Beneath the Surface - Part 2

An Unexpected Correspondence

“Hermione!”

The door to the dormitory slammed open, and Hermione looked up from her dress robes to see Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown.

“How could you not tell us you were going to Slughorn’s party with Cormac McLaggen?” Parvati exclaimed.

“Oh, er,” Hermione eyed them warily. She had generally been friendly with Parvati and Lavender, but they had been two of the few who had laughed at Ron’s mocking in class earlier. They seemed to be remorseful now, or at least had resolved to move on from it.

Lavender strode up to her and pulled the robes from Hermione’s hands, inspecting them. They were blush pink with a faint gold shimmer. “Have you got any accessories for this?”

“Yeah, I — what are you doing?” Hermione asked, noticing Parvati rooting through her own trunk.

“We’re going to help you get ready,” she answered as she straightened up, holding a bright purple heavy-looking box covered with metallic stickers.

“You really don’t have to—”

“Of course we do!” Lavender exclaimed, “We’re your roommates. Plus we didn’t get invites so we have nothing better to do.”

Parvati opened her box, revealing its contents: palettes of eye shadows and tubes of eyeliner and mascara. “I also have hair accessories. Lav, don’t you have a choker that would go with the gold of her robes?” she asked as she sat Hermione down at the foot of her bed.

“On it,” Lavender called, already searching through her own things.

Hermione felt a little surprised by their sudden excitement but allowed herself to relax as they helped her get ready. She rarely hung out with girls — occasionally the three of them would have slumber parties, but they hadn’t done that since fourth year. Other than sharing a room with Ginny when she stayed at the Burrow, her friend interactions had almost exclusively been with Harry and Ron. This was nice, getting to hang out with people without the added pressure of dealing with Ron’s insecurities or Harry’s bleak future.

Parvati and Lavender did an amazing job. Parvati bemoaned not having any makeup for full coverage — not even the wizarding world had found it necessary to create foundations that matched darker skin tones — but she added gold wingtips to Hermione’s eyelids that Lavender declared “inspired.”

Lavender undid the two plaits Hermione had been wearing all day and pulled her thick hair up into a pineapple, using her wand to make some of her curls more defined, a trick she said her aunt had taught her over the summer. She and Parvati carefully placed Parvati’s alternating burgundy and gold butterfly clips in a halo around her hair, the clips flapping their wings leisurely.

Hermione thanked them both profusely, though she wondered to herself whether they should have wasted so much effort on Cormac, who Hermione was still wary of.

He was waiting for her in the common room, dressed in alarmingly bright dress robes of royal blue. His hair was ruffled carefully, and he grinned when he saw her.

“Looking good Granger!” he said, slinging an arm over her shoulder and steering her out into the halls.

Once the portrait of the Fat Lady swung shut behind them, she slid out from under his arm, careful not to mess up her hair. “Er, you look nice,” she offered as they continued down the hall.

Cormac smiled again, his eyes drifting across her body. She crossed her arms. “Thanks,” he said, “I just threw it on after the two-on-two Quidditch match my buddies and I played after dinner.”

“Oh?” Hermione raised her eyebrows at him, thinking of all the time Parvati had spent inspecting her eyelids to make sure they were symmetrical.

“Yeah, it was epic,” he said, “You know I tried out for Keeper but I’m a fairly good Beater as well. We only had one Bludger but…”

Hermione listened to Cormac’s play-by-play as attentively as she could, but found herself zoning out more than a couple of times. By the time they had turned into the corridor holding Slughorn’s office, she realized he was on a completely different story than the one he had started out with.

Thankfully, they were approaching the office now. Cormac still prattled along as they stepped through the door, but Hermione’s attention was caught by the wonderful way Slughorn had decorated the room.

