A/N: written for a challenge at sapphic hp. Thanks to Lena for the beta.
Warnings: girl love.
The Throttling Two-feet Tulip likes damp, moist soils on the edge of forests, preferably with trees close by to grow against. As soon as the Tulip reaches the top of the tree, it releases its poison into the bark of the unfortunate host tree, cutting off its circulation, which results in
Hermione jumped, breaking the tip of her quill as she thrust it too hard onto the parchment. Ink spattered all over her essay and hands. Startled, she looked up to see Millicent Bulstrode wiping the ink droplets off her face with her sleeve and looking irate.
There was a moment of stunned pause in which they just looked at each other. Madam Pince threw them a dirty look as she stalked by, but said nothing.
"If you want to live, Granger," Millicent said slowly, "you'd better be here next Wednesday at three. Don't bring any of your stupid Gryffindor chums – just come alone. I need a tutor for Muggle Studies." Her scowl deepened. "And who'd be better for that than you, right?"
Hermione blinked. "What?" she sputtered, but Millicent had already swung her bag around her shoulder, just narrowly missing a passing second year, and turned on her heel. "Just be there," she spat out over her shoulder and stalked off.
When Hermione had finally collected herself enough to gather her things and leave the library, she felt strangely at odds, as if she'd missed something huge, something important.
Millicent came crashing into the library on Thursday, stomping her feet wildly as if she was an elephant startled into a panic. She ignored Madam Pince's angry cries and made straight for Hermione's table.
"Granger," she wrung out between clenched teeth, "you weren't here yesterday. I told you to be here."
Hermione sucked in a shaky breath and straightened. "Yes, you did, Bulstrode, but you never asked me to be here. I had other plans."
Millicent pushed out her heavy chin. "I told you I needed a tutor."
"Yes, you did. Are you going to make me? Are you going to grab my head and squash it until it pops, like you tried in second year?"
The Slytherin blinked, but ignored the reference to their disastrous duelling experience. "Fine then." Millicent glared, looking as though she'd just swallowed a lemon whole. "Granger. Will you be my tutor for Muggle Studies. Please." Her expression was pained, but she continued. "I need help. I need your help."
Afterwards, Hermione found she didn't exactly know why she'd said yes.
"Yes, I understood that in class, Granger, but what's the point of it?"
Hermione ran her hand through her hair, an action she'd repeated so many times that afternoon that the normally unruly curls lay flat and lifeless on her head. She squashed the urge to bash Millicent's skull in with her Muggle Studies book.
"Because that's what technology is for, for crying out loud! Look, the computer is a revolutionary invention –"
"Oh, I don't doubt that at all! But these –" Millicent squinted and leaned closer to the book, "– 'computer games' are just simulations, right? Why don't Muggle children go out and play real games, instead of these re-enactments? What's the fun in that?"
Millicent's expression as she looked up at Hermione was one of genuine confusion, and Hermione suddenly realised she didn't have an answer.
"World War Two is one of the few major historical events that wizards and Muggles share closely. Naturally, Muggle knowledge of how the basic Nazi ideology is influenced by the magical political climate of that time is nonexistent, but nevertheless it is an interesting (if horrible) example of Muggle-Wizard relations and how these can go terribly awry."
Hermione glanced up from the book to look at Millicent. The other girl had a faraway look on her face and was resting her chin in her hand. It seemed as if she hadn't really been listening, but Hermione knew that was mostly a façade. Whenever they were talking about mergings of magical and muggle culture, the Slytherin perked up and couldn't hide her fascination.
"Do you know anything about this, Bulstrode?" Hermione asked softly. She knew it would pay more to let Millicent talk about what she knew than recite endless text out of the book.
"Of course I do," she answered, without changing her expression to something more lively, "my father used to tell me stories all the time. My grandfather was a soldier in the SS army. He volunteered."
Hermione couldn't suppress a small gasp of horror. Millicent's gaze shifted to the present again and she looked at Hermione with a sharp edge in her eyes.
"My grandfather was a noble man, Granger. Just, loyal, truthful. But even the most insightful of people were easily fooled by Hitler's phenomenal rhetoric talent. And once you realised what was really going on, you'd better keep quiet or you'd be shipped off to one of those anonymous cemeteries, as well. How do you think the Dark Lord ever rose to power in the first place? Politics, Granger." Her eyes were gleaming unnaturally. "It's all just a repeat of the same theme, only with Hitler it was slightly different. He was a Squib and had been rejected by his traditional pure-blooded family. He grew up in an environment of hate and saw it fit to project that everywhere."
Hermione didn't think she'd ever been this cold.
She slammed the book shut, needing to get air, and didn't even stop to wonder when Millicent followed her out.
"You're a pureblood."
"Well-spotted, Granger." Millicent was picking at a thread in her robe, looking decidedly unimpressed with everything. They were almost alone and felt pressed to whisper.
"I just mean… I don't mean anything, I think. But you're a pureblood. And you're friends with Malfoy, aren't you?"
Millicent's lip curled slightly. "I know him, yes. We're housemates. Our families are old friends." She looked at Hermione, as if daring her to ask on.
