Beneath the Surface – Part 1

The Woes of Imperfection

Hermione Granger walked through the Hogwarts castle with Ginny Weasley, trying to keep her nerves in check. She couldn’t keep her hands still, running them through her thick hair, stuffing them in her pockets, adjusting the collar of her robes as they made their way up to Professor Slughorn’s office.

“It’ll be fine,” Ginny sighed, tucking a lock of her red hair behind her ear. “All Slughorn wants is to fawn over you now so he can say he knew you when later.”

Hermione had heard about the Slug Club from Ginny, Harry, and Neville. From what they’d said, it sounded like a group of kids their new Potions professor Horace Slughorn had chosen as his personal favorites. While she disapproved of the practice, she knew how many connections the man had throughout the wizarding world, and it wasn’t lost on her how important this could be for her future.

“I just can’t believe he invited me.”

Ginny scoffed, “You must be joking.”

Hermione pursed her lips but didn’t respond. The words she knew Ginny was thinking echoed through her brain. She’s the brightest witch in our year. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe it, but the statement felt more like an expectation than a compliment, a threat thinly veiled beneath it. What would happen if she was no longer the brightest? If someone else suddenly studied harder, retained more? What if they realized it was all a lie, just hard work and an unhealthy obsession with getting things right?

She didn’t speak her worries out loud to Ginny — they had plagued her for years even before she’d found out she was a witch, and she knew her best friend’s sister wouldn’t truly understand, even if she tried.

They were the last two to arrive in Slughorn’s office. It was bigger than most of the professors’ offices that Hermione had been to. On the far wall sat a fireplace, a plush emerald couch facing it. Chests and shelves lined the walls, pictures of blinking and smiling people looking out from the tops of almost every surface. A liquor cabinet stood sturdy next to another doorway, which Hermione assumed led to Slughorn’s desk because she couldn’t see it from the entrance. A round mahogany table commanded attention in the center of the main room, surrounded by eight chairs and laden with food Hermione was sure had been brought up by house-elves.

Slughorn’s other guests were awkwardly mingling, a few glancing at them as they entered the room. Of the five other students there, Hermione recognized Ravenclaw fifth year Melinda Bobbin and Slytherin Blaise Zabini. Hermione flushed as she made eye contact with Cormac McLaggen. His eyes were still slightly unfocused from Gryffindor Quidditch tryouts earlier that day, but he smiled at her in what she supposed he thought was alluring. She looked away quickly, to Professor Slughorn, who was dressed in decadent robes of periwinkle.

“Ah, Miss Granger and Miss Weasley! Excellent,” he said, “Let’s all take a seat, shall we?”

They all made their way towards the table, Hermione keeping close to Ginny so that they could sit together. She slid into her seat, her nerves spiking as McLaggen sat heavily in the chair next to her.

“Help yourselves, help yourselves,” Slughorn insisted, reaching for the bowl of buttered peas.

The room was quiet for a moment but for the clinking of dishes. Next to Hermione, McLaggen’s fingers fumbled around the bowl of chicken legs, and it tipped over, the bowl falling with a clatter onto his ornate ivory plate. Ginny snickered and Hermione had to bite her lip to keep from smiling.

“So, Cormac,” Slughorn started as McLaggen rushed to pick up the food, “Have you heard from your uncle recently?”

“I just got a letter from him the other day, as it happens,” McLaggen said with a grating smile, “He’s had quite a lot of work to do at the Ministry, as you can imagine.”

“Of course,” said Slughorn, “There’s quite enough to be going on, what with these perilous times. Still, it doesn’t hurt to plan for the future. Do you think you’ll go into the Ministry like Tiberius?”

The conversation went from there. Slughorn’s small eyes fixed on each of them in turn, interrogating them with updates on their famous or well-connected family members and inquiring about their future goals.

After asking Ginny thoroughly about her hexes and name-dropping the noted author of Harmful Hexes: A Guide to Reactionary Spells Darold Vengecraft, Slughorn turned to Blaise Zabini.

Zabini had been quiet during most of the other conversations, his dark eyes unreadable. Now, he answered Slughorn’s questions graciously, from what new wizard his mother had recently been seen with to what his future aspirations were.

“I’d like to go into the Department of International Magical Cooperation,” he answered, “My mother has taken me on a few of her international trips, so I’m interested in relations between Britain and other countries.”

“An exciting career path!” Slughorn exclaimed, “And one I’m sure you would excel in. I’ll have to connect you with Sandrine Walton, she’s been the head of the department since Barty Crouch’s unfortunate demise. In fact, maybe I should introduce her to Miss Granger as well! The three of you have quite similar backgrounds.”

