- Character Bashing
- Alternate Universe
- Challenge Response
Harry threw a handful of Floo powder into the hearth and cleared his throat to make sure his voice didn’t crack. When the flames turned green, he spoke clearly, hoping he didn’t leave anything out, “Europe, Great Britain, Scotland, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, DADA Professor Hermione Granger’s office.” The flames crackled, froze, and jerked, trying to forge a connection over the long distance from Japan to Britain.
Considering how Harry had sacrificed his dignity and respectfully but adamantly gone against the Center’s advice by testing his mental shields at the Ambassador’s packed birthday party to gain access to the man’s International Floo, Hermione better be by her hearth right now. He only had a small window of opportunity. She’d described her teaching schedule in great detail in her last letter, so if she chose today of all days to deviate from it he was going to privately throw a tantrum and break something.
Hartford, Harry’s spirit animal, was just as excited to see Hermione as Harry. Manifesting in the physical world as a stag, he put his head over Harry’s shoulder and leaned, making Harry almost face-plant into the green fire just as it finally connected. His head popped through to the other side.
Spitting out ashes, Harry saw Hermione for the first time in almost six months. He couldn’t help but drink in the sight. She was leaning back in her chair with her boots up on the desk, reading a scroll held over her head. Harry felt the middle of his chest go hot and his throat go tight. Letters weren’t enough. He’d missed her desperately.
Picking up a quill absently, she began to write and stopped, realizing it was a sugar quill. She tapped it against her mouth, licked her lips, and sucked the end into her mouth with a happy little hum that made Harry grin. The sunlight from the window brought out honeyed highlights in her hair and the gleam of her pursed lips, reminding him of a favorite fantasy that started with tangling his hands in her curls and lifting her face to lick sugar crystals from her plump bottom lip.
Feeling hot under the collar for reasons besides having his head in a fire, Harry felt a sharp nip on his ear as Hartford silently reminded him to slow down and not scare Hermione off before they’d even gotten to say hello.
Obviously dissatisfied by whatever she was reading, Hermione scrunched her nose up and harrumphed, an unattractive expression that he found completely adorable. It reinforced his plan to figure out what she wanted so he could give it to her and see every turn of her face on a more permanent basis as soon as he returned to Britain. His new Guide gifts were the key to the plan.
Hermione’s contradictions had been driving him crazy for years. She said they were only friends, but she checked him out more than she checked out library books, which was a lot. Friends didn’t watch each other’s lips that closely, much less zone out on your rear end when you bend over. When other women flirted with him, she got territorial and handsy (something he’d taken advantage of a time or two). She was always hugging him and never sat in a chair if curling up against his side on the couch was an option, breathing in his scent and humming in satisfaction. It had gotten to the point where he couldn’t change personal potions without her approval because she made it silently but completely clear when she didn’t like a new scent. She always hated his girlfriends too, volleying between fake politeness and hostile jealousy. Hadn’t she airily announced that he was more important than any other man in her life and broken up with her boyfriend in favor of Harry?
Yet every time he tried to talk to her about their relationship she said the same thing: “Harry is my good friend and only my friend.” Always in the third person too while not meeting his eyes. She never even said you. Just Harry. It drove him bonkers.
It made managing his expectations for their relationship almost impossible. Harry didn’t want to push for more than Hermione was willing to give, but it felt like she wanted more but just wouldn’t let herself take it. He was determined to find out why. He didn’t know if she was lying to him or to herself, but now that he could sense emotions he was determined to get to the bottom of it.
Putting down the sugar quill, Hermione grabbed a real one, dipped it in ink, and scrawled a note in the margins of the essay she was grading before tossed it onto her desk.
“Ah!” Hermione jumped in surprise, her chair falling backwards and taking her with it, revealing shapely calves and the dimples behind her knees before she disappeared from view.
Unable to help himself, Harry burst into laughter.
Popping into view with curls covering her eyes, Hermione pointed her wand at his head in the fire. Flinging back her hair, already halfway through an Aguamenti spell, she met his eyes and abruptly stopped, lowering her wand.
“Harry?!” She blinked at him and tucked an errant curl behind her ear, her wand drifting to the side but not lowering yet.
“Don’t put the fire out!” he said through a voice still trembling with laughter. “Sorry to startle you. I got permission to use the official International Floo connection again. If you put the fire out I probably won’t be able to call you back.” What he had agreed to do to get permission for this one call would hopefully for the sake of his dignity be quickly forgotten. “How’s it going?” He grinned, happy just to be talking to her again after far too long without her.
“Sorry, I thought you were Ron and George pranking me again.” She lowered her wand and cocked her head to the side, moving closer. “It’s so wonderful to see you again, but…did—did you know that you have antlers now? Do they only appear in the Floo as a reflection of your animal affinity or in your normal life too? I mean, I’m sure I can pay someone to raise the ceilings and doorframes on my cottage but, well, the books I found never mentioned… is that normal for Guides who come Online? Will the antlers get bigger over the months and then shed? Are you going to go into rut like normal ungulates?” Hermione looked far too fascinated for his peace of mind.
