So sorry that this is going up so many days late! A thousand apologies, oh patient, lovely readers! More notes at the end of the chapter, but for now I'll just let you get to it.

6. The Expandable Chest

"So then I said to her, 'If you want to have a chance at getting Chaser in the tryouts, you'd better be doing a lot more practicing and a lot less mooning after Seamus,' I mean, she's not really taking this seriously – even Katie isn't assuming she'll get a place on the team, which I think is a bit silly, but she's got the right idea; you can't just act like your place is guaranteed and then not do any work for it…"

Hermione smiled and nodded, but Ginny could have kept on ranting on Quidditch whether or not Hermione was paying attention, and Dean, across the table from them, was doing more than his fair share of encouragement besides. She stared up at the ceiling; the thick clouds had made it get dark early outside, and heavy drops were lashing against the high windows.

"…if everyone acted like that then what kind of team would we be? Honestly! And it's not as if I even think that Demelza is a bad player, she's quite good actually, but if she doesn't get her act together then she'll never even make the team, much less help us win the Cup, and Katie's been on Harry to schedule the tryouts soon, so it's not as if she even has that much time…"

Hermione tuned in momentarily to agree with Ginny's assessment of the – doubtless important – situation with Demelza Robins, and then went back to staring off into space. This was a lot like Ron and Harry's heated discussions about Quidditch, she noted to herself, but she had no more mind for nostalgia than for the dinner conversation. She was too distracted by the dark-haired Slytherin sitting across the hall, who was visible at intervals in the gap between the hulking masses of Crabbe and Goyle.

It was funny. In the weeks since her date with Pansy, she had noticed the dark haired girl around Hogwarts more than she had during her entire first five years combined. She knew that they had to have always passed each other in the halls with relatively the same frequency, and there had always been classes and meals where Slytherins and Gryffindors were together, but it didn't stop the feeling that Pansy was suddenly everywhere. It was like learning a new word and then hearing it everywhere you went, only more so. It made Hermione wonder what other things she could be missing simply because she wasn't paying attention.

But Hermione thought that it couldn't be entirely her, either. Like just now – Pansy, who was sitting on the far side of the Slytherin table, facing the rest of the hall, had deliberately glanced up at her. Hermione ceased her perusal of the ceiling and kept her gaze fixed on the Slytherin table, hoping to catch her at it again.

Pansy appeared to be absorbed in serious conversation with her friends, though Hermione couldn't really see their faces between Crabbe and Goyle's massive shoulders. Hermione didn't let her gaze wander as she idly toyed with her fork, and was rewarded not long after when Pansy looked her way again.

This time their eyes met and Pansy let her serious, haughty look crack just enough to wink briefly at Hermione before falling back into her conversation. Hermione felt a spark of excitement, like she had been let into some kind of secret, or a game - I know you're there, but don't let them know, ok? We can keep it just between us.

Hermione kept watching for a little longer, with Pansy making no other sign of noticing her, but this didn't do anything to damp her sudden happiness.

"Hermione! You're not listening, and you're not eating either." Ginny, apparently done discussing the Quidditch tryouts, followed Hermione's gaze, and her next words were lost as she grinned knowingly.

"Well, never mind about listening," said Ginny, still with the knowing smile, "But honestly, dinner is for eating." She spooned some turnips onto Hermione's untouched plate, which was only half-full. So maybe she had gotten distracted before she had finished taking food, but it wasn't as though supper had been going on for that long.

Hermione intercepted Ginny's second spoon of vegetables before it reached her plate and took up the serving herself, Pansy momentarily forgotten as she realized that she really was quite hungry. "You're slowly turning into your mother, you know," she said, suppressing a chuckle.

"No!" Ginny gasped, only half in jest. "Say it isn't true!" She turned to Dean for support, but he was already laughing

"Can you imagine?" Hermione was grinning now. "I can just see you, telling people off for their choices in romantic partners…career paths…diets… worrying about whether everyone's noses are clean…"

"Knitting us all horrendous jumpers for Christmas," Dean chimed in.

"Oh stop! You two are terrible!" Ginny exclaimed weakly, but the effect was ruined by her own peals of laughter.

They did stop, but Ginny entertained them with stories about her mother (all meant to illustrate how unlike the elder Weasley Ginny was, of course) until the food disappeared a while later. Hermione, deciding now was as good a time as any, excused herself.

"Hey, Ginny, I'm going now - I'll meet you in the common room later, ok?"

Ginny followed Hermione's tiny head jerk toward the other end of the Great Hall, and nodded.

"Right. Take your time! And good luck!" She smiled encouragingly and squeezed Hermione's hand, then turned to enlighten Dean, who hadn't been able to follow their wordless exchange.

Hermione smiled back over her shoulder as she headed briskly toward the double doors at the end of the hall. She slowed down when she got through the entrance hall, and stopped when she got to the entrance of the hallway that led to the Slytherin dorms. She got a few odd looks from students leaving the Great Hall, but most people just passed her without looking up.

She didn't have to wait long before Pansy emerged, surrounded by her usual gang of Slytherin girls, and being talked to rather insistently by Millicent Bulstrode. Hermione cut through the group as they passed, and fell in step with Pansy.

"Could I have a word, Parkinson?" she asked, effectively breaking Millicent's chatter mid-stream.

Silence fell as everyone turned to look at her, and even Pansy looked a little surprised. "Sure, Granger. You can go on without me," she added, addressing her companions. They wordlessly continued down the hallway with only a few backward glances, and Pansy grabbed Hermione's elbow and pulled her down a narrower side corridor.

Pansy lounged in a doorway and crossed her arms over her chest. "So, what did you want to talk with me about?"

Hermione attempted to make herself comfortable in the other side of the doorway, but could not match Pansy's effortless grace. "Well, I was wondering, since I had said, last time, about paying for next time, and since that's not much good if there's not a next time …Would you like to go to Hogsmeade with me? You don't have to if you don't want to, obviously, I'm fine with it either way. I thought I'd ask just in case you did want to, though…" Hermione bit the inside of her lip nervously; she hadn't meant to say it in quite that many words.

