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Chapter 4 : Keeping Things Simple
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“Aww, come on Leggy, it can’t be that bad,” Anna replied, as the twins bounded over to comfort her.
“Yeah,” Bella continued, “McGonagall calls you into her office every other week. Heck, she’s tried every threat short of an Unforgiveable, and you’ve always just laughed it off – what makes this time so fatal?”
“She... honestly, I can’t even say it – it’s too awful!”
“Don’t make us Veritaserum you,” Anna threatened jokingly.
“Urgh! OK, so she started just the same as always; you know – ‘your grades are consistently below expected... you aren’t living up to your full potential... the other teachers have commented on your poor attitude and late homework’ etcetera, etcetera, blah, blah, blah. But then she says that if I don’t start averaging A’s or above, she’s going to... take me off... the team!”
“No!” “The quidditch team?” “But that’s just cruel!” the twins objected passionately.
Hermione could certainly understand why such a threat would upset her room-mate. Karen ate, slept and even seemed to breathe quidditch; it was in every conversation they had, and every plan she’d ever mentioned. In fact, she might be the most quidditch-obsessed individual that Hermione had ever known, which was truly amazing given who Hermione’s two – as yet unborn – best friends were. Personally, she had never really seen the attraction of a sport that involved flying at ridiculous speeds while avoiding things designed specifically to inflict maximum damage, but she more than understood the desire to be one’s best – to excel at the things one loved – and as such Karen’s drive made perfect sense.
“That’s not even the worst of it. Just this morning, I got a letter from the Holyhead Harpies, saying that they were sending a representative to watch my next match against Slytherin. This was it, my one big chance, and McGonagall’s going to make me miss it!”
“Well, then,” Hermione interrupted, “we’ll just have to make sure you get the grades to play.”
The three girls turned and stared in surprise at her outburst. Hermione couldn’t blame them; in the two weeks since her demoralizing conversation with the headmaster, she hadn’t exactly been the most vocal or vivacious individual. Then again, anyone would have found it hard, what with the threat of her imminent demise hanging over her. When she had first come back, she had assumed that it would be for a few weeks – a month perhaps – and while Dumbledore had said that returning her would have the potential to fail, she had simply assumed that it was his modesty talking, and the inherent risk associated with any untried magic. Truly, she had never considered the fact that he might honestly be incapable of it. And what if the deadline was reached without an answer – was he going to end up trying something desperate? If so, would she survive it?
To escape the endless worry, she had chosen to throw herself headlong into research; but, as even that proved fruitless, her mood had swiftly spiralled towards despair. Before long everything had become tainted by her fate and failings, as nineteen seventy-seven – which was fast approaching nineteen seventy-eight – transformed from a fun place to visit into a prison she couldn’t escape. Still, just because her life might be coming to an end, that didn’t mean Karen’s had to, and if these were the last few months of her existence, then it was all the more reason to ensure that her remaining time was not entirely wasted.
“Seriously,” she continued, once they had masked their astonishment, “you’re more than capable of getting ‘Acceptable’s; you just need the right assistance, and trust me, if there is one thing I am good at, it’s getting people to study.”
“Are you sure?” Karen asked tentatively, as the beginnings of hope crept into her voice, “Because I may well be a lost cause – most the professors seem to think so – and you seem... well, kind of busy at the moment.” Hermione’s dorm-mates had long since given up trying to understand her sudden interest in old newspapers, school records, and eclectic textbooks, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t noticed the recent upswing in the amount of time she devoted to them, nor the melancholia that had accompanied it (or ‘the raging sulk-a-thon’ as Bella had put it). Hermione felt a little guilty as she realised how distant she had been acting towards all her new friends – mission or no, they had been there when she needed them, and it was telling that they had learnt not to expect the same from her.
“You are far from being a lost cause – anyone who can name the entire Holyhead Harpies squad for the past fifty years must possess a pretty good memory,” she replied firmly. “As for what I’ve been busy with; well, I could probably do with a break from it anyway – and who knows, maybe our studying will inspire me!”
One week later, and things were certainly looking up, at least as far as the latest mission was concerned. Karen might not be a star scholar, but with the danger of losing her quidditch position on the line, she had become Hermione’s most committed pupil, and on certain evenings Hermione had even had the novel experience of arguing in favour of leaving the library. Karen’s attitude had paid off too; while she was still on probation for the rest of the year, her last three essays had been awarded A’s, and James – Gryffindor’s Quidditch captain – had been given the go-ahead to let her return to practices in anticipation of the match against Slytherin, that coming Saturday.
