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A Yuletime Gamble

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Hermione Granger couldn't help but glance up at the somewhat loud laugh from across the Common Room, where the Weasley twins, and some of the Quidditch team, were clustered. Though their heads were together, they were more than loud enough to counter the illusion of a private conversation their positioning gave, and they were enjoying themselves far too much to even think about how their conversation might carry. The room was crowded, but the buzz of noise remained at a low, indistinct drone, with the single exception being the sudden rise and fall of conversation from that particular group.

In truth, this was exactly why Hermione preferred to do her homework in the Common Room in the evenings, rather than in the Library. It was easy to argue that the Library was a better study choice, especially as neither Ron nor Harry were keen to join her and further disrupt her studies, but she rarely found herself headed that direction after dinner. The people of the Tower knew enough to more or less stay out of her way, and she tended to spread out a bit just to encourage distance, but she had never asked for silence from them and no one really attempted to provide it. Which was all the better for her; it seemed that being a Know-It-All extended past the type of knowledge that could be found in a book. Because no one attempted to be mindful of their volume around her, she was easily able to pick through conversations at her leisure, with the speakers being none the wiser about her listening. She was such a common sight that no one checked to ensure that her eyes actually moved across the pages at all times, and to be fair, she did get a decent amount of work done between 'breaks'.

This year she was especially glad for the widespread acceptance of her presence in the Common Room. With the Triwizard Tournament kicking off earlier in the year, and still more to go, there had been plenty of gossip, rumors, and speculation to choose from, and with one of her best friends being a participant, she had thought it prudent to educate herself as much as possible on what he could expect from the tournament and from the rest of the castle. She had been gauging the overall mood of the Tower for months, and wasn't about to stop now. Especially not if something she overheard could help Harry.

Now, of course, most of the conversation revolved around the Yule Ball, which had recently been announced. Hermione couldn't quite place her own feelings on the matter - on the one hand, she was not thrilled that she and all of the other students of the castle would have to devote so much time to preparation for this event, and that most of her classmates were already beginning to act like idiots to secure themselves a date, but on the other hand she herself was fairly excited for the chance to do something out of the ordinary.

Frowning over the top of her book, she focused a little harder on the group across the room, still overcome with laughter. Evidently, it was at the expense of poor George, who was attempting to stringently defend himself, though from what she couldn't be sure.

"She'd eat him alive," Angelina declared, gasping the words between bouts of chuckling.

"Please, like I couldn't handle it," George scoffed, though he winced as Fred slapped him casually on the back.

"Of course you could, brother. That's why you haven't even given a thought to a date yet."

"Oh, and I suppose you have?" George retorted, but it was mostly swallowed by a renewed peal of laughter from Angelina. Hermione found herself sympathizing with George, who had somehow managed to find himself led right into a trap while his brother and Lee played themselves up to their audience, the ladies. She doubted there was a single girl in the school who hadn't yet given thought to who their possible date might be, and who they hoped would ask them, but if Harry and Ron were any indication it was likely that the boys hadn't been as quick to jump on that train and even the more advanced of them were still only just getting around to thinking about it. Personally, Hermione gave Harry and Ron several weeks before they realized it was much too late.

"If you're so certain then," Alicia added, eyes glinting with mirth and something just a little bit crueler, "why don't you give it a try and see how it goes?"

George nearly swallowed his tongue, but the others had already seized on the idea before he was able to articulate a response.

"That sounds like a great idea, Alicia," Lee chimed in, teasing smile on his face. "I mean the worst that can happen is that she'll say no, right?"

"Or she'll give him detention," Fred snickered gleefully, which led Hermione to believe they were talking about a teacher - while prefects and the Head Boy and Girl were able to give detentions and deduct points, they did have to be ratified by a member of staff, and Hermione thought it unlikely that anyone on staff would ratify that sort of thing. "A dare then, my dear George. 5 galleons are yours, for the small price of asking Minerva McGonagall to be your date to the Yule Ball."

