(the Girl Standing) In the Blush of Dawn
Note: this HP AU follows a similar, but still divergent, narrative to Akatsuki no Yona (the Girl Standing in the Blush of Dawn), an anime and on-going manga. My obsession began when my husband wanted me to watch it (but I resisted) despite him telling me he got Fushigi Yuugi feels from it (my favourite anime of all time – there are definitely elements of it in this, too). I eventually caved, watched the anime in two days, and then spent another two days catching up with 100+ chapters for the manga. I'm obsessed. It's fantastic. And I wanted to write an HP version of it for some time.
Things are obviously different – ages, colours/house association, and relationships. However, I wanted to keep things as best as I could do the feel of the anime and explore the characters the way that Mizuho Kusanagi does. Enjoy.
Note 2: I am a terrible, terrible person. I realize I haven't updated many of my stories and that is because my PhD is kicking my ass. I'm in my 3rd year, which is comprehensive/qualifying exams. I just had Reading Week, and I spent it all writing this, and working on a GoT/HP and Stargate: Atlantis/HP crossover story instead of my comps readings. It was very, very bad. Bad, Kneazle. Also in the process of house searching, and living in one of the largest cities in Canada the housing market here is pretty damn bad (every other day there are news coverage about how Millennials are being priced out). So, work + PhD + penny-pinching. You'd think that'd mean more time to write... but... !
I: Bonds; Family & Torn
"Ten years ago, my father passed on and appointed me as his successor as King of our kingdom, Avalon. Since then, I have led our people with pride and confidence here at Hogwarts Castle despite being besieged on all borders by our neighbours – but we have prospered, we have persevered!"
The tall, thin man with curly blonde hair in regal dress spread his arms wide, the sunlight glinting off his shiny armour. He stood at the steps of a large, imposing castle in front of a large audience that filled the rectangular courtyard. Split in two sections, the multi-coloured fabrics were as bright as jewels and reflected the splendor of the castle's banners fluttering in a gentle breeze.
The castle itself was imposing and made entirely of large, grey stone. In some places, climbing ivy wound all the way up to the tallest turret and yet, in other places, the grey stones were roughened and covered with dirt and grime. Several spires and towers jutted from the square castle at different levels, with walkways criss-crossing sections and bringing far parts of the castle together. Soldiers stood sentry on these walkways, immobile and rigid in their shiny armour, swords strapped to their waists. They wore the colours of the kingdom: grey and purple, the colours of Avalon and magic.
Behind the king stood two men, half-draped in the shadows as one was an aid and the other a guard. The younger man was shorter, a teenager with mousy brown hair and a mousy face. He wore a grey tunic piped with purple, and black leather trousers underneath and comfortable shoes. He had several scrolls tucked under one arm, leaving both hands free to clap along with the crowd below the raised steps he, the guard, and the King stood upon.
The other man was taller, older – no more than thirty or so –, with wind-swept wavy black hair that fell to his shoulders. He was dressed all in black; black tunic and leather trousers, and tall boots covering up to his knees. He wore leather bracers on both arms, but his right bracer included a sheath for his wand. Instead of a sword as weapon, he had a double-edged and two-tipped glaive taller than himself propped almost carelessly against his shoulder, indicating his comfort with it. His armour was polished black with four long, decorative scratches, like that of a creature's claw marks, in silver across the chest.
"Where is she?" asked the younger, mousy-looking teen, his eyes darting back and forth behind the King and in the shadows recessed by the tall columns framing the large wooden doors that led into the foyer and Great Hall of Hogwarts castle.
"Huh?" the older man asked, turning his attention away from the king he was guarding to his companion.
The teen sighed. "The Princess. Where is she? She's missing her father's speech and she wanted to be here."
"Oh!" the older man blinked, suddenly, as if only realizing she wasn't there. "She's hiding somewhere; probably the library. You know why – he is coming to Hogwarts."
"But she wanted to be here…" the teen frowned forlornly, watching as the king finished his speech.
"—please grant me your continued support as regent of Avalon and may the Gods – and that of our ancestor, Arthur Pendragon – continue to bless Avalon with fertile lands, health and happiness, and lasting peace!"
Elsewhere, a young woman sat on an oversized, squishy armchair in an isolated corner of a darkened library, a thick text on her lap with her feet curled up under her. Floating above and gently bobbing was a small sphere of blue light – a speciality of hers and one of the few things she could conjure with relative ease. Despite being a witch, like all others in Avalon, Princess Hermione was not magically strong – at least, to some extent.
Descended from Arthur Pendragon himself (or so the legend went), Hermione and her family were born for ruling – not magical combat. Her Uncle Bran, however, had been a fearsome warrior on the battlefield, wielding his sword and magic at the same time to deadly effect. Instead of being magically adept, Hermione was book smart, and it showed: her favourite haunt was the library where she spent much of her time reading up on Avalon's laws and history, or escaping in fantastic tales of far off places, or engaging in debate with Madam Pince, the head librarian. Often, it was because she was eager to share her new knowledge with her cousin, Cormac, one of the few friends she had and one of the few she knew who encouraged her love of reading.
Being a Princess wasn't easy; her father, King Perseus, sheltered Hermione from life outside of Hogwarts and thus, spent much of her time Cormac when he visited and later, Sirius, when he was brought to the castle as her personal guard. The rest of her time was spent with books, especially after her mother's death when she was young.
