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a red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground

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Hermione can’t remember the last time they’ve had a day as perfect as this one. The sun is gently warming her skin, the breeze is caressing her cheeks like a lover, and the Black Lake is sparkling in the sunshine, as if diamonds have been scattered across its smooth, dark surface. By all accounts, it should be the best Saturday any of them have had all year.

It’s not.

“I just…Hufflepuff,” Ron says, looking vaguely ill. “Of all the teams to lose to, Hufflepuff.”

Harry nods weakly and Ginny angrily pulls a clump of grass from the lawn. “We were all there, Ron,” she says as she tosses the clump away from her with frustration. “We don’t need a recap.”

Hermione glances between the three of them with concern. They had all been in high spirits this morning as they cracked jokes about the Hufflepuff Quidditch team over the breakfast table, completely convinced that they were about to pull off the easiest win of the season. Ron had even said he felt as though Hufflepuff should be given some sort of advantage. “Maybe I should sit on the bench for the first half. They might have a shot if there’s no Keeper,” he’d said with a sly grin.

But now, after what Hermione can only describe as a thorough and complete trouncing, the atmosphere is decidedly different. Harry is staring despondently at the lake with his head propped up in his hands, Ginny has a face like thunder, and Ron looks completely shell-shocked.

Hermione hates seeing them like this, so in an effort to make them feel better, she very tentatively says, “it wasn’t that bad.”

Three pairs of eyes turn to glare at her at once and Hermione recoils a bit. “Don’t look at me like that! It wasn’t! You had a few good moments.”

“Name one,” Ron says.

“I…” Hermione trails off as she desperately tries to think of a single saving grace from today’s game. After an embarrassingly long pause, she turns to Ginny and says, “you were quick to duck that Bludger?”

Ginny snorts. “Only after the rest of our Chasers and our Beaters were walloped by the first four.”

“Well, that’s something!” Hermione says, trying to sound enthusiastic. “How many teams can say they’ve finished a game with just one Chaser left? And with no Beaters! Surely that’s a first!”

Ginny pulls out another clump of grass and flings it as hard as she can toward the lake. “We deserve to be expelled for that performance,” she mutters darkly.

“Hufflepuff,” Ron says again, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Every team has an off day,” Hermione says, this time trying to sound soothing instead of enthusiastic. “You’ll beat them next time.”

Harry shakes his head morosely. “We’re not playing them again. And even if we were, it wouldn’t matter. Our chances at winning the Quidditch Cup just imploded.”

“Kind of like half our team,” Ginny grumbles, pulling up another handful of grass and squeezing it in her fist.

Hufflepuff,” Ron groans, louder than before.

Without any warning, the clump of earth flies from Ginny’s hand and whacks Ron in the side of the head. He turns to Ginny with angry eyes. “Oi! What was that for?”

“To get you to say something other than Hufflepuff,” Ginny replies with a matching glare.

“I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense!” Ron says, brushing a few stray blades of grass from his hair. “Gran flies better than their entire team and she’s blind in one eye!” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t make sense,” he repeats, sounding dazed.

“Then we’ll make it make sense. We’ll go over the entire match,” Harry says with a resigned sigh. “We’ll see what went wrong, play by play. Starting with that Hawkshead Attacking Formation.”

Ron and Ginny both sigh, then dutifully lean forward to begin their post-game debrief. But before Harry can say anything, Hermione interrupts.

“You don’t need to go over the entire match right now.”

All three of them look up at Hermione with surprise.

“Uh…we do, actually,” Harry says, glancing uncertainly at Ron, who gives a small shrug. “Reviewing the match is the only way we’ll get better.”

“And there will be plenty of time for that later. But you’re all done wallowing for today. What’s done is done and there’s no use making yourselves miserable over it,” Hermione says calmly. “Besides, I’ve barely seen any of you all week! I don’t want to spend one of my only free days talking about Quidditch,” she finishes, wrinkling her nose with distaste.

Ron shakes his head a bit. “But Huffle—”

“If you finish that sentence, I’m throwing you into the lake,” Ginny says, her voice low and dangerous.

“I don’t care that Hufflepuff beat you,” Hermione says. “Frankly, I wouldn’t care if a particularly talented gaggle of geese beat you. You three can moan about this later, but for now, we’re going to talk about something other than Quidditch. It’s a beautiful day and I won’t have it ruined by a silly sport.”

Ron looks like he still wants to argue, but Harry sighs. “I suppose you’re right,” he says, running a hand absently through his messy hair. “After all, there’s no use going around in circles.”

“Tell that to Ron. He seemed to think that was a solid defensive strategy today,” Ginny mutters, flopping back on the grass and glaring up at the sky.

Ron turns bright red, but before he can answer, Hermione holds up a hand. “No. No more. We’re going to discuss something else, understood?”

“Like what?” Ginny grumbles, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Like…what have you three been up to in the past week?” Hermione asks.

“What have we been up to?” Ron asks, seeming to forget about Ginny’s dig for the moment. “What about you? You’ve practically been living in the library.”

“Yes, but I’ve already told you, I’m preparing for the N.E.W.T.s,” Hermione says smoothly, pleased when her body doesn’t betray her by blushing.

“By staying in the library all night?” Ron asks. “We’ve hardly seen you since Tuesday!”

Hermione repositions herself on the grass as she thinks about how to reply. It’s true, she hasn’t seen much of Harry and Ron over the past week. Instead, she’s been spending almost all of her free time with Pansy. They’ve been meeting in the library after hours to try and find a way to ensnare Pansy’s father, pouring over mountains of books and taking pages and pages of notes. And while Hermione had been concerned at first that they might find it tricky to spend so much one-on-one time together, so far, things between them have been…different.

Extremely different.

Gone are the days when Hermione regarded Pansy with suspicion. Gone are the doubts that clouded her mind about Pansy’s intentions. Gone are the worries, the sidelong glances, the little voice in her head telling her to tread carefully. All of those things feel like relics of some strange, not-so-distant past. Because ever since Pansy cleared the air between them and provided Hermione with the answers she needed to hear, it’s like they’ve started over with a clean slate. Pansy is continuing to make good on her promise to be a better person, Hermione is continuing to make good on showing forgiveness, and as the days pass by, both things seem to come easier and easier. And now, as bizarre as it seems, Hermione finds herself actually enjoying the time she spends with Pansy in the library.

It hadn’t been immediate, of course. The first few days had found Pansy hesitant, almost verging on shy. She had seemed nervous about overstepping her boundaries with Hermione, she would occasionally get flustered when she’d speak, and there were times when Hermione would ask her a question and Pansy would just stare at her for a moment, almost as if she hadn’t heard a word she’d said. But as time went on, Pansy had slowly grown more comfortable with Hermione, and now, she feels like she’s finally seeing Pansy for who she is. And surprisingly enough, she quite likes who she’s found.

Pansy is smart as a whip. She’s disciplined, driven, and resourceful, and Hermione can see why the Sorting Hat was quick to put her in Slytherin. What’s more, they work well together. Hermione never feels like she’s doing the heavy lifting (as she so often does when she’s in the library with Harry and Ron), and they’ve fallen into an easy, comfortable groove. And even though they’re working hard, it’s never quiet or dull between them. Pansy’s smarts lend themselves well to her sense of humor—she’s full of cutting remarks, quick comebacks, and quips that catch Hermione so off-guard that sometimes, her laughter bubbles over involuntarily, filling the library and making Pansy’s eyes shine in the process.

But there’s something else there, something lurking deep under her sharp-edges and carefully crafted bravado. Sometimes she’ll see it in the way Pansy holds the door open for her or hesitantly slips her a pear drop or two to sweeten their late nights spent in the library. Sometimes she’ll hear it in the questions Pansy asks about her family and her life outside of Hogwarts, tentatively whispered across stacks of books, seeped in curiosity and yearning. And sometimes, Hermione catches a glimpse of it when she looks up from a book and finds Pansy’s eyes already trained on her, soft and surprisingly fond. It’s moments like these that make Hermione want to continue to dig, to excavate whatever person is lurking behind the dark lips and guarded eyes and get to know her better. As a matter of fact, she’s so intrigued by Pansy that she’s had to periodically remind herself that they’re not in the library to unravel the mystery of Pansy Parkinson; they’re there to put a criminal behind bars.

Thinking about Pansy’s father still makes Hermione’s blood run cold and her vision cloud over with red. She can scarcely believe that a man like that exists in the world, and more so, that a child was raised under his cruel thumb. The story Pansy had told her that night on patrols has stayed with her, echoing in her head and filling her with both a righteous, burning fury, and a deep sorrow for everything Pansy has had to endure in her life. And while she hasn’t been brave enough to bring it up with Pansy again, she desperately wants to talk to someone about it. Normally, she’d tell Harry and Ron to see if they could provide any guidance, but as much as she’d like to loop the boys in, she had made a promise that she wouldn’t tell anyone what she was up to. Which is why Harry, Ron, and Ginny all believe she’s simply been studying in the quiet of the library, all by herself. Because if there’s one thing Hermione prides herself on, it’s being a woman of her word. And since she had promised Pansy her silence, she would deliver.

She tucks her legs under herself on the grass and glances up at Ron. “I know I’ve been busy,” she says gently. “But you know as well as I do that it’s impossible to study in the common room. And anyway, what’s the use of having special access to the library if I never utilize it?”

“Yeah, but you had patrols Tuesday and Thursday!” Ron says.

“I…did,” Hermione says slowly, confused at Ron’s seemingly unrelated reply.

“And then you studied Wednesday and Friday.”

“Quick, someone owl mum. Ron’s finally mastered the days of the week,” Ginny mutters.

Ron shoots a glare toward Ginny, then looks back to Hermione with a concerned frown. “I’m just worried about you. That’s too many thing for one person. You’ll burn out if you’re not careful.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be alright,” Hermione says with a small smile. “I can take care of myself, you know.”

“I know that, but I just think that—”

“Oh, leave her alone,” Ginny says crossly. “If she wants to live in the library, then that’s her choice. Maybe you could join her there. Check out a book on how to play Quidditch while you’re at it,” she adds.

Before Ron can open his mouth, Hermione reaches out and flicks Ginny’s leg gently. “No more Quidditch talk, remember?”

Ginny sighs. “You’re right. Sorry.” She sits up and rubs her eyes. “I’ve never been very good at shaking off a loss. Especially not one like that. But I promise, no more. From here on out, I’ll be on my best behavior.” She crosses her legs, leans forward, and stage-whispers, “but if you want to check out a book on Quidditch for beginners and slip it into Ron’s bag, I won't stop you.”

Ron turns bright red as he turns to Ginny. “You know, I didn’t see you scoring any goals for us today!”

“Gee, maybe that’s because I was our entire bloody offense?” Ginny retorts hotly.

“I’m always our entire defense and you don’t hear me complaining, do you?”

Ginny laughs wildly and her eyes flash. “Oh, that’s rich!”

“What’s rich?”

“All I ever hear you do is complain! It’s the only thing you know how to do!”

“That’s not true! Harry, tell her that I don’t complain!”

“Don’t you dare take his side, Harry.”

Harry glances warily between the siblings. “I…I wouldn’t say he always complains…”

“Hah! See?” Ron says, flushed with victory.

“Are you joking?” Ginny explodes. “What about practice, two days ago? He refused to start on time because his arm guards were too tight,” she says, raising her voice in a whiny approximation of Ron’s.

It was a valid complaint!” Ron seethes.

“I—”

Hermione sighs as the three of them immediately launch into another Quidditch-centric debate. Clearly, getting them to talk about anything else is a losing battle right now, so instead, she tunes out their conversation, reaches into her bag, and pulls out her parchment, wincing when she sees a message already waiting for her.

Truth be told, she’s felt a bit guilty over her parchment this week. Her long nights spent with Pansy have forced her to put her parchment pal on the back burner, and anytime she sees her pal’s customary nightly message waiting for her, she feels a trickle of shame over her negligence. And what’s more, she usually only manages a few short messages before exhaustion completely overwhelms her. She feels absolutely awful about it, and though her pal has been incredibly kind about her lack of messages, Hermione still can’t help but worry that deep down, she’s feeling neglected. Which is why she’s decided that this weekend, she’s going to take the time to make sure her parchment pal knows how much she still means to her.

She glances down at today’s silver message.

Robin,

I was sitting outside earlier today and lo and behold, I saw a robin. She was nesting high up in a tree, singing to her heart’s content, and it made me think of you. I’m sure I looked like a complete fool, smiling up at a tree without a care in the world, but I’ve found it’s hard to do anything other than smile when my thoughts turn to you.

I hope that wherever you are today, you’re just as content and carefree as that robin.

Your bard ♥

Hermione smiles at the heart (which is now a staple in their messages) and gently traces it, sighing softly as the now-familiar butterflies flutter into her stomach. But unlike last week, she doesn't immediately push them away or try to rationalize them. She simply lets them float there, filling her with a soft and dreamy sort of lightness. It’s a lightness that still scares her down to her bones, but it’s a lightness she’s very tentatively started to really think about.

And it’s all thanks to Pansy Parkinson.

Of all the people at Hogwarts to give her practical and helpful advice, Pansy would have been close to last on Hermione’s list. But standing there in the cold outside of Zonko’s last Saturday, Pansy had somehow managed to say exactly what Hermione needed to hear. And even after her date with Ron was over, she had found herself thinking about Pansy’s words, replaying them over and over again, like a well-loved VHS tape.

She thinks about them now as she idly trails her finger up and down her parchment.

I know it’d be far easier to stop…but I’m a firm believer that worthwhile things are rarely easy. So even though I hardly recognize my own thoughts and even though the consequences of my questions are terrifying, I know I can’t stop. Because it’s worth it.

She remembers what she had said to Pansy that day, too.

For what it’s worth…I think it is worth it.

What she had meant at the time was she thought Pansy’s journey toward self-discovery was a long overdue and worthwhile pursuit. But Pansy’s swift reply and serious eyes had taken her off guard.

For me, or for you?

Hermione had been put on the spot as she was forced to consider the question as it pertained to her.

Were the feelings she was having and the doubts swirling in her mind actually worth unpacking? Should she stop shoving them into dark and dusty corners of her mind and instead, expose them to the light and really examine them? Should she reconsider everything she thought she knew about herself, even if it scared her to her core? Should she stop hiding like a coward from what was starting to look more and more like the truth? And would accepting the truth actually make her happier in the long run?

Was it worth it?

At the time, she had told Pansy maybe. But as the days stretched on and she continued to be inundated with foreign feelings and sensations, she had continued to make weak excuses and flimsy rationalizations. As much as she wanted to be brave, she was still far too afraid to face facts, so she had let Ron walk her to class and forced herself to accept his hand in hers and his clumsy and over-eager kisses to her cheek with a tight smile. She had told herself that everything was fine and that she just needed some time to settle into their new dynamic. She had tried to convince herself that her feelings for Ron just needed a bit of extra time to develop. And she probably would have continued to tell herself just that and to keep hiding from the truth if it wasn’t for patrols last Tuesday.

In her quest to get Pansy to take on her father, she had told Pansy that while it would be easier to go on pretending that she was the same person she had always been, it wouldn’t be worth it. “You’d be miserable,” she had said, gazing earnestly at Pansy in the dimly lit hallway. “And honestly, wouldn’t you rather be happy? Wouldn’t you rather live authentically?

The moment the word slipped from her lips, she had realized how hypocritically she was acting. Who was she to tell Pansy to be brave, to live authentically, when she couldn’t even sit with a few simple questions? And why was she reminding Pansy that worthwhile things rarely came easily when she herself was so bloody content to take the easy way out? Her own behavior had rattled her in a way that made her both deeply uncomfortable and incredibly ashamed. So that night after patrols, she had decided to finally tap into her Gryffindor courage, stubbornly telling herself that if Pansy Parkinson could do it, so could she.

And she had. She laid in bed and let herself ask all the questions that had been slithering into her mind over the past few weeks. But this time, instead of brushing them off or making feeble excuses, she had made herself answer them as honestly as she could manage, thinking each one through to its logical conclusion. And even when the answers had frightened her or made her flush and squirm with discomfort, she had forced herself to keep going. To keep digging, even if everything in her was screaming at her to stop. And at the end of the whole exhausting process, she had realized a few things.

One—she didn’t have any feelings for Ron, and she never would. And the longer she continued to string him along, the more she was risking their friendship. Because somehow, in yet another surprising twist, Pansy had been right about that, too—she was using Ron without any regard for his feelings. She had just been too blinded by her own fear to notice it. But that night, she realized that she’d have to end things with him, no matter how hard it might be.

Two—she had feelings for her parchment pal. Real, strong feelings that weren’t going away, not even with the knowledge that her pal was a woman. She still checked her parchment for new messages obsessively, she still thought about her dear friend morning, noon, and night, and perhaps most tellingly of all, she still found herself desperately longing to make their secret, shared dream of Paris a reality.

Three—there was no denying that she felt something when it came to women. Something strong and overwhelming and something that she certainly didn’t feel for men. It had been the hardest thing to come to terms with, but she had forced herself to do it. In the dark of the night, she had closed her eyes and imagined what it would be like to be with a woman, refusing to back down even when she felt the first terrifying flush of arousal. She had pushed forward, imagining soft curves and even softer lips. She had imagined tangling her hands in long hair and seeking out hot, exposed skin with her mouth. She had imagined smooth, warm legs wrapped around hers under cool bedsheets. She had imagined until she felt like she was on fire and the ache between her legs had become impossible to ignore. And while she still hadn’t been brave enough to take care of the ache that night, so to speak, she had managed to finally admit to herself the scariest thing of all…

Four—she wasn’t straight. Not even a little bit.

Her feelings for her parchment pal weren’t some curious one-off anomaly. They were real, they were overwhelming, and they had ignited something deep down inside of her. Something she hadn’t even realized existed.

Looking back now of course, she can see the signs. Perhaps she should have realized when she found herself both confused and annoyed by how ridiculously pretty Fleur was in fourth year. Perhaps she should have realized when she hadn’t been able to string a single coherent sentence together under Tonks’ warm, amused gaze. Perhaps she should have realized when the thought of Viktor’s lips anywhere near hers had made her stomach turn, or when Lavender and Parvati’s discussions about boys had made her eyes glaze over.

Perhaps she should have realized. But she hadn’t. She had simply assumed she was a slow bloomer but that finding the right man would change all that. She had never given a single thought to her own sexuality. It had taken the equivalent of a neon sign flashing in front of her face for Hermione to actually start to question things.

And now that she’s finally let herself think through everything, now that she’s finally come to the tentative conclusion that she’s not straight, she’s…she’s…

She’s fucking terrified, to put it bluntly.

But she’s doing a damn good job hiding it.

She’s been putting up an excellent facade and going about her day as if everything is still the same, acting as if she hadn’t just discovered something monumental and life changing. To the outside observer, nothing has changed in the life of Hermione Granger. And to be honest, it’s helped that she’s barely had a moment of free time since Tuesday to really think about things. But in those rare instances when she does find herself alone and left to her own thoughts, they inevitably stray to this newly discovered piece of herself and what it’ll mean for her in the long run.

And those thoughts are perhaps the hardest of all.

She won’t get married. Her silly little dream of wearing a pretty white dress and walking down an aisle will never come true, and as stupid as it is, it breaks her heart.

She won’t ever be a mum. She’s always had a soft-spot for children and had treasured the idea of having her own someday, of teaching them to read and tying tiny shoes and holding tiny hands.

She’ll need to reconsider her career path. She had always assumed she’d find a job at the Ministry after graduation and work her way up the political ladder slowly but surely. But now, that seems like a pipe dream. Because while the Wizarding world and the Muggle world don’t have many similarities, they do tend to line up fairly well when it comes to their views on same-sex relationships. And even if she stays single for her entire life, she’d still be pushing it. She can’t imagine that an unwed woman would make it very far in the court of public opinion.

She might lose her friends and family. Her parents are the kindest, most loving people in the world, but they’re also fairly traditional. And while they had accepted Hermione’s magical abilities (albeit with no shortage of confusion), she’s not sure if they’d be able to accept this. As for Harry and Ron, she’s almost positive they’d understand, but the part of her that remains uncertain is enough to make her want to never voice this particular tidbit about herself to anyone.

It’s all overwhelming in the worst way possible, and when the thoughts become too much for her, she’s tempted to just shove them back into that dusty, unused corner of her mind and let them molder there for the rest of her life. It would certainly be easier to pretend that nothing has changed rather than having to rethink her entire future and everything she’s ever wanted out of life.

But then, she’ll think about her parchment pal and her heart will beat faster and the butterflies will swarm and she’ll realize that what Pansy had said in Hogsmeade was true—it doesn’t matter that it’s scary or that it would be far easier to be the same person. Because if she did that, she’d spend the rest of her life miserably living out a lie. And to be honest, she can’t imagine spending the rest of her life never feeling the way she feels when she thinks about her parchment pal. So even when things get overwhelming, she forces herself to keep those thoughts out in the open in the hopes that one day, they won’t scare her at all. That one day, she won’t even remember what she was so worried about in the first place.

And speaking of her parchment pal…

Hermione hasn’t mentioned this recent development to her dear friend, and she doubts she will before the year is up. Because to be honest, she’s barely wrapped her head around any of it herself. She’s still too afraid of what it all means and the changes she’ll have to make to ensure a safe and relatively happy future. She doesn’t want to add even more confusion to her already overflowing plate by tossing in a potential relationship. Of course, that’s not to say she won’t mention it at some point. Perhaps when they meet in person for the first time, she’ll find a way to awkwardly bring it up. But as of right now, she’s perfectly content to keep this little piece of herself under wraps until she’s fully come to grips with it and figured out how she feels, once and for all.

But that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been letting the smallest hint of flirtation creep back into her letters.

Perhaps that’s an understatement—she’s essentially let herself revert back to the Robin she was before her parchment pal had revealed her gender.

The change has been gradual at first—it had started in the aftermath of the night Hermione was almost attacked on patrols. Her bard had poured her heart out and let herself express the same sorts of feelings she had conveyed before, clearly shaken by the close call. But this time, instead of insisting they remain on strictly friendly terms, Hermione had leaned into it. And now, they’re more or less back to where they were, and quite frankly, Hermione couldn’t be happier.

She reaches for her quill to reply to her pal’s newest message, but before she starts writing, she glances up to make sure Harry, Ron, and Ginny are all still sufficiently distracted.

“And that’s another thing!” Ginny says, her face bright red. “If you hadn’t been so bloody confident at breakfast this morning, we wouldn’t have gone into the match thinking we were invincible! We were sloppy and careless because you made us all underestimate them!”

I made you underestimate them?” Ron says, looking flabbergasted. “You’re the one who said we should make Neville our Chaser to even the playing field!”

Hermione doesn’t bother to listen to Ginny’s retort. She just shakes her head in irritation and tunes them out once more, then begins to write.

Dear bard,

It must be lovely to be reminded of me so easily. And don’t worry, I don’t say that out of narcissism. I say it out of jealousy. Because truth be told, I’d love to be reminded of you at every turn. But alas, wandering bards aren’t as commonplace as robins during the springtime. Though I suppose all things considered, it doesn’t really matter. My thoughts seem to inevitably turn to you, with or without a reminder.

I’m sorry to report that I’m not quite as content and carefree as the robin you spotted, though. You see, today is one of my only free days and I was so excited to spend it with my friends. Little did I know they’d spend the entire day talking about Quidditch. Perhaps it’s sacrilege to say this, but I’ve never understood the appeal. The whole thing is illogical and incredibly dangerous. The Snitch is worth one-hundred and fifty points which doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, and the very existence of Bludgers in a sport is somehow both absurd and inhumane. But I’d never mention any of that to them. They’d probably use me as target practice for our Beaters if I voiced that particular opinion.

