Once upon a time, there was a young French girl called Antoinette. Her family was not of great wealth, so she had no dowry to offer potential husbands, but her beauty and kindness earned her favor in the eyes of many a gentleman.
One afternoon, an attractive man with unruly brown hair happened upon her whilst she was picking apples in a local orchard. He tried to ask for directions, but French was not his mother tongue, and thus he stumbled through quite poorly. The girl giggled in amusement, and he flushed with embarrassment at having made an ass of himself in front of such a lovely woman.
"I speak English," she told him, trying to hold back her grin.
His eyes lit up. "So, mademoiselle is as bright as she is comely. What a rare thing indeed." He smiled at her, and it was her turn to blush.
He never did get his directions. He felt that God had already pointed him to the place where he needed to be. So William Granger stayed in the small village and began to court Antoinette. By the end of the summer, they were wed.
He brought his clever bride to his small estate in the English countryside. While not quite nobility, he was an educated gentleman of some wealth, with a home that was more than adequate. Antoinette was particularly enamored with his collection of books. Her voracity for reading was something that he found charming. Whilst most husbands had no need for a wife who could read, he relished that his life partner was a woman who could match his wits. She could go toe-to-toe with him on almost any subject, arguing her points fiercely in English or French. He asked her one time where she learned to read and write, and she told him of a kindly old vicar who had taken pity on her and given her lessons for free.
He silently wondered if the vicar's intentions had been entirely altruistic or if he had been taking advantage of a girl with a strong desire to learn. Either way, he did not dwell upon it for long, as he was the one fortunate enough to capture his love's affections and reap the benefits of her tutelage.
The months passed by, and when March started blowing in like the lion it could be, she gave him the news that they two were going to become three.
William was over the moon with excitement. He knew that he should wish for a son to carry on his legacy, but secretly, he dreamed of a having a daughter. He wanted a girl like his Antoinette.
It was a grey, bleak day in September when his dream became a reality; but unexpectedly, it was also the day of his worst nightmare. In the wee hours of the morning, screaming lustily at the top of her little lungs, came a daughter. But bringing her into the world proved too much for his dear Antoinette. Before succumbing to the massive blood loss from giving birth, she softly whispered the name she wished to give her only child.
Hermione Granger was the apple of her father's eye. She was everything he could have hoped for in a daughter. She had her mother's big doe eyes and inquisitive nature. Knowing that his Antoinette would have wanted their daughter to be educated, he encouraged her love of books and knowledge. He even went as far as paying for private lessons.
When her tutor, one Mr. Severus Snape, snootily inquired why he would go so far to nurture such qualities in a mere girl, William replied with a growl, "I will not raise my daughter to one day become the property of a man. She is a bright girl with a sharp mind. She deserves more than to be treated like chattel."
Although taken aback by William's vehemence, Snape couldn't help but question further. "But, sir, what kind of man would marry such a strong-headed creature?"
Hermione's father wistfully replied, "A man who wants more than a body to warm his bed. A man who wants a woman to engage his mind and challenge his ideals and make him strive to be better. A man who wants an equal."
From that day forth, Hermione spent her afternoons with Mr. Snape, learning to read and write and do sums. Mr. Snape often became frustrated with his pupil's tendency to speak out of turn, but he could not deny that her father was doing the right thing in expanding her mind. She was certainly the smartest child that he had ever taught.
Her manners, however, were deplorable. Mr. Snape blamed it on her lack of feminine influence. Hermione was primarily surrounded by men. The only meaningful interaction that she had with adult women was with the few maids her father employed, whose company was far from suitable. Even her best friend was a boy: some orphan wretch called Harry Potter. She often came back from her outings with Potter covered in mud and other questionable substances.
Her tutor often tried to convince her father to remarry. The girl needed to be taught things that two men could not even begin to understand. She needed a softer touch. She needed a mother.
But time and time again, William would shake his head and refuse. He would never admit it to the hook-nosed teacher, but he felt as though even the thought of marrying again would be a dishonor to the memory of his beloved Antoinette. He could not ask another to take her place.
