Beneath the Surface - Part 3

A Bond in Bloom

Before she knew it, Hermione was in regular correspondence with Blaise Zabini. What started off as a nerve-wracking task became the thing she most looked forward to during her break. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so lonely anymore, not so cut off from the world.

Having grown up solely in the wizarding world, Blaise started off with a lot of questions. What did her parents do? Why would anyone pay good money for someone to stick foreign objects in their mouth? What did Hermione want to be before she found out she was a witch?

Hermione tried to be thorough in answering his questions, and asked more than a few of her own. Blaise started off interested in Muggle Christmas, but when Hermione explained it to him, he sounded slightly disappointed.

I’m just going to be upfront and say that that sounds boring. Sorry.

My mum and I have never really celebrated Christmas. She says she doesn’t need an excuse to buy me things, but I think it’s also because my birthday is only four days before.

Hermione learned that Blaise and his mother hadn’t always been rich. Madam Zabini’s parents had cut her off after she got pregnant at the age of eighteen, and so for the first four years of his life, Blaise’s mother had worked in a shop in Diagon Alley struggling to make ends meet. Some wealthy wizard saw her there one day and was so enraptured by her beauty that he offered to take her and her young son in.

From the tone of the letter, Hermione could tell Blaise hadn’t liked Mr. Fawley, a pure-blood who seemed to have dealings with all kinds of people, some not so legal. At least, when he died, five years after discovering his mother in the shop, he’d had the foresight to look after them, willing his Gringotts vault to her.

I don’t really remember a time when we didn’t have all this, Blaise had written, but my mum often reminds me that it can be taken away. She spoils me, but she also has a very clear vision for my life. I think she worries about our position in part because of our race. She’s always warning me to keep quiet and pay attention to those I surround myself with because our class and pure-blood status only protects us so much. 

She runs in a lot of circles that believe pure-bloods are superior, and I guess I accepted that for a long time. But I don’t understand why proving your worth means you have to hurt and kill others. I don’t think she would ever go that far, but I know at least one of my step-fathers supported the Dark Lord pretty heavily back in the day. I don’t know what she would do if I flat out refused the ideology that has largely kept us safe and comfortable.

It makes me feel like a fraud, acting like I believe in these things because it’s all I’ve known. I don’t know if I can be myself without putting myself and her in danger.

Hermione felt for Blaise and his precarious position, and hoped he was being careful in sending these letters out. But he was nothing if not prudent, and the way he opened himself up made her feel comfortable to do the same. She told him how it felt being Muggle-born, especially with Voldemort back in the open.

I’d lived in this regular, unremarkable world for the first eleven years of my life, she wrote. Strange things would happen to me — like the time I accidentally drowned my mum’s office ficus after worrying overnight that I hadn’t watered it like she asked me to — but everything else was ordinary. And then I get this letter telling me I belong to this fantastical place where amazing things happen. I was so excited to leave my ordinary life for an extraordinary one.

But then Malfoy called me ‘Mudblood’ second year. I didn’t even know what it meant at the time, but I got the tone, understood from the way everyone else reacted that it was bad. I’d come to this wonderful world, only to find the same prejudices as the one I was from, ones that put me in immediate danger. It’s terrifying, but I know I can’t just step aside and let it continue.

She was starting to feel bad for Blaise’s owl Adonis, who would arrive at her window in the morning and then leave again in the afternoon once Hermione finished her letter. She didn’t know where Blaise lived in the country, and worried that the journey would start to take a toll on the owl, so she’d taken to leaving out food and water for him. He would occasionally take a few sips of water, but he refused to touch the owl nuts. At the end of one of her letters, Hermione told Blaise what was happening, and asked what the owl would eat.

The next letter arrived with a package, a small note attached that read Don’t laugh. The package contained Avion Dawdle’s Premium Owl Mix. Hermione poured some in a bowl as she read Blaise’s letter, and put in her response that she had, in fact, laughed.

Blaise had started off telling Hermione that he felt like he didn’t have to pretend with her, and Hermione felt the same of him. In one letter, she found herself writing about something she’d thought of often, but which she hadn’t voiced even to Harry or Ron.

I’ve never liked when people called me ‘The Brightest Witch of Her Age.’ I do work quite hard, and strive to do my best in everything I do, but the title always feels uncomfortable. I don’t do the work for recognition — or at least not in the way others might, for awards or praise. I do it because I’m genuinely interested and want others to feel proud of the work I do.

When people call me that, I wonder if they see me as a real person or just as a human encyclopedia — even sometimes with Harry and Ron, who I know care about my well-being but sometimes fall into the comfort that ‘Hermione will do it or fix it” without thinking about how to do it themselves.

It felt like a release to get the thoughts out, and even more of a relief to have Blaise validate those feelings. In his response, he flat out told her that anyone who only wanted her around for her knowledge didn’t deserve her. Hermione had blushed when reading that, glancing furtively up at Adonis, who blinked at her, looking deeply uninterested.

The start of the new term came quickly, and soon Hermione found herself back on the Hogwarts Express in a compartment with Luna Lovegood, listening to her gush about her vacation with her father, where they’d spent the entire time drinking Gurdyroot juice and harvesting blue radishes from their garden.

“They turn orange in the summer, but when they’re blue they’re perfect for drawing out toxins and bad auras,” she said dreamily, “We used them to decorate the house for the New Year.”

Hermione felt cheerful and a little nervous about returning to Hogwarts. She was glad to get back into her routine, to studying for exams and learning more about the fight against Voldemort. But another thought, large and nebulous, loomed in the back of her mind. She tried not to give it space to solidify, but still the sign off of Blaise’s last letter echoed in her mind.