…Perhaps I should have asked if you like Quidditch before I told you one of my deepest, darkest secrets. I hope I haven’t offended you so much that you’ll never speak to me again. If you do like Quidditch, then I suppose you’ll just have to try and convince me. I have a feeling that if anyone could do it, it would be you.

But I’m being just as bad as they are now, so no more. I’ve heard more than enough about Quidditch today, and I won’t let it sully our conversation. Tell me about your day, bard. Anything and everything.

Yours,
Robin ♥

Hermione taps the message with her wand, then looks up to see if Harry, Ron, and Ginny are done discussing Quidditch.

She raises her eyebrows as she takes in the sight before her. It would appear that Harry has enchanted fourteen of Ron’s Wizarding Chess pieces to act as the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor Quidditch teams, and he’s using his wand to manipulate them through the air as he replays the entire match. With a quick flick of his wrist, he makes one of the Hufflepuff pieces slam into a Gryffindor piece, knocking it out of the air. Ron and Ginny both wince as it tumbles to the ground, as if it was a real player.

Hermione rolls her eyes and is about to forcibly remind them that they had promised her no more Quidditch talk when she’s distracted by a single silver line appearing on her parchment.

I suppose now would be a bad time to tell you that I’ve always dreamt of playing for the Holyhead Harpies…

Hermione stares at the message and worries her lower lip. She reaches for her quill hesitantly, preparing to apologize for sticking her foot in her mouth, but before she can pick it up another line appears below the first.

I’m kidding. I couldn’t agree more. Whoever came up with the rules to Quidditch clearly did so whilst under the influence of a firewhisky or two.

Hermione heaves a sigh of relief as she picks up her quill, pleased that no matter what happens between her and her parchment pal, she’ll never have to pretend to like Quidditch in her presence.

She twirls her quill, but before she can lean forward to pen her reply, a chess piece comes careening her way and lands with a heavy thump dangerously close to her leg. She picks it up and shakes her head, then glances up to find Harry, Ron, and Ginny, all staring at her nervously.

“I…sorry,” Harry says, rubbing his neck uncomfortably. “It got away from me. Suppose I was a bit too enthusiastic.”

Hermione scoffs. “That’s what you’re sorry for?” she asks, arching an eyebrow.

“No, I’m…” Harry sighs heavily. “We promised you no more Quidditch talk. I’m sorry. I guess it’s hard for all of us to brush off a loss,” he adds with a small wince.

Hermione tosses the chess piece toward Harry, who smoothly catches it and hands it to Ron. “Well, don’t let me stop you from replaying the same game you just played, rather than spending time with your friend who you haven’t seen all week,” she says airily. “I’ve got plenty of company right here,” she says, nodding toward her parchment.

Ron’s eyes drop down to the parchment and he scowls a bit. “You’re talking to him?” he asks with the faintest hint of jealousy sneaking into his tone.

Hermione eyes the red flush creeping up Ron’s neck and shrugs. “They’re not ignoring me,” she says simply. She hasn’t yet admitted that she knows her parchment pal is a woman, but she’s decided to take the next available opportunity to clue them all in. Until then, she’s been using purposefully vague pronouns.

Harry winces and says, “and neither are we. At least, not anymore. No more Quidditch talk. Agreed?” he asks, glancing at Ron and Ginny, who both nod quickly. With a wave of his wand, Harry gathers all the Wizarding Chess pieces and slots them back into their designated spaces in Ron’s chess set. Then, he tucks his wand away, sits down, and scoots closer toward Hermione. “All done,” he says with a sheepish smile.

Hermione hums. “You’re being rather presumptuous, aren’t you? What if I’d rather talk to my parchment pal?”

“Then you’d be mad,” Ron says seriously, sitting back down. “Because you don’t need him. Not when you’re already sitting with the most interesting people in the entire school.”

Ginny sits and hums in agreement, then says, “oh, and look, Ron’s here, too.” She gives Ron a cheeky grin when he throws her a dark look, then she adds, “but he’s right. With company like this, who needs parchment pals?”

Hermione rolls her eyes fondly, but decides to redirect her focus for the time being. She tucks her parchment away in her bag and says, “fine. But if I hear even the slightest mention of Quidditch…”

Harry shakes his head quickly and zips his lips for good measure, and Hermione smiles. “Well, then. I suppose I can prioritize you lot for the time being,” she says.

Ron glances at Hermione’s bag. “I didn’t even think you were still talking to him,” he says, absently skimming his palm over the grass. He’s trying hard to both look and sound casual, but Hermione can tell by the flush on his cheeks that he’s desperate to dig for more information. “I mean, I haven’t seen you hunched over that thing for ages.”

“I suppose I’ve been a bit more preoccupied as of late, but no, we still talk,” Hermione says. “Every night, actually. Just before bed.”

Ron’s flush darkens and his eyes grow wide. “You talk before bed?” he asks, looking as if Hermione’s just announced some dark, sordid secret. “Every night?”

Hermione nods. “We do. It’s our nightly ritual. We send messages back and forth until one of us falls asleep,” she adds glancing at her bag with a small, secret smile.

When she looks back up at Ron though, she notices that he looks completely stricken by her statement. She shifts uncomfortably under his gaze, feeling guilt trickle through her at the sight.

The thing is, Ron’s jealousy isn’t exactly unwarranted. It would only be unwarranted had she actually managed to break things off with him. But she hasn’t. At least, not yet. It’s not because she wants to lead him on; more than anything, she wants to be honest and give Ron the respect he deserves, no matter how difficult the conversation might be. But she’s been so bloody busy since Tuesday night that she hasn’t been able to find the right moment to have the conversation at all. She’s only seen Ron in group settings, and there’s no way she’s going to let him down with all of their friends watching. So instead, she’s been doing her best to dodge his attempts to initiate physical contact and evade all his efforts to plan their second date. While it’s not an ideal solution, it’ll have to do for now.

“You fall asleep with this bloke? From your bed?” Ron finally manages to sputter, more or less repeating what he’s already asked.

“That’s generally where people fall asleep, yes,” Ginny says.

“Yes, but…every night?” Ron asks.

“I…” Hermione flushes and trails off. “Yes?” she finally says, the reply coming out more like a question than a statement. She shakes her head and huffs impatiently at herself. “Yes,” she says, this time with more force behind it. “I do. Which quite frankly, shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. You know I enjoy their company, and I am allowed to have other…other friends,” Hermione finishes a bit lamely, stumbling over the word friends. It’s become a wholly inadequate word for the way she feels about her parchment pal.

“Of course you are, but you…you don’t even know him!”

“I do,” Hermione says. “Quite well, actually. Which is what tends to happen when you talk to someone every night.”

“But from your bed. That’s…that’s…” Ron repeats, seeming stunned.

Ginny rolls her eyes and tsks in frustration. “That’s what people do when they like someone.”

“I know that! But I just thought that—”

“You talk to Harry from your bed, don’t you?” Ginny asks, cutting Ron off.

“I…” Ron shakes his head, flustered. “Of course I do, but our beds are next to each other. I don’t sit up by candlelight penning letters to him!”

“No, but I’d be honored if you did,” Harry says, throwing a lopsided grin toward Ron.

“That’s not…I mean, that’s…” Ron runs a hand through his hair a bit wildly. “Why?” he finally asks, looking at Hermione.

“Why what?” she asks.

“Why do you send letters to each other every night? What is it about him that’s so bloody intriguing?” Ron asks, unable to hide the jealousy and desperation in his voice. "I thought that I…that we…” he shakes his head again and looks at Hermione. “Why?”

Hermione worries her lip and glances at Ginny, desperately hoping she’ll intervene. But Ginny simply shrugs and says, “sorry, but I’m on Ron’s side this time.”

“You are?” Ron asks with surprise.

“You are?” Harry echoes, staring at Ginny as if he doesn’t recognize her.

Ginny nods, then pauses and says, “well, no. I think he’s being ridiculous and that Hermione can talk to whoever she wants, whenever she wants. You’re acting like the next logical step after sending letters back and forth is a marriage proposal,” Ginny says with a massive eye roll. “And anyway, I don’t know why you’re so upset. She’s already gone on a date with you and she didn’t transfer schools the next day, so she’s clearly interested.” Hermione flushes at the casually delivered statement, but Ginny doesn’t seem to notice, because she says, “Merlin knows why, though, considering how ludicrously you’re acting over the idea of Hermione having another male friend. But putting aside all of that, if I’m being honest…I’ve been dying to know more about this bloke for ages. And getting information out of you is like pulling teeth,” she adds, giving Hermione a stern look. “I barely know anything about him and mind you, that’s not for lack of trying. So if this is the only way we can get you to spill the beans, then I will very, very reluctantly take Ron’s side.”

Hermione looks between the three of them with distress. She can feel her heart rate picking up and her whole body feels warm, as if she’s under a spotlight. “I…perhaps you’d like to go back to discussing that Hawks…head…thingy?” she asks weakly.

“Oh, no. You’re the one who wanted to talk about something other than Quidditch,” Ginny says with a grin. “There’s no getting out of this now.”

Hermione looks to Harry, who simply shrugs. “Sorry, but I’m with them.”

“Harry!” Hermione says, feeling betrayed.

“Sorry!” he says again, this time with a small laugh. “I just…I’d like to know more, too! That’s not a crime, is it? All we really know about this bloke is that he exists and he’s managed to capture your attention in a way that nothing else has before. Not even classwork,” Harry adds, looking impressed.

“Well, then, that’s three for and one against. And I may not be great at maths, but I’m fairly sure that means we’ve won. So no more deflecting what you should have told us ages ago.” Ginny rests her chin on top of her fists and leans forward with interest. “What’s he like?”

Hermione glances between them once more. Ginny’s face is bright with anticipation, Harry looks intrigued, and Ron is still flushed with jealousy. Anxiety bubbles in Hermione’s gut at the looks on their faces, and she digs her fingers into her thigh as she considers what to say. Because somehow, the moment she’s been waiting for has come at last—she can finally tell them that her parchment pal is a woman.

But for some reason, the words seem to be curiously stuck in her throat. It should be the easiest thing in the world to admit, but she’s convinced herself that if she tells them the truth, they’ll all immediately put two and two together and realize the bigger truth. The one that she herself hasn’t even fully come to term with. And if they do realize the bigger truth, there’s no telling how any of them will react.

But as she glances up at Harry, Ron, and Ginny again, something in her seems to settle with resignation. These are her best friends in the entire world. They’re the people she’d give her life for, no questions asked, and they’re the people who love her, faults and all. And if she can’t tell them the smallest piece of the puzzle, if she can’t let them in on her parchment pal’s gender of all things, then how on earth does she ever expect to let them in on the rest? It’s all well and good to be frightened of the bigger picture, but this is just a drop in the bucket. And quite frankly, telling them about this will be good practice. Because if she can get through this, then perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, she can tell them everything.

And all that aside, she can’t keep her parchment pal’s identity a secret forever. Eventually the experiment will end and they’ll all find out anyway, so it makes sense to do it now. Hermione takes a deep breath as she makes up her mind that even though she’s not ready to trust them with the whole truth just yet, she can at least trust them with part of it.

Steeling herself the best she can, she casually says, “well for one thing…I’ve never said my parchment pal is a man.”

All three of them look completely baffled by Hermione’s words, and if there wasn’t so much apprehension buzzing about her body, Hermione would laugh at their identical reactions. Instead, she glances between them, waiting to see who will be the first to really realize what she’s said.

After a painfully long moment, Ron’s eyes slowly widen and his mouth drops. “You…I mean…what?” he asks, staring at Hermione as if she’s just sprouted an extra head.

Hermione manages a small shrug. “My parchment pal is a woman. I found out a few weeks ago. It was…surprising,” she says carefully. “But it’s…it’s not like it changed anything,” she murmurs, almost as an after thought.

It’s technically true. She had had feelings for her parchment pal before she knew her gender. And now that she knows her gender, she still has feelings for her.

“I’m sorry, I just need to…have I got this right? Your parchment pal…is a woman?” Ron asks, staring at Hermione.

Hermione nods, but before she can say anything else, a slow smile starts to stretch over Ron’s face, lighting up his features and making his eyes sparkle. “A woman!” he says, looking positively delighted. “Well, that’s…I mean that’s…” he laughs and claps his hands down upon his knees with elation. “Blimey! A woman!”

“How’d you find out?” Harry asks, leaning forward with interest.

Hermione can’t exactly say that her parchment pal had come out to her in the middle of professing romantic feelings for her, so instead, she says, “she mentioned something about her monthlies,” hoping Harry doesn’t notice the small flush on her cheeks caused by her lie of omission.

“Her monthlies!” Ron echoes with glee, as if monthlies are his favorite topic in the world.

“That must have been an awkward conversation,” Harry says with a small grimace. “But better to find out now than at the end of the experiment, eh?” he adds lightly.

“Can you imagine?” Ron asks, turning to Harry with shining eyes. “You’d show up expecting some tall, dark, and handsome bloke and then…a woman,” he repeats with pure joy. He turns back to Hermione with the smile still plastered on his face. “Why didn’t you tell us all sooner?”

Hermione flushes. “I—”

“What’s she like?” Ron asks, plowing ahead without waiting for a reply. “Have you figured out who she is? I mean…blimey! To think this whole time, we all thought it was a man! But it’s not!”

She fidgets a bit uncomfortably at Ron’s overwhelming exuberance. “No, but—”

“It’ll be nice to have another female friend, I’d imagine,” Harry says encouragingly, not realizing he’s cut Hermione off. “I mean, I know you’ve got Ginny and Luna, obviously, but seems like this one is something special.” Harry’s eyes widen at his own words. “Not that you’re not, of course,” he amends quickly, turning to Ginny with a panicked and apologetic glance.

Hermione’s eyes flick toward Ginny, expecting her to be giving Harry some kind of wry, exasperated look. But instead, her brown eyes are trained on Hermione, and there’s a small, questioning frown etched between her brows. Before Hermione can puzzle out what the look on Ginny’s face means though, Ron’s voice steals her attention.

“I just can’t believe we never worked it out,” he says, grinning at Harry as if he’s just single-handedly won the House Cup. “The whole time, we were all so bloody sure it was a man! I mean, even you thought so,” Ron adds, gesturing toward Hermione who manages a small, weak nod.

“Was it weird?” Harry asks. “After you found out, I mean? Did she think she was talking to a man, too?”

“Merlin, she must have,” Ron puts in. “I mean, the length of those letters alone! You don’t send letters that long unless you’re interested in someone, right?”

Hermione desperately rubs a hand against her hot cheek as she tries to stay in control of her emotions. She glances at Ginny again to find brown eyes still trained on her. But this time, there’s something different in her gaze. She doesn’t look puzzled anymore. She looks almost like…

“I dunno,” Harry says, interrupting Hermione’s train of thought. “There are some people who are into that kind of thing, you know.”

Every muscle in Hermione’s body tenses at the statement.

“What kind of thing?” Ron asks.

Harry rubs his neck embarrassedly. “You know…blokes with blokes, women with women…that sort of thing?” he asks, wincing with discomfort.

“Oh,” Ron says. There’s a small frown on his face and Hermione finds herself holding her breath as she waits for him to piece it all together. But instead of his eyes clearing and his mouth dropping open in realization, he gives a small shiver. “I suppose so, but that’s…I mean, that’s just nasty, isn’t it?” he asks with revulsion, and Harry nods in absentminded agreement. “Merlin…imagine if she knew and she was just into it. That’d be all sorts of wrong.”

Hermione feels her stomach plummet.

Harry shrugs. “Did she seem into it?” he asks, turning to Hermione with genuine curiosity in his eyes.

Panic rises in her chest at the question and all thoughts of living authentically are pushed from her head as she scrambles to maintain her cover. She quickly shakes her head and says, “no, I…she didn’t seem…I mean, she…she didn’t know,” hoping that even though she’s rambling, she’s still managed to sound convincing.

She must sound believable enough, because Ron nods. “Well, that’s good, at least. But even so, it’s all so weird. Knowing that you were talking to another woman about…well, whatever you were talking about. I mean, had I been flirting over parchment with a bloke, making plans to go to Paris…” he trails off and shakes his head. “I mean, honestly, I think I’d be sick. That’s just…” he grimaces, as if he’s never had to entertain such a horrible thought before in his life. “It’s not right. I think there’s something genuinely wrong with those people. Not that you could have known,” Ron adds quickly, looking at Hermione with what she thinks is supposed to be a reassuring smile.

But the reassurance is completely lost on her. Hermione’s face is still flaming with embarrassment over Ron’s comments, and she’s never felt smaller or more miserable in her life. His palpable disgust feels like it’s clinging to her skin, and if she wasn’t so petrified about saying the wrong thing or reacting in the wrong way, she’s sure she’d be crying.

Her eyes inadvertently flick toward Ginny, but this time, Ginny’s gaze isn’t trained on Hermione. Instead, she’s giving Ron a sidelong glare and her jaw is tightly clenched. But she must feel Hermione’s eyes on her because she quickly tears her gaze away from Ron’s face, and the moment her eyes meet Hermione’s, her expression changes. There’s something in her eyes, some curious mix of confusion, concern, and distress, and Hermione has no idea what to make of it.

All she knows is at this moment, she wants to sink into the ground and never resurface.

“Blimey,” Ron murmurs. “A woman.”

Harry stretches his legs out in the grass and says, “you should have told him sooner, Hermione. Would’ve saved us all from weeks of his massive jealous streak.”

“Oi! I’m not jealous!”

“And I’m the Queen of England,” Harry says lightly. Then, he glances up at Hermione. “So how did she react? I mean, it must have been a strange transition to make, right?”

Hermione swallows around the painful lump in her throat and pushes a hand through her hair, trying desperately not to cry. “I…I—”

“Oi! You three!”

Hermione glances over her shoulder and sags in relief when she sees Gryffindor’s Beater, Jimmy Peakes, heading toward them. Even from a distance, Hermione can tell that he’s sporting a black eye and his lip is swollen where it made direct contact with Hufflepuff’s Bludger. Once he’s close enough to speak without shouting, he says, “I’ve been looking for you lot everywhere. Pomfrey’s given the all-clear for visitors, if you want to drop in on everyone,” he says, coming to a stop before them. “Might help morale if you do. They’re all…” he grimaces, then says, “let’s just say I’ve been to cheerier funerals. Reckon it’d do them a spot of good to have a pep-talk from our fearless captain.”

Harry nods and sits up straighter. “I was going to drop by before dinner. Is everyone…”

“In one piece? Yeah. Well…more or less,” Jimmy says with a small wince. “Ritchie and Rose took the biggest beatings. Broken arm for her and a bashed in nose for him. But they’ll live.”

Harry grimaces, then he turns to look at Hermione with an apology lurking in his eyes. “I know I promised no more Quidditch talk, but…”

“Visiting your teammates isn’t Quidditch talk. It’s just being a good leader,” Hermione says quickly. Quite frankly, she’s not upset by Jimmy’s interruption at all. She’s actually thrilled for the distraction. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make it through a whole conversation about her parchment pal without accidentally admitting the truth of her own sexuality in the process, and after Ron’s vehement reaction, that’s the last thing she wants to do right now.

“Yeah, but I know we said we’d spend the day together, and I just…”

Hermione shakes her head firmly. “There’s always tonight. So go on, then,” she says, tapping Harry smartly on the knee. Then she looks at Ron and Ginny and says, “that goes for the lot of you. Go visit your fallen comrades.”

Ron frowns. “I don’t want to leave you alone out here. I can always pop round later,” he says uncertainly.

“You’ll do no such thing. You’re a team, so you’ll go together. And besides, it’s not like you’re going off to war. It’s almost dinnertime. I’ll see you again in an hour.”

Ron sighs. “I suppose you’re right.” He stands up and brushes the grass from his pants, then turns to Ginny. “You coming?”

Hermione looks at Ginny to find brown eyes still trained on her face. “I…yeah,” Ginny says, looking away from Hermione’s gaze quickly. “Yeah, let me just…”

She slips her discarded shoes and socks back on, stands up, and swings her bag onto her shoulder. “Alright,” she says. “Let’s go.”

Jimmy, Harry, Ginny, and Ron all say their goodbyes to Hermione, then start back toward the castle. But after a few steps, Ginny pauses. She turns around and glances down at Hermione, biting her lower lip.

Fear creeps into Hermione’s heart at the conflicted look on Ginny’s face, but she still manages to lightly ask, “forget something?”

“No, I just…I wanted to say that if you want to talk later…about…about anything,” she says slowly, scrutinizing Hermione carefully.

“What’s there to talk about?” Hermione asks, trying to keep her tone upbeat and casual, but even she can hear how miserably she’s failing. Ron’s disgust is still echoing in her ears and she feels dirty and ashamed.

Ginny eyes her closely. “You tell me,” she murmurs.

Hermione sits up straighter and lifts her chin proudly. “I don’t—”

“Or don’t,” Ginny adds quickly. “Whatever you want to do, I just thought that…” she trails off, then thrusts a hand through her windswept red hair. “I just want you to know that you can talk to me. About anything. You do know that, right?” she asks, staring earnestly at Hermione.

“Of course I do,” Hermione says. “But there’s nothing to talk about.”

“Hermione…”

“You should go. They’re all waiting for you,” Hermione says, gesturing toward the castle.

“I know, but…”

“You’ll give Ritchie and Rose my best wishes, won’t you?” Hermione asks.

“Yes, but—”

Before Ginny can continue, Ron yells her name from the castle doors. She glances toward him with irritation and throws up her index finger, then she looks back to Hermione. “I just…I…” she runs a hand through her hair again, then she exhales sharply. “I meant what I said. You can tell me anything. And that’s a standing offer, okay?”

“Thank you. And the same goes for you, obviously,” Hermione says, digging her fingers into her thigh as she struggles to keep her tone calm and even. “But I’m afraid I’m as deadly dull as I’ve always been, so there’s nothing to tell.”

Ginny shakes her head and frowns, but after a long moment, she finally nods, seemingly willing to drop the subject for the time being. “Right. If you’re sure, you don’t want to talk, then I suppose I’ll just…see you at dinner?”

Hermione nods. “See you then,” she says, dropping her gaze to the grass. She can feel her eyes dangerously burning, and the last thing she wants to do is risk crying in front of Ginny.

She hears Ginny’s quiet sigh from above and her murmured goodbye, and once she hears Ginny’s footsteps departing, Hermione glances up and watches as she jogs toward the doors where her teammates are waiting.

It isn’t until they’ve all disappeared into the castle that Hermione lets herself exhale shakily, wincing in frustration as the tears immediately gather in her eyes.

Of course Ron was disgusted. Of course Harry had agreed. Of course. Why had she expected anything different?

Hermione flops down on the grass and even though she’s still valiantly fighting against it, a few hot tears escape and slowly slide down her cheeks. She brushes them away and rubs at her eyes furiously, all the while replaying Ron’s words in her head.

That’s just nasty, isn’t it?

I think I’d be sick.

There’s something genuinely wrong with those people.

She thinks about Harry’s quick nod of agreement and another traitorous tear slides down her cheek, falling into the grass below.

God, how could she be so stupid? She was naive to think either of them would understand. Because this isn’t something that people understand. Not ever. This is something that people will be quick to judge Hermione on for the rest of her life. It’s something that will constantly weigh her down and make people look at her with suspicion and disgust. It’s something that will haunt her at every turn and destroy the rest of her life.