“What? No!” Harry huffed, sending up a plume of ash and sparks. Reaching behind himself, he grabbed an antler and yanked. “The antlers belong to Hartford, my spirit guide.” The stag moved around Harry and shrank until he was small enough to fit his entire body into the hearth, prancing and rearing in the flames for Hermione like a total showoff.
“Oh, he’s gorgeous,” Hermione cooed. “He looks just like your patronus. I should’ve guessed based on how the patronus charm and the animagus spell were both developed by a Sentinel using her unique connection to and perspective of animal affinities and the astral plane.”
“Huh, I only learned about that when I asked how almost everyone at the Kamiya Sentinel and Guide Center could do such advanced spells considering the rates of use in Britain. I had to endure a lecture on how much better Japanese schools and Centers supposedly are than those in Europe. They were almost insultingly surprised that I already knew how to cast a corporeal Patronus. I didn’t realize the spells’ origins were general knowledge. ”
“Oh, Minerva told me about it. One of her Sentinel ancestors invented the spells.”
Harry could feel his eyes widening. “Minerva? She really lets you call her that? Without taking house points?”
Gigging, Hermione knelt down on the rug by the fire. “She insisted on Minerva when we’re off the clock, actually. She’s become more of a friend than a teacher since I started working here, which is nice, especially because she’s also tutoring me in how to achieve my animagus form.”
“That’s great, though I don’t know if I’d ever be able to call her anything but Professor, especially when she purses her lips and looks at me over her spectacles.” Harry mimed the look, making Hermione snort and glance guiltily over her shoulder to make sure her office door was closed.
Harry shifted on his knees, grateful for the permanent cushioning charm the minister had installed on the flagstones around the hearth. “And how is your animagus form coming along?”
Hermione sighed and looked away out the window at the students playing on the banks of the great lake. “I know it’s an otter and I’ve managed to get my right arm to change, but nothing else. As you can imagine, I looked completely ridiculous as a witch with a fuzzy otter arm.”
“Well, it can’t be as bad as the time you got Mrs. Norris’s hair in your polyjuice potion and turned into a furry cat-woman.”
“Moving on,” Hermione interjected with a glare, “how’s your form coming along?”
“Ridiculously well,” Harry smirked. “My connection to Hartford really helps. As you know, I tried and failed repeatedly over the years, but in the last month the transformation has become almost effortless. The books don’t have it quite right. It’s more than just figuring out the animal you have the greatest affinity for and picturing yourself in that form, it’s accepting that the animal is both a mirror of your inner self and a pull on your actions. As we make them more human they can make us more instinct driven. The tension and release in that is important, at least it was for me.”
Hermione nodded her head slowly. “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll see if it makes a difference on my next attempt.”
A trio of Gryffindors zipped past her open window on their brooms, sending a rush of wind through the office that knocked several scrolls off her desk. Each girl held a suspiciously bulging sack. The curly-haired blond in the lead cut her hand through the air and they angled towards the section of grass covered by Slytherin green blankets. “Though we’ll see when that is considering how busy the students keep me.”
Harry couldn’t see what happened next, but it was easy enough to guess when a chorus of shrieks drifted through the window a second later. The students on the green blankets jumped to their feet, sending a barrage of spells after the cackling girls on brooms. Seeing all the green reminded him, “Are the Slytherins still giving you trouble? Especially that Lestrange boy?”
“Adonis Lestrange?” Hermione asked, watching the students outside. “He spends more time fighting and flirting with fellow fifth-year Melanie Richardson, the curly-haired Gryffindor who just flew past the window, than he does bothering me. The betting in the staff lounges on when they’ll finally break down and snog each other silly is getting fierce, though they do have house rivalry and the Lestrange family tradition of only dating and marrying pureblood cousins standing in their way. I have a galleon down on Richardson snapping during finals and firmly seducing Lestrange over to the light side by yule of next year.
“I don’t trust the Lestrange family, especially not around you,” Harry glowered.
“Adonis is just a boy,” she said dismissively. “He’s mostly settled down after successfully goading me into grinding his inaccurate and illogical opinions into dust followed by a lecture on ethics and protecting those that can’t protect themselves that culminated in me showing the entire fifth-year class my scars and explaining exactly how I got each one.”
Harry frowned, always upset when thinking about how many times he’d been forced to see her bleed.
Hermione gave him a soft look. “It’s fine. I think it was more than the kid bargained for, especially seeing and hearing about the horrible and Dark things his family members did during the war. It seems he’s been sheltered from a lot of that. In fact, the fifth-years are the first class to attend after Voldemort was defeated, so in some ways they’re all sheltered from what we had to endure. I got a bit carried away and forgot to censor myself, which freaked some of them out. Everyone was so quiet and well-behaved for the rest of that class period that I half-suspected they’d been behavior-charmed when I wasn’t looking. I apologized afterwards to Minerva for traumatizing the class, but she told me it was probably a good dose of reality since they’re graduating soon.” Hermione shook her head. “The younger years are even worse for how innocent they are. More than half think that the tales of what happened while you and I attended are exaggerated.”
