After a shower, Hermione joined the other Slytherins at dinner, where there was a cheerful discussion of the snowball fight, the superiority of the Slytherin fort over the other Houses', and gifts people had gotten over Yule. The boys of the house were praising the ingenuity of freezing the fort to ice and shaping it like a castle, while the many of the girls were sniffing and talking about their presents instead.
The first years were discussing their gifts, having all been present for the snowball fight.
"I got small things from everyone, but nothing special," Tracey said with a sigh. "Anyone get anything… exciting?"
"Greg Goyle sent me a scarf," Millicent admitted. "I haven't decided whether not to wear it yet."
"That'd be a terrible slight if you didn't wear it at least once," Pansy said snidely.
Millie made a face. "I know."
"Cassius sent me a cloak," Daphne said smugly. "It's a beautiful emerald green. The note said it reminded him of my eyes."
The girls all murmured appreciatively, Tracey letting out a whistle.
"Cassius Warrington?" Tracey asked. "That good-looking guy in 3rd year?"
"I'm not surprised," Blaise Zabini cut in. "Christmas is the first chance to offer any gifts of intent. You're a catch, Greengrass – I'm surprised you didn't get more gifts of courting intent."
Daphne colored prettily, while Pansy sneered.
"And did you get any gifts of courting intent?" she snarked.
There was a collective "oooooo" at the jab, but Blaise just gave her a grin.
"If I had, it'd be more than you got, wouldn't it?" he smirked.
Pansy's face turned murderous, and Tracey quickly turned to Hermione.
"What about you?" Tracey said, a glint in her eye. "Anything special?"
Hermione considered for a moment, somewhat uncomfortable.
"Oh! Ron didn't get me anything," Hermione finally said, smirking.
Tracey blinked. "And that's… good? That's a terrible slight." She looked uneasy. "Aren't you supposed to be his friend?"
"Oh, I got him a gift – a really nice one, too," Hermione told her. "He'll look ungrateful and selfish, not giving me something when I gave him something so nice. It's a better gift than any lame present he would actually give me, believe me."
"I don't know how much Gryffindor keeps with formal gift-giving traditions, but that will shame him amongst those of us who know better," Daphne said. "Good. Downfall to Weasley."
She said it so casually, just 'downfall to Weasley', that Hermione had to struggle not to laugh.
"I got a full potions set," Theo said, offering Hermione a smirk. "A complete one, not a student kit. It's really nice."
Hermione's eyes lit. "With all the standard ingredients?"
"And then some." He grinned.
"More importantly, however, is Hermione's other gift business," Daphne said, giving Hermione a sly grin. "I understand Anthony Goldstein sent you a cape?"
Hermione could sense the air at the table change. She was careful to keep her face carefree and easy, though she felt uncomfortable. Being the center of attention in this way... she wasn't used to this.
"He did," she said. "He also sent an invitation to his family's formal Christmas party. It coincided with my own family's party, however, so I was forced to decline."
Daphne exchanged a look with Theo, and Theo whistled.
"Someone's moving fast," Theo commented, eyes wide. "We're in first year."
"Daphne got a cloak from Warrington," Hermione pointed out. "It's not like I'm the only one."
"Yes, but…" Theo trailed off, looking uneasy. "Daphne's… the Greengrass name is very well-known. It's practically expected she'd get gifts of intent before she'd debuted just as a way to curry favor with her house. It's not quite the same."
"I certainly didn't get an invitation to his house, either," Daphne cut in.
"Goldstein's trying desperately to do anything that might elevate his house," Pansy said, adding herself back to the conversation. She wrinkled her nose. "They're fairly well regarded, but gold and a famous grandmother only gets you so far."
"That shows guts, to gamble on an unknown like you," Tracey said, grinning at Hermione. "He must really like you."
"Or it's a gesture to show that he's openly looking for matches," Pansy sniped. "He's one generation from being considered a pureblood again, if he marries pure. Hermione would… well…"
She trailed off, sniffing, and Hermione's eyes hardened.
"A New Blood is the purest type of pureblood there is, gifted by Magic itself," Hermione said, fighting to keep her voice even. "If you can't see that, you're an idiot. But you'll see – we'll all see whose magic wins out in the end."