But perhaps more than anything, it’s something that’s not worth telling anyone about.

But the butterflies…

Bugger the butterflies, Hermione thinks bitterly, closing her tired, stinging eyes. If the way she feels right now is the price of living authentically, than she wants no part of it. She can live a lie if it means never having to see those particular looks on Harry and Ron’s faces again. She can go her entire lifetime never really knowing love if it means never being judged. She can convince Ginny that whatever she thinks she knows, she’s wrong. She can keep this piece of herself a secret for the rest of her life. Because what Hermione’s beginning to realize is at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether she chooses to live authentically or not.

She’ll be miserable either way.

***

Monday evening finds Hermione in the library, waiting for Pansy. She’s running a bit later than usual and Hermione knows that she should be using this time to pull books from the shelves so they can get started as soon as she arrives. Instead, she’s bent over her parchment, feverishly trying to finish her message before Pansy arrives.

She’s almost at the end of her reply when she hears three sharp raps on the library door, followed by two long ones. She smiles a bit at the sound—it’s Pansy’s secret knock.

Hermione puts down her quill and stands from her chair, quickly crossing to the main doors. When she gets there, she points her wand at the door and murmurs the tricky incantation to open it from the inside. The heavy, ancient locks embedded in the door slowly spin and after a few moments, they unlock with a familiar pop. She grasps one of the iron door handles and with a grunt, pulls the heavy door open, leaving just enough space for Pansy to slip through. Once she’s safely inside, Hermione closes the door again, points her wand, and the locks spin once more. She releases a small sigh, relieved that they’ve once again managed to sneak Pansy into the library without being caught.

Hermione tucks her wand away. “You’re late,” she says, turning to face Pansy, who’s slumped against the door and fighting to control her ragged breathing.

“Sorry,” Pansy gasps. She rubs a hand against her chest and says, “Snape…saw me…had to…double back to…dungeons. Thought…coast was clear.” She shakes her head weakly. “Mrs…Norris.”

“Mrs. Norris?” Hermione echoes, confusion coloring her tone. But before she can ask for any clarification, she stops and peers at Pansy with concern. “Are you alright?” she asks cautiously as Pansy wheezes. “Do you need water?”

Pansy shakes her head. “No…I’m in…spectacular shape…can’t you tell?” she gasps, tilting her head against the door and closing her eyes. “Athletes wish they…could be in this…kind of shape,” she adds, before immediately bending over and devolving into a coughing fit.

Hermione snorts and crosses her arms, surveying Pansy with a raised eyebrow. “I see. And is the coughing part of it?”

Once Pansy’s managed to control herself, she nods. “Abdominal workout,” she says. Her hands are on her knees as she gazes up at Hermione seriously. “It’s all the rage with professional Quidditch players.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.”

“Well, then, if you’re not too tired from showing off your astonishing athleticism, do you think you can make it to the table?”

Pansy smiles and says, “I think I’ll manage.” She weakly pushes herself from the door and starts toward the table, then says, “and you jest, but have you ever tried to outrun a cat? Only someone in peak physical condition could manage it.”

Hermione’s steps falter for a moment at the bizarre information Pansy’s just casually provided. “You were running from Mrs. Norris?”

“Bloody cat saw me sneaking back from the dungeons. She gave chase all the way up the stairs. I had to run up to the fourth floor and hide behind a statue before I could double back down to the third.”

“You were running…from a cat,” Hermione repeats, her lips twitching dangerously.

“Say what you will, but that cat could be the Head of the Auror office. No dark wizard could run from her.” Pansy drops her bag beside the table and pulls out a chair. “Honestly, I think Filch is holding her back from a very lucrative Ministry career.”

Hermione hums. “If that’s true, perhaps we should let her have a go at your father.”

Pansy’s halfway in her seat, but she pauses and looks up at Hermione, stricken. “Merlin…that’s it! Sod the research! We’ll put the cat on the case.”

Hermione shakes her head fondly, then sits back in her own seat. “Well, if Head Auror Mrs. Norris can’t do it, then who can?”

Pansy chuckles as she sinks down into her chair and once she’s made herself comfortable, she glances down at the parchment in front of Hermione. At the sight, her eyes immediately grow wide and she raises her eyebrows. “Is that…is that your parchment?” she asks, sounding surprised.

Hermione trails her finger over it lightly and nods. “I was trying to finish replying before you arrived. But it can wait,” she adds, feeling a little twist of guilt over the fact she’s prioritizing Pansy again.

“I…no, I…” Pansy trails off and looks as if she’s considering something. Then, she stands up abruptly. “I can gather the books we need, if you’d like to finish?”

Hermione glances up from her parchment in surprise. “What? No, it’s…honestly, it can wait.”

Pansy shakes her head. “It looks like you’re almost done there,” she says, gesturing to it. “I mean…Merlin, you’ve written a novel already. It’ll take your pal forever to reply to that…” she adds, almost to herself.

Hermione looks down at her message with a small frown. “I am almost done,” she says hesitantly. “But it really can wait,” she adds, looking back at Pansy. “I don’t mind.”

She shakes her head firmly. “Finish your novel. I’ll get what we need. Just promise me you won’t start in on a sequel before I’ve returned.” With that, she leaves the table and heads toward the shelves, leaving Hermione alone with her parchment.

It only takes Hermione a few more minutes to finish her letter, but this time, when she signs Robin to the final product, she forgoes adding the tiny heart.

After the debacle on Saturday, she’s decided that the heart will simply be a relic of the past. Because the heart represents something she can’t give into, no matter how much she wants to. So even though it hurts, she’s told herself that the best thing to do is to practice keeping her parchment pal at arm’s length. No more flirting, no more dreams of Paris, and certainly no more hearts.

She feels awful about it, of course. More than anything, she wants to add the heart. But if she’s going to make good on her promise to live a calm, normal life, she knows she can’t give into the temptation that the tiny heart represents.

Before she can tuck her parchment away, Pansy comes back into view, levitating a massive stack of books in front of her. Once she’s close enough, she uses her wand to guide them down onto the table, and they land with a gentle thump.

“Right. I think this is everything,” she says, nodding at the mountain of books. “I mean, I hope it’s everything, considering it’s half the bloody library. Though I couldn’t find that book you were reading from on Friday. The history of Wizarding…legal…papers, or whatever it was,” Pansy says, taking her seat across from Hermione.

“Oh!” Hermione says, surprised she had forgotten about the book until this very moment. She quickly reaches for her bag and pulls out a ridiculously thick book, then she plops it down on the table. “Collected Papers on the English Wizarding Legal History, Volume Two. I checked it out last Friday for a bit of light reading over the weekend.”

Pansy stares at the book, then looks back at Hermione with wide eyes. “Light reading?” she echoes, sounding horrified.

“Well, I didn’t read all of it,” Hermione amends quickly. “But some of the essays were fascinating.”

“I see. That’s…I mean, that’s…” Pansy shakes her head, seeming unable to come up with something that sounds even remotely positive about Hermione’s choice in literature. Instead, she asks, “did you learn anything?”

“Oh, loads!” Hermione replies brightly. “Do you know why members of the Wizengamot wear plum robes? I’d assumed it was because of some ridiculous legal thing, but it actually has to do with—”

“Hermione,” Pansy interrupts gently, amusement coloring her tone. “I meant did you learn anything we can use against my father.”

Hermione flushes at Pansy’s reply, partly because she’s embarrassed by her overenthusiastic response, and partly because hearing her name fall from Pansy’s lips is still an unexpected and altogether surreal experience. “No, there was nothing we could use."

“Ah, well. Dare to dream,” Pansy says with a small shrug. Then she glances up at Hermione with a smile and a raised eyebrow. “Well?” she asks, tilting her head curiously.

Hermione frowns, confused. “Well what?”

“Why are their robes plum?”

“Oh,” Hermione says, surprised Pansy had bothered to circle back to what she had been saying. “I…I mean, it’s not that interesting,” she says, tugging self-consciously on one of her loose curls.

“I’ll be the judge of that. Besides, you’ve piqued my curiosity. So go on, then.”

Hermione blinks a few times uncertainly before she slowly says, “it…it originated with Ulick Gamp in 1707.” She’s not used to anyone wanting to hear her fun facts, so she starts cautiously, waiting for the moment where Pansy will inevitably tune her out. But when her green eyes stay focused and attentive, Hermione takes a deep breath and continues. “He was both the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot and the first Minister for Magic.”

Pansy snorts lightly. “Bloody overachiever.”

Hermione nods, feeling bolstered by Pansy’s reaction. “Yes, but he was a bloody overachiever with a very particular wardrobe—he only wore plum colored robes. He’d throw a fit if he had to dress in anything else,” she says, leaning forward. She can feel herself getting excited in the way she always does when she’s sharing some obscure bit of information, and it makes her words come faster and her gestures broader. “There’s a rumor that he once spent an entire month neglecting his duties as the Chief Warlock while he tried to find a way to make plum robes the standard. It’s why most historians agree that his dedication to his wardrobe was the entire reason he abolished the Wizard’s Council, created the Ministry of Magic, and declared himself the first Minister for Magic.”

Pansy stares at her, looking baffled. “The entire Ministry of Magic exists because some nutter wanted to wear plum robes?” she asks slowly. “Merlin…that’s absurd.”

“It is, but it’s the truth.”

Pansy shakes her head, stunned. “No. I mean, it can’t be! No one would be so ludicrously obsessed by a color that they’d create an entire governing body just to enforce it. I mean…”

Before she can say anything else, Pansy cuts herself off abruptly and frowns at the table for a moment. Then, she looks up and sighs wearily. “No, I take that back. That is absolutely something Daphne would do.”

Hermione laughs but before she can reply, Pansy asks, “so was that his first decree, then? The plum robes?”

“Mm. At first, he just insisted the Minister for Magic would wear plum and everyone else in the Wizengamot would wear black. But after a while, Gamp thought the colors clashed, so he demanded the whole Wizengamot wear plum. Have you ever heard the quote “so long as we permit darkness to draw breath, devilry shall endure?” Hermione asks.

Pansy looks a bit surprised by the unexpected question, but she nods. “It’s one of Gamp’s most famous quotes, isn’t it? It’s on his statue at the Ministry. And I think I’ve seen it before on his Chocolate Frog card.”

“You probably have, but do you know its origin?”

“I…think so?” Pansy says uncertainly. “I know he said it in some famous Wizengamot case. It just means that if good people let evil exist unchecked in the world, bad things will never stop, right? Some sort of call for justice to prevail?”

Hermione shakes her head with shining eyes. “I thought the same thing, but no. That’s just what it means now. It’s not the original meaning. Most people think Gamp said it while he was delivering a passionate plea in some ruling or another, but he wasn’t in court at all. He said it while he was talking to his fellow Wizengamot members outside of court. The darkness he’s referring to has nothing to do with wickedness—he’s talking about their robes.”

“What?” Pansy asks, sounding baffled.

“He meant that he couldn’t deliver any verdicts or try any cases if he had to look at their black robes for another second. The quote has nothing to do with evil existing in the world—it was just his way of saying that if the dress code didn’t change, he’d wouldn’t be able to do his job.”

“You’re joking,” Pansy says, staring at Hermione with wide eyes.

“I’m not! He insisted he’d shut down the entire Wizengamot if the dress code didn’t change, so they had to scramble and make plum robes for everyone. It’s been the standard ever since. All this time, I thought it would have some legal precedence, but really, it was just a man with a very particular sense of fashion."

A broad smile slowly steals over Pansy’s face, and she looks at Hermione with sparkling eyes. “Well, that story alone was worth your light reading. Merlin. What a wanker.”

Hermione smiles back and lets herself bask in the very foreign sensation of someone actually being interested in her obscure and arcane factoids. Anytime she attempts to share her knowledge with Harry, Ron, or Ginny, they’ll roll their eyes and mockingly call her Professor Binns. But with Pansy’s warm, interested gaze trained on her and a smile lighting up her face, Hermione finds herself curiously wanting to tell her every fact she’s ever collected. She wants to spill them out, one after the other, just to see if she can make Pansy’s smile even brighter than it already is. Because surprisingly enough, Pansy has a wonderful smile, and Hermione’s starting to realize that she quite likes being on the receiving end of it.

But instead of leaning forward to regale Pansy with more facts from Collected Papers on the English Wizarding Legal History, Volume Two, she reminds herself of the task at hand and forces herself to look away from Pansy’s strangely hypnotic smile and toward the stack of books before her. Before she picks one from the pile, she puts aside the heavy tome on legal history, then picks up her parchment and tucks it away into her bag for safekeeping.

“I take it you finished your novel?” Pansy asks, nodding toward Hermione’s bag.

Hermione nods. “I did. Thank you.”

Pansy hums lightly, then after a brief hesitation, she very tentatively says, “they must really be something.”

“What do you mean?”

Pansy shrugs as she pulls a book toward her. “Oh, I don’t know. Just that I can think of very, very few people I’d ever want to write that much to. I could probably count them on one finger, if I’m being honest,” she adds with a small smile.

“Oh,” Hermione says, glancing at her bag. “I suppose you’re right. Our messages do tend to run a bit long.”

“A bit long?” Pansy says with a surprised laugh. “I hate to break it to you, but I’ve seen enough parchments to know that you just singlehandedly wrote more than all of the people participating in this little experiment, combined.”

Hermione scoffs. “All of the people participating? I sincerely doubt that.” She tilts her head thoughtfully, then says, “perhaps half of the people participating, though.”

“All or half, it’s still a ludicrous amount,” Pansy says, rolling her eyes at Hermione’s correction as she reaches into her bag for a quill.

“I guess it is, but…I don’t know. I suppose we’ve never been at a loss for words. Our letters have just come naturally, right from the start. There’s never been any hesitation or awkwardness. It’s as if…as if we’ve always known each other,” Hermione murmurs, smiling softly at the table. “As if we were just…meant to be.”

It’s only after the words have left her lips that she realizes what she’s just said. Meant to be? Is she even trying to keep her feelings for her parchment pal at bay? Hermione could kick herself for sounding like a lovesick fool, and she clenches her fist in frustration under the table at her blunder.

She looks up, desperately hoping Pansy hasn’t noticed the slip-up, to find green eyes already trained on her. There’s a surprising intensity behind her gaze, but it’s only there for a moment before it quickly fades into something that looks purposefully casual. “Meant to be, hm?” Pansy asks, her tone strangely light. “Merlin…I’m beginning to understand why the big date with Weasley was doomed to fail from the start.”

“It wasn’t doomed to fail,” Hermione says, feeling defensive. “And it didn’t fail. Ron was lovely and we had a nice time together, it just…it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I wanted,” she adds quietly.

There’s a brief pause in which Hermione thinks that Pansy is going to leave it at that. But then she says, “because you have feelings for your parchment pal?”

“I…what?” Hermione asks, looking up at Pansy with wide eyes.

Pansy shrugs as she idly studies the dark red polish on her fingernails. “I don’t know many people who use the phrase meant to be in a friendly way, do you?”

“I…no, I suppose I don’t,” Hermione says dumbly, the truth slipping easily from her mouth. She’s so surprised by how casually Pansy’s delivered the question that it doesn’t even cross her mind that she should be lying.

Pansy tilts her head and surveys Hermione. “You know, I’ve heard my fair share of improbable romances over the years, but I have to say, falling in love over parchment is a new one. They must be quite the writer,” she adds, cocking a curious eyebrow.

“I never said I was falling in love,” Hermione manages. She’s finally thinking enough to mount a defense against Pansy’s questions, but even she can hear that it’s not a very good one. And if the dismissive hand Pansy waves at her reply is any indication, it’s more than likely a pathetically weak one.

“Falling in love, have feelings for…semantics,” Pansy says.

“It’s not semantics!” Hermione says. “There’s quite a big distinction between falling in love and having feelings for someone!”

“Not really,” Pansy says. “After all, one thing usually leads to the other.”

“It can, but not always,” Hermione says, trying desperately to gather her thoughts so she doesn’t say something she’ll regret.

“Fine, fine,” Pansy says immediately, leaving Hermione no room to think about how to shut down this line of questioning. “So you just have feelings for them.”

“I—”

“And do they have feelings for you?”

Hermione blinks stupidly a few times, feeling completely off-kilter. “Yes, but…” she starts, once again not thinking quickly enough to lie.

“Well, that’s good,” Pansy interrupts, picking up her quill and giving it a quick twirl. “I mean, it makes things easier.”

Hermione scoffs and immediately mutters, “I wouldn’t say that.”

It’s only once the words are out that she realizes she’s once again managed to say too much. She could kick herself for being so stupid three times in one conversation.

Pansy arches a brow with interest. “Oh? Why? Did you find out who you’re talking to?” She pulls a sympathetic face and says, “Is it Crabbe?”

Hermione’s mouth drops open. “It’s…no,” she says, completely horrified by the idea. “You think I’d be stupid enough to fall in love with Crabbe?”

“Aha! Fall in love,” Pansy says, pointing a victorious finger at Hermione, who immediately glares darkly at Pansy’s triumphant smile. “Told you it was semantics,” she adds with an infuriating wink that makes Hermione flush down to her toes.

She’s going to cast Langlock on herself. Anything to stop herself from saying all the colossally stupid things that are currently flying out of her mouth at record speed.

Somehow, she controls the urge to turn her wand on herself. Instead, she thrusts a hand through her hair and huffs impatiently. “It’s not semantics, and it’s certainly not Crabbe!”

“Fine,” Pansy says. “Goyle, then?”

“I—”

“Honestly, that makes sense. I’ve always suspected that there was more to him than meets the eye. And it’s really beautiful that you managed to find the soul of a poet that’s been lurking beneath the monosyllabic grunts and appalling hygiene.”

“Pansy!” Hermione says with a surprised, exasperated laugh that makes Pansy’s eyes shine. “It’s not Goyle, either!”

“Oh? How can you be so sure? You know, most people don’t know this, but Gregory Goyle is actually a person of rare intelligence.” Pansy pauses, then says, “by which I mean it’s rare of him to show any intelligence.”

Hermione laughs again, then says, “you are absolutely impossible” with a surprising amount of affection leaking into her tone.

“I’m not!” Pansy says, lifting a hand to her heart in mock-surprise. “I’m just trying to be supportive of your new relationship! And I really do think you’ll be happy together, provided you only use small words words around him. Anything with more than two syllables tends to send him into a tailspin. He’s still completely mystified by his own first name…”

I’m going to start researching,” Hermione says, choosing to disregard Pansy’s latest quip. She figures that one of them should be actually doing what they’re here to do. “Feel free to join me whenever you’re done with whatever this performance is,” she says, gesturing to Pansy, who’s leaning back in her chair with a thoughtful look on her face.

“Oh, but I suppose Hermione will also be too long for him to wrap his tiny mind around,” Pansy says, ignoring Hermione’s interjection completely. Instead, she looks at Hermione seriously and says, “would you consider changing your name?”

Hermione scoffs as she reaches for a book. “No.”

“A nickname, then?”

Hermione’s nose immediately wrinkles in distaste. “No.”

“Come now, you haven’t even heard your options yet! What if you’d like them?”

“I wouldn’t.”

Pansy tsks, then says, “I have to say, you’re not being very open-minded, Herms.”

It takes a moment for the abbreviated name to register, but once it does, Hermione looks up swiftly and glares at Pansy. “Absolutely not,” she says darkly. “Never say that again.”

“Fine, fine,” Pansy says. Then, she gives a theatrical sigh and shakes her head mournfully. “I have to ask…are you sure you have feelings for your parchment pal? Because honestly, I’m not sure it’s going to work out. Things aren’t looking good for you.”

“Considering it’s not Goyle, I’d say things are looking okay,” Hermione replies, reaching for a blank piece of parchment and her quill.

“You can’t be sure of that,” Pansy says.

“I can, actually,” Hermione says, opening her book.

“Oh? How?”

“Well, for one thing, I’m fairly sure Goyle’s illiterate.”

“Yes, but—”

“And my parchment pal just so happens to be the best writer in the entire school.”

“The…the entire school? You really think so?” Pansy echoes, raising her eyebrows with surprise and sounding genuinely stunned.

Hermione doesn’t bother to wonder why the information has surprised Pansy so deeply. Instead, she nods as she absently skims the table of contents to Investigating Murder: An Auror’s Response to Criminal Homicide, noting the chapters she wants to pay particular attention to.

“Would you say they’re better than Dumbledore? Or McGonagall?” Pansy asks lightly, but with a thread of curiosity running through her words.

Hermione rolls her eyes as she flicks through the pages, finally landing on a chapter about interrogation law. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never read any of their writing,” she says as she begins to skim the introductory paragraph, looking for anything that might help them.

“Merlin…you really think they’re better than a professor?” Pansy asks, sounding dazed.

Hermione shrugs as she jots down a quick note. “I don’t know. She could be,” she says, distractedly. “She’s brilliant.”

She finishes writing the note in silence, and it’s only when she glances up at Pansy, confused by the sudden lack of running commentary, that she realizes what she’s just said.

She’s brilliant.

She.

Panic immediately rises in Hermione’s chest, and she drops her quill as if it’s scalding. “I…I didn’t mean…” she says. Her heart is pounding and her body feels curiously cold, as if someone’s replaced the blood in her veins with ice.

Pansy’s brow furrows a bit at Hermione’s immediate alarm, and she shakes her head quickly. “No, Hermione, it’s—”

“I shouldn’t have said…I mean, I didn’t…” Hermione thrusts a hand wildly through her hair and looks at Pansy with wide, frightened eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…I…I…”

She stands up immediately, adrenaline suddenly coursing through her body. How could she be so bloody stupid? How could she divulge the one thing she’s sworn to keep secret for the rest of her life in less than a week’s time? Surely, she’s just set some sort of record for the fastest anyone’s ever blown their own cover so spectacularly. And the worst part is, it’s all her fault. She shouldn’t have indulged in Pansy’s light teasing; she should have shut down the conversation the very moment it turned to her parchment pal. And when she didn’t, she should have been smart enough to give the discussion her complete and undivided attention. But instead she had tried to multitask, and in the process, she had managed to confide her deepest, darkest secret. And to Pansy, of all people! If Ron and Harry were quick to be judgmental of same-sex relationships, there’s no telling how horrified and revolted Pansy will be. After all, she’s just barely wrapped her mind around Muggle-borns being decent people. There’s no way she’ll find it in her heart to understand this, which is why Hermione knows that she has to get out of the library as fast as she possibly can. She can’t handle whatever scathing remarks might be brewing in Pansy’s mind at this very moment.

With a shaky hand, she grabs her bag and shoves her quill and parchment inside.

“What are you doing?” Pansy asks, sounding mildly alarmed.

“I…I have to go,” Hermione says.

“Why?”

Hermione manages to look up from her bag to find Pansy’s eyes trained on her, wide with concern.

“Why?” Hermione echoes. “I…you heard what I just said, didn’t you?” she asks a bit wildly.

“I did,” Pansy says “But Hermione—”

“Right. Right, of course you did, I just…” Hermione holds completely still for a moment as she thinks through all the repercussions of Pansy finding out this secret. Her heart beats faster and she feels like she might pass out as she thinks of all the horrible things that could happen, but she manages to grip the chair in front of her and force herself to look Pansy in the eyes. “You’ll never have to work with me again,” she says. “And if you want to switch patrols partners, I’ll go to McGonagall for you. I promise I will, but just…” Hermione bites her lower lip, then says, “please don’t tell anybody. Please. I know it doesn’t make sense and I know it’s…” she casts her mind back, trying to remember all the ways Ron had described it. “I know it’s wrong,” she finally says, lowering her eyes to the table with shame. But before she can continue to plead for Pansy’s silence, Pansy interrupts her.

