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Sweets and Studies

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN:

“The trick is,” Hermione said as she and Neville stood in one of the abandoned classrooms, “creativity.”

“Creativity,” Neville repeated and Hermione nodded.

“There’s a lot you can do with very simple spells if you use them creatively,” she explained. “We’re going to focus on three today– scourgify, lumos and cantis.”

“I recognise two of those,” Neville said slowly. “Scourgify is a cleaning spell, right? And lumos makes light?”

“That’s right,” she nodded. “And cantis is a jinx that causes uncontrollable singing.”

“And… I’ll be able to beat Malfoy with just them?” Neville asked nervously.

“Trust me Neville,” Hermione said firmly, “if you can master them? You will.”

Harry, Millie and Ron joined them an hour into Neville’s practicing of the spells. He had mastered lumos quickly and could manage a decent scourgify but cantis was proving difficult and he seemed relieved for the short reprieve.

Despite the upcoming duel, Harry’s face was bright and shining with excitement and he was quick to share why. “McGonagall said that when Madam Hooch told her about my flying, she was really impressed,” he said eagerly, “she told me I should try out for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, even though I’m just a first year!”

“I thought first years couldn’t try out for the team?” Hermione asked, startled. It was Ron who cleared things up.

“They’re not allowed their own broomsticks, but they can try out for the team,” he explained. “Usually they just borrow a broom from a friend or older sibling. There hasn’t been a first year who’s made the team for about a century, though, because it’s really competitive!”

“Are you going to try out, Harry?” Hermione asked him and Harry nodded.

“Ron said he’d ask the twins if I could borrow one of their brooms for the try-outs,” he said, face shining. “Their try-outs will be at different times– they’re Beaters and McGonagall said she thought I should try out for the Seeker position.”

Hermione, remembering Marcus’s comment to Oliver Wood that he’d only start worrying about the Slytherin Quidditch team’s chances if Gryffindor ever got a decent Seeker, thought that her fellow Slytherin might start regretting those words. Also, Professor McGonagall was apparently a lot more competitive then Hermione had realised!

“I think you’ll be amazing,” she said honestly. “And so long as you’re not playing Slytherin, I promise I’ll cheer for you… actually, I’ll probably cheer for you a little bit anyway. Just very quietly.”

Harry blushed. “I probably won’t get on the team,” he said, “I am just a first year.”

“Nonsense,” Hermione declared, “if Madam Hooch told Professor McGonagall that she thinks you’re good enough to be on the team, then I don’t doubt for a moment you’ll make it.”

Harry couldn’t help his wide, excited smile at her encouragement and Ron looked just as enthusiastic next to him. Even Neville, despite his anxiety, managed a wobbly smile and a soft congratulations.

Noticing Neville’s pallor, Harry’s good mood wilted slightly. “Um,” he said, “so what is a wizard’s duel, exactly?”

Millie looked at him in disbelief. “Potter,” she said, ignoring his correction of ‘Harry’, “please don’t tell me you agreed to the duel without even knowing what it is.”

Harry looked like a deer in headlights. “Um,” he said, “I… won’t? Tell you that?”

Millie looked dearly like she wanted to curse him. “Potter,” she said through gritted teeth, “there are duels that can strip a wizard of their titles, their gold, even their magic if they lose. There are duels where it’s legal to fight to the death. You cannot just agree to any potentially binding magical contract without being fully aware of the possible consequences for doing so!”

Harry looked pale now. “This duel with Malfoy isn’t going to do any of– of that, is it?” he asked, sounding horrified.

“No,” Millie told him shortly. “Which is fortunate for you. This is not the sort of mistake you can afford to make twice.”

Harry nodded hurriedly; his eyes wide. “I won’t,” he promised. “I swear, I won’t.”

Millie glared sharply at him but seemed to decide he was appropriately repentant. “Hermione, teach him– I don’t know, something,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Neville, you can keep practicing on me.”

Hermione looked delightedly after Millie as she marched away, Neville following after her. Her fellow Slytherin really had come so far from the unsure, insecure girl she had been, even just a few short weeks ago.

“Come on, Harry,” she said happily, “I’m going to teach you how to make people sneeze.”

“…sneeze?” Harry asked, obviously trying not to sound like he was doubting her when he very much doubted her,

“You try casting a spell when you can’t even see straight, let alone speak, because you can’t stop sneezing,” Hermione said, brandishing her wand threateningly at him. “Would you like a demonstration?”

Harry hastily assured her he had complete faith in her and did not doubt her at all.