He held his stance on the issue until Hermione was around nine years old. Suddenly, strange things began to happen around his daughter that could not be explained. They usually happened when she was emotionally distressed. Once, she became angry, and the mirrors all cracked. Another time, she cried in grief over the loss of her cat, and it rained in the pantry. Sometimes, when she found herself afraid of the dark, candles would light themselves.
Snape was bewildered. He didn't think it was possible. She couldn't be…? Could she?
Something had to be done.
"Mr. Granger, we must talk about your daughter."
"Is this about the cow dung that I caught her and young master Harry collecting?"
"Excuse me?" Snape looked horrified.
"Uh…" William coughed. "I suppose not, then. Never you mind." Quickly changing the subject, he asked, "What mischievousness has my Hermione wrought this time?"
"Sir, I don't know if you are aware, but it seems that the young miss has been exhibiting some strange behavior," said Snape, lowering his voice at the last few words.
Startled, William snapped his head to face him. "Strange?"
"I can tell by the look on your face, sir, that you know exactly to what I am referring."
William gave one quick, sharp nod of acknowledgement.
"Mr. Granger…" Snape paused, knowing that he needed to convey his suspicions as delicately as possible. "I believe that your daughter has a gift. The gift of magic."
The news seemed to hit the man hard. His lips thinned, and his face paled.
"You believe Hermione to be a witch?" he asked, distraught. Tears welled up in his eyes. "Do you know what they do to people accused of witchcraft?"
Severus knew indeed of the dangers to which magical folk were subject. He had seen his own mother burned at the stake when he was no older than his pupil.
"Sir," he said, his voice quiet and serious, "I have had some experience with magical folk, and I believe it would be beneficial if Miss Granger was exposed to others like herself. Her magic is strong, but she does not have the ability to control it, which could be very dangerous for her. With the proper tutelage and influence, she could become very skilled."
William sighed deeply as the weight of this unexpected challenge threatened to suffocate him. He had known that there was a world of problems that could afflict his daughter, but this was one he would never have predicted. He looked up at the greasy-haired teacher.
"What do you suggest?"
Snape proceeded to explain to him about the wizarding community and how it was hidden away from the non-magical, or Muggle, world. Although it was a rarity, it was not unheard of for Muggles to produce magical children. He expected Hermione to be invited to attend a boarding school in Scotland for wizards and witches, where she could learn to hone her talents. It would also give her the opportunity to interact with other children her own age that had the same abilities.
It was a lot to take in, but as a man who prided himself on his daughter's education, William Granger could not deny her the opportunity to become all that she could be. There were still a few years left before she would be old enough to go to this school, and in the meantime, the tutor suggested that William consider taking on a wife of magical blood. Snape admitted that he could teach Hermione some rudimentary magic to prepare her, but having a family member with a magical background would help ease her into her new world.
For the first time in nearly a decade, William Granger was in search of a wife.
The tutor kept his eyes glued to his book as he responded to the small voice. "Miss Granger, you are to be working on your sums and not pestering your elders."
"I have already finished my sums."
It was a situation to which Snape had already become accustomed. His bright young pupil would complete her tasks efficiently, then bombard him with questions. He knew that it was time to move her onto more advanced coursework.
"What about your Latin?"
"I've completed that, too. Now, I have a question," she said primly.
"Of course you do." He shut his book, knowing that he would not be left alone until he answered her inquiries.
"Mr. Snape, where do you go when you are not here?"
"I go to my home in Spinner's End," he replied.
"Do you have a wife?"
"No, I do not."
Her eyebrows furrowed in deep thought. "My father is bringing home a new wife. He said that she will be my stepmother. He also said that I'm going to have two sisters. I've never had a sister before. Do you think they'll like me?"
"Perhaps if you refrain from talking so much."
Hermione was used to her teacher's prickly demeanor and continued on as if he hadn't said anything.
"Do you teach other children?"
"Yes, Miss Granger. I have one other pupil besides yourself."
"A boy or a girl?"
"A boy named Draco."
"Draco?" She wrinkled her nose. "That's Latin for 'dragon,'" she said. "How unusual! What is he like?"
"He's nearly as insufferable as you," Snape replied flatly, picking up his book once more and pointing out a passage. "Now, fetch your quill and parchment. I want you to practice your writing by copying this poem."