"I was wondering when you'd ask me." Pansy smirked, after appearing to consider for a moment. "I'd love to."

"Oh, good!" Hermione was relieved, even though that was what she had expected her to say. The date had been as much as promised since last time, but Hermione was much more comfortable now that it was decided for sure. Now that she had decided to just play along and see where this would lead for a little while, she did want it to be interesting, and actually lead somewhere. Though where, exactly, she still didn't know…

But Hermione saved this inner turmoil for a time when there wasn't planning to be done. "I was thinking Madam Puddifoot's again - at three, three thirty, say? We'd want to be able to get back to the castle in time for supper."

"Yeah, it was kind of annoying how it broke up the day last time." A hint of aloofness crept into Pansy's voice.

Hermione was a bit taken aback. "But you were the one who picked the middle of the day last time!"

The corner of Pansy's mouth lifted in something between a true smile and a smirk. "Well, then maybe I'm just complimenting you on your excellent choice of times."

"Oh. I couldn't tell…" said Hermione, caught between a reprimand and an apology. Was Pansy purposely trying to catch her off guard, or was she just unusually hard to read? Her manner was otherwise pleasant and inoffensive, and Hermione couldn't tell one way or the other.

Pansy detached herself from the door frame and leaned a little closer. "Maybe you're not paid enough compliments, Granger." She ran a cool finger down the side of Hermione's face. "Funny, because you should be."

Hermione automatically caught Pansy's hand, whether to stop its path or keep it there she didn't exactly know. "Well, thank you. You're too kind." She let a little sarcasm creep into her own voice, but her eyes were dancing with amusement. If Pansy wanted to flirt, then she would find that Hermione was not entirely unpracticed in that area.

"Quick learner," said Pansy, grinning. "That was another compliment."

"Oh, because I've never heard that one before. Should I be flattered, or offended?" Hermione realized that she was still holding onto the other girl's hand, and hastily dropped it.

"Touché." Pansy subsided back into her own side of the doorway. "Well, take your pick – which one would you rather?"

"Hm, well, that depends on too much." Hermione raised her eyebrows meaningfully, but Pansy seemed content to lean against the doorframe and regard her with that infuriatingly unreadable look she had. "Well, I shouldn't keep you any longer; your friends will be wondering where you are. See you later?" This last bit came out more like a question than Hermione had intended.

Pansy let out a short laugh, as though Hermione had said something funny. "Yeah. Later, Granger."

She left the doorway and headed back down the side corridor the way they had came without a backward glance, and Hermione, noting this and wanting to avoid awkward double-goodbyes if possible, went down the corridor in the opposite direction. This turned out to be a somewhat bad decision, as it led to an entirely unfamiliar part of the castle, and it was a good fifteen minutes and a good number cramped, winding staircases and dark, unfamiliar corridors later before she got to somewhere she recognized, and another ten after that before she got back to Gryffindor tower.

"Did you do it?" were Ginny's first words as she made room for Hermione on her couch by the fire.

Hermione flopped down beside her, smiling a bit. "Yeah. I did say I'd do it tonight, didn't I?"

"I know you did, just – things can happen. So, how'd it go?" Ginny had inserted herself as part of the planning process from the very moment that Hermione had decided she'd give Pansy another chance (although Ginny seemed to ignore the relationship's highly provisional status most of the time), and once she had gotten used to it, Hermione welcomed these chances to talk about her love life with someone else. Hermione supposed Ginny the only reason that it hadn't happened earlier was that they hadn't been as close friends when she was going out with Viktor, and honestly, there hadn't been that much to talk about.

"It went fine," she said, smiling slightly to herself. She didn't know what to call it other than that; fun didn't exactly cover it, and effective seemed too dry and businesslike even by Hermione's standards.

"Did you ask her about ….?"

Hermione knew what Ginny was talking about without her having to say. "No, I didn't think now was the best time – she'd just lie if she was really planning something bad, and I don't see how asking her about that would do much good at this point. I just asked if she'd want to come to Hogsmeade with me, and she said she'd be delighted, and we set up a time and everything."

Ginny's sigh was laced with disapproval – Hermione knew that she had wanted her to inquire into Pansy's motives before she went out with her again, not after – but it didn't stop her seemingly unquenchable curiosity. "Well, where'd you decide on?"

"Madam Puddifoot's." Hermoine grinned at Ginny's shocked look.

"Hermione! But that's the same place twice, you can't do that! Where's your imagination? It'll be just like the first date!"

"Precisely," said Hermione, and Ginny quieted down. "If it's boring and unoriginal, and she still wants to keep going out with me, then at least we know she's not in it for the novelty. That rules out one possible motive, at least." Though how many others it left, Hermione didn't know.

"Hmm, good point," said Ginny, considering. "But now you're acting all Slytherin about it; I still say you should just ask her…and what if she doesn't get bored easily?"

"Then she doesn't get bored easily, and there's nothing I can do about it. But I don't have to make this any more interesting for her than it has to be; it's not like I'm trying to make her stick around."

Ginny grinned teasingly. "But you wouldn't mind if she did, would you?"

Hermione had no answer for this.

After a moment, when it was apparent that Ginny was done with her for the time being, she opened her bag to get the book she had been reading lately, under Ginny's amused gaze. Without Harry's and Ron's homework in addition to her own, she found that she had more free time than usual, not to mention that the N.E.W.T. review sessions she had blocked out for the three of them went much quicker alone. She spent some of her time helping Ginny review for her O.W.L.'s, but even with that she still had large chunks of evening left over after her homework was done on most days.

She had never done so much leisure reading during the school year since primary school, or first year, at least.

Though not all would agree that it was leisure reading, apparently. "Hermione, what are you reading? That thing is huge – you're not studying for the date again, are you?"

Hermione laughed. The impulse that had driven her to the library was strangely gone now, as were her former nerves at the thought of spending time with Pansy. It had been fear of the unknown, she decided, and now that she knew more or less what to expect, she felt far less apprehensive. "No, I'm not studying for the date – though it did come in handy last time, I'll have you know," she informed Ginny. Well, bringing up the Dark gift could just as well have gone very badly, but she had been lucky that time.