“I’m just so excited!” Karen gushed for the twentieth time, as Hermione tried to bring her attention back to the Imperturbable Charm they were supposed to be perfecting, and which she was increasingly yearning to cast around herself in order to escape the endless excitement. While her own mood had improved marginally with the new and more achievable task of keeping Karen’s grades up, she was still a long way from being the bubbly exchange student of before. The boys, who had decided after delivering the good news to join them in the library for the evening, so they could ‘help them study’, were not making things any easier. James had taken to using the canaries, which Hermione had conjured for practising with, to instead demonstrate various new quidditch plays to their recently reinstated keeper, while Peter kept up at constant stream of questions about Karen’s new and improved career plans. Sirius and Remus were at least vaguely on topic, being that they were in fact demonstrating the charm in question, but their decision to attempt the entire thing non-verbally made it a somewhat less effective teaching method.
Hermione knew that the guys were only trying to be friendly, but she still couldn’t prevent the look of annoyance that kept sliding into her expression. It didn’t help that she was still a touch uncomfortable about the ‘other’ problem she had never actually dealt with; that of setting boundaries between her and the guys. James, obviously, wasn’t a problem, and it seemed that Peter too might have his attention fixed elsewhere – no one could really be that interested in women’s quidditch politics. But Remus and Sirius were both very single, very sweet, and a little too close for comfort. To an outside observer, either one of them could be suitable for her. Remus, with his love of reading and obscure knowledge, could talk to her for hours about the most eclectic of subjects, and as such they had become truly close friends, particularly after their recent discussion about the importance of petitioning for equality for other magical species. Meanwhile Sirius, with his unbelievable magical aptitude, his easy charm, his surprisingly sweet personality and his admittedly noticeable good looks, had hooked up with almost every girl in their year, and so it would surprise no-one if she too were interested. Of course, I’m not, she mused as she rolled her eyes at their antics, but how do I let them know that I want to keep things simple without being presumptuous, or worse, hurting their feelings? Her current tactic, of simply focussing all her energy on tutoring and research, was clearly doomed. Oh well, it’s not like either of them would be interested in me anyway – a Hermione by any other name is still a geek.
“Seriously, how awesome is this game going to be?” Karen continued to James, pulling Hermione out of her daydream. With a start, she turned her gaze back to her dorm-mate, and away from the boys, who were now looking at her perplexedly. Way to keep things simple, Hermione! “Finally, both teams are going to be able to field their best players, and when we beat them we’ll have proven our superiority once and for all.”
“If you’re still allowed to play by then,” Hermione reminded her severely. “Honestly, I understand that you’re all excited, but Karen needs to study.”
“You used to be fun, you know,” Peter sulked as he grudgingly packed up his things.
“Temporary glitch, I’m sure,” Hermione assured him, refusing to start any argument that might prolong his presence.
“Oh, I still think you’re fun,” Sirius whispered in her ear as he too went to leave. Hermione gave a start, and then turned pink. He smirked as he left the room, and from Remus’ expression of suppressed laughter, it seemed he too had picked up on the reason behind her blushing. Hermione found herself debating about which was the more unsettling; super-sensory wolf abilities, or the world’s most ambiguous comments.
“OK, I guess we’re off,” James concluded as he returned the last of the confounded birds to the girls’ table. “You take care of my star player now... Oh, hi Lily-pads, how...” his attention was abruptly diverted as the redhead entered the room.
“Bye!” she interrupted him authoritatively, and she joined the other two girls. Hermione offered her a weak smile, which Lily returned as James reluctantly followed his friends. Lily’s new attitude had been the one bright spark in the recent weeks; it seemed that Hermione’s newly-melancholic mood had made her far more tolerable in Lily’s eyes. The fact that this low disposition happened to coincide with their little fight – which in truth had barely bothered Hermione since the day in question – may also have had something to do with her new-found civility. Either way, the cold war seemed to have thawed into a more mellow detente; while they were hardly bosom buddies, they could at least remain polite for long enough to keep their mutual friends happy.
“You know, Emma,” Karen turned to Hermione once the boys had left, “you could at least pretend to be excited about all this – it’s going to be the biggest event of the year!”
“Uh huh,” Hermione responded. Honestly, there’s a war going on, life and death in the balance - even for those without super-secret missions – and yet all anyone can think about is a stupid quidditch match.
“Oh, come on! Did they not have quidditch in Salem? Are you honestly telling me that come the big day, you won’t be down at the pitch?”
She does have a point; what else would you be doing? she asked herself wryly, Your one successful project will be somewhat busy, and as for your so-called mission, well you’ve already looked everywhere you can. What harm could it do, taking one day off?
“Well, I guess I could make an appearance, if I don’t get a better offer,” she joked.
“You won’t,” Karen replied, “I mean, let’s face it – the entire school will be at the match. The castle’s going to be deserted!”
Yeah, the entire castle... wait! “Karen, you’re a genius!”
“I am?” “She is?” Karen and Lily exclaimed simultaneously.
“Definitely – I’ve got to go.” Without another word, she grabbed her books, and sped off towards the Gryffindor tower.
