A/N: Big thanks to my amazing beta, SSB!
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
When Hermione saw the robes her friends—a term she now used in the loosest sense of the word—had bought back from Hogsmeade, she was nearly ready to try to and escape out the window. They had hidden the robes the entire week after they bought them, and it was only when they all gathered upstairs to get ready that Hermione finally got to see what she would be wearing.
"You have got to be kidding me!"
"Nope!" Alice said cheerfully, laying out the deep, wine-red robes out.
It was nothing like what Hermione had worn in her fourth year. What she had worn then was what she (and, she was sure, every other sane person on the planet) would have considered a nice, tasteful, and appropriate set for a girl who had not quite yet reached her full maturity. The dress robes she was being helped into now were quite possibly the most provocative set Hermione had ever seen. It did not show a lot of skin, necessarily—quite the opposite, in fact— but it was clearly designed to hug her body in the right places. The sleeves were long and loose, but the back was laced up tightly in a way that made her curves stand out to their best advantage.
She did not feel entirely comfortable wearing this. It was just too adult for her. It made her feel like she was twenty, not seventeen. This was the stuff that young adult witches wore to fancy parties—and while this Slug Club supper certainly qualified, Hermione still quailed at the thought of what kind of impression she would be giving off. She was nearly eighteen in mind and body, given how much use she had put the time-turner through in her third year, and she was certainly an adult by both Wizarding and Muggle standards—but inside, deep down, she did not feel that way. She wanted to retain that sense of child-like security, and these robes completely destroyed that.
In the time Hermione had taken to register the horror in her mind, Alice and Marlene had gotten similarly undressed and were putting on their robes. The minute Hermione saw what they'd bought, she instantly felt better. Relieved, even. If she thought she stood out terribly, she was sadly—or, in this case, happily—mistaken. Marlene was wearing dark violet robes with black lace that made her look like a dark, graceful enchantress. Alice was wearing a luminous set of lacy gold, and she sat down on a chair in front of a mirror to allow Marlene to weave a shiny gold ribbon through her hair in a braid down her back.
If this was the way most of the girls were planning to dress up tonight, then by comparison, if Hermione had decided to wear something like her fourth-year periwinkle robes, she would have stood out by looking too plain, too childish, too incomplete. Juvenile, even. She would have been more embarrassed in that getup than in these robes. This way, she actually fit in—and now that she was getting used to the robes on her body, she began to feel more comfortable, more at ease wearing them. A sense of deep calm and relief settled through her—visions of a flashing nightmare no longer coursing through her mind, she glided over to help with Alice's hair and then assisted in holding Marlene's as Alice braided it back into an expertly-woven bun.
Then both girls had Hermione sit between them on a chair in front of the mirror, where she watched as they debated for a moment over what to do with her hair, before unanimously deciding to use a Curling Charm.
"Isn't that counterproductive?" Hermione asked as they divided her hair into sections and began curling it.
"Your hair is naturally curly," Alice explained, as Marlene tapped her hair with her wand. "You need to go with the flow, Hermione. You keep trying to straighten it, and it'll just come out bushy. And using a little bit of conditioner to keep it shiny wouldn't go amiss, but for now, a bit of Sleekeazy's will do."
Hermione watched them work, and with nothing else to do, she couldn't help watching in fascination as the change took place before her eyes. Nor could she keep her eyes from locking onto her robes, fascinated by the shimmer it produced whenever she moved, and she felt a bit of nervousness mixed in with newfound confidence as she realized how she looked. The front was perfectly fitted in a way that highlighted her cleavage as well as her neck. She was wary, since the woman wearing it was her, but she was also gratified that itwas her—that she actually looked this nice. That she was, dare she say it, capable of looking this alluring.
Alice and Marlene let go of her hair after a moment of rubbing some of the potion into it, and it fell in shiny, curled ringlets around her face. They gathered up her hair again, putting it up high in a ponytail, and let it waterfall around her neck and shoulders. They tied it back with a dark red thong, and stepped back to admire their handiwork.
"You two are really good at this," Hermione said, amazed. She craned her head up to look at Marlene. "Can you teach me that charm you used to make it curl?"
"Under one condition," Marlene said with a mischievous smile.
"You have to stay until ten—and you have to give Remus a dance!"
"Why are you guys trying to set me up with Remus?" Hermione demanded plaintively. "I don't see him like that!"
"Oh, it's not you," Alice assured her. "But how would you feel if you went to a party and no one asked to dance with you?"
This made Hermione pause for a moment.
"We just want to make sure Remus has a good time. He's never been much of a party animal, but he wants to come along to this one," Marlene explained calmly. "It would be nice if you helped him get into it—pull him into the dancing until you get an opportunity to switch partners."
"So you're not trying to set me up with him?" Hermione asked, for clarification.
"Merlin's beard, no! Remus told us himself that he thinks of you like a little sister. We sort of imagine you feel the same way, too." Hermione nodded. "It's nothing like that."
