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Perhaps it was only because she'd fielded far more inquiries about Harry's trials with You-Know-Who or if Ron could nick some stray Wizarding Wheezes from his brothers, but to the casual observer, Hermione Granger seemed entirely indifferent to the countless comments on her curious, if not a bit suspicious, Sorting. After five years of consistently leading her year in exams, her reputation--like Harry's--now preceded her. But the student body hadn't seen her contributions to the teachers' puzzles in their first year, only Harry's miraculous survival. And it required more than cleverness to control a widely popular (and equally vindictive) journalist; it took sheer nerve. Dumbledore himself had even charged her with a near-impossible time-traveling operation worthy of an Azkaban corner cell had she spoken a word of it before Sirius's death. She knew these things, as did Ron and The Order and Harry, of course, and that was enough for her, if only because it had to be.

For all her classmates knew, her bravest behavior to date was associating with Harry during the basilisk attacks their second year. She scoffed at the notion that Sorting was so one-dimensional that her academic record was evidence against her. (Predictably enough, her fellow Gryffindors were selfishly thrilled to call the top student their own, but most gave little indication they would think of her so fondly should she fall from her pedestal.) Perhaps most ridiculous of all was the common opinion that if The Boy Who Lived, himself, accepted her Gryffindor status, then that should be good enough for everyone else. It was silly and simple and stupid. She couldn't stop thinking about it.

Hermione held her tongue lest Ron infer an attack on his courage, but she'd always found it most interesting that a line of seven remarkably different siblings (save Fred and George) was sorted into the same house while another pair of twins was not. She was not so naive to expect all twins to be as like-minded as the Weasleys, identical or not, but she couldn't ignore the pangs of intrigue to know what exactly set the two Patil girls apart. Padma had been sorted first. One's qualification for Ravenclaw had always seemed the easiest of the four Houses to quantify (closely followed by Slytherin, who didn't need test scores to prove what lengths they would reach to stab you in the back). For years Hermione wondered why Parvati hadn't followed her sister to Ravenclaw. Was there a defining moment in her past that established the path to Gryffindor despite an intellect worthy of blue and silver? A spark of courage so strong that the Hat had no choice but to separate them? From the nervousness in both girls' eyes that first night, being separated was not what either had in mind.

Hermione had spent much of her first year casually observing her dormmate for some kind of answer but received none. The Hat made its decision, Parvati repeated patiently, nothing more or less. Lost in the excitement of belonging to something as famous (and clearly superior) as Gryffindor, their fellow first years had conveniently forgotten it was Parvati who had not followed Padma, not the other way around. Out of respect for her new friend, Hermione wasn't about to correct them.

Now in their sixth year, Hermione had mostly put the issue from her mind, long since resigned to substitute Parvati's acceptance of the Sorting for her own. For all she knew, whatever had kept herself from Ravenclaw that night was more likely than not what steered Parvati from it as well. But the twins seemed more alike than ever since Voldemort's return, showing no House-like distinctions in classes, D.A. meetings, or social outings, but clinging to each other as if joined at the hip. Whatever the Sorting Hat had seen in either case, Hermione decided, it was probably the only one who had.

With the recent mass breakout from Azkaban clogging her mind, she had plenty else to dwell on without revisiting an old and pointless puzzle. There were more important things than House divisions now, she told herself defiantly as if prepared to argue the point, and certainly more important things than who was Sorted where. But her head turned with a reflexive jerk on her way out of the Charms classroom, more surprised that she was responding to the annoyingly familiar comment than the content of it

"What?" she asked softly. Her expression was blank but calculating, equally as unnerving as she seemed unnerved.

"You should've been in Ravenclaw," Padma repeated hesitantly. She clutched her book tighter to her chest and smiled as their eyes met to assure Hermione it was indeed a compliment. "Well done," she said, nodding to the exam in Hermione's hand.

"Oh. Cheers," replied Hermione, shaking off her daze. "You, too," she added, though she had no idea what Padma scored.

