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It must be a joke.  ‘This is a joke,’ was the phrase Hermione kept repeating all the way from the great hall—where the badgers patted her shoulders in a friendly manner—to the Hogwarts’s kitchen.

The prefect that led them to the basement was Amelia Bones. A beautiful witch with dark hair and skin. Better known as the future head of DMLE, whose family and herself would suffer brutal deaths at the hands of Voldemort.

According to Harry, Bones had been a serious and just woman, who had managed to clear him of all charges. Hermione was having a hard time picturing the prefect as the important person she would become. Amelia was joking during the tour, recounting the most ridiculous stories the badgers had gotten into during the last years. Including one where Ted had managed to make Goyle’s hair disappear with a Crinus Muto that had gone wrong.

“Our dormitory room entrance is hidden in a nook on the right-hand side of the kitchen corridor. Don't worry if you get lost at first, one of the prefects will always be near to redirect you. You too, Jo, don’t be afraid to reach out,” said Amelia, and more than a few heads nodded in agreement.

“Don’t worry about my cousin, guys. I’m going to be her guide!” exclaimed Ted, voice filled with enthusiasm. He had been glued to Hermione’s right side since the moment they left the hall. Adding comments here and there, while ending most of his sentences with a ‘you know’ and a wink.

“He will,” Hermione said, letting the conversation drift to different topics until they came to a stop in front of stacked barrels.

“Oh, this is the best part,” whispered Ted, and Hermione felt a spark of curiosity growing upon watching Amelia walk closer to the barrels.

The former Gryffindor, as well as every non-Hufflepuff, considered the badgers’ common room a mystery. Its location was unknown and its password a well-kept secret that was shared among housemates only. There was even a rumor of a defense mechanism, but Hermione thought it impossible.

“In Hufflepuff, we don’t use the password system as the other houses.” Amelia kneeled, wiped her wand out, and tapped the second barrel from the bottom of the middle row in an unfamiliar rhythm. After a while, a hobbit-like lid opened, granting entrance to the common room. “Remember, you should tap the barrel in the rhythm that Helga Hufflepuff, our founder, has created. It’s not hard, but it requires precision.” 

Hermione was dumbfounded. Gabriel Truman, the badgers’ prefect back in her first year, had told Harry that the Hufflepuff common room hasn’t been seen by students that didn’t belong to the house for thousands of years, but they hadn’t believed him.

“Great right? Try to get the rhythm correct on the first try, or else you will be showered in vinegar. I speak from personal experience.” Ted's words shook Hermione out of her daze. She gave him an appraising glance and didn’t utter a word. Here she was, an impostor acting as his relative, and the wizard was playing along. His complete nonchalance served as a reminder that they needed to talk. 

“Let’s not stand out here,” Amelia addressed the crowd, going inside, followed by everyone else.

Upon entering the common room an inviting warmth touched her cheeks. Hermione’s jaw relaxed, the tension evaporated from her shoulders. There was something about this room, she mused while stepping on the brown carpet, that made her feel like coming home. Sunflower yellow was the dominating color, decorating the walls, adorning the window frames, and painting most of the furniture. A portrait of Helga Hufflepuff hung above the lit fireplace. The position of the painting gave the impression that the founder was watching over them, protecting them. Hermione took comfort in the thought, understanding the reason behind the Hufflepuffs’s pride when talking about their house.

“This is where you can mingle with your housemates or study. It's up to you. In Hufflepuff, we don’t obsess over house points, but we care deeply about being kind to others. Us prefects will not tolerate prejudice or cruelty against other students.” Amelia sent a pointed look towards Hermione and the first years. The prefect’s earlier jovial mood was replaced by a serious expression. Satisfied with what she found in their faces, she continued, “We are a family here, and with all of us away from home, we need as much support as we can get,” Amelia finished her speech, and Hermione nodded in her direction somewhat unconsciously. It was like a sense of duty drove her to do it.

“It feels like Bilbo Baggins’ house.” Ted was once again talking to Hermione making her wonder if the wizard had no friends.

Before she could react, Ted gasped dramatically and leaned into her personal space. “You are a muggleborn, right? Please don’t tell me that you are a pureblood. I figured from the clothes that you wore that you are like me,” he said frantically.