If Hermione's attention hadn't been grabbed before, it sure was now. Though it was probably very obvious to anyone who would care to look, the bushy-haired witch had been nursing quite the crush on the older woman for quite some time. No one cared to take note of the time that Professor McGonagall did or did not spend with a star pupil, and Gryffindor, like Hermione, and none of Hermione's friends or other House-mates felt the need to determine just which location she had chosen that day, or night, for a study session. Professor McGonagall had started meeting regularly with Hermione during the previous school year, when Hermione was wearing herself thin through near constant use of the Time Turner and, as the faculty sponsor who had fought so hard to ensure that Hermione have the chance to use it, Minerva had felt it also was her duty to ensure that Hermione's health and sanity remained steady enough to justify further use. The older professor's only rule had been that Hermione was forbidden from using the time turner at all during the hour of their meeting (consequences would be severe if the Deputy Headmistress discovered that there was another Hermione roaming the castle while the original was supposed to be in the Transfiguration Professor's study) and that she was not allowed to use the time to catch up further on school work. She was, however, allowed to read anything on the Professor's well-stocked shelves (so long as the topic did not relate directly to an assignment) and the two witches more frequently found themselves discussing various academic issues, sometimes quite enthusiastically. It had been more than a treat for Hermione to discover that while often lacking a foundational education in the topics they sometimes strayed to, and sometimes missing a basic and key principle, she was able to absorb missing information quickly enough to keep up with the conversation, and even stump the Professor with her hypotheses on rare occasion.

At first it had bothered her: that her academic equal be a professor, rather than a student (though she was sure that some of the other professors could have also fit the role). Hermione had always harbored the hope that Hogwarts would prove her less extra-ordinary than she had been her whole life. While she finally did have an explanation for the odd going-ons which had been constant in her formative years, and she was able to make good friends while at the castle, she had yet to truly find anyone else who was truly a match for her in terms of intellect. She suspected Harry might do very well for himself, were he not always so focused on procrastination and hanging out with Ron. As soon as she had come to terms with the fact that the only decent conversation to be had in the castle, about anything of substance at any rate, could be had with Minerva McGonagall, Hermione had come to eagerly await their meetings. That the meetings allowed her to get closer to the professor, to see the wit and humor that were often dampened in lecture, and that eventually the topics of conversation began to occasionally stray into increasingly personal, rather than academic, areas only helped fan her crush from embers into a full-blown fire.

Which was precisely why she found herself very interested in the brewing plan for George to ask Professor McGonagall to the Yule Ball. She fought hard against herself, still half listening as George and Fred shook on it, George too stubborn and prideful to endure any further teasing about his lack of date, struggling to ensure that her thoughts remained only curious, and not jealous. Try as she might, she knew that some amount of jealousy lurked just below the surface, and would have to come up eventually. With any luck, McGonagall would turn him down, and that would be that. She did have to give the twin a little credit; if he did actually ask the woman to the Ball, he would prove himself to be much more courageous than she was.

In the end, George was only about half as courageous as the would have thought, either that or Fred was much kinder than he had initially seemed at the start of the bet, and Hermione's jealousy was burning with full force. It hadn't taken long for the dance lesson to be announced, and Fourth Years and above all crowded together into one of the larger classrooms (really, the castle was rather amazing in that there seemed to be a never-ending shortage of empty rooms and in the way that there always seemed to be a room big enough for your needs, no matter the number of people you needed to fit) to have their Head of House try and teach them to dance. Though the professor comported herself wonderfully, and was in fact quite a graceful dancer, Hermione found herself hoping that the other lessons in other Houses had gone much better. She did not think it wise that one professor, even the Deputy Headmistress herself, try and teach that many teenagers how to dance at once. Half of them had two left feet, and a good three-quarters of them were so embarrassed to even be near each other, or near the professor, that the would barely touch (with the exception being the amount of contact it took to trod heavily on their partner's feet). Throughout it all, Professor McGonagall swept around the room, artfully dodging clumsy partners and gently correcting forms and steps for those who had trouble.

Hermione supposed that the only house that wouldn't have an issue with this would be Slytherin, given her assumption that balls were a regular part of Pureblood life and that most of the students in the House would have already learned the basic dances they were being taught, chaotically, for the first time. She was just trying to count herself lucky to walk away from the whole adventure with a basic grasp of the dances (which thankfully came easier to her than anticipated) and with hardly any bruises.

She was still practicing the steps, although by herself, moments after they had been dismissed, when she caught the Weasley twins arguing about something off in the corner. The two had been quite distracting over the course of the lesson, although miraculously not destructive, and Minerva had had to spend more than a fair share trying to wrangle them into actually participating, though she did so with a small smile on her face. Waltzing casually closer to them, she realized they were talking about the bet.

For whatever reason, George's dare hadn't come back up in front of the whole group, at least not in Hermione's hearing, and she had been beginning to wonder if her jealousy had all been for nothing, as George may have managed to beg off holding up his end of the deal. It seemed that this much was not the case, though he was still putting up quite a fight about having to actually ask their professor out. By the sound and look of things, Fred was attempting to argue that after numerous chances after classes, this was George's best and last option to meet the terms of the bet. By the time they appeared to come to a conclusion Hermione had been forced to give up the pretense of dancing; the room had emptied rapidly once everyone had been dismissed and only those slow to move had seemed to stay. Hermione and the Weasley twins were in that group, but now even those few students were leaving and Hermione could easily see how in a few moments she would be left alone with her Professor and both Weasleys. Swallowing a sigh, she shouldered her bag and headed for the door, stopping only just out of sight, struck by a sudden need to eavesdrop on what promised to be an interesting, if not infuriating, conversation.