She rose and swept over to the Gryffindor table, taking deep breaths. She left the Slytherins behind her, knowing some of them were watching her. She stored Pansy's remark away in her mind – she'd have to retaliate somehow. She couldn't just let the insult stand.
"Harry," she said, pasting a cheerful smile onto her face. "Happy Christmas! How was it for you?"
Harry smiled genuinely at her. "Hermione! Thanks for the frogs. I had a good Christmas, actually. Quite a few presents more than I expected, though."
Hermione laughed. "You've made quite a few friends, Harry. Surely it wasn't that surprising."
"Maybe." Harry grinned at her, and Hermione smiled.
"Thanks for the Sugar Quills," she told him. "How was Christmas at the castle?"
Hermione was careful to stay focused on Harry, who was telling her all about the small Christmas dinner there had been, sitting with the teachers and pulling Christmas crackers. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see Ron getting steadily more and more red, looking deeper and deeper into his dinner and his cup. When Harry started telling her about the other gifts he'd gotten, Ron looked more and more uncomfortable.
"Ron," Neville said, looking at him. "What'd you get Hermione? I know Harry got her sugar quills. I saw that classic Cannons photobook she got you – it's really nice. What'd you give her?"
Hermione mentally thanked the stars for a friend like Neville Longbottom.
Ron muttered something unintelligible, sinking deeper into his dinner, and Neville gave him a confused look, before looking to Hermione. He nodded to Ron and shrugged, a confused expression on his face, and Hermine shrugged back at him. Neville rolled his eyes.
"What did he get you, Hermione?" Neville asked. "I'm hoping no one beat my raven quills."
"The quills are wonderful," she said, smiling. "Thank you again for them."
"You're welcome," he said. "So… Ron?" he prompted. "What'd he give you?"
Ron sank further into his chair, and Hermione allowed an uncomfortable expression to come onto her face as she looked away, silently demurring. An incredulous expression came across Neville's face, and a shocked one on Harry's.
"He… he didn't give you anything?" Neville said. His tone was quiet, almost horrified.
Hermione visibly bit her lip and looked away.
"Ron!" Harry chastised. "You didn't give Hermione anything? Not even one of your mom's sweaters?"
"Definitely not a sweater," Ron mumbled into his food, glaring around at the table.
"You didn't give Hermione a gift for Yule?" Neville said sharply. "You rebuffed her in that way? After all she's done for you?"
Ron looked deeply uncomfortable.
"It's just a present," he muttered. "I didn't know what to get a girl."
"Did you know what to get a friend?" Neville demanded. He sounded angry, and Hermione was taken aback by his ire. "You just decided instead of asking for help, that you would get her nothing?"
Harry was looking somewhat taken aback by this turn of events as well – Neville was usually a quiet and friendly person. It was almost frightening to see him so angry. Seamus and Dean were listening in now too, as were the Weasley twins.
"I can't believe you just slighted her like that," Neville said, shaking his head. "And she went to the trouble to give you something so nice-! And you gave her nothing."
"It's not like Hermione cares about slighting and gift rules," Ron retorted. "It's not such a big deal that you're making it."
"Not a big deal-? Ron, she's in Slytherin. She's a New Blood, which is the most pure of purebloods ever. Of course she follows the guidelines of gift-giving!"
Neville looked really angry now, and Hermione felt uncomfortable. She had figured she'd need to pretend to be uncomfortable and hurt by Ron's rebuff; it'd never occurred to her that someone else might be angry on her behalf.
"I can't believe you," Neville said angrily. He slammed his hands on the table, making Ron jump, and he stood up. He came over to Hermione, bowed slightly, and extended his arm to her.
"If I might have the privilege of escorting you back to your common room, Miss Granger?" he asked, his back ramrod straight.
Hermione could practically feel people's stares on her back.
Hermione recognized what he was doing – he was solidifying his support of her being a woman of quality or of pure blood, a woman to be respected, in the face of Ron's obvious insult. Even recognizing his gesture, though, it felt odd, but kind of nice, in a way.
Hermione nodded silently and got to her feet, taking Neville's arm.
They swept from the hall with their heads held high. Hermione was quietly impressed with Neville's posture and confidence. She'd never seen him act in such a noble way before.