“Hermione. I…I don’t think it’s wrong.”

Hermione looks up swiftly to find Pansy’s eyes on her. There’s no disgust or anger lurking in their green depths, and she stares at her stupidly for a moment. After what feels like a lifetime of holding her gaze, Hermione very uncertainly asks, “you don’t?”

Pansy slowly shakes her head. “No,” she says hesitantly. “I don’t. Not at all, actually.”

“But…” Hermione trails off and stares at her once more, trying to make heads or tails of Pansy’s reaction. More than anything, she seems concerned. Her eyes are deeply troubled, as if she can’t bear to see Hermione in pain, and her brow is creased in distress. “I don’t understand,” Hermione finally says. “I mean, it doesn’t…I don’t…did you hear what I said?” she finally asks a bit desperately.

“I did,” Pansy says. She frowns for a moment and looks as if she’s pondering whether or not she should say anything more. After a moment, she sighs quietly and seems to come to a conclusion. She looks back to Hermione and says, “but to be honest, I’m not sure if you heard what I’ve been saying.”

“What?” Hermione asks, completely confused.

“Last Tuesday, when I told you what my…my grandmother used to say,” Pansy says, faltering over the word grandmother for just a moment. “Do you remember?”

Hermione frowns, but before she can reply, Pansy continues. “No one can help the blood they’re born with, just as you and I can’t help that we were born with green eyes,” she says, smiling a bit at the old, familiar words.

“I…” Hermione shakes her head and folds her arms over her chest, uncomfortably. “I remember. But I don’t—”

“I can’t help my green eyes. Neither of us can help our blood status,” Pansy says. Then, she leans forward in her chair and says, “and no one on this bloody planet can help who they fall in love with. And I told you on Tuesday that I’ve come to the conclusion she was right all along. That we’re all people, in the end. It would be ridiculous of me to go back to cherry-picking what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.”

“Yes, but…” Hermione slowly sits back down in her seat, and after a moment, she rubs a hand over her tired eyes and shakes her head. “This is different.”

“Oh?” Pansy asks, raising an eyebrow. “How so?”

“It just is.”

“Hm. Well, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t accept that,” Pansy replies.

“It’s not for you to accept or not, it just is,” Hermione says, frustration sneaking into her tone.

“Then prove it.”

Hermione stares at Pansy for a moment, but Pansy simply folds her arms over her chest and waits for Hermione to speak.

“Prove it?” Hermione repeats.

Pansy nods. “Prove to me it’s different. Tell me why having feelings for someone is somehow more unacceptable than any of the other things you can’t change about yourself. If you can prove it, then fine. You’ll win and I’ll go back to hating you. I’ll say cruel and horrid things and I’ll use this against you for the rest of your life. But if you can’t prove it, which I suspect you can’t, then I’m afraid things will have to stay just as they are. So…go on, then,” Pansy says, gesturing to Hermione. “Prove it.”

“I…I…”

“Here, I’ll even help you out,” Pansy says. “Did you choose to have feelings for your parchment pal?”

“No,” Hermione says slowly. “I…I didn’t, it just sort of…happened.”

Pansy hums, then says, “and are you hurting anyone by having feelings for her?”

Hermione furrows her brow, but after a moment, she tentatively shakes her head, and Pansy nods. “So if you didn’t choose to have these feelings and you’re not hurting anyone by having them, then I’m afraid I still fail to see how this is any different from anything else. You didn’t choose your blood status and it doesn’t hurt anyone. Would it be right for me to go back to judging you based on that?”

“No,” Hermione says uncertainly. Because logically, she knows what Pansy’s saying is true, but she can’t shake the feeling that this is somehow different.

“No,” Pansy repeats firmly.

“But this…” Hermione runs a hand through her hair again and shakes her head. “I understand what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. Really, I do. But this isn’t something people just understand.”

“You might be surprised,” Pansy says, almost gently. But Hermione just shakes her head and taps an anxious finger against the table.

“Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”

“What do you mean?”

“I…I already sort of told someone. And they…” Hermione winces and rubs her face. “They didn’t react well.”

Pansy raises her eyebrows at the quiet confession. “You told someone that you have feelings for your parchment pal?” she asks, seeming genuinely taken aback.

“No, not exactly,” Hermione says. She doesn’t really want to revisit the entire saga, so she says, “but the general topic did come up, and Ron…he…he…”

“He didn’t take it well?” Pansy asks, her voice quiet and her eyes searching.

Hermione shakes her head and swallows heavily around a lump in her throat. “No. He said he thought something was wrong with people like…” she hesitates, curiously unable to say people like me. Instead, she says, “with people like that. He said it made him sick to even think about it,” she adds, feeling the shame sit heavily on her shoulders once more, perching upon her like a vulture.

Pansy’s quiet for a moment, so Hermione sneaks a small glance at her. Her eyes are far away and there’s a small frown between her brows, but after a moment, she sighs and says, “as much as this kills me to admit, I’m afraid I understand his point of view a bit better than I’d like to.”

“You do?” Hermione asks with surprise, suddenly feeling anxious again. Has Pansy changed her mind and decided that there is something wrong with her? She bounces her leg anxiously under the table as she waits to hear what Pansy has to say.

“I mean, my reputation will never recover if you ever tell anyone I’m agreeing with Weasley, but…yes,” Pansy says. “I do understand. Because I was him, up until a few weeks ago. I mean, I spent years believing in pure-blood supremacy, but it’s only because I didn’t know any better. It was what I was taught. And the way Weasley reacted, well…that’s just what he’s been taught, too. People are quick to judge what they don’t understand. But as much as I think Weasley is nothing more than a particularly dense mountain troll parading about in a ginger wig, I do think he’s capable of changing his mind. I mean, if I can do it, anyone can,” Pansy adds wryly.

“I suppose that’s true,” Hermione says slowly. “I just…what if he can’t? What if he never changes his mind? What if he…he hates me?” she asks, her voice breaking a bit.

“I don’t think he could ever hate you,” Pansy says quietly. She frowns a bit as if she’s pondering something, then she exhales sharply and looks up at Hermione. “And if you really want to know the truth, I didn’t always feel this way about…well, matters like this,” she says. “I’m afraid it’s not just my grandmother’s words of wisdom that are influencing my views. I might not even feel this way at all if it wasn’t for someone quite close to me who shares your…your particular dilemma,” Pansy says carefully.

Hermione doesn’t say anything, but she tilts her head in interest, silently telling Pansy to continue.

“When I first became aware of it, I wasn’t exactly as open minded as I’m being with you right now. To be honest, I was horrible. I actually agreed with Weasley,” she adds, then she shakes her head and darkly mutters, “Merlin, agreeing with Weasley twice in one conversation. I hardly recognize myself.”

“Pansy…” Hermione murmurs, trying to get her back on track. She desperately wants to hear where this is going to go.

“Right, sorry,” Pansy says quickly. “That’s a problem for later, I suppose. Can always Obliviate it from my memory on my own time. Anyway, what’s important is I did agree with him. I thought that anyone who could have those kind of preferences must be wrong or…or broken,” she says, looking deeply uncomfortable as she thinks back on her past views. “I thought it was something that should be hidden. And if I’m being honest, it took far longer than I’m willing to admit for me to realize how wrong I was. And I put this person that I cared about through so much unnecessary pain in the process,” she adds quietly. “But what matters is that I did eventually realize that I was wrong. I realized that it doesn’t matter, and that the heart will do whatever it wants to do, bugger what anyone else thinks. And Weasley will realize that, too,” she says, looking earnestly at Hermione. “He just needs a little time.”

Hermione nods slowly. “I hope you’re right,” she says. She’s not exactly convinced, but she’s strangely reassured that Pansy’s managed to go through this exact thing with someone in her life and has come out of it with a healthy, positive outlook. Because Pansy was right—if she’s capable of change, surely Ron and Harry will be, too. And now that she knows Pansy has firsthand experience, she finds herself wanting to ask a question that’s been weighing on her mind.

“May I ask you something?”

“Anything,” Pansy says quickly.

“This person you’re referring to…” Hermione says, twisting her hands together anxiously. “After all was said and done…are they…are they happy?” she asks, finding herself preposterously nervous to hear the answer.

Pansy gives Hermione a soft smile. “They are,” she says. “Really, they are. I mean, I know it’s taken them ages to get there, but I also know they wouldn’t change anything that’s happened. Not for the world.”

“And…is there someone in their life? I mean, are they actually with someone?” Hermione asks, biting her lip anxiously.

Pansy hesitates, then shakes her head slowly. “No, they’re not with someone. At least, not right now. I think there is someone in their life, though, and I think they’re optimistic that things will work out,” she says tentatively, sweeping a finger over the table as she speaks.

“Oh,” Hermione says, feeling curiously relieved that there’s someone else out there like her. Someone who’s gone through the same experience and is now happily living on the other side of it with some sort of romantic prospect in their future. “That’s…that’s good to hear. And I hope it does. Work out, I mean,” she adds.

“As do I,” Pansy murmurs.

Hermione leans back in her chair, feeling a bit dazed by everything that’s just happened. After a moment, she laughs just a bit, then glances up to find Pansy’s curious eyes on her. “Sorry,” she says, “it’s just…two days ago, I swore to myself I’d never tell another living soul about this. I swore I’d take it to my grave. Two days!” She shakes her head in completely bewilderment.

“Merlin. Remind me not to come to you with any of my deepest, darkest secrets,” Pansy says with a smile flickering on her dark lips.

Hermione tentatively returns the smile, then says, “thank you. For…for listening and telling me about your friend. It’s more helpful than you know. This is all so new to me and to be honest, I’m…I’m still terrified by it. But your reaction was,” Hermione shakes her head in wonder, “I didn't expect it. And it was more than I ever could have asked for. So thank you. Thank you for not making me feel like there’s something wrong with me.”

Pansy nods. “Of course.” She bites her lower lip then says, “I know firsthand that you’re quite good at ignoring small-minded people and intolerance, so I’m sure this goes without saying, but just…bugger what anyone else thinks. People will always have opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s your life. Not Weasley’s, not Potter’s, not your parents. Yours. And you deserve to be happy. Even if it’s hard, you deserve it.”

“Worthwhile things rarely come easily,” Hermione murmurs, quoting Pansy.

Pansy nods. “And for what it’s worth, I won’t tell anyone about this. Because while you might be surprisingly shit at keeping secrets, I’m actually quite good at it.”

“Oh?”

“Mm. Nothing gets past me. I’m more secure than Gringotts.”

“The dragons would be sad if they heard you say that,” Hermione says with a smile. “I’d assume they take their duties quite seriously.”

“Merlin, you’re never going to forget that, are you?”

“That there’s a literal dragon guarding your money? No, that’s the kind of thing one doesn’t easily forget.”

“Well, what guards a Muggle bank?” Pansy asks, sounding defensive.

“Nothing, really. A vault tends to be good enough.”

“But what happens if someone breaks into the vault? What then?”

“I suppose the bank would ring the police,” Hermione replies.

“The bank would…ring?” Pansy asks uncertainly, and Hermione rolls her eyes.

“Pure-bloods,” she says as loftily as she can manage, and adds a long-suffering sigh and an eye roll for good measure. But her facade breaks easily when Pansy snorts in surprise, and she grins. “Yes. You ring someone on the telephone. It’s a Muggle method of communication. Like owling, but far faster.”

“Huh. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it,” Pansy says. Then she shakes her head and says, “but rings and vaults aside, you’d feel safer if there was a dragon guarding your money, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d feel ridiculous if there was a dragon guarding my money.”

“Oh, fine, be like that. But when someone steals all your money, don’t come crying to me, asking to borrow my dragon.”

Hermione snorts. “Why on earth would I ask to borrow your dragon if someone’s already made off with all my money? What would I need it for? Commiseration?”

Pansy opens her mouth, then appears to consider the question. After a moment, she rolls her eyes. “Don’t you ever get tired of being the brightest witch of our age?” she mutters.

“Not when everyone else makes it so easy for me,” Hermione replies, trying to sound as pretentious as she can.

“Ooh, cheeky,” Pansy says with an appreciative grin. She opens her book, then looks back toward Hermione and says, “and for what it’s worth, I was lying.”

“About what?” Hermione asks with a frown.

“The dragon,” Pansy says. “I’d let you borrow it in a heartbeat. Even if just for commiseration,” she adds. “I’d probably let you borrow anything, if I’m being honest.”

“That’s…that’s very kind of you,” Hermione says, surprised.

“Well, you are trying to save my life, so…seems only fair you should get some perks out of it.”

Pansy spares one more smile for Hermione before opening her book and beginning to read.

Hermione absently toys with the cover of her own book, but she doesn’t pick it up. Instead, she takes a moment to survey Pansy.

She can’t believe what’s just transpired between them. More than anything, she had been certain that Pansy would react poorly to the surprising news that Hermione had feelings for her female parchment pal. But in some strange twist of fate, Pansy had once again been the person to reassure Hermione. She had been kind and considerate and everything Hermione could have asked for. And now that she has Pansy’s words buoying her, she feels cautiously optimistic that she can make Ron and Harry understand this. Maybe not anytime soon, but one day. And that alone is enough to make Hermione feel more cheerful than she has in ages.

Gazing at her now from across the table, Hermione feels a glow of warmth in her heart for Pansy. Pansy, who’s doing all that she can to fight against the things she was taught. Pansy, who, despite everything, has managed to surprise Hermione at every turn. Pansy, who’s made her feel safe and accepted and seen.

It’s absolutely bizarre to think back on what her feelings had been toward Pansy not even a few weeks ago. But now, as she studies her in the gentle, soft lighting of the library, she realizes that they could one day maybe be…friends.

The moment the thought pops into her head, Hermione realizes how true it is. They could be friends. And what’s more, she’d like them to be friends. Because she likes Pansy. She’s spent more than enough one-on-one time with her over the past few weeks to find that she actually enjoys the other girl’s presence. She likes her dry tone and her quick humor. She likes the way Pansy will sometimes see her from far away and give her a shy, small wave. She likes her genuine interest and the way she gives Hermione her undivided attention when she’s speaking. She likes her steady, warm green eyes. She likes the way her smile is slow like honey, but how it eventually spreads and lights up her entire face. She even likes the way that smile makes her feel, as if she’s being warmed from the inside out. She likes all of these things, because as unexpected as it is, she likes Pansy.

“Everything alright?” Pansy asks, glancing up at Hermione with a question in her eyes.

Hermione startles a bit and flushes, embarrassed by how long she’s been staring at Pansy. She manages a nod. “Yes. Everything’s fine.”

And for the first time in ages, she actually believes it. She believes that she’s going to be okay, she believes that one day, she’ll make Ron see sense, and she believes that somehow, against all odds, she and Pansy Parkinson might actually be friends.

Pansy nods at her reply and gives her a small smile.

Hermione knows she should pick up her quill and get to work. She knows they’ve already wasted enough time, and she has a stack of books practically as tall as she is to get through. She knows they’re trying to trap a murderer and there’s really no time to waste.

She knows all of this.

But for some reason, she ignores both logic and responsibility for just a bit longer and instead, lets her gaze linger on Pansy as she returns the smile with one of her own.

It’s a perfect, precious moment, full of delicate peace and unspoken trust, and when Pansy finally drops her gaze and turns back to her book, Hermione wonders why she feels disappointed at the loss.

***

It’s late when Hermione finally returns to the Gryffindor common room. She’s exhausted after both unloading her secret to Pansy, and after spending hours chasing dozens of dead ends in the library.

It’s been harder than she anticipated to find anything of use in the piles and piles of books they’ve accumulated, and while she wouldn’t say the library is failing her, per se, she would say she’s beginning to get frustrated.

(Pansy would absolutely say that the library was failing her, with annoying amusement lurking in her eyes.)

She feels like they’re getting closer to a real solution, but every time Hermione comes up with an idea she thinks might work, Pansy is quick to tell her a reason it won’t. Yet while the reasons seem to make Pansy more pessimistic about the whole ordeal, they’ve lit a fire under Hermione. Because the more she learns about this treacherous, evil man, the more driven she is to find his downfall. Unfortunately, though, the best idea she has as of now is pulling a Rita Skeeter and becoming an illegal Animagus, solely to spy on Pansy’s father.

Pansy had rolled her eyes at that and shut it down quickly, saying it was dangerous and foolhardy, but Hermione’s keeping it in her back pocket, just in case.

They had parted ways at the library doors. Pansy had offered to walk Hermione back to the Gryffindor common room as she had done every night, but Hermione had reluctantly declined, telling her it would double her risk of getting caught out of bed after hours. At first, it had been an easy thing to say, but the more time Hermione’s spending with Pansy, the more she finds herself curiously wanting to agree to Pansy’s suggestion and spend the long walk back to Gryffindor Tower chatting with Pansy about anything and everything.

Perhaps she wants to be friends with Pansy a bit more than she’s letting on, even to herself.

And now that she’s back in the common room, all she wants to do is take off her robes, fall into bed, and let her mind rest. She climbs through the portrait, pausing briefly when she hears the Fat Lady humph “you know, nothing good happens in the middle of the night,” from behind her. Hermione winces and whispers sorry over her shoulder, hoping to soothe the Fat Lady’s frayed nerves. Instead, she hears a muttered, “tell that to the bags under my eyes.”

Before Hermione can say anything else, the portrait swings shut behind her with a loud thump that seems to reverberate around the silent common room and makes Hermione jump with surprise.

But the thump didn’t just startle Hermione. At the noise, someone who had been fast asleep on the couch groans, then sits up and sleepily searches for the source of the noise.

“Ron?” Hermione whispers, recognizing his silhouette against the crackling fire.

“Hermione?” Ron replies, his voice thick with sleep. “Was that you?” he asks, rubbing his hands over his face. He lowers his hands to squint at her and says, “are you just getting back?”

Hermione nods as she crosses the common room toward the couch. “Yes. Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” she says, gingerly perching on the arm of a chair facing Ron.

“It’s alright, I didn’t mean to fall asleep here. Blimey, what time is it?” he asks, stretching his arms over his head and groaning slightly.

“Ten past twelve,” Hermione replies, flushing slightly as Ron freezes mid-stretch at her reply.

“Ten past twelve?” he echoes, sitting up fully and staring at her. “Twelve as in midnight?”

“I—yes?”

“Have you been in the library this whole time?” Ron asks, sounding stunned.

“I have,” Hermione says, then quickly adds, “but I didn’t mean to stay so late. Time just…got away from me,” she finishes awkwardly.

Ron stares at Hermione for a moment, not bothering to hide his shock. “That’s…that’s…” he runs his hands through his already messy hair, making it stand up at absurd angles. “Hermione, you can’t keep doing this.”

“Doing what?” Hermione asks, looking at Ron’s hair and fighting against the motherly urge to reach out and smooth it back down into place.

“Studying!” Ron says, sounding exasperated.

At that, Hermione tears her eyes away from Ron’s hair and gives a small laugh. “I can’t keep studying?” she asks, keeping her tone purposefully light. She doesn’t want this to become an argument so late at night, especially because she knows that Ron’s heart is in the right place. So instead of pushing back and telling Ron she can do whatever she wants for however long she chooses, she opts for gentle humor instead. “Sorry, but have you met me? Studying is kind of my thing.”

“I know, but just…you need to sleep, too. And unless you’re trying to become the next Minister for Magic overnight, I don’t think there’s anything you need to be studying for to this extent,” Ron says. Then he raises a wry eyebrow and adds, “I mean, are you trying to become the next Minister for Magic overnight? Suppose I shouldn’t put anything past you.”

Hermione shakes her head. “No, I just…I got wrapped up in something tonight,” she says, crossing her legs absently and bouncing a foot in the air. “But if it’s any consolation, I’m going to sleep straight away, so you can stop playing the role of mother hen. Even if your hair does look like a bit like a hen’s comb right now,” she adds, glancing at the top of his head with amusement.

Ron reaches up to his hair self-consciously and smoothes it down. “Better?” he asks, looking to Hermione for approval.

“Much,” Hermione replies. “And now that you’re presentable, maybe the rest of the boys will let you back into your room. I assume that was the reason they made you sleep on the couch?”

“Oh, yeah, because we’re definitely known for our presentability,” Ron says with a snort. He stretches again and says, “I didn’t mean to. I just closed my eyes for a second. Bloody fireplace always puts me to sleep,” he adds as he rolls his neck a few times. “I’ve told Harry to wake me up, but he always says he feels too guilty to do it. Says it’d be like waking up a baby,” Ron says, pitching his voice up just a bit to imitate Harry. He winces, then twists a few times to crack his back. “Merlin, remind me to never fall asleep on this bloody thing again.”

Hermione smiles at him fondly, then stands from the arm of the chair. “I think we’re both long overdue for a real bed,” she says. But before she can wish Ron good night, he looks up at her quickly.

“Wait! Don’t go,” he says. “I mean, not just yet.”

“Weren’t you the one who just told me I need to sleep?” Hermione asks, quirking an amused brow. “Going against your own orders, now?”

“No, I…you do need to sleep,” Ron says, “but I…” he trails off and rubs the back of his neck. “I’ve been trying to get you alone for ages now, you know.”

Hermione slowly lowers herself back down on the arm of the chair. She has an uncomfortable suspicion as to why Ron’s been wanting to get her alone. It’s the same reason that she’s been wanting to get him alone for a while now, too—she knows she needs to do the right thing and let him down. And though this is the first time they’ve been alone in ages, she had reasoned it was too late and they were both too tired to go through a breakup tonight. But with Ron’s eager eyes trained on her, something tells her she won’t be falling into bed anytime soon. Not if she’s going to have to be brave and shut down whatever feelings are currently brewing in Ron’s heart.

“Well, I’m here now,” she says, clasping her hands together tightly so she doesn’t start nervously picking at her skirt. “And you have my undivided attention. What do you want to talk about?”

“Us,” Ron says immediately.

Hermione’s heart sinks at the confirmation, and Ron flushes a bit. He gives her a sheepish smile and says, “to tell you the truth, I’ve been thinking about the idea of an us for a while now. I mean, I haven’t been thinking about it for years or anything. That would be mental.” Ron looks up with alarm. “Not that thinking about you like this years ago would have been mental,” he adds quickly. “I mean, any sensible bloke would have been thinking about this years ago. And not that I’m not sensible, I am! I am, I just…I…” He trails off and grimaces. “This conversation went a lot better in my head,” he mutters. Then, he takes a deep breath and tries again. “I just meant that I’ve been thinking about the possibility of an us ever since Hogsmeade. And I was hoping that you’ve been thinking about it, too? And maybe thinking about what comes next?”

Hermione feels guilt and dread settle heavily in her stomach. “You mean you’d like to go on another date?” she asks tentatively, trying to buy herself some time.

“No,” he says, but before Hermione can let the relief flood in, he immediately tilts his head back and studies the ceiling, looking annoyed at himself. “I mean, yes,” he huffs. “Yes, I want us to go on another date. I want us to go on loads of dates, but that’s not what I’m…” he exhales sharply, then looks at Hermione with renewed confidence and says, “how would you like it if we were official? Boyfriend and girlfriend official, I mean.”