So, there she sat, in her tiny corner, framed by tall walnut bookshelves filled with books and scrolls. Silence was her companion, until –
Hermione startled, the book sliding off her lap and onto the floor in a mess, the pages wrinkling and folding. She made a sound of distress, sliding to the floor herself, uncaring of her skirts gathering dust.
"Princess, where are you?" called the familiar male voice.
With a sigh, Hermione picked up the book and opened it to the page she was on, smoothing the wrinkled and folded page down.
"There you are!" around the corner appeared a mousy brown hair young man, smiling when he spotted her on the floor. "Princess Hermione, you're going to get dirt all over your dress and everyone will know what you've been up to."
"Colin, please," sighed Hermione, eyes wide. "You wouldn't tell on me, would you?"
"Not at all," he laughed, stretching a hand forward and offering it to her. "You missed your father's speech, by the way."
"What? Oh, no!" the Princess took the offered hand and allowed the teen to pull her to her feet, still clutching the book. "I wanted to be there to support him…"
"I'm sure the King understood," replied Colin kindly. "I think we all knew where you would be instead. Especially given that a certain someone will be here shortly for your seventeenth birthday in a few days."
Hermione sighed, hugging the book to her chest. "Am I that obvious?"
"Just a bit," smiled Colin. They began walking through the walls of bookshelves and meandered their way through the library from the dark corner Colin found Hermione in. "C'mon, we need to get you back to your rooms before anyone sees you. You are going to look gorgeous in that new purple dress the King ordered for you."
"Gorgeous? Brainy here? Ha! Too late for that!"
Stiffening, Hermione scowled and turned sharply on her heel, a hand flying to her hip while the other clutched the book so tight the skin at her knuckles turned white. She leaned forward, tilting her chin up and got close to the annoyingly smug face that previously stood behind her, a half-smirk on his lips.
"Sirius Black!" she snapped. "You're a beast!"
The man grinned. "That's right – I'm a beast: the Thunder Beast of Avalon, and don't forget it!"
Behind her, Colin groaned.
That arrogant wretch, thought Hermione, her right hand tightly balled at her side.
When she was seven, Sirius was appointed as her personal guard and promoted to General of Black Family, one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight that sat on the Council of Avalon which her father led as King. It was a huge honour, given he was only twenty-two at the time and was the youngest recipient of the title of 'General' in centuries. Although he often visited Hogwarts Castle with his adopted grandfather Albus Dumbledore (and her father's close advisor) when Hermione was growing up, Sirius was someone Hermione had known her whole life and one of her closest friends.
Sirius was also a giant pain in the ass.
He would constantly tease, flirt, and make fun of her love of books, reading, rules and authority, but Hermione would be the first to admit he was loyal to her and her family, a true friend through and through and always went out of his way to cheer her up if he knew she was down. It didn't help that there was a good fifteen-year age difference between the two, as Sirius was always quick to point out her lack of maturity, and her lack of femininity as someone who enjoyed books more than make up.
Hermione's hands itched to find something to throw at her guard, and blue sparks began to race around her right fist; the other continued to clutch the book she picked up.
Sirius noticed, his blue eyes widening in anticipation. "Why, Hermione love, are you angry? Don't make such a face, it'll be sure to stick that way!"
A wordless cry escaped the young woman and she thrust her hand out, palm up, the sparks racing from the center of her palm towards Sirius. With a grin, he brought one of his own hands up and swatted away at the fizzled blue light.
"Best you've got, Princess?" a lazy grin stretched across his face. He knew just how weak her magic truly was, given his own magical strength and abilities.
"Hermione? Dear? What are you doing?"
Immediately, Hermione brought her hands down and reigned in her temper, turning to face her father with a fake smile plastered on her face.
"Father," she said, bringing her hands together by placing the book in front of her. "I'm so sorry I missed your speech."
"It's fine, dear," King Perseus smiled back at her, and Hermione returned the smile, cataloguing the familiar features they shared: the same grin, the same apple defined cheeks, and unruly hair. However, where her father's hair was blond, Hermione's was a dull, chocolate brown, taking after mother, although she passed away when she was barely five and unable to remember her.
What set Hermione apart from her father and her vague memories of her mother, was the honey colour of her eyes. Her eyes could be as dark as whisky or as light as gold. Sometimes, she would hear the staff around the castle whisper as she passed them by, speaking in hushed tones about the strange colour of her eyes, the way light refracted off them when she turned her gaze on them – their supernatural quality so alike those in legend of Arthur Pendragon's.
But that was just a story, and unlike the facts and statistics Hermione prided herself in knowing, stories were not based on anything substantial or real, however beautiful the story was.
"I really am sorry," murmured Hermione, tugging at a lock of unruly brown hair and coiling it between her fingers contritely. "I got caught up in reading this new book, on the ethics and practices of magic from our ancestor's time…"
Perseus smiled genially. "It's fine, Hermione. But I daresay that if you want to prepare for tonight's ball, you'll need to head back to your rooms and try that purple dress…"
Hermione sighed. "Father, you know I never feel comfortable wearing those dresses… it doesn't feel like me."
"Nonsense!" protested Perseus, perplexed at why his daughter would think so. "There is nothing wrong with you when you wear those ball gowns – you look exquisite! General Black, Colin, don't you agree?"
"Absolutely," piped up Colin immediately.
"Of course, King Perseus," said Sirius blandly, eyes fixed at a point over the King's shoulder. "The Princess does look beautiful in those gowns… but after all, it is her brain that is in question here."
"Sirius!" growled Hermione, turning back to the man, who childishly stuck his tongue out at her.