It somehow seemed larger than usual, the hangings draped to look like they were inside a large tent, a towering tree sprung up where the table usually sat for their dinners. There were far more people here than Hermione had expected, and she realized that while not a lot of the student body was invited, Slughorn was taking this moment to bask in the number of connections he had. Music floated through the room as house-elves carried trays of food through the crowd. Hermione forced herself not to turn and leave right then at the sight of them, and looked around instead for Harry.

She figured he ought to be here by now with Luna, but what she thought might be the glint of his glasses turned out to be that of a gold bracelet on Melinda Bobbin’s wrist, and there were quite a few people in here with dark hair.

Her eyes fell on Blaise Zabini. He was standing off to the right with Daphne Greengrass and a short stocky man in a stetson. His dress robes were a deep burgundy with gold thread embroidered along his collar and the ends of his sweeping sleeves. His smooth skin seemed to shine under the lights. His dark eyes met hers and widened for a moment before he nodded at her in greeting.

“Want to get some drinks?” Cormac’s voice was too loud in her ear.

Hermione tore her gaze away from Zabini and nodded, “Sure.”

They wound their way through the crowd towards the bar when Cormac was hailed loudly by a large man with an impressive golden mustache. The man, it turned out, was Cormac’s uncle Tiberius.

“Good to see you my boy!” Tiberius cried boisterously.

“I didn’t realize you were coming,” Cormac said, grinning widely. Hermione could see the familial resemblance — both were quite large with blue eyes, and seemed to carry themselves with the sort of confidence that could only be found in the privileged mediocre.

“Yes, I told your father to keep it all hush hush, thought I would surprise you,” Tiberius said, his eyes falling on Hermione, “But it seems you’re the one with the surprises Cormac!”

“This is Hermione,” Cormac said, sliding his hand around her waist unexpectedly, causing her to stumble into him. This close, she could smell the faint scent of grass and sweat that clung to him. She tried to maintain her composure, leaning away as she smiled politely at Cormac’s uncle.

“Charmed,” Tiberius said, taking Hermione’s hand and kissing it, “I’m glad to see Cormac has been doing well in his extracurricular activities.”

Hermione coughed in surprise at the man’s brazen sleaziness. Cormac moved his hand to pat her back as he grinned at Tiberius, which allowed her to shift away from him. Feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, she resumed her search for Harry, resolving to ditch Cormac at the first sight of her friend.

Thankfully, Tiberius soon bid them farewell as Professor Slughorn called to him, a swell of laughter passing through the room. Cormac and Hermione finally made it to the bar, where Cormac ordered a firewhisky for himself and a butterbeer for her. As she took a sip, she wondered if she should have chosen firewhisky as well — she was of age and seemed to be full of nerves. Perhaps it would have soothed them.

Hermione spotted Harry with Luna across the room, talking to Slughorn, a small man in glasses, and a vampire. She followed Cormac absently, trying to figure out a way to get over to them.

“Well would you look at that?” Cormac said.

Hermione glanced at him, still distracted, “Hmm?”

Cormac pointed up, a sly smile on his face. Hermione was suddenly filled with dread at the sight of the cluster of green leaves floating just above them. She took a step back.

“Ah, come on,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “It’s Christmas.”

His hand slipped up her neck, fingers burrowing into her hair. As he leaned in, Hermione could smell the firewhisky on his breath, hot and sharp. Just before his lips touched hers, she seemed to jolt back into herself. She ducked down and out of his arms, feeling his fingers tug at the strands of her hair as she unloosed herself. Before he could say anything, she ducked through two of the Weird Sisters, heart racing.

“Hermione! Hermione!”

She was relieved to see Harry approach, pulling Luna after him. “Harry! There you are, thank goodness! Hi, Luna!”

“What’s happened to you?” Harry asked, his eyes trailing up to her hair, which she could feel was coming undone.

“Oh, I’ve just escaped — I mean, I’ve just left Cormac,” she said. She tried to smooth up the back of her hair, but could tell it was a lost cause. At the confused look on Harry’s face, she added, “Under the mistletoe.”