“If we hadn’t gone through it I’d think half of it was exaggerated too,” Harry said, “which is why I worry about you not getting the respect you deserve.”
Hermione shrugged. “I got a howler from his mother, Madam Lestrange, but Adonis is actually getting better. He shows up to the optional lessons where I’ve been teaching advanced topics like the patronus charm and has stopped with the snide digs at me during class. I even caught him reading a book I recommended about the politics surrounding the recent war.”
Brow furrowing, Harry frowned. “It sounds like you’re starting to like the kid.”
Wrinkling her nose, she nodded bashfully. “I know. It feels weird to like a Slytherin, especially one who still reminds me of a dark-haired Draco Malfoy half the time, but he’s become attentive in class and entertains me and most of the staff with this star-crossed crush on a Gryffindor classmate he’s pretending he hates. As a teacher it’s hard not to see that they’re all just kids trying to learn or—alternatively—not be caught sleeping in class, regardless of their house colors.”
“Except during quidditch games,” Harry frowned at her repressively. “If I find out you aren’t cheering for Gryffindor, I’m going to be horrified and very disappointed.”
Huffing, Hermione gave him an arch look. “Don’t worry, I’m still a red and gold girl at heart. I’d be fired. Or worse! Glared at by Minerva and assigned back to back Hogsmeade Weekend chaperone duties.”
“Well good,” Harry said just as Hartford gave him a poke in the arm and a speaking look before disappearing. Clearing his throat, Harry put on a casual expression. “Did you get the gift I sent?”
To his delight, Hermione looked down and her cheeks turned a beguiling pink. “Oh yes, thank you so much. The—the scarf was wonderful.”
“Just the scarf?” he prompted softly. Hermione’s cheeks and forehead went bright red, which made Harry wish desperately that he could sense emotions through the floo system the way better trained Guides could supposedly do.
“I enjoyed the pictures of you too. Very much. The bubble bath and lotion were also lovely. They almost smell like you.” She bit her lip as if to stop whatever she was about to say next.
Harry really wanted to know what she’d been going to say. He’d gotten a Sentinel to help him pick out the products for his campaign to start wooing his friend into becoming his lover. The blushing was a good sign at least. “I’m glad they got to you safely. The ship captain I paid to take the package to Hogwarts seemed a bit… of a character, but he promised the fastest delivery.”
“He was shifty is what he was,” Hermione said, turning to look out the window. “His ship burbled up in the middle of the Great Lake over there like it was the return of Durmstrang all over again, except his ship was a lot less nice and the hull seemed infested with several somethings. Minerva and I are expecting a complaint from the merpeople any day now about either an invasive species or toxic substance left behind by the ship’s visit. The place where they anchored already has sickening plants.” She gestured outside.
“He dropped off the package you sent me and those teas and the lucky cat statue for Minerva—who loved them by the way—at the front door without a word to anyone and disappeared with Hagrid to the Hog’s Head for the rest of the night where he and his crew almost drank the pub dry. By the next morning he and his ship were gone and Hagrid nursing a hangover that made him late to teach his first class.” Hermione clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “He barely kept his balance and had to go lay down and nap for the rest of the morning.”
“Speaking of balance,” Harry took a slow breath to calm his suddenly racing heart, “I need to ask you a question.”
“Sure,” Hermione said, smiling at him. Her smile drifted into a frown as her eyes moved back outside the window.
Harry would’ve preferred her full attention but he’d have to work with what he had. “As you probably know, both Sentinels and Guides function best when they can balance their senses, empathic or physical, on a partner.”
“Umhmm?” Hermione only seemed to be half listening as she went up on her knees to better see outside the window.
“And I know you’ve said you’re not a Sentinel….”
“Uh huh?” Hermione stood up, facing the window. “Not a Sentinel, just observant. That’s what I always say, but with more formal articles. Why? Who knows? Not me, but right now I’m observing something strange out there,” she muttered.
Harry couldn’t see anything odd from his position in the fire. He decided to forge on with his question. “Yes, well, Hermione, please pay attention. I… I love you and you seem to love me and my teachers think I’ve been unconsciously balancing my empathic senses on you for years which is why I came Online and blew wide open so explosively and since we seem to prefer to see as much of each other as possible when we’re in the same country, which we hopefully will be very soon, I was hoping you’d agree to see more of me for the rest of our days and bond with me and be my partner,” Harry said in a rush. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Jumping forward with a gasp, Hermione shoved open the window, leaned out, and swore. “Merlin preserve us, I think Adonis Lestrange just fell into the water near what looks like a kappa. Since when does the lake have kappas? I have to go!”
Running to the door, she froze, abruptly turned on her heel, and pointed a finger at him. “I’ll answer you later when I can pay better attention to your question and actually say what I want to say, but what do you mean by all those seems? Even before you came Online you were still Sensitive and unconsciously picking up other people’s emotions. You have to know how I feel about you. Don’t sound so uncertain!”
Stung, Harry opened his mouth to reply, but before he could she pulled out her wand, spun on her heel, and disappeared out the door. With nothing else to do he pulled his head out of the fire and told himself he’d just have to wait to hear about what happened.
Harry hated waiting.