“Shh, of course, I am! Have you seen many purebloods falling from the sky wearing jeans?” hissed Hermione, while pushing him away with her right hand.

“Oof! Imagine the awkwardness if you were, though.” Ted wiped fake sweat from his forehead, messing up his brown hair in the process. “So, have you read The Hobbit?” he asked as if he hadn’t been panicking a moment ago.

Hermione’s eyebrows shot up. She couldn’t believe that the person standing in front of her was real. “Is this your only concern?”

“Um, yes?” Ted tilted his head in an owlish manner and Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” she said.

“Sure thing, cousin.” 

They didn’t have time to say anything more—not that they needed to. Amelia and a male prefect, whose name Hermione couldn’t recall, gathered the students and led them to their respective dorms, where yellow was once again the dominant color. The rooms were similar to the ones in Gryffindor, with four beds covered in yellow quilts and copper lamps to shed light in the otherwise dark dorms. Natural light was not an option when one slept in the basement.

Hermione shared the room with Amelia and four other girls. Her unexpected enrolment had the school elves enlarging the dorm, adding one more bed, and putting ten pairs of the Hufflepuff uniform in the closet that was meant for her. They managed all that during the welcoming feast. First thing after getting settled, she would go thank the elves. A little reminder to Dumbledore about the importance of wages wouldn’t hurt either.

The girls bid Hermione goodnight, exhausted from the day’s traveling. They laid on their beds and closed the curtains, but not without reassuring her that it was fine to wake them up in case she needed anything. Hermione thanked them, knowing well enough that she wouldn’t accept their offer. Tonight would be the first night since having been admitted to the infirmary, that Hermione would have to sleep without the aid of calming draughts.

Hermione hadn’t been able to snatch the potions out from under Madam Pomfrey’s constant surveillance. There was no helping it, she would have to try her luck stealing from Slughorn tomorrow. She sighed and focused her eyes on the dark ceiling, a long night lay ahead of her.

Come morning, after a long and detailed recounting of Hogwarts: A history, it was time for Hermione to get up. She felt alien wearing the uniform. Apart from the black and yellow colors, the uniform’s whole design was different. The black sweater was replaced by a gray one, fitted with an equally gray blazer which was mandatory. Not bothering to follow the etiquette, Hermione opted to avoid the blazer and to put the tie inside the skirt’s pocket.   

She was the first to leave the common room. On her way, she stumbled two times while climbing the steps, and had a hard time not bumping into other students because she miscalculated the distance.

During the two days, she had spent in the infirmary, Madam Pomfrey—worried about Hermione’s physical condition—had focused on helping her perform menial tasks, such as pouring tea or catching objects the mediwitch threw at her. Needless to say, Hermione had gotten burned by tea and had been hit by small balls and books countless times over the span of fewer than forty-eight hours. Madam Pomfrey had said that Hermione’s struggles were normal and would get better once her brain was used to the loss of her eye.

Entering the Great hall was not as intimidating as it had been yesterday, she took a seat at the edge of the Hufflepuff table and tried to ignore the Gryffindors watching her. The hall wasn’t busy yet, and the lack of voices was a balm to Hermione's ears.

The blissful silence didn’t last long, Ted, chipper like a canary, sat opposite Hermione and gave her the timetable. “Got you a little something.”

“Thanks,” she said while scanning the paper. Transfiguration, potions, herbology, and defense against the dark arts were the N.E.W.Ts Hermione had chosen. Dumbledore had given her the option to take more but she declined. Her desire for validation through academic achievements had ceased dramatically in the past year.

“I may or may not have checked your schedule. Bad news; we don’t have potions together. I hate the subject… but good news, we have everything else together.” Ted grinned and Hermione stared at him. The wizard was the human equivalent of a teddy bear. Brown eyes, brown hair, and an overly cheerful expression. Only the bowtie was missing.

“Hufflepuff is sharing every class except herbology with Slytherin. I’m already partnered up with Andy for most of the assignments, but if you want I can-”

“There is no need,” Hermione cut him off, eager to get the conversation far away from Andromeda. Her stomach twisted even at the mention of the Slytherin witch, probably an after-effect courtesy of Bellatrix Lestrange.

