Stealth had never been Hermione Granger's forte, but she had seen enough of her father's drama programs on the telly to understand the basics of it.
After learning the book she required to complete her essay for Professor Binns had been taken from its shelf―and not actually withdrawn from the library―she knew she needed to track it down. It had taken her nearly an hour of precious writing time, during which she grew increasingly impatient, when at last she located the culprit.
Her eyes narrowed at the green and silver on his robes on instinct.
She knew the boy―another second year like herself―but they had never spoken.
"Nott." She approached his table, folding her arms across her front and fixing the boy with her sternest look. His Slytherin tie was askew, his dark hair scruffy. Crumpled sheets of parchment lay around him and she frowned at his poorly organised workspace. When his gaze drifted up to hers, she said, "I need to use that book you've got."
"Tough luck. I'm using it." Nott turned back towards his own essay, utterly ignoring her as she huffed.
Hermione rolled her eyes, lingering across the table from him. "Well, when will you be done with it?"
"When I'm done with it."
Releasing a breath through her nose, Hermione shifted on her feet. "Surely you have a more precise estimate than that."
Nott's hazel eyes peered up at her again, annoyance sitting on his face. "Nope." He popped the 'p' sound, offering a bit of a sneer before turning back to his essay. "Please go away."
"Maybe we could share it―" she began, scowling when he snickered at her latest attempt. Finally Hermione blurted, "It's my birthday, you know. And I really need that book."
He only clicked his tongue, turning the page. "Maybe you shouldn't have waited until your birthday to finish this essay."
He was right, of course, but certain unforeseen circumstances had arisen―technically it was Ron's fault―and she had no intentions of admitting such a thing to a Slytherin.
Hermione only tapped her foot on the floor until Nott rolled his eyes, dragging a hand through his hair. "Leave me alone, Granger. You can have the book when I'm done with it."
Huffing again, she released an irritable squeak. "You have ruined my birthday, Nott!" she exclaimed. "And I hope you're happy."
"Over a book." Nott dragged his eyes up to meet hers again, a flicker of incredulity crossing his face. "I've ruined your birthday? That's an awfully strong word."
Maybe it was an exaggeration but she needed to complete her essay. She gave a sharp nod.
He chuckled, turning back to the book in question. "I'll be sure to make it up to you next year, Granger. Now shove off."
Hermione fumed at him from the next table over but still Nott didn't relent. And he didn't finish his essay until nearly half nine at night, at which point he raised a mocking brow, set the book on the corner of his table, and left the library.
She scowled at his retreating form the whole way out.
Hermione had felt eyes on her all through dinner, and by the time the Great Hall began to clear out, she had deduced the attention came from the Slytherin table. Keeping her gaze fixed on her own table, lest she become the unwitting target of some ignorant prank, she didn't pay the feeling any mind as she collected her bag and made to leave the hall.
The last thing she needed was to have a run in with any Slytherins on her fourteenth birthday. The incident with Theodore Nott the year before had been enough.
But shortly after she began her retreat towards Gryffindor Tower, the heavy thud of footsteps came up behind her. She spun on the spot, eyes narrowing as she spotted Nott approaching, his hazel eyes wide.
Hermione sighed, shifting on her hip. "What do you want, Nott?"
She had done her best to avoid him―to avoid most Slytherins, really―as typically the presence of any Slytherins in her life included them mocking her in some way. Her hair, her blood status, her taste in friends.
Nott scowled at her, as if he hadn't been the one to interrupt her. "I don't want anything," he sniffed, the bridge of his nose pinching. "It's your birthday."
Hermione schooled her surprised, lifting a brow. "And? Have you come to make it miserable for me?"
With a great, aggravated sigh, Nott rolled his eyes skyward. "Forget it."
He turned on his heel, stalking back down the corridor, and a spike of irritation lanced through her. Hermione stomped after him, tugging on his sleeve, and he spun back towards her, frowning. From so close, Nott stood over her by a few inches, and his hazel eyes flashed.
"I was going to say happy birthday."
The admission was disarming and Hermione faltered back a step, some of the ire sinking from within her.