"Don't you have somewhere to be, Princess?" reminded Sirius with a smirk on his face. "After all, isn't Cormac here already?"
"He is?" eyes wide, Hermione gasped and shoved the book she picked up at Colin. "Can you have that placed in my rooms? I need to go see Cormac now!"
She then picked up her skirts and darted around her father and Colin and down the hallway.
Her father's voice faded and she was around the corner and out of sight.
She ran down the carpeted hallways of the castle, brushing by staff and servants alike, eager to see her cousin Cormac.
The only one who never made fun of me, she thought as she rushed. The only one who has been by my side and treated me with kindness since mother's death.
She turned a corner, already thinking of everything she would tell her beloved cousin, when—
The warm, hard body she ran into caught her by the shoulders. Anticipating a scold, Hermione winced and kept her head down. She knew better than to run in the hallways where others were working.
Her head jerked up in surprise and pleasure. Taller than her with sun-kissed streaked brown hair and bright, blue eyes, broad-shouldered with an easy grin, Cormac was nothing like Hermione. He was well-liked, if not coming across as sometimes snobbish. His personality was that of a Prince: entitled, but knowledgeable of their kingdom and ready to always defend it whenever necessary. He was also encouraging of Hermione's pursuits and always had a kind word for his cousin.
"Cormac!" she greeted cheerfully, a blush spreading across the bridge of her nose. "When did you arrive?"
"Just recently," he replied with a smile.
"Are you staying for my birthday?" she asked, tilting her head back and stepping closer.
A blush stole over his cheeks and into his ear tips, and he brought a hand up to scratch at the side of his cheek. "Ah – yes. Seventeen, isn't it? Finally considered an adult in our world."
"I'm an adult now," argued Hermione, stepping closer and watching incredulously as Cormac took a step back in response.
"Well, yes, of course," he replied, reaching out and patting her gently on the top of her head.
She scowled; she wasn't that short in comparison! And there was no reason to patronize her.
"Now, do excuse me cousin," he spoke, unaware of the turmoil in her head. "I am hoping to see my uncle and Sirius! Maybe he will want to spar with me….?"
With that said, Cormac brushed by Hermione – the person he was supposed to be spending time with before her big birthday, she firmly believed – to see Sirius Black? Ugh.
He still sees me as a child, when he's only two years older, mulishly thought Hermione, tugging on a piece of hair and turning back on her heel to face the direction he went in. Why can't he see me as a woman? Seventeen may be our official coming of age in the magical world, but I've been a woman for much longer! I'm well-read, and intelligent, and kind, and I've loved him for so long…
She frowned, thinking back to one of her earliest memories of Cormac.
Her mother had just died – from what Hermione later understood to be an assassination attempt on her father that had gone wrong – and she wasn't sure what to do with herself anymore. At just five years old, she left her nursery and had begun small lessons on comportment and penmanship, as well as learning the history of Avalon. Usually, she would spend her time with her mother, but with her gone, she would spend it with her father. Only, he was so lost in his grief that he was unable to take care of a five-year-old girl, and Hermione was at a loss of how to help him through his grief.
Unable to comprehend or handle her father, Hermione ended up wandering one of the inner courtyards. The courtyard itself was covered in snow and death was all around: bare trees and bushes, with no birds singing or any other living animal around.
Cormac followed her out of their learning rooms, begging, "Hermione! Hermione, what's wrong? Don't cry! Hermione!"
"Leave me alone!" Hermione snapped, sniffling heavily and trying to hide her face from her cousin.
A small, tiny, seven-year-old hand finally clasped on Hermione's shoulder and, instead of spinning her around and demanding to show her face to him, Hermione felt something heavy settle over her shoulders.
Her sniffling stopped, and she looked up in surprise, turning her head to look at her young cousin over her shoulder.
"There," he said decisively, nodding as though he were passing an important edict. He had taken off his cloak and wrapped it around her instead. His hands reached for the hood, and gently he lifted it up and over so it covered Hermione's curly corkscrew hair, and then tugged down the front of the hood so it lowered and nearly covered her eyes. "Now, no one will see you cry. So, please, cry all you want."
Startled, Hermione felt her lower lip wobble and she darted forward into her cousin's arms, where she did cry.
That was when she first began to fall for him, and Hermione recognized clinically that her love for her cousin developed half out of a sense of pedestalization and idolization, and half out of desperate need to have someone shower her with positive affection. But, as she had read, love was love, and didn't separate itself from reason.
She sighed. Well, there was always tomorrow.
When Hermione sought out her cousin the following morning, she was dismayed to only find Colin in his assigned room when he stayed at Hogwarts.
"He's in the jousting yard," the young teen answered her inquiries. "I believe he was up early this morning to practice his swordplay and jousts with General Black."
"Ugh," muttered Hermione, rolling her eyes after thanking the teen. Why would someone want to spend time exercising when they could sit and discuss the latest chapter of Hogwarts, A History?
Although – Hermione felt her breath catch and she bit her lower lip, rolling it into her mouth as a blush stole across her cheeks. She leaned against an upper rail of a three-sided covered walkway that overlooked the jousting yard where the guards practiced their skills. Currently, Sirius and Cormac were the only two using the yard, both standing at opposite ends and wands at the ready.
Then, Cormac moved.
A flash of light burst from his wand, sizzling hot and vibrantly red. Sirius twisted his upper chest slightly and let the magic roll past him, head slightly turned to watch it. When he faced forward, Cormac was nearly in front of him, sword raised high.