“I get it, you like to do your own thing, being mysterious and silent. How does Batman sound?” asked Ted, looking proud of his witty question. Reminding Hermione of Ron, only more adept in pop culture.

“Horrible,” she answered, and grabbed a jug to pour some pumpkin juice in the cup in front of her.

“Move your hand a little to the right.”

Hermione did as she was told, managing to fill the cup without spilling a single drop. She turned to thank the person and was met with dark brown eyes. The words died on her lips.

“Good morning, Tonks.” Andromeda tipped her head in Hermione’s direction and turned to greet Ted. “Glad to see you on time, Teddy.”

“You know me, Andy. Setting a good example for my cousin,” said Ted, gesturing for Andromeda to join them, but the witch shook her head, dark curls bouncing with the motion. Hermione watched the Slytherin for a moment, before averting her eyes back to her cup.

“Can’t stay. Someone has to make sure that Lestrange and Malfoy won't terrorize the first years.”

“Ah, I see. It always comes down to these two, doesn't it?” Ted’s expression faltered, he touched his left forearm briefly before folding his hands on the table. Hermione raised an eyebrow in question.

“You know how it is,” said Andromeda, eyes glued on the Slytherin table. She took a fortifying breath. “I must go now, catch you later.”

“Bye.” Ted waved, but Andromeda had already taken off, wand firmly in hand.

The pair didn’t strike Hermione as the star-crossed lovers she had thought them to be. There seemed to be tension between them, but she couldn’t pinpoint the reason.

“Jo? Can I call you Jo? It was my dog’s name, and I couldn’t come up with anything else.” Ted leaned forward, voice low and eyes scanning the area nearby. “Sorry for not asking how you were doing yesterday. It looks like you’ve been in a nasty fight. I didn’t want to risk asking with so many people around.”

“Jo is fine. I’m fine,” said Hermione, and leaned forward to match the wizard. “Shouldn’t we talk outside?”

Ted cast a tempus, half-past eight. They had no time left to walk out, and students would soon fill the hall.

“Listen, Andy doesn’t know about the cases, and I want to be the one to tell her,” he said and touched his forearm again, causing Hermione to mirror his movement.  

“Cases? What do you mean?”

“The case that Dumbledore brought you here for. The reason I arrived at the castle three days earlier.” Ted glanced around, Hermione followed his gaze. He nodded at a group of Gryffindors. “Students wanted to meet me. There were many more incidents than I initially thought. I have a list of names to show you later. The culprits target only muggleborns, and frankly, we need an auror’s help. Your help.”

“Why were you in the forest?” Hermione asked, meeting Ted’s eyes and feeling dread settling in her stomach. The wizard had completely misunderstood the situation. The worst part was that she had to lie to him to keep her identity hidden. She searched her memory for any notable incidents before the first wizarding war and came up with nothing. What in Merlin’s name was going on? Why didn’t Dumbledore say anything?

“Huh, what a rare sight. Edward Tonks being on time.” Amelia’s voice shook them out of their trance. The prefect sat in the empty spot next to Hermione.

“Good morning to you too, Amelia,” said Ted, his body relaxing and an easy smile spreading into his face. His distress was nowhere to be seen. Hermione understood the cue and attempted not to appear so stiff, but she failed. Her back was rigid, and her shoulders tense.

She took a sip, the pumpkin juice being a welcome distraction from what she had just learned. Was this a part of the moirai’s game? Was she supposed to help Ted? If yes, to what extent? Did she also have to help with Andromeda? And how much help was acceptable before the timeline would begin to alter?

A kick to the shin had Hermione almost wiping out her wand, but she restrained herself. Ted was pointing with his head towards Amelia, signaling that the Hufflepuff prefect had asked her a question.

“Of course, she found her way around the castle easily. Isn’t that right, Jo?” Ted kicked her again. It was softer this time, but Hermione still glared at him.

“Yes, don’t worry about me. I have memorized the whole building's map.” She turned to Amelia and gave her what she hoped was a convincing smile.

“Tonks, are you sure that you are okay?” asked Amelia, her eyes scanning Hermione’s face, and then her body. “You look tired, and you are not wearing your blazer and tie.”