“Serves you right for coming with him,” he told her. She felt a twinge of irritation. How did her coming here with Cormac mean she deserved to be accosted?

“It’s not like I wanted to,” she hissed, “He cornered me. Let’s go this way, we’ll be able to see him coming, he’s so tall.” She lead them to the other side of the room, grabbing a goblet of mead as she went and draining the cup in one. Too late, she realized she had lead them right to Professor Trelawney, who was standing alone.

“Hello,” said Luna politely.

Trelawney greeted Luna back, and as they started their conversation, Harry turned back to Hermione, concern on his face.

“I didn’t ask before. Are you planning to tell Ron that you interfered at Keeper tryouts?”

Hermione glared at him, “Of course not! I’ve got no plans to tell Ron anything about what might, or might not, have happened at Keeper tryouts.”

“Good,” said Harry, “Because he’ll just fall apart again, and we’ll lose the next match—”

Her panicked nerves transformed at his words, a burning anger rising in her. “Quidditch! Is that all boys care about? Cormac hasn’t asked me one single questions about myself, no, I’ve just been treated to ‘A Hundred Great Saves Made by Cormac McLaggen’ nonstop ever since—” she broke off, noticing him coming their way, “Oh no, here he comes!”

She hurried off without another word, ducking around the large Christmas tree. One of the leaves got tangled in her hair and she stopped to unwind it, before turning back to continue her course.

She glanced behind her to make sure Cormac hadn’t seen her, and turned around too late, colliding into Zabini.

“Sorry,” she said quickly, grabbing his arms to keep herself upright. His warm scent washed over her, cinnamon and cloves mingling with the smell of pine from the tree beside them.

Zabini’s hands gripped her elbows a moment and then let go, his eyebrows raised at the sight of her. His gaze drifted up to her hair.

“You look like you’ve just wrestled a troll.”

She flushed, reaching up self-consciously to touch the back of her hair again before stopping herself. “I may as well have,” she breathed, glancing behind her again. Cormac had just made it to Harry, who was shrugging. Cormac frowned at Harry’s response and looked up, eyes tracking the room. Hermione ducked past Zabini and behind the tree, counting on the both of them to hide her.

Zabini watched her with a frown, “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” she hissed, peeking out a bit to see if Cormac was on the move, “I’m hiding from the troll.”

Zabini followed her gaze for a moment, his frown deepening. “You’re not having a great night, are you Granger?”

Hermione was barely listening as she searched the room for another place to hide. There was a small gap between Gwenog Jones and a man almost as large as Hagrid. If she timed it right, she could slip between them and end up on the other side of the room without Cormac being any the wiser.

Zabini was looking at her again, scrutinizing her face. “Do you want to get out of here?”

His suggestion startled her out of her plotting. She gaped up at him. Why would Blaise Zabini want to go anywhere with her? His hand was suddenly gripping her elbow again, eyes hardening as it drifted past the tree. She followed his gaze to see Cormac walking in their direction.

“Yes, let’s go,” she said quickly.

Luckily, this side of the tree was closest to the exit. Zabini pulled her through the clusters of people. He dropped her arm just as Filch appeared in the doorway, pulling Draco Malfoy inside by the ear, looking triumphant. He gestured for Hermione to follow him before ducking around Filch and sliding out of the room.

The hall outside was silent, the sounds of the party contained within the confines of Slughorn’s office. Hermione took a deep breath, feeling lighter.

Zabini continued down the hall and she hurried after him, wondering where they were going. The silence, relieving at first, quickly turned awkward. A thousand questions rose in Hermione’s head, but only one left her mouth.

“What are you doing?”

Zabini looked down at her with a smirk before turning back to face forward, “Walking.”

Hermione felt a surge of irritation, “Obviously,” she said, “But why are you helping me? What about your date?”

He shrugged, “She’ll be fine.”

