Hermione Granger treats exercise with much the same martyred and leaden-shouldered acquiescence she sees in her classmates when they are asked to do research and reference from more than one source: it's a damn chore, but it has to be done.
She strides quickly around the edge of the lake, through the wisps and shrouds of fog that hover above its mirrored surface, and she talks to herself about the Muggle book she's reading. There is not supposed to be magic in the pages of the book, but she feels its distinct tingle in the cadence and beauty of the prose, nonetheless. She's been reading a lot more fiction now that Harry and Ron are in London doing their Auror training; she often feels like she's almost alone at Hogwarts, now.
A piercing, discordant scream sends an alarm of birds arrowing into the crisp morning air. Hermione freezes on the edge of panic, drawn rudely from a dreamlike place. The scream sounds again, carrying a note of crystal-sharp horror. The sound pulls Hermione's gaze to its source.
A little girl stands at the edge of the lake—her naked skin is pale grey like a pearl in the morning light. Strange words and sounds screech and bubble from her lips like water as she points to the leviathan bulge of the giant squid—it descends beneath the black surface, leaving only ripples. The child's eyes are black and angry, as if the squid has threatened to take her soul away with it, and they bulge with sheer panic—Hermione can see that yellow stains the corneas of her eyes like jaundice. Black, green-tinged hair falls around her like a shroud, and she hugs something slick and silvery to her chest. An eerie growl begins to hiss from her lips.
Hermione's body unlocks slowly as the adrenaline seeps away like a rumour. "What on earth is she?" she murmurs.
She approaches the quivering child with careful steps, like she would approach a wild animal. The green and grey girl bares her yellow teeth—thin, grey lips stretch into a wide grimace—as she regards the young witch with her tightly-bound hair and her surprisingly warm eyes. The morning air chills on the child's ashen skin, sets her crooked teeth chattering. Hermione sees that she tightens her thin arms around the dimly-gleaming silver object; it is patterned and shiny, pearlescent like fish-scales.
Hermione frowns because she cannot recall a magical creature that fits properly with this strange and ugly little girl. She looks uncannily like one of the merpeople, yet she's clearly standing on spindly, knock-kneed legs. Hermione wonders—not for the first time—if she made a mistake in giving Care of Magical Creatures up.
The little girl is staring past Hermione at the grey water, now—her eyes are opaque like mirrors—and quick as a flash, her hands darting like little fish, she wraps the silver fabric around her shoulders and dives into the lake.
Hermione gasps. "Wait!" she cries, afraid that the girl will drown in the murky depths.
And then a strong silver tail breaks the surface for a moment—elegant and sinuous, it flicks in the chill morning air like a greeting. Ripples trip over themselves as they race towards the lake's edge; Hermione is left alone with only her gently distorted reflection in the still surface of the water.
"What kind of mermaid was that?" Hermione mutters softly to herself.
Hermione does not find the answer she seeks within the comforting orderliness of the neatly-shelved library. There are beautiful merpeople from the Mediterranean who sing like sirens and shimmer like gold when they lie on rocks in the sunlight; there are the sallow, fierce merpeople of Scotland who are dark and dank like the bottom of the lochs they inhabit; and finally there are the Gaelic merrow with their red tresses and magical caps. The little girl from the lake's edge is probably closest to the Scottish variety of merfolk, but she does not fit properly like an answer always should.
Hermione shuts the large book with a snap of leather on parchment and scowls. She strides down the corridors, her hair bouncing like a spring on her shoulders. The first-years stare after her, still whispering about her after school has been open for two weeks, now.
"Harry Potter's friend… Went up against Bella Lestrange… Legend." Their excitement flutters against the stones, their nervous eyes rapt on her bobbing curls, the whip of her robes around her ankles.
She is a hero, like Neville Longbottom, only way more intimidating. Only Professor Snape (and maybe Professor McGonagall, they concede when challenged) is scarier than Hermione Granger is, and he doesn't warn you with a smart click-click of his heels against stone. No, the first-years argue… He creeps like a shadow panther, waiting to pounce on your misdeeds with a wicked smirk of triumph.
During the summer, their mothers and fathers talked of the dark professor with the same muted kind of reverence, but they did say they could not understand why he was back to teach at the school. "What keeps him there? What is left for him at Hogwarts? How sad," they murmured quietly between themselves when they thought that little ears were fast asleep.
Hermione knocks on Hagrid's door with the righteous indignation of the knowledge-bereft. Fang howls like wolf and throws his body against the inside of the door, making it shudder on its hinges.
"Hold yer horses," Hagrid booms above the dog's excited yipping. "Hermione!" Hagrid grins at her, his beard curving into denser spots around his smiling mouth. "Missin' the boys, eh?" he asks in a tone that suggests that he is, too. He holds the straining dog at the collar; Fangs eyes bulge with excitement and little drops of his spittle fleck the wooden floor.
Hermione nods and smiles slightly. "Yes, I am, rather," she replies. She forestalls the inevitable offer of tea that always tastes like paint-thinners and dish-water with her burning question. "Hagrid, what lives in the lake besides the squid and the merpeople?"