"Professor," George began, watched carefully by his brother, "I was hoping you had a free moment to discuss something?" He didn't sound exactly thrilled about it, an odd twist lingering around his mouth as if he had just sucked on a lemon, but even so there was nothing for Fred to be displeased with. Yet.

"Yes, Mr. Weasley?" the Deputy Headmistress prompted, looking up from where she was slipping records back into their protective sleeves. She was doing it the muggle way, Hermione noticed, as if enjoying the minor task of working a gramophone, and taking out and putting away records.

"Professor, as you know the Yule Ball will be happening very soon and I, uh, that is," George seemed to suddenly lose his nerve, deflating somewhat and then catching sight of his brother, and Fred's smug smile. As if spurred on by the expression, the remaining words left his mouth smoothly. "I was hoping you would do me the very great honor of accompanying me to the event. As my date."

Minerva was wearing an expression that Hermione hadn't often seen on her, given that the older woman was so rarely as utterly flabbergasted as she no doubt was at that moment. There was the briefest of pauses, the whole room silent and waiting a response that seemed to be a long time from coming, and then Fred was pushing himself off of the wall he had just started to lean against, an injured look on his face.

"You know how I feel, George," he said, with a credible show of betrayal, "how could you?"

For a brief moment, both George and Minerva gaped at him in utter shock and then, like eerie reflections of each other, relief painted its way across both faces. Though Minerva's was more subtle than George's, anyone watching would have seen that both parties were very, very glad that Minerva wouldn't have to answer.

"You lost your chance, Fred!" George was telling him stridently, as his twin approached the Transfiguration professor. The whole affair was just a touch too dramatic to be believably legitimate, and now that the initial shock had worn off, Minerva seemed to be settling into mild amusement, apparently content to watch the two siblings bicker and make fools of themselves, as they so loved to do.

And they rose spectacularly to the occasion, bandying words back and forth with increasingly dramatic gestures, declarations, and exclamations while the Professor watched with a now decidedly amused expression on her face. It was clear from the expression that the stern Head of Gryffindor was more than a little fond of the pair of jokers that no doubt caused her quite a lot of trouble on a more or less daily basis, try as she might to pretend otherwise. It was possible that this is why the twins had such a healthy respect for her - while strict, the professor was always fair, was fond of them, and generally amused by their theatrics so long as they came at the correct time and in the proper place. She had yet to hear of them playing a prank on her quite the way they did some of the other teachers, and Hermione suspected that they rewarded her attitude towards their shenanigans with jokes and pranks that were much tamer in comparison.

Watching the Professor from the doorway, having tuned both Fred and George out by now, Hermione finds herself smiling at the other woman's smile, relaxing as the older woman herself relaxes into the moment while clearly not taking a single thing seriously. Hermione herself always has a hard time taking the twins seriously, but for whatever reason this dare had put her back up instantly. Now that it's clear this is as far as it will be going, Hermione feels her muscles loosen imperceptibly.

"She won't be free to go with either of you, as she'll be attending the ball with me," she says from the doorway, words out of her mouth before she can even process having thought about them. Perhaps this is why it was it hadn't been a good idea to lurk in the doorway, or to relax in the first place. While she certainly had managed to relax around the professor, she had found that she did have to be somewhat vigilant towards herself so that things like this didn't happen. Gritting her teeth, knowing there was no helping herself now, she re-entered the room, watching as a smile was replaced by pursed lips and as the twins fell into an uncharacteristic and sudden silence.

Green eyes, vibrant enough that even the glass of square-rimmed spectacles couldn't hide the color, met hers the instant she was fully back inside the room, and Hermione fought the urge to flinch away from it. She certainly hadn't planned on interrupting the moment, nor had she planned on getting caught eavesdropping, and of course she was feeling more than a little guilty about it now that it had happened. And it would only be getting worse, she was sure, since no one had said a word since her interruption, and she could feel a lecture coming her direction. She doubted it would end with points give for 'sheer dumb luck' this time...

Something McGonagall saw in her expression must have communicated something to the professor, although what it was Hermione would have very much liked to know, because rather than open her mouth to deliver a lecture she merely looked back at the twins, apology painted clearly across her face.

