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Trust by JMilz

Format: Novel
Chapters: 51
Word Count: 131,274
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Mild violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Scenes of a sexual nature, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Romance, Angst
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Slughorn, Lucius, Narcissa, Draco, Ginny, Luna, Neville, Pansy
Pairings: Arthur/Molly, Harry/Ginny, Lucius/Narcissa, Ron/Hermione, Neville/Luna, Other Pairing

First Published: 09/26/2019
Last Chapter: 06/27/2020
Last Updated: 06/27/2020

Summary:


Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger have returned to Hogwarts after the Second Wizarding War. Without the company of their friends, they find themselves distracted by postwar trauma - and finding an unlikely sense of solace in each other. Prequel to Wreck.



Chapter 1: Returning
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Plain black robes floated into expensive, monogrammed luggage. Eight years in a row, Draco Malfoy had packed that same luggage, but it was just the third year that doing so left such a dreadful taste in his mouth. Never was he supposed to even have an eighth school year, but war had led to much stranger occurrences.

 

After being acquitted of the charges against him, and they had been terrible charges, his mother had wanted him to leave for France. Living alone in his distant relative's summerhouse did not sound as appealing as she seemed to think it was, so he chose to spend his time in a more familiar setting instead. Alas, as his departure time grew nearer and nearer, he wondered if he had made the right decision. After all, the only contact he had with any of his classmates since the war was in a courtroom.

 

"Draco, darling, I will not be able to accompany you to King's Cross Station, I am afraid," his mother lilted, stepping into the door-frame of his bedchamber. Her eyes searched his briefly before she softly added, "You're sure this is what you want? It is not too late to leave for France."

 

"I'll be fine, Mother," he replied, stiffly.

 

She studied him for another long moment before emitting a defeated sigh. "Wimby will escort you to London shortly, then. Please assure that you have all of your belongings."

 

"I will, Mother."

 

In front of his antique mirror, he fixed his collar and let out a slow breath. Whether he had made the right choice or not, it didn't matter, because he would be back at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry before the end of the evening.

 

 

***

 

 

"Wimby helps, Young Master Malfoy!" the house-elf exclaimed, dragging the luggage behind him. "Lady Malfoy asks it of Wimby, and Wimby obeys!"

 

"Well, if you really want to impress my mother, you'll quit it with the 'Wimby does this, Wimby does that' rubbish," Draco spat. "You sound like an absolute imbecile."

 

Wimby paled. "Wimby's talking upsets Lady Malfoy?"

 

"It upsets everyone. Anyone with ears could tell you that it's annoying."

 

Draco's silver eyes darted around Platform 9¾, and as he suspected, he was earning glares from people he didn't even know. There were few that he recognized, some from a year or two below him, others coming to finish their N.E.W.T.s just as he was. Fay Dunbar was gossiping away with her friend near the tracks, occasionally pointing right at him. Ernie Macmillan also seemed particularly disturbed by his presence; Draco could hear him yelling as much. Even the Greengrasses, who he thought might be drawn to him, scowled at the sight of him.

 

It should not have surprised him when he saw Harry Potter clasping both of Ginny Weasley's hands, pushing and pulling her back and forth as she pivoted on her heels, but based on the single piece of luggage, it appeared that only she would be attending. They seemed to be the only ones that paid Draco no attention and for that, he was grateful. He hardly needed everyone to start milling rumors about Draco Malfoy and the Chosen One making small talk at King's Cross Station.

 

"Draco," a familiar voice purred.

 

"Pansy. I'm surprised to see you here."

 

"My mother sort of forced me," she complained. "An uneducated bride is an unworthy bride and all that. You, though—I'm shocked your mother let you set foot outside of the manor after what you did."

 

"I'm of age. My mother doesn't tell me what to do."

 

A derisive laugh came from her small nose. "Delusional as always. I've heard the Cruciatus Curse can do that after a time or twoor perhaps it's guilt. Are you capable of feeling guilt, Draco?" She shot him a final, disgusted glance before turning to her house-elf. "Come on then, Galdron. I think I see Daphne over that way."

 

Then, the girl he once knew so well turned on her heel and marched towards Daphne and her younger sister, the elf in tow. Within seconds, she and Daphne were gesturing him while Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass shook their heads in disapproval. When he was a child, pure-blood parents wanted nothing more than for their children to be friends with him. After the many happenings during the war, he was a pariah—worth less than the dirt on his own shoe.

 

Students continued to flit around the platform, most happy to see their friends; others were looking quite stressed as they fumbled with their luggage. A girl that Draco assumed to be a first-year was desperately trying to tame her great horned owl while an almost identical girl trailed behind her, loudly bragging that her toad was well-behaved enough to sit comfortably in the brim of her hat. Youth was such a simple time.

 

"Harry! Ginny!" a familiar voice shouted from behind him.

 

The unruly mop of curly brown hair caught his eye as Hermione Granger rushed past, arms open wide and a grin plastered on her sun-freckled face. Like usual, Potter had the redhead and the Mudblood fawning over him. Contrastingly, Draco was alone, a mere spectacle for those that could not believe he had the audacity to go back to Hogwarts.

 

It was grievously apparent that Draco Malfoy was no war hero. If anything, he was the villain.

 

 

***

 

 

The Hogwarts Express had never been so lonely. At first, Draco was overjoyed to have a compartment to himself, but as two first-years filed their way inside and began chattering amongst themselves, he realized how dreadful his return to Hogwarts would be without friends. His sixth year was tortuous, and his seventh year was even worse. Since then, the entire magical world had determined him to be the epitome of evil, only legally innocent because of Harry Potter's overwhelming empathy. If his oldest friends could not accept him, it was fair to assume nobody else would either.

 

"Never been on a train before," a round-faced first-year said to the boy across from her, tucking her dark locks behind her ear. "I reckon it's your first time too?"

 

"No," the small boy replied. "My mum sends me to my gran's by train each summer."

 

"Hmm, I see. D'you know what house you want to be sorted into, then?"

 

Draco wished he could rewind his lifetime of mistakes and go back to his first year, when asking such trivial questions was not only acceptable, but encouraged.

 

"I dunno." The boy's face had gone as scarlet as the train itself. "Ermhow about you?"

 

"My mother says I ought to be sorted into Gryffindor like her," the girl boasted. "I think she's right. I am quite brave."

 

Based on what Draco had learned of the girl so far, Gryffindor seemed like the perfect fit. The arrogance that emanated off of her would be enough to grant her her house of choice, if not her self-proclaimed bravery.

 

"My parents don't know anything about Hogwarts," the red boy admitted, crossing his tiny arms. "They're not magical."

 

"You're Muggle-born? Well, that's interesting, isn't it? I've never met a Muggle-born before."

 

Draco calculated the scene, biting back one of the many comments he wanted to make. Fortunately, the trolley witch halted in front of the compartment before he found himself in any kind of trouble.

 

"Anything from the trolley, dearies?" She looked up from her cart of sweets and blanched, apparently unprepared to see a notorious Death Eater. "A-anything at all?"

 

The young Gryffindor hopeful explained each sugary treat to her new friend, earning a throaty noise from the trolley witch, who clearly wanted to get as far away from Draco as physically possible. While the girl explained the mechanics of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, Draco pulled a Galleon from his pocket and dropped it onto the trolley. "Five sugar quills, please."

 

The trolley witch stared at him in horror. Enjoying sweets was such a harmless act, yet a dangerous Dark wizard stood before her, demanding sugar quills.

 

"Surely you accept Galleons."

 

She jumped a bit and cleared her throat. "Erm—yes. Yes, of course I do. F-five sugar quills, you said? Er, righthere." With trembling, pudgy hands, the woman fished the candy from a small blue box atop the trolley. As soon as he accepted his favorite treats, she shakily fingered through her coin purse.

 

"Keep anything extra for yourself, yeah?"

 

Somehow, that seemed to terrify the witch even more. After squeaking a tiny "thank you", she raced away to the next compartment, earning several protests from the talkative first-years.

 

 

***

 

 

The Welcoming Feast served only as another unneeded reminder that everything was much different than it used to be. Rather than the resounding words of Albus Dumbledore or the slow drawl of Severus Snape, the student body was greeted by a fatigued, war-torn version of Minerva McGonagall that was but a shell of the professor he once knew. Rather than sitting with those he might have considered friends, he sat far away from the rest of his house, observing the new headmistress as she carefully chose words that she must have recited a dozen times.

 

The Sorting Ceremony gifted all four houses with several new students, most of them frightened, and all of them naïve. Whispers from the rest of Slytherin House discouraged the newcomers from sitting beside Draco, though limited space forced one unfortunate boy to reluctantly take the spot. The narrow-shouldered youth trembled.

 

Few supporters of the Dark Lord's cause were left, set aside a few third and fourth-years whose parents were qualifiable sympathizers, but far from notorious Death Eaters. Still, the younger students did not dare approach Draco. Like the rest of Slytherin House, they were convinced he had a hand in murdering numerous witches and wizards, and while that may have made him popular in some circles, those that returned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry found it nothing short of mortifying.

 

Ravenous, most everyone in the Great Hall had piled their plates high. Smacking lips and scraping silverware made Draco wince, but it was the smell of the feast that caused his stomach to roil. Ever since the war, he ate for sustenance and sustenance alone. The habit left him pallid and malnourished, yet even as his rib-cage began to peek through his skin, he had no desire to change.

 

While Draco was swallowing down his urge to vomit, Pansy was cackling at the other end of the long table. Two fifth-years and Daphne were snickering along with her, and Draco wondered how they could go on as if everything was back to normal. Students at other tables seemed to be unbothered too. He understood how the first-years could think little of the war, but those that were at Hogwarts under the Carrows' reign should still feel the lingering effects of widespread Dark Magic. They might be able to avoid him, but there was no avoiding what happened.

 

There was, however, one person sitting at the Gryffindor table that seemed just as perturbed as he was. Ginny Weasley sat beside her, yammering on as she so often did, but the wild-haired war heroine paid her no mind. Instead, she poked at her food with her fork. Unlike everyone else, she had taken only one item from the colorful spread: a single roast potato. Though the feast was half-over, she was yet to take a bite.

 

The witch had seemed so jubilant before boarding the train. If he didn't know better, he might have assumed something had happened between then and the feast. Alas, he was all too familiar with the bleak expression she wore. He had seen it in the mirror many times.

 

Few made the same sacrifices as Draco did during the war, but if anyone around his age had, it was Hermione Granger. He was no stranger to Bellatrix Lestrange's madness, or her able hand when it came to the Cruciatus Curse, and the Muggle-born had endured it at its worst. Draco suddenly felt much more nauseous.

 

Returning to Hogwarts might have been a mistake after all.

 



Chapter 2: Brooding
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The Slytherin Common Room had become synonymous with discomfort. Whenever Draco entered the dungeon, the many fireside conversations ceased and all eyes trailed towards him, though nobody dared to make it obvious. Once upon a time, his rich bloodline meant that he was one of the most respected wizards in his house. After his place in the war, however, he was the enemy.

 

Rumors had reached his ears, some claiming that he murdered Vincent Crabbe, others suggesting that he was responsible for the sudden disappearance of Professor Burbage. How ironic it was that Crabbe was responsible for his own death. Professor Burbage, on the other hand, met a much more tragic fate.

 

Avoiding his schoolmates' scornful words was a bit of a chore, as they followed him everywhere. He had, over the long weekend, decided that his time was better spent hidden in the alcoves of the lesser-used floors than it was in the common room. Then, the passersby could shoot him a glare rather than ogle at him, on the rare occasion that he was even seen at all.

 

There were many hidden places at Hogwarts, and while one place came to mind more than the rest, he simply did not dare to go anywhere near it. Visions of Fiendfyre filled his head each time that he found himself on the seventh floor, visions that he achingly wanted to end. So, in order to stay as isolated as he could, he was creative. There were statues he could squeeze behind, broom cupboards he could lock himself in, and, when he was desperate, lavatory stalls. He tended to avoid Myrtle's lavatory and the boys' bathroom where he met her, however. She was, after all, just another memory of death.

 

After another long, sleepless night, Draco decided to spend his morning in an empty classroom. With a hole in the wall and debris scattered all around, the room was not likely to attract any unwanted visitors, making it the perfect place for him to start his Defense Against the Dark Arts homework. He thumbed through the textbook the new professor had assigned: Defense Against the Dark Arts in the Civilized Age by Grizelda McWiggins.

 

"Civilized age, my arse," he spat.

 

The new professor was a woman by the name of Midge Whittlewood. She had to be at least ninety years old, and though she seemed to know what she was talking about, her arthritic hands slowed the lesson down tremendously. To nobody's surprise, she asked Hermione Granger to answer almost every question, letting out a dusty cackle whenever the war heroine answered correctly, which she, of course, did every time. Usually, this would annoy Draco, yet it seemed to annoy Granger even more. He noticed the way her jaw clenched and her spine straightened whenever the archaic woman pronounced each syllable of her name. It was almost as if she had read it in the Daily Prophet hundreds of times but never properly learned how to say it. Considering Granger's status, that was probably the case.

 

A class like Defense Against the Dark Arts seemed helpful perhaps in his first or second year, as it taught him the basics of dueling. However, as a decorated war veteran, in spite of the side, it seemed futile. Professor Whittlewood was a scholar; her experience with the Dark Arts was limited to books and secondhand tales spun by the likes of Gilderoy Lockhart. Draco, however, knew the Dark Arts like the back of his hand. He had felt the sting of the Cruciatus Curse. He had mastered the Imperius Curse. He even witnessed the use of the Killing Curse. There were few that had seen all three Unforgivable Curses in their lifetime, set aside those that had Mad-Eye Moody's class in his fourth year. Even then, an insect was hardly comparable to a sobbing, pleading human.