The widow Rodmilla Greengrass had never imagined that she'd be in this position. She was a woman of pure blood who could trace her magical ancestry back for generations. Before she was two years old, her parents had arranged for her to marry Augustus Greengrass upon her sixteenth birthday, continuing their pureblood lineage.
Augustus was a man of great wealth, and the marriage was seen as an advantageous one. However, Rodmilla could have never foreseen that her husband, a man of prominence, would be a slave to women and alcohol. His dalliances with Muggle women left him shunned by pureblood circles. Many placed blame on her for not doing what needed to be done to keep her husband pleased at home.
Augustus was eventually found dead, lying in the gutter outside of a London brothel. Years of hard drinking had weakened his internal organs and left him a weak shell of a man. His body had just given out.
Upon his death, it was discovered that his bank vault was empty. It seemed that Mr. Greengrass had also had a penchant for cards and gambling.
Rodmilla Greengrass found herself with a tarnished surname and no money. The wizarding world had turned its back on her, and she was left with no alternatives. Had it not been for her daughters, Daphne and Astoria, she might have made an attempt to marry another wizard. But it was difficult to find a husband who was willing to raise another man's children.
So she found herself in the most preposterous situation of agreeing to wed a Muggle.
As far as Muggles went, she supposed she could do worse. He was handsome enough, and whilst his wealth wasn't as great as her dead husband's had once been, it was enough to give her and her daughters a comfortable lifestyle.
Most unexpectedly, he was aware of their magical ability, so it did not have to be hidden. If one had to marry a Muggle, it was a great advantage to not have to hide being a witch. However, how he came about his discovery of magic was disconcerting.
It appeared that his Muggle daughter had displayed instances of accidental magic. She had heard of Muggles who could do magic before, but she had never encountered one herself. Mudbloods, they called them, although not in polite company.
It disgusted her to think of Muggles becoming a part of the magical community, tainting the wizarding world with their filthy blood.
These were thoughts that she would have to keep to herself. After all, her soon-to-be husband was counting on her to counsel his little darling. That was all he wanted out of this marriage of convenience.
Perhaps Rodmilla could convince her to stay in the Muggle world.
When Severus Snape had encouraged his employer to marry a witch for the sake of his daughter, he hadn't anticipated that it would result in more work for him. Now, instead of one pupil, he had three. Hermione, meanwhile, had graduated from being a student into an assistant. More often than not, she finished her lessons earlier than her stepsisters, and instead of pestering him with questions, she now helped the other girls with their work. Daphne and Astoria were smart girls, but they just weren't as clever as Hermione.
Snape would never admit it, but he almost missed the young girl's nattering.
The lessons also became more complex as Hermione was introduced to the idea of magic and all that wizarding life entailed. She was delighted to learn of the world that would be her future.
As predicted, the new Madame Granger was quite insistent upon teaching Hermione all about propriety. No longer were her afternoons spent with the Potter whelp. She now had lessons in etiquette. In order to correct her posture and gait, Rodmilla would have her walk the halls with a book balanced on her head. She learned about place settings on a table and the proper way to serve tea.
Hermione picked it up quickly, like she did with everything else. She was eager to learn and wanted to please her new stepmother, no matter how mundane the tasks seemed to her. Of course, once she mastered what she had been taught, she'd find herself terribly bored.
On more than one occasion, she had been caught huddled in a window seat with a book in her hand instead of balanced on her head.
"Hermione, sit up straight! You're going to end up with a lump on your back from hunching over a book all day."
She wrinkled her nose, but did as Rodmilla asked. However, her new parent wasn't finished with her criticism. "Honestly, your looks are quite average. What kind of husband do you hope to catch if you also have bad posture?"
Hermione was confused. These were not the kind of thoughts her father had brought her up to believe.
"I do not think I would want a husband who only cares for how I look," she countered smartly.
Her stepmother was incensed. "How dare you speak back to your elders in that manner! Your father wanted me to help you become a young lady, but I can see now that it is impossible. You're too common to be a lady. How terribly disappointing for your father. I will have to speak to him when he returns from his trip."
Hermione's vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears. The thought of making her father anything but proud made her heart ache. He was her whole world, and she would have done anything to make him happy.
Rodmilla looked at her in disgust. "If you're going to cry about it, then go to bed. No supper for you tonight."