The book she was reading now was very old, and thick, (though this was due mostly to the material of the pages rather than their number), and exuded a faint smell of mildew. Madam Pince had had to attach a fresh slip to the inside cover when she checked it out; either it had lost its original one, or it hadn't been checked out since the present system had been implemented. Hermione suspected the latter.

"So what is it then?" Ginny peered at the cover, but it was unmarked.

"It claims to be a translation of an ancient Norse Grimoire; it's half in Runic so I doubt that it was translated much later than it was written, or maybe there was no original and the author was just trying to gain credibility for his own work. Anyway, it's absolutely fascinating; it has mythology, and spells, of course, and accounts of magical beasts and powerful wizards, and I think I even found a few recipes…"

Ginny, knowing well her friend's taste in reading, nodded. "Sounds really interesting! I don't even want to know what the ancient Norse used to eat, though… If you ever get in the mood for some light reading, though, you're always welcome to borrow some of mine." Ginny's reading collection consisted mainly of romance novels ordered from Witch Weekly, and books on Quidditch (both on the sport in general, and on the Holyhead Harpies in particular), and was most definitely lighter reading than anything that could be found in the Hogwarts library.

"I already owled my dad and asked him to send some of mine from home, but thanks." And who knew – maybe it would do her good to look at Ginny's books. There had to be something to be said for not falling entirely out of touch with popular wizarding culture.

Just then, Crookshanks came wandering down from the girls' dormitory, looking as though he had just woken up, and settled himself in front of the fire to give himself a bath. Ginny shrugged in response to Hermione's comment and returned to the essay she was writing, and Hermione picked her book back up, idly petting the cat when he jumped onto the couch and invaded her lap, demanding attention.

-) U C (-


Pansy obeyed the one-word command and opened the door. "You wanted to see me?"

"Ah yes, Parkinson." Snape looked up from the papers on his desk. "It's about your application."

Pansy closed the door behind her and, crossing the small room, sat in the straight-backed chair across from Snape's desk. It was the first time she had been in the former Potions Master's office that year, and it looked like he hadn't spent much time redecorating since his job switch. There were a few scattered defensive instruments about, but most of his office was dominated by a large and well-equipped Potions bench, and three walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding assorted containers of ingredients.

"Let's see here…" Snape paged through what Pansy assumed was her application, and Pansy did her best to project calm and composure. She was a little bit anxious, because she really needed this to work, but it wouldn't do to let him see any sign of nerves.

"Everything seems to be in order," he said, setting the papers down. "Professor Dumbledore has already approved your eligibility take lessons, and now it is up to my own discretion whether to take you on." He steepled his fingers and looked at her over them, probably a gesture meant to intimidate. It might have worked on her, a few years ago, but Pansy did not feel her practiced composure slide. She had much bigger things to worry about than angry teachers.

"Why do you want to take private lessons in Potions, Parkinson?" He paused, but Pansy knew better to interrupt. "You never struck me as one possessed of any particular…passion…for the subject. And it seems the logical choice for instruction would be Professor Slughorn, our current Potions Master; not I."

Pansy allowed herself a small smile. She knew that he'd be almost ready to let her in simply because she was in his House, and already a prefect – otherwise, he would never have granted her this interview – but it wouldn't do to let her in without some nominal reason. She expected she could give him one; the necessary flattery and persuasion and half-truths were second nature to her.

"I've seen enough of Professor Slughorn's teaching by now," she started, "And I'd prefer to learn from the best, if it's all the same."

Snape arched one eyebrow sardonically, but didn't interrupt her.

"I want to take extra Potions now for the advantage it will give me in the future – both at Hogwarts and after. I don't know how to put this, but having an area of expertise will make me that much more attractive for, well…" She feigned embarrassment.

"On the pureblood marriage market?" Snape drawled dryly.

"Yes, sir, essentially…I was going to say for potential suitors, but you understand what I mean…you can't afford to let any advantage slip, and it's definitely not too early to start thinking about these things." Which was true; her own mother had gotten married practically straight out of school. "And frankly, Potions is my best bet if I want to specialize in any subject; I just don't have the magical power to keep up with advanced Transfigurations or Charms, say." It was always good to add a little truth to a lie, to make it more credible. She looked into her lap, as though the admission had pained her.

"So what you're saying is that Potions is a soft option for those who can't manage wand-cast magic much past their sixth year, and you think you should be good at something if you want a chance at marrying well?"

Pansy winced, inwardly, at how easily he believed that a Parkinson couldn't get anyone she wanted in marriage. It used to be that every pureblood family was clamoring to connect themselves to the Parkinsons, and everyone else knew it – she should be perfectly marriageable without acquiring any special qualifications; that was for half-blood's daughters who were trying to rise in society. Now all that mattered was loyalty to the Dark Lord, and the Parkinsons had only very recently pledged him allegiance. They had little social status now, compared to brown-nosing scum like the Malfoys.

"It sounds bad when you put it like that, Sir, but I think they're as good reasons as any – you've often said that Potions is a matter of skill and dedication, and that skill could be acquired if you let me, Sir. And the rest of my life depends on this, so I hardly imagine that I'll be lacking in dedication. You have nothing to worry about my scholarship, if that's your concern."


Snape sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers again, considering. She hoped her story would be convincing enough for him – she knew a sudden passion for Potions would have looked too suspicious, but she doubted he often accepted students who weren't at least as obsessed with the subject as he was. However, she had expressed a strong ambition, and a cunning desire to hide her weaknesses – both qualities which were prized in Slytherins, and which the head of her house would be wont to encourage – and she had hopefully added enough subtle flattery to make up for at least some measure of past indifference to the subject.

"It would be highly irregular for me to take on a student who didn't plan on pursuing a career in Potions, Parkinson, and especially one with a case as convoluted as yours…"

Seeing her chance slipping away, Pansy went out on a limb. "And how many other applicants do you have to choose from, Sir? Is there anyone who would be a better candidate than me?"

