Hermione's parents dropped her off at King's Cross with tearful hugs and kisses goodbye. As much as Hermione was looking forward to going back to school, she felt melancholic upon leaving them. The break had been nice – a wonderful break from the constant stress of Sirius Black, the social games Slytherins played, and classes, too.
The melancholy didn't last long, though – Hermione was pulled into a compartment abruptly by Tracey, who had wide, panicked eyes.
"Adrian gave me a bracelet for Christmas," Tracey said, the words coming all out in a rush. "Help."
Restraining a laugh, Hermione went in.
The compartment was all Slytherin girls – Millie, Daphne, Tracey, and now Hermione. Daphne was sitting up very straight in her seat, her blonde hair shining in gorgeous curls. She seemed to be faintly vibrating with excitement that she was attempting to hold back, and it only took a moment for Hermione to notice the beautiful purple swallowtail brooch pinned to her breast over her robes.
"Hermione!" Daphne exclaimed. "What did you do to your hair? You look great."
"Oh, thank you!" Hermione said. "I just got it cut. But you've – ah – congratulations!" she settled on hastily, and Daphne beamed.
"Thank you," she said, happy. "I'm so glad – it felt like I'd never come of an age – but finally just at the New Year, I did!" She gave a rueful smile. "Shame it wasn't a few weeks earlier – I could have gotten a courting gift for the holiday like everyone else, if it had."
"Everyone else?" Hermione's eyebrows went up. "Really?"
Tracey winced, sitting down next to Millie. She glanced at Millie while Hermione took the window seat next to Daphne, but Millie was stone-faced.
"Go on, then," Millie said, her voice flat and hard. "Tell them."
"Millie got a diamond pendant from Fionn Yaxley," she said finally, looking at Millie. "It was… Millie didn't know it was coming."
"A diamond?" Hermione's jaw dropped. "That's—but that's—"
"Bright jewelry," Tracey said, glancing at her and nodding. "It turns out Millie's father and her uncle – they'd been working on a betrothal contract for her, and they hadn't said anything until all the dealings were settled…"
"Oh no…" Hermione gasped. "Millie, they didn't—"
"I'm not wearing his stupid necklace. And they can't do anything to me right now," Millie said viciously. "I'm not of age, I can't enter into a magical contract properly. And I don't want anything to do with Fionn Yaxley."
"He's not bad looking?" Daphne ventured. "He's quite dashing, in the right light, and he—"
"He's Corban Yaxley's son," Millie said, flashing Daphne a cutting look. "That tells me enough."
Hermione looked from Tracey to Daphne. "And… we don't like Yaxley…?"
"Corban Yaxley was cleared of all charges after the Wizarding War," Daphne said delicately. "It was ruled that he'd been under the influence of the Imperius Curse, like so many others."
Hermione could read between the lines to understand what that meant.
"His son might not be like that, though," Tracey was saying, trying to cheer Millie up. "Look at you – you turned out nothing like your parents."
"He was under investigation for illicit love potion use two years ago," Millie said, shooting Tracey a venomous look. "Rubella Seafarn dropped the charges, saying she couldn't be sure who dosed her, but all the older girls avoided him after that."
Hermione wondered what kind of parent named their daughter Rubella.
"Let's not talk about it," Millie said flatly. "I'm engaged, I don't want to be, and I'll get out of it somehow." Her lips curled upward, and it wasn't a kind smile. "My father will regret not talking to me about this, one way or another."
Though her statement was decidedly threatening-sounding, Hermione felt a flash of pride for Millie. Good for her, she thought – no one should try to decide someone else's fate like that.
"Help me, then," Tracey moaned. "Adrian sent me a bracelet. What do I do?"
"Are you wearing it?" Daphne asked. "Let's see it."
Tracey held out her arm and tugged back her sleeve, revealing a delicate string of garnets interspersed with small crystals.
"Very pretty," Daphne said, nodding in approval. "Understated, but elegant. He did well."
"What do I do, though?" Tracey wailed. "Do I wear it to dinner? Or not?"
Daphne nibbled her lip.
"Well," she ventured. "Do you want to court him?"
Tracey paused. "…I don't know."
Daphne looked like she was trying not to smile. "Maybe figure that out first, then, and we'll go from there."
