A/N: After a few PM's and comments from Reviews (thank you!) I thought I had better reinforce an important point:
Our heroine and her peers are barely out of the 'children' stage of life and are in varying stages of 'young adult'.
There will be misunderstandings borne of things said and things left unsaid.
There will be grudges, teen-aged stupidity and assumptions by the Thestral-drawn-carriage-load.
All will (hopefully) be worked out - In Time. Thanks for your patience ;)

Jean, Chapter 20 At Last, The Ball!

6 am, December 31st, 1993

Grimmauld Place

Hermione awoke with a start, finding a pair of citrine eyes staring right back at her. Focusing just past her familiar, she saw dust motes dancing on the sunlight as it filtered brightly into her bedroom. Crooks was curled into this first patch of sunlight of the day; she had no sooner taken in the scene before his purr began rumbling like an idling diesel motor.

As if reading his mistresses' mind, the cat stretched, draping one large paw over her arm. Sighing in amusement at her familiar's antics, Hermione delayed her plan to get ready for the day in favour of a bit of a lie-in. The rumble continued unabated, and although his eyes were closed, Hermione could feel the contentment emanating from her new friend.

Laying in the magically comfy bed for the next few minutes, the young woman allowed her mind to slow down even as she slowly stroked the soft coat of her companion. She had awoken with her usual crash of thoughts, all pressing for attention in her hyper-active brain. But Crookshanks stopped her from jumping straight into the day; the young woman allowed her mind to slow down even as she slowly stroked the soft coat of her companion.

Hermione marvelled at how she had relaxed by simply experiencing the moment. It was her normal practice to dash through her routine, prioritizing and planning, but this morning she just enjoyed the peaceful sensations of warm morning sunlight on soft fur.

Most notably, she allowed the feelings of apprehension over the coming ball to uncoil from their recent manic level down to a pleasant anticipation. With a growing smile she realized that she was considerably more at peace, and that Crookshanks was giving her a smug, half-lidded look that seemed to say, 'now isn't that better?'

She knew from many stories that pets were often depicted as calming influences, yet Crookshanks seemed to be actively interposing himself when she needed him. The young woman couldn't wait to learn just how smart this fellow really was and she had a feeling he was going to be full of surprises.

Finally slipping out of bed, she moved through her routine at a much more sedate pace. Hermione allowed the anticipation of her big night to grow along with her smile, as she prepared for the day.

. . .

She saw no sign of Harry or Remus at breakfast. Sirius quizzed her about some current events as he read from the Prophet, falling into a habit they had established over the few mornings they'd had together since his return.

The young witch had long since finished another of Kreacher's delicious omelets – this time thanking the elf before he could escape – and the two had been discussing the various Wizengamot factions for about half an hour before he subsided into silence.

She sensed a change in his demeanor as he put down the paper. "I understand that my cousin Andromeda is coming over to help you get ready?" The question, or rather the statement, was left hanging, but before Hermione could answer, he continued. "Draco's mother Narcissa is Andy's younger sister. They were both Blacks. While I'd trust Andromeda with my life, I want you to be aware that the Malfoy's are not to be trusted... at all."

Sirius continued in a flat, monotone voice that rather unnerved Hermione. "Lucius is a major servant of the Dark. He has murdered- and worse- in service to the greatest evil our world has known since Grindelwald. In her way his wife is no better; I remember Narcissa as a greedy, self-serving child, and it did not surprise me that she would accept her husband's atrocities so long as she was pampered."

The wizard paused, grimacing as he continued. "I have it on good authority that Draco wants nothing more than to gain the approval of his cold-hearted father. I'm telling you all of this because I do not want you to be caught off guard. Emmeline will be there, as well as one or two other Order members, but it is important not allow yourself to become isolated from the crowd."

Stunned by these revelations, Hermione tried to reconcile the image she held of Draco with these dire warnings she had no reason to question. She wondered about the connection between Harry and Draco. Was there some way that Draco's father could know that she had been involved with Sirius's- and thus by extension his own- rescue? What part did Lucius Malfoy play in the Night of Terror? What place did he hold now that terrorist leader was no more? The witch opened her mouth to put voice her questions and more, but was cut off.