The young girl complied, holding her head high with all the dignity she could muster. She was determined to be a lady, no matter what.
It was two years later when the household received the exciting owl posts with letters for Hermione and Daphne, accepting them into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Despite the fear and stress that came with having a witch for a daughter, William Granger couldn't have been prouder of her. It saddened him deeply that his Antoinette could not be with him to share in Hermione's extraordinary journey.
Under Rodmilla's watchful eye, his daughter had calmed into a more proper demeanor. However, he could see that, underneath her prim exterior, there lurked a fiery spirit that would burst forth when provoked.
She was now eleven years old and not very tall. She still had a baby face, but he could see so much of his beloved in her: the same heart-shaped visage and the big, brown eyes that made him melt. It was slightly unfortunate that she had inherited his curly hair, which seemed to overwhelm her little countenance. Nonetheless, he still felt that she was the most beautiful child in the world.
Of course, he was biased by his love for her. To the typical outsider, who could not see past the bushy brown hair, she looked very plain. Especially standing next to her stepsister Daphne, who seemed to be growing into the very likeness of her stunning mother. Her raven hair, usually pulled back by a pretty silk ribbon, was soft and fell in slight waves around her shoulders. Her body was already starting to fill out into womanly curves.
Truth be told, William was glad that his girl appeared to be a late bloomer. He found it disturbing the way men watched Daphne, waiting for her to be of age so they could openly pursue her. What bothered him more was his wife's determination to find her daughter a husband, encouraging her to attract men.
"Papa," his daughter said, distracting him from his worrisome thoughts. "Tomorrow, Mr. Snape is taking us to Diagon Alley! We're going to get school robes and books and a wand! A magic wand!"
William smiled at Hermione and kissed her on the forehead. "It's all very exciting, love."
Rodmilla gave a concealed look of disdain out of the corner of her eye. Two years she had spent trying to make the girl act as if she weren't severely lacking in couth, yet she still bounced around like an over-excited puppy. She half-expected her to piddle on the floor. Her pitiful husband just encouraged it.
She decided that Muggles could never become refined. She again felt a sting at the thought that the little Mudblood would be allowed into the wizarding world, while she, a pureblood witch, was ostracized.
The only way she could see herself getting out of this mess was if Daphne made an advantageous marriage to a wizard. She was already turning into quite a beauty, and Rodmilla knew she'd turn many a head at Hogwarts. She fully expected that, in a few years, her daughter would have a string of beaux queued up to ask for her hand. Rodmilla had already instructed Daphne to befriend purebloods of the highest societal standing. She had to make powerful friends to lay the groundwork for later on. She also told her daughter to avoid associating with her Mudblood stepsister; there was no need to taint the family name further.
It really was a shame that the Prince of Wizarding England would not attend Hogwarts with the rest of the children. He and Daphne were of the same age, and there was no higher position than royalty. But alas, the king made sure that his son was kept close at hand and tutored privately.
Rodmilla looked back at her Muggle husband and his abomination of a daughter. Yes, she had to get out of this world. Hopefully before Astoria started school in a couple years.
The trip to Diagon Alley exceeded Hermione's imagination. There was literal magic around every corner, and though she had never been there before, she felt quite at home. This was where she belonged; she felt it deep down in her bones.
She couldn't wait to tell her father about it.
Mr. Snape first took her and Daphne to see a woman called Madame Malkin to be fitted for school robes. Hermione had never been one to care about clothes beyond their practicality, but she couldn't help admiring how the robes swished when she turned from side to side. Madame Malkin gave her an indulgent smile as she twirled in front of the mirror.
Swish, swish, swish.
"I don't know why you're so excited. They're just plain school robes," Daphne said, sneering sourly.
Despite being of the same age, she and her stepsister had never warmed towards one another. Their interests were vastly different. Hermione liked to read or run around outside having adventures. Daphne spent her time embroidering and primping like a vain little peacock.
With her mother's influence, a friendship between them was never meant to be.
Astoria, who was a few years younger, was a little different from her sister. She admired both girls in the way that a child looks up to older siblings. In her eyes, Daphne was the prettiest girl in the world, but Hermione was the smartest. She wanted to grow up and be like both of them. She didn't quite understand why her mother treated one sister differently from the other.