Sirius planted his back-right foot and swung his glaive around, low and wide with a long reach that made Cormac dodged and abort his charge, hopping over the weapon and readjusting his landing.
The glaive continued to swing around, continuing its momentum, until it was across Sirius's body; he used that momentum to swing it up and over his shoulder, and then high above his head to bring down with the force of an executioner's axe towards Cormac. At its height, the glaive glittered in the sunlight.
But no – Hermione gasped. It's imbued with magic!
Sirius's glaive was charged with magic, the weapon practically vibrating with intensity. Cormac eyed it warily, but he too concentrated for a moment before his sword began to glow, heating up.
The two came together with a giant, thundering clash – there was a reason why Sirius was known as the Thunder Beast.
The two continued to dart past one another, or at one another, attempting to always block or land one hit that would proclaim them as winner. Sirius was older, and more experienced, as well as a better fighter than Cormac – but he lacked Cormac's restraint and cool logic. Battles between the two were a toss-up.
"They've gotten much better," proclaimed Perseus, as he came to a stop just behind Hermione's shoulder.
Hermione winced at a resounding clang from the two men's weapons. "They don't need to practice," she muttered. "Cormac's already a great swordsman and his skill with magic is superb. He came here for my birthday, he should be spending time with me."
"He hasn't seen Sirius in a few years," chided Perseus. "You all grew up together – don't you think he deserves to spend some time with his friend, too?"
No. "I suppose."
Below, the two stopped their battle, breathing heavy and sweating.
"I wish I could fight like them," whined Hermione, thinking back at her poorly developed magical skills and how easily Sirius had deflected her attack earlier the previous day. She ignored her father's startled look. "Then I could be down there, too, and not by myself."
"Oh, come on, father, it's not like they're actually hurting each other," she argued back, dismissively, with a negligent hand wave. "I know you don't like any weapons, but they're still necessary."
"No, that's not it, Hermione—"
"It's okay, you're a coward, I get it." Noticing that they weren't trying to harm each other, Hermione leaned over the walkway bannister and hollered, "Good work, Cormac!", catching their attention and purposefully ignoring her father and the pinched, hurt look in his eyes.
"Hermione!" shouted back Cormac with a smile and crinkled eyes. "Come down."
"Only if you promise to show me how to use the sword like that, Cormac!" she shouted back. Behind, her father sputtered.
"Deal!" her cousin shouted back, ignoring the side-eye that Sirius was giving him.
Hermione laughed gaily and dashed down the walkway and then the wooden stairs against a far wall that led down into the training yard.
Shortly, she was standing next to her cousin, trying to listen as he instructed her on how to properly hold a sword.
"No, no, you need to adjust your grip," he said, frowning a little, and then moving forward to adjust her hands and slide them in a two-fisted grip, one above the other on the hilt of the wooden training sword he handed her.
"Like this?" she asked, trying her best to ignore the sweaty and musky scent of her male cousin and the rising blush in her cheeks.
"Just so," he coached happily.
Above, her father paced worriedly along the walkway, and Sirius stood off to the side, leaning against his glaive and watching with lazy eyes.
"Hey, Cormac?" asked Hermione.
"Hmm?" he replied absently, turning to pick up his own wooden sword, moving in front of her to show her a three-block combo.
"Well, with my seventeenth birthday coming up, there was some talk about betrothal," began Hermione, her words coming out quicker and quicker as she continued. "And you're older than me – so you must have lots of ladies all over you asking for your help or your time!"
Oh, my God, Hermione what are you saying? She thought, butterflies erupting in her stomach.
Cormac's ear tips when bright red and he nervously laughed. "Well, um, yes, that's true… but… yes, there's um… talk with my advisors…"
"Oh! Oh, wow," stuttered Hermione. "That's… that's great. I mean, not like it matters to me anyway."
"No, not at all, I'm already betrothed," the words burst out of her before she could stop them. Her eyes caught on Sirius, who was ignoring them now and putting away the other weapons he and Cormac had used back to their spots on the wall. "Yes, in fact I'm engaged to Sirius!"
Her voice carried and she saw the older man stiffen in surprise, spinning around with a pale face and slack mouth. Immediately, his jaw snapped shut and Hermione winced as she saw his jaw tighten.
"Really?" Cormac asked, surprised. His eyes were wide, and he turned partially to view his friend, who let out a low "uuhmmm…" in response. Cormac's eyes brightened as he turned back to Hermione. He lowered his wooden sword, too. "That's wonderful news, Hermione! Congratulations. The two of you will be very happy together – you've known each other for years, starting out as friends first!"
"Uh, yeah," croaked Hermione, lowering her own sword, digging her toe in the sand of the training yard. "You know, I just realized I have a pressing dress fitting that I forgot about, Cormac… for my birthday, you know? Big, big deal. We'll do this another day?"
"Oh, of course!" he acquiesced and Hermione gave him a brittle smile in return, dropping the wooden sword where she stood and fleeing the scene as quickly as possible.
What. Did. I. Just. Do? She felt tears build at the corner of her eyes, but quickly brushed them away as she navigated down familiar hallways and around servants who ignored her in the bustle of prepping the castle for her birthday celebration the following night.
Upon reaching her private rooms, she threw the heavy wooden door open, and made straight for her bed. She climbed on, and then rolled under the covers, bringing them up over her head.
"What a mess!" she moaned, hiccupping a little. Despondently, she wondered, "How am I ever going to get him to see me?" and spent the rest of the afternoon huddled under the bedsheets, watching as the room became darker and darker under the thick covers as sunlight turned to night.
