AN: Quick reminder: in canon Knockturn alley is a dodgy neighborhood with pawn shops and aggressive street vendors. It's also the kind of place you go to for industrial strength pest control chemicals. Basically the Venice Beach to Diagon Alley's Santa Monica. The vision of Knockturn as Edgy McMurderville is one of the more annoying legacies of the Indy!Harry genre.

ooOoo

Hermione was woken Christmas morning by a persistent tapping noise. She looked around, decided that the noise had not been her parents knocking on the door, and went back to sleep. Moments later the tapping began again. Deciding that the noise wasn't going away without some effort on her part, Hermione dragged herself out of bed and padded over to her window with her wand at the ready.

When she reached it she saw a small owl looking back at her. Its expression mirrored the annoyance that she was feeling and as she watched it drew back its head and started pecking at the window again.

"All right, all right, hold your horses," Hermione mumbled as she worked on figuring out the locking mechanism. A moment later she had the window open, hissing in displeasure at the gust of cold air that tumbled into the room along with the owl. She wasted no time untying the package that was secured to its leg. The owl stood on the bedside table and gave her a reproachful look that she returned with a glare of her own.

"Do I look like I have food in here? Go on, shoo."

She punctuated the remark with a threatening waggle of her wand. The owl gathered itself and flew off. Hermione shut the window behind it, wondering just how the owl had managed to pout while flying. Then she shook herself out of it and looked at the clock. Five in the morning.

Hermione had never been particularly inclined to wake up early on Christmas day. She knew her presents would still be there whenever she happened to get out of bed, after all. Apparently at least one of her friends didn't share her philosophy. Turning the package over, she sighed when she saw Blaise's name on it. He was the impatient sort. She was a little surprised that he was sending gifts out this early in the morning, as it seemed simultaneously both too rude and too considerate. On the other hand, if he was up early with nothing to do... yes, Hermione had a hard time imagining his mother getting out of bed early for any reason at all.

Hermione had sent her presents out on Christmas Eve at a normal hour. Partly out of courtesy, and partly due to her fear that post owls wouldn't be available on the holiday itself.

She was now well and truly awake. Deciding that her parents would hardly appreciate being woken up at this hour she threw on a robe, grabbed a textbook, and headed downstairs. She left Blaise's gift on the coffee table for later. Hermione was expecting to have the Leaky Cauldron all to herself at this hour, but once again she was surprised. While there weren't any other customers in the dining room, Tom was stood behind the bar as usual, needlessly polishing a glass with a rag.

"Don't you ever sleep?"

"Ah, that would be telling," Tom said, then leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Truth be told, I gave the lad who usually works the morning shift the day off. Christmas and all. We'll be closing up a bit early tonight."

Hermione nodded, then ordered a cup of tea. With the initial shock of being woken so early wearing off she could really use the caffeine. Tom brought over her order and started a conversation before she could retreat into a book.

"How's the family vacation going, then?"

"Quite well. There was a bit of culture shock at first. Not here," Hermione said, gesturing vaguely as though to indicate the outside world, "we've had no complaints about the Leaky Cauldron. Going to Knockturn Alley was a bit rough, but it turned out well enough."

"Good," Tom said. "It's been different, having muggles around, but your parents are good people."

"They've been getting along all right, then?"

Hermione had been a bit worried about what would happen when her parents spent time around wizards without her by their side. They would, after all, be relying solely on the kindness of strangers in avoiding magical troubles.

"Oh, aye, aye," Tom said, "some of the lads had a bit of a laugh with your da-give him a chocolate frog card and watch 'im jump, that kind of thing-but nothing with any harm in mind."

"That's good," Hermione said. "Anybody give him an any flavor bean yet?"

"No, why?"

"Because I was going to buy him a bag later this week."

Tom shared a conspiratorial grin with her for a moment. "He's been telling me about some new dishes I might want to add. Did you know muggles have their own version of toad-in-a-hole? It doesn't even try to get away."

Tom looked both shocked and intrigued at the idea. Hermione just nodded, chuckling a bit at the idea of wizards finding such a mundane dish to be a novelty.

"Mum's doing all right as well?"

Tom nodded. "She keeps to herself a bit more. Nobody messes her about, though. Quite the formidable woman, your mum. I can see where you get it from."

Hermione gave a probably not very formidable response by sticking out her tongue at him. Tom just smiled amiably and wandered off, leaving her to her tea. She nursed her drink while she read. By the time she was down to the dregs it was barely lukewarm. Other customers had started trickling into the bar, raising Hermione's hopes that her parents would be up and about.

She returned to their room to find that her father was not only up, but was busy feeding a small flock of post owls. It looked like he was giving them bits of leftovers from last night's dinner. As each owl took a bit of food from his hand it circled around to the back of the line. When the food was finally gone, each owl gave him a suspicious once over before flying away.

"You can stop feeding them whenever you want, you know," Hermione said, walking over to him. There was a small pile of presents on the coffee table.

"Just between you and me, I wanted the excuse to try more new food today."

"What's that?" Hermione's mother asked, stepping out of the bedroom.