Sirius held up his hand at her sharp intake of breath, and he barreled forward without a clue of her myriad thoughts. "Yes, I heard about the incident, the Malfoy's have formally pressed charges. Emmeline forwarded the paperwork if you wish to add your testimony, but I've put it aside until after the ball. Your father will need to be involved, to advise you, yet I was afraid he might overreact and forbid you from going tonight should he find out what that scum tried."

The dark haired man grimaced at some internal conflict, his eyes unfocused in thought. "I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds. After all, you are my guests and I don't want to damage the trust your father has placed in us. At the same time," he said, a wry grin appearing on his face that was more comforting to Hermione, "…he has plenty of reason to worry after all you have been through. But you live in this world now, and he doesn't realize what an opportunity this is. I don't want to see you miss out, especially after..."

Eyes unfocused once again, Sirius lowered his head and spoke as much to his clasped hands as to her, "I don't think I properly thanked you for how much work you put into my rescue… for everything you did."

Raising his eyes to meet hers, Hermione saw a shine underlying the fierceness in his gaze. "You are more than just a guest of this House, you are Family." Hermione felt a ripple pass through her at this word, but didn't have time to consider it as Lord Black continued. "I will never forget the debt I have to you and Harry."

"And Kreacher!" Hermione found herself exclaiming. "Dobby as well, they were invaluable to our research!"

She felt rather emotional at Sirius's proclamation, especially combined with that strange sensation, but at the same time, she found herself almost indignant over the way the elves were once again unappreciated. "We'd never have finished the research without their help finding the necessary tomes, spells and rituals."

Sirius, for his part, only stared at her, his eyes widening in a bemused smile. "Yes, Kreacher and Dobby as well." His smile turned again, part wry, part calculating. "Although I'm almost certain that elf of mine is up to something. I cannot help but trust that he's got my best interests at heart; though I think it's one of those 'whether I like it or not' things, like when he wouldn't let me vanish my veggies when I was a kid." The wizard finished his complaint with a fond laugh.

. . .

Sirius and Hermione didn't realize that there was a third party to their conversation: Kreacher. Sirius' proclamation of trust strongly affected the house-elf. It was the first time he'd ever heard his master proclaim his trust in him, and only strengthened the already iron-resolve the old servant felt to bring his plan into fruition. Tonight was important; it was the first real test after weeks of preparation and months of planning.

Long, gnarled fingers rubbed together as large eyes stared unseeing in the gloom behind the wall. Kreacher's mind was both looking forward and remembering years ago as he counted the hours until midnight.

. . .

Andromeda Tonks née Black was the most stunning woman Hermione had ever met. Considering the elegant grace of Ms. Vance and her own mother's gently beautiful face- which her negative voice lamented not inheriting- it was quite a compliment.

Tall and lithe, with long, slightly curly brown hair and wide, soft brown eyes, Hermione thought 'Andy' as she insisted on being called, was lovely. Lovely in a way, she realized with a shock, that she deeply envied.

Moreover, she seemed effortlessly feminine. Her makeup was subtle, and yet perfectly accented her features, which made the young witch quite hopeful indeed. 'If she can do half of that with my plain features...'

Finally settling into Hermione's room, Andy began unpacking from a bulging leather satchel at her hip.

First out of the bag came a rather ornate, miniature vanity which Andy enlarged to full size with a looping swish of her wand. Another intricate motion and the beautiful hardwood furniture suddenly became laden with cosmetics.

Hermione could only stare open-mouthed, as she was ushered onto a plush stool. Andy examined the golden-hued dress, her eye color, consulted a few charts and generally flitted around with the energy of a hummingbird.

The bushy haired witch was forced to stifle a laugh as she caught sight of Crookshanks in the mirror, watching Andromeda like a tennis fan following the ball.

"Oh, Hermione," the woman exclaimed, finally settling behind the teen. "You are such a lovely young woman. I don't think we're going to have any problem stunning your paramour!"

Trying to reconcile the two statements with how she'd always viewed herself, Hermione could only sit and stare. Over the next ten minutes, Andy transformed her face from what she had always thought of as plain, to what she was forced to admit was... pretty. Really pretty.

Some time later, Hermione shook her now tamed curls; she stood in her ball gown and blinked at the surreal image in the mirror.