"Alright," Hermione said leaning back in her chair with a smile. "In that case, I'm happy to."
"Excellent!" Alice bounded toward the door. "Let me go check on Lily and see if she needs any help, and then we'll go."
When Hermione stepped downstairs with Marlene, Alice, and Lily a short while later, she saw the boys waiting at the bottom of the stairs leading to the girls' dormitories with expectant looks.
They were all wearing robes that were very much like the ones Ron had worn to the Yule Ball with their fancy lace cuffs, but they were much more fashionable and looked quite new.
"Blimey," Sirius said with a grin, as he took Marlene's arm. "You look like a goddess!"
Frank could not help twirling Alice in his arms for a moment, before straightening his face and solemnly offering his arm to her. She did so and reached up to kiss him on the cheek, and then giggled as he leaned in to whisper a compliment into her ear.
Remus cleared his throat and pulled Hermione away from the group just as James took Lily's hand and moved to kiss and admire her spring-green robes.
"I just wanted to make sure you're comfortable doing this, since I know Marlene and Alice pretty much forced you to a—"
Hermione put a finger to his lips.
"I know you don't see me that way, and to be honest, I don't see you that way either," Hermione told him honestly. "But you're coming with me, and it's my job to make sure you have fun." She gave him a warm smile. "Have I missed anything?"
Remus looked simultaneously relieved and encouraged as he fiddled with the lacy cuffs of his robes. "No, that's it," he agreed. He tugged them down, rolled them back up quickly, finagled the buttons back into place, and then stood up straight.
"In that case," Hermione said, throwing him a playful grin and holding out her arm. "Are you going to escort me up to the party like a gentleman?"
Remus gave her an equally playful grin in return, and took her proffered arm before leaving Gryffindor Tower with the rest of the group.
They arrived at the party just as it was about to really get started.
The first thing that Hermione noticed was that Slughorn, at least, had far better taste than Gilderoy Lockhart and Albus Dumbledore when it came to holiday decorations. At the very least, the walls were not papered with hearts in varying shades of garish red and pink, and there were no annoying little dwarfs waiting to accost an unsuspecting recipient with sappy and badly-written love poems. If there was anything to be said, it was that he had that going in his favor.
Instead, his office had been greatly and magically enlarged. There were small tables adorned with black cloth, heaping with good food, scattered ever so often around the room. There were small, fist-sized cupids dancing on the tables and around the food, but they were hardly a bother, nor were they obnoxious; they were thankfully silent and merely visual decoration. The walls were decorated with hangings of pale red and white on the borders of the ceiling, and there were little white faeries flittering around the room unobtrusively. The center of the room was reserved for dancing, and though the lights were dim, tiny candles floated here and there about as high as the ceiling.
In fact, the whole room looked rather tasteful.
The only complaint Hermione had was in regards to the music. It would appear that twenty years ago, the Wizarding Wireless and a magicked Record Player were the only sources available for good music, and that depended entirely upon your definition of 'good'. The song currently playing was not at all unlike the music that Gryffindor Tower had been stamping, beating, and cheering to in celebration of the first-won first-played match of the year. It was music that people of good sense played when they wanted to start a mob riot.
In Hermione's opinion, twenty years ago, the Wizarding World's definition of good music was inhumane and perverse.
The fact that Alice, Marlene, and Lily all eagerly grabbed their dates' arms and dragged them to the dance floor after their requisite greetings to Slughorn and polite introductions to some of his other guests did not help Hermione's case at all. Nevertheless, she gave Remus a friendly smile, took his hand in hers, and led her out to the dance floor.
"I've never danced before," Remus said apologetically.
"Don't worry about it," Hermione advised, gesturing at the other dancers, all of whom who did not seem to be following any kind of coherent dance sequence. "Just do what feels natural."
Remus did. While the rest of the dancers moved quickly and wildly, he and Hermione slow danced until he had the hang of it, and then he tried twirling her the way he had seen Frank do to Alice earlier. When that worked, his smile and posture grew more confident, and with Hermione's help, he was soon quite good at dancing to the jaunty tune of the Wizarding Wireless booming in the background. When he slipped up, Hermione merely helped him get back on track, without stopping to complain about his lack of skill. Soon, he was completely at ease. Hermione grinned broadly at him when she saw that he was actually having fun, and when the music switched, he took Lily's hand while Hermione took Sirius's—with James taking Alice, and Frank taking Marlene—and tried out a new beat.
"Like the music?" James asked loudly, trying to be heard over the noise.
"It's loud," Hermione said, stating the obvious.
"That's the best kind of music there is!" Sirius shouted.
Hermione snorted. "Then you haven't heard anything yet!"
They both burst into laughter, and continued dancing until the room switched partners again.
When the song finally ended, and the volume lowered to rather acceptable levels with a softer, swaying beat, Hermione glanced around the room to see if she could spot Remus. Seeing him cheerfully dancing with one of the Ravenclaw girls, she turned around to grab a drink and abruptly bumped into a wall of solid black.