Three minutes later, Hermione burst through the portrait hole and immediately started scanning the room for the Marauders. Spotting them in the far corner, she raced over, and said between gasps of air:
“Guys... I need... to speak – wait, where’s Sirius?”
“In our dorm, I think. What’s up?” James replied, looking bemused.
“No time; I need to speak to him,” she called out as she headed towards the stairs.
Sirius is definitely the best option. James will be too busy, obviously, Peter’s... well, he seems trustworthy at this point, but no way am I risking it, and Remus wouldn’t dare. Sirius though, he’ll be perfect. Still focussed on her inner musings, she barged straight into the boys’ dorm, only stopping when she collided with something firm, warm, and... wet? What the..? Hermione looked up from her new spot on the floor, and realised that the object she had collided with was in fact Sirius himself. A wet Sirius. A practically naked Sirius. A wet, practically naked Sirius, who was currently smirking as he offered her a hand to help her up. Hermione turned scarlet as she realised how long she had been staring, and hastily took the proffered assistance. Oh. My. Goodness. I was just staring at Sirius’ body. This simply cannot be happening.
“I’m so sorry!” she babbled, averting her eyes, “I didn’t think you’d be naked – I mean changing.”
“I don’t mind,” he replied smoothly, grinning broadly at her continued embarrassment. “Did you... want something?”
“Um, yes. I needed to speak to you,” Hermione told her shoes. At the sound of a towel hitting the floor, she squeaked, “I’ll wait outside!”
She heard him chuckle as she closed the door. Pull yourself together! she told herself firmly. That man is Harry’s godfather. You are not allowed to fancy Harry’s godfather. Besides, you’re supposed to fancy Ron; remember him? Unfortunately, there was a second voice in her head – a new one – which seemed to have some alternative points to make. I remember fighting with Ron. What I don’t remember are abs like those, or shoulders, or pecs...
“Stop it!” she whispered aloud to herself. This was not the time to be distracted; she had a mission, and she needed to keep her cool if she was going to convince Sirius to help her with it. Taking several deep, calming breaths, she composed herself as she waited for him to finish dressing.
“So, you needed me?” Sirius teased as he opened the door a few moments later. After being sidetracked for a second by his choice of clothing – consisting solely of some low-slung sweat pants – she snapped back to attention.
“Yes, actually, I do. This Saturday, I’m planning to sneak into the Slytherin common room, and I need your help.”
For an unsettlingly long time, Sirius simply stared at her. “Do I get to ask why we’d be doing this?” he eventually responded.
“And will you give me an answer?”
Another long pause.
“OK. Count me in. What do you need?” All traces of innuendo had vanished from the conversation, as the devious gleam of potential troublemaking filled his slate-grey eyes.
“Well, from what I’ve heard of all your other antics, I’m guessing you guys have some way of being less than visible? We’ll need it. Also, if you happened to have any way of keeping track of where other people are, it would probably be handy to bring such a device with you too. I figure with all that, we’ll simply be able to hang around until the last person leaves, and then sneak in before the door closes.”
“You know this is so far beyond breaking the rules, right? I mean, this is suspension-worthy. And you’re... well, you’re not really the daredevil pranking type.”
“Times change. And I’m not planning to prank anyone.”
“Then why do you want me there? I assume it’s for more than my handy devices, about which you know far too much, might I add.” Sirius gave her a probing look, but she simply continued to smile sweetly.
“Let’s just say that I need an insight into the male mind. I’m going to need to ... find things that were meant to stay hidden; I figured there’s no one better than you.”
“Smooth. Luckily for you, compliments really will get you everywhere. So, I’m getting the feeling you’d like to keep this just between us.”
“If you don’t mind – if nothing else, the fewer people who know, the fewer that will get in trouble. Plus, with just two of us, we’re less likely to be noticed as missing.”
“You’re kidding, right? James is my best friend – Remus and Peter will definitely notice if I miss his big game. Nope, if we’re going to pull this off, we’re going to need an airtight alibi to explain our absence.”
“Like what? I might be new enough to feign disinterest, but everyone knows perfectly well that there’s nothing more important to you guys than quidditch, especially when it’s between Gryffindor and Slytherin.” Honestly, what are we going to say – that we got lost? Forgot about the match?
“Wow, I guess you do need an insight into the male mind, because there is definitely one thing more important to ‘us guys’ than quidditch.”
“What?” Hermione asked, truly perplexed. Sirius gave her a pointed look. No, really – what else could we possibly pretend to be doing? The only things guys ever talk about are quidditch and pranks, well that and... oh! Flustered, Hermione bit her lip. “Oh, you mean...”
“Exactly. So, what do you say, Miss Watson – want to be my fake girlfriend?”
So much for simple.
A.N. Reviews are like my favourite brand of ... lets say candy. Please? Pretty please?
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