His expression soured, but there was a glint of something like admiration in his hooded eyes, as well. "I could put you in detention for a remark like that, Parkinson. But as it so happens, no one else has applied for private Potions lessons with me this year, and you have certainly demonstrated an unexpected persistence on the issue, if nothing else. You do understand that Potions is not a subject to be taken lightly? It is a most precise and demanding art, and that I am not inclined to be lenient with my private scholars. If you were expecting to get by without hard work, then you are mistaken."

"Yes, Sir. I understand," she said, trying not to look over-eager.

"Very well," said Snape. "I trust that you will be able to meet at this time weekly?"

Pansy thought she could detect a tone of amusement, perhaps even curiosity, in his usually cold drawl, but she couldn't be sure.

Pansy nodded, dipping her head to hide the triumphant gleam in her eyes behind her fringe.

"Then we will begin at once."

-) U C (-

"Hello, Parkinson."

"Hey, Granger," Pansy said, noting the other girl's friendly smile. This had become their customary greeting over the past few weeks, on the few times they had occasioned to pass each other alone in the halls between classes or during Prefects' rounds. That smile was a very good sign, even though it didn't come quite as easily when there were other people around. It was enough that Granger didn't feel the need to be so guarded around Pansy; whether she was comfortable with other people seeing them was a question for much later in the game.

"Crummy weather lately," Granger commented as they crossed the village green and fell into step on the road to Madam Puddifoot's teashop.

Pansy made a noise of agreement as she looked up at the sky, which had been full of thickening clouds that had threatened rain since midmorning. "Looks like it might rain."

"Yeah, it probably will," said Hermione, frowning up at the clouds. "I hope Harry didn't schedule Quidditch practice for this afternoon."

Pansy made the agreement noise again, and asked, innocently, "And how's Harry doing?" Pansy knew, of course, that her new presence in Granger's life couldn't sit well with the Golden Trio – she didn't think she had seen them together in several weeks, which piqued her interest - but she was curious just how far Granger's friendliness would extend. Would she throw Pansy out in favor of Potter and Weasley as soon as the issue was broached? Pansy didn't think this at all likely, but it would be prudent to find something like that out before she had invested too much time in the girl.

"He's doing well, I expect," said Hermione with a slight sigh, and her gaze grew distant.

Pansy nodded, and didn't press the matter. It didn't sound like things between them were going well at all – perhaps they had really stopped talking altogether, in which case that meant that Granger had already chosen Pansy over them… Pansy's habit of hiding her emotions were too deeply engrained for her to let out a triumphant laugh, but it was a near thing.

A little bell tinkled as they opened the door to the teashop, and the two girls followed a bubbly waitress – indistinguishable from the one from last time – through the maze of frilly little tables and chairs. The place was relatively full of amorous couples, due to the questionable weather and the lateness of the day, but most of the room's occupants were too absorbed in each other to look up as the girls passed.

Since Pansy had met Granger on the way over, there had been no chance to arrange a special table, and consequently, they were seated in plain view of most of the other occupants of the teashop. Pansy could see them giving covert – or not so covert – glances towards her and Granger. She glared pointedly at one particularly brazen Hufflepuff girl, but other than that, she knew she'd have to put up with some measure of staring. It wasn't every day you saw a Slytherin and a Gryffindor girl going out on a date together in the middle of Hogsmeade. She knew that people would talk, but that had been bound to happen sooner or later anyway. And this was never meant to be a secret relationship.

She had a feeling that it would work with Granger, but what wouldn't work was giving Granger the idea that she had something to hide.

Granger chuckled when Pansy shot another glare at some rude Fourth Year Slytherin who she didn't know. "I don't mind if they look, you know. We couldn't stop them if we tried, and it's not like we're doing anything secret. Just talking."

Pansy assured her that she didn't mind people looking, either, it was just when they were unendurably rude that she felt she had to do something about it.

Granger chuckled again, and they fell into easy small talk, pausing when the waitress returned with their tea and again when another waitress came through pushing a cart full of small, delicate cakes and pastries, of which Granger took several. Pansy took one too, even though she wasn't feeling particularly hungry, just so that Granger wouldn't be the only one eating. Granger definitely seemed to be acting more comfortable around Pansy, and she wanted to encourage this feeling. She seemed much less reserved than last time, and she no longer acted so unsure of herself, as though she wasn't sure she should be there.

Pansy gave herself most of the credit for this change; she had played it just right so far, and the conclusions that Granger had obviously come to about her on her own were just the ones Pansy had wanted. And she was very glad that it had happened so fast, too; now that the initial barrier of awkwardness was down, she could apply herself in earnest to figuring out what would make Granger fall in love with her.

Pansy kept half her attention on the light conversation, which was easy enough to maintain, and the other half on Granger. It didn't take much to notice the way she would scrutinize Pansy more closely when she thought she wasn't looking, or the more telling way she would drop her gaze into her teacup whenever their eyes happened to make contact. Pansy hardly even had to flirt at all; Granger was practically doing the job for her, although for the most part, she was hiding her feelings admirably. If Pansy had been a little less perceptive, she might have missed the telltale signs of a budding crush altogether.

They talked about a number of things, gradually moving from the weather and Quidditch – neither of them had much to say about that – to Professor Slughorn's latest assignment, and from there to Potions in general, where it came out that Pansy was taking private lessons with Snape.

It was then that Pansy found that her lie to Snape, about how gaining a field of expertise would make her a more attractive mate, was more true than she had anticipated. Granger instantly and exuberantly congratulated her, and there was no missing that new look of respect she bestowed on her.

Pansy didn't quite know what to do with it – she had never looked to compete academically with the Gryffindor; Granger was in a league of her own. But respect, even unlooked-for, couldn't hurt, could it? Pansy realized that this seduction might be quite a bit more complicated than she had anticipated, but instead of being discouraged by the prospect, she found herself energized. Here, finally, was a challenge worthy of her.