"But of course," Nott went on in a cold drawl that didn't quite carry the same malice as his classmates, "you've gone and assumed I'm out to ruin your birthday, as if I ruin birthdays for sport." He glared at her. "Honestly. Gryffindors."
Hermione fumed back at him, even as his words sunk in. "How did you know?"
"You told me last year, remember? When I ruined your birthday." He placed mocking emphasis on the word again. "I wrote it down."
"You wrote it down." She wasn't entirely certain whether she believed him to be genuine if it was all part of some elaborate lark.
"Granger are you slow?" He made a face. "Damn, and they call you smart."
Scoffing, Hermione wrapped her arms around her front, lifting her chin. "You can't wish me a happy birthday and then insult me. It doesn't work that way Nott."
Nott squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his fingers hard into his temples. "Fine. Forget it. I hope you have a lousy birthday, Granger."
He spun on his heel, stalking back the way he had come. As he was about to turn the corner, Hermione gnawed her bottom lip.
"Nott!" He froze mid-step but didn't turn back. "Thanks."
He waved a hand over his shoulder and kept walking.
On the afternoon of the nineteenth of September in her fourth year, Theodore Nott found her reading a book by the lake, perched on a large flat rock and basking in the sun.
Without a word he sat beside her, his thigh nearly close enough to touch hers; Hermione jolted at his sudden presence but found she wasn't entirely surprised.
He gazed out towards the lake, squinting in the bright sunlight. Then he rolled his head sideways to face her and bit out, "Happy birthday Granger."
"Thank you," she replied, the words crisp. "I appreciate the clear communication."
If she wasn't mistaken, his lips twitched with a hint of a smirk. His rich brown hair was mussed as she had come to recognise from his habit of dragging a hand through it in class, and the pale green flecks in his hazel eyes caught the sunlight in a way that caused her to avert her stare.
"I brought you something."
The words startled her eyes wide and he rummaged carefully in his shoulder bag, drawing out a small potted plant and handing it to her.
"Oh," Hermione said softly, gazing upon the leaves, small flowers forming in the centre, "Nott, this is―" She froze, her face tightening as she recognised the buds. "Is this amaranth?"
He leaned back on one hand, dragging the other along the back of his neck. "I think so. I found it in one of the greenhouses and thought you might like it. You don't strike me as the type that would want flowers that will just sit in a vase and die so―"
"I do like it," she gasped, sucking in a breath, "or I would if I wasn't―" She clapped a hand to her chest, and his eyes widened in an instant as he tore the plant from her hands and tossed it into the trees behind them.
"Shit, Granger!" he exclaimed, looping an arm around her back and tugging her to her feet. "You're bloody allergic?"
Through the tightening of her throat she managed a nod.
Nott released a string of curses, practically dragging her towards the castle. Spots darkened in her vision, blurring the stone walls of the castle as her eyes drooped shut.
Hermione came to with the curtains drawn over high windows, the scent of antiseptic stinging her sinuses and her throat scratchy.
She snapped her head towards the chair at her bedside, realising she was in the hospital wing and Nott stared at her, pale as a ghost. He huffed a breath, dropping his face into a hand. "Thank Merlin."
"Nott," she gasped, surprised by his presence. "What are you doing here?"
Scowling, he drawled, "Making sure I hadn't killed you."
Remembering the events that had unfolded by the lake earlier, she grimaced, uncertain how to tread the awkward waters between them. "I appreciate that you thought to get me a gift."
He only gave her a stern look. Finally he said, "I'm glad you're okay, Granger." With a low, humourless snicker he added, "I guess I am good at ruining your birthday after all."
"You didn't―" She snagged her bottom lip between her teeth, unable to finish the sentence. "You didn't know."
In the dim light of the room, Hermione could see the genuine remorse in his stare, but he only shook his head and looked away. He rose to his feet, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "I'd better go; it's nearly curfew. Get some rest."
He curled his fingers around her shoulder with a soft squeeze, the gesture oddly reassuring, and offered her a hint of a smile before he turned and left the hospital wing.
Belatedly, Hermione touched her own shoulder, the feel of his fingers lingering like a phantom touch. Despite everything else, a smile curled her lips.