"I was saying that Hermione has very thoughtful friends, to send her gifts so early in the morning," her father said. "Shall we, then?"

Her mother nodded and ducked back in to the bedroom. Hermione trotted into her room to fetch her present for her parents. It was a small wrapped bundle the size of a paperback book that she had to dig out of the bottom of her trunk. By the time she returned to the main room her parents were seated on the couch. Another bundle had been added to the pile on the table. Hermione ignored it for the moment as she walked over and handed her present to her mother.

"It's for the both of you."

Her father leaned over to watch as her mother unwrapped the present, finally revealing a photograph in a small wooden frame. It was a picture Hermione had arranged to have taken while they were all at Florean Fortescue's ice cream parlor. As she watched, the photographic version of her mother jabbed her spoon at her father before digging into a banana split. Her parents seemed impressed, at least. They had seen moving pictures, of course, but this was the first time they had a chance to see themselves in a magical photo.

"I transfigured the frame myself," Hermione said. "If you look, it's all one piece."

"This is wonderful, Hermione," her mother said. "I just wish we could put it on display when we have company over."

"Maybe when my friends visit?"

"Maybe," her father said. "Here, it seems we were thinking along similar lines. We've got a few more odds and ends for you at home, but we thought you should get something magical for Christmas."

Hermione took the package he was holding out to her and tore open the wrapping paper. Underneath was a patch of green fabric. She studied it for a moment, then held it by what seemed to be the top and gave it a few shakes. The fabric unfolded to reveal a sundress.

"It's lovely," Hermione said.

It really was. The dress was a pale mint green at the top and gradually darkened to a near-black hunter green at the bottom. A delicate geometric pattern was picked out in silver thread around the neckline. A similar pattern decorated the hemline, with a twist: through some sort of charm the silver pattern was constantly redrawing itself into similar but not quite identical forms. A memory suddenly came to mind as she was studying the dress.

"This is why you had Madame Malkin get my measurements when we bought your robes!"

At the time, she had thought her father was just a little over-excited by the magical tape measures

"Got it in one," her father said with a laugh. "Now, I bet you're wondering how often you'll get to wear this thing. Try tapping your wand right... here."

He stood and indicated a spot on the neckline where the silver pattern made a little circle. Hermione tapped it with her wand and the moving pattern froze in place. She tapped it again and the pattern started to dance once more. She played around with it for a bit, stopping and starting it a few times. When she looked up both of her parents had drawn close. She leaned forward to pull them both into a hug.

"It's brilliant. Thank you both so much!"

They stayed in their group hug for a moment before Hermione reluctantly pulled away. Her father reached out and ruffled her hair while her mother spoke.

"We're glad you like it. Now, why don't we see what your friends got you?"

Hermione wasn't going to argue with that. She set the dress down over the back of the couch and started working her way through the pile. The first present was a pack of silver and green hair ties from Daphne. Hermione suspected it portended a makeover attempt in her future. The next gift was a trio of tickets to a showing of Cats on Diagon Alley later that week, courtesy of Blaise. After that was Neville's present: a small, unmarked book.

Firmly suppressing her initial instinct to set the book on fire and run away, Hermione saw a small note tucked into the book. Pulling it out, she read:

Dear Hermione,

This book is part of a linked pair. Anything that you write in one shows up in the other. We'll be able to stay in touch with each other a lot easier with these.

Sincerely,

Neville

"Ooh, that boy!"

"What's wrong?" her mother asked.

"I just don't know what to do about him," Hermione said, handing over the note for her mother to read. While she was doing so, her father started edging toward the door.

"Ah, " her father said. "I'll just leave you to it, then."

Hermione felt bad to be kicking her father out of the room. When she started to say something, though, he waved her down.

"Don't worry about it. Some of the lads have been promising to explain how quidditch betting works to me for a while now."

That drew a sharp glance from Hermione's mother, but her father was out the door before she could say something. She sighed, then turned to Hermione.

"So, Neville Longbottom. That name sounds familiar."

"You met him before the school year started," Hermione said.

"Oh, he's that boy who fancied you."

Hermione started to protest, but there was nothing she could say in the face of the evidence. Instead, she just sighed. "I suppose."

"He seemed nice," her mother said, non-committal.

"Nice! He's like a little puppy dog following me around with that stupid expression on his face, always ready to jump on my command!" Hermione snapped.

"And..." her mother prompted.

"I like him as a friend... but that's it," Hermione said, as firmly as she could manage.

"Have you told him?"

"I keep hoping he'll figure it out," Hermione admitted.

Her mother sighed, then pulled her into a hug. She rested her own chin on top of Hermione's head, bringing back half-forgotten childhood memories.

"Boys can be quite thick about that sort of thing. Especially when it comes to something they don't want to know."

"That's his own stupid fault," Hermione mumbled into her mother's jumper.

"Honestly, I think you need to talk to him and tell him how you feel. As bluntly as you need to in order to get your point across."

Hermione pulled back to look her mother in the eye. "Why do I have to go out of my way when he's the one being thick headed?"