She quickly looked up, and sudden, smug satisfaction speared through her.
Severus's jaw had, indeed, dropped when he saw who it was. He took a step back, arms splayed slightly in silent apology to the girl he had just rudely stonewalled, and his eyes were as wide as Hermione had ever seen them get. He closed his mouth after a moment of gaping, and he took another moment longer to look her up and down.
"Good gods, Hermione!" His voice came out slightly strangled. "I thought the girl dancing with Lupin was you, but I couldn't be sure—I didn't believe it!"
Hermione grinned triumphantly at him. "I'll take that as a compliment." She took a moment to look him up and down, as well, and was frankly surprised to see him wearing solid robes, forest green, with white cuffs that were thankfully not composed of lace—Hermione didn't think she'd have been able to rein in her laughter if he'd been wearing the same kind of fancy cuffs the Marauders were. She was surprised to see that he looked as though he had actually made an effort to wash his hair, for it did not look half as greasy as it usually did, though it was still lanky and had a bit of a greasy shine on it that was not caused by the use of good shampoo.
"You look rather nice yourself," Hermione said, done assessing him and liking what she saw. "Very striking."
He seemed slightly taken aback, and Hermione rather suspected he was still getting over the shock of seeing her. She gave his sleeve a gentle tug, and pulled him toward one of the tables, where chocolate strawberries were clustered around a small, silver fountain.
"Here, let's get out of the way before one of the dancers trample us." She turned back to give him a mischievous grin as she picked up a plain strawberry and took a bite out of it. "Mmm. So, I suppose my housemates didn't make too much of a disaster out of me?"
"Quite the contrary," he said, and it seemed as though he had finally regained control over his voice. "They appear to have made a miracle out of your hair."
Hermione was about to respond, when Slughorn clasped a hand on both hers and Severus's shoulders.
"Ah, Severus, Hermione!" Slughorn said, turning them around. "Just the two I'm looking for." He gestured at a pale blond man next to him, and the good feeling that had been coursing through Hermione earlier died a cold, sudden death. "Severus, you already know Mr. Malfoy, but I'm not sure Hermione has…?"
Hermione stared into the pale grey eyes, which were full of carefully disguised hate and disdain, and gathered the very same wits Mad-Eye Moody and Kingsley Shacklebolt had so tenaciously drilled into her the summer before. Her expression grew calm, almost detachedly polite as she replied.
"No, I don't believe we've met before," she lied coolly. Severus turned to look at her in surprise, and a faint tic appeared in Lucius's cheek at this. She met the pale grey gaze with a polite, empty smile. "How very nice to meet you, Mr. Malfoy."
"Lucius here has just given St. Mungo's a donation, a very generous donation to help mitigate costs for medical research," Slughorn said, beaming. "He was my student almost five years ago."
"That's wonderful to hear," Hermione said with false enthusiasm. "I'd love to learn more about it, but Severus has promised me a dance, so—"
"Of course, of course!" Slughorn said, with a hiccup. "Go on, Severus, give the girl a dance."
"Yes, go on," Lucius mimicked, his voice soft and mocking.
Without another word, Hermione took Severus's hand and led him onto the dance floor.
"What did you think you were doing?" Severus hissed into her ear. "Why do you insist on provoking him like that?"
"We can have this conversation another time," Hermione told him firmly, placing her hands on his shoulders and nudging him to put his on her waist to that they could fall into the slow dance-steps that were now being traced across the floor. "For now, just pretend that you actually don't mind dancing with me until Slughorn passes Malfoy off to someone else."
"I don't mind dancing with you," Severus growled, taking her hand and beginning to lead as the song picked up a single notch. He fixed her with one of his glares. "But we will have a discussion about this later."
Hermione nodded, and they fell silent, instead focusing on the rhythm of the music and trying to keep in-sync. She felt secure in his arms, but she didn't have much focus on that as her mind once again replayed her encounter with Lucius Malfoy just moments before.
Slughorn invited a Death Eater to Hogwarts. A bloody Death Eater. How can Hogwarts be safe if they can get in this easily? Does Professor Dumbledore know? That last question was immediately thrown out by the voice of reason. Of course he knows. He knows practically everything that goes on in this school. I wouldn't be surprised if he's asked Slughorn to invite two or three guests who are Aurors at the Ministry… and the other teachers are probably on guard, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find McGonagall and Flitwick patrolling this early in the evening…
She glanced away from her partner to scan the room, and was relieved when it seemed as though her assumptions were validated: she recognized the relaxed yet alert stance of a man who she had never met, but given the way she watched Kingsley and Mad-Eye hold themselves—as well as the badge she saw tucked into the pocket of his robes—she was fairly sure he was an Auror. Only slightly appeased, though undeniably relieved, her eyes traveled across the room. They roved over the different couples now picking up the pace, including everyone from Remus with one of the older Ravenclaws to Barty Crouch Jr. dancing with a slight Slytherin sixth-year.
