crossly. She doesn’t know why she feels the need to defend her decision to Pansy of all people, but she does.

“Oh? What was it? Did he get tired of being in a committed relationship with his right hand after a few days?”

Hermione tsks at the crude remark. “You’re disgusting,” she mutters, annoyed with herself for letting the conversation go on for so long.

“And you’re deluded,” Pansy replies evenly.

“I’m not. I know this may be an unfamiliar concept to you, but Ron is a good person. Anyone would be lucky to go on a date with him,” Hermione says, fighting the desire to wince when she hears how forced her words sound.

Pansy snorts, as if she can somehow tell she’s lying. “Okay, Granger. Whatever you need to tell yourself.”

Hermione scowls at Pansy, who has unwittingly stumbled upon the very thing she’s actually been telling herself.

“I don’t need to tell myself anything,” she says, trying to sound more convincing this time. “This is what I’ve wanted. What I’ve always wanted,” she adds for good measure. But once again, her words ring hollow and false in her ears.

“What you’ve always wanted is to be Ron Weasley’s second choice?” Pansy asks, quirking an eyebrow as her dark lips twist up in a fake, simpering smile. “Well, congratulations!” she says, mock-enthusiasm dripping from her voice. “You know, I guess it’s true what they say—women really can achieve anything nowadays! You’re an inspiration for us all.”

Hermione feels a fresh wave of irritation flow through her at Pansy’s mocking words. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“But that doesn’t matter to you, does it?” Hermione asks, ignoring Pansy’s interjection. “All you do, all you’ve ever done is take my words and twist them around and try and make me feel bad. And you think you know me well enough to do it successfully, but you know what? You don’t. You don’t know the first thing about me,” she says.

Pansy stares at her for a moment, then tilts her head up at the ceiling and grins broadly.

“What?” Hermione asks, eyeing Pansy suspiciously. She had expected sharp words, or a cruel insult in return. Not whatever Pansy was doing right now.

Pansy snorts and shakes her head. “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all,” she says. “I suppose you’re right, Granger,” she adds, her smile slowly fading as she looks back at Hermione. “I don’t know you.”

“No. You don’t. So I’d appreciate it if you kept your comments to yourself,” Hermione says.

Pansy shrugs. “Fine. And you know what? To show you I can be the bigger person, how’s this—I sincerely hope you and Weasley will be incredibly happy in your run-down treehouse, or whatever it is he lives in, filled with your seventeen ginger children he’ll expect you to care for.”

“He’s not like that,” Hermione says hotly. “You don’t know him, either! And anyway, why do you care? So I decide to date Ron. So what? It’s just more fodder for you to use against me, isn’t it?” she asks.

Pansy’s expression darkens and she opens her mouth, but before she can reply, laughter floods into the corridor from the stairway as a group of students pass by on their way back from dinner. The sound pierces through whatever strange bubble Hermione and Pansy had found themselves in. Pansy glances briefly toward the staircase, then back to Hermione, regarding her with something that looks almost like sadness. But the emotion is only there for the briefest of moments. It flickers away before Hermione can be sure of what she’s seen, and Pansy straightens her back and raises her chin. “You’re right again, Granger. I don’t care what you do. And frankly, I’ve wasted too much time listening to your absurd and appalling life plans,” she says, then she starts off toward the stairway without another word.

Hermione watches her go with a small, puzzled frown. Because somehow, bizarrely enough, their back and forth had been almost…mild. Yes, Pansy had mocked her, but it hadn’t been their worst interaction. Not by a long shot. When things had started to get heated, Hermione had braced herself for barbed remarks and the same, familiar flood of all-consuming anger she gets anytime she’s around Pansy for too long. Frankly, she wouldn’t have been surprised had their conversation ended in one or both of them hastily reaching for their wands and dueling in the middle of the hallway. But thanks to Pansy’s off-month, it had ended more or less…okay. Uneventfully, at least.

Hermione shakes her head with wonder. She doesn’t know what’s happening, but she’s convinced that Pansy should break up with her boyfriends more often, if this is the end result.

***

As Hermione sneaks into her room post-patrols, she’s met with a blissful, beautiful quiet (save for Lavender’s quiet snoring). Even though it’s only eleven, the lights are all out and everyone is asleep. Hermione’s glad for it—she didn’t fancy explaining her night to anyone just yet.

After her conversation on the third floor with Pansy, patrols had been quiet, as they normally were. She had dealt with all the usual things—students loitering after hours, couples hiding in dark corners to better enjoy each other’s company, Peeves trying to drop a cauldron full of spiders on an unsuspecting Mr. Filch. Nothing had been out of the ordinary, until the very end of her patrols.

She’s still not sure what to make of it as she drops her bag and sits down heavily on her bed, still fully dressed.

Crookshanks opens his eyes at the movement, blinks at her, then goes back to sleep, but Hermione continues to watch him, soothed by his rhythmic inhalations. After a few moments, she tears her eyes away and tilts her head back, replaying the events of the night for what’s probably the fifteenth time.

The scene slowly materialize in her mind.

She had spotted two Slytherin fourth-years on the Grand Staircase.

“It’s after hours. Back to your dorm,” Hermione said, adopting the lofty tone she only used while on patrols. It had always been surprisingly effective, and most students respect the command without complaint, though a few will trudge back to their common rooms with a surly remark or two tossed over their shoulders.

The Slytherin boys didn’t move. They exchanged a look, then the taller one slowly looked Hermione up and down, his gaze lingering uncomfortably on her chest.“Or what?” he said, smirking as she hastily crossed her arms over herself. His eyes finally moved up and came to rest on her face, and he arched a taunting eyebrow.

Hermione’s defenses immediately flew up, both at the blatant lack of respect, and the disgustingly unsubtle attempt to objectify her. She straightened her shoulders and looked the boy in the eye, trying to pretend she wasn’t incredibly unnerved.“Or I’ll report you to Snape and he’ll be more than happy to give you both a week’s worth of detention. I’m sure the boy’s bathroom needs a good scrubbing,” she added, pleased that her voice hadn’t betrayed her—she still sounded commanding.

The other boy hummed and regarded her with amusement.“Snape isn’t in the habit of giving detention to his own students, is he, Malcolm?”

The taller boy, Malcolm Baddock, smirked. “He’s not. And moreso, I don’t think he’d like a Mudblood talking to us like this, do you, Graham?”

Hermione clenched her jaw at the slur. “Ten points from Slytherin,” she said, keeping her tone even. “And if you don’t leave now, I’m happy to take an additional twenty from both of you.”

“Awfully high and mighty for a Mudblood, aren’t you?” Malcolm said, his eyes narrowed.

“Twenty points,” Hermione said, forcing herself to remain calm, even though she could feel the slightest twinge of panic rising within her. She was almost entirely confident she could handle both of the boys if things got ugly, but if they decided to physically overpower her before she could reach for her wand, well…

Malcolm took a step forward and Hermione felt her heartbeat quicken, but she stood her ground. “I’d be very careful if I were you, Mudblood,” he murmured. He was close enough now that Hermione could see an old, silvery scar, just above his lip, and pure hatred shining in his cold, blue eyes.

“Thirty,” Hermione said, as calmly as she could manage. “And if you don’t back away from me voluntarily, I’ll be more than happy to make you move,” she added, slipping a hand into her pocket and grasping her wand. While the Head Girl rules stated that wasn’t allowed to use magic to discipline students, they also said she could use magic if she ever found herself in an uncomfortable situation. She was sure this qualified.