"I know it's not fair. Even if it is his own fault, though, letting him go on believing you might have feelings for him is cruel. Better to be direct and get everything out on the table. It's the responsible thing to do."

Hermione sighed. "I suppose you're right."

"Of course I am," her mother said, before gathering herself and standing. "Speaking of doing the responsible thing, we should head downstairs and make sure that your father hasn't gambled away the rest of our vacation fund."

ooOoo

The rest of their vacation was largely uneventful. There was a bit of excitement when her father turned into a newt, but he got better. He also learned a new appreciation for magical gags. The play was lovely, and Diagon Alley remained the very picture of a magical winter wonderland. It hardly seemed like any time at all had passed before she was once more standing on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

Hermione felt a thrill of excitement when she saw the Hogwarts express, gleaming steel hidden in a nest of steam. She had enjoyed her vacation, but there had been a certain constant low-level stress in the need to be ever ready to act as a cultural translator. At Hogwarts she would be able to relax and just be herself.

She ran into the first of her friends before she had even boarded the train. Daphne Greengrass appeared out of the mists, jogging along the platform.

"Hello Daphne, good to see-ack!"

Hermione was cut off as Daphne latched onto her arm and started dragging her along at a brisk walk. Despite her aggressive actions, the other girl's demeanor was as cheerful and bubbly as ever.

"Come on, no time to waste."

"What's the hurry?" Hermione asked as they boarded the train and began rushing along the aisle too quickly to do more than glance into the compartments they were passing.

"I need to give you your Christmas present, of course," Daphne said, ushering Hermione into a compartment. Blaise looked up and gave her a cheerful wave, while Millie nodded in greeting. There was a basin set on the empty bench across from them next to the window.

"I already got the hair ribbons," Hermione said. "They were, erm, quite nice."

Despite Daphne's best efforts, Hermione still did not regularly wear ribbons in her hair, but it seemed ungrateful to mention such a thing right then. Daphne waved her words aside, holding up a rather plain potion bottle adorned with a handwritten label. Hermione could make out the words: "Sleekeazy Experimental Grade Long Term Hair Potion: Warning..." before the lettering became too small for her to make out.

Hermione brought her hand up, patting her hair self-consciously. Her hair was a frizzy, untameable mess. This was a simple fact of life, like her buck teeth, one that she had known for as long as her parents had trusted her with a hair brush. Even learning about magic had done nothing to change her outlook on the subject. If nothing else, daily exposure to Professor Snape put paid to any notion that magical prowess made for a good head of hair. A chance to fix it, however experimental, was worth the effort. Especially since Daphne didn't look like she would take no for an answer.

"Do I have a choice?"

Even as she asked the rhetorical question, Hermione was following Daphne's directions. The other girl sat down near the window and had Hermione lie across the bench. Her head was in Daphne's lap with her hair spilling over into the basin.

"Oh thank Merlin," Blaise said. "You don't even want to know what would have happened if you had put up a fight."

"At least she didn't send me haring off to Knockturn Alley to kick off my holiday."

"Come on, you can't be saying that Borgin and Burkes was boring," Blaise said, then paused. When no contradiction was forthcoming, he continued. "And the walk there is half the fun. It's like a free show. There's always some berk being hassled by the hags, and-"

Hermione had mustered up the best glare she could manage from a reclined position. Apparently it was good enough to catch Blaise's attention, as he caught himself mid-sentence.

"They went after you?"

"My parents, actually," Hermione said, waving aside the immediate outpouring of concern. "It's fine, I handled it. They were a bit jumpy for a while, though. It was the first time they saw me hex someone, you know?"

It had been a little hurtful, the way that her parents tended to flinch whenever she drew her wand after that little incident. She thought they had mostly gotten over it by the end of the holiday, though.

"Lucky for you they didn't invite parents to see last year's dueling tournament, then."

Hermione just snorted at that idea, then settled back into position in response to Daphne's insistent tugging. The other girl was gradually working the potion into Hermione's hair. It felt rather nice. At some point the train had started moving. The steady motion of the train, the rhythmic noise as it moved over the tracks, and the soothing massage all combined to put her into a half-dozing state.

Hermione could still follow along as her friends talked about the upcoming Gryffindor-Hufflepuff quidditch match, but didn't feel any particular need to participate. Even the somewhat alarming news that there were cross-house fan clubs dedicated to Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter weren't enough to rouse her to speak. Instead she watched the play of light on the ceiling. The patterns shifted constantly as the train moved, but Hermione thought she was just about to figure out the true, underlying nature of the pattern... and then Daphne was shaking her awake.

"All done!"

Hermione sat up, still groggy, and leaned forward at Daphne's prompting. This gave the other girl the access to do... something... with Hermione's hair. At some point Daphne had gotten ahold of her hair ribbons, she knew that much. Across the aisle Blaise was staring at her with an indecipherable expression on his face.

"Well?"