See you at school.

She hadn’t seen him on the train platform, and felt glued to her seat across from Luna. The thought of going to look for him on the train both terrified and excited her, but she had to remind herself why it was a bad idea. He could be in a compartment full of Slytherins, or at the very least was somewhere others might see. She didn’t want other people whispering about their relationship when she wasn’t even sure they had one to begin with. So she stayed put, fighting to keep still.

Luna noticed her fidgeting and offered her a swig of doowindle water, which she said would help “calm the mind and limbs.” Hermione did her best to decline politely, pursing her lips and looking out of the window.

Finally, they made it to Hogwarts, and after a quick dinner on her own — Harry hadn’t arrived at the school by Floo Powder yet — Hermione went up to Gryffindor Tower to prepare for the next day of classes.

After giving a hungover Fat Lady the password, she entered the common room.

“Granger!” a high voice called to her from across the room.

A tiny second year, Liam Redding, hurried over to her, a note in his hand.

“I was told to give you this,” he said.

Hermione’s heart was pounding in her ears, “Thanks.”

She hurried up to her room, grateful that neither Parvati nor Lavender were inside, and ripped open the note. It was written in now-familiar handwriting.

Meet me near the Quidditch pitch?

Excitement and nerves shot through her. She stopped and took a deep breath. This was fine. She could talk to Blaise — she had been for weeks. This was nothing.

There was more than enough time before curfew, so Hermione put on her boots and pulled her winter cloak on over her jumper. Her hair was already tied down into two braids, so she jammed her hat over her head and wrapped the bottom half of her face in a thick purple scarf that had been one of her parents’ Christmas gifts to her.

Snow was falling lightly as she stepped out of the entrance hall and onto the grounds, the lake looked like it was made of gray slush. Wind tried to worm its way through the fabric of her clothes. Hermione shivered and drew her cloak tightly around her before trudging through the snow.

Her stomach flipped when she saw the dark figure up ahead, near the Quidditch stands. As she got closer she saw Blaise’s lanky figure, a scarf tied loosely around his neck, green hat covering his head and ears. He was watching her approach, hands deep in the pockets of his black cloak, teeth playing with his bottom lip. Was he nervous?

“It’s freezing,” Hermione complained as she approached, “Why couldn’t we meet indoors?”

Blaise shrugged, looking up at the gray clouds, “I like the snow.”

Hermione watched his face for a moment, the peace that seemed to come over him, and smiled. A warm feeling pooled in the pit of her stomach.

He looked down at her then, “How are you?”

Hermione wrapped her arms around herself, “I’m okay. Ready to get back into classes.”

Blaise nodded. They stood there silently for a moment, and he shifted his weight a bit, so that he was closer to her. His scent, cinnamon and cloves, carried over to her on the wind.

Hermione wracked her brain for something else to say. “How, er, how was your break?”

She cringed internally as she finished the question, realizing that she already knew the answer, having corresponded with Blaise the entire time. She suddenly wondered, in horror, whether they would ever be able to interact in person — was it possible to only have great interactions through paper? She felt like she knew this boy, his innermost thoughts, and he hers. Why was this so anxiety-inducing?

Blaise coughed lightly, raising a gloved hand to scratch his nose. “It was fine.”

As he dropped his hand, Hermione noticed something glitter from his wrist.

“Your watch!” she exclaimed, grabbing his arm without thinking. She hadn’t seen him with it before break, and it looked brand new.

Blaise was startled, but he held his wrist closer so that she could see it, a gold band with a black face, the hands golden snakes with emerald eyes.

“My mum bought it for my birthday,” he said, “since I came of age.”

Hermione had inadvertently pulled him closer to her, his warm body now blocking the wind. Her cheeks warmed as she dropped his hand, “It’s nice.”

“Thanks,” he said, glancing down at it before putting his hand back in his pocket, “Is there anything like that for Muggles?”

Hermione shook her head, “Well we — Muggles, I mean — don’t come of age until eighteen. And there’s no specific gift.”

“You’re a witch though,” he said, “Didn’t you get a watch for your birthday?”

“My parents are Muggles.”

“Yes, but they have to learn to acclimate to this culture right? Since their daughter is a part of it.”

“I suppose that would be true,” she allowed, “If I’d told them.”

Blaise tilted his head at her, his eyes curious, “Why haven’t you?”

She realized she liked talking to him face-to-face more than writing letters. While the letters had helped her get past her own self-consciousness, she’d only had his words to go by. In person, she could watch his expressions, his mannerisms.

“I don’t know,” she said, “My parents have always been okay with me being a witch, but I guess I sometimes don’t know how to be around them. I’m not around a lot, so I guess I try not to do things that scream at them that I have another part of myself they know very little about.”

Blaise frowned, “Wouldn’t telling them bring you closer?”

Hermione shook her head, “I don’t want them closer. I’m a Muggle-born who is best friends with the Boy Who Lived. It would only put them in danger.”

Blaise fell silent then. At first Hermione thought he might feel put out by her response, but then she realized he was lost in thought.

“What do you tell them, then?”

She shrugged, “My grades, mostly. They can understand those, even if the system is different from the Muggle one. And about my friends,” she had told them quite a lot about Harry and Ron throughout the years.

Blaise’s eyes met hers then, but he looked nervous again, rubbing his nose before asking, “Have you told them about me?”

Hermione opened her mouth, but no words came out. She shook her head, “Are we even friends?”

He looked away, suddenly bashful. “I mean...I’d like to be.”

Her heart was thudding in her chest. “Okay,” she tried to sound casual. “We’re friends then.”