Hermione was startled at being included, even though she was the only one left to interrogate. She cut her eyes at Zabini briefly, tilting her head in confusion. Though they had had classes together for the past five years, she didn’t know much about the Slytherin other than that he had scoffed at the idea of Harry being the Chosen One on the train to Hogwarts and that she generally saw him alone in the library outside of classes. Was that what Slughorn meant?

Zabini had made a face too, the frown contorting his deep brown face. Suddenly, Hermione realized that they were the only two Black students in the room. Now, she understood.

“Well…” Hermione said, trying to sound diplomatic, “I don’t know if that’s true, exactly. I’m Muggle-born, sir.” That wasn’t to say that being Black didn’t matter in the wizarding world, at least not in Hermione’s estimation. Still, Zabini was the pure-blood son of a famous witch — their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.

“Yes, yes, and I must say again how impressed I am with you,” Slughorn said, transitioning his attention smoothly from Zabini to her, “Mr. Potter spoke so highly of you when first we met, and still you wowed me in our first Potions lesson. With brains like yours, there’ll be many doors open to you once you leave Hogwarts.”

Hermione blushed, feeling pleasure mingled with discomfort. While she had no doubt of the value she could bring to wherever she decided to go, she wondered if what Slughorn said would be true, given the anti-Muggle-born sentiments that had been bubbling under the surface of the wizarding world, now swiftly rising with Voldemort out in the open.

Across the table, an annoyed look flashed across Zabini’s face as he lifted his goblet to his mouth, barely concealing his snort.

Before Hermione could say anything, Ginny spoke up, “Have something to say, do you Zabini?”

He rolled his eyes as he set the cup back down on the table, long fingers wrapped loosely around it. “Only that I don’t know that someone with brains would have been in the middle of that mess at the Ministry.”

Hermione felt a surge of annoyance at the haughtiness on his face. “Perhaps not,” she said, sensing that Ginny was just barely holding back the urge to curse him. She lay a hand on her arm under the table. “But someone with brains would know not to speak about things they know nothing about.”

“Oho!” Slughorn exclaimed, eyes brightening, “How could I forget you were one of the few in the Department of Mysteries in June? Dumbledore is still quite caged about it, but I don’t suppose you could tell us what happened?”

Hermione felt as if a very bright light was shining directly on her, and she suddenly felt wrong. She didn’t want to think about the catastrophe at the Department of Mysteries. She glanced fleetingly at Ginny, who grimaced. Her chest seemed to burn with the memory of the spell Dolohov had thrown at her, knocking her unconscious.

She took a deep breath to center herself. “If Professor Dumbledore won’t say anything about it, I don’t think I should.”

Slughorn frowned, “Oh poppycock. Always the secret keeper, Dumbledore is. But I suppose he’s the only one You-Know-Who ever feared for a reason.”

He moved on then, to asking about Hermione’s background. She answered his questions as truthfully as possible, trying to feel less self-conscious. Everyone listened intently, but for some reason, it wasn’t the fact that McLaggen’s elbow kept “accidentally” bumping into her that bothered her the most, but Zabini’s stare. There wasn’t anything different about his expression, on first glance it seemed to hold a detached interest. Still, Hermione could feel heat rising on her skin under his gaze, and wondered if she was imagining the strange twinkle in his eyes.

Overall, the Slug Club seemed fine. Hermione had survived Slughorn’s questions, McLaggen’s clumsy flirting, and Zabini’s sneering. When Ron asked her about it the next morning at breakfast, though she could hear the accusation in his tone, she answered truthfully.

“It was alright,” she shrugged as she scanned the Daily Prophet for any worthwhile news. “About what you would expect.”

Ron scowled and stabbed at a piece of melon on his plate.

He wasn’t the only one, it seemed, who was upset about not being invited to Slughorn’s dinner party.

“Slughorn must be cracking up if he’s forgetting the families who matter,” Malfoy sneered to Crabbe and Goyle as they waited outside of the Transfiguration classroom, his voice carrying across the hall to the Gryffindors. “I mean if he’s letting in filth like Granger—”

“Oh Malfoy if you’re so upset, why don’t you go cry to your father about it?” Hermione said before Harry and Ron could whip out their wands. Ron let out a bark of laughter.

Draco turned pink, “You watch your mouth, Mudblood.”

“Careful,” she said, “Your mother wouldn’t like another of her family members bested by a Muggle-born, would she?”