 

The first chapter of Defense Against the Dark Arts in the Civilized Age was painfully pedestrian. Bullet points included basic protective enchantments, disarming spells, and revealing hidden intruders—topics he might have considered valuable if he were dueling children. Nevertheless, he dipped his quill in ink and pushed it to the parchment. The summary, albeit bland and unhelpful, would be easy enough to write.

 

He was nearing the end of his final paragraph when he heard a giggle from outside of the classroom. A ray of sunlight darted through the hole in the wall as it was still early morning—far too early for curious teenagers to explore their desires in the Astronomy Tower.

 

"Evan!" The voice belonged to Pansy Parkinson, though he had no idea who Evan was. "Wait until we're up there!"

 

"Little minx, you are," the boy, who he presumed to be Evan, growled.

 

Once upon a time, Draco might have felt a pang of jealousy overhearing such a conversation. He and Pansy had been groomed to be wed since they were young children, and when they entered Hogwarts, they both believed that their fate was written in the stars, destined to be fulfilled as soon as they were of age. Alas, time changes all things, and with each passing year, he grew more and more disinterested in her. Their friendship, he cherished, but he saw little potential in her as a wife.

 

Footsteps echoed as Pansy and her morning conquest hurried towards the tower. Once they were out of earshot, Draco decided it was his time to leave. Another hidden place awaited, earnest to conceal him from the rest of the world.



***
 


Draco had just gotten comfortable in a broom cupboard when Filch chased him out, openly reminiscing about the days of corporal punishment and threatening him with detention. Shocked that Filch was less afraid of him than able witches and wizards, he decided to start his trek to the dungeons.

 

The corridors were teeming with judgmental glares, not only from students and professors, but from portraits too. Draco had grown used to the reaction he incited, often reminding himself that nobody could give him a look as hateful as that of Voldemort—or his father.

 

He took the steps to the dungeons two at a time, hastening as soon as he heard the Bloody Baron yelling at Peeves nearby. The Bloody Baron might have been the ghost of Slytherin, but Draco never could stand being around him for long. Considering the stories surrounding the deceased man, Draco was surprised that he was allowed to stay in the castle at all, though perhaps, banishing a dead person merely proved to be a challenge.

 

Fortunately, he reached his destination before meeting any infuriating poltergeists or murderous ghosts.

 

The Potions classroom, as expected, was full of mostly seventh-year students, none of which dared sit beside him. As he quietly wandered towards the back of the room, he noticed Granger in the corner, her untamable mane shielding her face and her arms held close to her person in a protective manner. She had cleverly piled her cauldron and schoolbooks beside her so nobody could sit to her left. He thought they might be the only students there from his year, but Pansy stumbled in sometime before the second bell.

 

"Happy Tuesday, everyone!" Professor Slughorn sang, clasping his hands together. "So good to see so many smiling, bright faces. Oh yes, I do recognize some of you... Oho! Melinda Tatting! Your grandfather made these robes, actually... Fine work, fine work. And Dewey Blunk! Slytherin's star Chaser! Safe to assume you'll be joining the Quidditch team again this year, I hope... And is that—well, Merlin's beard! Hermione Granger!"

 

Draco watched intently as Granger lifted her head. The tired waggle of her fingers suggested that she had no desire to receive any special attention, but Slughorn was too starstruck to read her body language.

 

"One of the greatest heroes of our time and you still came back to Hogwarts! A talented witch, as well as a humble one." He addressed the room. "Miss Granger was once part of the Slug Club—yes, back in her sixth year before she was saving our world with Harry Potter—another student of mine, also a member of the Slug Club—she used to spend a fair bit of time with me and my other more gifted students. Perhaps, some of you will be lucky enough to join her this year..."

 

Granger offered nothing more than a sheepish smile. Draco briefly wondered what it would have been like if she were in his shoes, a villain rather than the greatest-Mudblood-ever-born. Perhaps then, she would be less bothered by the constant praise.

 

"Anyway, if you'd all turn to page seven of your books—well, I'll be! You look exactly like Elsia Twitt! Tell me, dear girl, are you related? She's made quite a name for herself this last year with the Tutshill Tornados! I know they aren't too popular with some crowds but they're a talented team, they are..."

 

The blonde girl pinkened. "Yes, actually. She's my sister."

 

According to the assigned textbook, they were meant to make a Bittersbell Potion, but Slughorn wasted much of the class rambling on about Granger, Elsia Twitt's sister, and the relatives of some of his other more desirable students. After glancing at his watch, the professor instructed them all to make a simple herbicide instead.

 

Having brewed a much more advanced herbicide in his third year, Draco was plagued with boredom. He wasn't the only one, either. Many of the seventh-years were giddily finishing their potions with little effort, some of them quite certain that their Potions N.E.W.T. would be much easier than they thought.

 

As he halfheartedly transferred the mixture to the flagon atop his table, Draco noticed Granger was still stirring hers. Even Pansy, who was never the scholarly type, had finished and moved onto gossiping with the redhead beside her.

 

"Don't forget to bottle it!" Slughorn reasserted, treading the aisles. "Won't be of much use to Professor Sprout if I can't get it down to the greenhouse, will it?"

 

A few of Draco's classmates groaned and returned to their herbicides, but still, Granger was stirring. The smoking cauldron and the madness in her frown lines were certain signs of a potion gone awry, and while Draco knew he could help, he chose not to involve himself.

 

Looking positively distraught, she added a lionfish spine to the concoction, which was a terrible idea since it was still over the heat. Suddenly, a loud squeak came from between her lips and she dropped her wand into the sputtering cauldron, a dreadful mistake considering the ingredients. Now covered in poison, she pressed her eyes with the heels of her hands, mumbling what Draco thought was, "Oh no. No, no, no, no."

 

"Miss Granger, is everything alright?"

 

Flushing, she stammered, "Er—erm, yeah. I just—I just think I'm having a bit of a reaction. The lionfish spines—they—I don't know what happened. My eyes—I think they're swelling."

 

Slughorn's bushy brows went up. "Swelling? Oh dear. Erm—class is dismissed, everyone! It seems Miss Granger needs to take a trip to the hospital wing..."

 

Nobody left, despite the dismissal. Instead, everyone watched the scene unfold with the utmost attentiveness. The class celebrity had, after all, had a rather embarrassing incident brewing the simplest potion imaginable.

 

A seventh-year boy's hand flew into the air. His face was familiar, but Draco could never remember his name. "I'll take her!"

 

"Oh, Willsby, how thoughtful," Slughorn said. "Miss Granger, come along now. Wilburn is going to take you to the hospital wing."

 

Apparently, Slughorn could not remember the boy's name either.

 

Granger stood and tried to collect her belongings, only to send her cauldron, wand, and ingredients crashing into the floor. Flustered, she blindly scrambled to her knees to pick everything up, but Slughorn stopped her.

 

"Not to worry, Miss Granger. We'll take care of that." After cleaning up the dangerous poison and holding her wand out towards her, he turned to Draco. "Mr. Malfoy! Be a gentleman and gather the rest of Miss Granger's things, would you? Everyone else, leave your potions at your station and I'll collect them after class..."

 

Inwardly cursing, Draco summoned the mess of items and, among the students filing out of the room, he saw the seventh-year wrap an arm around Granger's shoulders. He froze, his intestines in knots and his thoughts moving far too quickly to process. Clearly, she didn't want to be touched—not after all that had happened to her. The clueless boy likely knew nothing of war.

 

"Malfoy!"

 

Slughorn's booming voice brought him back to reality. "Yes, Professor?"

 

"Splendid job on your Herbicide Potion, my boy!" The professor was holding up the flagon, examining it closely. "Don't think I could've done better myself."

 

Taken aback, Draco simply replied, "Er—thank you."

 

"Oh, it's my pleasure, Mr. Malfoy, my pleasure, indeed." Slughorn pocketed the flagon. "Based on this level of performance, I trust you are planning to stay out of mischief this year?"

 

Many nasty retorts filled Draco's head, but Slughorn was the Head of Slytherin House, and without the guidance that Severus Snape once provided him, he needed somebody on his side. Deciding that it was in his best interest, he swallowed his pride and said, "Yes, sir."

 

"Good, good..." Slughorn gave him a firm pat on the back. "Well, I best be off to make sure Granger got to the hospital wing. Tillby seemed to be quite taken with her... Wouldn't be surprised if he tripped over his own tongue on the way there..."

 

With that, the professor left Draco with his thoughts—thoughts that he wanted nothing more than to escape.



Chapter 3: Harassing
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Two weeks had passed since the term began. Time moved slowly for Draco, imprisoning him as the apparition that he had become, beckoning him into the abandoned rooms and quiet alcoves of the castle. However, the rest of the world seemed to maintain its pace. Rushed and trivial conversations surrounded him, some whispering gossip and others complaining about varying coursework. None of them knew the horrors that he had known. None of them could understand his endless silence.

 

To fill his schedule, he had elected to take another year of Arithmancy, though, after two weeks of reading Advanced Divine Numbers, he was starting to regret his decision. Not only were the number charts confusing, but Professor Vector decided to target Draco whenever she had the chance, calling on him for questions that she knew he couldn't answer. To add insult to injury, his least favorite Mudblood would raise her hand and wave it back and forth, almost like she was always waiting for an opportunity to make him look stupid in front of an audience. Fortunately for her, she would make such a fool of herself in Potions that he didn't feel compelled to humiliate her in front of everyone.

 

Despite Hermione Granger's unnatural aptitude for nearly everything, she had been struggling in Professor Slughorn's class since the beginning of the school year. Draco would never admit it, but it was a rather bizarre turn of events. The girl usually excelled in Potions, even under Severus Snape, who was not afraid to vocalize his disdain for her and whomever she associated with. The war was to blame, yet Draco could not figure out why it was only her performance in Potions that suffered.

 

"Oh, what do we have here? A slithering Slytherin all on his lonesome," an irritating, singsong voice chimed, interrupting his thoughts.

 

The school poltergeist, Peeves, was notorious for taunting students, and because he was always trying to avoid Argus Filch and the Bloody Baron, he could often be found in the less-explored corners of the castle. Unfortunately for Draco, that meant they crossed each other's paths regularly.

 

"Slithering Slytherin perched on his throne,

Slithering Slytherin sad and alone,
Slithering Slytherin lost all his friends,
Slithering Slytherin
"

 

"Would you bloody quit it?" Draco snapped. "You know, you only get away with being as annoying as you are because you're impossible to hit with a hex."

 

"You want to hex me? You are living up to your name then, aren't you, slithering Slytherin?"

 

Peeves circled him with a guffaw and put his hands on his hips.

 

"Slithering Slytherin can't take a joke,

Slithering Slytherin's a nasty old bloke,
Slithering"

 

"PEEVES!"

 

Draco saw Filch storming down the corridor, mop in hand and orb-eyed cat at his heel. She meowed furiously as they drew closer to the poltergeist, hissing when he emitted one of his mischievous cackles.

 

"Mr. Filch, how good to see you!" Peeves said, smoothly. He stopped in front of the caretaker with a wide grin stretched across his face. "And Mrs. Norris too! Oh, what a treat!"

 

"Don't you give me that dragon's dung," Filch growled, pointed his mop accusingly at the phantom-like prankster. "Think you can just knock down all the trophies and get away with it, d'you?"

 

Peeves's smile grew. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, dearest Filchy-Wilchy. I've been here talking to my good friend, Mr. Malfoy."

 

"You wasn't there ten minutes ago!" Filch boomed. His mop shook with each angry gesture he made. "I'll be tellin' the Bloody Baron about this!"

 

The smirk faded and Peeves begged Filch not to tell the Bloody Baron of his wrongdoing. Sick of the groveling, Draco collected his belongings and stormed away from the bench in the alcove. Peace and quiet never lasted long, so he was constantly moving, gliding from one place to another. He could only hope that his next destination would give him the help he needed with his Arithmancy homework.

 

 

***

 

 

Number chart in hand, Draco trudged down to the dungeons. As usual, he declined to go to the Great Hall for lunch, using his time to finish the chart for Professor Vector; whether his work was correct or not was a different story altogether.

 

The Potions Room was virtually empty, set aside a seventh-year who sat in front. Avoiding the girl's gaze, Draco found his seat in the back and removed his book from his schoolbag. If Slughorn kept the chatter to a minimum, they would be brewing Ageing Potions, a type of potion he had been wanting to learn since he was fourteen and the Triwizard Tournament took place at Hogwarts. Of course, he wanted to learn to master it better than the Weasley twins had. They were hardly the pinnacle of success.

 

Though he did not like Professor McGonagall, his classes were, admittedly, much better than they had been during his seventh year. The only potions that they were permitted to learn had been vessels of Dark Magic, all found in a book called Potions to Vanquish Thy Enemy, an awful tome that focused on poisons and lethal doses. In a way, he was grateful that nobody had finished their N.E.W.T.s. If his seventh year counted for much of anything, he mightn't have a second chance.

 

Nevertheless, there was little time to ponder such things. Seventh-years started spilling into the room, followed by Granger who had crept in seconds before the last bell. Her umber eyes met his briefly before she rushed to her table and pulled out her book, preparing for yet another day of failure. 