Malcolm’s eyes flicked down to her hand and he scoffed, but he took a step backward. “Come now, we’re just having a pleasant conversation. There’s no need to get upset,” he said lightly.

“I’ll ask you one more time to go back to your room. If you continue to push back, I’ll have no choice but to alert Dumbledore,” Hermione said, her grip tightening around her wand.

Malcolm stared at her for a long time, sizing her up and determining whether or not she was worth the fight. Finally, he shrugged. “Fine. We’ll go. Probably best not make her take any more points,” he added to his friend. “I doubt she can add that high.” He turned back to Hermione and let his gaze linger on her once more, a slow, lewd grin spreading on his face as he took her in. “It’s been a pleasure, though.” He put his hands in his pockets and started backing away. "Good night, Mudblood.”

“Forty points,” Hermione said, watching closely as they both turned and walked down the stairs, heading toward the dungeon.

She stayed where she was, waiting to see if they’d double back to try anything. As she waited, she could feel her anxiety increase. The unnatural silence of the castle pressed in on her and exaggerating both her ragged breathing and her heartbeat, pounding in her ears. Adrenaline coursed through her veins making her feel wild, and the dark hallway stretching eerily in front of her made fear drip down her spine, cold and persistent. A sudden sound from above made her jump and whirl around. She whipped her wand out of her pocket, gripping it so tightly she was concerned it might splinter, and held it in front of her, waiting. All she had wanted was a quiet, uneventful patrol, followed by a peaceful night with Crookshanks by her feet and her parchment in her lap. But now, she found herself running through an exhaustive list of protective spells as she uneasily anticipating an attack.

She waited for a few long minutes, staring into the unsettling darkness before her and listening for any sign of life. Finally, after what felt like ages, she exhaled slowly. It seemed the boys weren’t going to try anything. She relaxed her grip on her wand and slipped it back into her pocket. Then, she turned around and started back up the staircase to do a final sweep before heading to bed.

She only managed four steps before she heard the curse, shouted from behind her.

“Crucio!”

There was no time to turn, no time to reach into her pocket once more for her wand. All Hermione could do was wait for the curse to hit her and hope that her screams of agony would quickly draw someone’s attention.

But the curse never hit.

After what felt like a small eternity, Hermione relaxed her shoulders. Her heart was still pounding in her chest, but she shakily managed to turn around to see what had happened.

Her eyes widened at what she found.

Rippling before her was a massive Shield Charm, with the angry, crackling red light of the Crucio trapped momentarily in its web. And behind the charm, wand still outstretched and eyes blazing, was Pansy Parkinson.

Hermione stared at her in shock, but before she could say anything, Pansy rounded on the two boys.

“Do you have any idea what you…you could have…” she said, her eyes flickering toward Hermione momentarily. Fear and concern burned in her gaze, so powerfully that it almost took Hermione’s breath away. Pansy quickly dropped her gaze and looked back to the boys. “One hundred points from Slytherin,” she said, her voice trembling with rage.

Their eyes grew wide, but before either could protest, Pansy hissed, “what the fuck is wrong with you?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t take one hundred points from us,” Malcolm said, staring at Pansy with betrayal. “It’ll sink us! You’re our prefect!”

“I am. And as your prefect, I’m being fucking generous,” Pansy snarled. “But trust me, I’m happy to make it one hundred each.”

Malcolm glared at her. “What, for reminding a Mudblood of her place?”

“Tread lightly, Baddock,” Pansy muttered, her voice low.

“Tread lightly?” Malcolm repeated with a scoff. “Never pegged you for a blood traitor, Parkinson. You have a problem with saying ‘Mudblood’?”

“I have a problem with a student using the Cruciatus Curse on a Head Girl. Do you have any idea what that spell does?” Pansy asked. Hermione had never heard her sound quite so furious before, and she found herself unable to look away from Pansy’s blinding rage.“Do you?” Pansy repeated, her eyes burning

Malcolm shrugged. “Yeah. Well, kind of,” he added, scratching his ear uncomfortably.

“Kind of,” Pansy echoed. “Well, then. Allow me to refresh your memory. The pain it causes is excruciating. People have tried to describe it, but no one can really get close. Because what words are there to describe the feeling of your cells, mutating and transforming from within?” she asked, her face taut with rage. “To describe the unbearable, searing agony of your skin rupturing and your bones shattering inside of you? It’s been compared to white-hot knives piercing through every inch of your body, but that’s not quite right,” Pansy says. “Quite frankly, knives would be preferable. But it’s not just physical pain,” she adds darkly. “Oh, no. It’s the mental side that does you in. You might stay lucid for a few rounds, but eventually, your mind starts to crack and splinter. And soon, you won’t remember where you are, what you’ve done, or who you were. All you’ll be able to do is plead for death. That is, if you can somehow form words through the blood bubbling in your throat,” Pansy said, her eyes shining in the dimly lit hallway.

Hermione couldn’t tell if it was from rage or tears.

“I think I get the picture,” Malcolm said quietly, staring at the floor.

“Oh, I don’t think you do,” Pansy whispered. “But I’d be more than happy to show you,” she added, twirling her wand dangerously.

Malcolm watched the movement with a frown. “You can’t do that,” he said, uncertainly.

“Nor could you, but you didn’t let that stop you.”

“Had I known you’d leap to the Mudblood’s defense, I wouldn’t have,” Malcolm muttered darkly.

“Language, Baddock. That’s another fifty points,” Pansy said.

“Are you serious? I’ve heard you use that word! And I’m in your bloody house, for fuck’s sake! This is ridiculous. Draco would never dock us points,” Malcolm said furiously, glaring at Pansy. “Besides, it’s not like I cast the Killing Curse on her. And had the spell even hit, it wouldn’t have done any real damage! I’m a fucking fourth-year, I can’t cast a proper Cruciatus Curse!”

“I don’t give a fuck what year you are and I don’t give a fuck what Draco would or wouldn’t do,” Pansy spat, her eyes blazing once more. “Draco’s not here. I am. But don’t waste your time pleading your case to me. Save your breath for Dumbledore. In case you were unaware, using an Unforgivable Curse on a student is grounds for expulsion.”

Both boys grew pale. “He can’t expel us,” Graham said uncertainly, glancing at Malcolm for reassurance. “It’s…we were just trying to knock her down a peg or two, not actually hurt her.” He looked back to Pansy. “He can’t expel us for that…can he?”

“Oh, he most certainly can. Honestly, what did you think would happen? You’d cast an Unforgivable Curse on the Head Girl and there would be no repercussions?”

“I…”

“The penalty for an adult using that curse is a life sentence in Azkaban. I’d say you’re getting off easy with an expulsion.”

“But…”

“And if Dumbledore needs an eyewitness account, I’m more than happy to provide one,” Pansy added, her eyes hard.

“Are you fucking kidding me? What kind of a Slytherin are you?” Malcolm asked hotly, his fist clenched at his side.

“A better one than you could ever hope to be. Attacking someone when their back is turned is cowardly and pathetic,” Pansy said, taking a step forward. “Attacking a Head Girl is foolish,” she said, continuing her advance as Malcolm hastily backed up directly into the railing. “And attacking Granger of all people is ignorant—she could flatten both of you in your sleep,” Pansy said, now so close to Malcolm that there was hardly an inch of space between them.