Watching Padma nod politely and walk off alone to her next class, Hermione swallowed hard to chase her heart back down where it belonged. It was a curious moment, taking in the reality of the line and the girl and realizing how strange and new they both seemed. Years of building walls had done their damage; hearing without listening, seeing without looking. Somehow, whatever set Parvati apart from her sister seemed inconsequential now, and Hermione chided her own shortsightedness for never entertaining an investigation of the reverse. But as she lingered in the corridor, fighting the ache in her stomach and sudden blush in her cheeks, Hermione realized this required a bravery she had not yet known. She swallowed again, squinting against the dryness of her throat, and started hurriedly down the hall in the opposite direction. Perhaps Padma was right after all.

**********

Cross-house visitation wasn't forbidden at Hogwarts, nor frowned upon, nor discouraged, just simply Not Done. Ravenclaws didn't visit Gryffindor, Gryffindors didn't visit Hufflepuff, Hufflepuffs didn't visit Slytherin, and Slytherins didn't visit anyone. Like bands of thieves or pledges of a secret society, the students protected the passwords to their Houses with utmost respect and guard. The older children smirked when passing a group of first years arguing over rumors of where the other's House was nested; by one's second year, the only excuse for not recognizing any of the four Common Room entrances on sight was simply not having taken the time to look for them. As the thrill of a student's own House secrecy wore off, so did the mystique of the other three, likened to that of the other loo (whichever the case) that you could picture but never really see for yourself. Parvati had never used this analogy to describe her visits, but Padma couldn't help noticing the expressions of her fellow Ravenclaws, as if her sister had caught them pants-down simply by being there.

It wasn't that Padma didn't care for Parvati's conversation anymore, she merely wished it was under different circumstances. The incessant babbling about Lavender's desertion (for the infamous Won-Won) was almost more than she could stand by their third afternoon of tea in Ravenclaw Tower. After the Yule Ball, Padma lost any and all inkling of favor for Ron, but she honestly couldn't blame Lavender for choosing his company over this. As they sat opposite each other, similar only in dress, Padma realized how different she and her twin had become. This mess of a girl, this emotionally disheveled heap before her, was now no more familiar than any of her other classmates. It was sad, really. But she squeezed her sister's hand and prompted her to continue, letting her eyes trace down the shining face to the lion on her tear-stained collar, curious if Parvati was here because such a display flew in the face of everything that lion stood for. The crimson trim blended warmly with the deep blue cushions in the common room, complementing them so thoroughly as if, despite their differences, Parvati somehow belonged here. Padma wondered absently if she was the only Gryffindor who would.

Of course, she sneered to herself, it all comes back to Granger. Padma was half-convinced the girl had consistently outshone their entire year simply by distracting them with the notion that she could. As impressive her knowledge, as motivating her success, Padma's peers felt it a bit demoralizing, if not downright insulting. The burden of being in Ravenclaw wasn't the never-quite-good-enough Quidditch scores, nor the lack of House celebrity (for Potter, Diggory, and Malfoy had certainly made their names known outside the castle walls), but the never-ending pressure of Exceeds Expectations performance. It was embarrassing that the strongest scores were consistently presented by someone outside their House. Professor Flitwick would never vocalize any disappointment, but Padma could see a hint of exhaustion behind his eyes, as if he was as tired from wanting it as they were from trying to accomplish it. Her darker side wanted to loathe Granger for it, to ask her in front of everyone if Potter's fame hadn't brought in enough attention without further garnish. But she couldn't, and she knew she never would. Beyond jealousy and pettiness, bitterness and rage, Padma found herself intrigued, excited, even--dare she admit--aroused by the girl. That certainly exceeded her expectations.

With Parvati raucously broadcasting her breakup with Lavender all over school (though determinedly more composed outside her sister's confidence), Padma knew it wouldn't be long before the questions flooded in like owls, first about Parvati, then about her. It had always been a matter of time, if not from her sister's lack of discretion then from eventually not caring to hide it anymore. Padma had nothing to shame but she had nothing to prove, either, and her value on privacy set the twins apart far more than facial differences or their split Sorting ever had. For the moment, her prudence was working to her advantage. Cho was sworn to silence by her own accord. After their awkward encounter fifth year, equally as embarrassed of her post-Cedric drunken desperation as her clumsy performance, Cho was in no hurry to disclose any insight into her friend’s personal life. Padma wasn't horribly concerned either way. Her secret hadn't mattered much when there was nothing and no one at stake. But now, with the blinding realization that a piece of her wanted Granger to know, it seemed to matter more than ever that she never found out.

