Author's Note: Written for the "All Sorts of Love" competition on HPFC. I'm trying desperately to get back into writing fic – and writing in general, as I haven't written anything substantial in over a year. Please leave me a review – even a negative one – so that I might take away something useful from this! It would really help me out. Thanks, as always!
Disclaimer: Obviously, all characters and settings are copyright to J. K. Rowling, and I don't own anything except for this story. So don't steal it and stuff.
Hermione Granger. Front teeth: relatively smaller than they used to be; Hair: somewhat less bushy, but still quite frizzy; Mouth: still prone to obnoxious, matter-of-fact and know-it-all statements. Hermione has matured a lot since her first year at Hogwarts, but even in her third year, she realizes that she still has much to learn. Thankfully, her hunger for knowledge is still as ravenous as ever, and she finds herself in the library most days, trying to keep on top of her studies (both for her courses and for her personal interests). It's hard work, but aside from the occasional cramps in her fingers (she bears down too hard with her quill, because she's still not quite used to quill-writing) and the need for small poultices to soothe her stress headaches, she really doesn't mind very much.
The library is perhaps her favorite place in the entirety of the Hogwarts grounds. Hagrid's hut is a close second, if only because Hagrid is one of the most darling people that she knows. His gigantic mugs that she has to use both hands to lift are perfect for tea, and the vague scents of straw and raw earth are strangely homey and comforting at once. The Gryffindor common room, with its plump arm chairs and warm, crackling fire, feels almost like home, but it is sadly bereft of books, and generally too filled with students to nurture an efficient study environment.
But the library is perfect. The bookshelves stretch for what seems like miles, and the air is thick with studious silence and the comforting smell of book decay. Sometimes, when she needs to take a break from studying, she'll walk amongst the older titles and pull out the yellowing volumes just to smell them. When she needs a taste of home – of the muggle world – it's just the thing to calm her. Old books, she's found, smell the same the world over, and it quells her homesickness quite well.
It's during one of these moments in late November when she discovers that she isn't the only one who finds comfort in the old books. This discovery takes her by surprise, but she feels silly afterward for feeling almost betrayed.
Hermione sits alone, tucked away in an alcove in a far corner of the library, away from the prying eyes of Madam Pince, and from the whispers of students spreading all kinds of terrible gossip about Sirius Black, the escaped criminal from Azkaban. She chews thoughtfully on the edge of her quill (she's learned by now not to chew on the tip, because she's come away with an inky bottom lip more than once) as she stares at the blank parchment before her. Exams are coming up soon, and she has felt the ball of anxiety building up in her stomach for weeks now. She wants more than anything for her exams to be over and for Christmas holiday to arrive so she can return home to her mother and father, and forget for just a little while the pressures of schoolwork and being friends with the Boy Who Lived. It will be wonderful to get away from all of that, and not have to worry that Harry will be murdered in his sleep by some crazed maniac overridden with blood lust.
The thought makes her shudder, and her throat constricts. She takes a deep breath and puts down her quill, her right hand shaking. The ball of anxiety threatens to hatch like the egg of some ancient and extinct creature, but she swallows hard and suppresses it, then gets to her feet and begins one of her journeys through the stacks.
Her favorite section – and one of the oldest – houses most of the library's books on medical magic. It's quite expansive, and not very often visited by other students, so that's where she goes now, her shoes scuffing the floor as she walks and unsettling some of the dust that always seems to evade Madam Pince's frequent cleaning spells. When she reaches the familiar aisles, Hermione stops short in obvious surprise; there's someone else in the section.
The girl is tall – obviously older than her by a couple of years – and has long, curly hair. Hermione's eyes drop to the badge on the girl's chest. She's a Ravenclaw, and a prefect. After studying her face for a moment more, Hermione comes to the conclusion that she's definitely seen this girl before.
The girl looks up suddenly, as if sensing that she's being watched, and offers up a warm smile, closing the thick tome she holds. Her eyes crinkle at the corners behind the somewhat thick glasses that perch precariously on her freckled nose. "Sorry," she whispers. "Did you need to get here?" She motions vaguely at the shelf before her.