Hermione had already been feeling a spark of irritation at being disturbed from a good nap. Besides, however pleasant the process might have been, the fact remained that she had to go through an hours-long procedure in order to achieve a look that some girls could muster up just by rolling out of bed. The thought that all of that effort hadn't even made her look more attractive-and why would it, she was still just plain old Hermione under a different head of hair?-that thought was enough to fan that spark into a roaring blaze of frustration.

There was a snap like the sound of a particularly sharp jolt of static electricity. There were a series of snaps like the sound of hair ribbons being torn open. Then Hermione felt the usual weight of her hair settling into its usual place on her shoulders. She brought her hand up to confirm that it had returned to its usual frizzy state at the same time that Daphne let out a wail of anguish at the wasted effort. It seemed her burst of accidental magic had overcome the potion.

"Well," Blaise said, then paused to clear his throat, then shrugged. "It was fine."

ooOoo

After the arrival of the Hogwarts Express students had one day off to get reacclimated to the castle. Some students used that day for studying. Others skived off to go participate in a massive snowball fight. Hermione picked an alcove between the entrance to the castle and the Slytherin common room, pulled out a text book, and waited.

A little more than an hour later Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle left sodden footprints and melting snow behind them as they raced down the corridor. Their cloaks had been dusted with falling snow, punctuated here and there with the battle scars of the snowball fight they had just finished up. As Hermione watched, Goyle shoved Crabbe away with his left hand before staggering as Draco leaped onto his back. Goyle laughed, holding his right arm stretched out overhead, something clenched tightly in his fist. Draco was trying to clamber up and pry his hand open when Hermione stepped out of her alcove and cleared her throat.

"Malfoy."

The three of them jolted as if shocked. Draco scrambled down to the ground and stood in front of her almost at attention, while Crabbe and Goyle tried to look threatening.

"Granger."

Hermione indicated with her head that Draco should step towards her. When Crabbe moved to follow she caught his eye and shook her head.

The three boys engaged in a quick whispered conversation while Hermione watched, bemused. If she had intended to harm Draco it wasn't as if the other two would make much of a difference. She didn't have anything against them in particular, as they'd never done anything to her, but she'd seen their efforts in charms. She didn't think they'd even bothered to enter the dueling tournament last year.

The boys' colloquoy finally ended and Draco stepped forward to within arms length of her. Hermione turned and led him down a side corridor, not waiting to see if he would decide to follow. A moment later he appeared in her peripheral vision as he hurried to walk by her side.

"What's this all about?"

Hermione took a moment to bask in the atmosphere of Hogwarts. Even in this relatively unused corridor the ever-lit torches glinted off the beautiful gilt frames of otherwise unremarkable paintings. Together with the stone walls and cut stone flooring it was at the same time medieval and somehow comfortable.

"I hope you had a lovely Christmas holiday."

"It was all right," Draco said. "My father put up a framed copy of that Daily Prophet story on his office wall."

Hermione had found it a little odd that a major newspaper would write up a school sporting event as if it were a major story, but she supposed people were interested in reading everything they could about Harry Potter. Especially his first loss. Somebody in Slytherin had even managed to get Colin's photo-showing Draco tossing the bristles of Harry's ruined broom down in front of his rival-into the hands of the paper's editor.

"He's pleased?"

"Of course," Draco said. "He says if we win the Cup he'll buy me a new Firebolt! That's a professional quality broom."

Hermione had been under the impression that the Slytherin team was already flying professional quality brooms, although she didn't follow the matter closely, preferring as she did to keep both feet firmly placed on the ground. It did stand to reason that the professional brooms of old would eventually be out of date.

She wondered at Lucius Malfoy's decision to dangle the Firebolt as a prize to be won, rather than buying it for his son outright. Was it intended as a subtle slight? Or perhaps it was a sign that he now believed Draco capable of earning his own victories? Hermione knew she probably wouldn't have much success trying to puzzle out the motives of a consummate politician, tempting though it was to try to get in Lucius's head. Her primary concern had to be with preventing the elder Malfoy from ever deciding to turn a close eye to his son's peer group, most notably her.

She would have liked to enquire more directly as to Lucius's state of mind, but she didn't want to put any ideas in Draco's head as to her own vulnerability. It was already quite challenging enough to avoid allowing Draco to beome either so confident or so desperate that he would actually reach out to his father about their arrangement.

"How are your grades?"

Draco took the change of subject in stride. "Straight O's in potions, of course."

Hermione smiled to herself. It was by now a tradition in their class for Professor Snape to begin by asking her increasingly difficult questions about the potion they were to brew. She stopped killing herself preparing for class when she realized that he would never stop asking questions until she got one wrong. Even so, she usually managed to get through five or six before making a mistake. She sincerely doubted Draco could get through more than two most days. While they might be pulling the same grade in potions, they were hardly peers.

"Mostly E's in charms, some O's and some A's," Draco continued. "Only A's in transfiguration. McGonagall has it in for me."

Hermione fixed him with an intent look, allowing a mild hum of disapproval to escape her throat. Draco met her gaze for a moment before he looked down, scowling.

"She jumps on every little thing! Who cares about all those stupid details?"

