Dedication: There be dragons. For Sara as part of a Pansy Parkinson+Hermione Granger writing exchange.
Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.
Notes: This is the prelude to seven chapters, one for each year of dragon riding training school. Dragons are not based on the dragons within the Harry Potter!verse but world dragon mythology with some alternations by me. There will be some pairings floating through, but this is primarily about Pansy, Hermione, and the friendships they make with each other and other riders.
Pansy Parkinson's dreams were nightmares to most.
They look and sound like this: cacophonies on all sides deep in the Forbidden Forest, where there are more shadows than trees. For the initiation challenge, she stands in front of the cave amidst a throng of boys. Most of them are a little shorter than her, but they all cower and she stands tall above them all. Some cry and some piss themselves and some do both. None faint, although it is a near thing. Pansy laughs because she is the only one worthy.
She'd studied the pictures her great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, and brother had taken since she was a little girl, so she can picture everything down to the fingerling boulders on either side of the cavern mouth. All of it is some mix of fuzzy black and white and pixelated color, but she knows it so intimately she sometimes wonders if she has been there herself.
Imagine the shrieks coming from below ground. Oh, they sound like hell beasts, don't they, haunting the depths as the animals beg and dare her to step into their parlor? The mouth howls to her, calls for her descent. Hell lays itself out, it tempts.
Her dream is inside.
Once, Pansy read a book about adventuring children in a next world. At one point, they are on a ship in a place of darkness. It is something of an impasse except the darkness intrudes further and the young girl - for it is always a young girl who hears some True Voice, isn't it? Pansy saw this in books all the time and wondered if it was a Thing - heard the voice of their lord whisper, "Courage, dear heart."
In this place of darkness, Pansy knows herself to be fearless. In this place made of more shadows than tree and stone, Pansy needs no courage.
On the stands behind her, her family cheer her on and shit talk all the other parents ("That's our Pansy - she's going to use your son's blood-soaked jumper as bait."). She can hear her brother shouting advice from the back of his mighty beast, as if there is any trick to this she doesn't know, and she rolls her eyes.
They're dragons. If there's anything she knows, it's dragons.
Inside the cavern, it is dark - she doesn't know what that part of the challenge looks like and cannot figure out anything beyond ducking to avoid the gigantic teeth and poisonous tails swooping directly overhead like gigantic bats, so she skips ahead, to when she emerges with her dragon. Sometimes, it's a basilisk slinking along by her side with its webbed talons, a Zmey with all of its heads, a wyvern and its barbed head, but it's mostly a Georgian - proud head and large jaw with folds resting by its mouth like a bearded lizard.
That is what her dreams look like.
On the first of September, 1991, at the tender age of eleven, Pansy stood in her dream, complete with black tee and track pants. She would never ask if it could possibly be a nightmare.
Still, she would be the first to admit the initiation challenge wasn't a perfect facsimile of her imagination. True, very little sunlight cut through the low and heavy canopy of the Forbidden Forest; what rays did manage to flee beneath the trees gutted the ground in bright spikes, spilling shadows on its way down. The wind dredged up stench from deep inside the cavern.
Pansy rather wanted to vomit, to be honest.
The cave was before her and the crowded spectator stands behind, but the sides of the mouth were gouged down to its streaked marrow and one of the framing boulders was missing. There were many boys and she was taller than most, but they gave her a wide birth. Aside from one little piggy of a child, though, the boys looked more enthusiastic than terrified. They lounged against the entrance, lined up stones in the claw grooves, chatted about what dragon they wanted, waved back at their family.
Her family was too busy to come.
She bit the side of her cheek in self-recrimination. Go in, don't die, get the dragon of her choice, and get out alive. Think of nothing else. Think of the after. Think of how foolish they'll feel when they saw her success.
Some of the people in the stands were making bets, their voices carrying down to the small clearing. Her brother had mentioned it off-handedly at dinner the night before, that they bet on the odds of which candidates would get what dragon or if they'd end up empty-handed - or worse.
After the Ministry announced they would allow two girls to go out for dragons, Pansy had heard her parents speculating that they were meant to die and thus shut up all the progressives who thought testing only boys for entrance into the dragon riders ranks was an archaic, sexist practice that should be extinguished.
"Boys are stronger candidates than girls in many ways," her mother said. "My grandfather brought his dragon to our house all the time when I was a girl and - I used to shudder at how piercing its eyes were, how much energy was behind it. I had nightmares where my grandfather's control over it snapped and there was blood all over our home, that I would wake up to it bending over my bed. How can girls hope to tame a dragon? Dragons aren't domesticated animals, they aren't sheep or kittens. They are wild forces of nature and must be brought under their rider's will, trained to focus their untamed intelligence as the rider sees fit. Girls don't have the hard edge required. It's just a fact - I was one, I should know."