"Sorry you landed in detention with me." Nott's lips twitched. "And on your birthday nonetheless."
Hermione shot him a mocking glare. "Honestly if I hadn't seen Goyle trip and knock that whole jar of dung beetles into my cauldron I might have believed you did it on purpose." Sighing, she set several jars to one side. "Why did you cover for him anyways? It wasn't your fault my potion exploded."
As he squinted at the contents of a murky jar, Nott shrugged. "I couldn't let Goyle ruin your birthday now could I?"
She snickered, shaking her head. "I guess not. And I suppose I should be grateful. I imagine Snape's affinity for his own house is the only reason I'm not doing something disgusting right now."
In fact, organising the contents of the student's ingredient stores was hardly a chore for Hermione, who had wished for this very thing to be dealt with for years now.
The look Nott gave her confirmed the suspicion.
Hermione separated two more jars, offering him a bit of a smile. "Your company is infinitely preferable to Goyle's. Even if this is the fourth year in a row you've ruined my birthday."
Nott grinned; they both knew the condemnation was more tongue in cheek at this point than anything.
"Then I will admit, Granger, that I'm happy to carry on tradition."
They fell into the meticulous work in companionable silence; Hermione felt colour warm her cheeks when they both reached for the same jar, fingers nudging against one another. But despite that she didn't really know Nott that well, she found that she truly did enjoy his company.
At last she spoke up again. "So tell me something, Nott―"
"Theo," he interrupted, hazel eyes drifting up to meet hers. His throat bobbed with a swallow. "If you don't mind; it's just… my father's Nott."
Although his tone remained neutral, almost irreverent, she could see the truth of the matter in his eyes. She could almost taste his dislike for the comparison hanging between them. As if he couldn't stand it.
"Theo," she corrected softly, and something about the way the word felt on her tongue set her heart beating a little faster. "None of your classmates have any interest in talking to me. In fact, most of them are downright awful to people like me."
Idly, Hermione wondered if he had already revealed the answer with his palpable disinterest in being connected to his Death Eater of a father.
She supposed given the way everything had played out at the end of the previous year that it was probably dangerous territory to even broach such a topic.
But Theo shrugged, flippant. "Most of my classmates are stuck-up bigots."
As if it were answer enough. And maybe it was. Hermione smiled at him for a moment before returning to her task.
After working in silence for another stretch, Theo announced, "My turn, then." Her lips twitched but she cast him a brief stare. He turned to face her fully, a knit between his brows. "You're best friends with Potter. Why have anything to do with me?"
Hermione teased, "I'm stuck here, remember?" But when he didn't flinch she softened. "I don't know… you're just different from the rest of them."
Theo sagged, almost as if with relief, and went back to sorting jars.
She wondered why her heart raced in her chest at the intimacy of the conversation. At the fact that, by all reason and good sense, she shouldn't have anything to do with Theodore Nott. But she hadn't quite been able to dredge up any significant consternation when she learned they would be sharing detention together.
Even though Hermione despised detention.
And if she was honest, she probably knew more about Nott than she realised. She couldn't always stop herself from watching him in class or in the Great Hall at meals. The easy grin that slipped across his lips in conversation with friends; the way his brow furrowed in concentration when he worked in the library.
Despite his casual demeanour, she knew Theo to be one of the only students in their year with the grades to challenge her own.
Colour crept into her cheeks as she confronted the depths of her interest in Theodore Nott, and she hastily finished her half of the jars before levitating them into their proper shelves.
When they were through they rose to leave the classroom, and Theo swept a hand through his hair as he glanced sidelong her way. "I am sorry you had to spend your birthday in detention with me."
"It's okay," she breathed. "I don't mind."
It was more than she would have done had she spent the night watching Harry and Ron play wizard's chess or exploding snap.
He lingered by the door, his gaze searing hers, flaying her open, and Hermione's breath chased from her lungs as he said, "Happy birthday, Hermione."
"Thank you," she whispered, her mouth dry.
He propped a shoulder against the wall beside her, her back pressed to the stone, and added, "I didn't think I should get you a gift. After last year."
"Right. You didn't need to anyways."