She finally turned to look back at her partner, satisfied with her level of awareness concerning the people around her, and realized that Severus's eyes were fixed lower than her face.
She let out a snort of amusement. Severus's head shot back up and his eyes were once again locked onto hers.
"Something amusing you?" he asked casually.
"Not at all," Hermione said, smiling wryly up at him. She saw his eyes flicker from her face to her chest and then back, and sighed. Truly, at this moment, she was both flattered and ready to hex him. He was doing an absurdly poor job of hiding what he was doing—his eyes appeared that firmly transfixed by her breasts. She blamed the robes. "I'm just counting down the minutes before I'm allowed to leave."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Allowed?"
"Marlene and Alice only promised to show me how to use a Curling Charm—which, incidentally, is not taught in any of our textbooks—if I stayed until ten."
"You have another forty-five mintues to endure," he drawled.
"Yes, but I doubt it will go by faster if you spend it staring at my breasts," Hermione said, calmly calling him out right then and there. She saw the telltale signs of alarm freeze his features, and laughed. "Honestly, Severus. You were being so obvious that I had to wonder if you were even trying to hide it."
She saw Severus's features relax a fraction of an inch. "Your robes make it difficult to ignore," he said coolly, his lips twitching upward in a half-smile. "One would even suspect you were dressing to impress on that front."
Hermione looked up at him coolly, though inside, she was beyond giggling uncontrollably. "I dress to look nice because I can. Only my roommates will tell you that's what it's for, and that's because they took it too far when they decided to add their own touches to it."
He snorted. "Of course."
"Yes, of course. Are you planning on escaping anytime soon or are you staying for the duration of the party?"
"As soon as you can help me leave without being accosted by our dear professor for another round of chatting with his very important guests, I will take off."
"Another forty minutes to go, then."
"Indeed." He looked up, glancing over her head at something, and then stopped dancing. Hermione halted with him. "Lucius is waiting for me by the drinks—I must speak with him. Don't sneak out without me, or I'll be sure to thank you with a hex on Monday."
"It would be worth that hex to force you attend the entire night," Hermione riposted, casting him a grin, but she knew that he was well aware that she would not be leaving without him. "Go on. Have a chat with your Death Eater friend. I'm going to give those chocolate strawberries a try."
She heard Severus mutter a snarky reply under his breath as she left, but he nevertheless disengaged himself from the dance floor and strode over to where Lucius Malfoy was waiting, his entire demeanor cool as ice and thoroughly irate.
Hermione watched them talk from where she was dipping a strawberry into a fountain of melted chocolate. She saw Lucius hiss something low under his breath to Severus, who bravely did not flinch, but looked as though he wanted to. His reply looked stilted.
Then she saw Lucius's eyebrows raise in surprise before his lips curled into a curious smile and he placed an arm around Severus's shoulders.
Come on, he said, his lips moving enough for Hermione to read them. Let's take this outside, shall we?
She saw Severus cast a glance in her direction, and then steel himself to follow Lucius. Hermione deliberated for a moment, unsure of whether or not to follow, and in a moment of decisiveness, she did. She slipped through the crowd of couples still dancing on the floor, slinking toward the door without being seen, and slipped outside. Casting a Silencing and Disillusionment Charm on herself the minute she shut the door, she kept close to the wall, following the echoing footsteps of the two Slytherins as they disappeared down the other corridor.
She stopped at the edge of the corner in time to hear part of Lucius's words.
"…cannot back out of this, Severus, because if you do—"
"I have no intention of backing out, Lucius!" Severus snapped. "I have already sworn allegiance to the Dark Lord, and I will take the Mark this summer as planned. There is no cause for concern."
Lucius's voice carried an edge of relief, even as disdain, anger, and suspicion laced it. "Your relationship with the Mudblood Granger is suspect, Severus. I know you claim to only be friends—and for once, I actually believe you on the matter," he said, letting out a short, humorless laugh before he continued, "but the fact that you are so close to her, spend so much time with her—"
Severus interrupted him coldly. "The Dark Lord considers Granger to be a threat, Lucius. As do you. She defies you without a moment's hesitation, and the other Slytherins despise and fear her. She had landed them flat on their backs and sent them up to see Madam Pomfrey every time they've attempted to accost her—she is a formidable opponent, though I have never managed to convince her to partake in a duel with me. Surely you see the benefit in retaining her friendship despite my future among the fold?"
"You make a valid argument," Lucius responded smoothly, "but I think your role has become too… attached."
She saw a vein tighten and pulse in Severus's throat as he clenched his jaw. The response he murmured was too low for her to hear, but it seemed to be all Lucius needed to know, for he backed away from Severus and began walking in the direction from whence they had come, followed closely by his raven-haired companion. Hermione immediately pressed herself against the wall, as the two men passed, unaware of her presence. She had a split-second to register the look on Lucius's face: it was a mixture of satisfaction and relief, with just a hint of smugness. As soon as they were gone, Hermione slipped out from her hiding place and began making her way toward the girls' bathroom, to make her excuse for her absence and to clear her head.