And indeed, she had rarely felt as engaged as she felt right now, sitting in a chintzy, emptying teashop, nibbling on a pastry with a ridiculous name, trying to figure out her ex-rival. Manipulating Draco had never been this much fun.

The conversation turned from classes their respective weekends so far – Granger's had been good, Pansy's busy – and then back to classes again, where Granger complained (complained!) that she had too much free time, and they debated over whether or not sixth year was harder than fifth year.

All the time, Pansy was trying to figure out just how flirtatious she should be, and read between the lines of everything Granger was saying. Pansy knew how she wanted this affair to end up, but as for how she would accomplish that, she was making it up as she went along.

Granger caught on pretty quick about the flirting, after Pansy had just happened to reach for the sugar spoon at the exact same instant as her for the second time, but even though her look said she knew what Pansy was up to, she didn't seem to mind. Pansy thought she shouldn't overplay that part, anyway.

From the way she talked about her friends, Pansy got the sense that there was something missing there. Not only did it appear that she hadn't spent time with Potter or Weasley in weeks, but her dorm mates sounded like clones of Pansy's own. There was the girl-Weasley to think about, but if Granger suffered from a dearth of female companionship, that might make Pansy's job even easier…

As a fact-finding mission, the date had been a success.

Even though Pansy had never before spent this much time on a date discussing academics – Granger had wound back around to the subject of private lessons, and her regret that she had not elected to take any. Academics did make a conveniently safe subject to go to, since so much of their shared past was off-limits for fear of ruining the mood, and Granger seemed no more inclined to start a discussion about the more deeply personal details of her self than Pansy did.

Pansy dragged herself out of her musings in time to listen to the tail end of what Granger was saying and nod in all the right places.

"…Though I'm starting to think maybe I should have applied for some, with any professor at all, if only to pass the time. I've still got extra time, even counting N.E.W.T. review sessions –"

Pansy grinned, not unkindly. Of course Granger had already started studying for her N.E.W.T.'s; how could she do otherwise? It was so perfectly her.

Though too much lofty talk of academics could easily ruin the mood too, and they had gone on far too long without Granger blushing. "Oh, I can think of plenty of things you could do with your time…" Pansy spoke in a slightly lower voice, and was gratified to see a flush instantly spread across Granger's cheeks. It was just so easy to get her flustered, and so fun to watch it happen, and Pansy had to remind herself that the ultimate point was to draw Granger in, not scare her away.

Toward that end, Pansy casually changed the subject as though she had meant no innuendo by her previous remark. "Such as heading back up to the castle before it gets too nasty out there – look, it's already starting to rain."

And so it was; scattered drops were making marks on the window and damping the cobblestones outside, slowly, but with no sign of letting up. Most of the shop's occupants seemed to have realized this before they did; and the waitresses were swiftly cleaning up around the one or two lingering couples.

Granger looked out the window, and then at the clock on the wall. "Oh! We've been here longer than I thought, too. You didn't have anywhere else to go before you went back, did you?"

"I was planning on going to Dervish & Banges before I left, but if it starts raining any harder…" she trailed off, hoping Granger would be dissuaded from further inquiry. She wasn't.

"It doesn't look like it will, not soon, anyway. We could go together, even - Ginny's probably at practice, and I haven't got anything really important to do."

Pansy hesitated a moment before answering. Yes, she did have a bit of shopping she still needed to do, but she had been saving it until after her friends were gone for a reason. It wasn't a purchase she wanted anyone seeing her make. But then again, Granger didn't seem the gossipy type, and wasn't likely to go off and tell what they had been doing to anyone who mattered. And she didn't want Granger to get the impression that she was trying to keep things from her.

"Alright, you're more than welcome to come if you want," she said, making a split-second decision. "I still say we'll have to hurry, though; I really don't fancy a walk all the way up to Hogwarts in the rain."

Granger grinned and flagged down the nearest waitress, whom she proceeded to pay, rather smugly, Pansy thought.

"So are we even now, Granger?" she asked, showing that she had not missed it.

"Much better now, yes," said Granger, still smiling a bit smugly. "I think we can stay that way too if we just split the bill from now on," she continued. Her tone could have been described as matter-of-fact if she hadn't been speaking almost too quickly for Pansy to catch the individual words.

"Are you making a proposition?" Pansy asked, cocking an eyebrow and leaning into her personal space a little.

Predictably, Granger got flustered again. "I – well, that is, not unless you…I mean, just as a matter of logistics, hypothetically."

Pansy smirked, and let the Gryffindor's babbled sentence speak for itself. "Right."

Granger averted her eyes and a flush could be seen creeping up her neck. Pansy loved this. Draco didn't get flustered; he just got lecherous. And she had long ago lost the novelty of playing with him.

They half-jogged over to the shop, shielding their heads with their arms, although this turned out to be mostly unnecessary. The rain was still falling in sparse, windblown drops that failed to get anything very wet.

"So, what did you need to get?" Granger asked, once they had reached the shelter of the shop.

"Expandable chest, or something to that effect," Pansy said, heading off toward the section devoted to magical storage solutions, with Granger following.

The wizened proprietor - Pansy had no idea whether he was Dervish or Banges – nodded at them from the till as they entered, then bent back over his ledger.

"Clutter's getting a bit much; I should have gotten one of these things long time ago," she offered by way of explanation.

In truth, she had never been a cluttered person, and certainly wasn't now, but Granger didn't know that. What Pansy was really looking for was a place to keep all the things that she didn't want her roommates to see, ever; and they had already grown beyond the capacity of the tiny hidden compartment of her school chest.

It had started off with just that one parchment of lists and strategies, which was easily enough concealed or carried about, but now her collection of hard-to-explain objects had grown to include several samples of powerful potions – the Veritaserumed butterbeer, the Draught of Living Death she had brewed on the first day, and her prize for that, the Felix Felicis potion – not to mention the extra Potions equipment that Snape had loaned to her, and the accompanying advanced textbook. None of her classmates knew yet that she was taking lessons with Snape, and things would be easier if it stayed that way.