Hermione frowned, “That’s not very considerate, you know. Does she at least know you’ve left?”

“You’re one to talk, aren’t we here so you could ditch McLaggen?”

“McLaggen is an aggressive pig,” Hermione snapped.

“You’re the one who chose to take him as your date.”

Hermione felt angry at his words. Harry’s insistence that she was somehow getting her comeuppance rose back up in her memory. She stopped walking. “Just because I agreed to go with him to the party doesn’t mean I asked to be manhandled under a floating bush!”

Zabini halted a few steps ahead of her, looking back, his eyes wide in shock, “No — I didn’t mean...I know the way he treated you isn’t your fault. I’m sorry it came off that way.”

Hermione eyed him warily, her frustration simmering at the genuine look of remorse on his face. She started walking again.

“I just assumed you’d go with Potter,” Zabini continued, when it was clear to him that she wouldn’t bite his head off.

“Yeah, well I was originally going to go with Ron, but that didn’t work out.”

“You almost brought Weasley?” she wasn’t looking at him, but she could hear the derision in his voice.

“Only as friends,” she didn’t know why she felt the need to clarify, but she did anyway. They climbed the stairs up toward Gryffindor Tower, “I thought it might be fun, before…”

“Before he started acting like an arse, you mean,” Zabini said.

She shrugged, “Sure.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, and when she looked up at him, she saw that he looked thoughtful.

“I’d always wondered why you hung around the two of them,” he said finally, “Doesn’t seem all that equal of a relationship.”

“I’m sure you would know, seeing as you’re by yourself most of the time,” Hermione retorted, though she kept her voice light to let him know she wasn’t upset by his estimation.

“You mean like you’ve been most of the year?”

That brought her up short. Zabini was watching her closely — she could feel her skin warm the longer he held her under his gaze. But he wasn’t wrong. She had been spending a lot of time on her own recently, ever since Harry had gotten that stupid book.

“I suppose so.”

The Fat Lady was up ahead, pretending to be asleep.

“It’s not so bad,” Zabini said gently, “Sometimes you can only be your true self on your own.”

Hermione slowed down to a halt, narrowing her eyes at him. Is that why he kept to himself? Was who he was with other people not who he truly was?

“You should be able to find people who allow you to be yourself though. That’s what friendship is,” she said. Even when Harry and Ron frustrated her to no end, that was the one thing she knew was always true about them.

Zabini shrugged, “Perhaps you’re right.”

She watched him cautiously, the way his dark eyes drifted along the walls, the torch light reflecting off of his cheekbones. He slid his hands into the pockets of his robes.

“You know you still haven’t explained why you helped me,” she said.

Zabini’s eyes fell back to hers, “Dunno,” he said quietly. It felt almost as if he were talking to himself, but his eyes seemed to burn into her, more intense than any gaze she’d felt. Her heart thudded loudly in her chest. He rocked forward on his toes, his scent wafting over her a moment before he thought better of it, settling back down on his heels. He took a step back, “‘Night, Granger.”

Hermione watched in stunned silence as he turned and disappeared around the corner. She exhaled, confused by the way her stomach flipped as she watched him go.

Hermione woke early the next morning to see Harry and Ginny off as they left for break. She and Lavender walked down to the common room together, Hermione yawning as they entered to find Harry, Ron, and Ginny waiting near the portrait hole.

As Lavender careened into Ron’s arms and their mouths fused together, Hermione passed Harry and Ginny their Christmas presents.

“Thanks,” Harry said sleepily, passing her a package of her own, “Listen, I missed you at the end of the party—”

“I left early,” Hermione said, heat creeping up on her cheeks. She knew she couldn’t bring up her late night walk with Zabini. She wasn’t even sure how she felt about it, and she knew for a fact how Harry would react to her spending any amount of time with a Slytherin outside of class.

“I figured,” Harry said, pointedly ignoring the slurping sounds coming from just a few feet over.