The next morning, when Hermione got up and began brushing her hair out, she couldn't help just sitting there, staring aimlessly at the mirror as she tugged at the bushy birds nest that was her hair. Last night had been a confusing turn of events, and she was still trying to get a grasp on it.
Every time something like this happened over the past year, one thought speared Hermione's mind and made her heart sink: It's starting now.
When something like last night happened, she was waiting for the avalanche to come loose. But now she finally realized that everything up until now was simply throwing kindling on the fire, and that the match would not spark until something—probably something involving James, Lily, and their yet-unborn son—happened. Until then, everything that happened now was merely preparation for an out-of-control bonfire. It was not a reassuring assessment, but it was the most accurate one Hermione had come up with.
Severus would be taking the Dark Mark soon, probably as soon as school was over.
When that happened, would their friendship be over?
The thought worried at Hermione while she worried at her hair, and unable to come up with a satisfactory answer on her own—or fix up her hair, for that matter—she reluctantly set the brush down and set out to see whether Marlene had not yet gone down to breakfast.
A quick lesson on Curling Charms and a recommendation for hair conditioner later, Hermione had grabbed her things and headed down for the last lessons of the week. She had no more detentions to serve and no more festivities to be shanghaied into attending. NEWTs were four months away, and with that knowledge in mind, Hermione was planning on keeping her head down and her nose in her schoolbooks.
It wasn't until later that evening, after she had set herself up in the library with her homework that she discovered that all had not been concluded for the time being. She watched as Severus cast one of his spells—Muffliato—and then took a seat next to her, his face contorted into a scowl.
"We need to talk."
"About what?" Hermione inquired.
"Lucius," he responded tightly.
Hermione sighed and set down her book, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"I will be blunt and honest with you, Severus," she said coolly. "I find Lucius Malfoy to be a despicable man. He despises me for no other reason than the fact that I am Muggle-born. He would probably kill me, and enjoy it too, if he had the means." She flashed him an angry, defiant stare. "Why should I show him any respect, any hint of deference?"
Severus pursed his lips tightly, and she watched as he brought a finger to trace them, the way he did when he was deep in thought. "There are advantages to having a Slytherin mindset when dealing with people you don't like."
"Pardon me, Severus," Hermione said, giving him a cold smile, "but there is no way that giving him what he wants will somehow make him more kindly disposed toward me."
"It would be better than painting a target on yourself," he argued.
"I'm already a painted target because I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione snapped.
"You have called unnecessary attention to yourself—"
Hermione stood up, slamming her book down on the table with such force that her companion actually flinched. His finger stopped moving. Her patience had finally thrown its hands up and declared itself to be on an official vacation, and now all her pent-up frustration had collected into a veritable monster of suppressed, tightly-coiled anger.
"Lucius Malfoy is a monster," she hissed quietly, "whether or not I call attention to myself has no bearing on whether or not he would kill me. The mere fact that I am Muggle-born is cause and justification enough for his twisted ideology. I refuse to defer to him or give him any kind of respect or acknowledgement, and if that has the added bonus of infuriating him, then so much the better. Men make mistakes when fueled by rage rather than reason, and if the former is what drives your friend," she spat the word at him, "then he will make a fatal mistake if and when he decides to deal with me. I will never give him any satisfaction."
She saw Severus stiffen visibly, and then he too stood up, towering over her with a sneering, intimidating countenance.
"You are too prideful, too confident in your capabilities and your ability to save yourself," Severus snarled at her, his patience worn thin.
"And you're not, Severus?" Hermione countered.
She saw rage flare up in his eyes, darkened with fury. "This isn't about me," he ground out. "This is about you—"
"Yes, it is about me!" Hermione said with just a hint of shrillness in her voice, slamming her hand down on the table. "This is about me and the fact that you expect me to sit back and let pompous, twisted arseholes like Lucius Malfoy—"
"Lucius is my friend," Severus hissed at her, "and my status among the Dark Lord's inner circle is vitally important. The two go hand in hand, Hermione! You cannot be so patheticallystupid as to ignore that!"
Hermione swallowed, and turned away, looking as though he had just struck her.
"Fine," she said brokenly. She brought one hand to limply slide her books back into her bag, whereupon she hoisted it back over her shoulder. "He's your friend. I'm your friend, too, or at least I thought I was. Your friend wants me dead, and my only defense is to antagonize him in the hopes that it may keep him off-kilter. But naturally, if you take offense at that," she said bitterly. "I suppose the answer is fairly clear."
"Hermione…?" Severus looked eminently confused, even taken aback by her tone.