"There are no shortcuts in transfiguration," Hermione said. She held up a hand to stop Draco as they reached a staircase, then dropped it, prompting both of them to hop on the stair together. The staircase swung up and around, depositing them in a corridor much like the last, though somewhat more dusty.

"Pick one of the projects from the last month and work on it until you can do it perfectly," Hermione said. "I'll check in on you in a couple of weeks and see how it's going."

She walked forward and opened a door to reveal an empty classroom with its desks shoved up against the wall. Draco followed her inside, craning his neck to look around.

"You're not going to help me with it now?"

Hermione chuckled. "First things first. We need to get your dueling up to scratch."

Draco looked a bit excited at that announcement. His expression dimmed somewhat when he turned to see Hermione's wand leveled in his direction.

"Today you're going to learn how to cast the shield charm."

ooOoo

The potions classroom had not grown any more welcoming over the holiday break. The same misshapen samples in the same cloudy pickling bottles loomed in the shelves at the back of the room. The walls were showing a few patches of frost that mixed with the ever present grime to present a sickly mottled appearance. Professor Snape also presented his usual cool demeanor as he surveyed his two Occlumency students. The only change from their usual lessons was that the penseive was tucked away in the back of the class instead of sitting on the table between them. From where Hermione was sitting she could just make out the glow of memories already deposited in the device's bowl.

"You both are ready to advance in your studies. Potter to passive legilimency, while Miss Granger will face active legilimency," Professor Snape said. "Active legilimency can be volatile. Accordingly, I have stored some of my more private memories in the pensieve for the duration."

Professor Snape looked like he was planning to continue before he was cut off by the distinctive whoosh of an activating floo. It was soon followed by Madame Pomfrey's voice calling out from the office attached to the classroom.

"Severus! The new dreamless sleep potions are causing waking hallucinations. I need help settling my patients down without creating any more complications!"

Professor Snape scowled while she was halfway through her plea for help, and he was striding towards the side office when she finished. He paused in the doorway and turned to fix Harry and Hermione with a glare.

"I will be back shortly. Don't touch anything."

He turned and swept through the door. A second later came the sound of a floo departure, followed by silence. Hermione turned, thinking to say something to Harry, only to see that he was already up and approaching the front of the room.

"What are you doing?"

Harry turned, flashing her a grin.

"Come on, aren't you a bit curious? We can be in and out before he gets back."

Hermione chewed on her lower lip nervously even as she stood and followed behind Harry.

"I guess I am a bit curious."

Harry had almost reached the pensieve when Hermione was struck by a sudden impulse. She grabbed Harry and yanked him back by the back of his robes. He glared at her, but backed down when he saw the stricken expression on her face.

"Harry... what kind of memories do you think he'd want to keep from children?"

There was a pause. Harry clearly took her meaning a moment later as his face went green.

"Snape and... somebody... doing..."

"Snape and somebody else, if we're lucky."

Harry shook free of her grasp and staggered back to his seat. Hermione felt a bit weak in the knees herself. She couldn't help but feel they had narrowly dodged a serious curse.

The silence in the room stretched out to the point that it grew oppressive, but Hermione couldn't think of anything she wanted to say. It was almost a relief when Snape swept back into the room. He studied the two of them for a moment, an inscrutable expression on his face, before settling back in behind his desk.

"Miss Granger, let's begin. I find myself curious about your tutoring sessions," Professor Snape said, bringing his wand to bear. "Legilimens!"

Hermione had only just begun to panic when Snape had cast his spell. He was looking for the tutoring sessions she had mentioned to Professor McGonagall. The tutoring sessions with Tom Riddle. The very first memory he was looking for was one that she absolutely could not let him see.

When the spell hit, Hermione felt a timeless moment of anticipation. It was as though she were sitting in a roller coaster, slowly edging up to the peak of a hill. Or sitting in a movie theater, waiting for the show to start. Consciously, she didn't want to go back and look at the memory. But she still felt a sort of impulsive desire to see it. It was like an itch that she couldn't help but scratch. Hermione dug in, doing the best she could to resist. There was a sudden sort of sideways sliding sensation, and the memory started playing like a film clip.

Hermione watched as Glenys Dibble hit her with an electric shock. Then a stunner. Then all sorts of jinxes and hexes, battering Hermione all over the room. For some reason, she was watching the defense tutorial she'd just had this year instead of the transfiguration tutorial from last year! Hermione did her best to suppress the immense relief that stared to flow through her as she realized what she was seeing.

The memory finally stopped, and the potions classroom snapped back into focus. Hermione saw that Professor Snape was studying her intently.

"That was not the tutoring session I expected to see," Professor Snape said.

It wasn't what Hermione had expected to see either. Very high end occlumens could protect their mind by diverting legilimency probes to memories that were similar to the ones being sought. It was delicate work, allowing an expert to not only stymie a legilimens but deceive them. Hermione knew that she was no expert. She had no idea how she had managed to deflect Professor Snape. Of course, she hardly wanted to let him know that.

"That's odd," Hermione said, her voice level.