Malcolm snorted, but he eyed Pansy uneasily. “She couldn’t.”

“She could.” Pansy took a step back and Malcolm visibly exhaled. “And I have half a mind to give her the chance to,” she continued, “so I’d suggest you both go back to the dungeons immediately and wait in the common room for Snape and Dumbledore. But before you do, one more thing,” she said, lowering her voice so much that Hermione had to strain to hear her. “If by some bloody miracle you’re not expelled, and if I ever catch either of you out after hours again, I’ll go to great lengths to make sure you don’t have the opportunity to do anything like this again.”

Malcolm stuck out his thin chest in what seemed to be a pathetic display of intimidation. “Please. You can’t threaten us. You’re a prefect. And anyway, once I tell my father about this—”

“Oscausi.”

The end of his sentence was abruptly cut off. With a simple flick of Pansy’s wrist, Malcolm’s mouth had vanished, leaving only smooth skin behind.

Hermione’s eyes widened, almost as much as Graham’s did as he regarded Malcolm with horror. She recognized the spell as a particularly tricky dark charm, and a little voice inside her head dutifully reminded her that prefects weren’t to use spells on students, and they especially weren’t allowed to use dark magic.

But a much louder voice reminded her that at this very moment, she couldn’t possibly care less about the git who had tried to torture her.

Pansy took another step closer to Malcolm, who was clearly trying to scream. At her movement, his eyes widened with terror and he grew deathly still. “I’d suggest you never threaten me again,” Pansy murmured, her voice dark and silky. “I’ve always thought you were a simpleton and a disgrace to our house, but you’ve certainly gone out of your way to prove it tonight. So let me be clear—I have powerful friends, Baddock. More powerful than yours.” She paused and tilted her head thoughtfully. “Your father’s name is Alistair, correct? Alistair Baddock?”

Malcolm’s face paled. His breath was coming out in fast, uneven puffs, but he still managed to jerk his head in a nod.

“He works under my father. Small world, isn’t it?” Pansy said, almost lightly. “And I’m sure my father would be more than happy to show him what happens when someone threatens his daughter. What was it you said earlier? You didn’t use the Killing Curse? Well, let me assure you, Baddock—my father can make no such claims. So if you ever decide to exact revenge, whether on me, Granger, or anyone else…well. Let’s just say you’re not the only one who can threaten to contact their father. Do I make myself clear?”

Malcolm and Graham both nodded quickly.

“Good,” Pansy murmured. “Now, then!” she said, raising her voice and sounding cheerful. “I believe you’ve both overstayed your welcome. Run along. I’ll see you both in the common room shortly.”

Graham looked between Malcolm and Pansy uncertainly. “Pans…uh, Miss…Parkinson? Are you…are you going to…”

“Reverse the spell? You know, I would, but it seems I’ve forgotten the incantation! Shame, that,” Pansy said, studying her fingernails idly.

At that, Hermione, who up until that point had been silenced by shock, finally managed to find her voice. Because as much as she didn’t mind seeing a particularly noxious student given his comeuppance, she found herself curiously concerned that Pansy might get in trouble for casting the curse in the first place. And for some mad reason, she didn’t want Pansy to get into trouble. At least, not for this.

“Pansy…” Hermione pleaded, completely unaware that for the first time ever, she had used her first name, rather than her surname.

Pansy stiffened at the sound of her name falling from Hermione’s lips. She looked up toward where Hermione was standing, still rooted to the spot, and studied her face for a moment. Then, she shrugged. “Fine. But it would do you both well to notice which one of us is taking pity on you,” she said to the boys. She carelessly waved her wand and with a small pop, Malcolm’s mouth returned. He frantically reached for his lips, desperately gasping for breath as he did.

“My, my. Dramatic, aren’t we?” Pansy almost sounded bored as she resumed studying her fingernails.

“You’re…you’re fucking…insane,” Malcolm gasped, staring at Pansy with wide, terrified eyes.

Pansy glanced up with a dangerous smile and flicked an eyebrow up. “And you’d be wise to remember that. Now. Do as I say and run along,” she said, waving her hand at them dismissively.

Without hesitation, both boys turned and ran down the stairs. Pansy watched them go, her back to Hermione, who was studying her closely. Even though her tone to the boys had been light, Hermione could tell she was still on edge—her posture was rigid and she was still holding tightly to her wand. Somehow, she seemed almost as upset about the whole debacle as Hermione herself was. It was as if she too had almost been tortured.

“Pansy?”

Pansy exhaled sharply, turned, and looked up at Hermione, who had finally found her voice again and was staring at Pansy like she was seeing her for the first time.

“Are you…are you alright?” Hermione managed.

Pansy’s eyes widened. “Am I alright?” she echoed incredulously, shaking her head in disbelief.

“I just…you look upset.”

Pansy shook her head again. “Don’t worry about me, Granger. I’m fine. But are you…” Pansy gazed at Hermione for a long, silent moment, scrutinizing every inch of her like she was searching for signs of injury. Finally, Pansy shifted her worried eyes back to Hermione’s and said, “are you hurt?” The question was uncertain, as if she was concerned she might be overstepping her bounds by asking.

“No. No, I’m just…shaken. Perhaps in a bit of shock, too,” Hermione replied, quickly sorting through her emotions. Perhaps the full scope of what had happened tonight would hit her later, but as of right now, she just felt a bit numb. She looked back to Pansy, who was still eyeing her closely. “But I would have been hurt. If not for you,” she added. “I…” she trailed off and studied Pansy like she was trying to solve a puzzle. “Thank you,” she finally murmured, lowering her eyes.

Pansy nodded. “Of course.”

“Why were you here?” Hermione asked, glancing back up, her brow slightly furrowed. “I thought you’d be back in the dungeons by now.”

“I would have been. But I heard voices on my way back. Caught the tail end of your conversation with Baddock and Montague and figured I’d stay, on the off chance you needed backup. So I watched and waited,” Pansy said with a small shrug. “After they left you, they hid behind a statue and waited until your back was turned.”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “So…you knew it was me?” she asked.

Pansy nodded.

“And you still cast a Shield Charm,” Hermione murmured, too quietly for Pansy to hear. She tilted her head and studied Pansy. “What I don’t understand is…” She trailed off, trying to find the right way to ask her question without sounding offensive. But before she could figure it out, Pansy interrupted.

“Why was I so hard on students from my own house?” she asked, arching one of her perfectly groomed eyebrows.

Hermione hesitated, then slowly nodded. “They weren’t wrong, you know. Draco wouldn’t have done any of the things you just did. Taking house points, going to Dumbledore…to be honest, I’m not so sure he would have even bothered to cast a Shield Charm,” she added, noticing how Pansy shifted uncomfortably. “So…why did you?”

“I’d never let anyone be attacked on my watch,” Pansy said, her voice firm and her head tilted up, revealing the set, sharp angle of her jaw. “Especially not with that curse.”