Ginny rolled her eyes and sighed at her brother’s antics. “We’ve got to go,” she said loudly, pulling Hermione into a quick hug, “McGonagall said not to be late.”

“I’ve got something to tell you,” Harry said in a low voice as Ron and Lavender broke apart and Ginny made to exit the common room, “After break. It’s important.” He gave her a significant look, letting her know it wasn’t something he could write to her about; that it would be too dangerous.

“Alright,” she said, pulling him into a tight hug, “Have a good Christmas!”

“You too,” Harry grinned.

Ron glanced at her awkwardly, but Hermione turned away, following Lavender back up to their room. She wasn’t going to deal with his attitude just before the holidays.

Parvati was awake by the time she and Lavender got back to their dormitory. “You two up for breakfast?” she asked through a yawn.

“Sure,” Hermione said, surprised at being included. “I left your clips on your table, Parvati, I didn’t know where to put them. Thanks again for letting me borrow them.”

“No problem,” Parvati said with a smile.

“You have to tell us all about the party,” Lavender insisted, “But after I brush my teeth.”

Hermione grimaced and pulled out her clothes for the train ride home, a pair of jeans, a thick navy and red jumper knitted for her by Mrs. Weasley, and black boots. She twisted her hair down in the front, pulling it all back into a low but wild puff.

Soon, the three of them were in the Great Hall, eating their last meal before they would be on the train for hours.

“So what happened?” Lavender asked, scooping eggs onto her plate, “I want all the details.”

“Well, Slughorn invited a lot of his former pupils,” she started slowly. There wasn’t much to say, she had left the party before she had gotten the chance to properly network. Her eyes wandered from her plate across the hall to the Slytherin table.

Zabini was there, sitting off on his own, a small book held open in one hand. As she noticed him, his eyes seemed to drift up from the pages as if called, to meet hers. Hermione blushed and looked back to her food.

“Who cares?” Parvati exclaimed, “What about McLaggen?”

“Oh,” Hermione stammered, her mind elsewhere, on the quiet moment just before Zabini had left her with the Fat Lady, on his thoughtful but burning gaze. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of each other…”

She explained what had happened, and felt satisfaction at the looks of horror and disgust on Lavender and Parvati’s faces.

“Gross,” Parvati said, wrinkling her nose.

“I can’t believe his uncle said that,” Lavender chimed in.

“Yes, well, I ended up leaving early,” Hermione said, “I’m sorry all your hard work had to go to waste.”

“Not at all!” Parvati exclaimed, “It was fun.”

“Plus, you had to have turned heads when you arrived,” Lavender grinned, “You looked wicked.”

Hermione flushed again, and pursed her lips.

She rode on the Hogwarts Express with them, the two of them mostly content to chatter away about the latest issue of Witch Weekly and their last Divination class. It was a reminder to Hermione why she didn’t hang out with them regularly; they didn’t share many of the same interests. Still, it was refreshing to be around regular girls, to talk about normal things even as danger loomed. She knew Lavender and Parvati weren’t unaware — Parvati’s parents had been threatening all term to pull her and her sister out of the school — but they seemed to find comfort in the latest hair color developed by Fancy Follicles the way Hermione would a book. She tried to stay engaged as much as she could, and soon their conversation turned to Ron.

“I don’t know,” Lavender sighed, unwrapping a pumpkin pasty, “He just doesn’t seem to be all that present, you know? I feel like I don’t really know how he feels about me.”

Parvati frowned, “Don’t you ever talk to him?”

Lavender shrugged, “Not really. It’s mostly snogging,” suddenly she turned to Hermione, “What do you think?”

Hermione grimaced. Lavender didn’t want to know what she actually thought — that Ron was with Lavender because he liked to feel wanted, to be seen kissing a girl. Ron rarely did things without the promise of people noticing, despite that also making him nervous at the possibility of the attention turning negative. Instead, she gave her another answer, “I don’t even know why you like Ron, to be honest.”