"If she doesn't wear his gift in front of everyone tonight, does it count as rejection?" Hermione asked. "Or just doesn't count as public acknowledgement of a courtship?"
"It depends," Daphne said, shrugging. "There are plenty of reasons why someone might have accepted a courtship gift but might not be ready to acknowledge it publicly."
"Really?" Hermione asked. "Like what?"
"Well, parental bargaining is the most common," Daphne said. "If the sets of parents aren't getting along in terms of betrothal bargaining and it's not sure which way the courtship will go, it's often simpler to not openly acknowledge the courtship yet." She laughed. "If you don't think it'll work out, why take yourself off the marriage market so soon?"
Judging from how some of the pureblood girls talked about betrothal contracts and courtship, Hermione thought the term 'marriage market' was a bit too on the nose for it all.
Daphne was looking at Hermione with a keen eye.
"Meeting the Diggory family not go so smoothly?" she asked slyly.
Tracey's mouth dropped open.
"Did Cedric send you something?" she asked, eyes wide. "Merlin, he did, didn't he?!"
"He did," Hermione said. She pulled out the earrings and necklace from her pocket, passing them around. "I didn't think he would – he seemed to realize that I much preferred not being in a courtship and just dating someone. Apparently, my honor demanded it or somesuch, though."
"I mean, he did first indicate interest a year ago," she said. "It might be a bit insulting to not make an offer at this point…"
Hermione rolled her eyes.
"These are nice, though," Tracey said, examining the pendant. "Ruby roses, emerald leaves – pricey, too, even for jewels this size. And on theme, with the roses."
"I don't care about them being 'on theme'," Hermione snapped, taking them back. "I care about if I have to openly be seen as 'courting' him or not."
"Do you not want to court him?" Tracey asked, blinking.
"I don't want to not court him," Hermione equivocated. "I just… don't want to court him either."
Tracey and Daphne exchanged a look, and Hermione groaned.
"I like him," Hermione said. "I just… I don't want to get that serious with anyone yet. And I don't want to have to turn him down and stop seeing him just because of courting traditions."
"You don't really have much of a choice," Daphne commiserated, sympathetic but firm. "This is how it works, you realize, Hermione."
"You met his parents?" Millie said, eyes sharp.
Hermione groaned again, and Daphne laughed.
"She did, from what I heard," she said, amused.
"How did you hear anything?" Hermione demanded. "I thought you were busy holding your own big party that night."
"I heard at the Malfoy's New Year's Ball the next week," Daphne said calmly. "Ben McEwen was there. Apparently," she said, eyes dancing, "you offended Mr. Diggory by giving his wife a Yule wreath instead of a Christmas one?"
Hermione rolled her eyes, but Tracey shot her a sharp look.
"We've talked about this," she hissed. "Hermione, you can't—"
"I genuinely didn't know," Hermione snapped. "I ran out and grabbed a wreath from a muggle shop as a hostess gift. I didn't know wizards differentiated between different types of wreaths."
Tracey still looked suspicious, but Daphne looked amused.
"That's what I heard you said," she said. "You were also accused of potioning Cedric and being a Dark witch?"
"You seriously heard all of this at the Malfoy party?" Hermione asked, astonished. "I didn't see Ben anywhere near me when I was talking to Mr. Diggory!"
"Apparently he's good at eavesdropping." Daphne grinned and shrugged. "I might have pumped him for information a little bit."
"It sounds like you have the perfect excuse to not wear his token, then," Millie pointed out. "If his father's accused you of being a Dark witch, you can't very well pretend that your courtship is going well, can you?"
"And he won't take offense at that?" Hermione asked, biting her lip.
"If he does, he's a fool," Daphne said matter-of-factly. "People may have heard of his courtship offer and you accepting his suit, but if you're not wearing his token openly, it'll be much less dramatic of a reaction."
Hermione considered, then sighed.
"I'll do that, then," she conceded. "If I don't have to deal with it right now and can put off handling it until Valentine's Day or something, I'll take that option."
"You realize it's not a good sign if you don't want to wear your beau's tokens of affection?" Millie said, raising an eyebrow.
"I know," Hermione said pointedly, eyes narrowing. "I'll come up with a plan for it or something."
Millie's answering grin was sharp. "Let me know what you come up with when you do."