Hermione must involuntarily wince at the question, because Ron immediately backtracks. “If it’s too fast, I understand. We can take this at whatever pace works for you, but I just…I dunno. I figured since we’ve already known each other for so long, we could probably skip the whole getting to know each other bit that other couples go through. I mean, I already know you,” Ron adds with a grin. “And what’s more, I already like you. I…I like you quite a lot,” he finishes, blushing so red that he almost matches his hair.

Hermione’s stomach twists in knots as she lowers her gaze to study the plush rug under the chair. “Ron, I…” she rubs her face uncomfortably, trying to figure out the best way to go about this.

She’s never had to break up with someone before. Things were blissfully easy with Viktor—they had both known that whatever transpired between them would be temporary. When the time had come for him to board the ship back to Durmstrang, they had simply exchanged a long hug and promised to keep in touch, and Hermione had watched him go with no regrets or guilt over how their very brief relationship had ended.

To be honest, her biggest regret had simply been being in the relationship in the first place, which yes, was another blinding sign about her sexuality that she had conveniently ignored.

But even though her relationship with Viktor had lasted far longer than her ill-fated attempt with Ron, she feels a hundred times worse about what she’s about to do. Because unlike Viktor, Ron isn’t on the same page as her. He’s not even in the same book. He’s full of anticipation and jitters and all those lovely, shimmering feelings that accompany the delicate stirrings of new love. And while Hermione is also full of those things, they just happen to be for a very different person.

So even though the last thing she ever wants to do is hurt Ron, she knows she has to. She can’t continue leading him on just because it would be easier. She can’t let him start planning her role in their future together when she has no intention of ever acting it out. She can’t play with his heart just because she’s afraid of what her future may hold.

She has to give both Ron and herself a fair shot at real, genuine happiness.

And that means doing the right thing.

She looks up at Ron and murmurs, “I like you quite a lot, too. More than just about anybody, if I’m being honest.” But when Ron grins broadly, Hermione quickly adds, “which is why I…I need to be honest with you.”

Ron’s grin falters and his eyes grow uncertain. “Honest about…?”

“About us. About…about…”

Hermione can’t quite make herself say honest about me because she’s still not ready to admit the full truth to Ron, so instead she says, “about my feelings for you. I do love you, Ron. You’re one of the best people I know and you deserve every happiness in the world, but…” she worries her lip for a moment, then murmurs, “but I can’t be the one to give that to you.”

Ron blinks at her a few times and Hermione shifts uncomfortably in the thick, unbearable silence that settles between them. After a few long moments, he finally says, “sorry, I don’t…I…” he frowns at her and says, “what do you mean you can’t be the one to give that to me?”

Hermione slowly lowers herself from the chair arm into the chair itself, settling in for a longer conversation. “I mean that my feelings for you aren’t romantic,” she says, forcing the words to come out as steady and as clear as possible. “I love you,” she stresses again, “I do, but just…as a friend.”

“I…but…” Ron shakes his head a bit and runs a hand through his hair, making it stick up again. “I don’t understand. I thought you had a good time at Hogsmeade?” he asks, looking at Hermione with confusion.

“I did,” she says. “I did, because I like spending time with you. But only as a friend,” she says again, wincing a bit when she sees how stricken Ron looks.

He opens his mouth a few times, then eventually shuts it without saying anything and stares past Hermione into the fireplace, lost in thought. After a few moments, he turns back to her. “You let me hold your hand,” he says, sounding lost. “You let me kiss your cheek, I…” he shakes his head and looks at Hermione a bit desperately, waiting for an answer to a question he hasn’t actually asked.

“I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have done either of those things,” Hermione says as shame trickles through her body. “I just…I was scared of disappointing you. I was scared of letting you down. I was scared of having this conversation,” she says, folding her arms tightly across herself. “But I couldn’t let you go on thinking that we were on the same page when we weren’t. It wouldn’t be fair to you. I’m sorry,” she adds weakly. “I should have told you sooner.”

“But why? I mean, was it something I did?” Ron asks, sitting forward and staring at Hermione with desperate, pleading eyes.

“No, it…”

“Was it because of what happened at the Three Broomsticks?”

Hermione falters a bit, wondering for a brief, wild moment how he could possibly know about her conversation with Pansy. Did he overhear her telling Pansy that she had feelings for someone else? Someone unexpected?

Cold fear drips into her veins, but before it can overwhelm her, Ron adds, “because I really didn’t want to tend bar that long. I mean, I didn’t want to tend bar at all! But if you felt like I was neglecting you, or, or—”

Hermione shakes her head quickly, relief immediately taking the place of panic. “No. No, not at all. You were wonderful. To me, to Madam Rosmerta…you were a gentleman and you were…you were everything a woman could ask for. Really, you were. It has nothing to do with you. Honestly, it’s me. I just…I don’t see you in that way. I’d like to,” she adds. “You don’t know how much I’d like to, but I just…I can’t.”

“How can you be sure?” Ron asks, looking optimistic at Hermione’s words. He sits up straighter and says, “feelings develop differently between people all the time! My mum said she thought my dad was a complete tosser from first year to third. It wasn’t until they were fourth years that she started to change her mind, and they didn’t start dating until sixth! And now, look at them! They’re the happiest couple I know!” He breaks off, frowns a bit, then says, “or at least, they’re one of the happiest couples I know. Mum does threaten to leave every time dad brings home a new Muggle thing to tinker with. But that aside, they’re perfect for each other. And I think we could be, too, if we gave it some time,” he finishes, looking at Hermione with encouragement.

“No, I…that’s not it,” she says quietly. “I wish it were that simple, but I just…I don’t have feelings for you. Not the kind you want me to have.”

“But we’re good together,” Ron says, looking at her desperately. “We are! And I just think if you gave it a bit more time, you’d see that—”

“Ron,” Hermione says, cutting him off before he can continue his impassioned defense. “I’m sorry. But more time won’t change anything. I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear. And believe me, it’s not what I wanted to have to tell you. I’m sorry. I really am but I promise you, this is for the best.”

Ron shakes his head. “For you, maybe,” he says.

“It’s for the best for both of us,” Hermione says, trying to keep the irritation out of her voice.

“I don’t think it is,” Ron says. “I think you’re not giving us a fair shot. But if you’d just—”

“Do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t have those kind of feelings for you?”Hermione asks, interrupting him. “Honestly, you don’t deserve that. You deserve to be with someone who wants to be with you. And I’m sorry, but that’s not me,” she says, stressing both words.

“But—”

“Let me tell you how this would play out. We’d go on a few more dates. You’d start to fall in love. I wouldn’t. But I’d feel so bad about letting you down or wasting your time that I’d stay with you. We’d stay together after Hogwarts and when you’d eventually propose, I’d probably feel guilty enough to say yes, even though I’d know deep down that we were making a mistake. We’d end up stuck in some awful marriage and we’d never be happy. We’d snap at each other constantly and you’d be miserable and I’d wind up resenting you and eventually, we’d both end up hating each other. Is that what you want? Because if you keep pushing this, then that’s what you’ll get,” Hermione finishes.

Her words are delivered sharply, but she’s so frustrated that she doesn’t particularly care. It’s only when she notices how much Ron’s face has fallen that guilt slithers into her stomach and coils there uncomfortably. She rubs her face as the irritation slowly fades away and says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so…so harsh, but I just…” she sighs and murmurs, “you can’t keep pushing this just because you’re disappointed.”

Ron doesn’t reply. Instead, he keeps his gaze trained on the carpet below his feet, and Hermione watches as he taps a restless finger against the arm of the couch. After what feels like a small eternity, he drags his gaze back to Hermione and says, “and you really don’t think things will ever change?”

Hermione glances toward her lap as her mind flicks back to the late night experiment she had run last week. Immediately, her head is filled with images of herself being intimate with a beautiful, nameless woman, and she shakes her head with a small flush. “No. I don’t.”

“And there’s nothing I could do differently?”

“No,” Hermione says softly. “There isn’t. I’m sorry,” she adds, dropping Ron’s gaze and directing her words to the floor.

She hears Ron’s sigh, soft and dejected. “I…I’m sorry, too,” he says, and Hermione winces at the gloom in his tone. “I really thought that we’d…”

She risks a glance at him to find him staring into the fire again, his eyes faraway. “I know,” she murmurs.

When Ron continues to stare into the fireplace, Hermione whispers his name, and his dejected blue eyes flicker back to her. “Sorry,” he says. “I just…” he tousles his hair and tilts his head back against the couch cushion. “This isn’t how I saw this night going.”

Hermione picks at a sparse patch of velvet on the arm of her chair, trying to tell herself that as awful as she feels right now, she’s done the right thing. But even with constant reassurances running through her head, she can’t help the doubt that creeps in, so hesitantly, she says, “are you…are you mad at me?”

“No. Of course not. I…I’m…” Ron’s mouth scrunches as he tries to think of the right word. “I’m disappointed,” he finally says. “I won’t lie, I thought that you and I…” he smiles ruefully and shrugs. “I thought we’d be something. Because I really do like you. But you’re right. It’s not fair of me to push for a relationship if you don’t feel the same way, and you can’t help how you feel. So…thank you, I suppose.”

“For what?”

“For being honest. For not saddling us both with a miserable future. I’m disappointed and my pride might have taken a beating, but I reckon I’d prefer that to one day hating you. I don’t ever want to hate you,” he adds, his eyes soft and serious.

Hermione manages to nod with a lump in her throat, but before she can say anything else, Ron adds, “you know, if you had done this a few days ago, I would’ve assumed you were chucking me aside for your parchment pal.”

“Oh?” Hermione asks, trying to both sound and act casual. Her entire body had stiffened at the remark, though, and for the life of her, she can’t figure out what a normal reply would be. She can’t even figure out what she should be doing with her face.

She settles on raising her eyebrows and trying to look amused, but the smile on her face feels curiously close to a grimace.

“Suppose that’s a bit of good news for my wounded pride, though,” Ron says, seeming to not notice Hermione’s struggle at all. “At the very least, you’re not choosing a scrap of paper over me.”

Hermione manages a weak laugh in reply, but part of it must sound strained, because Ron glances at her curiously. In that moment, she decides humor is the best route, so she shrugs as unaffectedly as she can manage and says, “I mean, would it be a surprise if I were? I practically live in the library. I choose scraps of paper over you and Harry all the time.”

Ron grins and leans back against the couch, not realizing for a moment that she hadn’t denied his suggestion. “Well, can’t argue with that. The amount of time you spend in that bloody library,” he says, shaking his head with wonder. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you announced your engagement by the end of this year.”

“I’m afraid I have no interest in being the third party in any relationship,” Hermione says seriously. When Ron looks confused at her remark, she adds, “after all, the library is already in a very committed relationship with Madam Pince.”

“Blimey, how could I forget? Well, there goes your entire future.”

“It’s fine. I have Crookshanks.”

“Oi! Didn’t you just finish saying that you’re not interested in gingers with odd faces?”

Hermione gasps in mock-offense. “Crookshanks’ face is not odd! He’s gorgeous.”

“Right. And Snape’s half-veela.”

“Now that you mention it, he does carry himself with a certain grace…”

“Nah. That’s just the hemorrhoids.”

Hermione laughs out loud and Ron grins broadly. Once she’s collected herself, she smiles at him fondly, feeling a powerful sense of relief that she’s not in any danger of losing one of her best friends tonight. She opens her mouth to reply, but before she can, a massive yawn escapes Ron. He stretches his arms up over his head and says, “blimey. What time is it now, half past four?”

Hermione checks her watch. “Half past twelve.”

“Half past twelve,” Ron groans, closing his eyes tightly. “I have to be up at six for Quidditch.”

Another reason that sport is ridiculous, Hermione thinks to herself. But for Ron’s sake, she winces sympathetically and says, “then you need to go to bed. Right now.”

“But we’re having a conver…a conver…”

Another yawn escapes Ron and he rubs his eyes. “A conversation,” he finally finishes.

“You really want to keep discussing Snape’s hemorrhoids at twelve-thirty?”

“Oh, always,” Ron says with a wicked grin. “They’re my favorite topic, you know.”

“Then I’ll be sure to bring them up first thing tomorrow at breakfast. But for now, you need to go to sleep.”

Ron grimaces. “Don’t ever mention hemorrhoids and breakfast in the same sentence again,” he says, standing from the couch and stretching a bit.

“I won’t, so long as you go to bed.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” Ron grumbles good-naturedly. He eyes Hermione closely and says, “and you should be going, too. No more studying tonight, right?”

“No more. You have my word.”

Ron nods, satisfied. “Right then. G’night, Hermione,” he says with a smile. “Sleep well.”

“Sweet dreams,” Hermione replies.

Ron turns and starts toward the boy’s dormitory, but before he can climb the stairs, Hermione says, “Ron?”

He turns back and looks at her, raising an eyebrow.

“I…thank you. For understanding, and for being…for being…” she shakes her head. “For being you.”

Ron smiles and nods. “‘Course,” he says quietly.

“I love you, you know.”

“Yeah. I love you too.”

With that, he gives her a small wave and starts up the stairs. Hermione watches until he’s out of sight, then she allows herself to exhale slowly and slump back against the chair, relieved that she doesn’t have that awful confrontation hanging over her head anymore.

Honestly, she hadn’t expected it to go as well as it did. She had thought they’d end up in some ridiculous argument, or Ron would decide he needed time away from her to lick his wounds. But from what she can tell, he’s actually taken it as well as she could have hoped. It’s a weight off of her shoulders, and frankly, after the realizations she’s had recently, she needs this small victory.

She stretches in the chair, wincing at the tension in her lower back from too many late nights spent pouring over books. All she wants to do is climb into bed and let the day melt away, but instead, she reaches for her bag and digs inside for her parchment. She feels a little guilty as she does—she did tell Ron she’d go to bed, but the only thing she had actually promised was no more studying. And this certainly wasn’t studying.

Once the parchment is in her hands, she grins to herself, delighted that there’s an answer to her long message waiting for her. Her novel, Hermione thinks, correcting herself as her mind turns to Pansy ever so briefly. But remarkably, her parchment pal has managed to fill up both sides of the parchment, so she’d say they’re even.

She lets the anticipation build as she traces the letters in Dear Robin. There’s nothing she likes better than finishing her day with a message from her parchment pal. Though truth be told, she’s surprised it’s taken her this long to check. Normally, she checks consistently throughout the day, regardless of whether or not she’s able to reply. But for some reason, she hadn’t thought to sneak a peek at her parchment while she was in the library with Pansy. She had simply forgotten about it for a few hours.

Hermione frowns at the realization. It’s odd—she’s never forgotten to check her parchment when she’s spending time with Harry, Ron, and Ginny. Even though she loves them all, there’s always a part of her keeping a watchful eye on the paper, waiting for her bard to write to her. Yet tonight, it hadn’t even crossed her mind.

After a brief hesitation, Hermione shakes her head and shrugs a bit at herself, chalking it up to her propensity to lose all track of time in the library. And it certainly didn’t help that Pansy was surprisingly good company.

With that mystery solved, Hermione curls up in the chair, puts all other thoughts of the day from her mind, and starts to read the message. A soft, familiar smile flutters to her face as her bard’s voice washes over her, and the warmth from the crackling fireplace suddenly seems inadequate compared to the warm glow that’s emanating from her heart. By the time she gets to the last bit of the already incredibly long message (honestly, Hermione’s a bit worried by how long her bard must have spent on this), she’s once again smiling like a fool.

I can scarcely believe there’s less than a month left in this little experiment. I overheard someone in my common room the other day asking a friend what she was going to write in her reflective essay for McGonagall and it got me thinking…what will I write about, when all is said and done? I decided to brainstorm a bit, and I was hoping you’d proofread what I have so far.

Here it is, for your discerning eye:

Professor McGonagall,

You asked us to write about what we’ve learned from this experiment and how it pertains to our journeys at Hogwarts. But I’m beginning to realize you’ve assigned an impossible task. Because how can I put into words what the person on the other end of my parchment means to me? How can one write about the breathless anticipation that comes along with waiting for her letters? The overwhelming need to hear from her, night and day? The way my heart feels when I see “Yours, Robin” written at the end of each message? The finest poet could spend a lifetime trying to put those rare and exquisite feelings into words, and still, they’d never do them justice.

But I suppose a good place to start would be with fate. Do you believe in fate, Professor McGonagall? Because I didn’t. I always thought it was some silly thing that people blamed for all the wonderful, tragic, life-changing, messy happenstances we suffer through in the course of a lifetime. But now I know how foolish I was. Because if fate doesn’t exist, then how do I explain Robin? How can I possibly accept that of all the people in this school, I was somehow matched by chance with the one person who would take the time to understand my heart? The one person who would so perfectly fill the spaces within me that I never even knew existed? The one person who would teach me about grace, about empathy, about strength?

The one person who never could have known how close I was to drowning before she came along and extended her hand to me. The one person who has saved me more than she could possibly know.

Before Robin, I thought my future was set in stone. I knew what the road ahead looked like, and I knew that I’d have to walk it with as much courage as I could muster. But her presence in my life, her steady, unwavering support and compassion have led me to a new path. And I won’t lie—it’s a path that still frightens me. But somehow, even with all its shadowy uncertainties, I know it’s the right path. Because for the first time in my life, I see a future where I can just be…me. The person I’ve always wanted to be. For the first time, I’m actually looking forward to my future.

(That’s mostly because I’m desperately hoping that Robin will want to be a part of it, but let’s keep that little tidbit between you and me, Professor.)

But I suppose more than anything, I should be taking this essay as an opportunity to thank you. Because without this experiment, I’d have wandered the rest of my days, unfulfilled and lost, content to live half a life. But thanks to you, I know now what it feels like to be whole.

And that’s because of Robin.

With my sincerest gratitude,


Well, I can’t sign my real name to it, can I? But there—the product of my brainstorming. What do you think Robin? Will McGonagall like it?

I certainly hope you did.

Twenty-seven days to go.

Yours,
Bard ♥

Hermione re-reads the imagined essay to McGonagall over and over, feeling fairly sure that her heart is about to launch itself from her chest. It’s by far the most forward her parchment pal has ever been, but she doesn’t mind one bit. On the contrary—she likes it. She likes these messages that leave her cheeks warm, her body buzzing, and her soul yearning for something she can’t quite put her finger on. She likes both the light and easy flirtation and the earnest declarations of something more, something deep and full of promise. She likes letting herself bask in the beautiful, intoxicating feeling of new love bubbling through her system. She likes all of it, and it makes her ache for more.

On her fourth re-read, she zeroes in on the line I know now what it feels like to be whole. She puts down the parchment with a slightly shaky hand, letting the line sink into her and fill her chest with an all-encompassing warmth.

Hermione has read more than her fair share over the years, but somehow, in all her late nights spent with her nose in a book, she’s never resonated with any line more than she does with those ten, simple words. And while she’s still deeply afraid of everything the future holds, she knows that if there’s even the slightest chance her bard can be a part of it, then she wants it. She wants to spend the rest of her life feeling whole.

She leans forward and reaches for a quill, then smooths the parchment upon the table in front of her and starts to write, deciding to be as honest as she can manage without fully admitting her recent realizations to her parchment pal.

Dear bard,

I’m afraid I’m only a few moments away from collapsing from exhaustion, but I couldn’t let myself sleep without telling you two things:

One—your essay was beautiful. I don’t know how you manage to take everything I’m feeling inside and put it so plainly on paper. Perhaps it’s a type of magic I’ve yet to learn, but it’s one you seem to have mastered. I’m deeply jealous…I wish I could somehow spill my heart on this page and let you know the depths of my feelings, but perhaps the second thing I have to tell you will help…

Two—I want to be a part of your future. In any way, shape, and form, for as long as you’ll have me. If I’m being completely honest with you, there are so many things changing in my life right now, but the one thing that hasn’t changed, that will never change, is how much I desperately want you in my life. Now and forevermore.

But until then, I do have to sleep. My eyes are shutting against my will, and if I spend anymore time in front of this fireplace, I think I’ll somehow manage to become one with the chair. But we couldn’t let that happen, could we? Not when I’ve just promised my future to you.

More soon, but for now, I remain yours always,
Robin ♥

Hermione sends the message and smiles softly at the golden heart, right back where it belongs beside her name.

She’s never letting it go again.

***

The next day finds Hermione in the library with a smile still lurking on her face. She’s just come from a surprisingly enjoyable Potions, though in all honesty, she doesn’t know why she’s surprised—in the course of a few weeks, Potions has managed to become a class she actively looks forward to.

And that’s all due to Pansy.

Snape had decided to hold a revision session on the Draught of the Living Death today, much to the despair of everyone in the class. A collective groan had gone around the room the moment he had announced the potion, and Ron and Harry had turned to look at Hermione with concern lurking in their eyes, presumably remembering the last disastrous time she and Pansy had attempted this particular potion. And truth be told, she herself had been nervous that it might dredge up bad memories of their detention, or remind Pansy that she still resented Hermione’s essence of wormwood faux-pas from all those weeks ago.

But Hermione’s worries had proved to be unfounded. Pansy had simply smirked and said, “dibs on the prefect’s bathroom,” before slipping from her stool to gather ingredients. It had taken Hermione a moment to remember their long-ago argument in detention about who would use the bathroom first, but when the memory came to her, she found herself grinning broadly after Pansy’s retreating form.

The rest of the class had been a dream. They were immediately successful in their second attempt at brewing the tricky potion, and even Snape seemed begrudgingly impressed by their quick progress. And while Pansy was still entirely distracting, it was now in a completely different, much more enjoyable way. She kept whispering little off-the-cuff comments to Hermione that would force her to clamp her lips together to keep from laughing out loud. A few surprised snorts still managed to escape her over the course of the hour though, and each time, she was aware of Harry and Ron glancing toward their table with matching frowns, both clearly wondering what had gotten into her.

When it came time for Hermione to add the essence of wormwood to their potion, Pansy had casually emptied her pockets, revealing six extra vials. And when Hermione stared at the vials with confusion, Pansy simply winked and murmured just in case. Hermione had rolled her eyes fondly, but when Pansy turned away to trail a finger down the long list of steps in her Potions book, Hermione had found her gaze lingering.

And now, as she sits in her customary seat in the library by the large, east-facing window, she finds her thoughts turning to Pansy once more. There’s a part of her that’s upset that she and Pansy had wasted seven long years hating each other, because when it comes down to it, they’re surprisingly good together—they work well together, they sharpen each other, they make each other laugh, and as surprising as it is, Hermione has stopped thinking that they could one day be friends. Now, she thinks they could one day be good friends. Very good friends, if she’s being honest.

“Thought I might find you here.”

Hermione glances up, startled out of her thoughts to find Ginny, smiling down at her. She looks a bit nervous as she nods toward the chair across from Hermione with a raised eyebrow. “May I?” she asks, rocking back and forth on her feet in a way that’s so similar to Ron, Hermione can’t help the small smile that comes to her face.

“Of course,” Hermione says, quickly removing her bag from the table and placing it on the floor. “You know you don’t have to ask.”

Ginny scoffs as she lowers herself into the chair. “Please. I’m not Ron. I have manners.”

“Mm. So does that mean you’re closer to Percy, then?” Hermione asks, raising an amused eyebrow.

Ginny grimaces. “The closest person in our family to Percy is mum’s stuck-up, persnickety cat. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the hair, I’d think he was adopted.”

Hermione smiles, but before she can reply, Ginny says, “but speaking of Ron…” She trails off and nervously tugs on the end of her red braid, plaited neatly over her shoulder. Hermione watches the movement with wary eyes—she knows that Ginny’s about to ask about what had happened last night, and her shoulders tense a bit in anticipation. Ron is her brother, after all. And even if he irritates her on an almost daily basis, she still adores him. It would stand to reason she’d take his side in any sort of dispute.