"How about this one?" Granger had browsed ahead of her in the shelves, to the other end of the small storage section, and was holding up a black dragonhide briefcase. "It says it contains eight different drawers, perfect for keeping all your documents in order…" She stopped reading off the tag and looked up, expectantly.

Pansy laughed. "I don't think I'll be needing to do much filing in the near future, actually." Pansy wandered down the narrow aisle and into the next one, trailing her fingers on the shelf. She could feel Granger's eyes on her, watching her through the shelves, and smiled to herself. Pansy stopped suddenly and glanced up sharply, catching her staring, but Granger, to her credit, was beginning to master her nerves.

"What about this one then?" she asked, not looking greatly disturbed to have been caught looking. Pansy, concluding that there was nothing good on this side, went back around to Granger's side to consider the indicated chest.

"Hmm, not bad. A bit unwieldy, though; I was hoping to find something that would fit in my trunk…"

Granger stood on her tiptoes to see the highest shelf. "Would a bag work?"

A bag? Pansy looked up at the selection that Granger was looking at, which contained everything from little silk handbags to full-size leather rucksacks – none of which would really work for her purposes. "No, I was really just looking for a regular chest," she said, bending down to see a shelf that looked promising, containing "Brodkin's Ever-Expanding Boxes."

"Well, if you already know what you want, why don't you just make it?" asked Hermione, coming up beside her.

"Make one?" Pansy asked, incredulous. What kind of person would you have to be to consider making a magical chest to be a valid alternative to buying one? It was pretty advanced magic for anyone, not just a sixth-year Hogwarts student, taking power, finesse, not to mention knowledge of spells Pansy didn't even know the names of - which was why people like Brodkin got rich selling such artifacts to ordinary wizards and witches.

"Well, yeah. If you don't find anything here that suits," said Granger, as though it was nothing. It made Pansy wonder what else Granger took for granted like that.

Pansy wondered what kind of person you had to be to consider making a magical chest, instead of buying one. That was pretty advanced magic for anyone, not just a sixth-year student at Hogwarts. It made her wonder what else Granger took for granted like that.

"Do you think you could really make one of these?"

"I think so," she said, her eyes lighting up again the way they had in the teashop when she found out Pansy was taking Potions lessons. "I read about making them in a book before, and it didn't seem exactly simple, but I think I could get the hang of it if I took the book out again and practiced a bit. It was really interesting how they –" She broke off, looking a bit abashed. "But I'm going on, you're probably bored already…"

"I'm not bored!" reassured Pansy, eagerly. Making Granger light up like that was surely a good thing, and just what she needed to learn to do reliably if he project was to succeed. When Granger didn't continue, she prompted, "So how do they work? Everyone uses them, but I don't even know the theory; it must be really interesting."

Granger's eyes lit up again. "Oh, it is!" And she proceeded to explain the theory behind putting large spaces into small physical containers at depth while Pansy browsed the selection of Brodkin's Boxes for one that would serve her purposes.

Pansy, listening with more than half an ear, found that the theory really was interesting, or at least Granger was explaining it in such a way that it seemed so. She found herself wishing that there was someone like Granger in Slytherin; everyone else suddenly seemed very dull by comparison. Or more dull; Pansy had never had a terribly high opinion of her classmates to begin with.

In the end, Pansy settled on the second-smallest box; it had three internal compartments that the lid revealed depending on which lock you used, each at least big enough to contain a good-sized stack of books. The box appeared to be an ordinary-sized chest of pine with brass fittings, of the kind she already used for her toiletries and personal effects. It was perfectly unobtrusive, except for maybe its triple-lock.

The two girls amused themselves while they waited for the aged shopkeeper to come out from the back room by making fun of the styles of all the other magical storage solutions – some of the bags were simply atrocious, and neither could see any merit at all in a coat rack disguised as a boot. Pansy found, to her surprise, that she was actually having fun, in a way that she never did when she was with her own friends.

They left the shop with Pansy clutching her brown paper bag and Granger still giggling every so often. The clouds had closed in for good while they were inside, and it was now dark as well as raining, and the drops were falling faster every minute. Both girls pulled their cloaks tighter about them, but Hermione held up a hand.

"We'd get completely soaked before we get up to the castle; hang on."

Pansy glanced up at the sky, huddled tighter against the budding tempest, and hung on. She hoped whatever Granger was doing with her wand at her cloak was worth standing out in the rain for, when they could be heading toward warmth, dryness, and food. Granger worked a little longer, her forehead temporarily creasing as she muttered at the cloak, and then smoothing out again when she had accomplished whatever it was she was trying to do.

She pulled the top of her cloak, which now seemed a lot bigger, over her head, and turned to Pansy. "There. I made it waterproof, and big enough to keep out at least most of the rain. Want me to do yours?"

Pansy was reasonably confident that she could have managed it on her own if Granger showed her the waterproofing spell, but that wasn't the point here. "Would you?" she asked. "That would be lovely. I'd be sopping wet otherwise, and not in the good way." She smirked, not unkindly, at Granger, but the other girl refused to meet her eyes as she worked.

In a matter of moments, Pansy's cloak had been likewise rain-poncho-ized, and they stood close enough together that their impromptu hoods met and formed a sort of tent between them, shielding their faces from the rain.

"That was lovely spell-work," she said, catching Granger's arm as she went to push back a wayward strand of hair. "Thank you." Pansy moved her fingers up and down along the inside of Granger's wrist, where the skin was softest.

"I – oh honestly, it was nothing," Granger blustered, seeming thrown off in equal measures by the compliment and Pansy's languid touch.

"Well, nothing or not, I still feel as though I owe you something for it," Pansy said, in a low voice, continuing the lazy motion on Granger's wrist.

Granger made as if to remove her hand from Pansy's grasp, but then stilled the motion as though she had thought better of it. "Oh, really? Like what?" Her eyes darted up to meet Pansy's, and Pansy could see some nervousness there, but much stronger was the anticipation and the steely determination with which Granger seemed to approach all things.