“No, I…I believe you,” Hermione said, somewhat stunned to find that she actually did. “I just…after you stopped the spell. You could have taken ten points and sent them on their way. You could have vouched for them, or at the very least, not offered your eyewitness account,” she said, remembering Pansy’s harshly whispered promise to the boys. “And to be honest, I’ve never seen you so furious. Which believe me, I’ve seen you furious,” Hermione added, almost wryly. “I just don’t understand why you would—”

“I’m a prefect,” Pansy said quickly, her eyes guarded in the dim light. “And I would have done the same to any student, regardless of their house. I take my duties seriously and I follow the same rules you do.” Pansy paused, then said, “well, maybe not the same. I might let a Slytherin off with a warning if they released a Dungbomb, whereas I’m sure you’d confiscate it and endlessly moralize,” she said with a small smirk. “But attacking a student is a different story,” she added, the smile vanishing as quickly as it appeared. “And I don’t coddle or reward cowards, even if we both happen to wear green.”

Hermione nodded at the straightforward explanation, then frowned. “I don’t moralize,” she said, sounding upset at the accusation.

Pansy stared at her for a moment before snorting, and Hermione eyed her suspiciously. “I’m sorry, it’s just…that’s what you choose to focus on right now? You were almost hit with an Unforgivable Curse, I single-handedly decimated Slytherin’s chances at winning the House Cup, you heard me actively threaten a student’s life, and you decide to focus on the fact I think you moralize?” Pansy asked, wonder in her tone.

“I’m choosing to ignore the threat against a student’s life,” Hermione said, raising an eyebrow and fighting off a small smile.

It wasn’t lost on her that she was having yet another normal conversation with Pansy Parkinson. But after everything that just happened, it was the least of her concerns. Perhaps it was the after effects of saving someone from torture, but Hermione couldn’t help but feel as though something had subtly shifted between them. Gone was the voice in Hermione’s head, whispering that Pansy might be setting her up. Gone was the concern that their conversation might turn into a massive row in the middle of the dark castle. Gone was the constant, simmering revulsion in her gut that had been solely reserved for Pansy for years now. Gone was Pansy’s acrid tone and cruel words and cold eyes.

Instead, Pansy was still gazing at her with something that looked shockingly close to concern. Her tone was lighter and kinder, and she seemed almost cautious, like she too had felt the shift and was worried about shattering this new, delicate space they found themselves mingling in together.

Before Hermione could read too much into it though, another question occurred to her. “Where did you learn that spell?” she asked, interest coloring her voice.

“What, Oscausi?” Pansy asked. Hermione nodded, and Pansy shrugged. “An old family favorite,” she said, running a delicate finger absently along the staircase railing. “My father would use it on me anytime I talked back. Apparently it’s just as frightening to a fourth-year as it was to a five-year-old,” Pansy said with a chuckle, not noticing Hermione’s horrified gaze.

“Five?” Hermione managed to whisper, aghast.

Pansy’s finger stalled as she looked back toward Hermione. “I…yes? It wasn’t that bad,” she added quickly. “I mean, it wasn’t pleasant, but…it could always be worse.”

“Oh,” Hermione said weakly, staring at Pansy and dimly remembering her words from a week ago. She had said something about how it was easier to fall in line if it meant being spared from horrid things. Things she wouldn’t wish on anybody. It had been easy for Hermione to write off her comment at the time as a weak excuse for narrow mindedness and bigotry, but now, after hearing Pansy’s painfully accurate description of the Cruciatus Curse…

Hermione was starting to get a clearer picture of Pansy’s home life and the people who had shaped her. And while she still didn’t think it excused all the horrid things Pansy herself had done, as the pieces fell into place, she found herself more inclined to be sympathetic. Perhaps she herself would be different had she been raised by monsters, whispering poison in her ear and resorting to physical violence to make a point. Perhaps had she been raised by a man stained by the Dark Mark, she too would have believed in pureblood supremacy rather than go against his whims.

Perhaps it was a small miracle Pansy wasn’t worse than she was.

A question danced on her lips, but she was afraid to vocalize it. Pansy must have noticed though, because she eyed Hermione closely.

“Something you’d like to ask, Granger?”

Hermione blushed. “No, I…I just…” she trailed off and absently picked at her robes. Finally, she looked up again. “The Cruciatus Curse,” she said, noticing as Pansy stiffened. “The way you explained it. I…did…did your father ever…”

Pansy glared darkly at the floor, and Hermione knew she had overstepped her bounds.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Yes.”

The rest of the apology died on Hermione’s tongue as she gazed at Pansy with horror. Pansy’s entire body looked tense and miserable, but before Hermione could say anything, she kept talking.

“Not on me. He’s come dangerously close, a few times, but I’ve made an art form of staying out of his way and under his radar. But on other people. My mum, once or twice. My grandfather. And other…other relatives,” Pansy said, her voice momentarily cracking. “I used to think they deserved it, you know,” Pansy murmured, almost as if she was speaking to herself. “That if my father was using that spell, they must have done something wrong. I…” Pansy trailed off and stared unseeingly at the ground, lost in her thoughts.

“Pansy…” Hermione murmured, taking a few hesitant steps down the staircase. She wasn’t sure what her end result was—to console her? To snap her out of her thoughts with some sort of comforting touch? Whatever it was, all she knew was the girl before her had certainly witnessed enough people she loved suffering at the hands of someone she was supposed to be able to trust, and it made something in Hermione break.

Before she could get any closer though, Pansy looked up swiftly, freezing Hermione in place. She managed a tight smile. “It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m…” she trailed off, then shook her head quickly. “But speaking of using that spell, I should find Snape. You’re welcome to come with me, but I assume you’d rather not relive the entire affair? I’m sure he’d be happy to speak to you tomorrow, if you’d prefer.”

Hermione was surprised by Pansy’s offer, but still managed a small nod. “I…yes. I’d appreciate that,” she said.

“Right. Then I’ll just…” Pansy jerked her head back toward the dungeons. She glanced at Hermione and seemed to hesitate for a moment, before finally saying, “you’ll be okay? To get back to your common room, I mean? I can…”

Hermione shook her head, even more surprised by Pansy’s newest offer. “No, I’ll…I’ll be fine, I…go and deal with them,” she said.

“Okay. Okay. I will. I…” Pansy trailed off. She bit her lower lip like she was thinking about something, and after a few moments, something in her eyes set. She looked back at Hermione and in a painfully stiff, proper tone said, “good night, Granger.”

“…Good night, Parkinson,” Hermione replied slowly. The words had felt foreign in her mouth, as she had never expected to direct such a benign, pleasant phrase toward Pansy Parkinson, of all people.

Pansy blinked at her a few times, as if the exchange had momentarily stunned her. The dim lighting made it almost impossible to be sure, but Hermione could have sworn there was a faint flush on her pale cheeks. Before she could look closer though, Pansy nodded, turned, and started off toward the dungeon.

Just before she disappeared completely into the shadows, Hermione called out after her.“Pansy?”

Pansy turned quickly and looked back at Hermione curiously.

“Thank you again,” Hermione said quietly.

“Oh. Of course. Good night, Granger. …Again,” she said, shaking her head slightly as she repeated herself, as if she was annoyed at her own redundancy. Then, she turned and disappeared into the darkness.

“Good night, Pansy,” Hermione murmured, gazing after her.

Crookshanks stretched out on her bed, bringing Hermione back to the present. She runs a hand through her hair, tugging at her loose, wavy curls and trying to make heads or tails of her latest encounter with Pansy. There was no doubt that Hermione felt sympathy for her now—how could she not after the things she had heard tonight? And it was certainly starting to seem like Pansy’s off-month was something more than a fluke. Hermione sighs, closing her eyes and thinking back over that strange, tentative peace that had sprung up between them. She finds herself faced with an interesting question—if Pansy was actually trying to be a better person, was Hermione really open to the possibility of actually…forgiving her?