Ginny still hasn’t said anything, so Hermione gently prompts, “what about him?”

“I…I heard what happened. Last night, I mean,” Ginny says. “Between you and Ron.”

Hermione nods. “I was going to tell you,” she says with a small wince. “I was, I just—”

“Don’t worry about that,” Ginny says, waving an uncaring hand. “I know you were, I just…how are you?” she asks, scrutinizing Hermione carefully.

There’s a question lurking in Ginny’s eyes, and Hermione feels her heart skip a beat. She still remembers Ginny’s concern on Saturday after the great parchment pal reveal, and she has a nasty feeling that Ginny’s decided to take this moment to dig deeper.

But before she can let the familiar icy fear grip her heart and come up with a thousand different excuses, she stops and thinks about what Pansy had said last night. About how there was no difference between this and her blood status. They were both things she couldn’t help, and neither were hurting anyone. And if Pansy could find it in her heart to be accepting, surely Ginny could, too. And what’s more, shouldn’t Hermione give Ginny the benefit of the doubt? She’s one of Hermione’s closest friends, and if the way she had gazed at her on Saturday was any indication, Ginny would actually be the best first person to tell.

…Well, second. Pansy had been the accidental first, but all things considered, she had actually been the best first person to tell.

Slowly, the fear ebbs away and Hermione straightens her shoulders, scrapes together her courage, and decides to let the chips fall where they may.

“I’m…I’m alright. A bit sad, I suppose. I had hoped things would be different, and I know Ron’s disappointed but…” she trails off and shrugs. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Can I ask why?” Ginny asks, once again nervously tugging on her braid. “I mean, it’s not like I can blame you,” she adds quickly. “Did you know that Ron still doesn’t wash his own knickers when he’s home? He’s practically middle-aged and mum still does it for him. Had you ended up with him, you’d be his wife and mother, all at the same time. Honestly, you made the right call, but I just…I thought you were a bit more interested in him a few months ago. Unless I’m misremembering?”

“No…no, you’re not misremembering,” Hermione says. “I thought I wanted something more from him. But…” she trails off and shakes her head.

“But something changed?” Ginny asks gently.

Hermione nods. “I suppose it was after Hogsmeade when I knew for sure. I had a lovely time with him, but the whole time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were just there as friends. And what’s more, I didn’t want to be there as anything more.”

Ginny bites her lip nervously, then says, “you know, when Ron told me this morning, he mentioned something…something interesting.”

“Oh?” Hermione asks, her heart rate immediately picking up at Ginny’s painfully practiced casual tone.

“Mm. He said that had you called things off before Saturday, he’d have assumed it was because of your parchment pal.”

Hermione nods slowly. “Yes, he…he said something similar to me last night,” she says, nervously fidgeting with her skirt. She’s not surprised that Ginny’s taking this opportunity to get answers—she’s always been something of a straight shooter—but it’s still progressing faster than Hermione expected, and she can feel anxiety slithering in her stomach, slick and cold.

“He seemed to think it was ludicrous. But…” Ginny trails off and frowns. “I was watching you on Saturday, you know. And you seemed…upset,” she says carefully.

“I—”

“I know you said everything is fine. And maybe it is! Maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick,” Ginny says quickly. “Maybe I’m reading into things that aren’t there, and that’s fine. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time. I was convinced Luna had a thing for Neville for months. So much so that I kept dropping all these hints to Neville about a friend who was interested in him romantically. He ended up thinking it was me and told me he just didn’t see me like that,” she says, dropping her voice to imitate Neville. “Can you imagine? Me and Neville?” She shakes her head, then says, “and anyway, it was all for nothing. Luna wasn’t interested in him at all. She just thought Trevor was a Moon Frog in disguise and wanted to get closer to Neville to inspect him.”

“A…a what?” Hermione asks, baffled by how casually Ginny had just delivered a seemingly nonsensical sentence.

“Moon Frogs. They’re glowing frogs that Luna thinks live on the moon. She thinks they hide in the craters and that they have special healing abilities and…” Ginny shakes her head in disbelief, “and I honestly can’t believe I know as much about them as I do,” she says, sounding vaguely horrified.

“They’re not…real, are they?” Hermione asks tentatively.

“Merlin, no! They’re just your standard Quibbler fare. And honestly, I’ve no idea why Luna thinks Trevor of all toads is secretly from the moon, but to be honest, I’ve no idea why Luna thinks most of the things she thinks. I gave up trying to understand her thought process ages ago.”

Hermione chuckles. “That’s probably for the best. And anyway, Neville’s dead set on Hannah. It wouldn’t have worked out anyway. For Luna or for you,” she adds with a small smirk.

“And I’m still devastated over that,” Ginny says seriously. “Why do you think I’m with Harry now? Had to settle for my second choice.”

“Stands to reason,” Hermione says easily. “Though it is a shame…all Harry has to offer is Hedwig. Neville has a Moon Frog.”

“Well, we can’t all be as lucky as Hannah, I guess.”

“No, I suppose not.”

Ginny smiles for a moment, then her expression turns serious again and she says, “anyway, ridiculous Moon Frog tangent aside, I just…” she frowns and worries her lower lip for a moment, then exhales slowly. “I might be wrong. I’m probably wrong, but on the off chance I’m not, I wanted to reiterate what I said on Saturday. If you want to talk, I’m here. But if you don’t, that’s fine, too,” she adds quickly. “Just tell me to piss off, and I will.”

Hermione looks down at the table and sweeps a finger over the polished surface as she ponders how she wants to reply. The ball is firmly in her court—she can either let Ginny in on all her recent revelations and hope for the best, or she can steer them away from this topic with vague excuses and false reassurances. One would certainly be easier. And she knows that even though Ginny is persistent, she’s true to her word; if Hermione tells her that everything is fine, she’ll let it drop.

But a tiny voice in her head whispers worthwhile things rarely come easily and she finds her thoughts turning toward her parchment pal, a shared dream of Paris, and a small, golden heart that makes her own heart flutter with anticipation.

After last night, she knows without a shadow of a doubt that she wants more from her parchment pal than just friendship. She wants it all—whispered promises, magical kisses in the rain, soft summer evenings and still winter nights. A soft hand in hers as they stumble through whatever the future has in store for them.

A life together, if she’s lucky.

But she also knows that none of these things will be possible if she keeps this part of herself sequestered from the world. And so even though she’s still terrified, she takes a deep breath and comes to a decision.

“Hypothetically…if I told you that you weren’t reading into things…if I said that I was upset on Saturday…how would you feel about that?” Hermione asks, her heart pounding in her chest.

“I would want to know why you were upset,” Ginny says carefully. “I’d want to try to help. Hypothetically speaking, of course,” she adds.

Hermione’s stomach twists a bit, and even though she’s made up her mind to let Ginny in on what’s been going on, she finds herself curiously unable to put it into words. Instead, she looks up at Ginny and asks, “do you have a guess? As to why I was upset, I mean.”

Ginny nods. “I do,” she says slowly. “But I don’t want to overstep my bounds or assume things I shouldn’t be.”

“But if you were to assume. Whatever it is you’re assuming, I mean…how would you feel if it…if it were true?”

Hermione’s question lingers in the air for a moment, and as she waits for Ginny to answer, she can feel her stomach twisting into even tighter knots. Anxiously, she wipes her sweaty palms against her skirt. She’s sure Ginny’s going to say she agrees with Ron. That it’s wrong, it’s strange, it’s disgusting.

Instead, Ginny looks at Hermione with earnest eyes. “If what I’m assuming is true, then I wouldn’t care. I’d just want to know so I could be supportive. In any way you’d want me to be. I mean, hypothetically speaking,” she adds with a small smile.

Hermione’s heart seems to leap into her throat at the reply, but whether it’s from hope or anxiety, she can’t tell. Her leg bounces under the table as she asks, “can I ask what you’re assuming?” in a voice tight with nerves.

Ginny glances around them to make sure they’re completely alone. Once she’s satisfied no one is near their little corner of the library, she leans forward just a bit and murmurs, “I’m assuming that you might be experiencing certain feelings for a certain parchment pal?”

Hermione exhales sharply. She hadn’t even realized she’d been holding her breath, and she quickly inhales through her nose, forcing herself to stay calm.

“Would I be right?” Ginny asks tentatively.

Every part of her wants to say no. Every part of her wants to run away from the table and never look back.

But instead, in a show of bravery that will baffle Hermione when she looks back on it even years later, she manages a small, stiff nod, effectively sealing her fate, whatever it may be.

She looks up to see Ginny’s reaction and when she finds understanding, warm eyes still trained on her, she feels the tiniest bit of tension flutter away from her body. Because at the very least, Ginny doesn’t seem to be having the same reaction as Ron.

“And can I ask if these feelings are only for your parchment pal? Or do you think you might be…?” Ginny trails off and lets the loaded question hang in the air, waiting for Hermione to supply an answer.

“I…yes,” Hermione whispers. “I…I think I might be…that,” she says awkwardly, still unable to say the word.

One thing at a time.

Ginny’s eyes soften, but before she can reply, Hermione hurries on. “Do you agree with Ron?”

“Very, very rarely,” Ginny says uncertainly, “but I’ll need more specifics to be sure.”

Hermione manages a small, weak smile at her reply. “Do you think it’s wrong? Or…disgusting?” she asks, her voice timid.

Immediately, Ginny’s eyes harden. “No,” she says firmly. “Not in the slightest. Not even for a moment.”

“But Ron said—”

“No,” Ginny says, pointing a warning finger at Hermione. “Don’t you dare finish that thought. I know he’s my brother, and I love him, but basing anything in your life off of what Ronald says is a recipe for disaster.”

Hermione shakes her head miserably. “How can I not? I mean, the way he looked…the way Harry looked…”

“Is something that can be changed,” Ginny puts in swiftly. “I love both of them, but they’re both complete idiots. Neither of them know any better. But do you know what their one saving grace is?”

Hermione shakes her head, and Ginny smiles encouragingly at her. “They’re quick to learn,” she says. “And they will. Honestly, they only reacted that way because they’ve never been faced with it before.”

“And you have?” Hermione asks, raising an interested brow.

Ginny nods. “One of my mum’s brothers is gay,” she says, dropping her voice. When she sees Hermione wince at the word, she quickly says, “and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. He’s still my favorite uncle. Nothing’s changed.” She breaks off and frowns thoughtfully. “Well…that’s not entirely true. I suppose I finally know why he’s been bringing his roommate to our family get-togethers for the past fifteen years. But other than that, nothing’s changed. I still love him, and I’m just happy that he’s happy. Isn’t that all anyone can ask for?”

“I suppose it is, I just…sorry, I’m a bit confused,” Hermione says with a frown. “If he’s your uncle, then shouldn’t Ron know?”

Ginny shakes her head. “I only found out before the start of this year, and it was purely accidental. And Mum said he wants to tell everyone on his own terms, so I haven’t said a word to anyone.” Ginny breaks off and frowns. “Suppose I have now, though,” she says. She shoots Hermione a nervous look and says, “if you ever happen to meet my uncle Edward, do me a favor and don’t mention this.”

“I won’t,” Hermione says with a small smile. Then, she nervously pinches the fabric of her skirt between her fingertips and says, “you really don’t think it’s weird?” Normally, she’d cringe at herself for being so desperate for reassurance, but today, she needs it.

“I really, really don’t,” Ginny says earnestly. “Mind you, I think there are a lot of things that are weird in this world—the fact that mum still washes Ron’s knickers comes to mind,” she says with a smirk. “But this? No. I don’t think this is weird at all. And even if I didn’t know about my uncle, I still wouldn’t think it was weird.”

“Yes, but—”

“Hermione,” Ginny says, swiftly cutting off Hermione’s inevitable protest. “I think that you deserve happiness as much as the next person. And I think you deserve all the love in the world. Whether that’s with a man or a woman, I don’t care. All I care about is that you end up with someone who treats you well and that you’re happy.” Ginny reaches across the table and takes Hermione’s hand. She gives it a small squeeze and says, “and for what it’s worth, I think that whoever your parchment pal is, she’s the luckiest witch in the entire world. Because you are absolutely amazing.”

Without any warning, a potent burst of relief rushes through Hermione, filling her to the brim and leaving her completely weak. With a shuddering exhalation, she allows herself to let go of the last bit of fear lingering in her body, and in its place, she lets new emotions flood in. Freedom, hope, joy. Tears prick at the corners of her eyes and she laughs shakily. “Sorry, I didn’t expect to…” she tilts her head up to the ceiling as a tear rolls down her cheek. She releases Ginny’s hand to brush it away. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying,” she says, sounding bewildered.

“Relief? I’d imagine it was a difficult thing to sit with.”

Hermione manages a watery laugh. “It was, but to be honest, I’ve barely been sitting with it at all. I feel like most people sit with this for years, but I seem to be trying to set some sort of world record.”

“You didn’t know before?” Ginny asks, raising her eyebrows in surprise.

“No. No, I…” Hermione brushes away another tear and looks back at Ginny. “I should have. But no, I didn’t realize it until my parchment pal.”

“Huh. You know, I’m not surprised that was what did it.”

“Why?” Hermione asks, her brow furrowing in confusion at Ginny’s casual statement.

“I mean, you’ve always taken assignments to the extreme. I suppose you heard inter-house unity was the goal and decided to try for extra credit?” Ginny asks with a smirk.

Hermione snorts in surprise. “As reasonable as that hypothesis is, I’m afraid even I’m not that dedicated to schoolwork.”

“Ah. Well, whatever the reason, can you do me a favor?”

“I…suppose?”

“Don’t tell anyone else it was your parchment pal that did it.”

“Why not?” Hermione asks, her gaze narrowing suspiciously at the mirth shining on Ginny’s face.

“Because someday, I want to be able to tell everyone that one date with Ron was enough for you to swear off men completely.”

Hermione rolls her eyes but still gives Ginny a small, fond smile. “Had I known you’d be inspired to put together an entire comedy routine based on this, I’d have told you ages ago.”

“Sorry, sorry. Couldn’t help myself. But really, I’m glad you told me. And I meant what I said—this doesn’t change anything. I still love you. Always will. And anything you want to talk about, I’m here.”

“Thank you,” Hermione says, her lower lip trembling just a bit at the warmth in Ginny’s gaze. “I love you, too, you know.”

Ginny gives her a smile and nods. Then she tilts her head and quirks an eyebrow. “So out of curiosity, am I the first person you’ve told?”

Hermione’s mind flicks to Pansy as she considers telling Ginny the truth. After a brief hesitation, she decides against it. She’s already exhausted by the conversation they’ve just had, and she doesn’t think she can handle a thorough inquisition on how she’s managed to somehow become friends with Pansy Parkinson of all people. Bizarrely, she has a feeling Ginny will have a worse reaction to that particular tidbit. So instead, she nods, hoping her face doesn’t betray her by blushing.

Ginny grins broadly. “I’m honored.” But something seems to occur to her, because her smile fades and studies Hermione curiously. “Wait…does your parchment pal know? I mean…does she feel the same way?”

This time, Hermione does blush. “I…yes,” she murmurs, keeping her voice low. “She feels the same way. But she doesn’t know that I have feelings for her. She sort of confessed to having feelings for me a while ago, but at the time, I didn’t think I felt the same. So I told her we should just be friends. But she inadvertently opened the floodgates and eventually, it was all I could think about and…well, obviously, I ended up coming to a very different conclusion. But I haven’t told her yet. And I don’t think I will until I meet her face to face.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’ve built it up in my head. It seems more…momentous, somehow to do it in person. Do you think that’s silly?”

“No, not at all. A grand declaration like that? I think it’s quite romantic. I just…” Ginny trails off and twists her mouth in contemplation.

“What?” Hermione asks, watching Ginny nervously.

“Nothing, I…” she sighs and tugs on her braid. “I don’t want to sound like Ron, but I just…what if she’s…y’know…not very…attractive?” she says sheepishly.

“Oh. I…I don’t know,” Hermione says honestly. “I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t matter. I mean, I already know everything I need to know about her and unless she’s an actual troll, I can’t imagine her looks would change anything.”

Ginny snorts. “You say that now, but when an actual troll shows up, you’ll change your tune.”

“Maybe. But like I said, there’s no use borrowing trouble.”

“Which I agree with, but it’s something you should think about. Because emotions are all well and good, but physical attraction plays a pretty big part in any relationship.”

“I suppose so, but—”

“Do you have a type?” Ginny asks, leaning forward with interest.

“A what?” Hermione asks, confused.

“A type. Y’know, a type of woman you find attractive?”

“Oh. I…no. I mean, I’ve never really thought about it,” Hermione says awkwardly, absently winding the ends of her hair around her fingers.

“Oh, come on. I know you’ve just figured things out, but surely there’s someone at this school you’ve noticed before?”

Hermione opens her mouth to refute Ginny’s question, but before she can say anything, a startlingly clear image of Pansy pops into her head, completely unbidden.

She freezes in place, completely taken aback. Why on earth had Pansy of all people come to mind?

Surely, it was just a coincidence. Surely, it was because she had just been thinking about Pansy a few moments ago. Surely, she didn’t find Pansy Parkinson attractive.

…Did she?

No. She didn’t. That would be absurd.

…But to be fair, she’d have to be blind to not notice that Pansy is attractive. Not in a way that means that she herself is attracted to her, of course. Just in a way that means most Hogwarts students probably recognize that Pansy is quite pretty.

No. Pretty is the wrong word. She’s striking.

Pansy radiates a kind of alluring glamour that Hermione’s only seen in old-world Muggle film stars—dark lips, perfectly shaped eyebrows, sleek, bobbed hair that never seems to fall out of place. There’s something arresting about her sharp jawline and prominent cheekbones, her full lips, her hypnotic green eyes.

But there’s more to it than that…there’s an aura of regality in the way Pansy carries herself that tends to make her the center of attention in any room she’s in. Every part of her physicality demands to be noticed, yet Pansy herself seems completely unfazed by the attention she receives. Somehow though, her complete indifference toward just about every person at Hogwarts has only served to make her more intriguing. And it’s worked wonders for her—even Hermione can admit that even when she had hated Pansy, her eye had always been drawn toward her.

But she doesn’t hate her anymore. Not by a long shot. And now that she’s befriended Pansy, she’s starting to notice more than she had ever noticed before. Because before, Hermione only knew Pansy as someone who looked perpetually haughty. She had only ever known cruel sneers, arrogantly quirked eyebrows, and cold hatred from green eyes. But now, she knows so much more. She knows that Pansy has a slow, beautiful smile that lights up her entire face like a sunrise. She knows that when Pansy laughs, her nose scrunches up and her eyes shine so brightly, Hermione finds it difficult to look away. She knows that when she’s deep in concentration, Pansy will get the tiniest furrow between her brows as she gently worries her lower lip (which is another thing Hermione finds curiously difficult to look away from).

The realization that she’s spent quite a bit of time both watching Pansy and cataloging all of her features hits Hermione hard, and she stares stupidly at the table, completely bemused by the turn of events.

Could it be that she actually thinks that Pansy is—

“Hermione?”

Hermione startles out of her thoughts and looks up to find Ginny, watching her with vague amusement.

“Shall I take that as a yes, then?”

“What?” Hermione asks. She’s completely forgotten the original question that led her down this particularly strange rabbit hole.

Is there someone here that you fancy?”

Hermione’s eyes widen and she feels a flush stain her cheeks. “No,” she says quickly. “No, there’s…no. No. Absolutely not.”

“Mm, hate to break it to you, but those are not the protestations of an honest woman. You’re hiding something,” Ginny says with a sly grin.

“And I hate to break it to you, but I’m not. You just…you caught me off guard. That’s all.”

“So the massive, all-over flush you’re sporting is just…?”

Hermione lifts a hand to her cheek to find it warm. She drops it quickly and glares at Ginny, who’s still grinning at her. “Don’t make me regret letting you sit here,” Hermione says flatly, crossing her arms.

“Oh, don’t be like that! Besides, remember how good sharing the other thing felt? Maybe this’ll feel just as good!”

“You’re no longer welcome at this table,” Hermione says, extending her leg to push against Ginny’s chair.

Ginny laughs as her chair smoothly slides backward across the polished wood floor, and when she’s fully out of Hermione’s reach, she says, “can I guess?”

No.”

“But—”

“Guess what?”

Hermione and Ginny both whip around to find Harry and Ron, watching them with interest. They’ve somehow managed to appear without either girl noticing, and they’re looking between Hermione and Ginny, waiting to be let in on the conversation.

“Reckon we could help,” Harry says. “We did just come from Divination and if there’s one thing that class is good for, it’s teaching us how to make wild and completely unfounded guesses.”

Hermione turns to Ginny with panic in her eyes, but Ginny is already on the case. “Excellent,” she says, scooting her chair back toward the table. “Then maybe you can help me figure out what Hermione’s Boggart has changed into.”

The panic subsides from Hermione’s gaze and instead, she stares at Ginny with complete bewilderment. But before she can open her mouth to say something stupid that contradicts the lie, Ron snorts. “What, you mean it’s not McGonagall failing her anymore?” he asks as he adjusts his bag on his shoulder.

“No, it’s not,” Ginny says smoothly. “Apparently it changed sometime early last year. You remember when the Boggart was found in Filch’s filing cabinet?”

Harry and Ron both shake their heads, looking confused. For once, it’s warranted—there was no Boggart in Filch’s filing cabinet last year. As far as Hermione knows, there hasn’t been a Boggart in Hogwarts since third year.

“Merlin. Do you two ever listen?” Ginny asks with good-natured exasperation. “Anyway, there was a Boggart found in Filch’s filing cabinet last year, and someone asked McGonagall if she could help take care of it.”

Ginny trails off and raises an amused eyebrow at Hermione. Quickly, Hermione relaxes her expression and manages a shrug. “I’ve never forgiven them for making me lose points on my Defense Against the Dark Arts exam third year. I wanted to prove to McGonagall that I could take care of it.”

Even though it’s a lie, Hermione very briefly finds herself wishing it were true—she would like a second crack at those bloody shape-shifters.

“And did you?” Harry asks with interest.

Hermione quickly nods and Harry shakes his head in wonder. “Huh…you’d think we’d remember that,” he says with a far-off look. “Did you tell us about it?”

“I…no,” Hermione says, nervously tucking her hair behind her ears. “No, I meant to, but—”

“But after it took its new form, she was too embarrassed to say anything,” Ginny puts in helpfully. “But I’m dying to know what could be so embarrassing, you’d keep it from all of us for a year,” she adds, turning to Hermione with a bright smile. “So go on. Tell us.”

Hermione glares darkly at the glee on Ginny’s face, but it only makes Ginny’s smile brighter.

“It can’t be that bad,” Ron says leaning his forearms against an empty chair beside Hermione’s. “I mean, I can’t think of anything more embarrassing than McGonagall failing you.”

Somehow, Hermione manages an unaffected shrug. “I suppose that’s for me to know and you to never find out.”

“Maybe she’s afraid of having to listen to us discuss Quidditch again,” Harry says with a grin.

“No, it’s got to be something gross. Like…like not making it to the toilet in time,” Ron says, looking toward Hermione as if he’s cracked the case.

“Really? You think that’s her worst fear? Not getting to the toilet in time?” Ginny asks dryly.

“I dunno. It could be. I mean, it’s one of mine.”

“Only because you wet the bed until you were eight.”

Oi!” Ron says, looking betrayed and furious, all at once.

