"Can we back up a bit?" Susan Bones had an expression on her face that should have been familiar to Hermione. It said, to use few words, why are my classmates totally insane?, although the implied question mark made by the arch of her eyebrows was likely rhetorical.
"But what if she's not Neville's soulmate!" Hannah interjected. Hermione exchanged a resigned glance with Susan over the other Hufflepuff's head.
"Well, they figure that out, I guess. Later." Tracey pondered for a moment, which was a long time for Tracey. "And maybe they are soulmates. But I don't think they have to be soulmates for Neville to help distract Daphne."
"I thought being soulmates was one of those things you just knew."
"Have you actually had a soulmate?"
"So how do you know what you know?" Wait, had Tracey just asked a Harry question?
"Everyone says so!"
"I don't think any of them have had a soulmate either!"
"Well... um... maybe we should ask someone who has one?" Two faces swiveled expectantly towards Hermione. "General Sunshine... um... when did you realize Harry was your soulmate?"
Hermione fidgeted. Susan smirked in schadenfreude.
"He's not. Hannah, there's no such thing."
"Well that just makes me feel worse."
"If there aren't any soulmates, then maybe Neville and Daphne end up together even if it isn't meant to be. And if its not meant to be, that means someone else could have ended up with Neville, if she were perhaps a little braver or..."
"Look, even if Neville gets Daphne to leave her room, there's nothing to say they'll even go on a date much less..."
"They're going to get married!" Hannah grabbed Hermione's arm and started sobbing into her shoulder.
"Err..." Hermione beseeched Susan with her eyes.
"Fix this." Susan had a serious expression.
"Um... Hannah, no one is saying that you... that she... doesn't have a chance with Neville. No one was going to give us a chance to be heroes, remember, so we made our own chances."
"You think that could work?" Hannah looked up hopefully from Hermione's arm.
"Well, in retrospect, trying to be heroes didn't go exactly the way I'd intended..."
"But we were heroes."
"Um... I'd like to think so."
"Okay. I know what I have to do."
"Don't... ah... don't do anything I wouldn't do?"
Hannah was already on her feet and moving towards the door to the Hufflepuff common room. There was a moment of confusion as the other three girls looked at each other.
"Oh this is probably going to be too good to miss," Tracey said. She hopped to her feet.
"What have I done..."
"I don't know, but you're going to watch." Susan Bones offered her hand to Hermione, who was the last one still sitting.
They hurried after Hannah.
Neville was sitting on a couch in the Hufflepuff common room, working on Transfiguration homework. Hannah walked straight from the door toward where Neville was sitting, but he didn't notice her until she was standing over him.
"Hannah?" Neville said, looking up. "Have you been crying?" He put his homework to the side and patted the empty spot next to himself on the couch.
Hannah had other ideas. She sat down across his lap, her feet dangling off one side, her arm near him wrapped over his shoulder and around his back for balance. Neville's arm came up to her back by automatic reflex to steady her.
"Um, Hannah?" Neville managed to get out before Hannah grabbed his tie with her other hand, closed her eyes, and pulled his lips into hers. There was a moment of silence in the common room, all eyes on the two first years. Then the applause started.
From the doorway the three other former SPHEW members looked on dumbfounded.
"I didn't think she had it in her," Tracey said to no one in particular from the doorway.
"Sweet Merlin, I caused this," said Hermione next to her.
"It is something you did," Susan remarked dryly.
"Harry was demented at the time!"
Neville had never actually managed to close his eyes. As Hannah released his tie and sat back, looking inordinately pleased with herself, he still hadn't managed to react. Unless you count the bright red blush which brought out his freckles, a blush that Hannah was mirroring. She brought her free hand up and ran a finger over the freckles on his cheek with a giggle.
"Ms. Abbott," the voice of Professor Sprout cut across the common room. "My office, now." Sprout cast a disapproving sidelong glance at the three students in the doorway before turning in the direction of the Hufflepuff Head-of-House office.
Hannah was glowing as she got to her feet. She almost bounced in the direction Professor Sprout had disappeared in. The eyes of every young girl in the room followed her, only one pair of which looked on guiltily. Only after Hannah disappeared from view did the animated chatter of gossip start.
On the couch, Neville finally found his senses and his voice. His confused "What?" was almost inaudible against the excited murmurs of near a hundred teenage girls.