In fact, Astoria secretly thought Hermione to be more fun. Daphne mostly ignored her, but Hermione would read to her and play hide and seek with her. Their mother didn't like that at all.
After their robes were boxed up and paid for, Mr. Snape asked if they'd be interested in going to the Magical Menagerie and perhaps choosing a pet to keep them company at Hogwarts. Hermione's face lit up at the suggestion, which meant that Daphne immediately turned her nose up to the idea.
They ended up leaving the shop with a fluffy orange cat in tow that Hermione dubbed "Crookshanks."
"Isn't he lovely?" Hermione grinned as Severus looked into the cage holding the feline-Kneazle mix. The animal hissed at him in response.
"Quite." He was clearly not amused.
They continued their task of visiting various shops and gathering all the books and supplies required for their first year in school. Daphne acted unaffected, whilst Hermione took everything in with a sense of awe.
Their final stop of the day was the one that Hermione had been looking forward to the most. Ollivander's. Finally, she would get her wand.
She watched with delight as Daphne went through the process of finding the right wand for her. Then it was her turn. She stepped up to the counter as Mr. Ollivander pulled a few slim boxes from the shelves. It took a few tries, but when she took the vine wood wand in her hand, she knew that she had found the one.
It was as if she could feel the magic coursing through her blood, tingling in her veins, from the tips of her toes to the ends of her hair. The small stick of wood felt like an extension of her hand. It was part of her.
Yes. This was it.
Their final purchase made, Snape arranged for everything to be delivered to the Granger estate before he and his two young charges made their way back to Muggle London for the long carriage ride home.
During the journey back, Daphne was lulled to sleep by the swaying of the Muggle transportation. For the first time in a while, Hermione peppered her teacher with questions.
"Mr. Snape, what will you do when Daphne and I leave for Hogwarts?"
"I'll tutor Astoria until she is able to follow you to school," he replied quietly.
"And after that?"
"I will teach other children."
"Do you still teach the dragon boy?"
Slightly startled by the question, he sputtered, "Excuse me?"
"The dragon boy? Draco? It's Latin for dragon."
"Ah!" He knew that he should not have been surprised; she'd always had an excellent memory. "Yes, I do still teach Master Draco. He is your age, actually."
Her eyes lit up. "Does this mean he will be going to Hogwarts, too?"
Snape shook his head. "No. Master Draco has, uh, important familial obligations that need attending to. He will remain at home, where I will assist with his education."
Her face contorted into a frown.
"Why so forlorn?" he asked.
"I was imagining how sad it must be for Draco to not be able to go to school with other children like him."
The corner of the tutor's mouth quirked almost imperceptibly. "Do not fret over Master Draco's situation. He has it better than most."
They rode in silence for a few miles before she spoke again.
"Mr. Snape?" Her eyes filled with worry. "Will you visit my father while I'm gone?"
He nodded at his pupil. "Yes, Miss Granger. I will stop by to see your father whilst you are away."
The excitement of the day was not to last. Dusk was creeping in as the carriage pulled up in front the house. Hermione bounded into the front room, only to be greeted by Rodmilla's distraught face. Before she could ask what was the matter, her stepsister and teacher entered the room, and her stepmother focused on them instead.
"Severus! It's William. His heart-"
Before she could finish, Hermione took off from the room, calling out to her father.
She ran up the stairs as quickly as her skinny legs would take her. She flung the door open to her father's bed chamber and skidded to a halt when she realized the physician was in with him.
"Papa?" she whispered.
"It's alright, m'dear." Her father beckoned her over to the bed. The doctor exited quietly, leaving the man to say goodbye to his only child.
Hermione had never seen her father sick before, and it was quite disconcerting to find him lying ill in bed. She tip-toed toward him and settled gently on the bed beside him.
"Papa?" she whispered again, tears clouding her vision.
"Oh, my darling," he cooed. "Do not fret. I know it's very scary, but it's time for me to go."
The young girl burst into tears and laid her head on his chest. He stroked the back of her head soothingly as she cried. He spoke again, and the rumbling of his voice through his chest felt loud against her ear.