“Alright then,” he said, sounding relieved.

It was dark now, so that Hermione could really only see Blaise’s silhouette, feel the breadth of his body in front of hers.

“We should probably get back,” she said. Harry should have arrived by now.

She could see Blaise’s shadow nod, and the two turned back towards the lights of the castle, trudging through the snow. A couple of times, Hermione’s shoulder would bump into him, or his elbow was graze her, and she would hold her breath until they slipped back apart in the darkness. Silence spread between them, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable. Hermione wondered what Blaise was thinking.

They finally got to the front doors. Hermione took a deep breath to recenter herself.

Just as Blaise’s hand touched the handle, the doors pushed open, startling them both. Professor Dumbledore stood in the doorway, a fur-lined navy cloak draped over robes of silver and maroon. His blue eyes widened in surprise from behind his half-moon glasses.

“Ah, Miss Granger! And Mr. Zabini,” he said charmingly, “What a lovely surprise.”

“H-hi Professor,” Hermione stammered, “You’re out late.”

“On the contrary, the night is quite young,” Dumbledore looked between the two of them, “I’m afraid I have some business with Hagrid that needs attending. I do hope the two of you are ready for the excitement of a new term?”

“Of course, sir,” Blaise said politely, looking just as stunned as Hermione felt.

“Wonderful,” Dumbledore said, “Oh, I’ve almost forgotten. Miss Granger, if you could present this note to your friend Mr. Potter, I would be eternally in your debt.”

He passed Hermione a small piece of folded parchment. Recognition flashed through Hermione’s mind. This must be about Harry’s next lesson. “I’ll do that right away, sir.”

“Thank you,” Dumbledore smiled at the two of them, “Well, don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have far more illuminating tasks to get up to than babbling away with an old man.” He swept past them and off across the grounds, towards Hagrid’s snow-capped hut. 

Hermione’s eyes felt like they would pop out of her head. As she glanced up at Blaise’s shocked expression, she felt a strong urge to laugh.

They stepped into the entrance hall, which was deserted but for the Grey Lady, moping up near the chandelier. Blaise turned towards her, dipping his head slightly to meet her gaze.

“Well, er, I’ll see you in class?” Hermione said, suddenly nervous again.

“Yeah,” he nudged her lightly with his elbow, “‘Night, Hermione.”

And with that he turned away, taking the staircase down to the Slytherin common room. As she hurried up the stairs towards Gryffindor Tower, Hermione smiled to herself.

Hermione found Harry, Ron, and Ginny stuck outside of the Gryffindor common room, arguing with an irritable Fat Lady.

“Harry! Ginny!” she called, hurrying over.

“Hey Hermione,” Ginny said as she brushed a bit of ash off of Harry’s shoulder, “Where have you been?”

“Oh, er, I’ve just been down to visit Hagrid and Buck — I mean Witherwings,” she lied quickly, internally thanking Dumbledore for giving her the idea. “Did you have a good Christmas?”

“Yeah,” answered Ron, as if their last interaction hadn’t involved him humiliating her in front of their entire class, “it was pretty eventful—”

“I’ve got something for you, Harry,” she said, pretending she hadn’t heard Ron, “Oh, wait, the password. Abstinence.”

“Precisely,” the Fat Lady said, swinging open. The four of them stepped into the crowded common room where students were greeting friends and taking advantage of the last few hours of down time before the homework started to pile up again.

Hermione pulled out the scroll Dumbledore had passed her at the castle doors and passed it to Harry.

“Won-Won!” came a high squeal, cutting Harry off as he opened his mouth to thank her. Lavender came hurtling into Ron out of nowhere, throwing her arms around his neck and nearly knocking him over. An annoyed look crossed over Harry’s face and Hermione grimaced, remembering Lavender’s worries about her relationship with Ron on the train.

“There’s a table over here,” she said quickly, trying to divert attention from the palpable desperation clinging to the interlocked couple, “Coming Ginny?”

“No, thanks, I said I’d meet Dean,” Ginny said, sounding resigned. Hermione eyed Harry as Ginny walked away, noting the faint optimism in his pink cheeks.

“What?” he asked when he caught her watching.

“Nothing,” Hermione said airily. She’d decided she wouldn’t probe him about Ginny unless he decided to talk to her about it, but his feelings really were obvious to anyone with eyes.

“So how was your Christmas?” he asked, very obviously trying to divert attention from himself.

“Oh, fine,” she said, shrugging nonchalantly as though the question hadn’t brought a certain Slytherin to the forefront of her mind, “Nothing special. How was it at Won-Won’s?”

Harry looked as if he wanted to say something about his friends’ standing feud but she glared at him before he could. He sighed, rolling his eyes before resigning to keep his thoughts to himself.

“Before that,” he said, “I still haven’t told you what happened before break.”

He explained to her that he too had left Slughorn’s Christmas party earlier, soon after she had escaped with Blaise, in fact. Instead of heading to the Gryffindor common room to call it a night, he had followed Snape and Malfoy under the Invisibility Cloak.

“Malfoy was talking about some job he had to do for ‘his master’ and Snape was offering to help him. Said he’d made an ‘Unbreakable Vow.’”

Hermione frowned at the smug eagerness on Harry’s face. “Don’t you think—?”

“—he was pretending to offer help so that he could trick Malfoy into telling him what he’s doing?” Harry interrupted, clearly having thought through this line of argument.

She blinked, “Well, yes.”

“Ron’s dad and Lupin think so,” he said grudgingly, “But this definitely proves Malfoy’s planning something, you can’t deny that.”

“No, I can’t,” she said slowly. She hated to agree with him when it felt like doing so would just push him further into his obsession.