"So do you think we can still use Neville to cheer up Daphne?"
"I'm not so sure... oh, I don't know anymore. Just promise me no stunning?"
"You're taking all the fun out of this, 'Mione."
It was getting close to curfew when Hermione finally returned to Ravenclaw Tower. She hadn't even started the twenty inches due in astronomy tomorrow, which wasn't like her at all. Hopefully, whatever she managed before breakfast tomorrow morning wouldn't terribly offend Professor Sinistra.
The common room had mostly cleared out, which made it less uncomfortable, but she still headed directly to the sleeping room she shared with the other first-year Ravenclaw girls. The only occupant of the room was Padma Patil, brushing her hair out before bed. Well, her and Fawkes, who left his perch on her bed and flew over to her as she came in.
"Hi Fawkes, sorry I left you here all day. I could've maybe used you earlier, to remind me just how suspect my judgement can be." Fawkes nuzzled her as she stroked his back, an admittedly strange sensation as the flames licked her fingers but did not burn.
"You know Hermione, we don't all hate you," Padma said from her bed. "You don't need to stay away from Ravenclaw until everyone is getting ready for bed." Her brush continued in even strokes.
"It wasn't just that, I was... Tracey wanted... oh Merlin, I think we broke Neville."
"You didn't hear? Hannah kissed him in front of all of Hufflepuff. I figured it would be all over the school by now..." Hermione walked over to a bedpost and set Fawkes on it.
"Well, the rumor mill seems to go through Slytherin, not exactly a Hufflepuff friendly house. Wait, what does that have to do with you and Tracey?"
"Well, I might have caused Hannah to... what's this?" There was a letter on her pillow.
"I dunno, it was there when I came in."
Hermione sat down with a concerned look on her face and carefully opened the letter.
To Hermione, the first Granger
It would seem we need to talk. Mr. Potter is important to both of us, and some accomodation must be reached between our houses to put our animosity behind us. However, it would be folly to be seen meeting in public. I have enclosed directions to a location at which our secrecy may be assured, and might suggest tomorrow night at the stroke of eight as a suitable time when our absences may not be marked as unusual. You may signal your agreement by being present at breakfast when the food appears. I strongly recommend destroying this letter after reading it.
It was signed with an ornate script M.
"Hermione, you've gone white. What is it?"
Hermione quickly read the directions to the meeting place before carefully folding the letter.
"It's nothing." Her wand was suddenly in her hand. She held the letter away from her by a corner, as if it might bite her. "Incendio!" The letter burst into flames, burning down towards the held corner quickly. She held on until the last second, when it started to burn her fingers, before dropping it and stamping out the flames with her foot.
"That didn't look like nothing."
"I can't talk about it."
"Hermione, don't put all your friends at arm's length, okay? You're starting to act like Harry, and not in a good way."
"It's... I can't talk about it."
Padma put her brush down and gave Hermione a penetrating look. "Well, when you can talk about it, remember you have friends?"
"I know, and I'm sorry." Hermione threw herself down on her bed, still fully dressed. She hadn't actually been planning on going to sleep yet, just think through the events of the day and try to make sense of it all. But Fawkes had sensed her distress and floated down to perch on her upper shoulder. The song of the phoenix was warmth and comfort, and before she knew it she had drifted off.
Hermione was present when the food appeared the next morning. Actually, she was present half an hour before the food showed up. The mostly deserted dining hall made as reasonable a place to continue her hastily written astronomy homework as anywhere else, and she hadn't wanted to be late. She'd sat at the far end of the Ravenclaw table, to reduce the number of potential neighbors, because she really wasn't feeling social this morning. The letter had twisted her stomach in a knot. Breakfast itself might not be on the agenda, which wasn't a total loss; it meant she'd have more time to try to finish her homework.
The food hadn't yet appeared when Tracey sat down next to her, all energetic enthusiasm as she bumped Hermione's shoulder getting her legs over the bench.
"Hey 'Mione, working on anything important?"
Hermione didn't look up from what she was writing, although her concentration was spoiled. "Just trying to finish the astronomy homework. Someone's crazy scheming kept me distracted last night."
"You aren't going to tell me that wasn't worth it..."
"I don't try to make a habit of breaking people, especially friends."