"I am so proud of you, Hermione. You have made me the happiest father in the world. I could not have asked for a smarter, more beautiful daughter than you."
She sniffled loudly at his words. "I love you, Papa."
"And I love you, my sweet. But now I must go see your Mama."
Hermione laid in her father's arms and cried herself to sleep. When she awoke, she was in her own bed and her father was gone, the feeling of his large hand cradling the back of her head now nothing more than a phantom memory.
Far away in the darkness before dawn, a rooster crowed, announcing the beginning of a new day. Hermione grunted and burrowed further into her bedding. A furry head butted her face, and she pushed at it blindly.
"Go 'way, Crooks!"
The ginger cat was not deterred and started pawing at her hair. She opened one bleary eye to glare at her bothersome companion, but it was too dark to see him.
She sat up, taking note of the chill in the air. The light from the fireplace had died down significantly, leaving her with little heat. She rolled off her straw-filled paillasse, hissing when her bare feet made contact with the ice-cold stone floor. She scurried across the room to stoke the embers and throw another log onto the fire. She stood as close to the flames as she dared, rubbing her hands up and down her arms, trying to soak in as much warmth as the tiny fire would give.
The small room began to heat up, and Hermione finally felt comfortable enough to slip out of her thin nightgown and into her day clothes. She went to the old trunk with the rusty hinges at the foot of her bedding and opened it up. She pulled out a pair of wool stockings and a functional brown dress. She went through the perfunctory morning ritual of dressing, plaiting her hair, and washing her face.
She was finishing up when she heard a gentle tapping at her window. She rushed over to find a snowy owl carrying a small package addressed to her. It wasn't often that Hermione got an owl post. When she did, it was usually from her dear friend, Harry Potter, the orphan boy, who had turned out to be magic as well.
The package contained a book about the history of magic and a note wishing her a happy birthday.
She had forgotten that it was the nineteenth of September. She was now seventeen. She felt both ridiculously old and still like a child all at once.
The last six years had not been kind to her. After her father's death, her stepmother had become angry at being left alone with yet another child in her care. She had also made her thoughts quite clear on Muggle-born witches, calling her a Mudblood: a term Hermione came to loathe. The first thing she did was lock away the beautiful vine wood wand and forbid Hermione to ever touch it again.
Rodmilla went on a rampage. She discharged the small household staff, muttering about how she couldn't afford to pay them and how Hermione would now take their place to earn her keep. She was relocated to a room just off the kitchen that had once belonged to one of the servants. The proper furniture with which her father had provided the previous inhabitant was removed and replaced with a straw-filled mattress, a trunk for her clothes, and a low milking stool that sat near the fireplace and served as her only seating.
One week after her father had been laid to rest, Hermione watched as her stepsister left for Hogwarts, while she was forced to stay behind. Her magic was the only thing she had left; and it had been taken away from her, just like her mother and father.
She became much more withdrawn and quiet, but inside still lurked a passion for learning. Whenever she could, she listened at the door while Astoria had her lessons with Mr. Snape. She found texts about charms and transfiguration lying about, and she snatched them up to read by the firelight in the evenings. She couldn't practice her magic, but the knowledge made her feel more whole. She memorized the incantations and mimicked the movements with her fingers, even though she knew she'd never get to try them with a wand.
After Astoria became old enough to go to Hogwarts, Hermione rarely saw Mr. Snape anymore. However, books about magic still seemed to find their way to her.
Harry also sent her his old books after he no longer needed them. He felt so awful about his friend that he even offered to marry her once he graduated from school. He wanted to save her from her lot in life. However, she refused, knowing that there was a certain red-headed girl with whom he was truly in love. She adored Harry for wanting to help her, but she could never have let him sacrifice his own happiness for her.
She had accepted the hand that she had been dealt.
Hermione looked at the book that her friend had sent her and smiled. She slid it under the clothes in her trunk before slipping on her apron and beginning her day.
As she did every morning, Hermione prepared breakfast for the household. Daphne and Astoria had left for Hogwarts three weeks prior, so she only had to cook for Rodmilla and herself. Her stepmother would take her meal in the dining room, whilst she would eat at a small table in the kitchen.