She did. "So you like him?"
The other girl sighed deeply, rolling her eyes elaborately. "No, Granger, I don't. I think he's a pathetic little pushover who should dedicate his energy to something more worthwhile than taunt your little friends all the time, and whine about it when it doesn't work out the way he wanted it. I don't like him. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have his back as a fellow Slytherin if something happened." A dark look. "Not everything is as black and white as Gryffindors like to make it out, Granger."
Hermione fiddled with her quill. "Oh."
When they parted ways, Hermione thought to herself she'd never expected herself to feel so grotesquely out of place in her own library.
"It's getting cold," Hermione said one Wednesday afternoon in late November and rubbed her arms as if to prove her point.
Millicent looked up from the essay about electricity usage in Muggle cities she was writing with a bit of Hermione's help. "Well, it's almost winter," she said disinterestedly.
"I know," Hermione said, shivering, "but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"I've always liked winter," Millicent said noncommittally, continuing her essay, "at least during winter everybody wears clothes."
Hermione couldn't stifle her laugh completely, and it came out in a strange snort.
Millicent looked up, eyes slightly shiny. "For crying out loud, Granger, stop fidgeting. Here." She untied her silver-green striped scarf from her neck and tossed it over the table. "Maybe now you'll stop whining about the cold."
Hermione caught the scarf in a reflex. She stared at it for a moment, and then wound it around her neck. It was still warm and it smelled different from her own; spicier somehow, as if Millicent liked her foods more exotically spiced than Hermione did.
Millicent said nothing, but Hermione saw the lift of the corners of her mouth.
One week in December, Hermione had been waiting for fifteen minutes, getting increasingly angry at Millicent, when a short Slytherin boy came in.
"Hermione Granger?" he asked with obvious distaste. When Hermione nodded, he continued: "I had a message from Millicent Bulstrode. She's in the Hospital Wing with the flu."
Hermione wondered why she felt so strange, as if something in her chest had been deflated.
"So, all better, I guess?" Hermione laughed nervously as the other girl dropped her bag on the table.
Millicent raised her eyebrow. "I'm here, aren't I?" She was pale and seemed to move with less vigour than usually. She sat down heavily and looked at Hermione.
"Muggle transportation methods?" she asked.
Hermione nodded and opened her book on the right page.
"Wait," Millicent said and reached a hand into her bag, "have this first." She took out a bag with two slightly crumbled gingerbread men and handed one to Hermione, who took it with a questioning look. The Slytherin shrugged. "Daphne's got this odd thing for baking and she brought them round while I was ill. There are too many just for me."
They kept silent as they munched away together.
Hermione had never tasted a gingerbread man this good before.
"Why are you taking Muggle Studies, Bulstrode?"
"It's loads better than Arithmancy."
A sigh. "And I kind of like it. It's like learning about an exotic culture, only not so far away."
"Have you been crying?" The question really wasn't one, blunt and sudden.
Hermione's head snapped up, cursing herself silently. Had she not made sure her eyes weren't red and puffy anymore?
"Why… Why do you ask, Bulstrode?" She had really no desire to look Millicent in the eye right now, but somehow she ended up doing just that.
The Slytherin was chewing on the tip of her quill, face sharp. "Firstly, because that horrible blue eye shadow really doesn't help one bit, and secondly, because you look unhappy, you act unhappy, you sound unhappy, and I don't like that one bit."
"Look, it's really none of your business, all right? Don't you just want to talk about the witch hunts?" Hermione knew she sounded slightly desperate, and that bothered her.
"You really don't want to talk about the witch hunts, so no. I don't want to do this if you're not really interested. And you're obviously not really going to be interested until you've let it out, so tell me. Had a row with your friends?"
Hermione gaped, dumbstruck. How did she…?
"I'll take that as a yes," Millicent said smoothly. "What about?"
Hermione shook her head slowly. "No. Bulstrode, I don't –"
"Well, if you're not going to tell me, I'm going to have to guess. Hmm, let me think…" She tapped the side of her face with her index finger and pretended to be in deep thought. "Oh, I know! They don't want you to tutor a filthy Slytherin, is that it?"
Hermione shook her head, a strange fear welling up inside of her.
"No? Oh, that's good. Well, what else could it be… Oh, yes. Finally told them you're a lesbian?" Millicent fluttered her eyelashes mockingly.
It felt like Hermione's heart effectively stopped. "How…"
"Just think about it, Granger," Millicent said and didn't even try to conceal her grin.
Hermione hadn't felt the need to cry again that day.
"Why are you taking Muggle Studies, Granger?" It was a deathly cold January, and the library was always freezing. They were both looking ridiculous, wrapped up in scarves and hats and heavy cloaks. "I mean, you've lived in the Muggle world for over ten years. What more could you possibly learn about them?"
Hermione put down her quill and looked at Millicent, whose cheeks were redder than she'd ever seen them. The cold, she supposed.
"I'm not sure," she started, a bit uncertain how to answer, "it sounded interesting to see Muggles from a different perspective."