She sighs once more and shakes her head. It’s all too much to think about right now, and while the events of the night had certainly made her forget about her exhaustion, she still doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to ponder forgiving the person she’s spent seven years hating.

Even if it is the same person who had just saved her from an Unforgivable Curse.

Hermione opens her eyes again and involuntarily shivers as she thinks about what would have happened had Pansy not intervened. Would the boys had left her alone after the first curse hit? Or would they have stood over her and tortured her for hours with sadistic glee glittering in their eyes? And would they have stopped at just physical torture? Hermione grows cold as she remembers Malcolm, lewdly staring at her chest.

Is there a chance something else might have happened had Pansy not saved her?

A swirl of panic fills Hermione as she considers the possibility. She takes a few deep breaths to try and settle herself, but the panic remains, stealthily weaving its spindly tendrils throughout her body. Briefly, she wonders if she could steal one of the Calming Draughts Lavender secretly keeps in her bedside table without being caught. She needs something to distract her from the anxiety that’s slowly starting to grip every part of her.

She needs a distraction…she needs…she needs…

She needs her parchment pal.

Hastily, she leans over and reaches into her bag with trembling hands. Once she finds the familiar page, she pulls it out and turns on the gas lamp beside her, adjusting it so it’s bright enough to read by, but dim enough to not disturb any of her dorm mates. She grabs a quill and runs the tip of it over her lips as she thinks about what she wants to say.

She’s not worried about holding back—things have been good between the two of them. They had a few days of awkward notes back and forth, and once or twice, Hermione would forget herself and reply to something innocent with something a little too flirty to fall under the umbrella of friendship. But apart from those mishaps, they’ve fallen back into their natural rhythm as if nothing ever happened. Things are as they ought to be, and she couldn’t be more thrilled to have her dear friend still in her life.

And okay, perhaps Hermione misses the flirtatious messages from her parchment pal every once in a while. But that’s to be expected. She’s still adjusting, after all.

And fine, perhaps she still finds herself thinking of this person, day and night.

And yes, maybe she’s still a little bit in love, but it’ll go away as soon as she goes on her date with Ron. She’s sure of it.

Hermione places her quill on the parchment and decides to make sure her parchment pal is even available.

Are you awake?

She taps the words with her wand, then sits back and waits. It’s a bit later than usual, so she wouldn’t be surprised if her pal has already fallen aslee—

Yes. I was hoping to hear from you tonight. I meant to message you earlier, but I’m afraid I was unexpectedly sidetracked.

Hermione exhales slowly at the message, already feeling some of her anxiety ebbing away.

I’ll forgive you, just this once. I hope you were sidetracked by something enjoyable, at least?

She sends the message, then closes her eyes and rubs at them while she waits for a reply. When she finally opens her eyes a few moments later, there’s a new silver message waiting for her.

Nothing worth writing about, I’m afraid. And you, Robin? Did you have a busy night? I’d assume so, as this is later than I usually hear from you.

Hermione taps her fingers against her thigh as she considers the question. Normally, she’d say something innocuous, like how she’d been studying and lost track of the time. Any white lie was good enough if it meant keeping her parchment a safe space. Because somehow, even after all this time, it still acts as her oasis. It’s a place for her to forget about the troubles of the day and envelope herself in the comforting warmth of her dear friend. No drama, no strife, no heartache. Just her and her parchment pal, lost in a soft wonderland together. But after tonight, she’s reconsidering her stance. Because although her anxiety has lessened, it’s still there, zipping under her skin like streak lightning, begging to be released. And she has a sneaking suspicion talking about its cause might help.

She chews on her lower lip as she debates the pros and cons of revealing some of the details of her night.

Pro: It would help her process and hopefully, help to alleviate her anxiety.
Con: She’d be breaking her one and only rule.
Pro: Her parchment pal would most assuredly know the right things to say and would help her calm down.
Con: She’s not sure if she has the energy to retell the entire tale.
Pro: It would be nice to have an outside and unbiased perspective on Pansy. Should she decide to bring that up, of course.
Con:

Hermione frowns. She can’t think of another con. Which means for the first time ever, she’s about to shatter her oasis and tell her parchment pal about her night. Or at least, as much of it as the parchment censors will allow.

She places her quill on the page, takes a deep breath, and begins to write.

It is. To tell you the truth, I’ve had an awful night. Not to get into too much detail, but…let’s just say I was out late and I ended up having a…a nasty encounter with two boys, to put it mildly. They tried to attack me, to put it less mildly. Normally, I wouldn’t tell you about things like this. I don’t know if you feel the same, but I like to treat this parchment as kind of a safe space. A place away from all my normal concerns and bothers. But I suppose I’m still a bit shaken up about what happened tonight, and I’m hoping talking about it might help settle my nerves.

Quickly, she skims what she’s written. It’s vague enough, but there’s still a chance that her pal might catch onto the fact that she’s a prefect or Head Girl. Though she also might assume Hermione was out late, breaking the rules herself. Hopefully she hasn’t given too much away.

She taps the message with her wand and is leaning forward to pet Crookshanks, when she’s distracted by a flash of silver.

Are you alright?

Hermione picks up her quill again, but before she can write, a steady stream of messages floods her parchment.

I’m so sorry, Robin.

Are you hurt?

Who were they?

What can I do?

Anything. Name it.

I wish I could be there with you right now.

Hermione smiles a bit at the rapid-fire pace of the messages. She feels a rush of fondness and something that feels suspiciously like longing wash over her at the last line, and she places her quill on the paper.

I’m not hurt, and much as I wish I could tell you their names, something tells me the parchment might frown on that. Rest assured, they’re being dealt with. I’m okay. Really, I am, I just needed to put it on paper, I think. It feels better to write it down, rather than let it simmer.

But I wish you were here, too.

As she sends the message, the longing in her chest grows stronger and morphs into a dull ache. Hermione bites her lower lip at the sensation. She supposes there’s no use denying that she does want her parchment pal here. More than anyone, if she’s being honest. More than Harry, more than Ginny, more than Ron. She wants this person here, by her side, holding her close and telling her everything will be okay.

A slow flush stains her cheeks as she realizes what she’s just thought. Does she want her dear friend…to hold her? She drums her fingers restlessly against her thigh again, but before she can start the now-familiar spiral over her own traitorous thoughts, a new message appears.

I’m sure their punishment will be adequate, but even so, I’ll personally see to it that those boys never have a moment’s peace. Even if I have to target every boy in this school to make sure I exact vengeance on the right ones. It’ll be worth it. But if it helps you to write about it, then tell me everything. I won’t close my eyes at all tonight, if that’s what you need. I won’t close my eyes all week.

The longing spikes once more in Hermione’s chest, but she quickly tries to temper it. Her parchment pal is just expressing friendly concern, nothing more. Hermione herself would be just as furious if someone tried to hurt Harry, so she shouldn’t be reading anything into this.

Not that she even wants there to be anything to read into it, it’s just…

Hermione sighs exasperatedly at her own circular thoughts, thrusting a hand through her hair. To distract herself, she picks up her quill and starts writing quickly.

I certainly won’t ask that from you, nor will I ask you to terrorize the two boys. You’re right—their punishment will be adequate. So much so that I sincerely doubt I’ll ever have to see them again.