"Like this, maybe," she said, and leaned forward to kiss Granger on her still-parted lips. She didn't jerk away, as Pansy had half-expected, and Pansy, using her advantage while she had it, deepened the kiss slightly. Kissing Granger was actually quite pleasant, she decided, now that she had gotten her first real impression of what it was like. It was arguably better than when she was running away, though that had been pretty funny in itself.

Granger was minutely shaking by the time she pulled away for air a moment later, but by the look in her eye, the nerves hadn't won over yet. "Isn't that supposed to be my job?" she asked, smiling as she pushed a damp strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand. "Being the one who asked you out and all," she continued, her tone matter-of-fact and slightly breathless.

A sly half-smile crept across Pansy's face, and she raised an eyebrow. "If you say so."

And then Granger, in a move that was spurred mostly, if not purely, by Gryffindor bravado, kissed Pansy back. She didn't close her eyes either, which surprised Pansy nearly as much as the kiss itself, honestly. Pansy had expected to have to do a lot more coaxing, and maybe steal a few more kisses, before Granger was really sold on the idea, and this, as chaste a kiss as it admittedly was, showed things to be going along much faster than Pansy had even predicted.

Keeping this in mind, Pansy constrained herself to returning the light closed-mouth kisses Granger was pressing on her lips, and for the moment didn't try to go any farther. Her strategy, which had seemed to work brilliantly so far, was to alternately push a little too far and then dance out of reach, keeping Granger constantly on her toes, constantly chasing after Pansy, giving her the illusion that she was taking most of the initiative, and not Pansy.

Their hands had somehow slipped together while they were kissing so that it was unclear who was holding whose, and Granger looked at those when she spoke, her hesitation belying her momentary confidence. "Was that ok?"

Pansy deliberately intertwined her fingers with Granger's before she answered, a gesture of affection that was practically alien to her. It seemed to work on the other girl, though, for she squeezed Pansy's hand back a bit more confidently.

"You were lovely," she said, and Granger blushed for the first time since they had been standing out in the rain. "Though, if I remember correctly, it's the one who gets asked who has to kiss the asker at the end of the date." She grinned wickedly, and Granger's voice rose in slightly amused indignation.

"For goodness' sake! And you just let me -!"

"Well, you didn't look as though you minded at the time," said Pansy.

Granger huffed, but it didn't quench her small smile. "Stupid rule anyway. You probably just made it up…"

Pansy just smiled enigmatically and chose not to answer, and also chose not to notice Granger's slightly expectant look. She knew how this worked, and a good part of it was always leaving them wanting a bit more.

"Shall we go up to the castle now? No matter how well this waterproofing spell works, it's still not keeping me from getting cold, and I don't fancy missing supper, either."

"Mmm, me neither," Granger agreed, and checked the time. "We'd better hurry then."

They walked back up to the castle in relative silence, any attempts at conversation muffled at once by the rain and their baggy, makeshift hoods, and only passed a few stragglers on the way. Pansy couldn't be sure, but she thought she might have heard Granger humming under her breath.

When they parted ways in the entrance hall – Pansy cited a need to drop off her shopping to get out of entering dinner late with Granger, an event that would surely make a spectacle – Granger's smile and accompanying goodbye were unguardedly shy for the first time that day.

Pansy stood and watched her go for a minute before she shook her head to clear it, and turned toward her dormitory. She had things to do before everyone got back from supper.

-) U C (-

Hermione collapsed onto Ginny's bed with a slight "oof," smiling blissfully. The smile had never really left her face since she had entered the Great Hall late for supper, still wearing her cloak as though she had just gotten back from Hogsmeade.

Ginny put down her book without marking her place – it was one of her favorite trashy romance novels, and it didn't much matter where you picked up reading it anyway – and wiggled her feet, which were trapped under her friend.

"Get up, you're crushing my feet! And what's got you in such a good mood, anyway?" Even as she asked, she had a pretty good idea of what it was, and she felt the corners of her mouth begin tug up in a grin to rival Hermione's. But she didn't want to steal Hermione's news and ruin her moment.

Hermione obliged and shifted off Ginny's feet, but didn't get up or stop grinning. "Guess," she said, folding her arms behind her head, staring up at the canopy benevolently.

"Well, it was obviously something that happened this afternoon," she said, still hoping to draw Hermione into a confession.

Hermione nodded.

Ginny's resolve to let Hermione be the one to tell broke. "It's Pansy again, right?" Hermione nodded again, and Ginny squealed. "I knew it! This has got to be good. What happened?"

She bounced on her knees a little bit, and strove (mostly in vain) to calm herself. Hermione needed a friend and confidant now, not some giddy schoolgirl – even if the news was terribly exciting, and even if she did have pronounced giddy schoolgirl tendencies. She blamed them on the influence of her dorm mates, since nothing about living at the Burrow with six boys would have encouraged anything like that.

Hermione just grinned wider. "I said to guess!"

Ginny threw out several improbable guesses, all of which earned her giggles and headshakes. She was beginning to see that her worries about giddy schoolgirlness had been centered on the wrong person. She couldn't remember ever seeing Hermione quite like this, and it might have even worried her if it wasn't so infectious.

"Ok, let me think…she proclaimed her everlasting love for you and proposed marriage!"

Hermione giggled again and rolled her eyes expansively, taking in most of the empty fifth-year girls' dormitory. "No, don't be silly, she didn't do anything like that!"

"Um, she snogged the wits out of you and it was the best you've ever had."

Hermione gestured defeat. "Close enough, close enough, stop!" She rolled over onto her side and began picking off lint from Ginny's blanket, her smile not abating as she spoke. "I don't know about the best I've ever had, but it was certainly better than last time."

Ginny felt a niggling concern, but in her current mood, it was momentarily overpowered by the excitement. "She kissed you?! Oh my goodness, was she good? Was it with tongue?" And then, once she had marginally controlled herself, "But what do you mean about last time - why didn't you say?"

"The first time hardly counted, that's why." Hermione was seriously mistreating the blanket now. "And besides, I was still sorting out what I thought about it. I probably would have told you, otherwise... It was good though," she admitted, smiling a slow smile that didn't look like it was directed toward Ginny at all.