"Can you... is there a way to take a picture?" The teen blushed, having never wanted to capture herself on film before. She was struggling with her own vanity, disbelief at what she saw warring with her negative self-image. It was a new experience to feel this way, not just good, but proud.

She had no doubts that this was the most beautiful she had ever been. Her thoughts shifted from herself, and she lamented that her mother would never get to see her 'little girl, all grown up'. Hermione consoled herself with the thought that at least her father would be waiting for her when she got home. Her musings were interrupted by the older witch's excited reply.

"Oh, we can do far better than a picture with a little magic!" Andy exclaimed, her enthusiasm continuing to push Hermione's own spirits back up. "There is a way to take your memories from tonight and reproduce them. Just ask Professor Flitwick when you get to school, he'll make the arrangements with the Headmaster."

Hermione nodded eagerly, though a tad disappointed at having to wait. The two witches chatted for a while, but then Andy had to leave. Her encouraging words buoyed Hermione as she waited for six o'clock.

. . .

As had become her habit, Hermione did not descend the last few steps to the landing. She preferred to pause and take in the sounds of the occupants of the entry way to gauge who was there and what was going on.

She recognized Luna's giggle, as well as Sirius's deeper tones. Another male voice seemed hesitant, and was unfamiliar to the eavesdropping witch. Satisfied with what little intelligence she could gather, she descended the last few stairs and discretely observed the scene.

Sirius was dressed to the nines, no doubt going on a date, and if the outfit was an indicator, he was trying hard to make an impression. The extravagant bouquet of beautiful flowers that he held in a protective cover were further proof of his intentions.

Luna was resplendent in her two-tone dress, the silvery-grey top sparkling ever so slightly, her blonde tresses flowing down over her bare shoulders. The three-tone grey heels she wore were peeking from under the dark ankle-length skirt.

The third person turned out to be quite a surprise to the inquisitive witch, and she had to school her features to hide the shock at seeing Ron Weasley. That effort was strained all the more by his... outfit.

The dark-green bow-tie looked like a dead moth atop cream colored ruffles that descended into a too-tight, oddly patterned buff colored vest. The whole ensemble was covered by some kind of brown velvet and burlap-looking duster coat that unaccountably had a pinkish-orange ruffle running from
the shoulders down to his midsection.

On the whole the effect was ghastly, especially with the boy's pallid features and bright orange hair. 'Wait, wasn't his hair brown before?'

Hermione's musing was cut short as Ron apparently had caught sight of her. He seemed to have the same reaction as the boys did at Madam Malkin's- one of shock. Sirius derailed the beginnings of her self-consciousness with his low whistle.

"Miss Granger, were I your date I'd hire Auror protection to keep the other lads away from you." The older wizard joked with a short barking laugh, his familiar smile finally putting her at ease even as Ron continued to gape, open-mouthed.

Luna stepped in to save the situation, somewhat, by taking the redhead's hand and leading him forward a pace.

"Hermione Granger, I'd like to introduce Ronald Weasley, he's my-"

"-Weasley!" the redhead almost shouted, then, as though lit from within, his pale features turned a vibrant scarlet all the way to his ears, the tips of which Hermione was concerned might just catch fire.

"Ha, I, that I'm Rona- Ron," he stuck out a ruffle-cuffed hand at the end of a long arm. "Meet you."

"Ronald is pleased to make your acquaintance," Luna interpreted with a smirk. "Blibbering Humdingers must be mating in the Weasley Orchards. He seems quite infested. One can tell by the fragmented speech patterns of the victims," the blonde continued with thoughtful introspection.

"Well," Sirius interrupted the awkward moment, "I've got a rather fetching date of my own tonight, and I'm tired of waiting." Turning to look directly at Hermione, he continued. "You remember you can call for Dobby if you get into any trouble, right?"

The Lord's somber tone and serious gaze drew Hermione into a resolute nod. "I remember."

Smiling kindly, he then turned towards the stairs, tapping his throat with his wand, he spoke in a quiet voice that the three could somehow easily hear echoing loudly upstairs. "HARRY JAMES POTTER GET YOUR ARSE IN GEAR!"