But if I’m being honest…I was scared. And it’s not often that I’ve felt genuine fear. At the risk of sounding horribly cocky, I tend to pride myself on my ability to be prepared for every circumstance, but this time…I wasn’t prepared. Anything could have happened because I turned my back at the wrong time. And it was my fault. I should have known better. I should have known to keep my guard up, I should have been proactive. I suppose the whole thing just makes me feel stupid and weak, which is something I haven’t felt in a long time. But these two boys managed it. And they would have managed worse, had it not been for someone else saving me. Which I’m obviously grateful to her for showing up when she did, but I just…I don’t like feeling indebted, or like I can’t fight my own fights. And I really don’t like this feeling. This weak, frightened, helplessness.

Hermione picks up her wand and sends it without rereading. It’s probably a complete mess, but she doesn’t want to try and methodically sort through her feelings right now. She just wants to get whatever emotions are swirling inside of her out on the page.

While she waits for a reply, she decides to go about her nightly routine, starting with brushing her teeth in the bathroom. She takes care to make as little noise as possible, sneaking through the dorm like a Muggle spy. Once she’s in the bathroom, she looks at herself in the mirror and is briefly surprised by her own reflection—she looks pale and worn down. Her eyes are a bit dull, and the shadows under them seem more pronounced in the dim light of the bathroom. She gazes at herself for a moment, then with a sigh, she turns from the mirror to begin her bathroom tasks. Hopefully tomorrow, she won’t look like a zombie.

Once she’s done in the bathroom, she creeps back toward her bed. Quickly, she loosens her tie and tugs it off over her head, then she pulls off her jumper. The cool night air of the dorm hits her bare skin, and she hastily takes off the rest of her clothing. Once she’s stripped down, she kicks the pile away and reaches for her favorite nightgown, tugging the soft, worn fabric over her head. Then, she casts a quick warming charm at her bed before quickly climbing back into it and releasing a content sigh at the feeling of toasty sheets against her bare legs. Once she’s settled, she reaches for her parchment to read the new message waiting for her.

I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine. Your feelings are more than valid, but if you’ll allow me, perhaps I can help set your mind at ease.

From what I can tell, it seems as though these boys tried to take advantage of your back being turned. And I’m certainly not an expert in dueling, but that doesn’t seem like a fair fight. If they knew their best shot at getting the upper hand was to strike when you weren’t expecting it, that implies that they knew you were the stronger party. Hardly the behavior of two people who think their target is weak.

But no matter what, it most certainly was not your fault. The fault lies with the two boys who thought they could attack you on school grounds. You did absolutely nothing wrong, and as tempting as it is to shift the blame onto yourself and think through what you could have done differently, please try and fight that urge. This wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have expected this, no more than any of the greatest Aurors of our time could expect a surprise attack. They’re surprises for a reason.

And as for feeling stupid? I hardly want to dignify that with a response, but if I must… Robin. You’re the smartest witch I’ve ever met. And if your magical abilities are anything like your writing acuity, I’d imagine you’re one of the best witches in all of Hogwarts. The only witch who might be smarter is Professor McGonagall, but I bet even that’s debatable.

These boys were halfwit cowards. Nothing more. I’m glad someone was able to come to your aid tonight, but had it been a fair fight, I’m sure you wouldn’t have needed her help. You are absolutely brilliant, Robin. You shouldn’t spare a second thought for those foul boys.

Hermione releases a small sigh. As she had hoped, her parchment pal’s words were the balm she needed. Everything her pal had said soothed her, from her reassurances that Hermione wasn’t actually weak, to her surprisingly helpful comparison to Aurors and surprise attacks. Even her comment about the boys being halfwit cowards had made her smile, even if it had vaguely reminded her of Pansy.

She picks up her quill once more and scratches out a reply.

Thank you. Truly.

You were the only person I wanted to talk to tonight, because I knew you’d know what to say. You always do. I have a feeling I’ll be licking my wounds for a while longer, but I don’t feel anywhere near as helpless or anxious as I did when I initially sat down to write to you. Though I suppose even that was preferable to the numb shock I felt before. It’s strange—right now, there are a million things running through my head that I wish I had said to those boys. But at the time, I just stood there, feeling utterly useless. I let the person who saved me do all the talking. Though to be fair, she probably did a better job than I would have. She’s always possessed a remarkable talent for cruelty and insults. One I would almost find impressive, if she didn’t direct it at me quite so often. I have to admit, it made a nice change of pace seeing someone else on the receiving end of her remarks. And you might have actually agreed with her tonight—she also seemed fairly convinced that the boys were halfwit cowards. But aside from that, you couldn’t be more different.

With a tap, the message sinks into the parchment, shining in gold. It’s bizarre to actually be talking about her day-to-day life for once, but it seems to be helping. And to be frank, it’s been almost impossible for Hermione to avoid complaining about Pansy every day to her parchment pal. She’s already interested in what her dear friend will have to say about the other witch, and what her thoughts are on the newfound peace that’s somehow blossomed between them.

And as luck would have it, it doesn’t seem like she’ll have to wait long—there’s already a new message, shining beneath hers. Hermione raises her eyebrows, stunned by the turnaround. Her parchment pal has always been speedy with a quill, but this might be a new record.

I’m happy to have helped. And that always seems to be the way, doesn’t it? I’ve come up with some of my most withering comebacks and devastating insults thirty minutes after whatever event necessitated them in the first place. If only there was some potion we could brew that would help us say exactly what we needed to say, when we needed to say it.

Though it would seem you need a potion like that more than me…? I have to say, I didn’t expect to end up with so many new enemies tonight, but as it turns out, I automatically despise anyone who so much as dares to look at you in the wrong way. So regrettably, I’ll have to add this savior of yours to my list. I’m glad she used her dubious talents to help you tonight, but if she’s been cruel to you in the past, then I’ve no choice but to declare her a complete and utter cow.

Since you’re using the parchment to air your frustrations and grievances tonight, perhaps you’d like to talk about her? Only if you want to, of course. If you’d rather continue to use the parchment as a safe space away from the troubles of real life, I completely understand. But I’ve found through personal experience that telling you what’s weighing on me has been hugely beneficial in the long run. And whatever you’re struggling with, I’d like to try and help.

Hermione smiles at the offer, then tilts her head back and studies the thick velvet curtain above her. Does she want to talk about Pansy? She’s certainly been confused by her behavior the past week, and it’d be nice to get an outside perspective on what it could mean…but then again, she doesn’t want to force her parchment pal into playing the role of her therapist tonight.

Though that’s not entirely fair—she herself had encouraged her pal to open up, and when she had, Hermione hadn’t felt burdened at all. Quite the contrary; she had been honored that her dear friend trusted her, and she had genuinely wanted to help in any way she could. Mostly for respectable reasons, but certainly for some selfish ones, too—chief among them, her almost obsessive desire to collect every little fact she could about her pal. She has enough now to write a dissertation, and she still wants to learn more.

So if her parchment pal feels the same way about her, well…who is she to deny her the chance to obsessively collect facts?

But there’s no denying that the events of the day are starting to catch up with her again. A massive yawn escapes her, and she stretches her arms over her head, wincing at the slight pop in her shoulder. And when another yawn escapes her almost immediately after the first, she realizes that as much as she wants to bring up the entire saga with Pansy, she doesn’t have the energy to write out seven years worth of grievances.