***********

"It's exactly as I'd pictured it," Hermione said proudly, climbing through the passage to the Ravenclaw Common Room (set appropriately behind a bookcase of Edward Envario's Exorbitant Encyclopedia for the Excessively-Educated). Parvati searched the room for her sister, desperate to mix in before someone questioned two stray (and seemingly password-bearing) Gryffindors without an escort. The couches were packed with fifth- and seventh-years poring over knee-high stacks of notes and swapping pages back and forth. Hermione remembered how frightening O.W.L. exams had seemed this time last year, even three months out, and she wondered if, like her, the Ravenclaws' natural penchant for academic success made them more prone to fret about it. She smiled weakly at the few students who broke away from their texts to blankly look at her, some seeking sympathy, others certain her presence was a testament of their delirium.

"Over there," Parvati gestured, stepping over a string of astronomy charts carefully laid out by the fireplace. Padma had reserved a small two-seater in the corner underneath a portrait of Flitwick's predecessor as Head of House: a tall, thin witch named Matilda Marshpin who watched over the studying clusters with demanding but approving eyes. Hermione thought she somewhat resembled McGonagall but with even less evidence of a sense of humor, if that was possible.

"Hello," Hermione said to Padma as they approached. "I hope you don't mind I came along. I was hoping we could discuss Snape's essay. You haven't completed it yet, have you?"

But Padma's full attention was awaiting an explanation from her twin, as if she did indeed mind and had, in fact, already completed the essay. The silver and blue in her tie seemed sharper below her cool demeanor, metallic and mechanical. Hermione could only hope the flickers of orange in Padma's deep brown eyes were reflections of embers across the room, not signs of her apparent displeasure.

It had been bold coming along, but it was nearly March and Hermione was still no closer to quelling the stirring within her. If anything, it had been getting worse (as these things often do when one does nothing to satisfy them). Whatever these feelings for Padma, whatever was to come--or not come--of them, she was going mad not having them sorted out. And while Snape's essay was hardly how she wanted to spend her Friday evening (especially considering she'd finished it three nights before), the premise served her purpose well enough. For weeks she convinced herself that getting into Ravenclaw Tower would be the hardest part, that everything would fall into place if she could just breach that bookshelf. It was a foolish assessment, of course, but without such distillation the task had seemed unbearably monstrous. (She wondered if Harry still would have won the Tri-Wizard Tournament if Chatting Up Girls had been a Task.) After months of blushing, bumbling, and burning curiosity, the only thing that mattered now was the scathing look in Padma's eyes that said she'd already overstayed her welcome.

"What?" Parvati scoffed, stunned her sister disapproved of their visitor. "You said Flitwick's load was wretched, and I overheard her saying she'd gotten hold of it. It's a fair swap. You're lucky she's willing to help, I say."

The fire popped loudly behind them, offering the sharp reply Padma was too composed to give herself. She sat rooted to the spot, silently fuming and cursing her poor decision. There had been no way to casually work Granger into one of their many Lavender conversations, no subtle questions that would have yielded the details she desired, so her inquiry had come across as prepared and specific as it actually was. Parvati was as fair a source of Gryffindor information as any, but the compromise of her intentions seemed a steep price (though, to be fair, by the end even Neville could have understood her purpose). Padma knew her sister was the type of girl who found secrets to be the only kind of information worth repeating, so she'd kept her tone light and added no caveats, leaving no one to blame now but herself. Parvati clearly showed no reservation putting her in this position, and Padma burned with anger all the more for it. It was irrelevant whether this was her sister's idea of a joke, a well-meaning setup, or innocent homework help; Granger...Hermione was here, and she was Padma's to deal with.

Parvati added irritably, "Oh, like I'd be any help when I'm not in the bloody class," and dropped her bag at Padma's feet. Stepping between the two girls to grab a pillow from the empty seat, she sat down on the floor and began digging for something to keep herself occupied. She quickly pulled out her Divination book and immersed herself in the last chapter, definitively announcing her withdrawal from the conversation. Hermione kept her eyes on Padma during the bustle, both hands clutched firmly to her bag strap. Above their heads, Professor Marshpin tapped her foot impatiently.

"What part of the essay is giving you trouble?" Padma said finally, angling her body so Hermione could sit on the couch beside her.