Still, she let him carry on for a bit with his Malfoy-is-a-Death-Eater conspiracy, inwardly hoping that Harry would find other things to capture his attention. He mentioned that he was planning to tell Dumbledore what he had overheard, and she hoped the headmaster would be able to put a stop to his spiraling.

The next morning brought something else Hermione thought might work as a distraction for Harry: sixth years were to start Apparition lessons. She signed up, excited to finally learn a new magical skill. All day, everyone chattered on about it.

“It’ll be like we’re official adults!” Parvati said excitedly at lunch while Lavender moped quietly, playing with her food and casting furtive glances over at Ron and Harry further down the table. Hermione wondered if something had happened between now and their wrestling match the night before.

“At least you two are of age already,” Lavender sighed, turning back to her chips, “I won’t be able to take the test until summer.”

Hermione had long decided to stay out of her and Ron’s business, so she just gave a conciliatory grunt and went back to skimming the Daily Prophet, which was reporting a Dementor attack and two disappearances since the start of the new year.

After Charms she went to the library, wondering if there was a book she could check out on the theory of Apparition, just so she could be prepared for the first day. She made her way over to the section on Magical Transportation.

The Apparition books were first, and Hermione scanned the titles slowly. There were books about famous Apparating records, scary stories of Apparitions gone horribly wrong (with moving illustrations), even a guide to Side-Along Apparition. She frowned at the empty space on the shelf between Apparating with Aplomb by Gilderoy Lockhart and Arctic to Tropic: How Temperature May Affect Your Apparition by Cardaroc Jumper.

“You’re predictable, you know that?” a familiar voice said behind her.

Hermione’s stomach fluttered as she whipped around to see Blaise leaning back against the shelves dedicated to Floo traveling. He held a small book in his hands, a smirk on his face.

“Hi,” Hermione said. She nodded at the book in his hands, “Studying for Apparition lessons too?”

“Nope,” Blaise said. His fingers flexed around it and Hermione suddenly remembered his firm grip on her elbow at the Christmas Party, “Some of us read for fun, you know.”

Hermione ignored his dig, knowing he was just trying to get a rise out of her. “What are you reading?”

Suddenly, Blaise looked guarded, self-conscious. He shifted the book behind his back, “Nothing.”

“Oh, come on, let me see,” she said, reaching forward to get a look at the title.

His hand flew up, over his head and out of her reach.

“Honestly,” she huffed. She pushed up on her toes, trying to close the distance.

Blaise chuckled as he straightened his arm, holding the book higher. His breath tickled her ear. Hermione jumped, her fingers bumping against the band of his watch. When she landed she lost her footing, tripping forward.

Blaise’s free hand slid to her lower back, to keep her steady as he stumbled, the bookshelf wobbling behind him. Hermione caught herself on the shelf with one hand, her other splayed against his chest as she tried to maintain her balance.

The smell of cinnamon and cloves filled her nose. She looked up at him, her breath caught in her throat. His eyes blazed and the grip on her back seemed to tighten, sending a jolt up her spine. Hermione’s gaze fell on Blaise’s lips, slightly parted in surprise, and she forgot about the book.

Blaise’s eyes widened and then he looked away suddenly, dropping his hand. Hermione backed up, clearing her throat. Her heart was pounding and she felt as if she were under a very persistent space heater.

“You don’t have to show me,” she said quietly, embarrassed.

“No, it’s fine,” Blaise said. He held the book out to her.

Hermione took it, careful not to let their fingers touch. The cover was an eggplant purple, a curvy Black woman in a glittering dress shaking her hips on the cover. The title was written in curly green writing, A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Success, the Autobiography of Celestina Warbeck.

She looked back up at him. He was rubbing the back of his head, looking abashed. “I like autobiographies. She’s my mum’s favorite singer.”

Hermione smiled at this new bit of information. “What other ones have you read?” she asked, partly because she was curious and partly to show him there was no reason to be embarrassed.

“I’ve read loads,” he said, looking encouraged. “There was this one about the Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation before Barty Crouch. He was the one who helped establish an exchange system for different kinds of wizarding money, can you believe we didn’t have it before?”

Hermione had never seen Blaise so passionate about anything. His face seemed to genuinely open up, his eyes alight.

“Seraphina Picquery was the one I read before this one,” he continued. He glanced at his shoes a moment, biting his lip. “The one I read at the beginning of break was about Dorinda Stallworth. She was—”

“The first female Supreme Mugwump,” Hermione said. Her cheeks were flaming now, as she remembered him mentioning how the book had reminded him of her. She plunged forward in an attempt to skip over the strange tension building between them. “I haven’t read many autobiographies. Well, except for Lockhart’s, but that was for school.”

Blaise’s knowing smirk was back. He reached out to take the book back, his fingers brushing her hand. Hermione held her breath. “You can borrow some of mine if you’d like,” he said, “When you’re not too busy studying.”

With a parting nod, he turned down the aisle. Hermione watched him leave, her hand tingling where their skin had touched.

A few days later, Hermione stood in an empty courtyard with Harry, snow glittering in her thick hair.

“And so Dumbledore said I have to figure out a way to get Slughorn’s memory, the real one,” Harry looked a little nervous, his looming fate a shadow over him.

Hermione’s mind was racing as she thought through all he had told her. “He must be determined to hide what really happened if Dumbledore couldn’t get it out of him,” she said, keeping her voice low in case anyone happened to walk by. “Horcruxes...Horcruxes...I’ve never even heard of them…” How was that possible?

“You haven’t?” Harry sounded disappointed. Hermione felt a twinge of irritation — he always relied on her to know everything.