After the morning meal, she dedicated herself to her chores. Some had to be done every day, such as dusting and milking the cow. Others, like attending to the wash or scrubbing the floors, were handled weekly. That day, she had to go out into the apple orchard and gather some late-season fruit, as Rodmilla had requested pie for that evening's dessert.
She did the indoor chores first, knowing that her stepmother hated when she traipsed around the house after having been in the barn. Before heading out, she decided to be naughty and sneak in a little reading time by the fireplace. Engrossed in her book, she idly drew circles with the fingers of her free hand in the ash left on the stone hearth.
The always reliable Crookshanks crept into the room and rubbed against her legs, stirring her out of her trance. Upon realizing how much time she had spent lost in her book, she slapped a hand against her face before rushing out to the barn.
She wasn't sure how she managed it, but she made quick work of her tasks and didn't fall as far behind as she had been afraid she might. She picked up a basket and started her journey toward the orchard.
Along the path, she unexpectedly met a most familiar face.
"Mr. Snape!" She grinned in surprise at seeing her former tutor.
He looked at the girl before him, with her dirty face and shabby clothes. A confused look crossed his countenance. He didn't recognize her.
She brought her hand to her chest. "Mr. Snape! I'm Hermione Granger."
He looked into her big, brown eyes and realized that the girl before him had once been his brightest student. All her potential had been wasted on menial tasks.
"My apologies, Miss Granger. You have… changed."
She looked down at her clothes, and a small tinge of pink bloomed upon her cheeks. He hadn't meant to embarrass her.
"I mean you've grown a lot since we last met. How old are you now?"
She looked grateful at the implication that he had been referring to her age and not her appearance. "I am seventeen today, sir."
"Then let me offer good tidings to you on this day." He gave a slight bow of his head in her direction.
She curtseyed in response and said, "I thank you, sir. Tell me, how have you been? Do you still teach the dragon boy?"
Severus sighed deeply in annoyance. "The dragon has fled his lair, I'm afraid."
She furrowed her brow, clearly not understanding. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Master Draco has run away. That is why I'm cutting through the orchard. There is reason to believe he's escaped to the Muggle world, so I'm off to the village to seek him out."
"Oh my! Well, I shall not detain you from your task any further. I hope you locate him quickly." She smiled at him with genuine goodness, and he again felt the sting at the unfairness that had been put upon her.
"Thank you, Miss Granger. Good day." She returned his goodbyes and had begun to walk away when he suddenly remembered something in his pocket.
"Miss Granger!" She turned back at the sound of her name. He hurried forward and handed her the small book that he happened to have been carrying. "It's not much, but happy birthday."
She looked down at the book and then back at him. "Thank you, Mr. Snape."
The look of joy on her soot-covered face was worth giving up his Pocket Full of Potions reference book.
Hermione walked back to the house with a spring in her step. Her basket was heavy with apples, and her heart felt light with happiness. The sun had broken through the grey morning to make way for a pleasant afternoon. The day had warmed, but not unpleasantly so, and the sky was now the most beautiful blue. It contrasted sharply with the browns and reds in the trees from the impending autumn.
It was a glorious day, in which she received not one, but two books as gifts. What a rare and unexpected treat! It was truly the best birthday she had experienced since her father's passing.
She hummed to herself as she reached the back entrance of the house, which led directly into the kitchen. The fire she had built earlier had left the room nearly sweltering, so she opened a window to allow in the breeze.
This was the one room in the house that she felt belonged to her. She was the only person in the household who ever entered the kitchen, so she felt free and at ease inside it.
She looked down at herself and realized that she was quite filthy from today's chores and that she'd need to clean up before beginning preparations for supper. Well, she needed water from the well anyway. She began to head back outside when she heard a rustling coming from inside the pantry. She stopped immediately and held completely still, as though she had been petrified. Her heart was pounding in her ears. Maybe it was a mouse.
She heard it again, and this time, the noise was beyond the capabilities of a rodent. Someone was in the house.
Trying to quell her panic, she grabbed the first thing that she could find to use as a weapon. She tiptoed across the room, grateful that the flooring was made of stone instead of the creaky wood of the floorboards in the upper rooms. She was reaching very slowly towards the latch when another loud noise and a muffled curse from inside made her jump back as though she had been burned.