Ron, watching them, practically howled with laughter– until Hermione sweetly thanked him for offering to be their practice dummy. Then he spent the next hour running around the classroom, dodging, while Harry chased after him, trying to hit him with the jinx.

Ultimately, it was with mixed feelings that they parted. Some levity had been restored to the five of them, however the upcoming midnight duel could not be forgotten. The boys had wanted to keep practicing but Hermione insisted that they take a break for dinner, with Millie backing her up. To not show up, she had to explain to the Gryffindors, would be an act of cowardice, intentional or not. It would say that they were ashamed or hiding away or that they lacked the confidence to face Draco.

This certainly lit a fire in the Gryffindors– apparently, implying cowardice was the gravest insult that could be given to a member of the House of the Bold. Hermione couldn’t help but watch with pride as Ron and Harry flanked Neville, the three marching into the Great Hall and over to the Gryffindor table, heads held high, not a hint of unease evident, not even in Neville whose face was slightly pale but set in determination. As the trio reached the table, Fred and George immediately moved to make space for them, the two older Gryffindors flanking the three younger students in turn, folding them into the protection of their lion pride.

“Regardless of the outcome of the duel,” Hermione said thoughtfully and with no small amount of gleeful spite, “I think Malfoy is about to have a very bad couple of weeks.”

“The Weasley twins aren’t going to let a Slytherin get away with targeting one of their little brother’s friends like that,” Millie agreed, looking viciously satisfied. “I know the Gryffs are different, that wherever and whoever they sit with isn’t about alliances and stuff, not like it is at our House table, but there’s no way that the twins calling them over like that isn’t about sending a message– I bet they’re pissed.”

She sounded quite delighted at the thought.

“Malfoy didn’t think much of my declaration of protection,” Hermione said with a serene smile, “but I’ll be very interested to see what he thinks of the twins’ declaration.”

Millie laughed at that, and she was still laughing as they sat across from Draco at the table. He had a tight, haughty look on his pointed face, but there was fear evident in his pale eyes too as Hermione let her mouth curl into a slow smile that visibly disturbed him. “Malfoy,” she said, nodding slightly before turning her attention to Millie. In her peripheral vision, she could see that Draco looked like he didn’t know whether to be pissed or grateful for her dismissal of him, which clearly went to show just how thick he was– he should beweeping in gratitude.

They went back to their dorms after dinner– waiting around an empty classroom after hours was just asking to get caught– and Hermione entertained herself with her homework until half-past eleven. Millie was still awake but the rest of their dorm-mates were asleep. As they crept out, she was grateful to see that the common room was empty– not that she thought any of the older years would have stopped them.

It was stressful sneaking through the castle. Hermione didn’t dare light her wand to show the way, instead relying on the thin bars of moonlight that peeked through the gaps in the high windows. The suits of armour glinted eerily and each creak had her adrenaline surge.

Hermione was relieved to reach the trophy room. She and Millie were first to arrive. The crystal trophy cases glimmered where the moonlight caught them. Cups, shields, plates, and statues winked silver and gold in the darkness. She and Millie edged along the walls, keeping their eyes on the doors at either end of the room.

Harry, Ron and Neville were next to arrive, Neville announcing their arrival with a stumble that sent one of the smaller statues tumbling to the floor. It was only Harry’s hasty dive that caught it before it could crash against the stone beneath them.

There was a breathless moment where they all waited silently for a professor to swoop into the room, before relaxing.

“That was close,” Hermione whispered.

She spoke too soon.

“Sniff around, my sweet, they might be lurking in a corner.”

Hermione’s eyes widened as she looked around at the others in horror. That was Filch– talking to Mrs Norris!

“Oh bugger!” She breathed, meeting Millie’s eyes with dawning understanding. Millie’s eyes turned dark with fury.

“Malfoy set us up!” she hissed.

Harry waved madly at them, rushing over to the opposite door from where Filch’s voice was coming from and they ran after him. Neville had barely turned the corner, half-tripping in his haste, when they heard Filch enter the trophy room.

“They’re in here somewhere,” the caretaker growled, “probably hiding!”

“Run!” Harry hissed, somewhat unnecessarily.

They ran.

In the dark, Hermione had no idea where they were going. At some point, they tumbled through a hidden passageway, coming out near their Charms classroom, which was far enough from the trophy room that Hermione thought they might have gotten away.

The others clearly thought so too. Harry had leaned against the wall, wiping his head, Neville was bent over double, wheezing and spluttering, Millie was gasping for breath and even in the dim light Hermione could see that Ron’s face was as red as his hair.