But she does have a question she’d like to ask her dear friend. One that’s been skulking about in the back of her mind ever since she watched Pansy walk away tonight. So she gathers whatever energy she has left, picks up her quill, and begins to write.

Thank you for the offer. I’d like to tell you about her. Really, I would. But it would take quite some time to explain everything that’s ever happened between us, and I’d have to bore you with far too many specifics. Perhaps if it wasn’t the middle of the night, I might have the energy to put down in words the whole sordid story. But I can feel the exhaustion starting to seep into my bones, and I’m afraid I may have to succumb to the siren song of sleep soon.

But before I do, I have a question for you—what are your thoughts on forgiveness? It’s something I’ve been thinking about, and I’m having a hard time deciding where I land. I’ve always thought that I’d be willing to show forgiveness if I believed someone was showing genuine remorse and was making a real effort to turn over a new leaf. But I now find myself in a situation where forgiveness may be warranted, and I’m not sure if I can manage it.

I suppose a bit of backstory may be needed after all—the person in question, the “complete and utter cow,” as you deemed her, has made my life miserable for years. She’s berated me, belittled me, and insulted me. But over the past week, she’s been…different. There’s been a tentative sort of peace between us and she hasn’t been cruel. What’s more, she’s alluded to a few troubling things about her upbringing, which has led me to believe her behaviors and beliefs were a necessity for survival. There’s a part of me that thinks she may finally be fighting against some of the views she’s been indoctrinated into. And tonight, after the boys left, she seemed almost…concerned about me.

So knowing all of that…should I attempt to forgive her? I’ve told you before, I’m no saint. And there’s a part of me that wants to cling to my bitterness. To tell her that she’s years too late to be showing remorse. But there’s also a part of me that’s curious about why she’s acting differently. And most of all, there’s a part of me that believes it’s my duty to show forgiveness. That it’s the right thing to do.

I’m sorry, this was a longer question than I anticipated. If you need to think on it and reply tomorrow, please do. I know it’s late. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Hermione touches the tip of her wand to the parchment and sends the message, then leans back and closes her heavy eyes. After a moment, she opens them to see a single, silver lining on the parchment.

I’ll reply tonight, but please get some rest, Robin. After the night you’ve had, you’ve certainly earned it.

She bites her lip as she ponders whether or not she should stay awake to read her pal’s thoughts, or if she should submit to the fatigue slowly weighing down her body. Her pal is certainly quick with a quill, but it’s a heavy question and she has a feeling it’ll take more than a few minutes to get a reply. But at the same time, she feels like she did when she was a little girl, hiding under her covers with a book and a flashlight, pushing herself to stay awake just a bit longer to see what was going to happen next. She doesn’t want to fall asleep and miss the end of their conversation. She wants to know what happens next.

So while she does close her eyes, she doesn’t let herself sleep. Instead, she checks her parchment once every few minutes, waiting for the silver words to materialize. Each time she checks, it gets harder and harder to open her eyes, and she’s sure she’s going to fall asleep before there’s a reply. But on what’s probably her twentieth glance, her sleep-heavy eyes grow wide. Because there, shining on the page in front of her, is an extremely long, silvery reply.

The smallest bit of exhaustion seems to lift from her body at the sight, and somehow, Hermione finds the energy to sit up in bed and read the new message.

First, let me apologize—no one should have to put up with someone like that. I can only hope your assumptions are correct and she’s starting to see the error of her ways. But I stand by what I said earlier: she seems like a massive, miserable cow.

As to your question…

Forgiveness is…tricky. But before I divulge my thoughts on your situation, let me first say this—it is never your duty to show forgiveness. If you decide you don’t want to forgive this miserable cow, that’s absolutely understandable. People seem to think that an inability to forgive is an act of selfishness, but I vehemently disagree. I think you should only forgive someone if it’s in your best interests. Not because you feel it’s your duty. There’s an inherent strength in setting limits to what you will and won’t put up with, and you should never feel guilted into forgiveness just because someone chooses to blatantly disrespect those limits.

Never forgive out of obligation, Robin.

As for your situation with the cow, though…you’re right to be wary. It sounds like she’s hurt you deeply over the years. But as you know, I’ve faced my own struggles with family, so I might have a slightly better understanding of where she’s coming from. Because families can be surprisingly toxic. They can poison your mind and embed it with all sorts of slithering, venomous thoughts. And while I certainly don’t think this excuses her behavior, it does give you a window into why that behavior might exist in the first place. Especially if it’s all she was exposed to while growing up.

If she’s acting differently now, there’s a chance that something’s happened recently to shake her from her complacency and force her to examine her views. I believe you once said that we never know what another person is struggling with, and that may be the case here. We all carry our own burdens, and perhaps she chose some awful ways to deal with hers in the past. Ways that hurt you. Perhaps some foolish part of her decided that you were her enemy, and for some strange and stupid reason, she believed it because it was what she had been taught. But I’d like to hope that it’s never too late to make a change, so perhaps she’s finding new, less cow-like ways to cope with her struggles. And perhaps she realizes now that you were never the enemy.

And one last thing: if you truly believe that she adapted for her own survival, then the fact she’s starting to form her own views separate from her family’s wouldn’t be something I’d take lightly. I’ve heard some horrible stories from other students about their family’s propensities for violence. Truly awful things. And I know from firsthand experience that fear can be a powerful and persuasive weapon.

I suppose at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself—is it in your best interest to forgive her? If she’s being genuine, will it make you feel better to let bygones be bygones? And if it doesn’t, that’s fine. If it does, that’s fine, too. And even if you do decide to forgive her, nobody is saying you have to be best friends. Perhaps just being able to coexist peacefully would be reason enough.

But now that I’ve done my duty as your logical, rational friend and put my thoughts on paper as calmly as I could manage, let me say what I’m actually thinking, as your dear friend: what a miserable git. Only a complete dullard wouldn’t be able to see what a wonderful person you are, and I genuinely don’t know if she deserves your forgiveness. I hope you know that I’ll never forgive her for the way she’s treated you, even if she spends the rest of her days trying to make it up to you. You deserve the world, Robin. And if she was too blind to see that from the beginning, then she’s the biggest fool in this school.

I sincerely hope you’re sleeping right now. I’m about to do the same. But you know you can write to me at anytime about what happened tonight. Or about anything that’s weighing on your mind. I still want to know everything about you. I always will.

I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds when I say that the thought of something happening to you tonight filled me with a level of terror I didn’t think possible. Because somehow, despite all my best efforts, you still mean the world to me, and had anything happened to you, I…I don’t know what I’d do.

I’m sorry. I know I promised to never say anything like that again. But I suppose it’s human nature to tell someone how much they mean to you after a situation like tonight. And since I’m only human…Robin. You still mean everything to me.

And I think you always will.

Sweet dreams ♥

Hermione sits back in bed and traces her finger over the little heart, noticing how her own is beating a bit harder in her chest. She smiles softly at her parchment, and she’s aware of a pleasantly light, fluttery sensation in her stomach. It almost feels a bit like…

Butterflies.

Actual butterflies.

Not the heavy dread she had tried to pass off as butterflies with Ron, but real, honest-to-god butterflies, floating in her stomach.

Butterflies her parchment pal had somehow conjured with just a few words.