Strengthening her resolve once more, she gripped her means of protection in one hand and swung the door open with the other. Her eyes widened at the sight before her. A young man was sprawled on a huge bag of flour.
"What are you doing in my house?!"
Startled at being discovered, the man jumped to his feet quickly, pulling out a wand and pointing it toward her. She could see now that he was much taller than he had appeared on the ground. He was dressed in black from head to toe, his body neither too thin nor too bulky. He had strong shoulders and sharp eyes the color of silver. His hair was startlingly blond to the point that it was nearly white.
Those eyes were also taking in her appearance. He noted the shapeless, drab dress and her dirt-streaked face. Clearly, she was a servant. Rather a shame, he thought, as her eyes were quite lovely. In her right hand, she was holding…
He began to laugh jovially. "Are you going to attack me with a wooden spoon?"
He noticed a hint of pink darkening her cheeks under the smudges on her face. Her eyes were now flashing indignantly.
"If need be." She turned her nose up primly.
Amused, he leaned against one of the pantry shelves, pointed his wand at her, and lazily drawled, "Expel-"
Before he could finish the incantation, she hurried forward and smacked the spoon on the back of his hand, causing him to drop his wand.
"Ow!" he shrieked. "That smarted! What did you do that for?!"
"You were going to disarm me!" she shouted back. "Now, I ask again, what are you doing in my house?"
Rubbing the back of his hand, he scowled at her. "I got locked in this room by accident."
"You accidentally wandered into my home and into the pantry and got locked in?" Her tone was understandably disbelieving.
He wasn't sure if he could lie his way out of this situation, so he opted for the truth and hoped that she'd take pity on him.
"My sincerest apologies, miss. I must confess, I was attempting to steal food, for I am hungry and without means." He was not used to being so earnest, and the words felt slightly foreign on his tongue.
She didn't seem entirely convinced and had yet to lower her deadly spoon. "You're dressed too finely to be 'without means,' as you put it. Are you a bandit?"
He was temporarily taken with the romantic idea of being a professional thief and quirked his mouth in a half-smile. "A brilliant deduction, m'lady. I must commend you on your wits. Why yes, I am a bandit."
Hermione gave a very unladylike snort of derision. "Not a very good one, I must say."
He really shouldn't have been offended, since he wasn't actually a bandit; but her quick dismissal of his thieving skills frustrated him.
"Why do you say that?" he demanded.
"First of all, a good bandit would have been more careful, instead of making noise like a bull in a china shop and alerting everyone in the vicinity to his presence," she informed him wryly.
"I told you, I got locked in. I was looking for a way out of your meager pantry and fell. How would you have gotten out gracefully?"
"I would have used my wand and performed a simple Alohomora charm." She grinned at him, knowing that she had won the argument, but something else caught his attention.
"That's the second time you've made reference to a spell. How does a Muggle know so much about magic?"
The mirth drained from her face, and he knew that he now had the advantage over her.
"I… my… my mistress is of magical descent," she explained slowly. "One tends to learn a few things when living in such a household."
She seemed distraught over what she had revealed, and he fully intended to use it to his advantage.
"If you provide me with food and lodging, I shall keep your secret, cinder girl."
Hermione looked at him thoughtfully and lowered her spoon in defeat. "You can stay in the barn for now. I'll bring you a plate after my mistress has eaten."
He smiled at his triumph and bowed deeply in gratitude. "I thank you, m'lady."
He picked up his discarded wand and had begun to leave for the barn when her voice stopped him. "Sir? Why did you call me cinder girl?"
He walked up to her and stood close enough that she could feel the heat of his body and the slight scent of cinnamon that he must have picked up in the pantry. His eyes never left hers as he pulled a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and swiped it over her cheek. He held it up so that she could see the ashy smudges left behind.
When she blushed, he smirked and placed the handkerchief in her hand before walking away without a word.
Hermione stood in the middle of the kitchen, her face burning, wondering at what had just occurred. She looked at the fancy handkerchief in her hand and slid her thumb over the embroidered "M" flanked by two snakes in the corner.
Little did she know that the man she had sent to sleep in her barn was Prince Draco of the House of Malfoy, heir to the throne of Wizarding England.
To be continued...