"I think we're done," she pronounced with difficulty. "You'll be graduating in less than four months, so you'll never have to deal with me again. Focus on getting into the Dark Lord's good graces—I'll just focus on getting through school alive. As pathetically stupid as you think I am."
With that said, she strode off, head bent as she left. Severus stood up quickly, one hand outstretched to halt her retreating back as the meaning of his words finally hit him.
But Hermione had either ignored or not heard him, for she left, footsteps fading in the distance, and she did not return.
Hermione went back to Gryffindor Tower that night and, when her friends saw the expression on her face and stood up to try and feel out what was wrong, she pulled away and stalked upstairs, leaving the boys hanging at the staircase and looking quite helpless while the girls tried to reassure them that they would take care of it. But Hermione went to her room and after a few flicks of her wand, changed into sleep attire and crawled into bed. She pulled the curtains around her and though she laid her school work out on the coverlet, she could only curl up and bury her face in her arms.
She had not wanted to imagine something like this could happen. She had always known that Severus would choose Lily over her, but she had at least thought she ranked higher than Lucius Malfoy—a man who treated Severus as his inferior rather than his equal and flaunted his wealth in his face, knowing he could use his status alone to buy favors. But perhaps that was it, really. She thought that Severus valued her intelligence and friendship over the fortune and prestige Malfoy offered, but really, who had she been kidding? Severus was a Slytherin. Right now, he cared only about a select few things: the safety of Lily Evans and his status among the people he perceived to be his superiors—and the people his superiors perceived to be his peers. Hermione did not fit into that list, unless she counted as both a source of knowledge and curiosity, something to keep him occupied until he graduated, and a way of raising status among his cohorts by keeping tabs on her. In short, an entertaining distraction.
A bitter feeling wormed through her chest at this thought.
Alice pulled back her curtains several minutes later to find Hermione still balled up on the bed, The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 6 opened up at her feet.
"Go away," Hermione said listlessly.
"Not until you tell us what's wrong," Alice said, slipping onto the bed and shutting the curtain behind her. "You're obviously upset."
"It's nothing you can help with," Hermione said, burying her face in her arms once more. "Just leave me be. I appreciate your concern, it's just not necessary."
"Hermione…" Alice paused. "James and Sirius are downstairs waiting to talk to you. They know you came back from the library, and now they're ready to go out and find Snape and hex him."
Hermione failed even to look up. "Tell them to not bother. It's not worth it."
"They said that unless you go downstairs to dissuade them otherwise, they're going," Alice said warningly. She paused. "And… Lily—Lily's telling James that she knew this would happen. I hate to say it, Hermione, because Lily's a really nice person, but—"
"She's gloating," Hermione responded dully, her voice muffled.
"I hate to say it, but yes."
"Go downstairs," Hermione instructed, looking up at Alice. Her eyes were rimmed red from quiet crying. "And tell James and Sirius that if they want to leave Hogwarts with their bollocks intact, they will not leave the common room tonight to go seek out Sev—Snape. And furthermore, please go tell Lily to stuff a sock in it."
Alice's mouth gaped open in a silent 'o' of surprise, and then she shut it. "Be right back, then," she said, slipping through the curtain and disappearing from sight.
Hermione buried her face in her arms once more, and cried.
When Alice returned a quarter of an hour later, she did not press or badger Hermione for more information. She pulled the distraught girl into her arms and held her, offering almost motherly comfort to her, until Hermione sniffled her way out of her tears and forced herself to finish up the homework due on Monday. Alice grabbed hers, and the two sat together on the bed and worked in relative silence for the rest of the night.
The next morning was thankfully a Saturday. Hermione didn't even bother leaving her dorm room: she ordered breakfast up with the elves and sat in her room all day, working. She didn't even venture downstairs. Marlene and Alice came in several times a day to try to coax her out with suggestions of a walk around the grounds or a trip to the library, but Hermione put them off. She didn't feel like dealing with the other students right now.
Lily came in some time after lunch to try and talk to her, but Hermione, in a fit of uncharacteristic temper, snarled at her to get out.
She did not feel like dealing with other people today. To make things worse, her period had just started, which meant she would riding an emotional rollercoaster for the next few days. The smallest things set her off, the tiniest problems made her depressed. Given what had just happened, it was hardly a wonder that she was feeling listless and despondent. And right now, all she wanted to do was get her work done. She had a massive amount of homework, and by shutting herself in, she isolated herself from any and all things not directly related to the completion of all known homework assignments due sometime within the next week.
Sunday evening, Alice forced her to get up and walk around the room a bit, opening a window to give her some fresh air, and then—with a meaningful look at her hair—suggested that she take a shower before tomorrow. Nearly complete with her work and with nothing better to do, Hermione obeyed, and felt a good deal better for it.
Monday morning, classes resumed as normal. Hermione went down to breakfast with everyone else, ate, and hurried off to class without a second glance. She saw Severus out of the corner of her eye several times throughout the day, but before he could get near her, she was gone. She was feeling poor enough as it was without having to confront him. She did not care to entertain any of his excuses, and she was afraid that if he did, she would be inclined to either hit him or forgive him.