“They must be really advanced Dark Magic, or why would Voldemort have wanted to know about them? I think it’s going to be difficult to get the information, Harry, you’ll have to be very careful about how you approach Slughorn, think out a strategy…” despite herself, she was already trying to think of ways to convince Slughorn to give up the memory. Perhaps a potion or a—

“Ron reckons I should just hang back after Potions.”

Hermione’s irritation turned to full blown anger, “Oh, well if Won-Won thinks that, you’d better do it,” she snapped, “After all, when has Won-Won’s judgment ever been faulty?”

“Hermione, can’t you—?”

No!” she said before stalking off, leaving him in the ankle-deep snow.

She was fuming all through Arithmancy. Harry — and Ron — had relied on her for so much: homework, research that was outside of the purview of schoolwork, saving their lives, only to turn around and not take her advice seriously. It wasn’t that she thought she was always right, but for Harry to disregard her opinion for someone who was only dating a girl so he could be seen doing it, who couldn’t even play Quidditch without someone tricking him into thinking he was actually good, stung. When had her best friends become so infuriating?

She felt a strong need to vent, to throw her feelings at someone just for the sake of it. But there was no one. Harry and Ron were her only close friends; Lavender wouldn’t hear a word against her boyfriend and Parvati wouldn’t care. Maybe Ginny, but she had enough going on with her rocky relationship with Dean.

Her mind turned to Blaise as class ended. It had been so easy to talk to him over break, but they were in the same place now. She couldn’t just borrow Hedwig, a pretty recognizable owl, and send her down to the Slytherin common room. Maybe she could find him? But wouldn’t that be weird, not mention stalker-like? Hermione made her way to Gryffindor Tower to drop her things. She sighed internally as she helped a small first year girl pick up the large stack of books that had spilled from her hands onto the ground on the seventh floor. She should just let it go.

Rather than dwell on it, she decided she should write a letter to her parents. It was only a few days into the new term, but she figured she should try to make more of an effort to reach out than she had in the past. Something about the tense climate in the wizarding world made her want to try harder to maintain her Muggle connections, even if she could barely stand to live in that world anymore.

She made her way up to the common room after dinner, ready to spend her time by the fireplace writing to her parents. She walked up a staircase to the fourth floor, pleased that it was already moving to connect to a landing that would take her down a more direct route to Gryffindor Tower. The feeling quickly dissipated when she spotted a group of Gryffindor seventh years, recognizing Cormac McLaggen among them.

His face lit up when he saw her, and Hermione quickly averted her eyes, ready to pretend as if she hadn’t seen him. 

Keeping her eyes straight ahead, she had almost gotten past the group when McLaggen shouted, “Hey, Granger!”

She wondered if she could pretend not to hear him, but he had already detached himself from his friends, his long legs catching up with her before she could turn the corner up ahead. She slowed to a halt, grimacing.

“Oh, hello,” she said awkwardly, glancing at his friends, who were clearly pretending not to be paying attention.

“Had a good vacation?” he asked, grinning down at her in a knowing way that made it clear he didn’t actually know anything. He was standing too close again. Hermione rocked back on her heels.

She shrugged, glancing back down the hall, “Yeah, it was fine.”

“You know, I was thinking,” he said, barely listening to her response, “I feel like we were cut off at the Christmas party.”

Hermione forced the bewildered laugh that was climbing up her throat back down.

He seemed to take her silence as an invitation. “There’s a Hogsmeade trip coming up soon,” he said, “Maybe we could try again? I’m sure there will be less distractions.”

Hermione took a clear step back then. Trying her best to smile as if her skin wasn’t crawling, she shook her head, “Sorry, I don’t really have time to date,” she said, “What with schoolwork and prefect duties and...other things.”

Mortified, she turned and hurried down the hallway, leaving McLaggen looking dumbstruck. By the time she made it to the common room, it was full of students, all of the seats by the fire taken. Annoyed, Hermione went up to her dormitory, resolving to write her letter in the quiet. She pulled out her parchment and quill and sat on her bed, leaning her back against the headboard. Crookshanks stalked over, curling up on top of her feet.

She told her parents about her classes, the weather, and the upcoming Apparition lessons. She stared at the page long and hard, trying to think of any other updates to give, but there was nothing to say about Harry or Ron that wouldn’t make her more angry than she already was. Honestly, angry wasn’t the word. Tired. She was tired.

For a moment, she wondered if she should include anything about Blaise. She hadn’t told them about writing to him over break, often disappearing into her room for a time to read and respond, or else waiting until they were out for work. Have you told them about me? His voice, the shy way he had looked away from her as he said it, echoed in her mind. She supposed she could tell them about him, but what would she even say? She felt flustered just imagining the ways her parents could read into her words, and she folded the parchment up and sealed it quickly before she could do something she might regret.

She slid her feet out from under Crookshanks and pulled her shoes back on before leaving the dormitory, hurrying through the crowded common room and out into the halls. As she wound her way through the castle to the Owlery, it suddenly occurred to her that her account of the weather might have let something slip about breeding Dementors. She quickly unsealed the parchment as she sidestepped the Bloody Baron telling off Peeves, and made a left at the portrait of two wizards trying their hardest to escape an angry bowtruckle.

It’s been quite gloomy here though the snow is nice.

She exhaled sharply. Good. But now, she felt the need to read through the entire thing, just to be sure there was nothing in it to alarm her parents or alert the wrong person should it be intercepted. Her eyes flew across the page.

“You should really watch where you’re walking,” Blaise’s teasing voice said from about four feet ahead of her.

Her eyes flew up from her account of her latest Herbology class. He stood facing her on the stairs leading up to the Owlery, on the second step from the bottom.