Ginny sighed. As curious as she admittedly was to see a real live two-female relationship, and as eager as she was for Hermione to find love (finally), some deep protective instinct welled up and blotted all the rest out. "Hermione, I know you're happy about this…and, well, don't take this the wrong way…but wouldn't this be exactly how she'd want you to react if she was trying to, well, seduce you for some evil purpose?"

Hermione sighed heartily and redoubled her efforts on the blanket. "I know; I've already gone over all that a thousand times, it seems. It really isn't simple, no matter how you look at it…"

"God, if only it had been anyone else," Ginny railed ineffectively. None of this would be so hard if they weren't dealing with Pansy Parkinson, of all people. Why couldn't some nice girl have asked Hermione out?

"The problem is, we just don't know anything; that's what's making this so frustrating. The only way to know if she will do anything is just to wait it out though; it would be silly to go and ask her if she had anything bad planned and expect a straight answer. And if she didn't, that would just do more harm than good…"

"Right, we don't know anything yet – but you couldn't at least try to talk to her about it?" Hermione shook her head, muttering something about it being bad timing. "Well, I think it would make all this simpler if you did. You don't have to work this all out on your own, you know; she might actually have something worthwhile to say for herself."

"Right…" said Hermione, and Ginny wondered if the glint in her eye and her returning smile meant that she was contemplating other things she could do with Pansy on the same trip. She shook her head helplessly and gave up trying to convince Hermione for the time being. She did have a point, and if she said she knew what she was doing then Ginny would trust her.

"So, what exactly did she do that got you in such a state?" Ginny demanded, after a sufficiently serious pause had elapsed. She wasn't about to let Hermione get away without telling her; no matter what other issues there were complicating things, it wasn't often that Hermione acted like this about anything. The story was bound to be good.

"Oh, it was just a kiss, not anything big – no good reason for me to be acting silly like this…"

Ginny thought Hermione had the right to act a bit silly once in a while, and told her so, before she turned to teasing out the rest of the story in earnest. There was clearly something about Pansy Parkinson that got to Hermione, and from what she was saying, the Slytherin didn't sound half-bad, really. Ginny had high hopes for the future of the relationship, should Pansy's motives turn out to be pure. The worst that could happen was that Ginny would have to show Pansy just what happened to those who tried to harm Ginny's friends, and she doubted it would actually come to that.

-) U C (-

In the other tower, beyond windows already darkened, Harry rolled over, tangling his blankets around him further, and awoke with an anguished cry. He stayed like that for a while, clutching his forehead and breathing deeply, before he disentangled himself and gingerly sat up in bed.

He had gone to bed practically right after supper, driven by exhaustion, and a desire, which proved to be futile, to just sleep for once, and wake up rested.

He had been dreaming about Voldemort again.

The dreams had been coming almost every night for the past few days, robbing him of sleep, but they had been frustratingly vague, just dream snippets that never played out into a full scene. Nor could he read any emotion off of them, save perhaps an undefined restlessness. He had wondered, the first couple of times, what the dreams could mean, but by now he was beyond caring. It was bad enough to have to suffer for dreams that were actually informative; this was simply cruel.

The dreams left him with nothing more than bags under his eyes, and the realization that to sit alone in the dark, after one has just woken up screaming at nothing, felt incredibly lonely.

Eventually, a fitful sleep claimed him, and he surrendered to it, hoping that by the time he woke up, it all would have passed.

-) U C (-

Away from both towers, down in the dungeons of the castle, Pansy knelt over her open trunk, and was not happy either. She knew exactly the cause though, as it was immediately evident. Or rather, its absence was.

Her vial of Felix Felicis was missing.

Some part of her refused to believe the evidence of her eyes, and made her hands search again and again through the detritus at the bottom of her trunk; it was such a tiny thing, and easily misplaced…

But a larger part knew that her fingers would not come into contact with the cool glass, and that she could take out everything from the trunk one by one and shake them out, but she still wouldn't find it. She had a good idea of who had taken it, though she didn't know how he would have managed. Too many people had seen her win the potion and envied her, but only one had considered it a personal injustice against himself.

Pansy methodically packed the rest of her secret things – which remained untouched – into her new chest, all the while feeling bile rising in her chest, spawning questions with no answers and knowledge that came too late.

Why had she just assumed it would be safe in her trunk? If only she had shopped faster, gotten up to the castle faster, not spent so much time having fun. Bad things happened when she let her control slip.

If only Millicent – Millicent, who could be in on it, for all she knew – hadn't been up here when she arrived at the dormitory during supper, if only she had just gotten here a bit sooner, she might have been in time…

She angrily double-checked that everything else was safely tucked away in the chest, even though she knew it was, and angrily locked it and put the whole thing away. Pansy didn't like being angry, which just made things worse now – she was furious that she had been robbed, of course, and she even knew who had been behind it and suspected who could have helped – but there was nothing she could do about it. Not if she wanted to betray the existence of the rest of her secret stash, which whoever had been in her trunk had to have seen.

She kicked the side of her trunk as she closed it, glad that no one was there to see her immature outburst, but all it earned her was a sore toe. Spitefully, she hoped that Draco, or whoever it was, fucking enjoyed their lucky day. They had better, because she certainly wasn't going to.

-) U C (-

Ok, so here's the deal...I'm going to be leaving for my semester abroad (wheee!!) in a few weeks, and don't know how often I'll be able to write. So until further notice, this will just update whenever I get the chance...I feel bad, but it's the best I can do!

Also, I was wondering if y'all could weigh in on a related a long chapter like this, with a lot of time between updates, or short, somewhat more frequent updates better? I'm curious what you think about it, if anything!

ALSO, I'm looking for another beta for this story! If any of you have been lurking around, wishing you got more say in the writing process, now's your chance! I'd really prefer someone who's been reading the story all along, so don't be shy! (Please, really! I don't want to have to go searching through the scary beta lists again.)

And, I'll try to get one more update, even if it has to be a short one, up before I leave :)