Draco reached for his wand as Harry drew his in preparation. At that moment, Professor McGonagall rounded the corner, hawklike eyes scanning the hall.

“Is there a problem?” she asked, eyeing the wand in Harry’s hand.

“No, Professor,” Hermione said, grabbing Harry’s arm.

McGonagall narrowed her eyes a moment and then turned, entering the classroom. As Hermione pulled Harry after her, she noticed that Zabini was watching her behind Malfoy, an amused look on his face. The minute he realized she had seen, he looked away, his face falling into its signature scowl.

Hermione turned back to follow Susan Bones through the door, feeling confused. Why would Zabini find anything she said funny — especially when disparaging his own Housemate?

“Hurry and find your seats,” Professor McGonagall called from the front of the room, “We have a lot to cover.”

Hermione made her way to her seat, still pulling Harry along although the danger of him cursing Malfoy had passed. Once she sat down, she decided to disregard Zabini’s strange behavior. Whatever he was thinking didn’t matter. She had magic to learn.

By the time she got to Potions class, she had completely forgotten that morning’s incident. Today, they were working on the Awakening Solution, a potion that increased its drinker’s energy.

Hermione spent the entire hour slaving over her cauldron, making sure she added the minced peppermint at exactly the right moment, plucking the dandelion petals meticulously, and stirring the appropriate amount of counterclockwise times before leaving it to stew for the week. She felt satisfied with the way the yellow liquid shone brightly from her cauldron, and when Professor Slughorn inspected it he exclaimed that her work was very well done.

But when he went to Harry’s cauldron, Slughorn was beside himself. He gushed over him, saying that the shade of marigold that bubbled from Harry’s cauldron could only be the work of a masterful potion maker, the subtlety in the coloring causing him to award twenty points to Gryffindor.

Hermione felt a surge of anger as Harry grinned behind Slughorn’s back at Ron. As far as she was concerned, using the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook was tantamount to cheating, and the praise Harry kept getting grated on her. As Slughorn moved on to Ernie’s neon green liquid with a strained smile, Hermione’s eyes met Zabini’s. Was it her or was the corner of his full lips pulled up? Great, now he was laughing at her, too.

The phrase echoed in her brain again. She’s the brightest witch in our year. Feeling a surge of panic, she tore her gaze away, stuffed her scales in her bag, and stalked off ahead of Harry and Ron as the bell rang.

It wasn’t that she had to be the best in every class — Harry was consistently better than her at Defense Against the Dark Arts and it never bothered her — it was the fact that Professor Slughorn absolutely fawned over Harry when he wasn’t putting in the same effort she was. And what was more, the voice of doubt seemed to be creeping up in her more than usual. If Harry could defeat her with counterfeit instructions, then clearly she wasn’t all that good at Potions to begin with.

“I hope there are mashed potatoes for lunch,” Ron exclaimed, catching up to her.

“Even if there aren’t, you’ll eat everything within a five-person radius,” Harry said with a grin. The Prince’s book was clutched tightly in his hand, his finger holding the place he had been reading before class. Hermione scowled.

She scarfed down her food quickly and hurried off to the library. There was enough time before her next class that she could maybe find something to help her understand more about the properties of the Awakening Solution. She scanned the spines of the books in the Potions section quickly, exhaling as she found A Guide to Precise Potion-Making

She lugged the heavy book down to the nearest table, dropping her book bag on the chair next to her. She scoured the table of contents before finding the chapter on potion ingredients for alertness. Flipping quickly to the correct page, she began to read.

Based on what was in here, she hadn’t done anything wrong. Odd numbered counterclockwise stirs were better for potions that made the drinkers groggy, but the even number would have the opposite effect. She’d stirred exactly eight times as Advance Potion-Making had told her. Fresher ingredients often yielded better results, and Hermione had only just restocked her peppermint the week before when she realized she had forgotten to get some in Diagon Alley.

“Of course you’ve got the book,” an exasperated voice said above her.

She looked up, surprised. She’d been so absorbed in her reading that she hadn’t noticed anyone else in this section.

Zabini stood at the end of the table, a scowl on his face.

She raised an eyebrow at him, “Can I help you with something?”

“Yeah, that book you’re reading,” he said with a jerk of his head.

“Oh,” she said, “I’m almost done.”

He rolled his eyes, “You don’t even need it, your potion was near-perfect.”

There he was, talking about things he didn’t understand again. She glared at him, “My study habits are none of your business.”

“You know no one’s going to look at you differently if your potion isn’t the precise shade of the summer sun or whatever,” he sounded almost bored, “Everyone knows you know everything.”