**********

"It's rather uncanny how similar these dormitories are," said Hermione as she stepped inside the furthest door of Ravenclaw Tower. "The coloring's different, obviously, but you'd never know otherwise. That'd be mine." She pointed to the bed second from the left.

"That's Lisa Turpin's," said Padma. "Mine's this one," she gestured two beds to the right.

"That'd be Lavender's. Parvati's here on the end," said Hermione as she walked over to it.

"That's Mandy Brocklehurst's," said Padma with a smile, sitting on the edge of her own bed.

"Well, it's mine now." Hermione resolutely fell back against the soft blanket with a heavy sigh.

Both girls were very still for a moment, listening to how their breathing overshadowed the distant shuffling in the Common Room below. Only a handful of students had a free period in the middle of Monday afternoon (most's bordered a meal of some sort), and Hermione hated to admit she felt a bit lost with neither assignments nor boyish company to occupy her time.

"Did you want to practice nonverbal spells again?" she asked from her lazy sprawl. "I've recognized a pattern in the types of charms that give me the most difficulty. It seems the--"

"God, you do only think about classwork, don't you?" Padma cut her off. She seemed more shocked than disgusted, but it was always hard for anyone to tell.

Hermione sat up, hurt and hiding it poorly. "That's a bit harsh coming from you."

Padma held her expression, deciding just how she wanted to react before doing so. "There're more important things than scores, is all. I didn't mean--"

"You say that like you think I don't know." It was more a statement than a question. "You have no idea what I've been through. None." Hermione laid back down and stared up at the canopy. She felt ridiculous comparing the feeling to Harry's difficulties over the years, the trials he couldn't ever fully explain either for lack of audience or sheer loss for words. As much as she wanted her friends to understand and accept who she was, the thought of justifying her life seemed utterly exhausting. "Besides, you were the one who said I belonged in Ravenclaw," she added after a moment, consciously trying to take the fight out of her voice.

"That doesn't mean we only talk about schoolwork. Ravenclaw is more than tests and classes," said Padma defensively, lying down on her bed.

Hermione began to pick at a stray fingernail on her left hand. "Well, I wouldn't know."

Padma shifted to face Hermione, propping up on her elbow with a curious expression. "Why are you so bothered? Ravenclaw's just as fine a House as Gryffindor. I thought people say that stuff to you all the time."

Hermione stopped for a moment, keeping her eyes on her fingers. "Maybe that's precisely why it's bothersome."

Padma watched her resume the attack on the deviant nail, fully aware Hermione was more desperate for distraction than smooth nails. "Or maybe you believe it a bit yourself," she said softly, masking her pointed statement with reassurance. "After all, the most vicious lies have a grain of truth."

Hermione looked up at this. "You don't know what you're talking about."

Padma resisted the urge to bicker, tempting as it was now that she'd struck a nerve. She wasn't used to seeing Hermione so disarmed, so unprepared and void of all the answers. It made her seem more real in a way, more human. Fallible. It had never been Padma's intent to insult her friend, certainly never to hurt her, but these reactions, these emotions, were nothing less than intoxicating. Padma watched the muscles in Hermione’s face twitch as she calculated a response, the crinkle of her forehead while she worked through the words. After a month of studying together, it was only now, in this moment, that Padma had finally isolated the correct variable. It hadn't been enough watching Hermione solve the problems on the page; she longed to see how Hermione solved the problems within herself. It was fascinating watching her, ultimately overriding how unbearably nerve-racking Hermione's presence was, how distracting the brown hair fanned out against the blanket, how intimidating the thought of making her feelings known. It was much easier merely to provoke and to watch and to learn, yes. And so very much more exciting.

Hermione winced as she pulled the sliver of nail too deeply. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the moment, and she would have laughed had she not been so blindingly furious with herself. These simple tasks--flying a broom, picking a nail, talking to a friend--had always given her the most trouble. Not acing N.E.W.T.-level Arithmancy (arguably the most difficult subject offered at Hogwarts), nor solving the mystery of Slytherin's monster, nor stepping into the spotlight on the arm of the world's most famous Seeker. She was a problem solver, and now she faced the Problem of Padma, this wretched dilemma that worsened with every minute they spent alone.