Professor Snape looked at her, his expression betraying nothing. Hermione kept quiet and focused on breathing evenly. If he wanted to press her on the identity of her mysterious transfiguration tutor, she would be hard pressed to put him off. It was one thing to refuse to tell tales to the head of Gryffindor. It was another to defy her own head of house.

Without saying anything further to her, Professor Snape turned to address Harry.

"Mr. Potter, it seems I can no longer avoid direct contact with your thought processes," Snape said. He drew a pack of cards from his pocket and tapped it with his wand, causing it to shuffle itself before dealing a card to Harry.

Apparently Professor Snape was content to let her keep her secrets, as long as she could defend them. Perhaps this was his idea of an incentive program. She mulled over the thought, letting her mind drift back to that training session. She found herself once more picturing her run in with Dibble. Frowning slightly, Hermione tried a different tack. She remembered transfiguring a fish into a bird. She remembered the first time she saw it done. She remembered who had been in the room with her.

Suddenly the entire memory came flooding back. She could practically see the expression on Tom's face as he watched the memory of Dumbledore in front of the classroom. Hermione shook her head and once more found herself fully in the potions classroom. That was odd. Tom had been in many ways nothing but a memory stored in a diary. Had he done something to mess with her memories? It was something to think about although, she thought, perhaps not while sharing a classroom with Professor Snape.

ooOoo

Potions class itself also continued pretty much unchanged from where it had left off before the break. The students may have been a little more rambunctious coming off of a vacation, but they quieted down soon enough once Professor Snape entered the classroom. While the combination of Slytherins and Gryffindors in a room would always be a little volatile, there had been no big explosions-figurative or literal-since Hermione had started to rein Draco in.

Hermione had also spent the whole school year developing a delicate balance with Neville Longbottom, her lab partner. She always spoke courteously to him when she did speak, while politely resisting his efforts to draw her into personal conversation. She had hoped that by focusing most of their discussion on the neutral matter of potions brewing Neville would eventually get over his awkwardness and the two of them could settle down into a healthy friendship. Judging by his Christmas gift, Neville had either misunderstood or decided to disregard her intentions.

On entering the classroom, Hermione had hissed at Neville that they would speak after class. He had subsided into a confused silence at that. The rest of the class fell silent under Professor Snape's regard as he surveyed the classroom as if there were any doubt whom he would be subjecting to questioning.

"Tell me, Miss Granger, what would happen if we replaced the stewed slugs in today's potion with bubotuber pus?"

Hermione froze as her mind drew a blank. She had by now started to develop a feel for which changes in the brewing process would be disastrous and which would result in only minor variations. She usually prepared for class by testing out the minor variations to see if anything interesting happened. She had been a little lax in preparing for the first potions class of the new term due to having other things on her mind, but it had never even occurred to her to try substituting ingredients.

"I... I don't know."

"I suppose nobody's perfect," Professor Snape said with a condescending smile. "As it happens it would result in a potion that worked, but that possessed a flavor comparable to raw sewage. Believe it or not, the potions in your text book have all been subjected to significant efforts to improve their flavor."

A titter of laughter swept the room. Professor Snape nodded indulgently and didn't take any points for speaking out of turn.

"Let's see if the rest of you have let your potions work slip over break as well. Get to work, and don't forget your stewed slugs."

Hermione bristled at the implied insult, but caught herself before she said anything. Instead she restrained her reaction to a single extended puff of breath, doing her best to let her annoyance out along with the air. Finally she turned to face Neville, who had been eyeing her warily since Snape finished talking.

"Let's get started."

The brewing process went smoothly. Neville followed directions well. He had also managed to shed the nervous bobbles that had dogged him back when he started out at Hogwarts. There were a couple of pauses during the brew that Neville seemed tempted to fill with social conversation, but Hermione managed to quell any chitchat with a few well-placed glares.

They finished up their work and bottled it just as class finished. Hermione returned from handing it in to find Neville looking at her with a gormless look on his face. He started to say something but she shook her head.

"Not here."

Hermione packed her things and stalked out of the room without looking back. Neville trailed along behind her, following obediently as she led them through a series of twists and turns. Eventually the traffic around them fell away to nothing. Once she was confident that they were alone, Hermione drew his gift from her pocket and turned to face him.

Neville started to say something but Hermione cut him off by shoving the book into his sternum hard enough to send him staggering back against the castle wall. His hands came up to cradle to book as he stared, puzzled, at Hermione's suddenly furious expression.

"What were you thinking?"

Neville seemed as taken aback by Hermione's anger as by the physical assault. When he replied, it was directed more squarely at the floor than at Hermione.

"I thought you would like it."

Hermione couldn't tell if Neville had truly put such little thought into his gift, or if he was just playing dumb. Either way, it did little to placate her ire.

"Really? Because I've had such good experiences with books that write back to me?" Hermione was nearly yelling, now.

"It's not the same," Neville protested.

"It's close enough!"

Something seemed to snap as Neville finally found it within himself to stand up straight and meet Hermione's gaze. She saw some of her own anger and irritation reflected in his eyes.

"You know, you were the one who gave that book to me," Neville said.