 

"Hello, hello," Professor Slughorn said, fiddling with a bubbling cauldron atop a small bar stool. Pansy sneaked in just then, but he didn't seem to notice her. "Sorry if I'm a bit distracted. Feisty little draught I've been working on this weekcreation of my own, actually. Will need a bit of paying attention to... Right, well!" He clapped his hands together. "Turn to page twenty-four, if you will!"

 

Reluctant grumbles, along with a few mutters of "I forgot my book" filled the air.

 

Draco, however, had already started reading about the potion. After spending so much time looking at numbers that, to him, meant nothing, he was glad to be looking at numbers that actually made sense.

 

"Once you get a good idea of what you'll be doing, go collect your things from the cupboard. I'll be here if youoh, imp brains!" The cauldron on the bar stool was bubbling over, hissing as the potion hit the wood of the stool and the stone floor. "Billingsly, could you go grab me some eels' eyes? About two should do it..."

 

The seventh-year that escorted Granger to the hospital wing during the first class, a haughty boy that Draco decided he didn't like much, rushed to the store cupboard to collect the eyes. Meanwhile, Slughorn murmured an incantation to slow the rolling boil; Draco swore he saw Granger taking notes.

 

Once the boy returned with a vial of eels' eyes, Professor Slughorn plucked out two and dropped them in the cauldron. Slughorn was mumbling "finicky, this batch" as Draco keenly watched the seventh-year return to his seat. He seemed intent on getting Granger's attention, but she was still scribbling with fervor. Draco's lips curled into a smirk. 

 

"No matter. Let's start on these Ageing Potions, shall we?"

 

While most of Draco's classmates crowded the cupboard, he waited towards the back. The seventh-year whose name he couldn't remember made quite a show of retrieving Granger's ingredients for her, and though she thanked him, the sentiment did not reach her eyes. Several other students seemed just as unimpressed by the boy's chivalry as Draco was. Shouts of "budge up, will you!" and "could you be any slower?" embarrassed the boy enough that he stepped away from the cupboard and returned to his seat.

 

As Draco waited for a stout Gryffindor to finish retrieving her ingredients, Pansy elbowed him. During her short journey back to her table, he could hear her whispering to her redheaded friend, "I can't believe I dated that prat!"

 

Deciding that it was best to ignore her, Draco collected his newt spleens and a handful of less grotesque ingredients. By the time he started slicing into the tiny amphibian organs, Granger was already stirring the contents of her cauldron, stopping every few seconds to do some more writing.

 

Whatever she was doing, Draco was positive that it wasn't right. After scraping his newt spleens into his cauldron, he gradually applied heat, sprinkling in the other components once the spleens were half-cooked. The smell was far from enjoyable, but the smell coming from Granger's station was absolutely rancid. Humidity emanated from the bubbling mixture, making her unmanageable head of hair look even worse than usual, if that was possible.

 

"This is disgusting!" the redheaded girl that sat next to Pansy shrieked. "Why is it so sludgy?"

 

"It's not meant to be, you chit!" another girl snapped. "You did something wrong."

 

"Now, now, no bickering..." Slughorn muttered, fully focused on the potion on the bar stool rather than how his class was performing. "We're all here to learn..." It had bubbled over again. "Oh, bother. Knew I should've done this with a silver-bottomed cauldron..."

 

A low, growling sound was rumbling from the cauldron atop Draco's table. Quickly, he referred to his book, and upon discovering that this was an expected reaction, he calmly gave it a single, counterclockwise stir. A burning aroma kissed his nose, so he glanced up, only to see that a seventh-year had started a small fire. He raked over Granger, and while she, thankfully, was not on the verge of burning down the castle, she did not seem to be having much better results than the seventh-year with the singed eyebrows.

 

Wondering how so many had failed to follow the directions, Draco turned back to his potion and was met with a welcome surprise. The shade of green that the book described was quietly boiling before him, so he removed the heat source from the equation and let it cool as the final step instructed. The glimmering, emerald liquid still stunk of cooked newt spleens, yet it was easily the least offensive smell in the room.

 

"Oh, I hadn't seen the time!" Professor Slughorn exclaimed, peeking at his watch. He mumbled a spell at the potion on the stool and began pacing the aisle, observing the many concoctions and the exasperated students beside them. "You all should be finishing up in the next fifteen minutes. McElroy, make sure you give that cauldron a proper cleaning before next class. Burnt frog's tongue can really make the difference between a successful brew and a right mess."

 

Pansy and a handful of seventh-years seemed to impress the professor, while others earned a small "oh, dear" or instructions to fix their failed Ageing Potions. However, despite the many sludgy, flaming, and stinking attempts, it was not until he reached Granger that he looked truly uninspired.

 

“Pity, Miss Granger. It’s looking a bit beyond saving, if I may say so."


Draco could not help but chuckle. The constant praise she received in Defense Against the Dark Arts and Arithmancy was enough to irritate anyone, and as she glared back at him, he wondered how it must have felt. So far she had fallen. So foreign it must have been.

 

Rather than approaching Draco's table, Slughorn scurried off to assist a pair of seventh-years that were in a haze of turquoise smoke. After helping them get rid of the cloud, which was apparently quite poisonous, he passed through the aisle again, congratulating a pockmarked boy named Lionel Midgen and reminding Pansy of the final counterclockwise stir.

 

Finally, he was heading back towards Draco. The blond wizard cleared his throat and prepared for the positive reaction he was anticipating.

 

“Superb, Mr. Malfoy! Perfect color and consistency. The mustiness is just right, as well! Great work, great work.”

 

Granger spent the final five minutes of class cleaning up the reeking mess she had made. Once Professor Slughorn dismissed them, she was the first out the door, and while Draco did not understand what drove him to follow her, he did.

 

He pushed past Pansy and the redheaded seventh-year, who spat "watch it, Malfoy!" in unison. The haughty seventh-year boy he'd come to dislike also stood in his way, offering Draco the perfect opportunity to shoulder him as he had been wanting to do since their first day of class. Once he was past the many human obstacles, he marched out the door, keenly looking for traces of the Gryffindor girl. It was her wild mane that he saw first, and, still unsure why he was doing what he was doing, he rushed towards her.

 

His lanky legs moved him forward much faster than hers could carry her, so with a long stride, he swooped in front of her and asked, “Where are we headed so hastily, Granger?”

 

She brushed by him, indignation laced in her tone. “Arithmancy. Shouldn't you be headed there too or are you going off to sneak some Death Eaters into the school?”

 

Even when he had done nothing wrong, the ghosts of his past fell from her lips. Whatever reason that he had approached her was even further from his thoughts now, and all he wanted to do was make her hurt.  

 

“Snide as ever. You’d think you’d want to stay after class, considering you’ll have to make that potion to pass your N.E.W.T." She was walking again, speedier than before, but still too slow to out-step him. "But maybe your Potions marks are just a bit, how did Slughorn put it, beyond saving?"

 

“Stay away from me, ferret."

 

“My, my, you sure are a nasty little Mudblood. When you’re twenty-five and still trying to pass your Potions N.E.W.T., I’ll make a toast to you from my mansion."

 

Clenching her jaw, she hugged her books to her chest and continued onward towards the stairs. Draco knew he would see her shortly in Professor Vector's class, but instead of tailing her, he kept his feet glued to the floor. "Fitting, though, I suppose! A troll like you getting a 'Troll' in a class!"

 

Then, she had ascended the stairs, and he remembered why he had chased her in the first place. As Pansy and the seventh-years filled the corridor alongside him, he paled. Nothing good could come of chasing Hermione Granger, so with a new sense of resolve, he promised himself that he would never do it again.



Chapter 4: Writing
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Birds were singing, the sun was shining, and Hermione Granger was drenched in sweat. Her eyes shot open and, with her chest still heaving up and down, she absorbed everything around her.

 

Gone was the steam of her hot breath in the frigid woods, Harry Potter was not tossing and turning beside her, and Ronald Weasley was not mumbling sentiments of envy. Hermione's world was so different than it was less than a year prior, and even though it was for the better, she still had not grown to accept it.

 

Because of her age and her place in the war, Professor McGonagall had granted her a private dormitory. She suspected a few others would have earned such a privilege if they had come back to Hogwarts, but upon her return, she discovered that very few had decided to join her in finishing their N.E.W.T.s. Harry, Ron, and Neville Longbottom had taken jobs as Aurors, despite their lack of scholarly credentials, and Luna Lovegood was living with her father in their rook-shaped home near the Burrow. Their absence made her all the more gracious for Ginny.

 

Hermione groggily changed out of her pajamas and into her robes. She still was not used to having a room to herself, and she felt a pain in her chest as she thought of Lavender. Perhaps, she had never gotten along with the girl, but she would never wish death upon her—especially not at the hands of Fenrir Greyback.

 

With the departed weighing heavily on her mind, she laced her shiny, black shoes and knocked on the back of Ulysse Moreau's portrait hole. The huffy Frenchman's portrait swung open, he bid her adieu, and she offered him a salute, as she now did every morning. How strange it felt to carry out a normal routine when so many were dead.

 

Hermione, as usual, had her thoughts interrupted by passersby. Much like herself, the first-years that crossed the hall in front of her seemed to be late for breakfast. Unlike herself, they seemed to care.

 

"No, Jeanie, there's no way it's that way because that's how you get to—wait, is that where the Transfiguration Room is?"

 

"Erm—I'm not sure."

 

"This place is just so big. Breakfast will be gone by the time we find it!"

 

"Are you looking for the Great Hall?"

 

The two first-years whipped around, eyes wide. Their age was clear not just because of their short stature, but also by the books that they carried. In their small arms,The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 1 looked as hefty as she remembered it being when she was in her first year. How fortunate they were to start school after Voldemort's reign. How fortunate they were to never fully understand the horrors he unleashed upon the Wizarding World.

 

"You're—you're—"

 

Hermione had not grown to embrace being a celebrity. She had, however, gotten used to it.

 

"Yes, I'm her," she said, flatly. "Now, follow me."

 

The boy and girl fell into step behind her, suddenly silent.

 

The Great Hall was bustling. The two students murmured their thanks and scurried towards the Hufflepuff table, which was already buzzing with excitement. The Gryffindor table, impressively, was much louder. Once she found Ginny and sat down, Hermione discovered the source of the noise. A second-year named Bernard Sittlebaum had managed to sneak several Stinkpellets past Filch, and as any second-year would, felt the need to show them off to anyone that would listen to him. In all his excitement, he accidentally dropped one into the baked beans, leaving a terrible stench for the table and an unwelcome aftertaste for another student that ate the beans on a dare.

 

"I'm glad we didn't sit at that end of the table," Ginny said, prodding at the yolk of one of her fried eggs. It burst and covered the rest of her plate in oozing, yellow splendor. "It stinks all the way down here. Can't imagine how bad it is by that lot."

 

"Revolting, I assume," Hermione said, mildly.

 

"That's an understatement. That thing smells worse than a Dungbomb. They must've changed how they make them because I don't remember them ever being that bad when Fred and George used to chuck them everywhere."

 

How Ginny spoke of Fred without sullying her mood, Hermione did not know, because simply hearing his name was enough to make her eyes prickle. Fred, in all his humor and joy, could have so easily been Ron, and that thought only brought her back to the fact that she hadn't heard from Ron since summer. Even in training, she knew Aurors faced dangerous witches and wizards in the field, and with dozens of Death Eaters at large, she thought about him every day. Ron should have known better than to leave her to entertain her worries, but still, he left her to wonder if his fate would match that of his brother. Nevertheless, the breakfast table was not the place for such discussions, so all she said was, "I suppose."

 

"Are you okay?" Ginny mopped the yolk up with her toast and took a large bite. "You seem sort of—I don't know—distant."

 

"Oh, I'm fine," Hermione hummed. The sound of flapping wings filled her ears, and although she dreaded that very sound, she was grateful for the change of subject. "Sounds like the morning post is on the way."

 

In swooped at least twenty owls, each landing in front of the student whose mail they carried. As usual, a majestic snowy owl that looked much like Hedwig had landed in front of Ginny, a thick envelope tied to its foot. Ginny untied the letter and proffered the bird a kipper.

 

"Good boy, Altius," the Weasley girl cooed, patting him on the head. The bird fluttered away, fish in its beak and pride in its soar. "Don't tell Harry, but I think I prefer him to Hedwig. Such a sweet owl."

 

"Honestly, I was surprised Harry can even care for an owl with how little time he seems to have with work and all. Snowy owls are a bit high maintenance, aren't they?"

 

"More than most." Ginny ripped into the envelope and pulled out a long, folded piece of parchment, all handwritten, and quite obviously from Harry. "He says hi, by the way. Harry, I mean."

 

"Does he?" Hermione said, acidly, stabbing at the tomato on her plate. Tomatoes always reminded her of Ron.

 

Ginny tilted her head. "Are you mad at him or something?"

 

"I just think it's funny that I've written him twice now and he's yet to write me back, but you have gotten what? Ten different letters from him? All longer than any essay I've ever seen him write, mind you."

 

"I'm his girlfriend, Hermione. He's supposed to write to me."

 

"So he's not supposed to write to me?" Hermione snapped, standing. For a split second, she noticed Draco Malfoy staring at her, but she decided it was best not to dwell on him. "We've been friends since first year!"

 

"Hermione, I didn't mean—"

 

"No, it's fine. I ought to be going anyway." She sucked down the rest of her orange juice. "I have homework."

 

Before Ginny could get another word in, Hermione stormed out of the Great Hall, infuriated with Ron, Harry, and anyone else that had anything to do with either of them.