Hermione could feel pressure on her chest, heat rising on her cheeks. She slammed the book shut and stood, grabbing her bag and stalking away from him. She made sure to check out A Guide to Precise Potion-Making on her way out of the library.

She spent most of her time trying to quell the doubt she felt bubbling up within her every time she failed again at creating the perfect potion. Though there wasn’t much more information in A Guide to Precise Potion-Making that she didn’t already know, Hermione found herself perusing its pages in her free time, trying to forget the way Zabini’s words had needled at her, how they seemed to hit right where she was most sensitive.

A part of this was ignoring her growing irritation with Harry and the Half-Blood Prince, but that was getting more difficult as the weeks passed and autumn arrived in full swing. Apparently, there were spells written in the margins of the wretched book, and Harry had taken to casting them without knowing what it was they would do. Past her own issues, Hermione was appalled by his carelessness.

“It’s nothing, Hermione,” Ron said when she snapped at Harry over it in the common room one evening. He leaned back in his seat, glancing across the room at Lavender Brown, who was pouring over a magazine with her best friend Parvati Patil, “We’re just having a laugh.”

That was the only thing Ron seemed to be relaxed about. He kept making snide comments about the Slug Club whenever he could, suggesting that Hermione liked being “cozied up with McLaggen.” Harry had gotten out of the next two dinners by scheduling Quidditch practices at the same times. While she didn’t begrudge Harry trying to avoid Slughorn’s parties, she hated that his strategy meant that she had to go alone — as Chaser for the Gryffindor team, Ginny’s priority was Quidditch. Hermione saw the value in Slughorn’s dinner parties, and so in the interest of keeping her future options open she hadn’t tried to find a way to get out of them. Still, she was starting to feel more on her own than she had in awhile.

The Slug Club dinners weren’t all that bad though. There was always good food and Professor Slughorn introduced the group to different former students of his who were doing important and interesting work, including the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Prophet and the drummer of the Weird Sisters. Even still, Hermione felt isolated, the pressure to be perfect constricting around her whenever Slughorn introduced her as “a rising star.”

At the same time, she found herself navigating the strange dynamics of the group. Melinda Bobbin was nice enough, but was far more focused on her own ambitions, while McLaggen was perhaps too nice — he kept hitting her on the shoulder every time he spoke to her or cracked a joke. Tracy Dearborn, a third year whose father had dealings with the American magical government, was too young to really understand the importance of being invited and seemed to only be there for the food.

She wasn’t sure how or why, but of everyone in the Slug Club she felt most aligned with Blaise Zabini. Generally, his quiet face rested on disinterest as he scanned the room. Whenever he was asked a direct question he would answer charmingly, his eyes alight and face with the appearance of being open, but once Slughorn turned from him he would settle back into himself, reserved.

Slughorn was harmless in his praise for the most part, but occasionally he would say something to give her pause, and Hermione would find herself meeting Zabini’s eyes across the room in her exasperation or surprise. Each time, it seemed that he had sought her out as well, the confusion or resignation on his face accompanied by a raised eyebrow or a brief frown.

She wasn’t sure why it kept happening — she hadn’t even addressed him since their clash at the library. Even though they didn’t speak to each other, she couldn’t help but notice him whenever he was in a room, her eyes drifting over his tall figure, his dark skin and chiseled jaw. She had caught him watching her too, and found herself puzzled by his searching gaze.

In mid-October, Slughorn hosted another dinner. This time, the special guest was Quidditch star Gwenog Jones. Hermione felt a surge of vindication when Slughorn introduced her. The irony that Harry was missing something that would actually be of interest to him in his effort to avoid Slughorn wasn’t lost on her.

The feeling was fleeting, however, as most good feelings had been since that past Saturday, when she, Harry, and Ron had witnessed Katie Bell rise up from the snow, jerking and twitching after accidentally touching a cursed necklace.

The entire castle was on edge, full of nerves and fear. Only Harry seemed to be fueled with renewed vigor, despite having his Malfoy-Did-It stance shot down by Professor McGonagall.

Even things between the Slytherins seemed tense; on her way to Charms earlier that day, she had noticed Zabini huddled with Theodore Nott and Pansy Parkinson, though they’d seemed to be arguing. At the very least, Zabini had looked uncomfortable, and now, sitting across from her at Slughorn’s dinner table, he seemed reserved, quiet even for him. Hermione looked down at her plate. Why did her thoughts keep drifting to the goings on of Blaise Zabini?