Hermione stared at him for a moment. "What did you say?"

"You heard me," Neville said.

"Are you blaming me?" Hermione asked, now moving past anger and into fury.

She knew that on some level she had treated Neville badly by giving him Tom Riddle's diary. It had led to what must have been a traumatic experience for the boy, and she had lost some sleep over it. On the other hand, it wasn't like she had meant for him to suffer.

"What? No, I-" Neville sputtered, alarmed by the reaction he had provoked.

"Are you saying it's my fault for being fooled by the dark lord himself?" Hermione asked. "Because I wasn't the only one."

Both of them had taken the presence in the diary for a friendly mentor at first. Both had benefited from his guidance. Both had suffered when he turned on them. Hermione hardly thought it fair to single her out as being at fault.

"Yes. I mean no. I mean-I never told anyone what happened."

Hermione felt her eyes widen at the implication. Was Neville trying to blackmail her into going out with him? She started to reach for her wand without really thinking about it. Looking at his expression, she couldn't see any sign that he was trying to deliver a hidden message. His face showed nothing but simple sincerity. She relaxed slightly, placing her hands on her hips.

"I should hope not," Hermione said, then sighed. "Look, forget all that. Even still, this was not an appropriate gift."

"Why?" Neville asked, but his blush gave away the truth.

"You know why," Hermione said, doing her best to keep her voice level. "You know who usually buys this kind of thing. You can't just assume stuff like that."

Neville looked like he was gathering up the courage to say something. Hermione motioned him quiet and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

"Neville, you're a dear friend. Let's not throw that away, all right?"

"All right," Neville said. Hermione politely ignored the quaver in his voice. "Should I get you a different present, then?"

"No," Hermione said, then realized she had spoken rather sharply. "No, there's no need. Just keep being a good friend."

With that Hermione turned and walked away, leaving Neville to his thoughts.

ooOoo

Over the next days and weeks things settled into a comfortable routine. Hermione continued to breeze through her classes without having to work particularly hard. She gradually proved able to hold Professor Snape off for longer and longer periods before he was able to see the memory he was seeking. She hadn't managed another diversion of his attacks, but he hadn't tried to get at her transfiguration tutoring again either. Justin and Colin were almost caught up with their classmates and provided her with the occasional spar. Draco also proved a somewhat useful sparring partner and test dummy. Sirius Black didn't cause any further trouble. All in all, Hermione was feeling pretty good when she knocked on the frame next to the open door to the unofficial Slytherin prefects' lounge.

Glenys Dibble looked up from her studying and blinked in surprise. "Granger? You're back."

"I think I'm ready for another practice session."

Glenys dogeared the page she had been reading and closed her book, then looked at Hermione evenly. She made no move to stand up.

"You sure? I don't much like having my time wasted."

Hermione felt a strong desire to remind the other girl that she had saved her hours of trouble by tending to the first year students, but resisted the impulse.

"I'm sure. I'm ready to learn something new."

"I'll be the judge of that," Glenys said, then shrugged and stood. "I suppose now is as good a time as any to put you through your paces."

Hermione tagged along behind the other girl as they made their way through the halls to the same empty room that they'd used for the previous lesson. She hardly had her wand out before she was forced to hastily erect a shield. The ball of electricity that had been sent her way grounded itself harmlessly along the edge of the protective dome.

"At least you're not just falling for the same trick all over again. Stupefy!"

Hermione gritted her teeth and held on as her shield rang like a bell at the impact of the stunning spell. She was still conscious, which was a relief. Unfortunately the follow up spell splattered some kind of paint-like substance all over the front of Hermione's shield. She didn't know exactly what Glenys was getting up to while she was out of sight, but it couldn't be anything good.

Hermione shrank the shield down to a disc centered on her left arm and was confronted with a fog bank. She sent a testing ball of electricity downrange in the hopes of flushing out her opponent. A moment later she was bracing herself behind her shield as it held off a torrent of flame. She mentally expanded the edges of the shield as the flame tried to creep around to get at her. Even without being directly touched by the fire, the heat being applied to her arm was agonizing. Hermione sent a stunner aimed at the source of the fire.

The fire cut off. Hermione wondered for an moment if she had actually won, then found herself flying backwards arse over teakettle, her wand flying out of her hand. She looked up woozily as she came to a rest, altogether too much of her vision filled by the smiling face of Glenys Dibble.

"All right, Granger, what's your story?" Glenys asked after helping Hermione back to her feet.

"My story?" Hermione asked, frowning. Surely everybody knew the story of the muggleborn Slytherin girl.

"Why are you in here begging for extra lessons when your year mates are too busy faffing about to do a decent job on their regular course work?"

Hermione was a bit taken aback by the question. "I... no real reason, I guess."

"Come on, don't give me that. I can tell that there's more to it."

Hermione crossed her arms. "Maybe I just want to be the best. Slytherin ambition and all that."

Glenys replied with a snort and a shake of her head.

"Granger, you are the best. You won your year's dueling tournament last year. With what you just showed me I doubt any of the other third years could last thirty seconds with you in the dueling ring."