Theo shrugged, his eyes rolling. His lips twitched. "I wanted to."
Hermione watched as his gaze drifted to her parted lips, her heart jumping into her throat at the charged air between them. He stood close enough that she could see the green flecks in his eyes, and she had to clench her hands into fists to keep from reaching for him.
She whispered, "Good night, then."
"Good night." The low, quiet tone of his voice chased through her, and before Hermione could even make sense of which of them had made the move, his lips were on hers.
He kissed her gently at first, his lips soft as they pillowed hers, then with more pressure, his fingertips drifting to the curve of her jaw. Hermione's eyes shuttered as she wound a hand into his thick hair, dragging him closer as she tentatively opened her lips to his.
His tongue swept hers, teasing and tasting her.
And then his chest was against hers, her back digging into the stone as he kissed her harder still, dragging one hand down her side around to the small of her back as he hitched her closer.
Hermione couldn't comprehend the wild rhythm of her heart, the solid feel of him pressed against her. It wasn't her first kiss but no boy had ever made her feel like that before. Heat rose and swelled within her, every nerve flaring to life.
Almost as abruptly as it began, he tore away.
Chest heaving, she stared at him; belatedly he withdrew a hand from within her curls, swallowing audibly. For a long moment neither of them spoke.
Then Theo pursed his lips. "I'm trouble for you, you know."
A chill crept into her at his words even as she whispered, "I know."
He grimaced, his other hand still lingering at the curve of her hip; his touch seared her through her clothes. His expression was apologetic as his eyes sought hers again. "We both know what's coming."
As much as she wanted to deny the truth, she only nodded. They couldn't possibly make sense; not between her friends and his father. His loyalties would steer him away from her sooner than later.
But she couldn't quite voice her thoughts.
Theo ducked in, his lips brushing her temple. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I shouldn't have done that. I just… once. I had to once."
"Maybe," she whispered, emotions rising in her chest and threatening to suffocate her. "Maybe one day."
"Yeah." His eyes flickered with something akin to hope, though she didn't dare unpack the sentiment. "Maybe." A sound in the corridor beyond chased them apart, the sudden lack of proximity bringing Hermione back into the truth of the moment.
He offered her a sad, apologetic smile that churned the pit of her stomach. "Good night―I'll see you in class."
"See you," Hermione breathed, sinking against the wall as he swept from the room.
A lone tear broke free and slid down her cheek.
Despite all of her brightest sensibilities, Hermione couldn't stop the hope.
It was her seventeenth birthday; they hadn't even been back for their sixth year at Hogwarts for three weeks and already the atmosphere felt more tense and uncertain than ever. The only thing Hermione knew was the way she sometimes caught Theo staring at her across the room.
The way his stare lingered when she found his gaze, as if they might possibly convey anything of meaning to one another across the silence and distance between them.
Hermione hadn't spoken to him in a year. She knew there was no logic in opening that door that they had blown through the year before on her last birthday; she would only be asking to get hurt.
But there was a part of her that wanted him to ruin her birthday, if only so she could hear the warmth of his voice. Hear one of his sarcastic quips, or see the slow tug of his smile.
So many times over the past year, Hermione had wondered how it was possible to miss something she had never truly had. She and Nott had only shared four actual conversations of any merit in their lives, and one heated kiss, but she felt that she knew him so well.
And she couldn't help that small voice that whispered maybe…
Nerves swept through her as she made her way into the Great Hall for breakfast, unable to keep herself from glancing towards the Slytherin table. But she didn't see any glimpse of Theo's dark chocolate hair, and a swoop of disappointment settled in the pit of her stomach.
He wasn't in classes that morning, or at lunch. By the time she slumped onto one of the benches along the Gryffindor table at dinner, she hadn't seen him the entire day. Forget the idea of him ruining her birthday, she only wanted to know he was alright. A cursory trip through the hospital wing after classes had told her he wasn't sick or injured.
Hermione couldn't help but worry her bottom lip; the spot where he usually sat was vacant, and with tears stinging at her eyes she prepared to depart from dinner early.