“I’m fine. I will take care of the tie later.” Hermione had forgotten that her appearance was considered out of the ordinary. After the war, eyebags, sickly complexions, disheveled and greasy hair, were the norm. Most of the students, including her, had trouble coping and their hygiene had taken a heavy toll. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had showered before yesterday, and now she had to wear her uniform properly and participate in class. This was definitely a part of the moirai’s game.

“See that you do. The Slytherin prefects can be especially bothersome if they catch you without it,” said Amelia. There was no judgment in her voice, only concern.

“I’m so telling Andy you said that!” Ted crossed his arms in his chest, a smug expression on his face.

“No, you won’t.” Amelia matched stance, and when he went to retaliate, she threw an apple, smacking him straight in the forehead. Hermione watched them closely, waiting for Ted’s reaction. He only laughed and took his wand out to cut the offending fruit into three even pieces. He offered the first one to Amelia who accepted it with a grin and gave the second to Hermione who nodded in acknowledgment.

After that, Ted and Amelia fell into conversation. Hermione was content with just listening and observing. Apart from these two, the badger’s house as a whole was proving to be an enigma. The Hufflepuff students, who passed near the trio, greeted them with waves or nods. No eyes lingered on Hermione’s face longer than necessary, causing her to relax in her seat until the bell rang.

Ted went to his lesson, and Amelia, despite having potions, had to help professor Sprout carry some plants for a class demonstration. This left Hermione to walk alone to the dungeons, the dimly lit stairs played tricks on her mind. She briefly considered casting Lumos, but the unwanted attention wasn’t worth it.

Students had gathered in front of the classroom’s door waiting for professor Slughorn to appear. Hermione leaned into the wall that was furthest away. She had noticed some not-so-friendly glances from the seven-year Slytherins and opted to keep her distance.

“What do we have here? Ah, a dress code violation. Let’s see, no tie and no blazer, how about twenty points from Hufflepuff?” asked a Slytherin whom Hermione didn’t recognize. The wizard came through the shadows like a bat as if he was hiding there the whole time. He was tall and muscular with black hair at shoulder length.

She ignored him. It wasn’t hard to understand that he was looking to cause trouble.

“Tonks, right?” he smirked and moved closer, his tobacco breath causing Hermione to involuntary sneer. Did he smoke cigars before the lesson?

She ignored him, once more.

“Tell me, how does someone get their eye plucked out? Do they need another person to do the job for them, or is splinching enough?”

“I don’t know,” said Hermione, the wizard was playing dirty, and she wasn’t about to fall right into his trap. “Want to find out?”

“What did you say, mud?” the Slytherin loomed above her, trying to intimidate her with his enormous size. Unluckily for him, she had met Fenrir Greyback, and it couldn’t get worse than that.

“I said,” Hermione repeated for emphasis. “Want to find out?”

A vein popped on the wizard’s meaty neck. He was turning tomato red, and Hermione dreaded dueling him. Amelia had made it clear that they shouldn’t get into this kind of trouble, but if he would wipe his wand out, she would strike him.

“Lestrange, Tonks, what are you doing?” a familiar voice came closer with hurried footsteps.

“Nothing to worry about, Andy. I was just pointing out to the new student how to properly wear the uniform,” said Lestrange, in an impressive display of Slytherin's cunning. He was one of the famous death eater siblings. The youngest most likely.

“This is none of your business, you are not a prefect.” Andromeda pointed at his chest where no badge was pinned. “Leave us, Rabastan. I will deal with it.”

“Wow, Andy! I love myself a hard-working witch.” the wizard smirked at Andromeda, wetting his lips.

Hermione looked at them bewildered. There was no way that these two were involved.

“Leave before I hex you,” said Andromeda, the tone of her voice showing the frustration she felt while dealing with the wizard.

“Okay okay, I'm leaving. No need to get violent.” Lestrange put up his hands in the air and began walking towards the students gathered by the door. He neared two Slytherin wizards and kicked the shorter one in the shin before bursting out laughing. The sound was oddly similar to a hyena’s cackling.