Embarrassed, Hermione shakes her head, her hair bouncing on her shoulders, and comes into the aisle properly. She pretends to search the shelves for an imaginary book she doesn't need, her fingers skimming the dusty titles absently.
She still has the vague feeling that she's seen this girl before. Obviously not in class, but somewhere else…
Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione watches the girl place the thick book back in its place. She spends another moment scanning the titles, and pulls another out: St. Mungo's: The Official Guide to Reversing Hexes. She then promptly opens the book and holds it to her nose, inhaling deeply. When she's finished, she glances over and smiles sheepishly at Hermione.
"Sometimes I like to come smell the books," she admits. "It's comforting. It's not that weird, is it?"
Hermione is taken a bit aback by this. She doesn't answer immediately, and abandons her previous pretense of searching for a book. "I like to do it, too," she says. "The old ones smell the best."
"They do, don't they? That's why I like this section. That, and I'd like to be a Mediwitch someday," the girl replies. "You're Hermione, aren't you? Ronald's friend? Percy mentions you sometimes. He says you're very bright."
It all comes together at once. "You're Penelope!" Hermione whispers excitedly, pleased that the familiar face finally has a name. "Percy's – friend."
Penelope's smile fades the smallest bit, but she recovers magnificently and nods her head. "Yeah, I was." Then, she dusts her hands off on her skirt and tucks one of her many curls behind her ear. "Anyway, I'd best get back to studying. It was nice meeting you, though. Properly, I mean."
"Yeah, you, too," Hermione agrees.
And then Penelope is gone, and all that's left is the palimpsest of the smell of the book she'd opened mingling with her perfume.
Hermione lingers for a few minutes longer and pretends that she isn't enjoying the fruity, earthy smell a little more than she should, and then she returns to her alcove and her blank parchment and fills it with words she won't remember in the morning.
The next time she sees Penelope, Christmas has come and gone. It's January and it's freezing, but it's a Hogsmeade weekend and the Butterbeer is hot. It warms Hermione up from the soles of her feet to the tips of her still-tingling fingers, and leaves her with a frothy moustache that she quickly wipes away, hoping that no one has seen it. Ron is off at Zonko's or some such place, and Harry is, Hermione hopes, safely tucked away in Gryffindor common room, not illegally visiting the little village as he is so wont to do. Keeping up with the two of them is a nightmare sometimes, but they're her friends. Even if they do believe that Crookshanks is a murderous creature, which he clearly isn't.
So, she sits by herself in a booth at The Three Broomsticks, and watches the people bustle in and out of the doors, snow melting from their shoulders and hair and mittens as soon as they come inside. Their cheeks are ruddy with cold, and they call to their friends as they enter, or look around to see if anyone they know is inside.
All except Penelope. She comes in alone, with her head down and her eyes puffy, and walks determinedly toward an empty booth near Hermione's. When she sits, she all but throws herself into the booth, and she stares dejectedly out the frost-covered window at her left. She's obviously been crying.
It doesn't take long for Hermione to pull out her coin purse and slide out of her booth. "Excuse me," she says when she reaches the counter. "Madam Rosmerta?"
The woman standing at the bar turns around and smiles big, all of her teeth showing, and for a moment Hermione can see why most people describe her as beautiful. Her round cheeks are soft and her smile is inviting, and her eyes have a warmth to them that reminds Hermione of her mother. "Yes, dear?"
"Could you send a Butterbeer to the girl who just walked in, please?" She hands over correct change. "She looks like she could need it." Hermione nods her head toward the booth where Penelope sits, and Madam Rosmerta's gaze follows the path. She purses her thick, lipstick-lined lips, and tuts softly.
"Keep the change, honey," she says. "I recognize heartbreak when I see it. It's on the house."
Rosmerta returns to work, and Hermione can tell she's been dismissed.
She returns to her booth and pretends like she isn't watching Penelope over her own glass of Butterbeer. Pretends that she's not noticing the way that even though she's crying, Penelope still manages to seem in control. Maybe it's the slight sharpness she has in her jaw. It makes her seem strong, somehow. And beautiful.