She thought it was an apt reflection of her feelings.
Perseus, along with Colin and Sirius, found her hours later when she skipped dinner and a maid informed them that she was nothing more than a lump in her bed. Fearing her ill, especially right before her birthday, Perseus left his advisors and went immediately to his daughter's side.
"Hermione? Dear? What's wrong?" he asked the lump that was his daughter, sitting on the edge of her bed and gently patting what was her shoulder.
Hermione yanked back the covers from her head, poking only her bushy, riotous curls out, and glaring up at her father with honey-coloured eyes that were red-rimmed.
"Only everything," she declared, sniffing, and then told him the whole sordid story of how she failed to get even a smidgeon of Cormac's attention.
Colin, of course, was used to being invisible when necessary, and found himself a happy place off to the side where he could later instruct his king and princess on final birthday celebration details. Sirius, however, had no aversions to Hermione's privacy and settled himself against the wall by her room's door, eyes on both his personal charge and king but also roving towards the windows every so often.
"Well, lying is never good," said Perseus with a sigh, once Hermione finished. She now sat above the covers on her bed, knees pulled tight to her chest. "But it does bring up the point that we should soon discuss betrothals for you, anyway." He eyed her. "However, Cormac will never be an option for you."
"Excuse me?" blinked Hermione, looking up from under a lock of hair. "What do you mean? I love him. He's a royal – in line for the throne, even. Why can't I marry him?"
"While 'because I said so' should be good enough for you," began Perseus, "The truth is he is not the one for you and I will not allow you to marry him."
"No!" he snapped, silencing Hermione, as she had never heard her father speak to her in that tone before. By the door, Sirius's eyes went wide and he stood straighter, just as Colin took a step forward.
"No," the king repeated, albeit, softer. "Hermione, my love, since you were born, I have showered you with everything you could possibly want: you have had access to the rarest of books and scrolls since you could walk and talk; you have had exquisite jewels and artifacts from across the realm; you wanted a private reading bungalow by the lake, and I had one built for you. I love you more than anything in the world, and you are the most precious thing I have in my life. I would give you anything. But I will not give you to Cormac."
"I lost your mother – the person I loved the most – to assassins. They were coming for me, the ruler of this kingdom, and she paid the ultimate price instead. If you love Cormac, truly love him…" Perseus took a deep breath and spoke quietly at his daughter. "Then you will let him go. Your future husband will need to be strong and resourceful, and, should the same happen to him that happened to your mother – you will need to be able to continue on."
"But, father…" Hermione trailed off, stricken. Do you want me to marry someone I don't fully love in case I lose them like mother? Father… that's not fair. How could I live with myself if that happened?
Moving her hands to her mouth, pressing them there, Hermione stifled a gasp. Blinking hard, she pushed off the bed and then past Sirius, who belatedly held out a hand to stop her with a gentle, "Princess…"
Uncaring of where she went, Hermione took several twists and turns, finally pushing aside a large tapestry and hiding in the secret passage behind it.
How could I ever promise myself to someone, marry them even, knowing that I could potentially get them killed for being by my side? How is that fair to them? She wondered. She stood, leaning against the cool, hard stone of the inner passageway wall, happy the dark hid the tear tracks down her face or the redness in her eyes and the silence eased the throbbing in her head.
Could I really let Cormac go, like father asks? I love him, and seeing him with someone else…
A shuffle down the passageway caught her attention.
She turned her head to face further down the darkened corridor. "Hello? Who's there?"
There were a few more shuffles, and then—
Hermione bit back a scream. A large looming figure, darker than even the shadows that hid his features from him, began to appear in the darkness, a strange gleam in the whites of the eyes she could make out. That, and the paleness of the man's face had her scrambling backwards towards the tapestry.
No! It's insurgents. Assassins – the same who killed mother all those years ago. Father always said they were waiting for another opportunity, and my birthday – with everyone in and out of the castle – is the perfect chance, she thought, gasping as panic clogged her throat.
She brushed aside the tapestry, tripping over the tassels that trailed on the floor, landing hard on her knees. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a pale hand with long fingers peak through the side of the tapestry, ready to pull it aside.
Not waiting any longer, Hermione scrambled to her feet, tearing a part of her dress's hem, and stumbled forward. She blindly took a corner, but she could hear the even steps of her assailant keeping up with her hurried pace.
Spotting an ajar door in a long line of closed doors down the hallway she turned blindly onto, Hermione pushed it open fully and then slammed it shut behind her. She lifted the latch and locked the door, backing away slowly into the darkened room, lit only by moonlight.
The latch rattled.
She bit back a gasp and wrapped her arms tightly around her body, clutching her elbows. Please! Anyone! Someone! Help! Father… Sirius… "Cormac!"
An arm wrapped around her upper chest and another hand clamped down on her mouth, tightly pulled her back further into the darkened room.
She tried to scream, but instead opened her mouth and bit hard the hand that covered her mouth instead. With a muffled curse, the hand was removed and Hermione opened her mouth to scream –
"Hermione!" she recognized that voice. "Stop it, it's me: Cormac."
Hermione immediately stopped struggling, falling limply into her cousin's warm chest as he gave her a protective hug and then let her go, spinning her around.
"What happened? You're so pale and clammy!"
Hermione sighed, relief making her near boneless. "There… there was someone in the hallway. Someone I had never seen before. He was chasing me."
Cormac's eyes flashed dangerously and he pursed his lips. He took in Hermione's pale face, her freckles standing out even more so, and her wide eyes, the pupils blown in terror. She was breathing heavily and shaking, but attempting to be strong.