 

 

***

 

 

Not speaking to Ginny reminded Hermione how dreadfully lonesome Hogwarts could be without friends. She wove in and out of her respective classes, passing most of them with extraordinarily high marks. There was, however, one class that still bested her. Potions with Slughorn was, somehow, more challenging than the class had ever been with Snape. She remembered he challenged her in her sixth year, but some of the potions they were brewing were far from complicated, especially compared to some of her more impressive mixtures, such as the Polyjuice Potion she brewed when she was just a second-year. No matter the simplicity of the assignment, she was never able to pass—and this time, there was no blaming Snape for being unfair.

 

It was after Defense Against the Dark Arts that Hermione decided to wrangle her Arithmancy homework. As they walked out of Whittlewood's classroom, Ginny shouted, "Hermione! Hey, Hermi—" but Hermione heard nothing more after that, because she ignored her. Instead, she tailed a small group of students that were headed in the other direction. One by one, each individual split away from the group, and to her horror, the last person left to follow was Draco Malfoy. Of course, she wasn't following him, but to him, it might have appeared that way.

 

The library was nearby, and to properly do the Arithmancy homework that they had both been assigned, they would need to reference additional source material. Her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. What if Malfoy took the book that she needed? He had already proven that he could move much more swiftly than she could, and she could hardly ask him to share.

 

Shortly after having this awful thought, her irrational fear proved to be nothing more than just that. Rather than continuing down the corridor, Malfoy disappeared behind a rather ugly statue of a centaur; it certainly had not been there in Hermione's previous years, so it must have been commissioned after the centaurs played their role in the war.

 

With Malfoy nowhere in sight, Hermione was convinced that the statue led to a hidden room, and she found herself doing as Harry would have done. Instead of ignoring him and going straight to the library, she purposefully dropped her Arithmancy book—this made her want to vomit—and as she reached down to pick it up, she examined every inch of the statue. It did not appear to have any kind of loose addition that could be a trigger, but Malfoy would not sneak behind it if it did nothing. At least, that was what she thought.

 

"You can stop following me, Granger," he drawled, making her jump in surprise. "I'm working on Slughorn's essay, nothing more."

 

If he hadn't spoken, Hermione might not have noticed him. The statue was large, and with it shielding him, she could barely make out the flutter of his robes as he shifted around behind it.

 

"How did you—"

 

"Disillusionment Charm," he muttered, briefly reappearing in full as he rifled through his schoolbag and pulled out From Aconite to Zebra Grass. "Aren't you supposed to be smart?"

 

"Well yes, but—but it's—it's good," she admitted, quite certain that she could not cast such a successful Disillusionment Charm wordlessly. "When did you learn how to do it without saying the spell?"

 

"When do you think?" he asked, darkly.

 

"Oh, right." Her face suddenly felt very hot. "Why are you doing homework here, though?"

 

"Not all of us can just go to the library."

 

"Erm, ah—right. Well, I guess I'll leave you to it, then."

 

The library, like it did most days, beckoned her, but as she padded down the hallway, she found it difficult not to look back at the statue of the centaur and the troubled boy behind it.

 


***

 

 

After a successful visit to the library, an informative Transfiguration lecture, and a rather awkward Herbology lesson, Hermione was glad to be back in her dormitory. Professor Sprout had developed a bit of a stutter since the war, which, to Hermione's disgust, gave the seventh-year Ravenclaws and Daphne Greengrass something to giggle about each time that the woman spoke. Unfortunately, no amount of scolding seemed to make them stop.

 

Since she and Ginny were not on speaking terms, Hermione had been spending more and more time in the library and in her private room. While she did make time for a bit of breakfast, she never made her way down to the Great Hall for lunch or dinner, mostly because she wanted to avoid Ginny's constant attempts to make amends.

 

In actuality, she knew Ginny did not deserve to be on the receiving end of her frustrations, but she could not help but feel a little jealous of the redhead. Hermione had written to Harry, and not once had he responded. It was not Harry that upset her, though. It was Ron.

 

They shared a heated kiss during the war—a kiss she had been dreaming about since their fourth year—and while she might have understood his absence if that was the only time, it wasn't. Kingsley Shacklebolt offered Ron and Harry positions as Aurors not long after the final battle, but Ron found time for her when he was not in training. Stolen kisses in his bedroom and greedy hands after visits to the pub were the highlights of her summer, and back then, she thought they might have been the highlights of his too.

 

While she had sent Harry two letters, she had sent eight to Ron, each one longer than the last. The letters covered everything she could think of: Auror training, memories of summer, recollections of their childhood, and sometimes even her dreams. Still, he never wrote her back. Livolai, the school owl she had grown to know quite well, always returned to the Owlery with empty talons, ready for her next pathetic attempt at rekindling their summer romance.

 

With a sigh, she buried her face in her pillow and pulled her blanket close to her. Ronald Weasley, it seemed, would never grow up.



Chapter 5: Poisoning
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Ignoring Hermione Granger did not come naturally to Draco. The Muggle-born girl had earned his attention ever since their first year at Hogwarts, except back then, it was due to her curious knack for magic and her irritating attachment to Potter. Now, her usual sense of self-importance had become easy to overlook—in fact, it had diminished—but her abominable performance in Professor Slughorn's class was nearly impossible to unsee.

 

Every Tuesday and Thursday, she found some new way to complicate straightforward instructions. If she was not coughing on a shroud of smoke, she was extinguishing a fire that had taken to her messy head of hair or going to the hospital wing for an acidic burn. By the time that the leaves were changing colors, the witch was had caused nearly as many explosions as Seamus Finnegan did since their first year, a record that Draco was certain she never hoped to break.

 

If he had not seen her constantly taking notes, he would have thought that she wasn't trying. The girl was always writing fervently, often blinking back tears of frustration and stabbing her parchment much harder than necessary. He had heard of the Cruciatus Curse addling the brain, yet he had never seen anything like the sudden change in Hermione Granger, and though he wanted to relish in her turmoil, he was not sure that he could. All that he felt for her was pity. 

 

"Another impressive potion, Mr. Malfoy! Beautiful shade of silver! Oho! And it even sparkles! Oh, dear boy, you ought to be proud! I'd say that's worth five points to Slytherin, that is!" Slughorn announced, turning the flagon in the candlelight. He put it back down on the table and approached Granger. "Too much stickyflower, unfortunately, Miss Granger. Highly flammable stuff. If it burns too quick it can turn the potion—" He tapped her flagon. "—black."

 

"Not as black as her hair was last class," Pansy Parkinson hissed to her redheaded friend. She made an exaggerated face and started to emulate Granger's response to setting her own hair on fire. "'Oh no! Not my shiny, straight, definitely-not-snarled-and-awful hair!'"

 

"Lucky for her, she can't get any uglier," the redhead snickered.

 

Before his sixth year, Draco might have laughed with Pansy and her friend, but time was an unstoppable beast. While she cowered in the shadows of the castle and her parents' mansion, Draco was experiencing horrors beyond even her most dreadful nightmares. Alas, Pansy's lack of maturity was no fault of her own. She did not have to carry out unspeakable acts, all in the name of Malfoy. She did not have to experience the Cruciatus Curse, nor watch anyone else experience it. Perhaps if she had, Granger's hair would matter much less than her fortitude.

 

Upon release, Draco rushed towards Professor Vector's class, cutting Granger off in his wake. The Arithmancy teacher seemed shocked to see him arrive so early.

 

The class had notably fewer students than most of the other classes that he was taking, as the overwhelming majority of seventh-years filled their time with Divination instead. Passing Trelawney's class was hardly a challenge if one could tolerate her two or three times a week, and perhaps, if somebody wanted an easy "O", they could. Draco, on the other hand, had no patience for the woman's psychobabble.

 

To his left sat Juliette Moge, a starry-eyed brunette that had grown to become intrigued by him, though it was likely for all the wrong reasons. The seventh-year often spoke of her personality number and the importance of the number ten, a number that she apparently stumbled upon regularly not only in the Hufflepuff Common Room, but also in the Great Hall and in her classes. According to her, it meant that she was meant to mend a broken heart.

 

As he had smartly chosen a seat in the corner, nobody sat to his right, yet he still heard Juliette's seemingly endless conversations with the blonde girl that sat beside her. The two Hufflepuffs would discuss the number ten and how often Juliette saw it, occasionally glancing at him.

 

"I mean, I know ten doesn't always mean that, but considering my personality number, it really is the only explanation. Don't you think?"

 

"It could be," the blonde girl replied, doubtfully. "I don't know, though... There are a lot of broken hearts at Hogwarts right now. Y'know, 'cause of the war and all..."

 

Draco had heard them have the same conversation at least thrice, and the blonde girl seemed just as annoyed by it as he was.

 

"Grace, I've been thinking about this a lot and I'm certain that I can—"

 

"Good afternoon," Professor Vector's voice rang. "I trust that everyone read the chapter?"

 

Juliette nodded with vigor and raised her hand high, waggling her fingers in hopes to be called upon. Professor Vector raked over her but didn't give her permission to speak.

 

"The sixteen numbers mentioned in this chapter teach us what?"

 

Granger's hand shot into the air just barely before Atlas Paisley's. Vector gestured her and Paisley dropped his hand with a scowl.

 

"Beaufort's Sixteen Core Personality Points. Each of the sixteen numbers corresponds to a personality trait. When you cast Meumestnumerus, four numbers will appear in the air, and they will reflect your personality. Unlike the Agrippan and Chaldean methods, Muggles are not familiar with Beaufort's findings, as you can only discover them through magic."

 

Melancholy washed over Juliette's face as Vector awarded points to Gryffindor and began reviewing the material from the chapter. After she described Beaufort's findings in detail, she instructed them to practice the Self-Numbering Spell. Juliette, who quickly realized that she could not pronounce "Meumestnumerus", looked increasingly somber with each try.

 

After two attempts, Draco was able to cast the spell. Four numbers appeared in the air before him: four, thirteen, seven, and one. According to the book, that meant his dominant personality trait was "calculative", followed by "determined", "good-humored", and "loving". Quite certain that the numbers meant nothing and that Beaufort simply discovered a way to make random numbers appear in the air, Draco closed his book and waited for his classmates to catch up with him. Spellwork, he could do. It was the number charts and the essays that caused all of his headaches.

 

As he waited, he glanced at Granger. She, too, had conjured the numbers of thirteen and one, though her other two numbers were six and fifteen. Curious, he opened his book again and peeked inside. The six stood for "courageous" and the fifteen stood for "friendly". This, to him, was proof that the numbers were meaningless. He had known the girl for years and never would he have considered her to be friendly.

 

"Did you see?" he heard Juliette squeal. "He had a one!"

 

"He did not," her blonde friend argued. "You're just seeing things."

 

"No, he really did!"

 

Draco dropped his elbow to the table and rested his chin in his palm. The class could not end quickly enough.

 

 

***

 

 

Wednesday passed by quickly, and before he knew it, Draco was in Slughorn's classroom once more. The potion that they were assigned was called a Sniffle-Snuff Potion, which Draco noticed smelled eerily similar to Dr. Mudhock's Cough-Away Spray, a remedy that the house-elves of Malfoy Manor gave him when he was ill as a young boy. The banana-scented elixir reminded him of many nights of endless vomiting.

 

Like a few of his classmates, Draco had finished early, and judging by the complaints that he heard, he was not the only one that was unimpressed by the sickly-sweet aroma of banana oil. He tapped his fingernails against the flagon of thick, yellow syrup and waited for the end-of-class dismissal. In his peripheral, he noticed Granger stirring fervently, tongue poking out the side of her mouth and perspiration thick upon her brow. A scroll of parchment sat on the table beside her. Draco wondered why she took so many notes if she never was going to look at them while she brewed her potion. It did not make any sense.

 

Just as he turned his attention away from the perplexed Gryffindor, he caught Pansy saying something to her redheaded friend. She was making wild gesticulations, occasionally gesturing him with the utmost blatancy.

 

"...and I'm telling you, it was no bigger than my pinkie. All that Death Eater nonsense was probably overcompensation."

 

Blood boiling, Draco clenched his fist. He was determined to march over to Pansy and shout at her for lying through her teeth. However, just as he stood up, he was bombarded by a cloud of sour, nauseating smoke.

 

"Oh! Oh no! Malfoy, I'm sorry, I—"

 

"You stupid, filthy Mudblood! How dense are you?" he choked. The words fell from his lips so fast that there was no stopping them. "I can't see a bloody thing!"

 

"Mr. Malfoy," he heard Slughorn gasp. "I will not tolerate that kind of language in my class. Miss Granger—oh it's quite alright. There, there..."

 

Slughorn must have done something, because suddenly, the pink cloud was gone and he was staring grimly at Draco. Granger peeked out from behind the wide professor, her expression apologetic.

 

"It seems a trip to the hospital wing is in order. Class is dismissed, everyone. Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy, please come with me... Fanged Geranium leaves are usually mild but when you mix them with doxy hide and apply too much heat... oh, I'm sure you're both fine. McGonagall has gotten a bit strict with the protocol for potion-related injuries... That's all. After that first-year boy went blind in his left eye—or was it his right?—oh, no matter..."

 

Draco trailed behind the rambling Potions master and Granger. How many times would she go to the hospital wing before she learned how to follow the instructions in the book? He hoped that she would learn soon, because with his luck, she was going to kill them both.



***

 

 

Madam Pomfrey gave him several tasks to complete before she would let him leave. First, he had to breathe in as deeply as he could. Then, he had to hop on one foot for thirty seconds. The tests continued in varying degrees of bizarreness, some as simple as balancing a quill on his forehead and others as complex as naming ten headmasters and headmistresses in alphabetical order. Granger, who was receiving the same treatment, barely passed the balancing test, but answered the history questions without pause.