Lavender looked shocked, “But he’s your friend!”

“Yes,” Hermione agreed. That was precisely why she felt that way. She had been the brunt of his bad behavior enough times to know she would never want to deal with it in any romantic situation. 

“I was always surprised you never had feelings for him,” Lavender said, “Or Harry.”

Hermione shrugged. There had been a brief moment in fourth year when she thought she could maybe have feelings for Ron, but the Yule Ball had woken her up.

As if reading her mind, Parvati said, “I get it. Padma and I went to the Yule Ball with them. No thanks.”

Lavender leaned back with a huff, “Well hopefully when we get back, we’ll figure out how to be on the same page.”

Hermione felt a surge of pity. It seemed Lavender truly liked Ron. “Perhaps,” she said, hoping she sounded optimistic.

The Hogwarts Express pulled into King’s Cross Station that evening, and Hermione bade farewell to Parvati and Lavender, whose parents met them on the platform. On her way to the platform barrier, she saw Zabini sitting on a bench alone, frowning at his book. His long legs were crossed in front of him so that other students had to make an arc around him to get by. He brought his free hand to his mouth, wetting the tips of his fingers before turning the page.

Hermione felt a sudden urge to go to him, to wish him a Happy Christmas, but in that moment a group of fifth year Ravenclaws pushed their way past her, startling her back to reality. She took a deep breath and followed them through the barrier, away from the boy who seemed to keep creeping into her mind, arriving back in the Muggle world between platforms 9 and 10.

She spotted her father down the way a bit, in a flat cap and bomber jacket, waving at her. She smiled at him, feeling a little awkward as she approached.

“Hi Dad,” she said as he pulled her into a hug.

“It’s been a long time, love,” he said, “School alright?”

Hermione nodded vaguely, grabbing Crookshanks’ carrier out of the cart as her father pulled out her luggage. “It’s been okay.”

She followed her father out of the station towards the car, unsure of what to say. She hadn’t seen her parents since the first week of the summer, when she had stopped at home briefly before going off to the Burrow for the rest of break. And before that...she couldn’t remember. She did know that this was her first Christmas home since her first year at Hogwarts, five years ago.

“Your mum’s finishing up at the office,” he told her as they made it to the car. He hoisted her luggage into the trunk as she slid into the passenger’s seat. “Should be home once we get there.”

They drove through London with few words, the silence punctuated by the sports talk show her father loved to listen to. Whenever the space between their conversation got too long, Hermione tried to think of something to ask — about the car, her dad’s Aunt Trina over in Bristol, on their work. Each answer was more mundane than the previous, and Hermione began to feel guilty. She had been in boarding school all this time, but should she feel quite this separate from her family?

Her mum was home as her father said, and looked happy to see her, if not a little tired from a long day’s work.

“The Carter twins were in again,” she sighed as she sat at the kitchen table, “I keep telling their mum she doesn’t have to bring them in for every little fall.”

“Didn’t Ashley cut her mouth falling off a swing?” her dad asked.

“Yes, but it was nothing a little ice couldn’t fix,” her mum said, sounding exasperated.

Hermione excused herself quietly from the room and pulled her things upstairs. She looked around her room, at how ordinary it was, the light pink bedspread she’d picked out when she was ten, and the small desk pushed into the corner, a lamp on the corner. She went to her window and pulled back the curtains, looking out on the empty street. Everything was still and peaceful — it felt wrong.

Hermione turned away from the window and rooted through her bag for her wand. She could hear her mother in her parents’ bedroom, presumably changing out of her work clothes. The football match blared from the sitting room, and Hermione heard her father shouting at the television.

She slipped outside, looking up at her house, the white paneling and square windows. The gray sky above her felt dark and foreboding, and a light mist crept around the corners. Hermione took a deep breath and raised her wand, reciting the protection spells she had taught herself in her spare time at school. She said them out loud, not trusting her skill in nonverbal spells enough for something so important.