As dinner wrapped up, Slughorn made an announcement, “Each year I like to throw a little Christmas party before break,” he said, “I’ll invite some of my former students — Gwenog, you are of course invited — and you should feel free to bring a guest,” his eyes turned to Hermione, “Miss Granger, I’ll need a list of Mr. Potter’s free dates. I won’t have him missing this little soiree.”

“Oh,” Hermione said, feeling awkward. Her eyes met Zabini’s across the table, but his face was blank. She looked back to Slughorn. “I — yes, Professor.”

Harry’s reaction to that bit of information didn’t surprise her when she shared it with him in Herbology class the next day. Neither did Ron’s.

“Stupid name,” he said under his breath as Harry went to retrieve their Snargaluff pod from across the room.

“Look, I didn’t make up the name ‘Slug Club’.” While she understood his anger, she didn’t see why he had to take it out on her.

Slug Club,” he said derisively as Harry came back, “It’s pathetic. Well, I hope you enjoy your party. Why don’t you try hooking up with McLaggen, then Slughorn can make you King and Queen Slug—”

Hermione’s irritation flared. She had already suspected that he and Harry had been laughing at her being locked up with McLaggen behind her back, but having it thrown in her face was another thing.

“We’re allowed to bring guests,” she threw back at him, “and I was going to ask you to come, but if you think it’s that stupid then I won’t bother!” She’d thought it would be a good idea, asking Ron. That way, the three of them could go together. If Harry invited Neville or Luna, it could be a good time.

Ron opened his mouth to respond, but then shut it, looking cowed. “You were going to ask me?”

“Yes,” Hermione huffed, “But obviously if you’d rather I hook up with McLaggen…”

“No, no, I’ll go,” Ron said hastily.

He acted nicer to her for the rest of the day, and Hermione was relieved. It felt good to not have to be at odds with her friends for some petty reason or another, especially with everything happening outside of Hogwarts. Tales of disappearances and deaths peppered the Daily Prophet and more and more Hogwarts students were being affected; on most days it felt wrong to be arguing over Christmas parties and nastily annotated textbooks. 

Their truce didn’t last long, however. Hermione spent her evening in the common room near the fire, cross-checking her Ancient Rune translations with the textbook. She was just packing up when Harry and Ron entered in their Quidditch robes, Ron looking furious.

“What happened?” she asked, sliding the last of her notes into her book bag.

“You — Ginny — Dean!” Ron’s voice sounded strangled with anger.

Hermione raised an eyebrow at him, then looked to Harry, hoping he could translate. Surprisingly, even he seemed to be struggling with his own deep-seated emotion. He dropped onto the couch, allowing Crookshanks to leap into his lap.

“We ran into Ginny and Dean on the way back from the pitch,” he said, “They were, er—”

“They were snogging! In the middle of the corridor!” Ron shouted. A couple of first years across the room shot a startled glance at him.

“Okay…” Hermione said, glancing back to Harry again, “And?”

“And so I don’t want my sister out in public like some wanton woman.”

Hermione frowned, “Ron, Ginny and Dean are dating.”

“So?” Ron’s ears were dangerously red.

“So, they’re allowed to snog. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Of course you would think so, given that you’ve snogged Krum.”

Hermione felt confused. Why was her brief relationship with Viktor, from two years ago, being thrown in her face? The fact that they’d kissed wasn’t even a secret, and yet Ron sounded betrayed somehow.

“Well yes,” she said slowly, “I’m still not understanding the problem.”

“The problem is, what are people going to think about our family if Ginny’s running around the castle acting like a—”

“Ginny is her own person,” Hermione cut him off, “Her relationship with Dean has nothing to do with you.”

“Like hell it does! I’m her brother!”

Hermione rolled her eyes. They were tired from staring at her homework in the low light of the fire and frankly Ron’s attitude was starting to grate on her nerves. “Perhaps you need something to keep you occupied? So you’re not so worried about what Ginny is up to?”

Ron’s face was flaming now. He seemed at a loss for words, so instead he cursed and stalked off, stomping up the boys’ staircase to his dormitory. Hermione looked at Harry.

“Honestly, what’s been up with him lately?”

Harry shrugged, seemingly lost in thought. Hermione eyed him closely. She had started to suspect over the summer that he had feelings for Ginny, though she hadn’t brought it up with him. She wondered if his brooding attitude had to do with seeing her with Dean.

“Everything okay, Harry?” she probed.

Harry seemed to snap out of his thoughts, “What? Oh, yeah fine.” He moved Crookshanks from his lap and stood, “I’m going to bed.”

He hurried up after Ron, leaving Hermione once again on her own.

