Double-checking the two enameled combs keeping her brown curls contained, Hermione practiced her smile in the mirror. “You’re showing too much teeth, dear. It makes you look a bit touched in the head,” the mirror said snootily. The smile immediately dropped off Hermione’s face.
France had been bad enough. The last thing Hermione needed were more rumors of mental illness here in England. She forced herself to smile with a bit less force and decided that it would have to do. Her smile didn’t have to look happy, just polite.
Suddenly a rapid knock sounded on the bathroom door. “Hermione, the guests have already started to arrive. Are you going to come down soon? I’m so excited!” Gabrielle said through the door. Hermione could picture her bouncing up and down on her toes just from the tone of her voice.
“You go on down. You’re the guest of honor, after all. I’ll be down soon,” Hermione said, double-checking her wand and athame in their discrete holsters and that the small dimensional pouch on her belt still held her chocolate cache, emergency potions, and the three large books she planned to retreat to a corner with if things got too bad. She also had the last few days’ worth of newspapers. She’d gotten behind in her periodical reading since Gabrielle had arrived.
“But cousin,” Gabrielle said through the door, “you have only been in England for six months yourself. I’m sure there are people Fleur could still introduce you to.”
Could? Of course. Wanted to? Unlikely.
Hermione knew that Fleur loved her. With a Delacour, family always came first. But despite her general affection and loyalty, Fleur had never understood her “obstinate’” and “strange” English cousin. They’d decided by mutual agreement to stop trying to push Hermione on Fleur’s friends.
The last time Hermione had been invited to a party with the Weasley family, it had been a disaster. Bill’s brother Ron had made a heavy-handed pass in front of everyone, refused her attempt to redirect the boring and uncomfortable conversation towards a more interesting and neutral topic like the history of Hogwarts, and then called her “mental” in front of the entire family when she finally had to bluntly turn him down for a date. She hadn’t wanted to go in the first place and that had just cemented her intention to follow her instincts about parties from then on.
As if Ron’s insult hadn’t stung enough, Fleur had later taken her aside and scolded her for not giving her brother-in-law a chance. Molly Weasley, Ron’s mother, also seemed to think Hermione was putting on airs and thought herself too good for her son. Molly had treated her with stiff civility ever since. Most of the family except for Bill and his twin brothers had followed their mother’s lead and treated her with polite coolness.
In addition to the awkwardness from the Weasleys, Hermione didn’t feel like enduring another evening rehashing everyone’s war exploits. Then there were the awkward questions that came about her schooling abroad. People always made assumptions when they learned she was English but schooled in France, as if she’d personally chosen to run away from the war at the age of eleven and should have transferred back into Hogwarts as soon as possible or something equally inane. Never mind the fact that half the teachers at Hogwarts weren’t even certified to teach by the International Board of Magical Education, that muggleborns were injured and killed at a higher rate than any other group of students, that even the-boy-who-lived almost got killed every year he’d attended the school, and that she’d barely been a legal adult when Voldemort had been defeated.
Besides, she’d been busy fighting her own battle in France. Hermione would never regret that. By the time she’d graduated school and gotten out from her French magical guardian’s legal control, the war was over. She had nothing to apologize for and she didn’t owe anyone an explanation. Now if she could just get herself to believe her own logic too, everything would be perfect.
Hermione stopped woolgathering and opened the door to her impatient cousin. Forcing cheer into her voice, she said, “Don’t be silly, Gabrielle. You are the focus of this party, not me. Everyone’s here to meet you: my sweet, no-longer-so-little cousin, recently graduated with high honors from Beauxbatons, winner of a prize internship at the British Ministry of Magic and,” she reached up and tucked a strand of silver blond hair behind Gabrielle’s ear, “with a much better grasp of the English language than your sister had at your age. Go down and shine! Make new friends, have fun, and spread your wings without your overprotective relatives constantly reining you back.”
Hermione shrugged and then winked. “Well, except for me and Fleur, but we’ll go easy on you unless you look like you’re going to do something monumentally stupid. Go on, fly. You deserve it.”
Gabrielle gave her a sweetly shy smile. “I have been looking forward to finally living life outside the shadows and away from all of the locks, but Hermione, I want to spend more time with you too. We’ve been so distant the last few years, since… since it happened. I hoped that by coming to England, we could reconnect,” she said soulfully.
Blinking back tears, Hermione reached out and hugged her cousin, no longer a plump-cheeked little girl but now a tall and willowy young woman. “I would love that too.” Hermione drew back and added, “But I am serious about this being a party for you. Your sister has gone to a lot of trouble to welcome you. I want you to enjoy it! I’m almost done here and then I’ll come downstairs, promise.”
Hermione didn’t do well at big parties. No matter how hard she tried, someone always seemed to take offense at something she said. Well, either that or they started yawning and escaped the boredom at the first opportunity. She could do work mixers and family holidays; she knew how to act there and what to say. Too bad this was the worst combination of the two and guaranteed to make the house full to bursting.
“Very well, I’ll talk to you later then,” Gabrielle said with a shadowed smile, turning and walking away down the hall.
Closing the door softly, Hermione rested her forehead against the back of the door and breathed. Would Gabrielle’s reaching out turn to subtle pushing away just like Fleur’s had? How would she react when she didn’t get the answers to her questions?
Hermione desperately wanted to recapture the close relationship they’d enjoyed before everything went wrong. She loved her cousin more than anything, but sometimes love just wasn’t enough. The last six years had taught her that.
Stepping back, she reached into her pouch and pulled out a piece of chocolate. As it melted bittersweet in her mouth, she focused on the good things in her life. She had her own flat here in England. Her job as a researcher at the Ministry of Magic was also going well. In fact, she’d significantly increased the productivity of her department.
Plus, she had the joy of getting to know Fleur’s little girls, Victoire and Dominique. Although Fleur rarely left her alone with the children, she still fostered the relationship. Hermione loved them and they loved her back unreservedly. That counted for a lot.
Just last week she’d had a fun discussion with the girls about the book of French Fairytales she’d given them as a gift. They’d talked about Little Red Riding Hood, and how the woodcutter in the French version was actually a hunter in the German. Since their father had a few wolfish traits leftover from a fight with a werewolf in the last war, the girls were understandably interested in the tale.
These past six months had been difficult, but also freeing. She felt herself starting to flourish here in England. Adjusting her dark red dress robes one more time, Hermione swallowed the last of her chocolate and stared unflinchingly into the mirror. You can do this.
“You should smile more, Sweetheart. Not many guys go for the steely-eyed look. Your face is as good as it’s going to get without a better glamour. Maybe you should try a professional stylist next time if you’re this worried,” the mirror chimed in, zooming in on a few of Hermione’s perceived problem areas.
“Yes, thank you for your entirely unsolicited opinion,” Hermione snapped. “Next time, feel free to keep it to yourself.” She knew what she looked like. Beyond a few subtle cosmetics, she didn’t bother with much.
Even the strongest glamour did nothing when Hermione stood next to her Delacour cousins. Fleur might pat her on the head for making some effort, but no one else would notice. What normal girl could compete against someone with a quarter Veela in their blood? She’d given up years ago. No man would look at Hermione if any of her cousins were around, even the married cousins. Better to just be herself and hope that someone would one day appreciate it. A relationship built on a lie was doomed to failure.
Shaking off her annoyance, Hermione practiced her polite but not crazy smile one more time. Then she strode out of the bathroom and walked down the hall. She just had to make one stop first before joining the party.