 

"You seem to be fit as a fiddle, Mr. Malfoy," Madam Pomfrey announced, seconds after releasing the girl that sent him to the hospital wing. "However, you could gain some weight and your focus seems a bit strained, so I would like to recommend that you get in a good meal and a good night's rest in the near future."

 

Rest was a distant memory. Alas, Draco decided it was better to let her believe that he would do as she asked.

 

"Speaking of a good meal, I see no reason that you can't join your friend in the Great Hall. You missed your final hour, but you'll be excused, of course, if you weren't on a free period," she went on. "If you start to feel dizzy or if your ears start to bleed, please do come back. Sometimes Fanged Geranium gas can take a little while to start showing symptoms..."

 

With a nod, Draco left the hospital wing. His stomach was growling, but he did not intend to go to the Great Hall to listen to Pansy insult him. Instead, he was going to go to his room. He had preemptively hidden several sugar quills and Chocolate Frogs for times such as these so he wouldn't starve, though he rarely felt the need to indulge.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, a word."

 

To his annoyance, Professor Slughorn had been waiting for him outside of the hospital wing, and Granger was standing beside him. The grave look on the professor's face told him that the conversation they were about to have was not going to be one that he would enjoy.

 



Chapter 6: Avoiding
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There was no word strong enough to accurately describe Hermione's crippling embarrassment. As if her abysmal marks in Potions had not been enough, she managed to expose not only herself to poison, but Malfoy too. All of their classmates witnessed the unforgettable mistake, and by dinnertime, she suspected the rest of the school would have their own versions of what happened—and none of them would be particularly flattering.

 

Once Madam Pomfrey was satisfied with Hermione's dozens of tests, the eighth-year girl could not wait to return to Arithmancy, where her talents would be put to better use, and where Malfoy sat behind her so she did not have to see him out of her peripheral vision. To her dismay, Professor Slughorn had other plans for her.

 

She sat beside Malfoy awkwardly as Slughorn stared back at them with his lips curved downward. According to the clock on his office wall, she had already missed Arithmancy.

 

"Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy," the professor said, gravely, steepling his fingers. "I thank you both for joining me. The subject matter seemed a bit too delicate to discuss in the hall..."

 

"I don't see what's so delicate about it," Malfoy sneered. "She poisoned me."

 

Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but Slughorn held up a pudgy finger. "Accidents often happen in my classroom, Mr. Malfoy, and when they do, we use it as an opportunity to learn. I'm sure you know as well as I that Miss Granger is a capable witch, and after this incident, I assume that she will be much more careful with her potion-making."

 

Suddenly, Hermione's cheeks felt incredibly warm. Never had she made such a dire mistake in a class, and Malfoy being involved only made it worse.

 

"But, sir—"

 

"Because of your proclivity for top-notch potions and your apparent need to be rid of your prejudices, I have decided that there is an obvious solution to all of this." A small vial on Slughorn's desk began shrieking, but ceased as he tapped it with his wand. "Rather than detention, I'd like to entrust you with mentoring Miss Granger."

 

Hermione's stomach lurched. Never had she needed a mentor, but if she had, Draco Malfoy would be one of her last choices—perhaps just ahead of Pansy Parkinson. His knack for the coursework was undeniable, yet that did not mean that he would be able to teach her much of anything. After all, her poor marks were clearly due to stress, and being forced to spend time with Malfoy was certain to trigger more of it.

 

"I'll take the detention, thanks," Malfoy spat, crossing his arms.

 

"Unfortunately, it isn't a choice, Mr. Malfoy. As the Head of Slytherin House, it is my duty to assure that you leave this school with the best education that you can, and while you excel in my class, you have a lot to learn about people, my boy. Miss Granger is a talented girl. I suspect you won't have much trouble in tutoring her."

 

"What if I'd rather you give him detention too?" Hermione cut in.

 

"Well, I can't have you poisoning my class, Miss Granger," Slughorn said, lightly. "Besides, I suspect you would rather see good marks on your N.E.W.T. than avoid Mr. Malfoy here."

 

Defeated, Hermione clenched her jaw. She did not know what she would do if she didn't pass her N.E.W.T., and she most certainly would not pass if she exposed another classmate—or classmates—to toxic chemicals.

 

"How long do I have to do this?" Malfoy growled.

 

"As long as it takes," Slughorn replied, airily. "When the two of you meet will be up to you, but it must be at least once per week until I see a remarkable improvement—no offense meant to you, Miss Granger. Surely, you can be trusted to arrange that between yourselves."

 

"Yes, of course, Professor," Hermione said. "I—we'll—find time."

 

"Superb!" Slughorn gave her a nod. "Well, that will be all. The two of you ought to go get some dinner. Tiring afternoon, I imagine, with all of those silly tests that Poppy made you endure. Bit over-the-top, in my honest opinion, but Professor McGonagall insists we're more careful, so more careful, we must be."

 

Seething, Malfoy shot her a glare and stomped out. Hermione waited a few seconds before leaving, nervously smiling at Professor Slughorn while she waited. She was in no rush to be anywhere near her new mentor, so despite her growling stomach, she went back to her private dormitory as she had been most evenings. Her argument with Ginny suddenly seemed unimportant.

 

 

***

 

 

Friday's Defense Against the Dark Arts lecture might have been interesting if it were not for Professor Whittlewood. The elderly woman's monotonous chapter reviews were neverending, and with Malfoy glaring daggers in her direction, Hermione was convinced that the lesson would be the death of her.

 

Like she often did, Whittlewood called upon Hermione for several of the more challenging questions. Usually, Hermione would be pleased by this, but her thoughts of Ron, Harry, Ginny, and Malfoy were spilling over into her studies, leaving her unable to think of anything else.

 

"Miss Granger?"

 

Her classmates were staring at her, wearing amused smirks as she stumbled through yet another interaction with the bespectacled professor. Malfoy, however, was scowling.

 

"Miss Granger, I really am surprised that you didn't find time to read the chapter. Please be prepared next time," Professor Whittlewood hummed, disappointedly. "For all of you that did read it, you'd know that there is a counter. A diagonal swoop of the wand and 'Incribro' will do it."

 

A few seventh-years muttered the counterspell under their breath. Hermione, however, did not need to practice the spell, as she had mastered it by the time that she was fourteen. Why she could not answer Whittlewood correctly, she did not know, but she suspected that her distractions were starting to take a toll on her overall performance rather than just Potions.

 

Nightmares of war often robbed her of sleep. Alas, with no word from Ron or Harry, she found herself sleeping less and less. Fog clouded her brain, reminding her that rest was imperative for sound thinking, yet when the time for rest came, the fog mocked her, diminishing into the night to clear the path for unwelcome thoughts. Harry's mangled body. Ron and a handsome woman held close to his side. The same woman murdering him. As outlandish as her ponderings were, they haunted her all the same.

 

Then, there was the final component of her misery. Within six days, she was expected to work with the foulest boy that she had ever met—one that not only was prejudiced against her and everyone like her, but one that also watched her squirm upon the floor of his family home. She had spent a good portion of the evening watching the moonlight dance upon the ceiling, thinking to herself about everything that he might say and how she might have to respond. Being civil with Malfoy had never been easy, and this experience would be one of her most challenging tests yet.

 

The bell rang and she scurried out of the room. She needed to escape—to escape Ginny, Malfoy, Whittlewood, and everyone else that made her question herself. Unfortunately, someone grabbed her arm.

 

"Where do you think you're going?"

 

Hermione wheeled around and was met with narrow, steel eyes. The long, elegant fingers that were wrapped around her bicep belonged to the person she wanted to avoid most.

 

"To my dormitory," she said, calmly removing his hand from her person. "I have a free period before Transfiguration. What's it to you?"

 

"Trust me, Granger, I'd rather be anywhere than standing here in the hallway with you." His eyes briefly trailed over her shoulder. "Unfortunately, we will both be in a bit of trouble if we don't do as Slughorn asked, so we ought to schedule a time over the weekend and get this bloody thing over with."

 

Curious what Malfoy had been looking at, Hermione glanced behind her. There stood Ginny, her ginger eyebrows furrowed and her jaw agape. Several others were watching them with interest too, likely wondering what exactly a war heroine and a notorious Death Eater could be discussing. This, for as long as it took her to improve her marks in Potions, would be her reality.

 

"Can we discuss this later? Maybe without an audience?"

 

Malfoy flared his nostrils. Without a word, he turned on his heel, his robes sweeping behind him, and stalked down the corridor.

 

 

***

 

 

Hermione half-expected Malfoy to approach her again after Transfiguration, another class that they, regrettably, shared. Fortunately for her, Professor McGonagall's replacement, Professor Zigg, was as strict, if not stricter, than his predecessor, and Malfoy was caught rolling his eyes one too many times.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, ten points from Slytherin for your attitude, and see me after class," Zigg demanded. "I expect that kind of nonsense from my first-years, but not from N.E.W.T. students."

 

Hermione smiled and recited her spell. Finally, with a short sense of relief, she was able to transform her rabbit into a cowboy boot with only three minutes to spare.

 

Sadly, her mood was ruined as she walked to the greenhouses and saw two fifth-years kissing in the hallway. When Malfoy was not tormenting her, thoughts of Ronald Weasley were quick to take his place. 

 

 

***

 

 

The next day, a growl woke Hermione from her slumber. Infrequent meals were not enough to satiate her primal needs, and her loose-fitting robes served as a daily reminder. The witch, once so bright, had become mere famine and restlessness.

 

Terror wove through her sleep cycle, drawing deep purple circles beneath her eyes and pounding at the walls of her skull. After an evening of crying herself to sleep over Ronald Weasley, she wanted nothing more than pleasant dreams, but whether she was awake or not, memories of war always plagued her in the dead of night.

 

Her camisole, moistened by sweat, clung to her small frame. She peeled it off to change into a jumper and a skirt, and as she did so, she caught a glimpse of herself in her mirror. Lines of ribs peeked back at her.

 

The Saturday morning trek to the library was, fortunately, quiet, as the few students that were awake were eating breakfast in the Great Hall. Once she found an isolated corner, she opened her Herbology book, A Guide for the Advanced Herbologist, and began to read the assigned chapter.

 

Merman's Wart, a bulbous, white fungus, has a myriad of use cases. Because of its multipurpose nature, it is oftentimes utilized as a main ingredient in potions that are meant to heal, moisturize, and regenerate. Some of the potions featuring this ingredient are able to fade magical scars, slow the spread of venom, repair cracking skin, and even build muscles.

 

Unfortunately for Potioneers and Healers alike, Merman's Wart is incredibly rare. Found only in the rivers of Borneo, the fungus—

 

Hermione could not picture the rivers of Borneo. In fact, she could not even recall the content of the paragraph that she had just read. Harry's glassy eyes were staring at her, vacantly, his brow slick with sweat as he whispered in Parseltongue. Ron was kissing Lavender. Fred lay, motionless, as Mrs. Weasley sobbed over his bloodied corpse.

 

After rereading the paragraph thrice, Hermione finally felt that she had retained the information.

 

Unfortunately for Potioneers and Healers alike, Merman's Wart is incredibly rare. Found only in the rivers of Borneo, the fungus is one of the scarcest in the world. It earned its name as the merpeople of Borneo have been harvesting it for centuries, specifically to slow the venom of the Four-Ringed River Serpent, a magical serpent that some believe may be related to the basilisk.

 

Because this ingredient is not common—

 

The insistent thought of another girl kissing Ron made her feel sick. No longer could it be Lavender, but Hermione knew that Ron would be meeting women all over the United Kingdom while he traveled for his new job. There were girls in the world that were much more experienced than she was—more willing to experiment in ways that she had not been ready to experiment.

 

Gritting her teeth, Hermione stared at the text on the page. Ron was far too loyal to move on after spending a long, romantic summer with her. She was sure of it.

 

Because this ingredient is not common, there are few that are qualified to work with it. Herbologists, Potioneers, and Healers from Borneo that have specialized in its use have spread their knowledge to those in Western countries, but there are not many that are fortunate enough to make the journey to—

 

Frustrated, she groaned and slammed her book shut, earning a disapproving glare from Madam Pince.

 

After all that Ronald had said to her, she could not believe that he had the audacity to ignore her letters. He spoke to her in the way that many girls dreamed boys might speak to them, but perhaps, it was just that: a senseless dream.

 

"Ronald, you're drunk."

 

"Maybe," he purred, sloppily kissing his way up her neck. "Merlin, you're pretty. You know that, right?"

 

"Am I?" She tugged at his robes. "I don't believe you."

 

"B-blimey, Hermione. I-I—"

 

"Hey!" Harry shouted from outside the door. "Ron, we have to be up early to meet Shacklebolt. You better not be—"

 

"Thought I might find you here."

 

Ginny was standing over her, a hand on her hip. In her other hand, she held a folded leaf of parchment.

 

"Erm—yeah. I—"

 

"Look, I'm not here to talk about the fact that you've been avoiding me," Ginny said, quickly. She held the parchment out towards Hermione. "Harry wrote you."

 

"Really?" Hermione asked in disbelief, accepting the letter. Receiving mail from Harry made her ecstatic, mostly because he may have an update regarding Ron. If anyone would know what her summertime beau was doing, it would be him. "Thank you. I'm sorry, I—"

 

"I'm not here to talk about that," Ginny said, gruffly. She lowered down to the floor beside her friend. "Sorry for the ripped corner... I had to wrestle it away from Altius since it wasn't my post..."