"The hallway, you say?" Cormac turned and yanked open the door, sticking his head out and looking left and right. He stepped back into the room but left the door partially open. "There's no one out here, Hermione."
"Not anymore, I guess," she said lowly, breathing in deeply and holding it before letting it out. Cormac stood nearby, watching her with unreadable eyes.
Thank the Gods you were here, Cormac, she thought, sighing mentally. But then – but what if I was only one of the targets? Have I led them straight to you?
A frown graced her lips, pinching the skin between her brows.
"I-I should go," she finally said. I don't want to lose you.
"Oh," said Cormac, lowly, taking a step back and turning his back to her. "I understand. If you want me to go get Sirius for you, as your betrothed, I can do so. I'm sure you'll feel safer and more comfortable with him."
"No!" she burst out, taking a step forward.
"Really," Cormac smiled, although it was forced and didn't reach his eyes, which remained cool. He turned his entire back to her so that she couldn't see his face, now shrouded in the darkness of the room. "I understand, Hermione – you love him."
"No, you don't understand!" she cried.
"I don't love him!" she declared, taking a step forward. The moonlight from a window behind her caught Cormac's brown hair as he turned slightly, enabling her to see his strong profile. "I love you!"
Silence permeated the room between the two after her declaration.
A small smirk of a smile, all Hermione could see from his profile, made her heart plummet. "I love you too, Hermione, but… you're making a mistake – you're rattled from what you experienced earlier and –"
"No, Cormac," said Hermione evenly.
His eye widened, and he turned to face her, hands limp at his side.
"What would your reaction be to me now, now that I've confessed how I feel and I know it's romantic love?" whispered Hermione in the dark of the room, eyes wide and darting across Cormac's face: his wide forehead, strong nose, and parted lips. His eyes were now longer wide, but the blue was shuttered, hidden from her if not slightly sorrowful.
"Hermione," he said quietly, taking a step forward. "I have never thought of you as anything other than my cousin before tonight… but… if what you say is how you feel…"
He brought a hand up, leaving it hanging in the air as though to reach out and touch her cheek, but then dropped it. Hermione's heart went with it.
"I don't think I've ever been in love," he confessed, "and it would be very unfair of me to say those words back to you, the way you want to hear them when I'm unsure of my feelings. I do see you – you, as a woman, and not the girl I used to play with. But…"
Hermione bit her lip and bowed her head. "I understand… I… I wanted you to know."
Cormac nodded, even though she didn't see. He took a few shuffled steps back, and clasped his hands behind his back.
"Let me escort you back to your rooms," he said, and Hermione nodded. They didn't touch, but stood near each other as they left the room, walking together in companionable silence.
Sirius Black, General of the Black clan, munched on an apple as he meandered down the hallways of Hogwarts castle. He had left behind his glaive in his room and, while inside the castle, had only his wand and wits for defense. However, he wasn't worried – as the Thunder Beast of Avalon, his reputation was more than enough to keep him safe for any potential attacks.
It was the morning of Hermione's seventeenth birthday, and all day dignitaries and guests had been arriving from far reaches of the kingdom. Sirius himself didn't have to guard Hermione until much later, once her party actual begun, because she was in her rooms preparing for that evening's ball. Of course, he would have to dress up as well, but he certainly didn't need hours of prep work.
Thinking of how indignant the Princess was likely to be, being fussed about and poked and prodded by her maids, Sirius let a grin slip on his face and he began to whistle, abruptly changing direction to make his way towards her rooms.
A little bother and tease will certainly make my day go in the right direction, he thought happily. The flush of pink that spread across the Princess's cheeks as she berated him angrily made his heart pound.
Besides, he thought some more, Hermione needed some cheering up – the past few days have been… strange.
His grin slipped into a frown, thinking back of the previous night and the argument between the Princess and King Perseus, and his adamant denial of her marrying Cormac. The King, a pacifist and ardent against weaponry of all kind, had never raised his voice at his daughter before, or at anyone. Sirius had never seen him raise a hand, or shout, or do anything that would be violent by any degree. His vehemence against Hermione marrying Cormac was strange – Cormac was the King's brother's son, royalty as well, and a decent wizard.
Maybe there is something else going on that I don't know about? Thought Sirius, pausing to chew on his apple bite. He gave a shrug, and, realizing he was at the Princess's door, knocked and opened in one movement.
He spat out the apple in his mouth almost immediately, eyes comically wide and the blood draining from his face, going very far south.
"Oh, laugh it up," groused Hermione from her stop on a small platform. "Ha, ha, look at Hermione – she's a giant grape in her birthday dress." She sighed. "I'd rather be in the library, honestly."
Sirius wasn't laughing though, his eyes starting from her head and working their way down.
Hermione stood still, caught in several beams of sunlight from three sets of bay windows. Additionally, a few of the maid's magic conjured floating balls of light that highlighted more details of her dress and appearance. Caught in the sunlight, Sirius thought was she pure magic.
Her brown hair shone with highlights of copper and gold, her curls slightly tamed into waves and loose down her back. Despite the frown on her face, her skin was glowing and her strange eyes were bright amber and her lips a kissable pink.
The dress itself was quite large and poufy, but only in the skirt and train: the bodice itself was tight across her chest, tied in the back in silver ribbons in a criss-cross pattern as a built-in corset before merging into the transparent, gauzy silver over train to the bustle of her full skirt.