The three teens winced as one even though the volume was normal at their level.

As if in immediate answer, the thunder of rapid descent was quickly heard and Harry soon dashed around the corner, only to almost come to a crashing halt.

. . .

Harry stumbled, his reflexes stopping his fall before he truly lost his balance, but he had no idea that he'd almost fallen as he took in the vision that was Hermione Granger.

She was standing mostly turned away from him, and he took a moment to admire the deeply plunging back of the dress exposing what seemed like miles of skin even on her short frame. He had no idea what was causing him to react this way, perhaps it was that he had not seen Hermione looking so glamorous. Following the expansive view upwards, he caught her smiling profile and blinked hard. Then he noticed something glittering in the light.

He'd not seen the hair comb before, and it was used to great effect, sweeping up a mass of curls from the left side only for them to tumble down her back and over her right shoulder; a few stray ringlets were left dangling below her left ear. As he took this all in, he realized that she had turned to look at him.

As if struck by a bludger in the chest, Harry found that he could not breathe. The girl who confused and confounded him at every turn was now smiling at him and he lost the power of thought as well.

Realizing that he'd been holding his breath, the messy haired young man suddenly breathed in; a great, noisy intake that seemed to jump start all of his systems before he was ready. His voice returned, only for him to eloquently pronounce, "Wow!" in an awed, hushed exhalation.

His motor functions returned, but he remained standing stock still, his only visible response being to blink and openly ogle the young woman before him.

His brain finally caught up with his manners, and the realization of what he'd said and how he was behaving caused a blush that any Weasley would be impressed by. He was simultaneously mortified and annoyed at his lack of self control.

Glancing just past the girl of his, past her to his adoptive father, he found the man staring at him with his 'I-told-you-so' smirk.

Then he remembered that she wasn't his date. He remembered that, after all that Lucius Malfoy had done, she was going to put herself in harms way by returning to that den of murders. The den of the Voldemort himself, but then everyone believed his threat was ended.

Harry's frustration surged as he turned his ire on Sirius, the man he need most to understand and yet who would not listen. He began speaking in a harsh, cutting tone...

. . .

Meanwhile, Hermione hadn't planned on looking at Harry until she had to. She was beyond frustrated with the boy and wanted to give him a bit of cold-shoulder in response to his icy brush-off in Diagon Alley. It was an involuntary reaction that caused her to look as she heard the boy's sharp intake of breath.

Looking over her shoulder she found the young man openly staring at her.

For her part she thought that he looked very dapper in his dark-green-accented tuxedo. She turned all the way around to take in his appearance, giving him a smile despite her recent resolve against paying any attention to him at all.

The boy might have been gaping at her, but somehow it felt different than the way Ron's ogling made her feel. Indeed, she was eating it up. His open admiration was doing more to warm her heart - or at least boost her self esteem - than all of his stumbling words had in the dress shop.

If he could stare, so could she; and she was especially drawn to his bright green eyes, gawking at her from under that mess of dark fringe.

But then it happened again. Like a switch had been thrown somewhere in that confused mess the boy must have for a mind, his entire bearing changed in the blink of an eye. He had looked past her, she thought at Sirius, and then gone rigid as he addressed the elder wizard.

"Have you cast the charm? They'd just as likely kill her as kick her if you forget it," he spat out, then moved past Hermione to stand before the Weasley boy.

It was as if ice water had been injected into her veins, she could only stand and try not to shiver as he stalked past. Hermione heard voices, but couldn't make out the words in her stupor. Her breath came in short gulps.

Sirius immediately responded to Harry's words with a sharp rebuke, demanding that the boy apologize to their guest.

She heard him speaking to her back. Turning, she accepted the apology in the same flat monotone that it was given.

In the mean time, Lord Black had stepped to her side, and she waited quietly as he incanted the Blood-Purity charm. When he stepped back to the floo he appeared as though he had aged a few decades.

Observing the suddenly somber scene, Hermione realized that even Luna appeared to be angry with Harry; or at least she had never seen the blonde look so... blank. In their corner, Harry was giving Ron some sort of short lecture, ending with a few terse, sharp words.

The redhead looked twisted between angry and contrite. It was not a pleasant look, especially combined with his ridiculous outfit.