Rain began to fall as she finished, the first few drops hitting her forehead and hands as the last spell left her mouth, casting a brief golden glow around the house. She hurried back inside, hoping it would be enough.

Christmas break at the Grangers tended to be a quiet affair. Hermione’s parents were in and out of the office in the days leading up to the actual holiday, taking appointments until the very last minute. Hermione didn’t mind it, she had been used to the busy schedules of her parents, and actually enjoyed the time on her own when she wasn’t feeling the guilt of being gone for so long, of not being able to tell them everything about her world.

She wasn’t sure if it helped or made her feel worse that she wasn’t getting as much information from the wizarding world as she was used to. It was clear the Daily Prophet was suppressing information, perhaps to increase morale, but Hermione wanted to be informed not coddled. She thought about Harry and Ron at the Burrow. While it wasn’t the headquarters for the Order, she knew that enough members were in and out of the house that there was so much they might be learning just by virtue of being there.

Hermione was starting to feel lonely. She had gotten used to the chaotic nature of the Burrow, the cramped but cheerful air about the house. She missed waking up to the smell of Mrs. Weasley’s cooking, Fred and George’s jokes, even attempting to play Quidditch in the apple orchard. She fought the urge to write Harry and beg him to tell her whatever information he had for her, which she was sure he’d already recited to Ron in the safety of his bedroom, just below the family ghoul. As she stared up at her ceiling, the flower decal peeling after holding up for nearly a decade, she wondered why she hadn’t come up with some kind of code for them to communicate by.

The tapping on her window startled her out of her funk, excitement rising at the thought of seeing Hedwig, of hearing some news from the world she now called home.

She pushed herself off of her bed and pulled back her curtains. It wasn’t Hedwig on her sill. It wasn’t even Pigwidgeon, though she hadn’t expected him.

Instead, a large Great Horned Owl sat watching her almost haughtily, it’s plumage expertly groomed. A scroll was attached to it’s leg, tied with a black ribbon. Confused, she pushed her window open, allowing it to enter and perch on the end of her desk.

The owl stood almost motionless as it allowed her to remove the scroll. She slid the ribbon off and unfurled it, revealing an unfamiliar scrawl in shining green ink. Hermione scanned the letter quickly, her stomach flipping at the signature at the bottom.

Blaise Zabini.

She flipped the parchment over, as if expecting to find more, some kind of assurance that this was all a joke, or that she was dreaming. She looked back up at the owl, now watching her with an air of impatience. It looked how she would imagine an owl owned by Zabini would look, stiff and proud.

She turned away from it then and sat on the edge of her bed, smoothing out the letter and reading it from the top, her heart racing.

Granger,

This is probably as strange as it is unexpected. I was reading a book that made me think of you and your maddening self-righteousness, and then suddenly I was pulling out a parchment and quill.

I don’t know that I’ve ever written to anyone outside of school — there’s never been a point — but my mother is off with her new boyfriend and there isn’t much to do at home. Maybe I’m just bored. Anyway, thinking about you made me think about what you said the night of Slughorn’s party, about friends and being yourself without judgment. 

I’m not even sure if my owl will find you, to be honest — I don’t know how the post works when the recipient is in a Muggle home. If this letter does find you, then you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that I’m not all that convinced by your argument. I’ve seen the way people change around others, the way they change themselves to live up to their expectations rather than just being who they are. I know I’ve been a victim of this too. It almost feels like it’s happened more since I noticed it. Except with you. I’m not sure what it means that though we’ve maybe only had one genuine conversation, I don’t feel the need to pretend with you. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that before, not even with my own mother.

Anyway, I hope you’re doing well in the Muggle world. I know you probably won’t respond, but I do hope there’s at least some relief to being away from wizards at the moment, given everything that’s been happening.