Which means that…

Hermione sighs and runs a hand through her hair. Not this again. She’s been down this road with her annoyingly persistent internal monologue too many times before, and she’s not going down it again. It’s too bloody late. And besides, it’s pointless. She’s already acknowledged that yes, she still has feelings for her parchment pal, but they’ll fade in time. There’s no doubt in her mind that after her date with Ron, these feelings will just be a strange, distant memory. She’ll look back on this someday and laugh about it, wondering what on earth had gotten into her.

What if they don’t go away?

They will. She’s sure of it. Because if there’s one thing she’s absolutely certain of, it’s that she’s not gay. Not even a little bit. She proved that when she tried thinking about physical intimacy with a woman. She still remembers the prickly, uncomfortable way her body had reacted to the thought of a woman touching her. And if that’s how she reacts to the thought of a woman’s hands, or even a woman’s lips, trailing slowly over her body, then…

As if on cue, the now-familiar heat simmers low in her stomach at the thought. But this time, it’s accompanied by a strange and slight pressure between her legs. A pressure that distracts her completely from her thought process and makes her freeze in place on her bed with her face on fire.

Is that…?

No.

It couldn’t be.

She’s never felt…

But it seems like…

At least, she’s heard that it feels like…

But it couldn’t be…

Arousal? her head supplies helpfully, stopping her from thinking in disjointed and ridiculous half-baked thoughts.

She glares sharply at her own thought as she puts her parchment on her bedside table and forces herself not to think about the tight coil in her stomach and the subtle aching between her legs.

It’s not arousal. It’s just…it’s just…

…Arousal? her head repeats, almost mockingly.

It’s just something she can’t quite put her finger on, she thinks crossly as she sits back in bed.

You could put your finger on it. Might help.

Hermione’s glare turns deadly at her own snarky, treasonous thought. Where did that come from? It’s the kind of dirty thing Pansy would have gleefully vocalized with a slow, lewd smirk and a suggestively quirked eyebrow. But Hermione doesn’t make innuendos like that, not even in her own head. Clearly, she must be even more exhausted than she thought.

And anyway, the innuendo doesn’t even make sense. Because it’s not arousal. Whatever it is, it’s not that. But it’s decidedly uncomfortable, and all Hermione wants is for it to go away and never come back. She bounces her leg restlessly, then immediately stops when it makes the ache between her thighs morph into a dull, faint throb. Her face flames as she digs her fingertips into her thigh, desperately casting her mind around for something else to think about. She needs something neutral and safe. Something to take her mind off the feeling that she’s not ready nor willing to analyze at this very moment.

Boggarts. Dementors. Werewolves. Acromantulas.

Creatures. Creatures are safe, so she continues to list them in her head.

Hippogriffs. Thestrals. Abraxan. Pixies.

You know what this means.

Flobberworms. Unicorns. Bowtruckles. Dragons.

It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a peculiar sensation. One she can’t even name with any authority. And perhaps tomorrow, when she’s not as bone-tired as she is right now, she’ll revisit this feeling with a clear head. Tomorrow, she can rationalize whatever she’s currently feeling until she’s blue in the face. Tomorrow will be a time for answers and logical justifications. But tonight, she just wants to seal this feeling in a box and store it on a faraway shelf in a dark and dusty corner of her mind.

Explains why you’ve never shown interest in boys.

Crups. Puffskeins. Basilisks. Grindylow.

She has shown interest. It’s why she’s going on a date with Ron. A date she’s actually starting to get excited about.

Liar. Admit it, you’re—

Kneazles. Griffins. Imps.

She’s not. And anyway, this isn’t a problem for right now. It’s a tomorrow problem.

She’ll think about it all tomorrow. She’ll make it make sense tomorrow.

The feeling is starting to subside some, and Hermione exhales with shaky relief. Hastily, she tosses her quill onto her bedside table, glancing at her parchment once more as she does. The little silver heart shines back at her, and Hermione grits her teeth. She’s frustrated with it for causing this spiral, but most of all, she’s frustrated with herself. Of all the things to focus on, she had to pick the bloody heart. All the incredibly helpful advice and insights her pal had provided, both about the attack and Pansy, and she gets sidetracked by a stupid little symbol?

God, is this what Lavender feels like all the time?

Hermione extinguishes her lamp, then leans forward to drop a kiss on Crookshanks’ head and give him a small scratch. Once that very important nightly task is complete, she lies down and pulls the covers up to her chin, deciding to actually be a decent parchment pal and mull over the advice her dear friend had supplied. It’s something she wants to do, it’s something she needs to do, and it’ll be the distraction she needs from the now very much diminished, but still vaguely-present feeling she’s trying desperately to ignore.

She was running out of creatures to list, anyway.

Slowly, she lets her thoughts wander away from her physical sensations and back to her dilemma with Pansy. She thinks about the question her parchment pal had posited: is it in her best interest to forgive the Slytherin? She had certainly seemed genuinely concerned for Hermione’s well-being tonight, and for the first time, it hadn't raised any of Hermione's alarm bells. And if her pal was right, if something had really caused Pansy to reexamine her views, then shouldn’t Hermione try and be supportive of her newfound decency? After all, it’d be better to have one less vile troll roaming the halls of Hogwarts.

Trolls, there’s a creature she forgot to list.

And it’s not like Hermione would have to be friends with her. It was as her pal had said—they could simply coexist peacefully.

Hermione snorts lightly against her pillow. If anyone had told her she’d end this absolutely mad day considering peaceful coexistence with Pansy Parkinson, she’d have assumed they were under a particularly strong Confundus Charm. Yet here she was, doing just that.

But her parchment pal had seconded some of the things Pansy herself had said—most noticeably, that family could be horribly toxic, and that sometimes, the only thing you could do to survive was adapt. And if that was true, if Pansy had truly grown up in a nightmare with no escape, then perhaps it was time for Hermione to actually put her money where her mouth was. She had always talked a good game about being understanding. Maybe now was the time to back it up with action. Maybe it was time to extend the benefit of the doubt to Pansy Parkinson, of all people.

Pansy, who had looked at Hermione with such concern tonight.

And if Pansy…

If Pansy…

If…

Hermione’s mind draws a complete blank. Whatever thought she was about to have about Pansy is gone now, having fluttered away from her drowsy grasp. Sleep must be on the horizon. Her body feels heavy and leaden against her soft mattress, and random snippets of her day flash quickly through her mind.

Crookshanks plopping down on her face to wake her up this morning.

Ron laughing so hard he’d choked on his morning pumpkin juice.

Neville’s red, embarrassed face at dinner.

Malcolm’s cold eyes.

Pansy’s burning ones.

A small, silver heart that made her feel entirely too much.

The words “you still mean everything to me.”

Hermione’s only a few moments away from falling into what she hopes will be a dreamless sleep, as she certainly doesn’t want to relive the events of tonight. But perhaps unsurprisingly, her last thoughts before she succumbs to sleep are of the stranger on the other end of her parchment. And though she’s flirting with unconsciousness, she still manages to drowsily notice the moment butterflies flutter back into her stomach.

She’ll deny it all in the morning, of course. She’ll come up with excuses, rational, and logic to explain away the sensations and feelings brought on tonight.

But as of right now, snuggled comfortably in her bed on the very precipice of sleep, she knows without a doubt that despite everything, she’s still a little bit in love with her parchment pal.

And she’s not sure if she’ll ever get over it.