That Saturday brought the first Quidditch match of the season. According to Harry, Ron’s anger at Ginny and Dean had not only affected his playing but had almost dissolved the team as well.

“I keep telling you you need to talk to him. He can’t keep treating people like this,” Hermione told Harry as they went through their Transfiguration essays together. Ron had already gone up to bed after snapping at two poor fourth years for laughing too loud. He had been giving her the silent treatment for standing up for Ginny.

“I suppose you’re right,” Harry mumbled, sinking down further into his chair. The prospect didn’t seem to excite him.

Still, Hermione had been sure he would do it, especially with Quidditch on the line. She knew Harry wouldn’t be able to face it if he lost his first match as Captain, and to Slytherin at that. But if he had tried to set Ron straight, it didn’t make for a marked change in his attitude.

She came down to the Gryffindor table by herself that morning, tired of bickering with a grumpy Ron and exchanging helpless glances with Harry. She saw them sitting amidst the sea of red and gold, Harry trying to coax food into Ron, who looked slightly ill, his skin tinged green. She paused behind them as Harry poured pumpkin juice into a goblet.

“How are you both feeling?” she asked tentatively, glancing at Ron.

“Fine,” said Harry. He tipped the contents of a small vial into the cup with the juice, “There you go, Ron. Drink up.”

Ron started to take a sip when Hermione shouted, “Don’t drink that Ron!”

Both Harry and Ron looked up at her. Hermione stared at Harry in disbelief.

“You just put something in that drink.”

“Excuse me?”

“You just tipped something into Ron’s drink. You’ve got the bottle in your hand right now!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harry said, slipping the bottle into his robes.

Hermione fought the urge to tackle him and force the bottle out of his pocket. “Ron, I’m serious, don’t drink it!”

But Ron had already picked up the glass and drained it in one. “Stop bossing me around, Hermione.”

Hermione was appalled. She bent down low to whisper to Harry, “You should be expelled for that, Harry!”

“Hark who’s talking,” he whispered back. “Confunded anyone lately?”

Hermione took a step back, feeling as though she’d been slapped. She turned away from them and stormed up the table, her anger rising.

How could Harry do such a thing? Confunding McLaggen hadn’t been about making sure Ron got on the team, it had been about defending her friends. Using Felix Felicis for an official game wasn’t only immoral, it was illegal. Hermione plopped down at the table, but now found her appetite gone.

Of course, she shouldn’t be so surprised at Harry’s willingness to disregard the rules. She’d been dealing with him in Potions class for over a month now as he took credit for someone else’s work and gained an inordinate amount of praise in the process.

She pushed herself up from the table. People were already making their way to the Quidditch pitch, but now she wasn’t sure she even wanted to go anymore. What she should do is go tell Professor McGonagall before the match started so that she could put a stop to this.

But she stopped herself, remembering the last time she had gotten between Harry and Quidditch. When she had told McGonagall about the mysterious broomstick Harry had gotten three years ago, Harry and Ron hadn’t spoken to her for weeks. Could she really go through that again?

She squared her shoulders and stepped out into the cool morning air. She would watch the game, and if things went well — as she knew they would since Harry had given Ron liquid luck — she would confront them again. They were her best friends, she had to at least give them a chance to turn themselves in before she did it herself.

She stomped across the grounds towards the pitch, where the sun shone down on the stands. It was a nice day, but she couldn’t enjoy it, not with anger and determination coursing through her veins.

She got to the stands and joined the line winding up the stairs, her stomach twisting and turning as she thought about what she would have to do. The scent of cinnamon and cloves tickled at her nose as she hurried up, barreling into the person ahead of her when the line stopped abruptly.

“Watch it!” the person said.

She looked up to see Blaise Zabini, in cuffed black jeans and a green and silver color-blocked pullover. He looked annoyed at first, but when he saw that it was her, his face changed, surprise in his eyes. “Why do you look like someone ate your homework?”

“Why do you care?” Hermione snapped.

He opened his mouth to retort, his eyes flashing, but someone else spoke up before he could.

“Oh, don’t mind her Blaise,” Pansy Parkinson said from the next stair up. She tried to look bored, but Hermione could see the wicked amusement in her eyes, “She probably just couldn’t see through all of that hair. Maybe if she did something reasonable to it she wouldn’t invade other people’s personal space.”

Hermione didn’t have the energy for this. Rather than respond, she pushed past the group of chortling Slytherins, ignoring Pansy’s sneer and Zabini’s frown. She continued up the stairs, squeezing through the group of third years who were blocking the way on the next landing.