Just as a dark grey owl swooped towards her with the arrival of the evening post. She plucked a letter from her empty plate and slid it idly into her pocket before making her excuses and retreating from the hall.
Curiosity clawed at her; with most students still eating the corridors were empty, and Hermione found an empty bench two hallways over. Her fingers shook as she slipped the seal on the parchment, her eyes stinging almost instantly.
You wouldn't believe how badly I wish I was there to bother you on your birthday. My father's pulled me away from Hogwarts on some urgent business but I'll spare you the vile details. (Don't worry―I'd sooner gnaw my own arm off than wear that awful Mark.)
I'd say I hope you're keeping well but I know you're okay. One day all of this will be behind us, yeah?
Ruin your own birthday for me please.
A watery laugh broke from her lips and Hermione clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle it, silent tears tracking down her cheeks.
She missed him more than she had even admitted to herself, and in that moment it crashed over her like a tidal wave. Folding the letter into a tight square she clutched it to her chest, squeezing her eyes shut as she drew in a long, shuddering breath.
Then she stood and returned to her dorm.
Four days late, Hermione realised she had missed her own eighteenth birthday. She, Harry, and Ron had partaken in a meagre meal of wild mushrooms and a handful of raw vegetables they'd swiped from a farm days earlier.
With the complex layers of the wards she had established on their campsite, she didn't mean to be discovered, even by rogue owls. And in fact, the very idea of it would have chased dread through her.
But still her heart stung.
And as she leaned against a tree just beyond the boundary of the wards that night, four days too late, she wished one particular Slytherin had ruined her birthday after all.
She had locked Theo into a small compartment within her heart and hidden the key, long ago. When they left Hogwarts after their sixth year without any intentions of returning for a seventh, she had known that would be it.
For only a few hours, she allowed herself to think of him. To wonder what he was doing―how he was making it through.
The next morning, she sealed the compartment up tightly once more and tossed away the key. There was no room for broken hearts on a field of war.
The sun rose bright in a cloudless sky on the morning of Hermione's nineteenth birthday, and she stifled a wide yawn as she sat up in bed.
Although she had no plans and no intentions of celebrating her birthday, she could at least recognise the fact that she was alive to see the day. And that, while at one point she hadn't been certain she would ever see Hogwarts again, she had been able to return to Hogwarts and complete her schooling.
She hadn't seen Theodore Nott since the end of her sixth year―and in fact, even then she hadn't sought him out. Not with the dull misery he so often wore in his eyes back then.
But most of the Slytherins with affiliation to the dark side hadn't returned.
Hermione heard Theo's father hadn't made it through the war, but he hadn't reached out to her, and she'd likewise left him alone.
Still, as much as she had tried to let him go, every so often she allowed herself to dwell on the maybes and the what ifs they had once indulged.
As she made a meandering path to the Great Hall for breakfast―it was a Saturday, so she would thankfully have the day to herself―a girl bumped into her. Daphne Greengrass, one of the only Slytherins who had returned.
But Greengrass jerked to an abrupt stop, her green eyes locking onto Hermione's as she thrust a tight scroll of parchment into her hand. "I'm supposed to tell you happy birthday, Granger."
Hermione's throat went dry. "What?"
"That's all I know." The girl shrugged before carrying on.
Heart clamouring in her throat, Hermione uncoiled the scroll, eyes wide as she skimmed the brief missive, twice, then a third time.
I owe you three ruined birthdays.
She flipped the page over, tensing in the corridor as her eyes roved the otherwise empty space. Until she turned back to find Theo eyeing her from the next alcove over. She sucked in a harsh breath, her fingers clenching the letter in her palm.
But his expression faltered. "If you'll have me, that is."
Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes but she blinked them back, folding her arms. "What are you doing here? You didn't enroll for eighth year."
Theo shrugged, the banality of it a balm to the ache in her soul that his absence had created. "I had some things to take care of with the estate that went longer than I'd hoped. I arranged a late start with McGonagall."
"I heard," she whispered, deflating in an instant. "About your father. Theo, I'm―"
"Don't," he bit out, "say you're sorry. I'm not."