She was successful in avoiding him until Thursday, by which time her period was over, and she was feeling normal again. It was also when James and Sirius cornered her in the common room and confessed that they had confronted Severus on Monday to find out what had happened.
"I hope you didn't hex him," Hermione said, eyeing them suspiciously.
James put his hands up placatingly. "We didn't send him to the Hospital Wing, if that's what you're asking."
Hermione sighed, and glanced back down at the Arithmancy problem she was working on. "James…"
Both boys sighed and exchanged glances, as though they still had not worked on how they were going to explain this to her. Sirius gave it a go.
"The greasy git wants to talk to you," he said, eyeing her hand just in case it twitched warningly toward her wand. "He says he's sorry, although he wouldn't tell us what for."
Hermione turned her attention back to her work. She swallowed. "Tell him that he's forgiven, but that what I told him still stands."
James and Sirius turned to look at each other, and shrugged. They did a quick game of rock-cake, parchment, wand, and then James ambled off, no doubt to deliver her message.
Hermione was returning from Astronomy that night, the last student descending down the stairs after she'd had an extended conversation with Professor Sinistra about the assignment due next Monday, when a dark shape slipped out of a hiding place in the wall. Hermione immediately dropped her bag, wand whipped out of her sleeve, and raised in defense.
A deep, silky voice snapped, "Expelliarmus!"
Hermione blocked the spell with a Shield Charm, and then—instinct taking her over, along with her summer training—she snapped her wand in his direction.
There was a shattering flare of sparks as her spell crashed and rebounded off Severus' own Shield Charm, and Hermione ducked forward, on the offensive.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, slashing her wand in his direction. Severus dodged it by a hair, and stepped back into the safety of the darkness. The torches had been extinguished by the force of their spell work, and Hermione stood at the foot of the steps where there was just enough moonlight for her to see into the gloom ahead.
"I'm here to talk— damn it!" He let out an expletive as he was forced to block another shield-rattling hex. "Stop attacking me! I'm not here to hurt you!"
"You should know by now that I don't take kindly to being disarmed," Hermione snapped, sending another incapacitating spell his way. "Diffindo!" There was a crack, and a sudden yelp of pain, and Hermione backed away, trying to get a visual on her target in what little light there was. She couldn't be bothered to cast a Lumos when she might need her wand to cast a Shield Charm instead. She sent a flurry of several other hexes down the hallway, hoping to hit him, and trying to get a glimpse of where he might be. "Where the hell are you? Come on out!"
"Lower—lower your wand," Severus's voice demanded jerkily. Hermione's ears twitched, trying to feel him out. "Please—just lower your wand. I haven't cast anything more at you than a Disarming Charm. I'm only here to talk to you, since you've been avoiding me all week."
"If you were just here to talk," Hermione said, wordlessly sending another hex his way, "then you wouldn't have attacked me. Incarcerous!"
He blocked both spells, and after that, there was no talking. Hermione had ducked into the gloom, and spells began to fling back wildly between them, exploding into the walls and their enspelled shields like sparklers. Severus's spells all originated from the same location, and after a few moments, Hermione was able to identify his position.
She was about to retreat back to the lit base of the stairs where she could see properly when his strong arms suddenly wrapped around her, pinning her helplessly against his chest. She made to scream, but a Silencing Spell rendered her mute, and, cursing her idiocy, she flailed helplessly, trying to loosen his grip on her. She kicked his leg with the back of her heel, and to her surprise, he crumbled to the ground, though he still held on tightly. She heard him give a grunt of pain, and when she tried to jab him in the jugular with the handle of her wand, his chin knocked into her hand, sending her wand skidding across the floor.
"Damn it—stop—damn it, stop struggling—my leg!" Hermione rammed the back of her head into his face, and she felt him loosen her grip. She pulled away, feeling around wildly for her wand, and he grabbed her leg and dragged her backwards, causing her to scream silently in surprise and fury.
"You broke my ankle with your stupid spell—" He heaved himself up, maneuvering until he had her pinned down on the ground, her face pressed into the cold stone floor. His leg was splayed at an odd angle, and when he managed to wordlessly light his wand so that they could see, she saw that, indeed, his right ankle was resting on the ground at a twisted, sick angle. And it looked as though it were causing him a good deal of pain.
That must have been the Diffindo, Hermione thought. And then with a bit of sadistic satisfaction, added silently, Good. He deserves it, the bastard.
He was hovering over her now, she saw, his face inches from hers. It was pinched with pain and frustration, but for some odd reason, she truly was not all that afraid. He was panting hard, and she watched him take in a huge gulp of air before being able to speak. Up close, she did not fear him. He closed his eyes for a moment and gritted his teeth with pain, before opening them.
"If I let you go, will you sit quietly and let me talk?"