 

Hermione noticed scratch marks on Ginny's hands and felt a sinking sense of guilt as she unfolded the letter.

 

Dear Hermione,

 

Sorry it took a while to write back. I've been really busy with training.

 

Shacklebolt has us in the field more now. We have a lot of leads on Death Eaters that escaped during the war. Can't say much on that, though. It's all confidential until we catch them and go to trial. Can never be too careful about what I put in writing.

 

Anyway, how are you? How is Hogwarts? Is McGonagall a good headmistress? I bet you're glad to be back in school. You've always been brilliant.

 

Write back soon.

 

Harry

 

Hermione, though she was glad to hear that Harry was well, still knew little of Ron. Smiling through her aching heart, she mustered, "Thanks, Gin."

 

"No problem," Ginny replied. "Erm—I did have one thing I wanted to ask you about."

 

"Ask away," Hermione said, feeling quite ill as she rifled through the many possibilities of Ron's silence. Maybe Harry hadn't mentioned him because he knew she would take the news poorly. Maybe Ron had met a girl in the field—one more like Lavender Brown. Maybe his newfound success had driven them apart. Maybe she wasn't worldly enough for him now that he had a career. Whatever reality it was that Harry was avoiding, she wanted to avoid it too.

 

"Well, er—what were you and Malfoy talking about in the hallway?"

 

Hermione let out a telling groan. "He's—ahem—supposed to help me with my Potions studies."

 

"You're studying with Malfoy?" Ginny asked, confusedly. "Why?"

 

"Slughorn's making us. I—er—well, I'm not doing as well in Potions as I'd like to be," Hermione explained. "Apparently, Malfoy is quite good, so when he called me a nasty name in class—no, don't give me that look, Ginny! Don't go blasting a Bat-Bogey at him or anything. Honestly, I probably deserved it, in a way... You see, I sort of poisoned him—"

 

"You poisoned him?" Ginny sounded more gleeful than she did concerned.

 

"It wasn't on purpose! But anyway, Slughorn made him mentor me as a sort of punishment. It's supposed to teach him to treat Muggle-borns better or something. He's really taking this whole Head of Slytherin thing pretty seriously..."

 

"So this is a bit of a punishment for both of you then," Ginny said, pointedly. "I mean, Malfoy shouldn't be mentoring you on anything. That's no secret."

 

"It's fine. If I hadn't poisoned him, I wouldn't be stuck studying with him. We get to stop as soon as I start doing better in Potions, so I'll just study a lot on my own and we'll be done with it." Hermione said, feigning confidence. "Erm—do you know how your brother is doing? Ron, I mean."

 

"He hasn't written and Harry doesn't mention him much. Why? Haven't you heard from him?"

 

"No, I haven't."

 

"So that's why you've been—oh, that troll! When I see him, I'll—" Ginny balled a fist.

 

"It's fine," Hermione interjected. "He's probably just been busy."

 

"I can ask Harry to—"

 

"No! I mean—no. I'll—erm—I'm sure he'll get back to me. Thanks, though." Hermione smiled, but she could barely breathe. "And thanks for the letter. You didn't have to do that."

 

"Yeah," Ginny replied, getting to her feet. "Nothing to be fussed about. You're sure you're okay?"

 

"I'm sure."

 

The words did not sound like they had come from her lips. She was not even sure that they had.

 



Chapter 7: Searching
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Sunday graciously proffered ambition that Hermione had not known in weeks. Determined to lessen her time with Malfoy, she ate a hardy breakfast of beans and toast and marched to the library to begin her studies. There was nothing that Malfoy could teach her that she could not learn on her own. That much, she was sure of.

 

There were three supplemental texts that the author recommended: Vials of Questions, Potions for Home and Field Use, and A Potioneer's Guide: The Essentials. The comforting aroma of aged parchment tickled Hermione's nose and for a moment, she almost forgot about her search. Constant worry had robbed her of her purest strain of happiness, and finally, she had found it again.

 

Perusing the shelves felt so natural. Fairytales, biographies, and spellbooks were calling her name, but they would have to wait. After promising herself that she would return to them, she turned the corner to begin looking for the three texts that she needed. According to the book, two were by Boris Yattle and the other was by Maeby Blacktree.

 

"Yattle, Blacktree, Yattle, Blacktree," Hermione repeated to herself. "They've got to be around here somewhere."

 

The dusty tomes before her were certainly potion books, yet none of them were the titles that she needed. Once she finished skimming the spines for the fourth time, she tried summoning the books instead. Unfortunately, nothing came to her.

 

"Looking for anything in particular, Miss Granger?"

 

Madam Pince was standing at the end of the aisle, her lips pressed together and her hair pulled tautly under her pointed hat. The librarian highly disapproved of students enchanting the books in her library, and she had told Hermione as much many, many times.

 

"Yes, actually," Hermione replied, her cheeks growing hot. "Do you have A Potioneer's Guide: The Essentials, Vials of Questions, or Potions for Home and Field Use? I need them for Slughorn's class."

 

"A bit behind in our studies, are we?" Madam Pince almost seemed titillated. "Someone checked out all three of those books just yesterday afternoon."

 

How curious it was that all three ancillary texts were gone. There were not many students that were willing to bother with any extra reading, let alone three books of it.

 

"All three of them? I need those books."

 

"Well, if you need them today, you'll have to find your classmate, Mr. Malfoy. He has them all until next week." Madam Pince laced her fingers together. "Is there anything else I can do to be of help to you, Miss Granger?"

 

"No," Hermione grumbled, crestfallen. "Thank you."

 

Somehow, Malfoy was making her life even more difficult than usual, and she was going to put an end to it.

 

 

***

 

 

Finding Malfoy proved to be a greater challenge than Hermione had prepared for it to be. After scouring the castle and the grounds, she came to the conclusion that he had to be in the dungeon dormitory, where she was, obviously, not allowed. Suddenly, she missed Harry and his Invisibility Cloak more than usual.

 

Loneliness was starting to wrap its gnarled fingers around her ankles to pull her back under its spell. Even though she was downtrodden with defeat, she decided to visit the Gryffindor Common Room. She had avoided it all year, hoping to avert the ceaseless questions and prying demands of younger students. However, her need for human contact had finally become greater than her need for solitude. How long it would last, she did not know.

 

The brisk walk to Gryffindor Tower was quite similar to the route that she would take to her private dormitory. In fact, she passed Ulysse Moreau on the way, who was muttering to himself in French between sips of red wine.

 

Hermione was breathless by the time that she reached her destination, but the familiarity of it was enough to make her forget that she was terribly out of shape. The large woman that leered down at her was a welcome sight, yet somehow, it made Hermione a bit sad. After the year was over, she would never see the portrait again.

 

"Password?" the Fat Lady hummed.

 

"Brioche," Hermione replied. She clasped her hand to her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry. That's the password to my dormitory. Erif you wouldn't mind waiting a moment, I'm sure I have it written down here somewhere..."

 

She rifled through her satchel. The password was on a small leaflet of parchment, given to her by one of the seventh-year prefects. What the boy's name was, she could not remember, but it was not his name that mattered; it was the password that she needed.

 

Luck was not on Hermione's side that day, because she could not find the paper anywhere. It was not in any of her books, it had not settled at the bottom of her bag, and it was certainly not in the pocket where she kept her quills and ink. Emptyhanded, she gave the Fat Lady a sheepish smile.

 

"Surely you know me. H-Hermione Granger? I was in school here for six yearsbecame a prefect even. Last year I was too busy with the war but I'm back to finish my N.E.W.T.s and I know I haven't come by here yet, but I really would like to get into the common room," she rambled, peeking in her satchel again. "I justI can't seem to find the password... I know that I had it..."

 

"Celebrities don't impress me, Miss Granger. No password, no entry."

 

"Please? I promise I'm not here to cause any trouble," Hermione begged. "I know you know who I am."

 

"I know who Hermione Granger is, but Hermione Granger would have the password, and because you do not, I can't confirm that you aren't an impostor," the Fat Lady said, flatly.

 

"She's not an impostor," a voice mumbled from behind. "Jobberknoll."

 

The portrait swung open, though she did not seem very happy about it. According to her mutterings, Hermione was a "troublemaker" and "more self-important than Sir Cadogan".

 

"Thanks for that," Hermione said, following the girl through the portrait hole. "You're a fifth-year, right?"

 

"Sure am," the blonde replied, stiffly. "Lydia Clappord. Prefect. Not that you'd know that."

 

"Ermno, I'm sorry, I've been"

 

"In that private dorm of yours," Lydia finished for her as she plopped onto the rug beside a dark-haired boy and a tabby cat that he was stroking. "Yes, McGonagall made it very clear to us prefects that we aren't to bother you unless it's an emergency. Must be nice to have all that room to yourself when you couldn't even be bothered to show up for school last year."

 

"I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione explained, taken aback. "I wasn't allowed"

 

"You don't need to explain yourself," the boy drawled. The cat rolled onto its back and stretched so he could scratch its armpits. "Lydia here is just rather touchy about having to share a room with Orabelle Wood."

 

"I am not!"

 

"Oh, save it, Clappord." Ginny stepped down from the staircase that led to the girls' dormitory. Her long lashes were thick with black mascara, her bag was slung over her shoulder, and the pink robes she wore were those that Hermione helped her find at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions. Like usual, Ginny Weasley was a sight to behold. "Good to see you, Hermione."

 

"Afternoon, Gin."

 

Ginny settled onto the sofa, slouching in a way that reminded Hermione very much of Ron. "Fancy seeing you here. Headed to lunch or are you here to stay?"

 

"Here to stay for a bit, I suppose," Hermione said, slowly. She sat down beside her friend and combed through her curls with her fingers. Though she would never admit it aloud, she had always been a bit jealous of Ginny's stark straight hair. "I'm honestly just wasting time until I can find Malfoy."

 

Lydia turned to glare at her, but after a glance at Ginny, she quickly turned back around and whispered something inaudible to the boy beside her. Whatever it was, the cat must not have liked it, because it hissed and scurried away.

 

"Did you get started with your Potions studies then? Maybe you can get away with meeting with him just the once and then you'll be good enough for Slughorn to let you off the hook."

 

"Well, there's a problem. Malfoy has all the books I need."

 

"He has all of them?" Ginny asked, incredulously. "He must really want to get you tutored up and be rid of you."

 

"Yeah, I suppose." Inexplicably, Hermione felt sullen.

 

"As sorry as I am, I have to admit, you showing up here does work out for me." Ginny reached into her bag. "You remember those ugly Limax things we had to feed in Care of Magical Creatures last week?"

 

Hermione nodded, still feeling a bit melancholy, though she was unsure why.

 

"Mine never took to the mealworms, so I didn't exactly get to watch it eat," the redhead confessed. She retrieved a green-tipped quill and a scroll of parchment. "Do you think you could help me with the description we're supposed to write? I looked in the book but I couldn't find it anywhere... Actually, I couldn't even find the damn things on the syllabus."

 

"That's because they're not on the syllabus," Hermione said, peering over Ginny's shoulder. "So basically, with the mealworms, they'll take them in their hands and bite them off in chunks. Mine ripped it apart a bit, but Lisa Turpin claimed hers sort of crushed it up and then stuck its hands in its mouth..."

 

Hermione had not taken Care of Magical Creatures in her sixth year, and neither had Lisa Turpin, but Hagrid had kindly allowed them to rejoin him to finish their N.E.W.T. The only stipulation was that they had to learn the Year Six curriculum on their own time. Hermione was on track to be caught up before Halloween.

 

"Thank you." Ginny scribbled down the answer. "I know Hagrid won't even be there so we probably won't turn it in, but I'd rather have it done now so I don't have to think about it."

 

"What do you mean? Where is Hagrid going?"

 

"He didn't tell you?" Ginny asked. She blew on the slow-drying ink. "He's spending the day in the Forbidden Forest. Mercury's aligning with the Sun or something so he was going to go help set up some sort of ritual circle for the centaurs. He made a pretty big deal about it."

 

"Ginny!" Hermione exclaimed. "Centaurs! You're brilliant!"

 

"Hardly," Lydia Clappord grumbled from her spot on the floor.

 

Ginny ignored the blonde girl and replied, "I mean, yes, I am pretty brilliant, but what is it about centaurs? Do you know one that can help you with Potions or something?"

 

Hermione, however, had already rushed towards the portrait hole, and she had no time to answer questions. "I'll tell you later! II have to go!"

 

 

***

 

 

The ugly centaur statue loomed overhead. How she had not thought of it before, Hermione did not know, as she had seen Malfoy disappear before her eyes in that very spot. Alas, with Ginny's accidental assistance, she was finally there. She stamped behind the beast that was, apparently, supposed to be a centaur, and grabbed at the seemingly empty air.

 

"Ow! Watch your filthy hands, Granger!"

 

The Disillusionment Charm faded and Draco Malfoy glowered at her from his place in the corner. Incidentally, Hermione had grabbed a fistful of his hair, as several static-laced strands of platinum were clinging to her fingertips. After wiping her hands of all traces of him, she asked, "What did you do with them?"

 

"Do with what, you lunatic?" Malfoy asked.

 

"The recommended books from our Potions textbook," Hermione said, as though it were the most obvious statement in the world. She pointed at the tome in his lap. "Is that one of them?"

 

"It might be." Malfoy slammed the book shut, a scowl on his face. "Since you're so bloody stupid nowadays, I had to check out every book I could to see if I could actually teach you something."