"Hannah was going to morosely crush on Neville forever, and never act on it, without outside intervention. And she didn't look so broken on the way to Sprout's office." Tracey smiled foolishly. "And be honest, that was a pretty amazing kiss. I wish Harry was here. I might try that on him."
"Oh please, I already know what he'd say..."
Tracey made glasses with her fingers. "I'm sorry Tracey, but I've already fallen for Hermione."
"No. He'd say 'I told you no kissing.'"
"You're just worried I could steal him away."
Hermione finally looked up, frowning slightly. Tracey had this huge open-mouthed smile.
"I'm just teasing, 'Mione. But a girl can dream, right?"
Hermione gave a hesitant smile and blushed lightly. "I suppose it was a nice kiss. Even if Neville had no idea what was going on."
"I wonder if she practiced..."
"Practiced? With whom?"
"You know, other girls. Haven't you ever practiced kissing with your friends, so you wouldn't be a bad kisser when a boy kissed you?"
"Maybe Harry doesn't want to kiss you because you aren't a very good kisser then."
"What? But... how could someone even know such a thing? Also, I don't think Harry has much basis for comparison..." Hermione shifted uncomfortably. This was going to be another one of those conversations.
"It's entirely possible boys kiss each other to practice, too. Maybe you could try asking him?"
"About kissing other boys?" That sounded like a conversation doomed to be embarrassing for anyone involved in it.
"No no no, about whether he thinks you're a good kisser or not. But I suppose a boy might lie about it, to spare your feelings, if he liked you. And you're like the only girl Harry really notices, so he must like you."
"I... um... I don't know."
"Oh come now, everyone else sees it. Even I see it, as much as I wish he'd notice me more."
"Well, its not like he's come out and said 'Hermione, I really like you' or anything." It was possible, she was willing to admit, at least to herself, that she'd like to hear him say that. Or at least had until recently entertained such notions. Before this past weekend recently. This was probably connected to the reason her cheeks were starting to feel warm. "And, I mean, it's not like he's my boyfriend."
"Don't be silly, boys don't say stuff like that. Not without prompting. And if he's not your boyfriend then at least one of you is in denial."
"Why can't a girl and a boy just be friends and be sensible about the whole thing?" Not that there was anything sensible about a boy who killed over fifty people for you, but she couldn't even mention that part to Tracey. Besides, it would probably only strengthen the Slytherin's convictions about Harry and her romantic entanglement. It wasn't clear Tracey would understand why that wasn't romantic.
"'Boys are only thinking about one thing' my mum told me, although she won't tell me what it is, but I'm pretty sure it has to do with kissing; she looks at my father and smiles when she says it, even though her tone says she's warning me about something. My mum is a little weird."
Hermione arched one eyebrow at the babbling Slytherin.
The food chose this moment to appear, which gave Hermione a chance to notice that the room had started to fill up several minutes prior, and now the multitude of conversations had blended into an indecipherable background hum. She managed to notice Draco had arrived with his usual promptness and was already sitting down to breakfast. Of course he didn't look in her direction, that she noticed anyway, but he was much better at whatever cloak-and-dagger game she had found herself playing than she was. Hermione really didn't want to let her gaze linger on the Slytherin table longer than she had to, but she did spare a few moments to confirm that Daphne had not come to breakfast, at least not yet.
A startled gasp and Tracey's hand gripping her upper arm alerted her to something going on in front of her, so she turned to follow Tracey's gaze to the Hufflepuff table. Hannah had wrapped her arms around a rather startled Neville from behind, and was currently saying something into his ear that was making him blush furiously.
"It's really too bad we can't hear what they're saying," Tracey commented as Neville said something that made Hannah frown. The normally shy Hufflepuff stormed off and sat at the other end of the table dramatically. A gaggle of first through fourth year Hufflepuff girls clustered around her.
"I should probably talk to her..."
"Well, I need to talk to Neville about Daphne. Wish me luck." The chaos legion theme song chose that moment to start playing in her head, an ominous chorus of 'Doom doom doom doom-doom-doom doom-doom-doom', but that might have just been Tracey humming it as she walked away.