Hermione would be the first to admit she was far from perfect, but this seemed a bit cruel. After coming so far--catching Parvati's attention, infiltrating Ravenclaw Tower, establishing a rapport with Padma--she had now maneuvered herself into the otherwise empty dormitory with the boldest of intentions only to fall flat on her face (or the bed. Semantics). She blazed inside at the irony, how following her initial intentions would now constitute bravery in light of Padma's accusations, the ones which sought to discredit that very quality. The more she thought it unfair, the more paralyzed she became. A simple grain of truth had never felt more complicated.

Without bothering to reply, Padma slid off the bed and crossed the room toward the armoire. "Come here." She opened the face of the large cherry-stained wardrobe to reveal a mirror, many small drawers, and a row of hooks. Padma watched the reflection as Hermione walked over to stand beside her. Turning to face her, Padma loosened the knot of her tie and carefully ducked her head out of the loop. "Put this on."

Hermione didn't argue. Without taking her eyes off Padma's, she undid her own tie and set it on an open hook. She reached up to take her new accessory, colliding with Padma's hand as it moved toward her insistently. Padma brushed away the girl's hand, stretching the loop wider as she lowered it past Hermione's nose, careful her hair didn't get caught as she tightened it again. She fixed Hermione's collar gently, double-checking the lateral placement of the knot over the top button with intense precision and concentration. After nearly a minute, Padma stepped back and pondered her creation with a furrowed brow, holding Hermione's shoulder lest she face the mirror without approval.

"No," Padma concluded.

"No?" said Hermione, confused how such a simple task could have failed so utterly, but Padma's hand caught her face mid-turn before she could examine the outcome herself.

"No," Padma repeated. "Here, you need this." She quickly pulled her jumper over her head, briefly taking her thick French braid with it before it flopped back against her shoulders. She held it out and patiently waited with her infamous Patil expression, equal parts confidence and absence of emotion.

Hermione cautiously removed her own jumper (taking care it did not turn inside-out) and folded it once before setting it down beside her tie. She paused momentarily, half-expecting Padma to put the jumper on for her as well, but neither girl made any such suggestion. Hermione carefully put her arms through and pulled it down over her standard white blouse. It was a bit snug but comfortable, not especially different from her own except the simple knowledge it wasn't hers.

Once fully dressed, Padma began fussing over her again, comically this time, pushing Hermione's hair back with a grand gesture and fixing her tie again as if completely ruined in the swap. Another minute later, the desired result in place, Padma turned her subject back to the mirror with a final dramatic motion and a satisfactory, "there."

The pair stood shoulder to shoulder and examined the extent of their revisions: one Ravenclaw born, one stripped of designation.

"I look so different," said Hermione after a long pause. Her statement carried no clear emotion, lost somewhere between marvel, confusion, and captivation.

"I was just thinking how much you look the same," said Padma matter-of-factly, almost beaming with pride at her handiwork.

"Do you ever do this with Parvati?" asked Hermione, now shifting her body from side to side to examine her costume from every available angle. All of it, the whole situation, was strangely unsettling: how much a simple set of colors changed, how much she enjoyed both the clothes and the change, the implications of such enjoyment, and the inability to sort out how much of said enjoyment directly related to her wardrobe assistant. She brushed the mess aside, content for the moment to stare this alter ego in the face after years of accusations, ignoring the fact that the face was, of course, still her own.

Padma scoffed. "Not a chance. She'd be a disgrace."

Hermione stopped and looked at her with a scowl. "What makes you say that? She's a perfectly nice girl." Hermione had no siblings of her own but couldn't imagine ever harboring such feelings for one if she had. "I thought you'd be pleased to see her in Ravenclaw," she said, quieter.

"That nutter?" said Padma disbelievingly, walking to the nearest bed (Su Li's) to sit down. "Never."

"Nutter? Do you mean the Lavender thing?" Hermione asked casually. She absently flipped through the ties and jackets hanging in the armoire, trying to appear as free of interest in Padma's opinion as she was in Mandy's winter coat. Working the fizzled relationship into homework conversation had been impossible, and now that the subject was tangible--not just possible but actually here--it seemed all the more exciting.

Padma hesitated several seconds too long, giving herself away long before she could curse her own ineptitude. "What Lavender thing?" she asked in her own weak attempt at casualness.

"Come off it; I'm not stupid," said Hermione dismissively, meeting Padma's surprised eyes as she looked up.