“Just telling the truth,” Ginny says sweetly. “Anyway, I was thinking—”

Hermione somehow finds it within herself to roll her eyes as she sits there and watches her friends try and guess her fake-Boggart, but truth be told, she’s never been more relieved for anything to be a lie. Because quite frankly, if it wasn’t for the conversation she and Ginny had just had, she actually would have a new Boggart—watching all her friends and family abandon her. It’s all she’s been panicking over for the past few days, but now, the fear seems muted. Because now, she honestly believes that she can one day make her loved ones understand. And even if the rest of the world never reaches the same understanding, she won’t mind. Just as long as they do.

“That must be it!” Ron says triumphantly. “Fear of having to one day make an acronym that’s not absolute rubbish!” He turns to Hermione with a broad grin and says, “well? Did we get it?”

Hermione gathers her things with dignity and stands up to start the walk to Transfiguration. “If I say yes, will you stop guessing?” she asks primly.

“Probably not, no,” Harry says good-naturedly.

Harry, Ron, and Ginny spend the entire walk from the library to Transfiguration making increasingly ridiculous guesses as to Hermione’s new Boggart form. (Hermione’s favorites include fear of one day genuinely believing in everything Luna believes in, fear of somehow inheriting the position of Divination professor, and fear that people actually thought she looked better as the Polyjuiced version of Millicent’s cat.)

When they finally reach the door to Transfiguration, they’re all in high spirits. Ron and Harry both say goodbye to Ginny and enter the classroom, still making guesses, but Hermione doesn’t move to follow them. Instead, she leans against the doorjamb, crosses her arm, and surveys Ginny with amusement.

“You really had to give me a new Boggart form? You know they’ll never stop guessing.”

Ginny shrugs. “I’d say I’m sorry, but it beats the alternative, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose so,” Hermione says, her thoughts traitorously turning to Pansy for a brief moment. She shakes her head and says, “all that aside…thank you again. For everything. I…I don’t know how I can…”

Ginny shakes her head. “You don’t have to thank me. I told you—you deserve happiness. And we’ll see to it that you get it.”

Hermione pushes herself from the doorway and throws her arms around Ginny. “Thank you,” she murmurs in a thick voice into Ginny’s ear. Ginny’s arms tighten around her and she nods against Hermione’s shoulder.

After a moment, they break apart. Ginny gives Hermione a fond smile, then says, “I’ve got to go. If I’m late for Herbology one more time, Sprout’s going to use me as fertilizer. But don’t think you’re off the hook just yet. They’re not the only ones who are going to keep guessing.”

“Then I’m afraid all three of you will be wasting your time,” Hermione says, shaking her head.

“Oh, we’ll see about that,” Ginny says with a wink. She gives Hermione a wave. “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye,” Hermione says, watching until Ginny disappears from sight.

Hermione takes a deep breath then slowly exhales. There are still things she needs to figure out. There are still scary conversations to be had along with some new and very surprising feelings to contend with. But for the time being, she simply closes her eyes and lets herself revel in the feeling of complete ease in her body, and the idea of one day, living a life that makes her truly, honestly happy.

Because somehow, for the first time, it feels attainable.

***

Friday finds Hermione in the library after hours, writing on her parchment, waiting for Pansy to knock on the door.

Her grip around her quill tightens infinitesimally when she thinks of Pansy and she forces herself to release it, move her hands to her thighs, and exhale slowly.

Inhale. Everything is fine.

Exhale. Everything is normal.

Inhale. Everything is fine.

Exhale. Everything is norm—

There’s a rap on the door—three sharp knocks, two long—and Hermione’s fingers dig into her thighs. She closes her eyes and takes a moment to collect herself before slowly pushing her chair back from the table. But before she stands, she runs a hand through her hair and repeats her mantra.

Everything is fine. Everything is normal.

It’s just…ever since Monday, everything hasn’t felt normal. Because Hermione’s been thinking about Pansy quite a bit.

That’s a lie—she’s been thinking about her constantly. And not exactly in a friendly way.

It’s as if Ginny’s question had opened some sort of unknown dam in Hermione’s mind and now, she finds herself continuously flooded with thoughts of Pansy. Pansy’s eyes, Pansy’s voice, Pansy’s hands, Pansy’s smile. And she can’t catch a break. Not when she has Potions, patrols, and library research sessions with the other witch.

But it’s not that the time they spend together is a problem. Far from it—the more time she spends with Pansy, the more she finds herself desperately wanting to properly befriend her. And to be honest, she thinks Pansy might feel the same way. But Hermione’s reached a point where she’s managed to begrudgingly admit to herself that yes, she does genuinely find Pansy attractive, and that is a problem. Because every interaction they’ve had since Monday has left Hermione red faced and flustered, tripping over her words like a complete fool. And even though she’s spending almost all her free time with Pansy, Hermione still finds herself staring at her in the moments they aren’t together. Unfortunately for her, she hasn’t exactly been subtle about it—Ron and Harry have noticed her gaze turning to the Slytherin table during meals, and they’ve both asked her repeatedly if Pansy had done something to upset her with anger lurking on their faces.

And perhaps worst of all, Hermione has a sneaking suspicion that the boys aren’t the only ones to notice a difference. She’s fairly certain that Pansy’s noticed all of it too, but is just too kind to let on.

All that, coupled with the fact that Hermione ludicrously feels like she’s being unfaithful to her parchment pal for daring to find another person attractive has made for a very complicated few days.

But it’s fine. Everything is normal.

There’s just the smallest chance that Hermione has the tiniest, most inconsequential crush on Pansy.

It’s fine.

She’ll get through this.

She stands, crosses to the library door, unlocks it, and pulls it open. Pansy slips by her and Hermione is immediately inundated with the smell of her perfume, something expensive and intoxicating. As she closes the door, she takes a deep breath to control her nerves, but when she’s hit with notes of soft rose and warm cedar, she exhales sharply and rubs at her nose furiously.

Did she really think the best way to escape the feelings brought on by a scent would be to inhale? God, she’s on par with Crabbe and Goyle.

“Well? Aren’t you going to congratulate me?”

Pansy’s voice weaves through the air and Hermione closes her eyes tightly for just a moment.

Everything is fine. Everything is normal.

She points her wand at the door and waits to make sure it locks, then she turns to face Pansy.

“Congratulate you for what?” Hermione asks, swallowing hard when she notices the smooth, exposed skin provided by Pansy’s loosened tie and open collar.

Don’t look at her chest.

“For finally being on time!” Pansy says, pouting a bit. “It’s the first time I’ve managed it.”

Don’t look at her lips.

“I hardly think being on time is an achievement,” Hermione says, crossing her arms and forcing her eyes to stay on Pansy’s. “It’s more of a common courtesy.”

“Well, I’m hardly common and I’m rarely courteous, so it’s a wonder I achieved it at all,” Pansy says, stressing the word.

Hermione rolls her eyes, but she can’t help the smile that comes to her lips. “Fine. Congratulations on your monumental achievement. I’ll be sure to tell Snape to give you house points for your heroism.”

She starts walking back to their customary table and Pansy falls into step beside her. Hermione digs her nails into her palms at the scent of her perfume, and in an effort to distract herself, she forces herself to continue their conversation in as normal a tone as she can manage. “So Head Auror Mrs. Norris didn’t give you a hard time, I take it?”

Pansy chuckles, a low, throaty, deeply frustrating sound. “No, I finally managed to escape her reign of terror. Merlin knows how, considering I’m fairly sure she’s part bloodhound.”

Hermione manages to laugh in return as she takes her seat. She gestures to the stack of books and says, “then perhaps we should ask her which of these books has the answer we’re looking for.”

They’ve been at it for an entire week now, and they’re still no closer to finding a solution. And while Hermione’s been attempting to stay upbeat for Pansy’s sake, even she’s starting to feel like this is a hopeless task.

Pansy sits down, eyes the stack of books warily, and says, “you know, I’m starting to rethink my stance on your Animagus plan.”

“Don’t. We’ll find something,” Hermione says, but even she can hear that she’s not as confident as she usually sounds.

“Is that part of the Gryffindor stubbornness? Refusing to admit when you’re wrong?”

“We just haven’t found the right book yet,” Hermione says, trying to sound more enthusiastic than she had before. “Something in here will help us out, you’ll see. And what’s more, some of my greatest breakthroughs have been when I’ve been on the verge of giving up, so that’s all the more reason to keep trying.”

“That’s a long way of saying yes,” Pansy mutters, reaching for a quill in her bag.

“It’s a long way of saying I have hope,” Hermione replies as she picks up her parchment and tucks it away in her bag for safe keeping.

“Well, I suppose that makes one of us,” Pansy says, pulling a book toward her and opening it with a sigh. “Though don’t think I’ve forgotten your promise—we’re quitting if nothing happens by the end of the school year. Which means we have twenty-two days left for a miracle to happen.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Hermione says, frowning a bit at the accurate day count. She crosses her arms and leans back in her chair, deciding to prod Pansy on it a bit. “Is spending time with me really that awful?”

Pansy looks up swiftly. “What?” she asks, concern immediately settling on her face.

“You’re counting the days until the end of the year?”

Color rises to Pansy’s cheeks and she puts down her quill. “No,” she says quickly. “I’m not…I mean…no,” she repeats, seeming flustered.

“So you just happen to know the exact number of days left in the school year off the top of your head?”

“Yes, but I…I mean, that’s not why I’m…” Pansy bites her lip for a moment, lost in thought, and Hermione has to sternly remind herself to not look at her lips. Finally, Pansy says, “I’m not counting down the days because I don’t want to spend time with you. Spending time with you is the only good part of this entire bloody endeavor.” The pink on her cheeks darkens to red, but she doesn’t stop. “I’m counting down the days because I hate pouring over books in this bloody place and never finding the answers we need. Not because I’m in any hurry to get away from you. I’m not. Not at all, actually,” she says, her gaze surprisingly earnest. “I…I…” she breaks off and runs a hand through her hair, then very cautiously says, “I had actually rather hoped that we could continue to spend time together. After this is all done with, I mean. Outside of Hogwarts.” Pansy must notice the way Hermione’s eyes widen with surprise, because she quickly adds, “only if you want to, of course! I didn’t mean to presume, and I know that you’ve got Potter and Weasley and a whole slew of friends, but I… I just thought that you might want me.”

Hermione immediately grows warm at the unwittingly accurate word choice, but Pansy doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, she grimaces and turns an even darker shade of red. “That came out wrong,” she says, tilting her head back and scrunching her eyes closed. “I didn’t mean…I just meant that you might want to…”

“Yes.”

Pansy opens her eyes and looks at Hermione, surprised by the word. “Yes…what?”

“Yes. I’d like to continue seeing you. I’d…I’d like us to be…friends,” Hermione says tentatively, wincing at how ridiculous she sounds and hoping the flush on her own cheeks isn’t enough to arouse suspicion in Pansy. But if she does notice Hermione’s awkwardness, she doesn’t let on. Instead, her mouth opens and she stares at Hermione for a moment.

“You…would?” Pansy finally asks, seemingly completely caught off guard.

“I would. I…I’ve enjoyed spending this time with you, too. More than I thought I would. And I’ve actually been thinking about us being friends for a while now.”

“You have?” Pansy asks, seeming completely incapable of anything other than asking for dumbfounded reassurances.

“Yes. I have.” Hermione absently sweeps her thumb across the armrest of her chair as she thinks about how she’s recently been thinking about them being a good deal more than just friends. But instead of letting her thoughts go there, she instead says, “you know, I was worried at first. About whether or not I had made a mistake in offering to help you. I thought that we’d never manage to get along for such long periods of time, just the two of us.”

“And now?” Pansy asks, sounding curiously breathless.

“And now…” Hermione looks up at Pansy to find intense green eyes trained on her. “I don’t remember why I was worried in the first place,” she says. “I find myself looking forward to these nights with you. And if I’m being honest, I find myself looking forward to patrols and Potions, too. I…” Hermione worries her lower lip and notices as Pansy’s eyes immediately track the motion. She releases it quickly with a flush and says, “I like you, Pansy. Against all odds, and as mad as it seems, I like you. I like spending time with you. And I’d genuinely like us to be friends.”

Pansy stares at Hermione in stunned, frozen silence for such a long time that if it weren’t for her occasional blinks and the rapid rise and fall of her chest (don’t look at her chest), Hermione would be concerned that someone had snuck in and cast a Full Body-Bind on her. After what feels like ages, a very slow smile starts to dawn on Pansy’s face.

“You really mean it?” she asks.

“I really do.”

The smile stretches further and further until Pansy’s entire face is glowing. “Well, then, that’s…that’s…” she runs a hand through her hair again and a laugh bubbles out of her, carefree and joyful. “Sorry, I just…you’re not the only one who’s been thinking about us being…friends,” she says, hesitating ever so briefly over the word, as if she’s not sure if she’s allowed to say it. “I’ve enjoyed these nights, too. And patrols and Potions…all of it. But I didn’t want to let myself think that it might be mutual. I mean, after what I put you through, I just…I think I assumed you were being kind. That you saw me as some sort of charity case.”

Hermione shakes her head firmly. “No, it’s…it’s very mutual,” she says.

Pansy grins again at Hermione’s admission, then says, “well, if it’s mutual, then what do you say to making it official?”

“What do you mean?” Hermione asks with a small, puzzled frown.

“I mean…” Pansy sticks out her hand and looks at Hermione. “Friends?”

Hermione rolls her eyes at the gesture, but she offers her hand in return. She doesn’t even stop to think that it might be a mistake until the moment Pansy’s hand is clasped around hers, soft and warm and firm. It’s the briefest of contact, but it still makes heat prickle up the back of Hermione’s neck, and she’s dimly aware of a gentle fluttering sensation in her stomach.

“Friends,” she murmurs, letting her eyes settle on Pansy. They gaze at each other for a long moment and Hermione finds herself absently wondering if Pansy’s eyes have always been so green. It’s something she had never stopped to notice before, but now, it’s just one of the many things Hermione’s found herself focusing in on over the past few days. Pansy’s kaleidoscopic green eyes remind her of the forest—ever shifting and shrouded in mystery, full of depths that are seldom seen by the casual observer. But there are moments—beautiful, fleeting moments—where Pansy will toss her head back and laugh, and her eyes will come alive. The veil will fall away and Hermione will find herself the sole recipient of something so unexpected and so beautiful that it takes her breath away. And each time, she finds herself curiously unable to look away.

But now, gazing at Pansy, Hermione finds herself reconsidering—perhaps it’s not that she’s unable to look away.

Perhaps it’s that she’s unwilling to.

“Um…Hermione?”

Pansy pulls Hermione from her thoughts with an amused gaze. Hermione frowns, puzzled, watching as Pansy’s eyes purposefully flick down toward her hand. Hermione follows her gaze to find that her hand is somehow still clasped within Pansy’s.

Immediately, she releases it and looks back toward Pansy, who’s now smiling fondly at her. “I’m sorry,” Hermione says, the prickling heat now creeping down her chest. “I didn’t notice…I mean, I was lost in thought, and I just—”

Pansy shakes her head. “It’s fine,” she says. “I just thought you might need it back if we’re going to pull off a miracle tonight.”

Right. The research. The research which is quite literally, the reason they’re here. Not to hold Pansy’s hand and think about her eyes like a besotted twelve-year-old.

Hermione distracts herself from the overwhelming urge to bury her head in her hands by reaching for a book. But before she can start reading, Pansy clears her throat. “Hermione?” she murmurs. “I’m…I’m really glad we had this talk. And even if we don’t end up finding anything, I want you to know that I’ll never think that this was a waste of time. On the contrary—I think this might be some of the best time I’ve ever spent at Hogwarts. And that’s thanks to you.” She frowns down at the table for a moment and Hermione waits a bit breathlessly to see if she’s going to continue. After a brief hesitation, Pansy nods almost imperceptibly, looks up, and says, “you said earlier that you like me? And I…I just want you to know that I like you, too. Quite a bit,” Pansy says. The words are delivered with a surprising amount of tenderness, and there’s something soft and gentle in Pansy’s eyes that makes Hermione’s heart skip a beat. “I like everything about you, if I’m being honest. You’re…you’re really…” Pansy shakes her head and exhales sharply. “You’re bloody remarkable, Hermione. And I’m the luckiest witch at Hogwarts to be able to call you my friend. Know that I’ll never take that for granted.”

Pansy gives her a quick smile, then she pulls a book toward her and flips it open. Hermione watches as she skims the page, finds the sentence she had left off on last time, then picks up her quill.

Pansy’s movements are purposefully casual, but the flush on her cheeks betrays her. Hermione can tell that the heartfelt admission was harder for her than it appeared. Part of Hermione desperately wants to comment on it, but it’s clear that Pansy’s feeling vulnerable and trying to hide behind her book, so for the time being, Hermione lets her.

But as she reaches for her own book, her hand stalls uncertainly. Because now that she’s finally taken her eyes off of Pansy and is focused in on her own body, she’s aware of a very familiar sensation fluttering through her.

Are those…butterflies?

For Pansy?

She lowers her hand slowly and takes a deep, measured breath, trying to figure out what the sensation might mean. Because it’s one thing to have some kind of physical attraction to Pansy, but to have butterflies? Especially considering those butterflies have up until now, been solely reserved for her parchment pal?

If she’s having the same sensation for Pansy that she’s having for her parchment pal, who she knows she has deeper feelings for, could that somehow possibly mean that she could also have…?

No.

Everything is fine.

Everything is normal.

So she’s having butterflies for Pansy. It doesn’t mean anything other than what she already knows—she has a crush. Butterflies are just a natural reaction to that crush, and it doesn’t negate her feelings for her parchment pal in the slightest. And actually, it stands to reason—it’s far simpler to develop feelings for the witch who’s directly in front of her, rather than the one she still has to imagine. Hermione exhales slowly, feeling confident that that’s all it is. It’s just because Pansy and her annoyingly beautiful face are here in person. And once she finally meets her parchment pal, once she can finally put a face to the mysterious stranger, any residual feelings she has for Pansy will fade away.

They have to.

And so for the next two hours, Hermione distracts herself from the butterflies by diving into her book, taking copious notes, and refusing to even entertain the idea that she could have something more than a simple crush on Pansy.

It’s surprisingly difficult though, because they’ve never worked in silence, and Hermione’s not going to start tonight. Not after they had just declared themselves friends. So over the course of two hours, they make the same idle small talk and ridiculous jokes that they have for the past two weeks. Warmth and laughter fill the library, and each time Hermione finds herself smiling softly at Pansy, it becomes harder and harder for her to remember that all she has is a simple, inconsequential crush and nothing more. It’s especially hard when Hermione feels herself wanting to stretch out their conversations, or to say something in a desperate attempt to make Pansy laugh out loud. It happens so often that she ends up digging her fingertips into her thighs each time she wants to give into the urge. She’s sure she’ll have bruises there tomorrow, but if it keeps the butterflies at bay, then it’s worth it.

After what feels like a surprisingly quick two hours, Pansy groans and drops her head onto the table. “I give up. It’s impossible. We’ve read every book in the library and we haven’t found a thing.”

Hermione snorts as she glances at the large stack of books that they’ve yet to read. “Every book might be an exaggeration?”

Pansy lifts her head and says, “almost every book, then.”

“Still an exaggeration. And anyway, you can’t give up. I still have you for twenty-two days, remember?”

“I remember. But think of all the better things we could be doing with those twenty-two days!”

“Like what?”

Pansy blinks a few times, clearly not anticipating the follow-up question. “We could…play…Wizard’s Chess?” she hazards.

Hermione’s nose scrunches with distaste. “Do you like Wizard’s Chess?”

“No,” Pansy says immediately. “I’m shit at it. I’m shit at that, I’m shit at research. I’m shit at everything,” she groans, dropping her head down again.

“You’re quite good at exaggerating, if that’s any consolation,” Hermione says calmly, flipping her parchment over to a clean, blank side.

Pansy rests her cheek against the table and gazes up at Hermione with a pout upon her dark lips, and Hermione can’t help how endearing she finds it. “It’s not,” Pansy says. Then she straightens back up with a sigh and runs a hand through her hair. “But I do think it’s time we face facts. I know we both wanted to find something, but we’re just running in circles. We have to know when to give up.”

“And we will. In twenty-two days.”

“But why wait? I mean, surely you want your nights back?”

“I—”

“And every single idea we’ve had, we’ve managed to find fault with. At this rate, our best ideas are either your mad Animagus plan or brewing Felix Felicis, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best in a duel.”

“You’re not dueling your father,” Hermione says sharply, refusing to even entertain the suggestion.

“Fine. You can do it, then,” Pansy says glumly, propping her head up with her hands. “Honestly, it might work—I’m not sure a Muggle-born has ever been in our home before. Your presence alone might end up shocking him to death.”

Hermione chuckles and is about to turn the page of her book when Pansy’s statement actually registers. She looks up swiftly and says, “never?”

Pansy glances at her. “Never what?”

“A Muggle-born has never been in your home?”

“I know, I’m as surprised as you are,” Pansy says dryly.

Gears start turning in Hermione’s head and she can feel her heart begin to race in the familiar way it does when she feels as if she’s on the edge of a breakthrough. “But surely he must know something about the Muggle world?” she asks, aware of the eagerness in her tone.

“Apart from thinking it’s beneath him in every way? No, I don’t think he does.” Pansy frowns and sits up again. “Why do you ask?”

“What do you know about a telephone?” Hermione asks.

Pansy frowns at the strange reply but tentatively says, “is that…the Muggle owl thing?”

“And a television?”

“I…I’m afraid I don’t—”

“A microwave? A radio? A toaster?”

Pansy shakes her head, looking completely lost. “Are these all Muggle inventions?”

Excitement crackles over Hermione’s skin as she leans forward and says, “do you know what a wire is?”

Pansy immediately flushes and her eyes drop to the table. “It’s…it’s…” she grimaces and mutters, “it’s part of a bra, isn’t it?” all while refusing to meet Hermione’s eyes.

But Hermione barely registers Pansy’s discomfort. Pure adrenaline is racing through her as she stands up from her chair, and she can feel her heart pounding as she turns from the table and heads toward an area of the library they’ve ignored up until now. Dimly, she hears Pansy call after her, “am I supposed to follow you?” but she doesn’t reply. She’s too focused on her mission.

She heads toward the very back of the library, searching for the often ignored rows of shelves that holds books on all-things Muggle related. Once she finds the right area, she grabs her wand, murmurs Lumos, and starts frantically searching the spines, pulling out any books that catch her eye. She’s skimmed over quite a few when she hears Pansy’s footsteps from behind her.

“Merlin. Has anyone ever been back here?”

Hermione doesn’t even glance toward her. Instead, she continues to pull books, flipping to their indexes and tossing them aside when they don’t serve her purpose.

“Have these books done something to upset you?” Pansy asks, vague amusement coloring her tone.

“No,” Hermione murmurs absently as she kneels down to study the books on the bottom shelf, mouthing the titles to herself as she reads. When the shelf proves to be unhelpful, she straightens up and moves to the next.

She repeats the process twice more until the fourth shelf, when her eyes land on Understanding Muggle Surveillance Technologies: Their Origins and Applications. She yanks the book from the shelf with vigor and a puff of dust comes along with it, but Hermione doesn’t pay it any attention. Instead, she quickly opens the book and flips to the index, running her finger over columns and columns of words. When she finds the term she’s looking for, she inhales sharply, then flips to the page and skims the passage briefly. Only once she’s sure it’s what she’s looking for does she let herself look up at the ceiling with a broad grin.