“I was just double checking the letter I’m about to send to my parents,” she said, trying to ignore the way her heart rate seemed to pick up speed.

He shook his head, “Overachieving even in your letter writing.”

Hermione flushed, “Did you just get done sending a letter, then?”

“To my mum,” he said quickly, scratching his broad nose, “I finished that book this morning. Thought she might like it.”

“That’s nice,” There was a beat of awkward silence. Hermione gestured up the stairs lamely, “I’m just gonna...go send this off.”

“I’ll come with you,” Blaise said, turning on the ball of his foot to walk back up the stairs.

“Oh,” Hermione said, startled, “Alright.”

She tried to continue reading the letter back on their way up, but she could barely focus. The staircase was narrow, which made it so that they kept bumping into each other with every other step, their arms brushing against each other. By the time they reached the top, she had decided to give up and trust that she’d done alright the first time.

She could feel Blaise watching her as she looked up to find one of the school owls. Normally, she would ask Harry to use Hedwig, who she saw snoozing up at the very top of the rafters, but she wasn’t talking to him. She spotted a barn owl not too far up, and stepped forward to call her down.

“So, you only write your mum?” she tried to be casual, but she felt awkward, her voice somehow coming out higher than usual.

Blaise leaned back against the perch, close enough that their shoulders touched lightly. She felt like a live wire had sparked right in the place where their arms touched, spreading through the rest of her. She tried to ignore it, to pretend that it was no big deal. She couldn’t help but wonder if he felt it too, but he seemed just as calm as ever. She focused hard on tying the envelope to the owl’s leg.

“Yeah, mostly,” he said, “There was this one girl I used to write to, but she hasn’t sent me anything since we got back to school.”

Hermione’s fingers fumbled around the string, and she looked up. There was that look again, from after the Christmas party. His eyes were blazing, and he was leaning closer to her, as if they were sharing in some big secret. Hermione was suddenly very aware of his body, his warm scent. Their touching shoulders, it seemed, were the least of her problems, especially when he was smirking like that, his full lips tipped up lightly on one side. For a moment, her mind went blank.

“Well,” she said shakily, “She sounds lovely.”

Blaise laughed. It was higher than she expected, but warm and free. All of the building tension seemed to dissipate at the sound of his mirth, and Hermione grinned. She went off to help the owl out of the nearest window. By the time she turned back around, Blaise’s laughter had faded away, but a sweet smile graced his lips.

“Come on,” he said, jerking his head towards the exit, “I’ll walk you back down.”

She followed him towards the doorway without hesitation, and found herself racking her brain, trying to think of something to say or do that might make him laugh like that again.

“So,” he said as they reached the bottom of the staircase, “How is your start of term going?”

Hermione shrugged, “It’s fine. There’s a lot to do, but I’ve improved a lot on my time management.”

Blaise raised his eyebrows at her, “Do you mean to tell me you weren’t always good at time management?”

Hermione rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help but smile. “I’m not sure if you noticed, but I can sometimes overdo things.”

“I have never heard that about you.”

“Well then you’ll be surprised to learn that third year Professor McGonagall wrote to the Ministry to allow me the use of a time turner so that I could take all of the classes the school offers.”

Blaise stopped walking, his jaw falling slack. “You didn’t.”

“I did.”

“You traveled in time to take extra classes.”

“You know I never thought about it, but I’m technically at least nine months older than everyone thinks.”

This musing seemed to be too much for Blaise. A laugh burst from his mouth and he keeled over, his arms wrapped around his stomach.

“That’s — the most — you thing — I have ever heard,” he gasped.

Hermione was giggling too as she truly processed her own ridiculousness and simultaneously took that moment to congratulate herself for succeeding in making Blaise laugh twice in such a short span of time. The sound of his laughter made her feel like she was standing out in the sun, even though they were still in the dead of winter.

“What about you?” she asked, once they had both calmed down a bit, continuing down the dimly lit hall, their footsteps echoing off the high walls.

“What do you mean?” Blaise asked, still smiling, his face a door unlocked.

“What is a peak ‘you’ moment?” as many letters as they had exchanged in the two weeks of Christmas break, Hermione only ever found herself wanting to know more about him.

“Hmm,” Blaise said, nudging her gently to the right so that she wouldn’t miss the turn that led to the Gryffindor common room. “I don’t know that I’ve ever quite achieved that level of self-caricature.”

Hermione huffed, lifting her nose with an air of superiority, “You’ve obviously not been trying hard enough.”

“I did ‘accidentally’ ruin a pair of one of my step-dad’s shoes,” he said, thoughtfully.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Selwyn. He always seemed hell bent on separating me and my mum. I don’t think I factored into his plans for her,” the ghost of a frown flitted across his face.

“He sounds awful,” Hermione said lightly, “Would the accidental nature of your vandalism hold up in front of the Wizengamot, do you think?”

Blaise grinned then, and Hermione’s breath caught in her throat. The way his cheekbones filled out when he smiled, the way his eyes flashed playfully...he should really warn her before he did things like that.

“It should,” he said, “It happened just before first year, actually. He’d said something cheeky, I don’t even remember what at this point. I’d gone to bed angry, and when I woke up his shoes had somehow found their way into Adonis’s cage.”

Hermione let out a cry of laughter, then clapped her hands to her mouth, worried she had been too loud. 

“Adonis didn’t eat them of course — he has taste,” Blaise said, wrinkling his nose. Hermione had dissolved into a fit of giggles. “They were hideous — some bright red monstrosity he was trying to pass off as dragon leather. He couldn’t get the stains off, even with magic.”