The game went just as Hermione had predicted, punctuated by the aggravating commentary of Zacharias Smith. His mocking tone agitated Hermione further than watching Ron make his fourteenth save, or the moment she realized that Malfoy wasn’t playing, which meant that in addition to having to deal with her cheating friends she was also going to have to sit through days of conspiracy theories from Harry.

Once Harry caught the Snitch and Ginny “accidentally” plowed Smith over, the stands began to empty, students buzzing after such an exciting match. Hermione took a deep breath and hardened her resolve. She had to hold her friends accountable.

The next Monday, Hermione sat on one of the desks in the Transfiguration classroom alone, a group of yellow birds twittering around her head. She eyed them critically as they flew around, sure she could do better. Was it just her, or did they look slightly transparent from this angle?

She had chosen to come here during her lunch break rather than sit alone in the Great Hall. Ron was no longer talking to her, having chosen to blame Hermione for Harry’s manipulation of the both of them. His mocking tone in the changing room still grated on her.

You added Felix Felicis to Ron’s juice this morning, that’s why he saved everything!” he’d said shrilly, his face red. “See! I can save goals without help, Hermione!”

Ignoring the fact that Harry fake-drugging Ron with lucky potion proved he couldn’t save goals on his own, Hermione wasn’t sure what else she could have done. How was she supposed to know Harry wouldn’t actually break the rules given the flippancy with which he had treated them in the past?

Ron not speaking to Hermione didn’t actually seem to be that difficult a feat for him, given that his mouth seemed to be permanently glued to Lavender’s ever since the post-match Gryffindor party. Harry seemed sympathetic to Hermione’s plight, but that hadn’t stopped him from sitting with Ron at meals or walking with him from the common room in the mornings. Hermione didn’t care that Ron and Lavender were together now past the fact that it meant she now had to find a new date to Slughorn’s Christmas party — what really bothered her was the way Ron seemed to pretend she didn’t exist, even though she hadn’t done anything to warrant such behavior.

The door to the classroom pushed open, startling her.

She looked up as Zabini stepped inside, his eyes widening in surprise at the sight of the birds flying around the room and then narrowing when he noticed her.

“What are you doing?” he asked, as one of the birds came to land on her shoulder.

“Practicing,” she said shortly.

He wound his way through the desks, coming to a stop at the one he usually sat at during class. He grabbed the forgotten book lying there, eyeing the birds warily, “Doesn’t seem like you need it.”

Hermione huffed, and pointed at the one circling the chandelier above them, “That one’s wing is faded.”

Zabini rolled his eyes, “Merlin. You try too hard, you know that?”

Hermione’s temper had been quick to rise lately, and it rose now, “Some of us don’t have the luxury of being pure-bloods,” she snapped, “We actually have to work to be recognized.”

Zabini opened his mouth to retort but then he stopped, frowning. An odd look flashed across his face.

He shook his head slightly and turned away, “Whatever, Granger.”

With that, he was gone.

Hermione sighed and slid off of the desk, vanishing the birds with a flick of her wand. Lunch was almost over and she didn’t want to be late for her next class.

She walked through the halls to the Charms corridor on her own, sliding in and out of the swelling crowd, side-stepping a suit of armor that seemed to have the sudden urge to do a jig in the middle of the hall and ducking as Peeves swooped above the chaos, cackling.

She hurried up to the seventh floor and turned, stopping herself just before she ran directly into Cormac McLaggen.

“Oh, sorry,” she said quickly, stumbling around him.

“Oh hey Granger, I wanted a word!” he said. He was smiling at her, his floppy hair falling into his eyes.

“Er, yes?” she asked, glancing in the direction of the Charms classroom and back to him. He looked relaxed as he towered over her.

“You don’t have a date for Old Sluggy’s Christmas party, do you?” Confidence seemed to exude off of Cormac in waves.

“O-oh,” she stammered, “I don’t, actually.” She cringed internally. Why hadn’t she lied? She’d been planning to ask Harry the next time he was away from Ron, but hadn’t yet gotten the chance.

“Excellent,” Cormac said, “We should go together.”

At this point, Hermione felt stuck. “I…I don’t know.”

“Come on,” he said, stepping closer to her, his face falling into a mock-pout. He seemed so big standing there in front of her. There was no telling how he would react if she said no — he’d always seemed like a wildcard to her — and she had no idea if Harry didn’t already have a date for the party.

She bit her lip before conceding. “Sure, let’s do it.”

Before Cormac could say anything else, Hermione turned and hurried to class, feeling mortified.