Hagrid knees Fang back into the hut and joins Hermione outside rather than deal with the hound.
Hagrid scratches his head. "Fish, I reckon… yeah, fish," he says finally.
Hermione stifles a sigh as she is forced to recount her encounter with the strange, sallow-skinned lake-dweller. Hagrid leans against the door (Fang rebounds off of the inside of it every few minutes, punctuating her description of the little girl and her grey-green countenance).
"Ahhh," Hagrid says, nodding sagely. He rubs at his chin; his thick beard makes a scratching sound. "There are two kinds of merpeople in the lake, Hermione. But I forgot… yeh gave up on me classes a long time long ago." He chuckles like he's told a tremendously funny joke, and Hermione struggles not to look sour.
"But I looked in the library under merpeople, and I could only find the ones who helped with the Triwizard Task." The sour expression bleeds through slightly, now, pulling at the corners of her mouth because she's annoyed that she's had to trudge down the hill to see Hagrid for an answer. And it's a steep climb back up to the castle.
Hagrid shrugs, his massive shoulders rising to his ears, and he beams at her because he knows the answer. "That's because yeh're lookin' under the wrong name—yeh need to look fer selkies; that's their proper name—"
"Thank you, Hagrid, bye," Hermione calls as she makes a quick escape before Hagrid has a chance to tell her about the intricacies of their life cycle and his very best selkie friends.
Hermione is halfway back to the library when she's thwarted in her quest again. Irritation bubbles inside her chest like a geyser, but because it's Snape, she keeps her face neutral and calm. She knows he'll only keep her longer if she argues back.
"I hope, for your sake, that you should not presently be in a lesson, Miss Granger," he sneers at her. Hermione finds it difficult to be afraid of him, now—she knows his inner soul and his bitterest secrets, and all of this scholarly chiding seems a little trite after that.
"No, sir," she says dutifully, the image of the perfect seventh-year, "I have a free lesson, and I'm on my way to the library."
Snape narrows his black eyes at her as though he's using his Legilimency to gauge the truth of her words. But no probing, intrusive questing accompanies his glare, so she supposes he's just trying to figure out what she's hiding. She's amused that, due to her long association with the boys, he views her as a bit of a miscreant. He seems to be just waiting for her to take off on the next grand adventure, practically salivating to put her in detention for the remainder of her school days, in all likelihood.
Snape grimaces, baring crooked, yellow teeth. "Get along, then, Miss Granger," he says as if he is not the one who caused her delay.
"Yes, sir," she says, resisting the urge to salute. As he turns on his heel and stalks away, it occurs to Hermione that Snape could be the very image of the little selkie's curmudgeonly uncle or something—in the murky gloom of the castle's corridor his skin is grey-pale, too.
Hermione flops down in an armchair and crosses her arms over her chest. She clicks her tongue in an annoyed fashion as she stares at the fire. She hates to admit that she should have stayed at Hagrid's a little longer; the library only gave her more questions.
Ginny sits next to her, writing a long and flowing letter to Harry. She's tiny and coppery in the golden firelight. She glances up when Hermione starts to jiggle her leg up and down. "What's wrong?" she asks in her bell-clear voice. "Ron hasn't owled again?"
Hermione glances up at Ginny. Her friend is right on that account, but it's not what is bothering Hermione tonight; she is tired of fretting about Ron. She is too weary to ask Ginny if Harry has mentioned Ron in his latest letter. "You take Care of Magical Creatures, right?" Hermione asks instead.
"Yes?" Ginny tilts her head to the side like a little bird.
"I saw a little selkie today by the lake—"
Ginny grins and leans forward with excitement lighting her pretty hazel eyes. "Oh, lucky you; they're very shy."
Hermione ignores Ginny's excitement and forges ahead. "But the library says that selkies are seals that can remove their skins, not that they look like merpeople!" In all of the research she's done, the same words repeated themselves, circling back to the same basis of fact.
Ginny smiles knowingly—Hermione has seen Ginny's smug smile before... like when she's dodged her mother's delegated chores or she has a big secret swelling inside her chest or she knows the answer and holds it gleaming in her tiny hands. "Those are saltwater selkies," she says as if it's the simplest fact in the world. "The ones in our lake prefer to mimic the merpeople. But really, they can take any aquatic form they want to."
Despite her relief that the facts line up neatly, now, Hermione is still a bit disgruntled. "Well... the books should say that," she grumbles. She thinks back to that morning. "It... She was very upset. I think that the squid was chasing her."
Ginny hmm's softly, already magnetically drawn back to her looping words and pieces of love. "Yeah... the merpeople and the selkies hate the giant squid," she murmurs softly. "I think it likes the taste of them. It must have escaped from its part of the lake again."
Hermione feels the tight edge of her anxiety relax: the world makes better sense again, now. She pulls out her Ancient Runes textbook and starts on her homework, smiling softly to herself and ignoring the soft buzz of activity around her.