Tears dotted the corners of Hermione’s eyes, as she tried to keep her laughter in, her hand still pressed to her mouth. She put her other hand on Blaise’s shoulder to steady herself, taking a deep breath. He chuckled, joy still lighting his face, but something softer was pushing through.

Her laughter faded away as she suddenly became aware of what she was doing. Her hand suddenly felt like lead where she gripped his shoulder, electricity running up her arm. She bit her lip as she dropped her hand, feeling strangely awkward and self-conscious. Blaise looked away, his face closing off again. Silence stretched between them, tense and confusing.

Hermione cleared her throat, “I should, er…”

“Yeah,” he said, “Me too.”

He offered her a small smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. As he turned away, Hermione suddenly felt disappointed. She wasn’t sure what had been about to happen, but she was sure she had ruined it.

Hermione was trying her hardest to manage her clearly growing feelings for Blaise, unable to see how it could end anything but badly. Still, she appreciated having someone around who made her feel like she was interesting outside of her extensive knowledge on the twelve uses of dragon’s blood. It especially helped given that Harry and Ron continued to infuriate her.

Ron was oscillating between trying to talk to her as if nothing had happened and making snide remarks when she passed. Harry, on the other hand, refused to do his Potions work on his own, instead using the Half-Blood Prince’s instructions any chance he got.

“I have to try to soften Slughorn up if I’m going to get that memory from him, aren’t I?” was his excuse.

But one lesson, towards the end of January, seemed like it would finally backfire on him.

“Settle down, settle down, please!” Slughorn said from the front of the room, “Quickly, now, lots of work to get through this afternoon! Golpalott’s Third Law...who can tell me—?” Hermione’s hand shot up, “But Miss Granger can, of course!”

Hermione could see Blaise rolling his eyes at the Slytherin table, but she could tell he was amused by her.

“Golpalott’s Third Law states that the antidote for a blended poison will be equal to more than the sum of the antidotes for each of the separate components,” she recited.

“Precisely!” beamed Slughorn. “Ten points to Gryffindor! Now, if we accept Golpalott’s Third Law as true…”

Harry looked like he was going to be sick. Ron wasn’t even paying attention, doodling in the corner of his book as if someone would Apparate into the room and do the lesson for him. Hermione grinned to herself as she copied down Slughorn’s words into her notes.

“...and so,” Slughorn finished, “I want each of you to come and take one of these phials from my desk. You are to create an antidote for the poison within it before the end of the lesson. Good luck, and don’t forget your protective gloves.”

Hermione shot up out of her seat and grabbed her phial before anyone else could. She went back to her cauldron and tipped the hissing electric blue poison inside before starting the fire beneath.

“It’s a shame that the Prince won’t be able to help you much with this, Harry,” she said brightly. She couldn’t help herself, “You have to understand the principles involved this time. No shortcuts or cheats!”

Harry scowled as Hermione turned back to her cauldron.

She pulled out her wand and thought Specialis Revelio! The potion separated into its disparate parts. She poured them out one by one into different phials. She recognized the fellviper venom immediately, and the nightshade. The others she had to check in her book. She had most of the separate antidotes in her potion-making kit, but a few she had to grab from the class stores. She poured it all back into her cauldron and set it to simmer before clipping a small chunk of her own hair and adding it in, changing the light, almost transparent peach color to a cloudy and swirling sunset orange. 

Harry sighed and stood, going over to the store cupboard.

“Two minutes left, everyone!” Slughorn called. Hermione added a few more ingredients into the now thickly bubbling cauldron, which had now turned a dusky purple. She turned the fire off and started scooping it out, tipping the contents into her bottle.

“Time’s...UP!” Slughorn called, “Well, let’s see how you’ve done! Blaise...what have you got for me?”

Blaise stood by his cauldron, arms crossed. As Slughorn peeked over at his final result, he raised his eyebrows at Hermione playfully. She bit her lip and looked down at her bottle of antidote. She suddenly realized she had forgotten the asphodel on her cutting board. She quickly grabbed some and sprinkled it into the bottle while Slughorn moved on to Malfoy, who looked like he had spilled vomit over the front of his robes.

Slughorn came to their table last. He sniffed Ernie’s potion, and almost gagged at the awful fumes coming from Ron’s cauldron.

“And you, Harry,” he said, “What have you got to show me?”

Harry held out his hand, a small shriveled stone in the center of his palm.

There was a long beat of silence. Harry began to turn red. Suddenly, Slughorn roared with laughter.

“You’ve got nerve, boy!” He boomed, taking the bezoar and holding it up so the entire class could see. “Oh, you’re like your mother...Well, I can’t fault you...A bezoar would certainly act as an antidote to all these potions!”

Slughorn hadn’t even looked at Hermione, had completely forgotten to look at the work she had done. He only had eyes for Harry. She felt a hot anger burn through her, making her eyes water.

“That’s the individual spirit a real potion-maker needs!” said Slughorn happily. Hermione’s hands began to shake as Slughorn went back up to his desk, her potion completely forgotten.

She tossed her things into her bag haphazardly and stormed out of the room as the bell rang. She was sick of this, of putting in so much effort and getting nothing in return. School was the thing she was good at, and Harry was just stumbling through, taking up space without doing any actual work.

She fought back her tears as she entered the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, knowing it would do no good to cry in front of Snape. She chose a seat as far from the back as possible, knowing Harry and Ron would probably choose to sit there.

By the time Harry came in, he didn’t look as triumphant as when she’d left the Potions classroom. She found out why at lunch.

“It was a disaster,” he said, sitting down across from her at the table like she wasn’t still furious with him, “Slughorn all but threw me out at the mention of Horcruxes.”