She stared up at him defiantly, which he took for a 'no.' She saw him raise his wand, and struggled futilely for a moment, unable to throw off his weight, before she felt her entire body freeze from his Petrificus Totalus. He let out a groan of pain, and moved to rest his weight entirely on his left side to spare his right ankle as much pain as possible.
"You've been avoiding me all week," he said, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve. "James Potter gave me your message, but he apparently didn't give you mine. No matter. Hermione, if you've forgiven me, why won't you talk to me?"
Hermione gave him a medusa-worthy glare, silently and impotently, and he sighed.
"Right—can't speak yet—but you never gave me a chance to explain…" He dug the fingers of one hand in his hair, as though trying to think about how to say something. "I didn't mean to call you pathetic or stupid. I shouldn't have disregarded the fact that you probably have a fairly good reason for hating Lucius, either…"
Hermione felt her jaw unfreeze just enough to work the saliva in her mouth, but she still couldn't speak.
"I should have apologized right away—I tried to, actually—but you'd already left, and you hadn't given me a chance to. Short of threatening to sleep outside Gryffindor Tower again—which, I might add, made me the laughingstock of Slytherin and Gryffindor for months to follow, and which I couldn't afford to do right now—" Funny, he almost sounded like he was rambling his words. "This was the only way I could think of getting you to let me talk." He looked down at her with a mixture of pain and something else, which probably had to do with his broken ankle. "I'm sorry, Hermione. That's what I've been trying to tell you."
Hermione worked her jaw, a moment longer, and then craned her neck up at him, glaring.
"And I'll try not to be such an arse next time, but can—"
Hermione worked her legs slightly, just to make sure they were working, and then in one swift moment, she connected her knee to his crotch with as much force as she could put behind it. She extracted herself out from underneath him while he doubled over in agony, his right ankle still twisted at an odd angle, and let out a very audible string of pained whimpers mixed in with cursing.
"You could have put all of that in a letter without making me think you were trying to kill me," Hermione told him coolly, brushing off her robes. A moan of pain was her only response, and she stretched out her limbs to check that they were in good working order before she bent down and pulled one of his arms free from where he was clutching his groin in pain, and pulled it around her shoulder, helping him to his feet. "We'll talk about it while Madam Pomfrey fixes you up."
Severus did not seem capable of speaking until they had managed to hobble down two floors in the direction of the Hospital Wing. "A letter… is so… impersonal… cold… not the right way to go about things…"
"So is hexing and wrestling someone to the ground," Hermione told him, feeling only slightly sorry for his pain. She knew she would probably feel exponentially worse than she did now once she had time to sit back and think on it, but at the moment, any regret was dulled by the adrenaline still coursing through her veins. Adrenaline and a good deal of pent-up anger.
"I tried finding a way to talk to you in-between classes…"
"I avoided you."
"…tried catching you just before… lunch…."
"I was probably a bit too quick for that."
"…and if I'd managed to disarm you… as planned… it would have been less of a wrestling match…"
"I don't make things easy for people who plan to disarm me," Hermione said, her voice cheerful for the first time that night. "You should have noticed that by now."
"I noticed," he said stiffly, paused, and then stumbled for a moment as Hermione helped him down another flight of stairs, before muttering distractedly, "Fuck. You're a good duelist."
"You already knew that," Hermione reminded him.
"Kindly remind me… not to try this again… any time in the near future…" He grimaced in pain, and then pronounced as clearly as he could, "I must have been insane to try."
Hermione gave him a half-smile. "I could have told you that from the start."
"So…" Severus paused for a moment as Hermione helped him down the last flight of stairs and helped him limp toward the Hospital Wing. "Does this mean you'll… ow…" he stumbled for a moment, his leg catching against the ground, causing his face to contort in pain. "Does this mean you'll meet me at the library again, tomorrow?"
"Let's talk it over while Madam Pomfrey fixes you up," Hermione said, adjusting her grip on him. "You've got your own problems to deal with without throwing me into the mix, and if I really cause that much trouble for you—well—" her tone turned uncertain, "—you graduate in four months, and then that's it. Shouldn't you be focusing on… well, on your future?"
Severus ground down on his teeth. "No." They hobbled the last few steps toward the door, and Hermione lowered Severus gently to the ground so that he could sit against the wall while she knocked on the door.
"I would think that would be more important," Hermione responded carefully, as she heard footsteps approaching the door.
"Not when you're my best friend," Severus replied, shifting into a more comfortable position as the matron opened the door and peered out.
The minute she saw Severus, she let out a sigh of long-suffering, and signaled Hermione to help him up and into the room. She shut the door behind them, and shook her head.
"What happened to you this time?"
Hermione watched Madam Pomfrey as she helped Severus onto one of the beds. Straight-faced, she replied, "We had a bit of a disagreement."
The matron's eyebrows merely rose to her hairline as she took in Severus's broken leg.
"I can see that," she said.