After the doors to the Great Hall closed behind them, Neville slumped, turning to Hermione with anxious eyes.
"I am so, so sorry for Ron, Hermione!" Neville said, wringing his hands. "I don't- Ron's an idiot. He still thinks of you as a Muggle-born, and doesn't think things through, and he probably legitimately didn't think that you were expecting the gift of a friend from him. I am so, so sorry. But please know that- Harry and I, we respect you and value you, and Ron- Ron's just an idiot, Hermione, and he probably still considers you a friend-"
"Neville," Hermione said gently, interrupting. "It's okay."
Neville looked up at her. "It is?"
"It is," Hermione confirmed. "Ron's behavior is no reflection on you or Harry. I am happy to call you friends. Ron's folly is his own."
Neville nodded slowly, straightening his back, before starting down the corridor with her once more. It was an odd walk; Neville was clearly trying to lead her, but he didn't know where he was going. Hermione had to nudge him and crowd his feet with her own to guide him in the direction of the correct dungeon.
"I don't know what his issue is," Neville confessed, looking at his feet. "I mean… it's not that Muggle-borns aren't as powerful as purebloods, or anything like that. I'm no blood purist. But you're in the top of the class, and crazy powerful. If you say it's because you've been touched by Magic, I mean, it makes sense…"
Hermione had the odd feeling of realizing that Neville believed her. He believed she was New Blood, that she had been directly touched by Magic. Hermione didn't remember ever telling Neville that, so he would have had to have heard the rumor on the grapevine from someone else, but he believed it, and he was treating her how a pureblood princess would be treated in a formal situation because of it.
It felt… different.
Hermione bit her lip. She often thought back to meeting the blonde girl, Luna, in the bookstore, when she uttered her prophecy. She thought back to the Sorting Hat, and what it had whispered into her mind. Hermione didn't even know if New Blood was actually a thing. It felt like Hermione was making it up and defining it as she went along, and it was disconcerting to realize that someone believed what so often felt like lies.
"It's okay, Neville," Hermione said gently. She stopped turning to him. "Thank you for walking me back to the common room."
Neville blinked and looked around. They were in an empty dungeon hallway. Hermione gave him a patient look as he realized that the Slytherin common room entrance must be hidden, and he hurriedly bobbed her a short bow.
"Ah- yes. Have a good evening, Hermione," he said.
"The same to you," Hermione said, nodding. "Thank you for saving me in there."
Neville puffed up at her thanks, and he looked proud as he strode back out of the hallway.
Hermione waited until he was firmly out of sight before going deeper into the dungeons, taking two more turns, and quietly murmuring the password to the common room and going in. The Ravenclaws might not mind visitors, and everyone knew that the Gryffindor House was behind the portrait of the Fat Lady on the 7th floor, but the Slytherins weren't about to advertise where they resided – especially not with the vitriol against them.
Hermione was surprised to see Draco inside, standing in the middle of an empty common room.
"Draco," she said, startled. "I thought you were at dinner."
Draco's eyes met hers. The silver seemed like liquid.
"Goldstein gave you a cape," he said.
Hermione froze. Understanding flooded Hermione's mind, and she nodded, careful not to betray anything.
"He did," she said steadily.
His gaze bore into hers.
"You wore it," he said. "In public."
"It was a gift of favor," Hermione said carefully. "To rebuff such a gift without cause would be an insult to his family and earn me a foe. I have no reason to quarrel with the Goldstein family, so I showed my gratitude."
Draco considered this, nodding slowly.
"And you wore it as soon as you could, so people would see," he said, watching her. "Getting the acknowledgement out of the way."
Hermione didn't say anything while Draco thought. His eyes abruptly snapped back to hers, sharpening.
"You're wearing your scarf," he said. "And the pin."
Hermione shifted uncomfortably. She was wearing them. The scarf was incredibly soft, and it helped keep her neck and torso warm in the cold of the dungeons. She'd worn it over her dress like a wrap or stole, and it was nice to have. Most of her classmates had similar scarves (though not made of cashmere), so no one had commented.
The pin was harder to excuse. She… she had just wanted to, really. It was so pretty, and why not? Why shouldn't she wear such a pin?
"I am," Hermione said finally. She looked up at him. "And?"