The school began to buzz about Slughorn’s Christmas Party as it loomed nearer, despite only a few students actually getting invites. Hermione had done her best to keep the fact that she was going with Cormac to herself, but word spread anyway.

“I can’t believe you’re going with McLaggen,” Harry said as they sat in the library the day before the party, looking up from his copy of Advanced Potion-Making.

“Well I figured you would already have a date by now,” Hermione shifted uncomfortably.

It was Harry’s turn to look uncomfortable, “Not yet. I did get some lovely chocolates from Romilda Vane though.”

“I told you,” Hermione said. Just the day before she had caught Romilda and her friends discussing how to slip Harry a love potion so that he would take one of them to the party.

“Yeah, well I’m not going to eat one so there’s no danger anymore,” Harry shrugged, “Ron’s not too chuffed about you going with McLaggen, you know.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, “And here I thought having a girlfriend would make him more prone to minding his own business.”

“He’s still a little sore about Quidditch tryouts I think,” Harry said, “You know how he gets. I think he would’ve rather you went with Malfoy.”

“You’re joking!”

“‘Course I am,” Harry grinned, “I’m just saying, he probably thinks he’s losing a friend to someone he feels insecure about.”

“He’s the one who started it.” It sounded childish but Hermione refused to feel bad, even if she wasn’t all that excited about her own choice of date.

The day of the party was tense, and Hermione wondered if she even wanted to go anymore. Since the news about her going with McLaggen had leaked, Ron seemed to go out of his way to be rude to her.

They were in Transfiguration class, practicing changing the color of their eyebrows. As Hermione focused intensely on her face in the mirror, trying her hardest to make her eyebrows a bright green, she heard a shout across the room.

She looked up to see Ron aghast, a brilliant handlebar mustache sprouting from above his upper lip. The entire class broke out into laughter, but Ron glared at Hermione, somehow singling her out in the midst of their classmates. Hermione rolled her eyes at his hostility before turning back to her work.

“Now, who would like to demonstrate their progress?” Professor McGonagall called about halfway through class.

Before Hermione could volunteer, Ron thrust his hand into the air, jumping up and down in his seat. “Ooh, ooh Professor pick me!”

Heat rose on Hermione’s cheeks as Professor McGonagall rose an unamused eyebrow at Ron and chose Slytherin Daphne Greengrass.

For the rest of the class, whenever McGonagall asked a question, Ron would mock Hermione cruelly. Tears welled up in her eyes as McGonagall finally snapped at him, threatening to take away House points, and when the bell rang, she was the first to leave the classroom.

This wasn’t fair. She knew she had done nothing to warrant Ron’s bullying. Sixth year was hard enough with her classes and the threat of Voldemort without Ron acting so harshly towards her. She was done, she decided as she wiped her tears in the bathroom, Luna Lovegood patting her back serenely. It was okay, she thought. Friends grew apart sometimes.

Harry was waiting outside of the bathroom, her book bag in his hands. “You left your stuff…”

“Oh yes,” she said. How was it that she had gotten so worked up that she’d forgotten her things? She took a deep breath, “Thank you, Harry. Well, I’d better get going…”

She hurried off before Harry could say anything further. She needed to pull herself together before having to sit alone, yet again, at dinner.

She changed into more comfortable clothes and snuggled with Crookshanks for a bit before grabbing a book and slipping out of her dormitory. The halls were almost empty, most of the student body down in the Great Hall.

The noise of the Hall swelled as she got closer, and she took a deep breath at the top of the landing, fortifying herself before descending the staircase to the entrance hall.

Zabini was exiting the Great Hall as she came to the bottom of the stairs. He noticed her and glanced behind himself, into the Hall, before walking directly up to her.

“Hey,” he said, “Everything okay?”

Hermione stared up at him, surprised. She eyed his face, his furrowed brows, warily, “I’m fine.”

“Good,” he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his school robes. “Because Weasley was being a git.”

She felt a surge of indignation, an urge to defend Ron to Zabini, a Slytherin who often kept company with the Malfoys and Parkinsons of the school. But she stopped herself. None of those people were supposed to be her best friend. And Zabini, who was supposed to be like them, was standing in front of her, looking down at her with more concern than she’d gotten from Ron in a long time.

“Thanks,” she said awkwardly. She tilted her head at him, wondering what had made him come up to her.

He nodded once, looking satisfied, before abruptly turning away, raising one hand in a wave, “See you at the party.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, unsure if her response had reached him as he hurried down the staircase that led to the Slytherin common room.

Part Two