"That's one of your finest pieces of intellectual codswallop so far, Granger," Millicent said, but her grin softened her words considerably.
Hermione couldn't help smiling herself.
One week when Millicent had left before Hermione, Hermione discovered a copy of Playwizard in her bag. 'Something for your inner dyke' had been scribbled on the inside of the cover in Millicent's large, regal handwriting. Hermione had blushed a brilliant red but hadn't been able to resist sneaking a look at the centrefold. It hadn't made her blush any less.
"Granger, listen, I've something to tell you." Millicent plopped down on her seat, looking vaguely disgusted.
"Do go ahead," Hermione replied without looking up, dotting an i on her essay.
"You told me last week to try a bit of Muggle literature, right? So I did. And I read this." She pulled a thin booklet out of her bag and waved it around. "I've never read something so horrid, Granger! The dialogues! The sex!"
Hermione took the offending booklet out of the other girl's hands and promptly started laughing. Stretched out on the cover were a man and a woman, tangled up in each other on a lonely beach, their bodies half in the water of the sea, an artificially coloured sunset highlighting every curve and muscle of their entwined bodies. "Bought for marriage" was spelled out in flaming letters under the passionately kissing couple.
"Bulstrode, I'd hardly call this literature," Hermione grinned after she'd calmed down, "This is a Harlequin novel. Something we'd respectfully call 'pulp'. The only thing this is good for, is a good laugh now and then."
"Oh." Millicent took the booklet back and scrutinised it. "I guess I could've known from the cover."
Hermione nodded, still giggling. "Where did you get this, anyway?" The library had a Muggle section, but Hermione was quite sure this kind of book wasn't to be found in there.
"My aunt Mildred likes this kind of thing, and she always said it was quite the intellectual stimulation." Millicent's frown deepened. "I bet it was."
"Come," Hermione said, "I'll give you some real literature. Let's start with the classics." She led the other girl to the Muggle section and gave her 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Dracula'.
"Just to get you started," she said breezily, "and these are both kind of magical, so I suspect you'll like them."
Millicent did, and it made Hermione feel proud of herself.
"You're bleeding, Granger."
Hermione cursed mightily. "I tell you, there's something in Crookshanks' claws that stops these cuts from ever healing." She pressed her sleeve clumsily to the wounds, trying to stop the trickle of blood.
"There could be, you know," Millicent said conversationally, "you never know with magical creatures."
"I don't think he's 100 cat, actually."
Millicent snorted. "Then what is he? 50 cat and 50 giraffe?"
Hermione gave her a look. "That would be a sight worth seeing, but no. Kneazle, I think."
"I've got a cat too. A nuisance if there ever was one."
Hermione's inside squirmed a bit and she had to suppress a nervous giggle. Maybe one day she'd be able to tell Millicent that she'd actually made a Polyjuice Potion using the hairs of her cat. Or maybe not. She didn't know, but that was already enough.
March was damp and chilly, but there was an unmistakeable smell of spring in the air. Madam Pince, who had given up on glaring at them every time she passed them, since they were there every week, had opened up the library windows and suddenly the musty smell of old books was driven away by fresh and wet outside air. Hermione liked it.
"So, Granger," Millicent said as they were reading a text on the discovery of the New World, "how're your friends holding up with your gayness?"
Hermione stiffened. They hadn't actually talked about that since Millicent had guessed it – and even then they hadn't talked. Hermione had never brought up the edition of Playwizard Millicent had given her, even though it was now sitting under her pillow and she leafed through it almost every night.
"Er – they…"
"I'd never have thought they'd have any problems with it; I always thought they were a couple of poufs themselves." Millicent's voice was light and airy, but Hermione didn't miss her intense look.
"No, no, Harry and Ron are… pretty much straight. Or, er, Ron is, at least." Hermione fidgeted, but then decided to talk about it; Millicent's reaction had been the best she'd ever had, after all. "And it's not as much that they had a problem with it, it's more that they hadn't expected this and were a bit hurt I'd never told them before." Hermione sighed. "They needed some time to get used to it. And I guess I just –"
Millicent laughed. "Granger? Just shut up."
And Millicent kissed her then, firm and fierce and powerful. And Hermione felt like she honestly didn't stand a chance – before she had even registered what was going on, she'd leaned forward over the table, into the kiss, and had opened her mouth.
She felt Millicent's smile against her mouth all day long.
"Ah, thought I'd find you here, in your sanctuary, even though the exams are already over, you strange woman." Millicent placed a hand on Hermione's back and leaned over her shoulder to read what she was writing.
"'Battle for gay rights in the Wizarding World'? You never were very subtle, Hermione," she laughed.
"I don't care," Hermione answered and leaned into the warm touch of Millicent's hand.
"I've got an idea. What do you think about this: you're going to roll up your article right now, and you're going to let me abduct you to Hogsmeade. It's a beautiful day and I'll show you all of the naughty shops that are hidden in the back alleys."
Hermione smiled. "Who could refuse such a tempting offer?"
She gathered her things and clasped Millicent's hand as they left the library. Somehow, she felt she would be able to handle everything that could ever happen.
- fin -