"No," said Padma, dropping her guard slightly. She hadn't anticipated Hermione's pragmatism to extend so far beyond the classroom. "It's not that." She paused again, pondering the situation. If Hermione wasn't about to make a fuss about nothing, neither would she. "I wish she was happy."

Hermione nodded empathetically and returned to pawing through the wardrobe. "Nobody's saying anything about you, in case you were worried," she added.

"Why would I be worried?" asked Padma suspiciously.

"The most vicious lies have a grain of truth," said Hermione cleverly. She met Padma's eyes in the angled mirror before turning to face her. "Here," she said, breaking the moment, "put mine on." She picked up her tie and jumper from the shelf and held them out, mimicking the previous exchange.

Padma's refusal fizzled as Hermione repeated her gesture with a foreboding expression. Defeated but amused, Padma walked over to the mirror and stood still in mock protest while Hermione pulled the articles over her head. She put on her best agitated face, biting her lip to keep a smile from ruining her guise. The day was progressing beautifully.

Once her masterpiece was completed, Hermione stood back with her mouth half-open and hands on her hips, both stumped and painfully amused.

"What?" asked Padma, starting to worry.

"You still look nothing like Parvati," said Hermione.

Padma turned with a flash of anger. "I am nothing like Parvati."

"That remains to be seen," said Hermione, unfazed by her tone. She stepped in line with Padma again, both girls now fully in uniform but only Hermione convinced she didn't look ridiculous in it.

"Maybe you should hang on to that," said Padma, nodding to the tie. "It's rather cunning." A smile slipped past her defenses, grateful for an excuse to offer up a compliment outside academia.

"I'm in Gryffindor," said Hermione definitively, vetoing the idea with a hint of playful offense. She made no movement to remove the Ravenclaw effects nor planned to.

"That remains to be seen," Padma countered, catching her eye in the mirror.

"You really won't let that go, will you?" asked Hermione, talking back to Padma's reflection for the sheer absurdity of it.

"Why should I? It's great fun," said Padma, now facing the real Hermione with a look of amused superiority.

Hermione turned to meet her match at eye-level. "I'd wager," she said sportively. "Well, for the record--"

But Padma apparently didn't care what else Hermione had to say, nor did Hermione care to say it once she felt the rush of soft lips against her own. It was unlike any kiss she'd felt before, gentler than Viktor but stronger than Ginny, a rich blend of spirit and sincerity she never knew possible. It was incredible.

"That was brave," Hermione said once she'd remembered how to speak.

"Sorry," Padma said carefully, (though not a bit sorry at all), "must be the tie."

Padma fumbled as she looked down, shaking harder now free of the act than she had been before initiating it. Hermione didn't want this; it was written all over her face, spoken loud and clear through the words she was too appalled to pronounce. Padma closed her eyes to swallow the overwhelming stupidity of her actions, embarrassed and scared in ways she had never imagined. She pulled the tie out from the vest to loosen the knot, suddenly mindful that wearing a noose was not her best position under current circumstances.

Hermione stepped forward and took hold of the red and gold stripes below Padma's grasping fingers. She pulled as she leaned in, careful to meet Padma's kiss halfway before the momentum caught the knot too tight against her tender skin. She wrapped the tie around her right hand and brought Padma in harder, planting her free hand deep in the girl's dark hair.

"Must be," Hermione whispered against her lips when they finally broke away. Releasing the tie momentarily, she reached for her wand and mumbled Muffliato toward the door before reclaiming her grip on the crimson silk, determined to show Padma just how brave she really was.

**********

Padma bit her lip harder against the rising need to speak. Grabbing fistfuls of deep blue blanket in each hand, she forced her eyes open and, with a blink to clear the blur, happened to locate a flaw in the fabric overhead: a pulled loop of thread no more than an inch long, impossible to see but for the shadow in the moonlight. She swallowed hard and stifled a reactive moan as the pace increased, determined not to give in just yet. The snag in the canopy seemed as good a focal point as any. Not the faint tingling in her legs, nor the dull but rapid pounding beneath her breast, no. The loop, the snag. Focus, if for no other reason than to prove she could.