His hazel eyes were weary but he looked strong, his shoulders back and chin held high. Finally that slow grin spread across his lips, the warmth of it meeting his stare as he gazed upon her as if he had a secret.
"Merlin I've missed you."
At the admission the floodgates within her burst, washing away her hesitations as she threw her arms around his neck, drawing him into a tight embrace. His hands came to her back, sweeping along her spine as if the contact soothed him as much as it did her.
"I missed you too," she whispered into his neck, moisture lingering on her cheeks when she drew away to meet his eyes. Courage bolstered by his presence, she trailed her fingers along the sharp line of his cheekbone. "I'm so glad you're okay." She shook her head. "I didn't even see you at the battle."
The bridge of his nose wrinkled. "I had to lay low. My father realised I wasn't fighting with him and turned his wand on me." His eye roll belied the intensity of the statement, and before she could say anything more about it, he asked, "Do you have plans today? I'd love to ruin the day for you."
"Please," she said, happily swiping at her tears, "ruin away."
Eighth years were allowed the privilege of visiting the village on the weekends, and Theo tugged her hand into his, lacing their fingers together as he led her towards the Three Broomsticks, where he purchased a round of Butterbeer and demand she tell him everything that had happened since they last saw one another.
Hermione, for her part, was thrilled simply to spend time with him―together in public, nonetheless―and she would have been happy to spend the whole day sipping sweet beverages, nibbling on pub snacks, and sharing stories.
But Theo, it seemed, wanted to make good on the birthdays he had missed.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders as a chill crept into the air, the sky darkening while they idly strolled the village until he dragged her to sit along the edge of the large central fountain. Rummaging in his pocket, he withdrew a long, thin box, and a breath caught in Hermione's throat as he presented it to her with uncertainty in his eyes.
A beautiful silver chain rested inside, emeralds and rubies wrapped within intricate silver swirls. She froze, eyes drifting up to meet his.
"Happy birthday," he said quietly, stilling her hand as she reached to withdraw the necklace from its cushioning. Theo gnawed on his lower lip for a moment before saying, "It was my mother's. She passed when I was young."
"Theo… are you sure?"
"Yes." His lips twisted with a smirk. "But the question is are you sure. Do you know what it means?"
Hermione's heart began pounding in her chest; she had heard musings about purebloods and jewellery and she said, "I think so?"
"It means I want to court you."
She grinned at the blatant declaration, and before she could overthink the situation she ducked in, pressing her lips to his. Theo kissed her back, threading his hands into her hair.
The kiss was different from the first one they had shared, tinged with doubt and desperation; this one was warmth and certainty and reunion.
When they drew apart she rested her temple against his and said quietly, "I tried to let you go, Theo, but I don't think I ever really could have. Not knowing there could still be a chance."
"I'm glad you didn't." He stole another kiss, drawing back with a grin. "Is that a yes?"
"It's a yes." She beamed at him, elation building in her heart as he clasped the delicate necklace around her throat. His fingertips lingered, trailing along her collarbone, before his hazel eyes caught hers in the dim light from the streetlamps.
He swallowed, his throat bobbing as he stared at her. "It's been you longer than I can remember. Ever since you stormed up to my table in the library, all swotty and demanding." He snickered, glancing away. "I would have just given you the damn book if you hadn't been so rude about it."
Hermione gaped at him, a laugh chasing from her lips. "You were plenty rude back!"
Theo grinned, shaking his head at the memory. "I was twelve, what do you expect? Promise not to slap me―"
"I can't make that promise."
"―I was already done with the book."
Her jaw dropped open, eyes narrowing with annoyance. "You what?" At the humour dancing in his eyes, she pursed her lips. "So you didn't need to ruin my birthday after all."
"You were just so riled up over it." A lazy grin crept across his face.
"You're such a Slytherin," she muttered, even as she tittered at the memories. "I'm glad you did; who else would have ruined every one of my birthdays since?"
Sincerity took the place of his amusement. "Surely no one else would have committed to the task nearly as well." He pressed another lingering kiss to her lips, tongue grazing her own. "And how about today? Have I well and truly ruined it for you?"
Hermione's heart swelled in her chest. She murmured against his lips, "This one's been the absolute worst."