-Blaise Zabini

Hermione read the letter three times over, each time her disbelief growing stronger. Even as her incredulity grew, she found herself having visceral reactions to his words, the responses already forming in her mind. Where did he get off, calling her self-righteous? Was this truly the first time he had written to anyone, except most likely to his mother? She was surprised by the introspection in his words, even as he disagreed with her.

I don’t feel the need to pretend with you.

Her eyes lingered over those nine words, butterflies rising from her stomach to her chest.

She found herself noticing the way Zabini’s t’s tilted slightly to the right, the way his handwriting was neat and reserved, like he himself. She still couldn’t believe this was happening, that she was holding an actual letter written by a Slytherin boy she had never really given a thought to until recently. As she stared at the parchment, she realized she didn’t know what to do.

She looked up at the owl, still sitting pompously on her desk. Should she respond? The owl hadn’t left right away, which made her wonder if Zabini had instructed him to wait for her response. She remembered the summer before last, when Harry had sent Hedwig to peck adequate responses out of she and Ron after they had been sworn to secrecy by Professor Dumbledore.

But it said in the letter that Zabini wasn’t even sure his message would reach her, much less that she would read and respond to it. She supposed she could thank the owl and send him on his way without anything to take back with him. She stared at him, pondering. The owl stared back.

Her heart thudded as she made her decision, heat crawling up her skin. It would be rude not to respond, she told herself.

Hermione went over to her desk, kneeling down to pull open the bottom drawer of her desk, where she kept Crookshanks’ food and toys. She pulled out the spare package of owl nuts she kept there for Hedwig, Pig, and occasionally Viktor’s owl. She quickly tipped a few of the nuts into a shallow bowl and placed it onto the desk next to the owl. He blinked at her silently, unimpressed.

She grabbed a few sheets of loose leaf paper and a pen from another drawer — she didn’t feel like searching for her inkwell and quill.

She read Zabini’s letter again, trying to figure out how to start.

Zabini,

I won’t pretend I’m not surprised to receive your letter. I wasn’t sure anything I’d said that night would actually stick, and had decided to write it off as a random but not unpleasant interaction. I don’t know how much I like being called ‘self-righteous,’ much less by someone who seems set on walking around with a superior air about him.

With that being said, you’re not wrong about people changing themselves when they’re with friends, but I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. There’s a difference between conforming and being considerate. If you expect not to change around your friends, to make them feel welcome and not judged, then you aren’t a good friend. I suppose you do have to be sure to stay true to yourself, but anyone forcing you to change who you are isn’t your friend. I’m glad you don’t feel the need to pretend with me.

The Muggle world is okay. In terms of not having much to do, I’m afraid we’re in the same boat. My parents have been quite busy in the time leading up to Christmas, but they often spend most of their time at work. It’s lonelier than I remembered. I haven’t truly spent time here in years, and it’s not like I can just knock on Rachel Shellstrop’s door after not having spoken to her for six years. But I know I need to do a better job of being here for my parents, especially given the way things are going in the wizarding world. 

I thought it would be a relief, but the magical world has truly become my home at this point. Coming back to the non-magical one can be a bit of a culture shock after being away for so long. I always feel like I’m on the wrong foot here. Everything is familiar, but I no longer belong, and I’d rather be where I’m most understood.

I hope you have a good Christmas.

-Hermione Granger

She read her response a few times over to make sure it sounded okay. More than checking that there was no information someone might read into if they intercepted it, Hermione was more worried about not sounding like a total dunderhead. She thought she’d done okay — it was only a little clunky in the way that friendly letters to a person she’d never expected to be friends with was.

She folded up the letter and went to attach it to Zabini’s owl. He hadn’t moved from his spot the entire time he’d been there, not even attempting to eat the snack Hermione had set out for him. Once she’d fastened the letter to his leg, he hopped over to the window sill, flying out without hesitation. Hermione watched his flight, nerves fluttering in the pit of her stomach.

Part Three