This was, apparently, the price to pay for mastering nonverbal spells. Her Tickling Charm had so effectively surprised Hermione that she soon found herself victim of a deviously timed Hovering Charm (with a spin tossed in for flair) that sent the Ravenclaw dormitory into a fit of laughter and Padma into the canopy. She'd thought it funny herself until her hairpin caught the fabric rather painfully, taking several dark strands and a piece of Padma's dignity with it. But now, a mere two hours later, squinting harder as she clenched her toes, Padma was bloody glad of it, in retrospect anyway.

Releasing the blanket (against her better judgment), Padma's hands found the thick brown hair tickling her stomach, digging her fingernails in, daring Hermione to consider what horrible things would happen if she slowed down. Padma whimpered slightly as her breathing quickened, too far lost in the swell to think clearly, much less focus any more on the snag (wherever it had gone to). An "oh--" slipped against her will, and Hermione, without looking up, shifted a hand from Padma's hip to her mouth before she could finish the proclamation. Padma mumbled against the soft, strong fingers and tightened her hold on Hermione's hair with her left hand, pulling her right sharply away to grasp desperately at the nightstand. Panting harder, she fumbled blindly on the small table, searching and thinking and knowing she wasn't going to make it in time.

In her haste she knocked her wand off the ledge, listening as it rolled under the bed. Padma hummed informative protests against Hermione's pressing hand without seeing the slightest acknowledgment of her failure. She finally abandoned her attempts as Hermione's rhythm quickened ever still, reclaiming her clutch of the blanket with vain determination not to wake the dormitory. Padma leaned her head back as her knees buckled, arching into Hermione's delicate face as she released a moan far beyond the boundaries of her intentions. But no sound came out. Partway through a useless, mimed inquiry, she noticed Hermione's wand suspiciously on the bed with them. Relaxing her weight into the bed again, Padma exhaled deeply and smiled.

She knew Hermione relished this power over her, academic, physical, even a simple Silencing Charm that Padma was now unable to remove herself. Padma felt Hermione's body sliding slowly along her own, taking heed just where to graze and avoid on the way up, until the girl's lips reached her ear. She gasped again silently as Hermione's tongue flicked her tender lobe, completely aware behind closed eyes that Hermione was smiling as she whispered, "You're welcome."

Padma grinned back, motioning to Hermione's wand with what very little strength she had left, and Hermione responded with numerous threats of the most wretched curses she could muster. She waited until Padma had stopped laughing before removing the charm, but fortified their hold with Muffliato just in case. (They had discontinued use of it for their purposes when Hermione had once forgotten to lift it before falling asleep, leaving Padma's dormmates screaming at them to wake for breakfast. Two months later, Mandy and Lisa still enjoyed shouting at them every chance they could.)

"Don't fall asleep, now!" teased Padma, playfully nipping at Hermione's bare stomach against hers. Then, suddenly, she relaxed her body completely with eyes closed and a sonorous snore.

Hermione laughed, "Oh, I'd like to see you try!" and tickled Padma relentlessly. Their familiar power struggle was no less endearing these months later, if only because Padma kept letting Hermione win. Realizing they were both rather spent for the moment, Hermione slowed her hands, reaching down to hold the curve of Padma's back with her right hand as she stroked the girl's face with her left. "Think you're so clever, don't you?" she grinned.

"Oh, I know I am," said Padma, leaning forward to kiss Hermione passionately. She pulled in closer as Hermione's hand slid from her back to her stomach, then lower. Their bodies moved in unison, as if unsure where one ended and the next began, and, from the look in her eyes, Padma was almost certain Hermione could feel the workings of her own hand as surely as Padma could. She wrapped both arms around Hermione, holding her tighter still as the lips on her neck mirrored the motions of fingers below. Padma had tried to feign surprise their first time together, as if she believed intimacy would be a subject too great for the mighty Granger. And every night since, Hermione had never failed to disappoint, never lacked for skill or strength. She had never for one instant been less than the woman Padma had always known her to be.

"You should've been in Ravenclaw," she teased into Hermione's ear. It had become one of their favorite games, the fight and denial of it. For a girl who had nothing to prove, Hermione sure seemed to enjoy the battle. Padma, of course, enjoyed Hermione.

Without warning, Padma gasped at the sudden shift, tilting her head back against the consuming sensation of Hermione’s apparent dexterity. Hermione simply smiled, pushing her two fingers deeper as she kissed Padma’s ear.

"I am now."