“Wow,” she said flatly, “Who would’ve thought Won-Won’s suggestion wouldn’t go as planned?”

“Hermione, can’t you just talk to him already?”

“Leave me alone, Harry,” she said sharply, opening up the autobiography of Seraphina Picquery Blaise had lent her the week before.

Even through her anger, Harry’s update on Slughorn’s memory reminded her that she wanted to look up information on Horcruxes. On her next break, she went to the Restricted Section of the library. She scanned the books and found two that she thought might work: Dark Sorcery and Magick Moste Evile. After grabbing them both off the shelf, she went to find a quiet corner to read.

She found Blaise instead, sitting at a table on his own, books sprawled out in front of him as he scribbled neatly on a sheet of parchment. Sunlight peeked through the cloudy sky from the high window, briefly passing over him, highlighting the sharp angles of his face. She hurried over to him without a thought, a smile spreading across her face.

“Can I join you?” she asked once she was close enough.

Blaise looked up, his dark eyes bright. He gestured to the empty chair across from him, “Go ahead.”

Hermione dropped her bag on the ground beside the table and sat in the chair as he went back to his work. She slid Magick Moste Evile in front of her, which let out a low ghostly moan as she opened it to the introduction.

Blaise looked back up from his Transfiguration essay, an eyebrow raised.

“Why are you reading such a creepy book?”

Hermione’s fingers froze on the first page. She hadn’t thought of this when she’d come over. She knew she couldn’t tell Blaise why she had really picked up these books, and she cast around for something convincing to tell him.

“I’m trying to understand the way werewolf bites work,” she lied, saying the first thing that came to mind, “I thought these might help.”

Blaise seemed to buy it, accepting her need to know everything about everything in the slightly exasperated way she had become accustomed to. “I doubt Snape will care if you’re able to pinpoint the exact magical property that creates the change.”

“Yes, but learning Defense is about more than getting good grades,” she pointed out.

Blaise’s eyes widened, looking startled, before he shrugged. “I suppose you’re right.”

They passed the rest of break time in silence, each of them focused on their own work. Hermione didn’t find anything about Horcruxes in Magick Moste Evile except for a small mention in the introduction, so she turned to Dark Sorcery in the hopes that it would at the very least shed light on what a Horcrux actually was.

Blaise started packing up his things ten minutes before the end of break. “What class do you have?”

“Arithmancy,” Hermione said, shutting the book.

“History of Magic’s in the same wing,” he said, pushing himself out of his seat. He jerked his head towards the exit, “Come on.”

He waited for her by the door as she checked her books out with Madam Pince, and then they strode out together. Hermione started to feel a little nervous, wondering what would happen if someone they knew saw them together. As if he had read her mind, Blaise made a sharp right, pulling open a tapestry and revealing a small corridor, a shortcut that would not only ensure they were hidden, but would cut across the castle to where they needed to go. Hermione ducked inside.

“I meant to ask,” Blaise said, adjusting his bag on his shoulder, “How are you after the bezoar incident?”

She had left her anger to simmer in the back of her mind in her more pressing quest to learn about Horcruxes, and it burned brighter now at the mention of their last Potions class. But she couldn’t let Blaise know how much it hurt. She suspected he had a bias against Harry, which she wasn’t sure was just from his being a Slytherin. “I’m fine,” she said tightly.

“Hmm,” Blaise said. Hermione looked up to see that he was frowning.

“What?”

“Nothing, just you looked really upset in class…” he trailed off, glancing down at her, his eyebrows raised.

Hermione huffed, “Well obviously I’m furious, but there’s nothing I can do. Harry is Professor Slughorn’s favorite.”

“Even among us favorites,” Blaise sighed, though he didn’t sound bitter. “I’m sorry he didn’t get to appreciate your hard work,” he reached out and tugged lightly on her hair, where she’d snipped off a bit to add to her antidote.

Hermione scowled at his sly grin and smacked his hand away, pretending that the contact didn’t sent her heart racing.

Up ahead, she could see the exit, could hear the chatter and footsteps of students just beyond the large framed portrait that was blocking them in, out of sight.

“Can I ask you something?” he said, curiosity in his eyes.

“Sure.”

“Why’d you hesitate to tell me how you were feeling?”

Hermione’s stomach flipped but she rolled her eyes, “Because if I tell you how I’m really feeling, you’ll just go into a diatribe about how that’s why you’re a loner who luxuriates in your own solitude atop the Astronomy Tower.”

Blaise laughed, but shook his head, “Nah, I wouldn’t do that. Not now that I’ve found you.”

His words made her blush, and her voice came out quieter than she intended. “Glad I could help pull you down from your tower.”

They slowed to a stop, just before the entrance. She looked up at Blaise, about to suggest that they leave one at a time, so that no one would suspect anything. But Blaise didn’t seem to be thinking about an escape. His eyes sparkled humorously, and he took a step towards her.

“Yeah, thanks for that,” he murmured.

He was so close, Hermione couldn’t see past the breadth of his shoulders. His warm scent filled her nose and her breathing turned shallow as he gently tugged on her hair again, his fingers winding their way through her tight curls. Her eyes locked onto his. There was a fire behind them, and she couldn’t look away.

She lifted her chin as he bent down, closing the already shrinking gap between them. And then his lips pressed against hers, gentle but firm.

Before she could think, before she could decide to kiss him back or pull away, the pressure on her lips was gone, his hand gone from her hair.

Her eyes fluttered open, just in time to see Blaise’s standard smirk before he pushed the portrait open and slipped out into the crowded hall.

Part Four