“Is he always like that?” asked Hermione and looked back at Andromeda with an eyebrow raised. Ted had reacted strongly to the mention of Lestrange and Malfoy so she figured it was best to avoid them for now.

“I'm afraid so, Rabastan is the biggest arse in the castle.” Andromeda sighed, passing a hand through her hair.

“Is he like…your boyfriend?” blurted Hermione, without thinking the question through. Her mouth opened, but it was too late to take her words back. Andromeda paused with hand midair, and eyes focused on the Gryffindor. She didn’t look offended. Hermione, who had been at the receiving end of her glare two days prior, didn’t find any hardness in Andromeda’s expression. Only curiosity.

“No! Merlin no, but he is my betrothed,” said the prefect as if it was nothing.

“That’s way worse!” Hermione’s voice came out louder than she intended. A few Slytherins turned to look their way, but with a swift glare from Andromeda, they went back on minding their business.

“It is what it is.”

Hermione frowned. Why was the witch not fighting against her arranged marriage? Andromeda was to marry Ted shortly after graduation. She had read about it. And heard about it from Tonks, the real Tonks, for Merlin’s shake.

“If you don’t want this,” said Hermione, her eyes locking with dark ones, “You should do something about it.”

“Why such interest, Tonks? Are you offering yourself up for marriage?” Andromeda smirked, and Hermione choked.

“What? No!” She took a step back, colliding with the wall she had previously leaned against. “Don’t say things like that.” The witch had misunderstood Hermione’s intentions, just like Ted. They were truly made for each other.

“I feel like I should be offended by your reaction, but you are kind of cute so I will let it slide this time,” said Andromeda, eyes gleaming with amusement.

Hermione didn’t answer, blood rushed to her face. The tips of her ears burned, and she was immensely grateful for the dimly lit corridors. Where in the world was Slughorn?

“You are not wearing your tie. Do you need help with it?” Andromeda muttered softly after a prolonged silence.

Hermione felt the black and yellow clothing burn inside the skirt’s pocket. She gulped audibly. Of course, she didn’t need help. She was the one to help Harry and Ron with theirs. So why was she not speaking?

“It’s fine if you prefer to do it yourself, just put it on before the professor sees you, or else he will deduct points. Not wearing a blazer is fine, the weather is still warm.” Andromeda’s voice kept its soft tone, but she misapprehended Hermione’s hesitation and turned to leave.

“Andromeda, wait!” Hermione moved forward, successfully capturing the attention of the Slytherin. “Here, take it,” she said and offered the wrinkled tie to Andromeda. “Please do it slowly. I get startled by quick motions.”

It was the truth but those were not post-war times. The students didn't suffer from PTSD and hadn’t agreed to try not to startle each other. The students along with the Professors hadn’t decided not to have any fireworks during the Yule Ball and the graduation ceremony. This time was different, and Hermione had to keep it in mind.

“Of course, thanks for telling me,” said Andromeda while taking a tentative step closer, filling the space between them with a sweet smell. She got hold of the tie and smiled. Hermione’s heart stuttered at the sight.

“Lower your neck a bit.”

Hermione did as she was told. Andromeda barely touched her neck and flinched, taking a step back.

“Are you okay?” asked Hermione, eye scanning the prefect up and down. Andromeda was frowning, visibly confused by her body’s reaction.

“I…yes. I just felt a sudden burst of dizziness that’s all,” said the Slytherin, but it was not convincing. Hermione didn’t press further.

“Let me try again.” Andromeda moved to the spot where she was previously standing and settled the tie around Hermione’s neck. This time she stood her ground, managing to maneuver the tie into the perfect knot. “All set, want me to tuck it in?” she offered with a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“No, it’s fine. I got it,” said Hermione, not wanting to risk Andromeda flinching again. It wasn’t unheard of purebloods to be afraid of touching muggleborns in case they got tainted by their dirty blood. But the Slytherin witch wasn’t supposed to be like those people.

Hermione felt a weird sense of disappointment, well aware of the fact that it wasn’t her own fault, but just couldn’t help it.

“You can come to me if it gets loose.” Andromeda took a step back and looked over her shoulder, “The professor is here, let’s go.”

“Yeah, let’s.”