The front of her dress made Sirius's mouth drop open: the neckline was low and curved, kissing her bare collarbone before arching up to her shoulders for the sleeves. The sleeves themselves appeared unfinished, as two maids were on either side of Hermione, silver ribbons in their hands as they matched the criss-cross pattern of the corset back. The ribbons trailed down the outside of Hermione's arms, with full sleeves on the underside of her arms instead, leaving the exterior side bare. The ribbons tied in a single knot at the back of Hermione's hands and then trailed low, untied.
She looked beyond regal; she was the Princess in all her glory, and the woman he secretly loved.
Sirius coughed and looked to the side so he wasn't caught gazing at her. He forced his mouth open and cleared his throat, "Maybe not so much a grape as a melon."
Hermione huffed. "Beast."
He barred his teeth in a mockery of a grin. "Guilty."
She rolled her eyes and tilted her head. "What do you think, Sirius? A tiara for tonight or not?"
"I'm not sure I'm the best judge for that, Princess," he replied with a dry tone. "Not matter what, your hair will remain so large, full of all that information you have stored in there."
She ignored him, but both maids rolled their eyes and shot him looks which she didn't see, making Sirius feel about two inches tall.
"Hermione? May I come in?"
Sirius moved quickly to the side of the room, just as the door behind him opened and Cormac stepped in, his eyes lighting up when they spotted her. The two maids curtseyed and disappeared behind a dressing screen.
"You look beautiful," breathed Cormac, smiling.
"Thank you," replied Hermione with a beatific smile, reaching up and wrapping a strand of her loose hair around a finger and winding it.
"I have a gift for you," said Cormac, stepping forward and handing her a rectangular wooden box.
"Oh!" gasped Hermione, reaching forward and stepping off the platform she stood on. Her skirts rustled in the movement and the light bounced off the shiny material, light purple patterns playing on the floor as she did so.
Hermione took the box, and slid the lid off, gasping in delight at what was revealed. She reached in with her other hand and pulled out a gorgeous, decorative hairpin.
"I know you sometimes don't like your hair because of how wild you think it is," began Cormac, eyes tracing from the crown of her head to where it brushed her shoulders. "But your hair is gorgeous – wiry and riotous and wild and free – something I have always thought of you. You appear to everyone as this quiet, bookish girl who does what she is told unless it goes against your principles… but I know that's not true. There's far more to you than what people know."
"Cormac, thank you," breathed Hermione. "I love it."
He stepped forward and reached for the hairpin, taking it from her and then, with his free hand, smoothing a lock of her hair behind her ear as she beamed up at him. Sirius, from his corner, felt like an interloper and turned his head away.
When he looked back, Cormac had wrapped a part of Hermione's hair around the pin and had it tucked behind her left ear, pulling her hair away from her shoulder and tightly back from the temple. They were no longer touching or near one another, but it was still incredibly intimate.
"I need to go now, but I'll see you later at your party," he said, smiling. Cormac bowed, and then, with a glance and nod at Sirius, turned on his heel and left the room. Hermione watched him leave the room longingly, a far-away stare on her face.
"Princess," said Sirius, catching Hermione's attention. "I'll take my leave as well."
Hermione nodded, and Sirius swallowed the lump in his throat as her maids appeared and she quickly dismissed him from her sight – and mind – far more easily than she did with Cormac.
Oh well, he thought, it wasn't like this was anything new or different than I am used to.
He shut the door behind him.
The ball, held in the Great Hall, was loud. The mass of people – the men in shiny armour and their clan colours, and the women in the jewel tones of their favourite or nicest ballgowns – made the room warm. The center of the room was left for dancing, where several partners and group dances were underway. A large orchestral band was set up in a far corner, near the banquet tables and buffet tables, and down the bottom of the Great Hall were four long tables, with the animal avatars from the myth of Avalon hanging above them. At a head table, on a raised platform behind them and framed by floor to ceiling glass doors that overlooked the lake on the castle property, idols of the red dragon that came down from the heavens were evenly placed at intervals along the table.
Hermione was flushed and happy from the ball, having danced with a very good-looking young Lord and wizard by the name of Viktor Krum, who was visiting Avalon from another country. Her eyes constantly sought out her cousin, but he was absent or speaking with family heads of the Sacred Twenty-Eight who were in attendance.
"Are you having fun, dear?"
Hermione turned and spotted her father, with Colin not far behind him. The teen held a tray with two glasses of bubbling champagne, which he held out with a smile.
"Happy birthday, Princess Hermione," he said, as she took one flute with a smile, and her father took the other.
"Thank you, Colin," she said back.
Perseus tipped his flute in her direction and toasted her. "To my beautiful daughter on her seventeenth birthday! May all your wishes come true."
My only wish is for you to say "yes" and betroth Cormac and I, thought Hermione. She took a sip of her champagne and enjoyed the bubbly sensation as the liquid rolled around her tongue and teased the roof of her mouth.
"I hope they do," she said instead, eyes wandering over the large crowd that was well on its way to becoming intoxicated. Warmth swept over her and she fanned her face with her hand. "Father, excuse me. I think I'm going to step outside and get some air."
"Of course," the king allowed, and Hermione snuck past a few loudly laughing guests, edging by the women's large, rounded hoop skirts and catching the eye of two guards by the glass doors. They nodded and one pushed open the door. Immediately, blissfully cool air breezed over her, and Hermione felt relieved goosebumps erupt over her bare skin.
The flagstone patio outside of the glass doors framed the back of the Great Hall, with wide steps leading down into a topiary garden below. Above, a half-moon peaked out from behind thick clouds.