Witches and wizards clearly did not prioritise physical fitness, Hermione couldn’t help but think. All that wand-waving did make them awfully lazy– Harry was obviously the least out of breath besides her, and he was the closest to a muggleborn out of the others.

“We need to get back to our dorms,” Millie said grimly, between her gasping breaths. “If we’re lucky, Malfoy only told Filch– if he told our Head of Houses, they could check our beds at any time, and if they find us missing…” she trailed off and the three Gryffindors looked at her in horror.

“Filch is the only one he could have told,” Hermione hastened to reassure them. “He couldn’t have told Professor McGonagall without explaining how he knew we’d be out of bed– and then he’d be buggered too.”

Looking slightly reassured, they set off, but to Hermione’s dismay, they barely made it more than a dozen paces before a doorknob rattled and something came shooting out of a classroom in front of them.

It was Peeves, the poltergeist that called Hogwarts his home. Hermione knew he would be trouble from the moment he caught sight of them and cackled in delight.

“Shut up, Peeves– please– you’ll get us thrown out!” Harry hissed desperately.

Peeves just cackled. “Wandering around at midnight, Ickle Firsties? Tut, tut, tut. Naughty, naughty, you’ll get caughty!” he sang mockingly, and Hermione could feel the tension rise in her as Peeves didn’t bother to keep his voice down.

Hermione didn’t waste time arguing with the poltergeist. It was clear Peeves had no intention of helping them– only in causing as much trouble as he could. Facing the jeering poltergeist, frantic at the thought of just what Professor Snape would do to her and Millie if they got caught out of bed out of hours, Hermione lunged forward, swinging her fist at Peeves. While normally this would be about as useful and effective as trying to eat soup with a fork, Hermione had made sure to swing with her right fist– the wrist she wore her charm bracelet, with its iron charms.

Ghosts and spirits of all kinds were vulnerable to iron, after all.

Peeves shrieked as her fist passed through him. The sound was high and piercing, nothing even close to human, and his entire form flickered wildly before he dove through the stone floor below them, disappearing beneath the slabs.

“Come on!” Hermione hissed when the other four just looked at her stunned, gesturing for them to hurry after her. Hearing Filch’s fast-approaching thundering footsteps, they hurriedly complied.

They sprinted down the corridor, feet pounding against the stones, hearts in their throats. The door at the end was locked but Hermione opened it with a wave of her hand and they all tumbled through it, slamming it shut behind them and hastily locking it again.

For half a second, Hermione thought that would be it, that they’d escaped– and then she felt the hot huff of air and spun around to look straight into the eyes of a bloody cerberus; a humongous three-headed dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. Its three pairs of eyes were rolling, mad, its three mouths drooling, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish, jagged fangs.

It was standing still, as if frozen, and Hermione was very aware that it was only the fact that it was as shocked by their sudden appearance as they were by it that it hadn’t attacked them already– a shock it was quickly getting over.

She had seconds to decide how to act.

There was truth to all myths, even if it was just a seed– something that had taken root and later bloomed. Hermione had spent years of her life devouring mythology, and considering it was her namesake Greek mythology was a special interest of hers. She knew the tragic myth of Orpheus and how he had defied all the odds and travelled to the Underworld to retrieve his lost love.

Cerberus guarded the Underworld, keeping the living out, however Orpheus managed to pass him. Not because he was a mighty warrior, but because he played music so beautiful that he could charm birds, beasts, even rocks– trees, it was said, picked up their roots to follow him. Hermes may have invented the lyre, but Orpheus perfected it.

Hermione was no musician, that was true. But she was bonded to a phoenix, she had sung harmonies with her sister-of-her-soul, and she sung them now, sweet, piping notes without lyrics, pulling on the golden magic inside her, letting it fill her, the notes rising in volume.

The cerberus swayed in place, its legs buckling beneath it, and Hermione hastily nudged Millie, gesturing at the door. Millie, white-faced, quickly nodded, tapping the door with her wand, whispering, “alohomora!” and shoving it open. They all stumbled out, slamming the door shut behind them and Hermione locked it, before reaching out to grip onto Millie, her hands shaking with adrenaline.

“How did you know to sing?” Ron asked her, wide-eyed and shaken.

“I– I didn’t,” Hermione admitted shakily, leaning into Millie. “I– I guessed. From a muggle myth.”

“I know I’ve said this before,” Millie said, shifting slightly so her arm was curled around Hermione, “and I’ve meant it every time– but I’m going to kill Malfoy.”