 

"I'll have you know that I was going to check those books out so I could learn it all on my own!" Hermione jabbed a finger in his face. "Then I wouldn't have to look at your smirking, spoiled, foul face any more than I already have to in class!"

 

"Oh, please! You take notes all day in class and don't learn a damn thing! Bloody good a bunch of books were going to do you if you can't even understand your own notes!"

 

"Those aren't notes! They're" Hermione's face fell. Fuming, she said, "Fine. Meet me tomorrow after dinnerin the library. And after that, you will give me those books."

 

"Oh I will, will I?"

 

"Yes, you will," she said, angrily, "and if you don't, I'll make you."

 



Chapter 8: Studying
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Defense Against the Dark Arts, as it so often did, passed by all too slowly. Listening to Professor Whittlewood overexplain the Imperius Curse may not have bothered Draco before his sixth year, but after he played his role in the war, it was terribly awkward, and the other students made sure that he knew it. Some pointed in his direction, some whispered and giggled at his expense, and others simply ogled at him as though he were one of Rubeus Hagrid's sinister pets. He waited impatiently for the bell—the only marker of his sweet reprieve.

 

"Now, I hope none of you ever learn what it feels like to be under the Imperius Curse," Whittlewood drawled, dragging a decrepit finger through the dust that lined a brass candlestick, "but many describe it as a floating feeling. It is, apparently, quite enjoyable, until you find out what you did while you were bewitched by it, of course!"

 

"Could just ask Madam Rosmerta, couldn't we?" a seventh-year girl said, lowly.

 

Granger whipped around, her dark eyes glimmering with rage. "And what did you do during the war, Janine? Twirled your hair and played along nicely with the Carrows, did you?" The entire class, including Whittlewood, was staring at her, yet she did not seem to mind. "Now, unless you have something to actually contribute to this subject, why don't you shut up and listen to the ruddy lecture!"

 

"Ahem, yes, well, let's move along, then, shall we?" Whittlewood mumbled, flustered. "As I was saying, it's been described as a floating feeling..."

 

Perplexed by Granger's outburst, Draco found himself staring at the back of her messy head for far too long. He stopped only when Whittlewood assigned their homework, and even then, he could not help but steal another glance at the war heroine that had, inexplicably, come to his aid.

 

 

***

 

 

Most students considered dinner in the Great Hall to be the highlight of their day. They were finished with the day's classes, there was a feast to be eaten, and they could visit with their friends before curfew. Draco, on the other hand, despised his time in the Great Hall, so he had made a habit out of skipping meals. He was never all that hungry, anyway, and with everyone else shoveling their faces full like wild dogs, it gave him an hour of much-needed alone time.

 

The solitude should have helped him prepare for an impossible evening of mentoring Granger, yet every time that he skimmed over the text in Vials of Questions, he found himself thinking back to Defense Against the Dark Arts that day. He had only read three pages by the time that Jensen Broadmoor, a seventh-year with whom he shared a dormitory, pushed open the door and sauntered inside.

 

"Oh, sorry, I—erm—" Broadmoor's confidence had subsided. "I was just coming in to grab my—er—I'm just going to go."

 

Draco frowned and peered at his wristwatch. He was due in the library, and he had accomplished little to nothing.

 

After slamming the book shut, he collected his belongings, hurried out of his dormitory, and briefly regarded Broodmoor's sigh of relief. Leaving the Slytherin Common Room tended to be a breath of fresh air, but on that night, Draco could only taste bile.

 

Since dinner had just ended, students of all ages and all houses were packed in the corridors, and as usual, Draco Malfoy was the center of their attention. Ridicule was a familiar friend, yet it was exhausting when so many bombarded him with it at once.

 

Most students branched into differing hallways to go to their respective common rooms, though there were a few that stepped into the library behind him, whispering to one another about the villain they flanked. As the group of third-years slid in between two bookshelves, he found the Potions section and began looking for Granger.

 

It was not long before he spotted her. She was seated alone at a table, quite far away from the rest of the library's evening patrons, glowing picturesquely in the soft candlelight. A tome was splayed out in front of her, and her eyebrows were drawn together as she read the text from the fragile pages, unbothered by her surroundings, completely withdrawn into her world of study. For the first time all day, someone was not acknowledging Draco. If it were anyone else, he would have basked in the moment.

 

He dropped his bag onto the table moodily and seated himself across from her. "Little headstart there, Granger?"

 

"Oh! Erm—no. Ancient Runes," she confessed. "Professor Babbling asked us to do a really long translation. I was just sorting through the symbols I didn't know."

 

"Do that on your time, not mine," he growled, heaving potion books from his bag onto the table. "I want to get this over with as soon as possible."

 

"Good." She closed the giant tome, revealing a faded title that Draco couldn't decipher. "That makes two of us, then."

 

"Right, well, I think it's best if we prepare you for tomorrow's class," he said, airily. "Last thing I need is you poisoning me again, so we're going to talk about how to brew it and what could happen if you're to make a mistake. Maybe then you'll be more careful."

 

"And what about the potions from the past few weeks? I need to understand those too or I can't get an 'O' on my N.E.W.T.!"

 

"Let's just focus on tomorrow for now," he mumbled, leafing through the pages of their assigned textbook. "You need to worry about passing at this rate, so don't get your little Muggle-born heart set on your precious 'O' just yet, yeah?"

 

From the corner of his eye, he could see that her face had become a deep shade of pink. "Look, I've been distracted lately, but you know I'm not stupid."

 

"Ah yes, because only the most brilliant witches and wizards poison themselves and set fire to their own hair. Thanks for setting me straight there, Granger. Can't imagine what I was thinking."

 

She opened her mouth to argue, but faltered. Instead, she reached into her satchel and pulled out her book, her lips sewn together and her knuckles white from gripping the spine with force.

 

"Page seventy-two," Draco instructed. "Now, d'you know what a Gorge Potion is or did your little army class not teach you that?"

 

"Yes, I know what it is," Granger snapped, flipping through pages. "I read about it in our third year."

 

"And it's used for what?"

 

Her dark eyes bore into him. "It's mostly used after someone has been in a situation where they wouldn't be able to eat much—to get them to start eating again. If someone is hospitalized or—or imprisoned, for example. I imagine a lot of my friends had to use it after being locked up in your family's dreadful manor."

 

Draco's stomach lurched. They had not been working for even five minutes and already she had mentioned the horrors that took place in his home.

 

"Fine, then. Since you're such an expert, why don't you tell me why you need to add more heat once the crab brains are cooked?"

 

"Because—erm—" She flipped through several pages. "Well, the directions say so..."

 

"Yes, but since you've had trouble following directions, you need to understand why," Draco said, exasperatedly. He seized A Potioneer's Guide: The Essentials and turned the pages until he reached a line of text in the fourth chapter. "'Some ingredients, like fire-crab brains and basilisk scales, begin to rot immediately after being cooked to completion. In order to avoid this, continuous high heat must be applied until an acidic ingredient is added for preservation.' Yeah, so unless you want rotted crab brain in a potion meant for consumption, you'll want to time that additional heat perfectly."

 

"See! That's why I wanted those books," Granger complained, pawing at the page he was reading from. "How could I have known that without them?"

 

Draco ignored her and grazed over their textbook again. "The other part I imagine you'll make an absolute mess of is Step Six."

 

Granger stopped fussing over A Potioneer's Guide: The Essentials, and turned her attention back towards her own book. "'Cut fourteen frog hearts in half and—'" She glared at him. "Do you really think I can't do this? You just cut them and put them in the cauldron! I'll have you remember, you've been behind me every year since—"

 

"You don't just 'put them in the cauldron'," he spat, tapping the instructions with his wand. "You place them with care. If you drop them, they'll break down too quickly because they'll split when they land in the potion. At this point, it's going to be incredibly dense. See here? 'It may be hard to stir, and it may smell a bit foul, but keep stirring until the hearts have liquefied'. Considering you've always been friends with Weaselbee, you should have no problem handling something that's thick and smelly."

 

"Nice of you to pick fun at him when he's not even here to defend himself."

 

"Don't be so touchy, Granger," Draco replied in a bored tone. "Now, do you understand what we just went over or do I need to go over it again because you were too busy getting upset over your little boyfriend?"

 

She gritted her teeth. "I understand it just fine."

 

"Good. The next bit of directions is straightforward enough that even you couldn't screw them up. It might get a bit tricky for you at Step Ten, though... We'll go over that in a moment. But first, I really want to know something..."

 

"And what is that?" she inquired. Hatred danced in her gaze, burning just as brightly as it had when they were simple second-years and he had called her the worst word that he knew—a word that his father had once used to describe her in the privacy of Malfoy Manor.

 

"What happened to make you so terrible at all of this?" Draco asked, daringly. "You never were so—" He chose his words carefully. "—untalented, considering your parentage."

 

"Considering my parentage," she breathed, furiously. "I'll remind you the only reason you're sitting here with me is because of your snarky little comments about my parentage, so you may want to watch what you say."

 

"What?" he scoffed. "Are you going to go whine to Slughorn? Unless you want to spend even more time with me, I highly suggest you keep this between the two of us."

 

Flaring her nostrils, she merely looked down at her book and said, "Step Ten shouldn't be a problem. Add the wings one at a time and stir—" She met his eyes and cleared her throat. "—I mean, fold, them in."

 

"And why do you want to fold them in rather than stir them?"

 

"So they don't dissolve too quickly." Seeming rather annoyed, she leaned back and crossed her arms. "Just because I'm here with you doesn't mean I don't understand all of this, Malfoy. You can stop treating me like I'm an idiot."

 

"If you understood it, we wouldn't be here. You keep conveniently forgetting that you poisoned me."

 

"So I've been slipping up! Excuse me for not being able to focus when I have to spend all class looking at someone that wanted me dead just last year!"

 

It was not often that Draco Malfoy was speechless. Fortunately for him, Madam Pince had rushed to the Potions section to fill the short silence, out of breath and navy robes hoisted just above her bony ankles.

 

"This is a library, Miss Granger! If you must argue with Mr. Malfoy, please do it with muffled voices!"

 

Granger shook her head. "I'm sorry, Madam Pince. I was just leaving, anyway." She shoved her Potions textbook and the Ancient Runes tome into her satchel, her disdainful gaze still fixed on Draco. "I'm checking out Yissel, Crag, and Dorokardt, by the way."

 

Madam Pince nodded and gave them both a brief once-over again. "Very well. Make sure you've returned it by Wednesday."

 

"Of course." Granger stood and adjusted the satchel over her shoulder. "Malfoy."

 

Still at a loss for words, Draco could only watch her leave. Perhaps, what she said in Defense Against the Dark Arts was meaningless after all.

 



Chapter 9: Missing
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Professor Slughorn hosted a class of fourth-years just before Draco had Potions. Usually, Draco did not think about such unimportant details, but whatever they had brewed left a terrible odor lingering in the room, and he could not help but wonder what the potion might have been. He pondered this and carried his belongings to the back of the classroom, Pansy Parkinson and her redheaded friend in tow.

 

"What is that smell?" Pansy's friend complained, dropping her bag onto her and Pansy's usual table. "Professor! Professor, can't you get rid of it?"

 

Professor Slughorn's mustache twitched, which was the only sign that he might have heard her, for he made no effort to rid the room of the pungent stench. Instead, he cradled a copy of Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students and supervised the charmed piece of chalk that was copying notes onto the blackboard.

 

"It's about to smell even worse," Pansy hissed, though she did not do it very quietly, because Draco could hear her all the way from his table in the back. "Look who just walked in."

 

Hermione Granger was trudging down the aisle, deep shadows beneath her eyes and her robes hanging carelessly off one shoulder. Pansy and her friend smirked and plugged their noses as she passed them, yet she did not seem to notice. Without so much as glancing at Draco or his fellow Slytherins, she settled into her seat and fixed her robes.

 

Seconds later, the booming of the bell could be heard and a few straggling seventh-years hurried to their respective tables. Professor Slughorn didn't bother to reprimand them like some of the stricter professors may have, likely because many of his favorites were amongst the group.

 

"Good to see you all this Tuesday! Hopefully, you've all read the chapter..." The charmed piece of chalk fell onto the stone floor and snapped into dozens of tiny pieces. "We're going to be making a funny little potion today. Gorge Potion! Helps you eat when you don't want to! Great stuff, mostly for healing purposes but some Quidditch players like to use it too... Leonard Pibbles of the Montrose Magpies makes it to add a bit of bulk during season—taught him the brew myself!"

 

A Hufflepuff girl raised her hand. "But sir, wouldn't you want to be lighter on a broom?"

 

"Good observation, Miss Philpott, good observation... Your aunt's brains, I daresay... Most players would indeed like to be lighter, and there are hundreds of crooks that'll try to sell you potions for that. Trust me when I say none of them work!" Slughorn patted his great belly. "Beaters, on the contrary, need a good bit of muscle." He gestured the board. "Now, as you can see, I've added a few notes here. Things to be wary of..." He was talking to everyone in the class, yet his focus was solely on Granger. "Everything should go rather smoothly, so long as you keep these things in mind..."

 

Before long, Professor Slughorn released them to collect their ingredients. Draco began heating his cauldron as the first step instructed, a step that he had nearly memorized after reviewing it over and over again. If Granger spent half as much time studying as he had, it would be a miracle if she failed.

 

Draco was almost finished chopping his fire-crab brains when Pansy started screeching at her friend, whose cauldron was indubitably too hot, as sizzling flecks of brain were spattered all over Pansy's scowling face. The girl started spluttering apologies and wiping her own face on her robes. Draco swore he heard Granger laugh.