Then Sirius told the youths that it was time to leave.

Before she could quite gather her wits to ask why, Ron Weasley had taken Luna Lovegood by the arm, the boy had called out, "Longbottom Manor," and the two were gone into the fireplace.

Harry turned, took her arm and as Sirius dashed the powder into the flames, the dark haired boy led them both into the emerald warmth. He stated, "Malfoy Manor," in a tone that was clear, but held none of the warmth she had come to enjoy - and expect - as they had grown closer.

. . .

Draco could tell something was wrong the moment that his date arrived with Potter. 'Jean' looked fairly well in shock, though she seemed to be composing herself even as they stepped from the floo.

Potter's expressive face seemed to be cycling between disgust and remorse. It was not a good look for his emotionally turbulent classmate.

The Malfoy scion had no sooner taken his date's hand when Harry practically snarled, "I'm trusting you with her." Then, with a dramatic sweep of his robes, he left for Longbottom Hall.

Folding her hand into the crook of his arm, Draco began speaking as if there were nothing wrong. "I doubt you want to get into what that was all about, so let's have a dance. Perhaps it will clear your head."

The young witch's limp nod was all the confirmation the young man needed that he was going to have to have a word with Potter. Later.

For now he had a lady to attend to, and her night had gotten off to a rocky start. He was confident that it was nothing he could not salvage. He hoped...

Leading the beautiful young woman along to the gallery, he summoned an elf to set up what he needed.

. . .

Hermione was trying to keep herself together, and was vaguely aware that she was being led away from the party proper. Despite vague unease over Lord Black's recent warning, she found that she wasn't keen on joining the mass of party-goers. It might be a dangerous choice, being alone with Draco, but she felt that she could trust the young man while she tried to recover; her thoughts were an utter mess.

From the outside, she gave a smile and followed her date. On the inside her mind was reeling from the revelations of the last few minutes. Processing the bits and pieces from her memories, the biggest shock had been that Ron, not Harry, had been Luna's date.

She recalled the conversation overheard at the floo. "...That's settled then, we'll meet here on the thirtieth and go get your gown, I'm so glad you'll get to go to the ball."

"...glad you'll get to go...". 'Not go with me, not anything personal,' the young woman realized.

His casual, but never amorous attention towards Luna was often less than what he showed her. He'd not held hands with his supposed girlfriend, but had put his arm around Hermione's shoulder and squeezed a few times. He'd hugged her, but not Luna, other than in farewell as far as she could recall.

Reviewing matters in her mind, she reconsidered how he'd behaved towards her.

The looks he kept giving her… The smiles he seemed always ready to give her, that she'd never seen him give Luna. The way he'd spent time with her, just talking about everything and anything.

The exorbitant amount of gifts he'd bought for her and Crooks, and let Luna take the credit.

But mixed in with those pleasant memories were his mood swings.

The way he'd gotten so wound up at Madam Malkin's... after he found out she was going with Draco.


Against this sinking feeling warred her frustration with his immaturity. Perhaps he liked her, maybe he even fancied her. But balanced against this (increasingly likely) possibility was the way he kept running away from her any time they had conflicts. He'd disappear, leaving her unable to resolve her questions because he wouldn't even be in the house.

She knew she was mature for her age, but surely boys Harry's age were not still running away to pout when they didn't get their way… right?

What was tonight about? He'd come down and gaped at her, smiling that adore… silly grin of his, and then had abruptly snapped. He knew that she was going to the Malfoy ball, so why be so vicious? The turmoil that these questions caused wasn't making anything more clear - in fact she'd barely been paying attention to her surroundings.

She'd not said two words to her host - her actual date!

Hermione finally took in the situation. Draco had stopped and was having a conversation with a smartly liveried house elf. Now that she looked at the young man she could see that beneath his calm exterior, her date was well and truly upset. She could practically feel his indignation, and... something else.

Shaking herself from yet another distraction, she was bemused that she could sense so much from him even as his face displayed nothing but a practiced smile. The witch followed along, now fully concentrating on the young man she was with. Accordingly, she shut her emotions down a bit, trying desperately not to think about this latest outburst by the violently changeable green eyed boy. Even so, she was quite startled when the music began and she found herself led in a simple waltz.