"Well, Sirius Black is still out there."

Glenys didn't dignify that with a response. She just kept eye contact with Hermione until she finally gave up on making excuses.

"Fine! Like I said before, I'm not learning anything new in class this year. Dueling club was cancelled. For all the spells and tricks that I know, I also know there are a hundred more that I don't know, and I'm not learning them. I feel like I'm standing still and I hate it! I want to feel like I'm moving forward. Like I'm getting better."

Hermione stood still, her breathing sounding heavy in the silence that followed her little rant. She felt better having unburdened herself. Of course, there was still the question of how a prefect would feel about teaching somebody with that kind of motivation.

"All right, then," Glenys said, favoring her with a smile and a pat on the shoulder.

"All right?"

"Nobody improves the way you have without some serious motivation," Glenys said. "I just wanted to know what was driving you. An obsessive urge for magical power is pretty tame, all things considered."

"I'm not obsessed!" Hermione protested.

"So you don't want me to show you anything new?"

"That's not what I said," Hermione said, looking at the ground.

"That's what I thought," Glenys said, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "Now, let's get a few more tricks up your sleeve."

Hermione scowled at the casual manhandling, then nodded. She winced as the lull in conversation let her feel the injury on her arm. "What were you thinking with that flame spell? You could have cooked me!"

"Eh, you had a shield up," Glenys said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tube that she tossed over to Hermione. "Burn cream. Don't say I never did anything for you."

A lot of what Glenys had to show her were defensive spells. While the shield spell was a good all-purpose workhorse spell, other spells could negate specific attacks without as much of a drain on her concentration. The bubble head spell could protect from many common prank items, as the Weasley twins had so dramatically demonstrated. Some spells could also be layered together to provide extra protection. A flame freezing charm could neutralize the heat that a shield allowed through (a side effect of the need for the shield to allow some air flow).

The remaining time was spent teaching Hermione to trust her defenses. She didn't particularly enjoy the magical version of "two for flinching," but she couldn't deny that it was effective. One nice thing about these sessions was that she didn't just learn new spells, but also new teaching techniques that she could use to benefit her classmates.

ooOoo

Hermione's weekly routine was broken in the beginning of February by the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff quidditch match. She didn't have any particular stake in the outcome but still attended, along with the rest of the student body, to see how Harry Potter would bounce back from his first defeat. There had been quite a lot of speculation throughout the school as to whether the damage to Potter's ego or to his broomstick would carry over and affect his play. There was also, of course, much anticipation for the matchup at seeker between Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory.

As it turned out, the game was something of a mismatch. Harry Potter showed up to the game with a new broomstick, and it was amazing. Unfortunately, he was still saddled with the same set of teammates. They were thoroughly outmatched by the steady hands of the Hufflepuff field players. What's more, the tremendous acceleration and high top speed of Harry's new broomstick mostly seemed to mean that he was going at higher speed when he ran into Cedric Diggory.

The Hufflepuff seeker had adopted Draco's physical tactics. He was also, frankly, a more talented flier than Draco. This was compounded by the fact that as a fifth year student he had a natural size advantage. With no need to use his broomstick's momentum to magnify the impact, he was able to harass Potter more or less with impunity. Throughout the entire game, he was only ever assessed one penalty-and that evened out when Harry finally lost his temper and took a swing at Cedric while Madame Hooch was staring right at them.

Just to rub salt in the wound, Cedric wound up catching the snitch to bury Griffindor, 410-40. Coupled with the 330-240 drubbing that Slytherin had put on them, Gryffindor were well out of the hunt for the Quidditch Cup. The Gryffindor students looked rather sullen as they left the stadium burdened with the knowledge that they would not be retaining their trophy. That was no surprise. What did catch Hermione off guard was who they chose to blame.

She came down to breakfast the next morning to find a good size scrum already in progress. From what she could see, a group of Slytherin students had decided to visit the Gryffindor table. The reason for their visit became apparent when she overheard a remark about Gryffindor boys' inability to handle their broomsticks. Hermione rolled her eyes and turned her back on the pushing and shoving to make her way to her table.

She hadn't gone more than a few steps when she heard a shout behind her, followed an instant later by the unmistakable sensation of a jinx catching her in the back. The nature of the jinx didn't remain a mystery for long, as her two front teeth began growing like weeds, stretching past the confines of her mouth and forming what almost looked like tusks. Hermione was shaking in anger as she drew her wand. She was turning back towards the source of the spell when Blaise and Daphne arrived at her side and took hold of her arms.

She allowed them to guide her towards the exit of the Great Hall. Before they stepped outside, though, she shook them off for a moment. She may be leaving, but she wasn't going to run away with her tail between her legs. Without turning back, she slashed her wand through the air. The incantation she growled out was incomprehensible, but she had never wanted a spell to work so badly as she had at that moment. The success of the spell was apparent in the sparks trailing behind her wand, and with a few more swipes of her wand an enormous flaming "330-240" was sent to hover over the Gryffindor table. That done, she tucked her wand away and let her friends lead her to the hospital wing.

ooOoo