"I'm afraid that this is correct, Mr. Weasley, Mr. Weasley," she said, looking at each of them in turn. "Though I will say I have greatly appreciated your enthusiasm." Playing it off, both twins seemed to droop with disappointment, though even that seemed exaggerated past the point of true sincerity. "Now if you'll excuse me, it seems Miss Granger and I have things to discuss.' Her voice hardened again, and whatever sense of security Hermione had managed to feel during those all-too-brief moments before fled instantly. She could feel a lecture coming, that was for sure.

"Of course, Professor. Sorry for the disruption," George said, looking genuinely apologetic for that much, at least.

"Yes, Professor. Sorry," Fred echoed, turning to leave. He paused, seeming to be waiting for his twin to also leave, but instead reached out to pat Hermione on the shoulder with a wicked glint in his eyes. Once more resisting the urge to flinch away from the prankster, she was surprised to find that the pat was just a pat. "Good on you, Hermione," he said casually, and Hermione felt herself blushing to her roots.

"Well done, Hermione," George added and then, together, the twins headed for the door and within moments had left a blushing Hermione with the now-impassive Deputy Headmistress.

More moments of silent contemplation didn't help ease her blush any further, but she was feeling less warm by the time Minerva actually broke the silence, and Hermione no longer wanted to melt through the floor. It was true that she hadn't meant to speak out, and it was doubly true that she hadn't meant to do so while the Weasley twins were in the room, and it was also true that she probably should have asked, instead of telling, but she couldn't say she found herself regretting it. If anything, she felt somewhat lighter for it. There would be no more looking over her shoulder, trying to make sure she never said or did the wrong thing. There would only be honesty and openness and hopefully not a lot of heartbreak.

"Miss Granger," Minerva began, and then stalled mid-sentence, clearly not at all certain what exactly to say to the way the younger Gryffindor had just burst in.

"Hermione," she corrected gently, deciding to just trust her mouth not to get her into worse trouble than she was already in while respecting the need to change the tone of the conversation to something unfamiliar to the both of them.

"Hermione," Minerva assented to her correction with a nod, after yet another long pause where she seemed to be weighing her options on how to best proceed. Hermione didn't miss the way the word seemed to be somewhat grudging, and somewhat amused, but chose to let it go. "How much did you hear?"

"More than you did," she replied, not caring that it wasn't entirely helpful. She had been in on the entire thing since before Fred and George had even tried to approach the Transfiguration Mistress, and had been burning with jealousy the entire time. Stupidly, of course, because she had never really thought that Minerva would actually accept the invitation. She had, apparently, thought that her own invitation (or lack thereof, as the case was) would somehow be different. And, for whatever reason, it seemed that her unfounded assumption had managed to find a leg to stand on.

"I see." It was pretty clear that Minerva didn't, actually, from the way she was still staring at Hermione as if she'd never seen her before. "And did you just -" once more she trailed off, coughing lightly and flushing slightly, "uh, did you just say I would be going with you to the Ball?"

Entranced by the hint of color just barely gracing the Professor's cheeks, Hermione didn't answer right away. Somehow emboldened by the sign that Minerva was just as uncertain about the whole thing as she was, the only response Hermione could really come up with was a smirk. Now that the other woman's scary, stern expression had been dropped, Hermione was no longer quite as sure that she'd be getting a huge lecture. In fact, if she didn't know any better, she'd say Minerva was flattered, and not just in the sense she had meant it when she had said as much to Fred and George. While she really did kind of want to stay, want to talk this out with the older woman, want to explain her feelings and see where the conversation took them, she was getting the impression that her luck was running out.

"Thank you for the dance lesson, Professor," she said, hoisting her bag more firmly onto her shoulder and heading for the door.

"Miss Granger," Minerva called from behind her, clearly trying to regain control of the conversation enough to actually finish it. Hermione didn't pause, or slow, hoping that if she just left she would manage to escape unscathed (for the moment, she was sure). Not quite willing to give up, Minerva gave a small huff, barely audible over the sound of Hermione's shoes on the flagstone, and hissed out an exasperated "Hermione" as if afraid that if she said it any louder someone would pop up to reprimand her.

The concession made Hermione smile and she did finally pause - but only for as long as it took to wink over her shoulder, still certain beyond a doubt that if she didn't keep moving she was dead in the water.

Miraculously, Minerva didn't follow her, perhaps stunned immobile for as long as it took the younger Gryffindor to make it past the door and into the hall. While she didn't doubt that she would be hearing about this again, eventually (as she couldn't avoid her Head of House forever, nor did she want to), she was more than sure that she had done quite enough damage for the day. If one could call asking their crush out to the Yule Ball 'damage'.

And Minerva had never said no, either.