Draco's eyes seemed molten.
"The dragon you gave me is exquisite," he said, abruptly changing the subject. "Where did you get it?"
Hermione relaxed slightly, smiling.
"I can't tell you that, now, can I?" she said. "Then you'd be able to find the store and get whatever you wanted from it, and I'd have nothing left to send you as gifts."
Draco's lips twitched, and he smirked.
"I have been told I am hard to buy for," he drawled, and Hermione laughed.
"I'm glad you like it," she said, impish. "I tried hard to find the perfect thing."
Draco looked surprised. "You did?"
"Well, of course," she said, shrugging. "I couldn't just get you anything. It had to be… special, somehow."
Draco took a half-step closer to her. His eyes met hers again, and Hermione swallowed.
"Why?" he murmured. "Why did mine have to be special?"
His voice was lower, and there was something breathier about it. Hermione shivered.
"I don't know," she challenged him, tilting up her chin. "Why was mine in an empty jewelry box?"
Draco reared back, his eyes ablaze. He looked angry for a moment, before grinding his teeth and calming down.
"You know why," he grit out.
"I don't," Hermione said flatly. "To send an empty jewelry box could mean you don't think I'm worthy of ever receiving such things, with the House regalia a cruel jeer to point out where else I don't belong."
Draco looked struck, then upset.
"You're not that… you know that isn't it, Hermione," he said. "You know that I…"
He looked like he was doing his best to hide his emotions. Hermione swallowed her own.
"Or…" she said carefully.
"Or?" he prompted, a ghost of hope on his face.
"Or, it could mean you wanted to send jewelry, but did not for some reason," she said. "Your gifts… though perfectly acceptable for acquaintances, they're nicer than the standard uniform wear, and…" She swallowed again.
"And they're clothing and jewelry, of sorts," she said carefully. She looked up at him. "Clothing and jewelry that I could wear, and no one would know it was a favor, if it was."
Draco's eyes darkened.
"Will you wear it, Hermione?"
"Of course," Hermione said immediately. "The scarf is incredibly soft and warm, and I really like it."
Draco rolled his eyes, a faint smirk on his lips.
"Always the practical one," he murmured. "And the pin…?"
Hermione hesitated. The pin was undeniably special, and something no one else had. And, being that finely wrought, it had to count as jewelry, even if it was not.
"Perhaps," Hermione murmured back, biting her lip. "Perhaps I will."
Draco's face slowly softened, relaxing in its intensity. He gave her a smile, a real, brilliant smile, and Hermione was caught off-guard by how happy and how handsome he looked in that moment.
"Good," he said. "Good…"
He trailed off, looking like he was going to say something more, but the common room door opened, the rest of their house spilling in after dinner.
The babble of other students pushed them apart and separated them, and Hermione let herself be carried away from him. Draco's eyes were still fixed on hers, and Hermione wasn't quite sure how that made her feel.
Hermione turned to see Blaise grinning at her.
"You want to test out those chess boards?" he asked her. "After that scene tonight, I figure you'll want to cream Weasley as soon as you can."
With a last glance back at Draco, Hermione turned to Blaise and nodded, moving toward the chairs and small table by the entrance that they usually claimed. He smirked.
"That was quite the scene back there," he told her. "You should have seen it. The one Gryffindor girl, Lavender Brown, she just about read Weasley the riot act. He'll be ostracized within his house for a while, now, even with all the half-bloods and whatnot not knowing the gift-giving traditions."
"Good," Hermione said. She sniffed. "He deserves it."
"He does. Foe to House Slytherin, and all that," Blaise said casually, shooting her a grin. He withdrew his tiny chess set from a pocket and enlarged it, and Hermione pulled hers from a pocket within her cloak. "Ready to lose?"
"I suppose," Hermione sighed. She smirked. "Though, hopefully for the last time, now."
Blaise grinned, and they set about playing an odd game of chess, Hermione doing her best to hide her moves on the small chess set on her lap, while Blaise played on his. It was odd and felt weird, but it was definitely working – the sets stayed connected, even when small.
"So when do you want to do this?" Blaise said, moving his king. "It'll have to be a night when we're both free."
"Soon," Hermione said, picturing the giant chessboard that lay deep beneath the school. "As soon as we can."