“We’ve been so stupid,” she says, closing her eyes as the euphoria that can only come from solving a complex problem starts to flow through her body.

“We have?” Pansy asks, sounding completely lost.

Hermione opens her eyes and surveys Pansy, who’s standing before her with a small, confused frown. “We have,” she says. “This whole time, we’ve been wasting our time studying Wizengamot trials, Auror techniques, dark wizards, potions, spells…” Hermione shakes her head with wonder. “We’ve been focusing on things your father knows about. Things he’s spent his whole life working to evade. It’s why you were able to poke holes in every single one of our ideas. But we forgot one thing—crime happens outside of the Wizarding world.”

Pansy frown deepens for just a moment, but then, as if by magic, it disappears completely. “Wait…” she murmurs. “Are you saying that…”

“I’ve been so entrenched in doing things the Wizarding way that I didn’t even think about Muggle techniques,” Hermione says, shaking her head again, but this time in frustration at her own short-comings. “It never even crossed my mind. But that’s a good thing.”

“Is it?” Pansy asks breathlessly.

Hermione nods. “If it didn’t cross my mind, there’s not a chance it’ll cross your father’s mind. I mean, you don’t even know what a microwave is!” she says, gesturing at Pansy with delight. “If you don’t know what a microwave is, there’s no way your father will know what a wire is. Unless he’s been secretly infatuated with Muggle technology for years, but something tells me that’s not the case.”

Pansy’s beginning to look tentatively hopeful, but she still seems confused. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m afraid I’m still a few steps behind you, and perhaps this is a stupid question, but…how exactly will a bra be my father’s downfall?”

Hermione laughs and thrusts the book toward Pansy who takes it with a small frown. “Read,” Hermione instructs with a grin, lifting her still-lit wand toward the page to assist Pansy.

She stands there in silence, shifting back and forth with excitement as she waits for Pansy to fully digest the words on the page. After a few moments, Pansy looks up at Hermione with wide eyes. “This is…I mean, how does it…” she trails off and pushes her bangs back. “I don’t understand. This wire…it records everything he says?”

“Everything,” Hermione confirms gleefully, pocketing her wand.

“Without using any magic?”

“None.”

“And he’d have no way of knowing I’m wearing it?”

“Short of searching you, no. He’d never know. He’d never even suspect it. Not when he’s spent a lifetime despising Muggles.” Hermione feels her smile grow impossibly wider as she says, “I knew his hubris would be his downfall. I knew it.”

“And you can get your hands on one of these?” Pansy asks, awe in her voice.

“I’ll have to owl my parents, but I’m sure they’ll be able to help.”

Pansy shakes her head, seemingly overwhelmed. “Hermione, this is…”

“I know.”

“I mean, it’s…it’s…”

“I know.”

Merlin,” Pansy breathes. She closes the book and looks up to find Hermione’s eyes. “You did it,” she whispers, looking completely dumbfounded. “I can’t believe you actually did it. You’re brilliant. I…I…” she trails off and studies the floor for a moment, shaking her head in shock. When she finally lifts her eyes back up, there’s a grin on her face and an exhilarated flush on her cheeks. “We’re going to take him down,” she says.

“We are.”

“I mean, we’re actually going to take him down!” Pansy says with a short, gleeful laugh. Her face is radiating wonder and exuberance and she’s looking at Hermione as if she’s the most amazing person she’s ever seen before. “Merlin, you did it!”

Hermione’s not sure what possesses her to move forward. Maybe it’s the complete joy threatening to overwhelm her system. Maybe it’s the relief that she was right, that good will always prevail in the end. Maybe it’s the enraptured look on Pansy’s face. Maybe it’s some visceral need to share this joy in a physical way with the only other person who’s gone through this experience with her.

She doesn’t know what it is. All she knows is that one moment, she’s standing there, grinning like a fool at Pansy, and the next, she’s flung her arms around the other witch.

There’s a breathless moment where Hermione’s sure that she’s overstepped her bounds. Pansy’s arms stay firmly at her side and her entire body stiffens, and Hermione’s feels fear and shame settle in her chest. Of course Pansy wouldn’t want Hermione hugging her. Not when she knows what she knows.

But just as she’s about to let go and offer a mortified apology, Hermione feels the book drop from Pansy’s hand as she slowly and tentatively brings her arms up to return Hermione’s embrace. She lets herself exhale shakily as Pansy’s arms wind underneath hers and up her back, and once her hands have settled near Hermione’s shoulder blades, she can feel the nervous tension they’ve both been holding onto slowly ease from their bodies. A small sigh escapes Hermione as she tightens her hold and allows herself to pour every bit of joy and relief she’s currently feeling into the embrace. “We did it,” she murmurs into Pansy’s hair, her voice tinged with shock. “We did it,” she repeats, as Pansy tightens her grip.

It’s strange—Hermione’s been hugged before. She’s been hugged loads of times. But in this moment, lost in her own little bubble with Pansy, she feels herself gaining a new respect for the simple act.

She notices the physical sensations first. There’s the warmth, of course—Hermione can feel the heat from Pansy’s body everywhere they touch. It seems to seep into Hermione and warm her from the inside, filling up every available space and making her feel safe and secure. She finds herself wishing there was a way to get closer, to absorb even more of the delicious heat radiating off of Pansy. The faintest warning bell sounds in her mind at the thought, dutifully reminding her that she shouldn’t be entertaining these fledgling feelings she’s harboring toward Pansy. But somehow, at this very moment, she doesn’t care at all. Sod the warning bell; she wants to feel this warm forever.

Then there’s the scent, that absolutely maddening scent that’s been driving Hermione to distraction for the past few days. Once again, she finds herself surrounded by it. But this time, she doesn’t fight it. Instead, she allows herself to breathe it in, going as far as to bury her nose into Pansy’s soft hair and sneak a quick inhale. Perhaps when she lets go, the action will embarrass her, but as of right now, it just makes her crave more. She takes another breath as she moves her right hand up to cradle the back of Pansy’s head. There’s a moment where she thinks she feels Pansy shiver against her, but she’s so busy wondering if Pansy’s perfume will cling to her own clothes after she lets go that she doesn’t think to question it.

Once the physical sensations fade, Hermione’s struck by just how right this hug feels. It’s not like when she hugs Harry or Ron and has to stand awkwardly on her tip-toes, or when Ginny pounds her back like she’s just made a spectacular Quidditch play. It’s not like when Neville releases her after three seconds, terrified of overstaying his welcome, or when Luna starts dreamily brushing her hands through Hermione’s hair to “ward off Wrackspurts.”

It’s not like any hug she’s ever experienced before.

Pansy fits against her body just right, as if she’s been molded to fit there and only there. Her head is resting in the crook of Hermione’s shoulder and she can feel each of Pansy’s warm exhalations against the suddenly over-sensitive skin of her neck. Each puff sets her nerve endings on fire, and just when Hermione thinks she won’t be able to take any more contact, Pansy’s hands curl around the fabric of her jumper and she pulls her impossibly closer. The movement causes Pansy’s fingernails to gently scratch through the fabric, and Hermione feels her breath catch. If she wasn’t being held so firmly by Pansy, she’s sure her legs would give out.

They stay that way for what feels like ages, thoroughly wrapped up in each other, oblivious to the outside world, before Pansy unwinds her arms from Hermione.

Slowly, Hermione opens her eyes to find that Pansy hasn’t stepped back. She’s still tantalizing close, and Hermione could easily reclaim the lost contact that she finds herself already desperately craving. Instead, she takes the opportunity to study Pansy’s face, taking in the details she’s never been close enough to see—a faded scar just under her chin, soft peach fuzz on her cheeks, the faintest hint of a dimple. She’s a masterpiece up close and Hermione wants to trail her finger along every detail, tracing it all until she can reproduce Pansy by heart. Instead, she lets her eyes do the tracing, admiring every last, perfect feature. When she arrives at Pansy’s full, dark lips, she lets her eyes linger and she feels her breathing change. For a wild moment, she wonders what that dark shade would look like smeared across her own mouth. She wonders if it would leave traces all over her body, proof that Pansy had been there and had thoroughly claimed every part of her. Hermione’s never had a particular favorite color to wear, but something tells her that Pansy’s lips could change that. She’d sport that infuriating color all over her body in a heartbeat, given the chance.

Her pulse pounds in her ears as she thinks about Pansy’s lips against her body, and as she lets her gaze slowly lower to Pansy’s rapidly rising chest, she lets herself entertain the idea of what would happen if she laid claim first. What if she closed the minuscule gap between them? What if she were the one to take charge and let herself give into this new, intoxicating need, this strange, overwhelming desire for something more? Heat licks across her skin like wildfire at the thought as she drags her heavy lidded gaze back to Pansy’s.

Pansy is watching Hermione with a look she’s never seen before. It’s a potent swirl of emotions that’s strangely managed to erase any trace of green from her gaze. Instead, her eyes look almost black in the dim light of the library, and something about the sight makes Hermione ache. Her heart races and her hands twitch and all she wants to do is kiss Pansy until she can’t breathe. She wants to press her back into the bookshelves and feverishly trace every inch of skin she can find with her fingertips, her lips, her teeth, her tongue. She wants to hear what kind of desperate noises she can wring out of Pansy with nothing more than her touch.

She wants more.

Hermione feels herself moving forward as if an outside force is controlling her. Her logical brain has switched off, and instead, she finds herself guided by some primitive, wild instinct, pushing her to claim what she wants. It’s overwhelming and fills her with a heady desire, and if there was any part of her that was thinking logically, she might stop to wonder if she’s about to make a mistake. She might wonder if her newfound friendship with Pansy would even be able to survive such a colossal mistake. She might spare a thought for the repercussions; she might remember that for all intents and purposes, Pansy is straight; she might even chastise herself for having these kind of feelings in the sanctuary of the library of all places.

But for once in her life, Hermione’s not thinking. All she wants to do is be reckless. All she wants to do is lose control.

All she wants to do is feel.

The air around them is charged, crackling with an invisible energy that raises goosebumps on Hermione’s skin. They’re close enough now that she can feel the warm ghost of Pansy’s breath against her lips, coming in quick puffs, and something inside of Hermione’s chest roars with approval.

She’s never felt this way before. Not with Viktor, certainly not with Ron, and not even when she’s alone in her bed with just her imagination. Nothing she could imagine could ever compare to this. This perfect, delicious torture. This painfully slow dance along the knife’s edge, hovering between unbearable need and incredible pleasure. In any other situation, it would make Hermione scoff at herself, completely annoyed that she was so incredibly wound up over such a minor interaction. But standing here with Pansy, she feels as if there’s a tightly wound coil of arousal in her stomach, and she know that even one touch will be all it takes to set it off.

Just one touch.

Her skin is tingling with anticipation as she angles her head just so in preparation of what’s to come, and she’s a heartbeat away from giving into the desire and brushing her lips against Pansy’s when she feels the air around her change. The warmth seems to fade away immediately and when Hermione blinks her eyes open stupidly, she finds Pansy, farther away and looking at her with a small, concerned frown on her face.

The change in Hermione’s body is almost instantaneous. Whatever overwhelmingly powerful fog of lust had descended on her brain seems to dissipate in an instant and now, she’s left with fear and anger; fear at what she had almost done, anger at herself for getting so carried away. She can scarcely believe where her thoughts had gone and how powerless she had felt to stop them, and as she stands there, staring at Pansy with horrified eyes, she finds herself desperately wishing for a way to go back in time and take it all back.

“Hermione,” Pansy murmurs, snapping her out of her thoughts. There’s a new mix of emotions in her green eyes—regret, longing, and something else. Something that looks curiously like fear.

Immediately, Hermione’s stomach plummets.

“Hermione,” Pansy says again, rubbing her neck. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t…I mean, I wanted…” she huffs a bit, then she looks at Hermione with open eyes. “I…I’m afraid I haven’t been hones—”

Hermione doesn’t register anything she’s saying. Instead, she gives a somewhat wild laugh and says, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

Pansy shakes her head quickly. “No. No, I…you don’t need to apologize, it’s not like I…I mean, I…”

“If you never want to see me again, I understand.”

“What?” Pansy asks, her brow creasing in confusion. “No, I…don’t be mad, of course I—”

“I just got carried away. You know, the heat of the moment, and we’ve worked so hard, and with that hug…I just…” she shakes her head and says, “I was overwhelmed, but it didn’t mean anything. I don’t even know why I did it,” Hermione says, desperately trying to find the right words to say to reassure Pansy. “I didn’t even want to, it just sort of…happened.”

Liar, liar, liar.

But if Pansy’s reaction to her statement is any indication, it would seem she’s struck gold immediately. She frowns and shifts on her feet. “You…you didn’t want to…?” Pansy asks uncertainly.

“No,” Hermione says quickly. “No, not at all. I…no.”

Liar, liar, liar.

A small shadow crosses Pansy’s face, but Hermione pays it no mind as she hurries on. “I really did just get a bit caught up in the moment, but I…I didn’t mean to take you with me,” she says, trying for a light laugh. It comes out sounding a bit strangled, so she continues, “I promise, you have nothing to worry about. I’m not secretly pining after you, or anything.”

Liar, liar, liar.

“You’re not,” Pansy repeats flatly, her face curiously hard to read.

“No. I’m not. I mean, I have feelings for my parchment pal,” Hermione says quickly, desperately glad to finally cling to something grounded in the truth.

Pansy nods seriously, seeming a bit bolstered by Hermione’s latest statement. “Right. And I know that. Which is why I was going to say—”

“And honestly, you’re not my type,” Hermione hurries on, ignoring the now persistent voice calling her a liar that’s echoing in her head.

At that, Pansy stops short and blinks at Hermione. “I’m…I’m not your type?” she repeats, sounding a bit bewildered.

“No. Not at all,” Hermione says. “I mean, you’re…you’re…well, you know,” she says, gesturing weakly toward Pansy’s body.

“I’m what?” Pansy asks with a self-conscious frown.

Beautiful. Stunning. Gorgeous. Breathtaking.

“You're quite…I mean…you’re…you’re pretty,” Hermione finally manages to say, though the word sounds a bit strangled. Pansy raises her eyebrows at the delivery and crosses her arms over her chest, and Hermione quickly says, “you are, it’s just…I don’t want you to think I’ve thought of you in that way. I don’t want to…”

To scare you off.

To lose this.

To lose you.

“…to give you the wrong idea,” she finishes weakly.

“Right,” Pansy says stiffly. “And the wrong idea would be…?”

Hermione anxiously tucks her hair behind her ears and says, “you know…that I’m interested in you,” she says hesitantly. “As anything more than a friend, I mean.”

Pansy stares at her for a long moment, and Hermione drops her gaze to the floor. “So…almost snogging me was…what? Just…getting caught up in the moment?” Pansy asks.

Hermione takes a deep breath at the heat behind Pansy’s words. Clearly, Pansy’s still upset by Hermione’s blunder, but she’s determined to set this right. She exhales slowly and says, “yes.” She lifts her gaze to meet Pansy’s eyes which are now completely closed off, and she feels her stomach twist anxiously.

Don’t blow this.

“It was just the moment, I promise. I don’t know why I did it, but you have nothing to worry about. I’m not interested in you. Not at all,” Hermione says, trying to both look and sound as earnest as she possibly can.

“I see,” Pansy says. A small, strange smile comes to Pansy’s face, mingling with the frown that’s already settled on her brow, and she gazes at the ground for a moment. Hermione holds her breath as she waits to see if Pansy’s about to change her mind completely and decide that Hermione is wrong and broken after all. But instead, Pansy gives a small nod, then looks back at Hermione. “Right, then. Thanks for clearing that up,” she says with a tight smile. “Wouldn’t want me to get the wrong idea, now, would you?” she adds, her tone deceptively light but her eyes still shuttered.

“No. No, I wouldn’t,” Hermione says uncertainly. She’s vaguely sure that the same, small shadow passes Pansy’s face at her confirmation, but it’s gone so quickly, she’s not sure if she’s imagined it or not.

“Well, then. No use dwelling on it, is there? Mistakes happen, so…best to just move on and let the moment go.”

“Yes, but—”

“Hermione, it’s fine. Don’t give it another thought.”

Pansy bends down stiffly and picks up the book on Muggle technology and tucks it under her arm. Hermione watches the process with wide, nervous eyes. After a moment, she murmurs, “are you upset with me?” She’s unable to stand the strange awkwardness that’s settled between them and she desperately needs the reassurance that her ridiculous physical urges haven’t completely ruined their friendship before it’s even begun.

Pansy shakes her head. “No. No, I’m…I’m not upset,” she says. She’s quiet for a few moments, but then, she exhales sharply, squares her shoulders, and turns to Hermione with what seems to be forced amusement lurking in her eyes. “Though I won’t lie, my ego may never recover.”

“Why?” Hermione asks, bewildered.

I’m not interested in you? Not at all?” Pansy asks, raising her voice to mimic Hermione’s as she begins to walk back toward their table. “I mean…Merlin, let a girl down easy, won’t you?” Her tone is light, but something flashes in her eyes and Hermione’s anxiety flares again.

“Sorry,” Hermione says as she falls into step beside her. “I mean…you are pretty,” she adds uncertainly.

“Mm, now I’m convinced,” Pansy says with a snort.

“You are! I just…I didn’t know if I could say that without making this whole thing even weirder.”

Pansy shrugs lightly. “It’s fine. And anyway, it’d be ludicrously narcissistic of me to assume that I’m everyone’s cup of tea. I mean, honestly. I’m not Daphne,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, but—”

“So do you have a type?” Pansy asks, the words coming out a bit clipped. “I mean, it’s clearly not me. But is there someone you’re hoping your parchment pal will look like?” she asks, dropping the book on the table and leaning against it, surveying Hermione with a raised eyebrow.

You, Hermione thinks immediately.

Instead of vocalizing that particular thought, she sinks back into her chair and shakes her head slowly. “No, I…I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m not sure I even have a type.”

Liar, liar, liar.

“Oh? Well, at least you know what you don’t like,” Pansy says, taking her seat again. “That’s half the battle.”

“I didn’t mean—”

But before Hermione can protest any more, Pansy quickly says, “anyway, that’s enough about that. We don’t need to waste time going around in circles about a mistake when we’ve actually accomplished something massive tonight. Well…you did,” she amends, absently flipping open the book to the section on recording devices once more. “I just stood there and watched. But in any event, we have a plan. And I have more hope than I’ve had in years, thanks to you.”

Hermione nods, a bit surprised at the whiplash change of pace to their conversation. She has a feeling Pansy’s doing it to save them both from further embarrassment, but it still catches her off-guard. She hesitates for a moment, trying to decide whether or not she should let the topic drop, but Pansy, who has dropped her eyes down to re-read the section on wires, is clearly ready to move on. “Merlin…why don’t Aurors use this?” she asks, arching an eyebrow. “Seems like a massive oversight to me.”

Hermione shrugs, trying to appear casual. She decides to ignore the anxiety still buzzing through her body and play along with Pansy’s change of topic for the time being. “Who knows?” she says. “Honestly, Muggle technology is impressive. At this point, it’s just pure stubbornness that keeps things as they are.”

Pansy hums thoughtfully as she closes the book once more and says, “I suppose you’re right. But I think you’ll find that most people are reluctant to change. And even when it becomes abundantly clear it’s for the better, it’s still difficult.”

Hermione understands the double meaning behind Pansy’s words and she tilts her head curiously, forgetting about the anxiety for just a moment. “But you still think the change was worthwhile, don’t you?”

Pansy nods. “I do. More than anything has ever been.”

“Good. And for what it’s worth, I think so, too,” Hermione murmurs.

After Hermione finishes speaking, a silence descends on their table. Pansy absently fidgets with the pages of the book and after a few moments, Hermione begins to worry her lower lip, wondering if awkward pauses are going to be the new norm for them from here on out. But before she can apologize again for presumably ruining their friendship, Pansy looks up suddenly and says, “I haven’t properly thanked you, have I?”

Hermione frowns. “For what?”

Pansy scoffs lightly. “Oh, I don’t know…for everything? For finding a solution? For refusing to give up? For forgiving me in the first place?”

“Oh. That was…I mean, I just…” Hermione shrugs, uncomfortable at the praise. “I wanted to help you. And really, it wasn’t a big deal.”

Pansy snorts. “No, it wasn’t, was it? You just potentially saved my life, but that’s…what? Just an average Friday for you?” she asks with a teasing smile. But the smile fades as Pansy says, “but you’re right. It wasn’t a big deal. It was a massive deal.”

Hermione flushes, but before she can work out what to say, Pansy’s gaze turns serious. “I meant what I said earlier, you know,” she says. “Before you told me you think I’m a hideous old crone, that is.”

“I didn’t—”

Pansy waves a hand and continues. “You are brilliant. I would’ve given up ages ago.” She pauses, then says, “no, that’s a lie. I wouldn’t have even started. I would’ve lived in fear for the rest of my life. I would have let him control me. Poison me. But you,” Pansy says, with eyes more open than they’ve been since the almost-kiss debacle. “You marched into my life, determined to change it for the better. And you have. Even after I was a complete twat to you for years. You put it all aside and you helped me and I don’t…I don’t know how I can ever repay you,” she says. “But I’ll spend every single day I’m given trying to. I’ll do whatever it takes to show you how much I appreciate…” she frowns and hesitates, then quietly says, “how much I appreciate your friendship.”

Disappointment seeps into Hermione’s system at the word friendship, but before she can reply, Pansy says, “I should warn you, though. You’re getting the short end of the stick, here. Being friends with me, I mean,” she amends. “I’m nowhere near as brilliant as you are. I’m stubborn, I’m prideful. According to Daphne, I’m a complete cow most of the time…”

“And I like you in spite of all of that,” Hermione says, noticing as a small, pained smile appears on Pansy’s face.

“Well, I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me,” she says after a moment. “You’re friends with Weasley, so obviously…questionable standards.”

Hermione manages to roll her eyes. “You know if you’re going to be my friend, you’re going to have to start being nice to Ron.”

Pansy’s face twists with revulsion. “Is that a requirement?”

“It is.”

“I see.” Pansy frowns in thought, then says, “is it too late to back out of this whole friends thing?”

Hermione snorts. “It is,” she repeats, this time with amusement.

“Well, then. Suppose I’m stuck with you,” Pansy says with a small smile.

“Yes,” Hermione says. “I suppose you are.”

Pansy’s smile warms at Hermione’s reply, and even though there’s something still guarded in her gaze, Hermione allows herself to relax. It would seem that her mistake hadn’t cost her as much as she had feared. Things might be a bit strained between them, but Hermione can deal with that. She’s just delighted that she’ll get to keep Pansy in her life.

When Pansy drops her eyes to start packing up her things, Hermione takes a moment to make herself a promise.

She’ll never get carried away like that again. She’ll never do anything to make Pansy feel uncomfortable or anxious. She’ll be respectful of her boundaries and content with the friendship they’ve created.

And anyway, she doesn’t need anything more from Pansy. Not when she has her parchment pal. So what if Pansy makes her feel like her entire body is on fire? So what if she finds her mind turning to Pansy’s eyes, her smile, her voice constantly throughout the day? So what if deep down inside, she’s certain that this isn’t just a crush, that it’s turning into so much more than that?

So what if she has actual feelings for Pansy?

It doesn’t matter. She’ll get over it. She’ll turn all her romantic attentions to her parchment pal and she’ll focus on being the best friend she can be to Pansy. At the end of the day, that will have to be enough. And it will be enough.

Hermione begins to pack up her own things slowly, all the while trying to ignore the little voice chanting liar liar liar in her head.