Pansy fiddled with the end of her ponytail. Now that she was here with her parents' words rattling inside her head, she found it difficult to be fearless and determined to prove anything. All of those years of dreaming, she'd never thought it would ever happen - it was an adventure the same way some boys play soldier. You never die in your dreams. Her hard edge threaten to bend under the fear that —
The only candidate standing near her was the other girl chosen. She was more hair than anything else, curls on rampage all over the place. With little light, it was hard to tell, but Pansy suspected the stranger was darker than her - more than a little tan, anyway. A few inches shorter than Pansy, she was muttering to herself with a fervor that almost sounded like a spell.
"What are you doing?" she said, mostly to distract herself. In case the girl was getting the wrong idea, she flicked her gaze over to the remaining gray stone by the cave. She didn't want to make friends - whoever she was, she was competition to be the first girl dragon rider ever and Pansy was never second. She would rather d—
Not think about that.
"Just going through everything I've read about dragons," the girl said. "Just in case I come across one —"
"If you go in the cave, you are definitely going to face one."
"Isn't it big, though? I read that it's about ten and a half km long and sixty meters deep, once you get through the narrow tunneling cave system. Just this huge space and all these dragons and all of them will be trying to kill us unless we make some sort of mental connection - it seems rather mental, don't you think? Like, how do we know which dragon - if any - belong with us? Unless we want to die and prove that girls can't be —" the girl cleared her throat, her cheeks a little pink. "I'm Hermione Granger, by the way."
Her wide eyes went even wider, irises almost dark enough to look black. "Are you by chance related to Preston Parkinson? The Long Shadow, known for his night flyovers and brutally effective assassination style? I read about him online - there's this entire site dedicated to speculations of who he was responsible for —"
The girl talked too much, but Pansy couldn't help bragging. Well, perhaps she could, but how many times had she run up and down the mansion lawn, pretending to ride her great-grandfather's wyvern? How many times had she begged for bedtime stories about her family's legacy? "He was my great-grandfather. Mother says he brought Smokefang by all the time when she was a girl."
"Wow," Hermione breathed.
"He died when I was really young, though, so I never got to meet Smokefang. Mother says it was absolutely terrifying."
"Wasn't Smokefang a girl?"
Pansy wrinkled her nose, trying to remember if she'd heard her mother say one way or another but couldn't. Her mother had always, always, she realized, called dragons "it"s and "them"s. All of her knowledge came from her mother and those photographies - she'd never looked these things up, she'd just assumed instinct, the gift that all of the dragon riders in her family had that she had to have would be enough. She knew the different types of dragons, figured that dealing with each of their strengths would be common sense, that it would be easy to figure out which dragon was hers and only hers.
Am I worthy? It was hard to ignore the small fear seeding inside her. She had been so sure she was enough, but…
Feeling self-conscious, a little fake, very weak, and resentful at the person who had dared make her feel that way, she shrugged as nonchalantly as she knew how. "Maybe. It's not important."
"Well, if Smokefang was a girl, it follows that girl dragons are just as good - maybe even better than boy dragons. And if girl dragons are, why can't human girls be as good as human boys? Doesn't that mean that all girls aren't just as strong as all boys?"
Pansy hummed and started walking toward where the boys were congregating. She hoped Hermione would get the point and just leave her alone, but apparently she hadn't.
"It's cool that your family has been dragon riders before," Hermione continued, trotting along completely oblivious to how stiff Pansy was. "Like, Long Shadow is the most famous, perhaps, but he wasn't the only one. According to the draconian genealogies I found at the library, your family has had the most riders out of any family that still exists today in the U.K. No one in my neighborhood ever gets tested - I was just in the wrong place at the right time and stunned the examiner with how dragon hearted I —"
Rounding on her, Pansy said, "Do you ever shut up?"
Hermione stopped in her tracks with a startled deer look on her face. "What?"
"We've been talking for like five minutes and you just keep going and going, like Little Miss Know-It-All. Don't you ever have to breathe?"
Hurt hadn't had time to settled in her yet, but Pansy wasn't waiting for it because if she waited, she would stop and apologize and feel bad and she did not have time for that. So she scorned her and laughed instead. "You don't get it, do you? We are the only two girls here and if neither of us succeed, that's it. We fail. Girls fail."
"But we can help each —"
"What help would I need from you? You said it - I am legacy. It is in my blood." Pansy stared hard between Hermione's eyes, putting every ounce of conviction she had left behind her words and iron-plating them. "You and all your facts are only distractions - only chatter. All talk. I've been dreaming about being here since I was old enough to know what a dragon rider was. I am here to be a rider. And you think being dragon hearted is enough? You have to be born for this. Do you really think you are?"
Before Hermione could say anything else, Pansy stormed off to the place where the boulder used to be and leaned against the cave. She tried to ignore the boys, how they all moved to the other side like a school of fish, and Hermione, who sat in front of the tree across from her and stared at her toes.
She was all alone, just as she liked it. Only missing her dragon.
The small voice inside her was louder now.
Are you worthy?
Hermione rubbed at the scuff mark on her old snow boots, trying not to cry. What had she said to deserve —
She'd read that the tread on snow boots would work best in slippery caves, but she worried about the amount of noise they'd make against the cave stone. Stability was very important, but so was agility and speed and unpredictability…
The wind drew down many voices from the stand.