Hermione watches as Madam Rosmerta saunters over and places the frothing mug before her, and Penelope looks up in surprise. The lines which previously creased her forehead vanish for a moment, and then she searches the room. Her eyes meet Hermione's. A flash of understanding. A deep, shaking breath. Her shoulders lose their rigidity.
"Thank you," she mouths, and her smile is weak, but there.
Hermione just nods and returns the smile. They don't speak that day, but something passes between them, unspoken, and that's nice, too.
She's late to Charms one day, because she runs into Penelope on a moving stair case that gets stuck in motion. Instead of leading to the corridor she needs, it swivels uselessly between one corridor and the next, and both girls have to hold on to the bannister so they won't fall over. Hermione gets the feeling that Peeves is behind it, because she'd seen him hanging around the area earlier in the morning, and she curses him silently.
"Are you late, too?" Penelope asks with a laugh. "This is the second time this week it's happened to me. It's my rotten luck, I think. Sorry if it's rubbed off on you."
Hermione shrugs her shoulders. "I've got time," she lies, and thinks blissfully of the time-turner on its delicate chain around her neck. All the time in the world, really.
"I owe you a drink. This weekend, maybe? You're going to Hogsmeade, aren't you?"
Truthfully, Hermione had forgotten that this weekend was a Hogsmeade weekend. She'd been planning to study for final exams, but she finds herself nodding and saying, "Yeah, I was planning to," despite herself. "You really don't owe me anything," she starts to say, but the staircase finally decides which course it wishes to take, and slides into place with the sound of grinding stones.
"No, really. I'd like to," Penelope insists. "It's the least I can do. For before. Or for my stupid luck making you late for class."
Hermione shrugs her bag further onto her shoulder and hurries up to the corridor before the stairs change their minds again. "Sure, alright, then. I'll meet you at The Three Broomsticks."
"Great! I'll see you around lunch time, then?"
"Yeah," is all she has time to say before she all but jogs down the corridor, her shoes slapping the stone loudly. She attributes the pounding of her heart to the anxiety of being late, but during Charms she can't think of anything but the warmth of Butterbeer and Penelope's smile.
The days pass quickly after that, and Hermione is overloaded with studying and stress. She spends almost every moment of her time in the library, or holed up in her dormitory surrounded by piles of books and endless rolls of parchment. Her fingers are creased with callouses from holding her quill, and her lips are chapped from the many times she's licked them in concentration.
She puts the finishing touch on her essay for Binns – a commentary on the mistreatment of Goblins and the impact which it had on the first Goblin War – and sits back with a sigh of relief. Tension makes her neck stiff and knots litter her back. It isn't until she glances at a clock that she realizes it's very much past lunch time, and she's late for her meeting with Penelope.
Panicking, Hermione jumps up and throws her books back into her bag haphazardly, not caring if her parchment gets a bit bent in the process. She races back to Gryffindor common room (after spending a breathless moment in front of Sir Cadogan, who has changed and forgotten the password yet again) and vaults up the stairs to the girls' dormitories. From there, she doesn't even attempt to tame her hair, but she does change into some comfortable muggle clothes and a heavy winter cloak to brave the cold walk to Hogsmeade village.
She makes good time, all things considered. By the time she reaches The Three Broomsticks, her cheeks burn with cold and her lungs sting sharply when she inhales, but she isn't altogether that late. She looks forward to taking a nice, large gulp of Butterbeer once she gets inside, and she pushes open the heavy door, which chimes cheerily as she enters.
For some reason, butterflies have come alive in her stomach, pushing at all edges, trying to escape as she searches the room for Penelope. She finds her nestled in the corner next to a window, in a large, comfortable-looking booth.
The butterflies die, frozen, perhaps, by the icy weather outside, which has finally made it through the layers of clothing and spreads through her innards. Its frozen fingers feel their way through her intestines, to her stomach, her esophagus, her heart. They squeeze.
Penelope laughs, warmth spilling from her lips like firewhisky, and she touches Percy's thigh beneath the table. His hand, larger, closes over hers and he smiles – has Hermione ever seen Percy smile? She can't remember – but her eyes stay on Penelope, and she dusts the snow from her shoulders and turns away.
The bell chimes again, and Hermione is again out in the snow, alone.
She doesn't smell the books again.