Looking around, Hermione realized that the pair of them were dancing alone, and even more, that she could find no source of the music.

Giving over to her unexpected burst of joy, she smiled at her host even as she thought, 'magic is so cool!'

Draco led her from one dance and into the next, and by the time an unfamiliar dance began, she was up to the challenge when he asked if she'd like to learn the foxtrot.

It took almost an hour of dancing, but Hermione's mind was finally well and truly clear of her earlier frustrations. The couple finally took a break in need of refreshment and made their way back to the main ballroom. After avoiding the crowd of adults, Draco led her up the main stairs, and they spent some time people watching from the balcony.

Soon he had begun regaling her with the benefits of attending Hogwarts, and she had let him. She did not give away that she was already accepted to the school because she enjoyed his enthusiasm.

He was extolling the virtues of Slytherin house when he suddenly became distracted.

Lucius Malfoy had appeared at their side and Hermione hadn't a clue he was there until she followed Draco's gaze.

She was quite startled and only just remembered not to meet the Lord's eyes; the little she had learned about Legilimency had been clear that eye contact gave an advantage to the attacker. Another point stressed in her research was that the older families were most often rumored to practice the art, thus her fear that the Malfoy lord would employ such tactics.

Reviewing her brief glance in her mind, the older wizard seemed quite hale and hearty, though the witch had noticed that his eyes were strangely bloodshot. Additionally, she had the unsettling feeling that he knew her secret just by the way he seemed to be sneering at her.

The wizard in question interrupted her thoughts with a voice that was both silky smooth and cold as ice. "I couldn't help but overhear you, my son, and I have to agree that this... person, would have made an excellent Slytherin. She has all the proper craftiness and guile, but she lacks one important quality."

Lord Malfoy left the statement hang a moment, then he theatrically sniffed the air – this time Hermione was left with no doubt, the one person she had been warned the most against was on to her, Blood-Purity charm or no.

She could feel the man's eyes boring into the top of her head as he continued his verbal assault. "I think it is time for your charade to be done, and I do hope for your sake that you know better than to try to sully my son at school, Mudblood."

Hermione was horrified, and a part of her mind suddenly flashed to Harry's earlier words. She realized that the green eyed wizard knew more about these people than she had given him credit. More to the point, she was barely maintaining her grip against terror that the elder Malfoy seemed to evoke with that one word. It wasn't the word itself, but rather the undisguised hatred with which he spoke it.

From the articles she had read in the aftermath of the Night of Terror, combined with her first hand experience with all of those refugees… something deep inside the witch was certain that this was the kind of man who would revel in their suffering.

More to the point, he would revel in her suffering.

Draco appeared flummoxed, literally opening and closing his mouth, fish-like. His eyes darted between the young woman he'd just been getting to know and his father; that word still seeming to foul the air.

Wanting desperately to find that this was all a misunderstanding, Draco glanced frantically at her, but saw the truth in her eyes. Even then he simply could not conceive of what was going on, and before he could react 'Jean' fled down the stairs.

Hermione had to take a deep breath as she reached the floo. She was on the border of hysterics and she knew that floo travel required precise instructions. The feeling of being watched by perhaps a hundred sets of eyes who witnesse her flight was not helping her nerves at all.

Finally, on the verge of tears, the young witch decided to just risk it when she heard a squeaky voice directly in front of her.

"Dobby is being ready to take Miss home, is Miss being ready?"

She could only nod, her once beautifully styled hair flopping over her face, having come loose in her escape.

None of that mattered though, for in the next moment she was in her room.

She was safe, and shortly after she burst into tears on her bed, Crookshanks dutifully appeared and curled into her side. His purrs reverberated along with her sobs until she fell into a troubled sleep. The hybrid kitty carefully worked his way free of his witches grasp, then slipped out the door.

. . .

Daniel Granger had been waiting up on his little girl; they had both known that he would not arrive home in time to see her off. The charities that he was working with had tons of commodities to give away at this time of year, thus he was especially busy providing for the refugees that remained in their care.

He'd been introduced to his daughters pet, or "familiar"- by Sirius earlier that day. The Lord had made quite a big deal over the beast. So when the large orange feline jumped into his lap he at least knew who the furry creature belonged to.