The garden was quiet with only the usual sounds of nighttime: a few owls hooting, and the scurrying of small animals like squirrels. Those were amplified against the distant echo of the music and laughter of the party goers back in the Great Hall.
Hermione welcomed the silence, and even though there were no guests outside, she was hardly alone with guards stationed at strategic points and entrances of the garden. Hermione came to a rest beside a topiary dragon bush, and sat on a cement bench, resting her hands behind her as she leaned back and tilted her head up.
She sat there, losing track of time. Distantly, she heard the party begin to wind down, and the air around her cooled further. Goosebumps turned into tiny shivers and she knew it was time to go in.
I'm sorry father, she thought, standing and coming to a decision. I love Cormac. I know you think it's best that I let him go to protect him, but… I can't do that.
"And I need to tell you that," she said aloud, nodding in affirmation and hurrying back to the steps of the Great Hall, eager to visit her father's private rooms and tell him her decision.
I'll be disinherited, but that's fine. Despite being in line for the throne, Cormac is the better leader, she thought, dashing through the dirtied remains of the party in the Hall, lifting her purple skirts despite the train covered in dirt and crumbs.
She rushed up the winding stairs of the foyer and to the fourth floor, reaching the private royal wing and her father's royal tower. She met no one along the way – it was dark, now, and the party had ended several hours earlier with the guests all retiring to their rooms or passed out elsewhere.
Down the hallway to her father's room, moonlight peaked through the thick clouds and periodically blacked out the dim hallway even further, rendering it nearly pitch black at moments.
"That's strange," murmured Hermione, eyes glancing back and forth. "It's so dark. Why aren't there any lights lit? Where are the guards?"
Memory of the previous day, being chased by the strange man in the hallways, flashed before Hermione's eyes.
"Father!" gasped Hermione, quickening her pace and reaching her father's quarters. She paused in front of it, looking left and right. There were no guards stationed outside, and the worry in her gut churned into full-blown fear.
A cloud passed over the moon again, blacking the hallway, but Hermione had already seen it: the door was ajar.
"Father? Are you in there? Father!"
Hermione stepped into the room, her eyes looking at the far corner where several couches and tables rested to the other side of the room, where the door to the bedroom was shut. However, just as she looked forward, the clouds rolled past the moon, and moonlight filtered back into the king's receiving room.
Framed against the large windows overlooking the Avalon countryside and town of Hogsmeade, King Perseus stood with his back to Hermione, a tall figure standing close, in front of him.
The tall figure stepped to the side, and Hermione gasped.
Cormac had his sword buried deep in Perseus's chest, the hilt nearly touching the King's chest. Blood ran in rivets down the sword, pommel and hilt, and over Cormac's tightly clenched fist, dripping onto the stone floor.
He yanked his sword out of the King with a wet sound, and the man crumpled to the floor heavily.
"Father!" Hermione dropped to her knees at her father's head. His eyes were glassy and open, blood trickling out of his mouth. A large puddle of hot blood began to form under him, running between cracks in the floor and towards a rug by the seating area. "Cormac, please! Go get help! Father's hurt."
"Of course, he is, Hermione," said Cormac, but in a voice Hermione had never heard before. When Cormac spoke, he was always soft and kind, choosing his words carefully. Now, his voice had a brittle, hard quality to it, overlaid with snobbish conceit. He was done coddling his younger cousin.
"Cormac?" asked Hermione, dazed.
"He's dead, no Healer can help him now," the man continued. He absently wiped his sword on the bottom of his shirt, smearing the king's blood there in a bright, vicious streak.
Hermione, stunned, kept her eyes on Cormac as he stepped around his fallen uncle. He sheathed his sword, but his right hand's fingers continued to twitch, ready to spring his wand from its holster.
"You weren't supposed to be here, Hermione," continued Cormac in an even tone. "You were supposed to be asleep, like all the others are. You would've been safe. Now… now I'll have to kill you, and I don't want to do that."
"Kill me?" gasped Hermione, eyes widening. "Cormac – what? What is going on? What are you talking about?"
"Eight years ago, your father killed mine, Hermione," said Cormac blithely. "Do you remember? Remember the night of the fire when my parents were burnt to their deaths? My father didn't die in that fire, Hermione. He was killed – King Perseus ran him through with his blade and then left. He burned their castle down with Fiendfyre to hide what he had done, but I knew. I found out."
"No, that can't be true," begged Hermione, leaning a bit forward, eyes glancing down at her father's motionless form. "Cormac, you know that can't be right – father would never—"
"He did." Cormac's mouth a straight, firm line. "And he knew it, right when I confronted him about it tonight, Hermione. He didn't deny it at all – just looked at me, like he knew what I had come here to do."
Hermione moaned, swaying where she knelt.
At the sound, the door to her father's chambers opened and several of the Hogwarts royal guards in purple and silver stepped in. "My lord, is everything fine?"
"Yes," said Cormac, briefly looking up at them. Another figure, all dressed in black robes, eased in behind them. He had a shallow, yellowed face, with black eyes and limp black hair.
"The Princess saw?" he drawled in a deep, low voice.
"Yes," confirmed Cormac, looing at man.
He glanced dispassionately at her. "Then you know what to do, You Highness."
Hermione felt horror steal over her as Cormac turned his cold, cobalt eyes on her. There was no sign of her loving cousin in them – he was a stranger to her.
"I'm sorry, Hermione," he said, raising his arm, and she saw he had his wand in his grasp. The tip began to glow green. "Avad—"