Most of her own house was still avoiding her, which meant Tracey had been the only person sitting near her at the end of the long table. Hermione absent-mindedly spooned something edible into her mouth without noticing what it was as she turned her attention back to her astronomy homework. Hannah would have to wait, she had six inches left to write and she was running out of time. So engaged, she was totally surprised when Padma sat down next to her.
"What was Tracey sitting here for?" the Indian witch asked. "I mean, she's not making any friends in her own house hanging out with you, right?"
"I'm no good at those kind of games, so how should I know? Maybe there's a faction who hate Draco and are secretly applauding me."
"No, I just made that up. I have no idea why Tracey is willing to sit with me in public."
"Well, what was she talking to you about?"
"Um..." Hermione colored. "... boys," she finally managed, speaking softly.
"Ooh, who does Tracey like?"
"That's a... complicated... subject." No, that didn't even begin to describe it. Hermione forced herself to stop thinking about her conversation with Tracey yesterday. That way lay madness and enough embarrassment to make her want to hide in her room.
Tracey chose that moment to return, sitting down across from the two Ravenclaws since the spot next to Hermione was now taken.
"Neville says he'll do it, but he wants to talk to you first Hermione."
"Wait, Neville will do what?" Padma asked. She looked back and forth between the two of them. "I thought Hannah and... and obviously Hermione and... what is Hermione going to do with Neville?"
"Hermione and Neville?" Tracey snickered. "I wouldn't dare insult my lord Potter in such a way. No, Neville is going to help us get Daphne to rejoin the land of the living and homework suffering masses!" She finished with the back of her hand dramatically pressed against her forehead in a mock swoon.
"Don't remind me, I still have to write five more inches for astronomy!"
"You're not done with your homework yet?" Padma looked at her like she had turned into a cat. "Are you feeling alright, Hermione?"
"Ask me at the end of the week..."
"There's no time for homework, Hermione. We need to get Neville to Daphne right after breakfast!"
"But... I have class..."
"And so do the Slytherins! You thought I was going to walk you and Neville through the Slytherin common room while there were Slytherins still in it? And they call me crazy..."
"Doesn't Neville also have class?" Padma asked.
"Well, yeah, but he's kinda freaked out by Hannah, apparently, and since classes are scheduled by house... he seemed more than willing to ditch at least one."
Hermione was writing frantically while Tracey and Padma gossiped, cringing at the mess her hurried handwriting became. It was probably the worst essay she'd ever written, but done was better than not done. Finished at last, she turned to Padma.
"Could you turn this in for me?"
"Sure Hermione. Just don't go bad girl on us and start skipping all your classes." Padma smiled mischeviously as she said it.
Hermione thought of how Daphne must be feeling. "Some things are more important than class."
Tracey stood up and leaned over the table. "I'll go tell Neville to meet us in the hallway outside in a few minutes," she whispered in Hermione's ear. "We shouldn't be seen leaving together, after all."
Hermione nodded mutely as she put away her pen and paper. With a quick look around the dining hall, she let out a sigh and walked out with her breakfast mostly untouched.
It wasn't long before Tracey turned the corner. She made a conspiratorial smile, but otherwise remained blissfully silent. A few minutes later Neville joined them.
"Hi Hermione. Look, I'm not sure this is a great idea, and I'm not sure what I can say, but Tracey did point out that I knew what it was like to lose a parent, so maybe I can help and maybe I can't. I'm willing to try. But I need you to promise me something."
Hermione cast an impressed glance at Tracey. "Well, I don't honestly know what I can promise, but I want to make this work. For Daphne. Because I know what she's going through is awful."
"Just promise me you don't expect me to kiss her."
A/N: I had originally hoped to have this posted by Feb 14th, for obvious reasons. This failed. I was knocked-out sick for 4 days leading up to that week, and one character did something I totally didn't expect which derailed me. I'm sure you can guess who that was. I'm still not totally happy with it, and my beta has expressed some larger story concerns that I can't really disagree with, but February is almost over, so here it is. There may be some alterations in the future, either with next month's update or as I start working on the next arc.
The plan is still to finish this arc next month. Unless of course I don't, in which case it will definitely be over with April's update. There's several things that need to happen, but I'm optimistic it will all happen in March.
The next arc will involve some Harry, and also more thinking big about what's going on in Magical Britain. (This of course makes me increasingly anxious about what EY's actual plans are... Bridge to be burned with radioactive fire when I get there.)