"Five pounds on the Malfoy boy getting a Georgian."
"Two pounds the Weasley gets a Zmey since all them gingers are used to so many family members."
"Fifteen pounds Potter breaks his glasses."
"What kind of bet is that - they're already broken. Ten pounds says he breaks an arm and gets a Wyvern like his dad."
"Thirty pounds that the Chinese already got itself eaten."
Lots of snickering and chortling at that.
"I don't know why the Ministry traded a Zmey egg for that thing. What advantage would that ugly thing impart? It's got no wings, can't breathe fire - how is it even a proper dragon?"
Hermione picked at a spot on her chin. The library hadn't had much information on Chinese dragons - the East Asian Institute was tightlipped. Not much literature existed from even before the schools were formed. Why? Was it because few people believed them to be a threat? General disinterest? Were they much different than any of the Western dragons?
"And nobody at Hogwarts knows a thing about them anyway. They'll just be deadweight."
"Speaking of deadweight, odds on the two girls, Fletcher?"
"No takers on what they'll bring out, but a lot on what will take them out. On Granger, I have… decapitation, torn apart and trampling by a Zmey, set on fire by a Georgian, poisoned by a wyvern barb —"
"Put me down for stoned by a basilisk. Seven… teen pounds."
"I'll get in on that - three pounds says all of that happens. What about the Parkinson? She's got pedigree."
"She's got slightly better odds," the man named Mundungus said. He sounded dirty in more ways than one. "Malfoy over there put down a Cuélebre."
"A runt and it'll probably eat her within the first month of training." The man's voice was cold and amused.
Hermione shuddered and tried to focus on her strategy once she entered the cave, but it was hard. It was hard knowing that people found her life meaningless and her potential death amusing. She could deal with that, though. She just hoped her parents couldn't hear the betting pool, but if the men (and a few women) were loud enough that she could hear them down there…
She could tell Pansy heard them, too, from the way she deliberately looked away. Not for the first time, she wondered why the other girl had been so cruel. What had she done? How would being friends keep either of them from being dragon riders? Was she a threat? Was being friends threatening?
When the Hogwarts professor held his arm up and bid everyone circle around him, Hermione stood up and followed Pansy, her fingers shaking as she tied back her hair.
The professor was a big man. He looked like he could take on a dragon himself, really, and wild enough to consider it, with his disheveled beard and — his hair seemed like it might actually be more trouble than hers.
"The initiation challenge'll beginnin' in a minute!" he boomed. "I'm Hagrid and I work at Hogwarts School of Dragon Rider Instruction. Yeh lot prob'ly know the six breeds of dragons crawlin' 'round the cave. Yeh also prob'ly think yeh how ter deal with 'em dragons. Yeh are prob'ly wrong."
Hermione couldn't see any of the boys's faces, but she did hear the one ginger mutter to the boy next to him, "Well, bloody hell, he talks straight."
"There're 'bout a hundred of yeh out here and two hundred of 'em in there and they're territorial li'l beasties. Lovely li'l beasties, but beasties all the same. They've claws an' fire an' poison an' mind tricks. They're in the process of killing each other while they wait for yeh. All yeh gotta do is find a dragon that, uh…"
The man visibly struggled for words and eventually just shrugged. Hands on his hips, he said, "You'll know when yeh meet 'em."
Hermione's heart sank a little. That was very helpful. Nowhere in all of her research had it said how you know which dragon - and she had done more than her fair share of research. The way everything and the man said it, they either felt the potential and bonded with you or liked you as food. She didn't really feel like being an appetizer.
"Now…" He looked over the crowd. She could tell when he spotted at her and, to her surprise, he gave her a wide grin and dipped his head. "Now, 's time. I will give each of yeh a torch - you'll need it ter get to the cavern - an' you'll head in ter test yer dragon heart against theirs."
All the boys ran to get in line - she didn't know where Pansy went, which probably wasn't bad given… well, her - but she managed to get somewhere in the middle. A lot of the ones behind her muttered and complained and she did her best to ignore them as she moved forward and watched people enter the cave one by one.
She thought she'd imagined the first scream she heard but knew she'd heard the second. And the third. And the fourth.
Her heart quieted to the point she was mildly worried that it had stopped beating.
Then she was holding her hand out for a torch.
"Good luck," Hagrid said as he handed her one, his smile wide.
He didn't ask her if she knew what she was doing. Somehow, that eased a few of her nerves, just a few of them. No one had asked her, not even her parents, who knew about her intensive research tendencies and seemed afraid that she did know, but he hadn't asked the boys ahead of her either. And he smiled at her - no sneers, all genuine. Even though he said nothing else, it felt like he believed in her.
A coal stoked itself into life in her chest at the thought that someone didn't just fear for her but maybe, just maybe, believed in her. Someone looked at her and thought, "She could take charge of one of those, ride he or she through the air (or the sea, if a basilisk). She has the will. She is dragon hearted."
Hermione said, "Thank you," under her breath. Facing the cave, she flicked the torch on and, without stopping to stare at how fang-like the stalactites and stalagmites were, into the mouth she went.