“He’s going to pay for this,” Ron said darkly. “And believe me– I grew up with the twins, I know how to get revenge.”

There was no disagreement on any of their faces. Draco may have only meant the whole evening as a prank– one to get them expelled, probably– but because of him their lives had been in danger and none of them would forget that any time soon.

Finally splitting up to return to their dorms, promising to meet the next morning after breakfast, Hermione waited until she and Millie were safely back in the Slytherin girl’s dorms before asking, “Do you think the boys noticed the trap door it was standing on?”

“They’re Gryffindors,” Millie said with a roll of her eyes, “of course they didn’t. Are we going to tell them?”

“We probably shouldn’t,” Hermione said. “They’re Gryffindors, after all. Who knows what sort of trouble they’d get into with that sort of information.”

“…you’re going to tell them anyway,” Millie sounded resigned.

“…yes, probably.”

::

Hermione would have liked to confront Draco in the common room. Unsurprisingly, however, the coward had already fled to the Great Hall and she and Millie grimly made their way to breakfast in the Great Hall where Draco assumed he would be untouchable as inner-House conflict was forbidden outside the Slytherin common room.

He assumed wrong.

As Hermione and Millie sat across from Draco a hush settled over the table. Hermione spoke first. “Malfoy,” she said calmly, taking care to speak quietly enough that she wouldn’t be overheard by the other Houses, but loud enough that most of the Slytherins should be able to hear if they were quiet enough. “I have to say, I didn’t think you had a cunning bone in your body. I assumed it was your ambition alone that got you Sorted into Slytherin. Your little scheme last night, though, to challenge Harry and Neville to an after-hours duel and then set them up, telling Filch where the duel would be... that was certainly more cunning then I would have ever given you credit. But it certainly does live up to your name, Bad Faith.”

‘Malfoy’ really was an unfortunate surname, though she imagined very few dared to point it out.

Draco’s pale cheeks flushed pink, in either anger or humiliation, Hermione wasn’t sure. But she wasn’t done with him yet.

“Of course,” she said, softly, sweetly, deadly as a striking cobra, her fangs aiming straight for his jugular, “the Malfoy family does have a standing precedent of bad faith... making promises, swearing vows of loyalty, with no intention of seeing them through… like father, like son, I suppose.”

There was a moment of dead silence over the Slytherin table, as if nobody could quite believe she had actually gone there, that she had alluded to Lucius Malfoy’s claims of acting under the Imperius Curse instead of owning up to the fact he was a Death Eater and going to prison for it, betraying the vows he’d once made to his master. Even Draco looked too stunned to say anything. Hermione smiled at him, showing all of her teeth. “With such an... upstanding example to look up to,” she said, softly, “I’m not at all surprised you chose to hide under someone else’s skirts instead of honouring the vows you made and facing the consequences of your own choices with your pride intact.”

“How very insightful of you, Miss Granger,” Lestrange had a viciously pleased look on his face. Hermione had figured by this point that Rainier Lestrange was most likely the son of Rabastan Lestrange, a convicted Death Eater who had proudly declared his loyalty and servitude in Voldemort at his trial, holding to the oaths he’d sworn and been imprisoned for life in Azkaban for it. In light of that, she could definitely understand why Rainier Lestrange would hold a particular animosity towards the Malfoy family for their bad faith towards Voldemort.

Personally, Hermione fully supported people turning on Voldemort. The more, the better! Only, Lucius Malfoy hadn’t turned on his former Master because it was the decent, proper thing to do as a human being of good conscience, he’d done it because it was convenient to himself, in order to save his own sorry hide. And that was just despicable to her.

Draco’s face was now flushed dark pink with his anger and humiliation and he looked furious enough that he could tear her apart with his bare hands. “You uppity mudblood!” He hissed, at least having the sense to speak quietly enough that his foul words wouldn’t be overheard.

“You call me a mudblood,” Hermione said to him, almost thoughtfully, “like I should be ashamed of my muggle aunt and uncle who love me, who call me brilliant, who taught me to be strong, resourceful and hardworking. You throw the word around like you think I want to be just like you. You expect me to be ashamed, but I’m not. You expect it to hurt me, to shatter my resolve, to break my heart and spirit, but all it does is remind me of those who make me strong.”

It was clear that Draco didn’t know how to respond to this. Hermione didn’t think anyone sitting at Slytherin table did. Her smile widened, nothing at all pleasant visible in the curve of her mouth. “By the way, Neville accepts your forfeit, Malfoy,” she added casually. “He understands that your fear of facing a superior opponent has resulted in you bowing out from the duel.”