"Come to wait for your, uhm," the man faltered. 'What did a familiar call his owner?'

Daniel had just begun to laugh at himself when the large cat yowled and jumped down from his lap.

"Oh, sorry there fella, I didn't mean to offend you." 'Why couldn't she get a normal cat?' Still, the creature wasn't giving up, he continued to yowl and step away, then yowl again.

Frowning, the hairs on Daniel's neck rose a bit. While he hated relying upon that 'odd feeling', he knew it was never wrong. So, as he rose to walk towards the cat, he was not surprised to see it
trotting away… up the stairs, towards his daughter's room.

Her door was open, which was unusual as she was quite meticulous about locking it. Then again, if that is where the cat lived, maybe she'd left it open for him, maybe the creature just wanted to be fed?

The animal in question pushed the door open and Daniel got to see his daughter in her gown at last.

Except she was curled into a ball on her bed. Even in the low light from her lamp he could see that his little girl's face was wet with tears.

"Sweetheart?" he said, gently trying to wake her, and was startled when her first conscious action was to crawl into his lap and begin weeping.

It took some time, but finally she calmed down enough to go through the events of the night and Daniel realized that trying to make sense of this mess wasn't going to be easy.

After she had seemed to calm some he asked cautiously, "How did this Draco react, I mean, did he seem to agree with his father's words?"

Hermione had to stop and think hard at that. The memories were so awash in emotion that it took some time for her to peel away what she felt to be sure of what she knew.

"I... I don't think he had time to decide. I think he was in shock. He's sure to feel betrayed, it's a terrible mess," she finished with a deep sigh. Her tears were done, but the disappointment and defeat hadn't seemed to fade, continuing to linger like a bad taste.

Nodding, her father had to agree. Frustrated with his lack of power to help his little girl, he tried to reassure her.

"I could say '…there will be other balls,' or '…he's just a boy,' or even, '…you'll make more friends once you get to school,' but I know how important this was for you, and I'm really sorry it went so badly.

"Remember that this was no fault of your own. There will always be bigots in this world, magical or not, and we just have to live by the faith that all men and women... and elves, and even some cats, are to be treated with respect and kindness." He finished, glancing down at the big cat that had taken up her lap, moments after she had claimed his.

He felt her smile, and though it was small, it was a start. The worst was over, and he rocked her for a while until the big orange furball slipped lightly down to the bed and gave him an expectant look.

Dipping his head, he noted that Hermione's eyes were drooping.

"I'm going to go to bed now. Why don't you change out of your gown and we'll see how things look over a breakfast of strawberry waffles and chocolate crepes."

This got another grin, as he knew he'd named her two favorite treats, rarely allowed by her dentist parents.

Once her father was gone Hermione expended the energy to remove the gown one strap, one hook and one tie at a time. She felt a little disappointed in magic just now, the world that it represented had lost a lot of its shine tonight.

She was just drifting off to sleep when she felt the familiar vibrations from far below. Her mind started to puzzle out what was going on with Harry but she realized that she had enough problems of her own. Besides, Crookshank's motoring purr was coaxing her off to a thankfully untroubled sleep.


A/N: A very different ball than I had originally envisioned, however as I've blamed my characters for taking the story in unexpected directions before, I feel no reservations at doing so once again!

Many thanks to my wife and sis for continuing to give editing and content advice, the story would not be posted without her help and advice.

I'd like to gratefully credit Ms. Anthrop for her excellent work as my Beta, I am blessed.

Recommended reading is Finding Himself by Minisinoo - Given the fact that you are probably pretty unimpressed with Harry about now, here's a little departure... Please do not stone me for suggesting a non H/Hr pairing, at least not before you read this it. Disclaimer: MATURE, not just for sexual situations, but including them as well as a deeply emotional and incredibly well crafted character drama.

Once again I am blessed with many reviews of Chapter 19, my thanks to pawsrule, Noble Korhedron, Monnbeam, ladygoddess8, melkun, erbkaiser, anotherboarduser, Tellur, General Mac, flaming-amber, Ms. Anthrop, Luna de Papel, Life-is-rolling-keep-on-going and hesitantly, Guias...

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