“I was not afraid of that loser!” Draco barely managed to keep from shouting in his sheer indignation.

“Your forfeit says otherwise,” Hermione said sweetly. “But truly, Neville does understand. He knows that after you lost your last duel so badly, you must have been too scared to face him.”

Draco looked almost apoplectic with barely-concealed rage. Lestrange was laughing, not even bothering to hide his amusement the way Rosier was behind a raised goblet of pumpkin juice. Many of the other Slytherins were also subtlety concealing their amusement.

“I am not afraid, and I’ll prove it!” Draco snarled.

”No thank you, we’re not interested in having to deal with another poor attempt of a set-up,” Hermione said dismissively, finishing her last piece of toast. She was about to ask Millie if she was ready to leave when Vashti swooped down with a loud, hair-raising cry, the sound unusually eerie enough to turn heads. The morning rays of sun caught Vashti’s feathers as she glided through the Great Hall, turning her brown feathers glowing bright and golden.

“She’s so beautiful,” Millie murmured as Vashti landed gracefully on Hermione’s outstretched arm.

“She is,” Hermione agreed warmly. Vashti was carrying a large package along with a letter, which Hermione might be concerned about if she didn’t know that phoenixes could carry immensely heavy loads.

Curious, she opened the letter and burst into surprised laughter.

“What is it?” Millie asked.

“I can’t believe I forgot!” She said, still laughing

“Forgot what?” Millie prodded her.

“That today I turn twelve,” Hermione said, with a wide smile. “Happy birthday to me!”

Her life had been so busy lately and considering she hadn’t been around her family and friends who knew when her birthday was, she had truly forgotten that it had been fast-approaching. But Loki hadn’t forgotten– her god never forgot her.

Opening the outer brown paper of the package revealed the bright golden paper tied with a gaudy green bow beneath and even without the birthday card from Loki, Hermione would immediately know who the present was from. Carefully peeling back the paper revealed a polished wooden box and Hermione opened it, beaming. Inside there were two beautiful, leather-bound books with gold-leaf lettering stamped into the leather; one was Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, the other Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, and several beautiful pieces of snake-themed jewellery.

Carefully lifting the book, she opened it to trace the black ink, hungrily breathing in the smell of parchment. It was clearly old, but in perfect condition– and, to her delight, it had been signed, the distinguished signature of Niccolò Machiavelli artfully curling across the inside of the cover. Considering it was an English translation of the text– and that Machiavelli had died years before a printed version of his manuscript was even available– that should have been impossible, but she supposed when her god was capable of time-travel she shouldn’t be too surprised.

Apparently, Loki’s response to her earlier issues with Slytherin House was to arm her with knowledge from two of the greatest political, military, tactical minds the world had known. Oh, she adored him!

The jewellery was beautiful too– of course it was, her god had excellent taste for pretty, expensive things. The golden snake-shaped ear cuff was beautiful; with three coils to curve along the shell of her ear, the little snake was detailed down to its belly scales with glittering emerald eyes. The hairpin set were similar; the golden snake-shaped pins decorated with exquisite detailing and tiny little glittering emeralds for their eyes, and, of course, he’d given her a new charm for her bracelet; light-hearted and playful, golden coils of twin snakes twisting whimsically into a heart shape.

“Oh, he spoils me,” Hermione murmured, her heart aching to throw her arms around her god, to smell his burnt-sugar-burning-ozone scent, but she still smiled, blinking back the sudden tears.

“Wow,” Millie murmured, as she peered over Hermione’s shoulder.

“Here,” Hermione somewhat impulsively, picking up one of the twin snake hairpins and leaning over to slide it into Millie’s hair then beaming brightly at her. “They can be like our version of friendship bracelets!” she said happily, picking up one which she slid into her own hair. Millie looked too bewildered to protest and Hermione turned her attention to the birthday card, written entirely in Ancient Norse.

To my dearest little chaos-bringer,

Happy Birthday, cupcake! We all miss you, though your adventures so far have certainly been keeping us entertained – and, incidentally, given me several grey hairs. Which shouldn’t even be possible for one of my kind!

I hope your presents help out with those little issues you’re having with your House. Remember, you can write to me whenever you want.

Keep up the chaos!

L.

“Love you too,” Hermione murmured, tracing the curves of the symbols as her heart warmed in her chest.

What a perfect birthday surprise.

::