 

A few others seemed to struggle with the heat of the cauldron. Draco peeked at Granger while he plopped in the three required cat hairs; she was a few steps behind most of the class, and she still seemed to be fussing over what she claimed were not notes, but she had avoided disaster so far. Satisfied, Draco turned back to his own potion and started folding in the halved frog hearts.

 

It was many moments later when he heard, "Oh no!"

 

The soft words fell upon several deaf ears. Alas, war had gifted Draco with a keen sense of hearing. He was folding his ninth halved frog heart and his potion could not afford for him to be distracted. Mentoring Granger, however, seemed much worse than falling short of an "O" for the day, so he risked a glance. She was frantically trying to retrieve something from her cauldron. What it was, Draco could not tell.

 

"Psst! Granger!"

 

She shot him a glare and mouthed, "What?"

 

"What'd you do to botch this one?"

 

"Nothing! Don't worry about it!"

 

Still, she was fishing in her cauldron, her tongue poking between her lips. Draco, disinterested in spending another awkward evening with her, folded in two more halves of frog heart and looked around the room. Pansy and her friend were, apparently, not on speaking terms, as Pansy had put her bag between their cauldrons, though this might have been because she was afraid of being accosted by more unwelcome organs. The rest of the class was quite enveloped in making their potions, sans Jezebel Twitt, who Slughorn was chatting with in an animated fashion.

 

Once he was sure that everyone was distracted, Draco walked over to Granger's table. She clenched her jaw.

 

"What are you trying to get out of there?" he asked. He did not mean for it to come out as a jeer, but it did.

 

"None of your business, Malfoy," she spat. "Go back to your table."

 

He ignored her and peered over her shoulder. Helping other students during class wasn't forbidden, but it was frowned upon, and he did not want to upset his Head of House.

 

"Dropped too many cat hairs, did you?" He reached into the cauldron with his wand and with a simple Sticking Charm, was able to remove the two extra hairs. "Might be a bit murky from the extra frog oils on my wand. Shouldn't be much of a problem, though."

 

"Thanks," she mumbled, pulling her cutting board close to her. Several perfectly halved frog hearts were lain out on top of it, a sight that impressed Draco, considering she had been nightmarishly subpar in the class for weeks. She grimaced as she plucked one of the halves off of the wooden board.

 

Draco felt confident enough in her to turn around and make his way back to his table. Only her seventh-year admirer seemed to notice that he had been standing there with her, and some part of Draco swelled with pride, though it dulled when he reached his station. His potion had, unfortunately, come to a rolling boil due to his brief negligence. In the end, it would be a bit off-color, and because of that, it would fall just short of a perfect mark. Draco decided that he didn't care. As long as Granger passed and he was relieved of his punishment, he would leave the classroom in a better mood.

 

"Oh no! How did it—"

 

Draco wheeled around to see that Granger's potion had taken a turn for the worse. Brownish-grey bubbles were sputtering over the lip of her cauldron, some exploding and sticking to her long locks while others overflowed onto the table. She put out the flame beneath, but Draco knew that that was not enough. Slughorn was still making wild gesticulations at Jezebel Twitt, so Draco hurried to Granger's aid, hoping that he could help her fix it before he noticed.

 

"I—I did everything that I was supposed to," she said, wiping the failed elixir from her cheek. It left a pink spot. "I don't know where it went wrong!"

 

Draco examined her table and everything on it. How he did not notice it before, he did not know, but there was a suspicious pale yellow liquid lining the surface of her cutting board.

 

"What is that yellow stuff?"

 

"I—I don't know," Granger said, flustered. She was peering into the cauldron, where her potion still bubbled slowly. "There's nothing I—I followed the directions..."

 

Confused, Draco tapped the liquid with the end of his wand. After drawing lines in it for a short while, he determined it was safe to smell, and once he took in its scent, he realized what it was.

 

"Granger, please tell me you cleaned this off after slicing the beetles."

 

She frowned. "I—I think I did. I cleaned it off after—oh. I cleaned it off after the brains but the beetles..." Suddenly, she seemed very angry. "Malfoy, this is none of your business!"

 

Draco could hear his potion hissing. He ignored it and said, "You have to start over."

 

"Start over?" she repeated, glancing at the clock on the wall. "I hardly have time to start over!"

 

"It's unsalvageable. Sting beetle guts are far too caustic—what do you think you're doing?"

 

Granger had picked up her cutting board and her paring knife. Looking quite frazzled, she had raised the knife to the contaminated cutting board, as though she were going to scrape all of the frog hearts in at once. Draco grabbed the other end of the cutting board, dead-set on stopping her before she did something rash.

 

"Let—go—of—it!"

 

"You're mad!" he hissed. "Drop those all in at once and you'll have a nice load of acid here, you will!"

 

"I'm not putting them all in!" She gave the cutting board a great heave. "I just don't want to touch them!"

 

"You shouldn't put any of them in!" Draco heaved back. "You have time to start over!"

 

"I'll add tonic water to make it less acidic," she argued, tugging it towards her again. "I have to turn something in!"

 

"Tonic water won't—oh look what you've done now!"

 

Their game of tug of war had ended catastrophically. The entire cutting board had fallen into her cauldron, the beetle guts and the frog hearts included. The potion bubbled over at once, even without heat, and before Granger could react, a giant, brownish-grey bubble popped in her face. She screamed and pawed at the spot on her forehead, because, just as Draco had said, she now had a cauldron full of intensely potent acid. Professor Slughorn cried, "Oh dear!" and hurried to her aid.

 

Draco noticed that everyone was staring at him and the table he stood beside. His potion was angrily rumbling behind him too, but he wasn't bothered by it. The only thing that he could focus on was the giant, hideous welt above Granger's left eye.

 

"I'm fine. Really, it barely stings now." She grimaced. "I'm really not fussed over it..."

 

Slughorn believed her just as much as Draco did, because he sent her to the hospital wing, just before explaining to the class how her dire mistake led to her boiling up a remarkable batch of Grumfault Acid. After his word of warning, he instructed everyone to return to their potions, likely because he had already prematurely ended far too many classes due to Granger's mishaps.

 

Draco's potion was not as hopeless as Granger's. Still, it would barely earn an "Acceptable". He blamed her. He kept thinking to himself how daft she was and how her carelessness would be the death of them both. Alas, deep down, there was some part of him that only hoped she would be okay.

 


***
 


Charms, which was usually quite uneventful, had been an interesting start to the day. In response to a prank gone wrong, courtesy of three sixth-years, Professor Flitwick skipped several chapters of The Standard Book of Spells, Grade 7 and taught the class how to cancel atmospheric charms. This posed a problem. In order to teach them to cancel atmospheric charms, they first had to learn how to perform them, and that type of magic was far beyond the reach of many.

 

"Oh no!" a seventh-year named Ambra Wingle sobbed. Above her, a large cloud had formed, drenching her first in rain, and then in black droplets of ink. "Professor Flitwick! PROFESSOR FLITWICK!"

 

Flitwick, who was assisting Daphne Greengrass with a rather nasty sunburn, whipped around. Few soaked, frostbitten, and sweating students had successfully canceled their charms, while others were still shouting bastardized versions of "Meteolojinx Recanto" at their small weather systems.

 

"Miss Wingle! I warned you about that ink!" Professor Flitwick squeaked. He pointed his wand at the cloud, muttered the canceling incantation under his breath, and it dissipated. "This is exactly why Floating Ink is forbidden in my classroom! Five points from Ravenclaw!"

 

Ambra Wingle's fellow Ravenclaws, or at least the ones that were not distracted by the blizzard forming in the corner, grumbled. Meanwhile, Ernie Macmillan had conjured a tornado on the other side of the room, which began sweeping up the blizzard's snow and blasting a frigid gust at two seventh-years.

 

Draco, as always, had the sense to sit in the back. While he was a bit hot from Daphne's harsh sunshine, the miniature tornado kept its distance from him. He twirled his quill in a bored manner, as he had already successfully summoned a raincloud, not over his head, unlike others, and canceled it with ease. Flitwick detested him, and still, Draco was sure that he would receive perfect marks. If Macmillan's tornado was a failing grade and Greengrass's blisters were worthy of an "A", Draco thought that his certainty was quite fair.

 

As Professor Flitwick cursed at the snow tornado, Draco glanced at his wristwatch. In only an hour and fifteen minutes, his free period would be ending and he would be due in Defense Against the Dark Arts. Considering Granger would be there, he would rather face the tornado and an angry Daphne Greengrass.

 

 

***

 

 

Defense Against the Dark Arts dragged on, mostly because Granger was not there to answer Whittlewood's monotonous questions. Draco, who did not appreciate being called upon, wondered what had deterred the Muggle-born from making it to class that day, and he didn't seem to be the only one. Ginny Weasley kept turning around to look behind her, almost as though she were expecting her brainy friend to walk in at any given moment.

 

Assuming that she had been invited to yet another interview or tea with McGonagall, he decided it was unimportant and that he would enjoy being rid of her while it lasted.

 

The bell signaled the end of class, though Whittlewood held them for an extra few minutes to assign homework. After taking note of the pages he was expected to summarize, he headed towards the hideous centaur statue, a place that only Granger seemed to know he hid, to study. Somehow, he could not concentrate, and both lunch and his free period were over before he had even finished his Arithmancy essay.

 

Expecting to find Granger in the Transfiguration Room, Draco sneered and slumped into his seat next to Lisa Turpin. To his surprise, Granger was absent again.

 

Welts left by Grumfault Acid were easy to heal and caused no extraneous complications, so it was not as though that could be the cause of her sudden truancy. The hospital wing visit, like the rest of her visits, should have been short-lived, lasting a period or two at most. Given that a day had passed, he would be hard-pressed to believe she was still being treated by Madam Pomfrey.

 

Draco did not know why else she might miss two courses. He had seen McGonagall chatting with Filch in the corridor during his walk to Zigg's class, so that disproved his theory that Granger may have been with her. The Daily Prophet could have been at the castle for an interview, but when he thought about it, he very much doubted that McGonagall would approve such an arrangement.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, is there a problem?"

 

Zigg, standing nearly seven feet tall, was staring at him with his wolfish blue eyes.

 

The rest of the class had already started their spellwork; Lisa Turpin, who was apparently finished, tugged at Zigg's sleeve to show him the burgundy quilt she had folded neatly in front of her. Embarrassed, Draco apologized and attempted to transform his ugly, pink bow into a duvet.

 

 

***

 

 

Thursday was a particularly unexciting day. Granger was absent again, and while this gave Draco less to worry about during Potions, it was awfully unusual. Whyever she was out, it had to be quite a secret, as Slughorn had moped endlessly when Melinda Tatting was gone with spitting lice in their second week, yet he did not speak a word about the classroom celebrity's nonattendance. Others, despite his silence, had certainly noticed that she wasn't present. 

 

"Bet she is off sucking up to McGonagall like usual," Pansy said, crossing her arms. "Probably asking for a passing N.E.W.T. in this class."

 

"And she'll get it too," her friend chimed, "even though she can't even make a bloody herbicide without blinding herself."

 

Draco ignored them and stirred his Draught of Fluorescence. At the end of class, Slughorn declared it to be "a bit too shimmery" and said that he could only in good conscience give Draco an "E" for the day.

 

Arithmancy was no better. Atlas Paisley, who Draco thought more of a swot than Granger, was overjoyed that his rival was gone and his hand darted up each time that Vector asked them a question. Unfortunately, after Paisley answered thrice in a row, Vector began pointing at other students, and like many professors, she tended to target Draco. Two incorrect responses earned him a stern frown, and then more than ever, he wondered when Granger would be making her return.

 

As he shuffled out of Vector's classroom, she tutted him and said, "Please, Mr. Malfoy, do start putting in more effort."

 

Rumor of Granger's disappearance had made it to the Slytherin Common Room. After two dreadful classes, Draco wanted nothing more than to retire to his bed, but just as he prepared to go to the boys' dormitory, he heard Daphne Greengrass's irritating voice. Once he drew closer, he saw her talking to her younger sister and Pansy, still crimson from her incident in Charms.

 

Wondering why they were not in the Great Hall for dinner, he stopped to eavesdrop.

 

"...went mad apparently, she did. She's doing a long stint in the hospital wing 'cause of it," Daphne said. "Velma Gibbicks reckons they might even send her to St. Mungo's, but I mean, it was only a matter of time, wasn't it? After all that happened to her..."

 

"She didn't go mad," Pansy butted in, her nose buried in the Daily Prophet, "but she is in the hospital wing again. Has been since she made acid instead of a Gorge Potion in Slughorn's. Gerald Merrythought saw Madam Pomfrey fussing over her when he went in for that sore on his—" She narrowed her eyes. "Sneaking about, are we, Draco?"

 

"We were talking, Malfoy!" Daphne scowled.

 

"Oh, I'm sorry," he retorted. "Didn't realize the common room was meant strictly for gossiping slags."

 

Daphne humphed and Pansy shrieked, "How dare you!" Daphne's sister, on the other hand, was expressionless.

 

Before he found himself at the business end of Pansy and Daphne's wands, he went to the boys' dormitory, quietly wondering why Granger was still in the hospital wing. He spent the rest of the evening trying to convince himself that he didn't care, yet if he didn't, he would not have thought about it until the crack of dawn.

 



Chapter 10: Gorging
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Hermione had finally been released to join her classmates in the Great Hall after three nights in the hospital wing. The Gryffindor table, which was sparse due to the early hour, had scarcely been a more welcome sight, as Hermione felt hungrier than she had ever felt before. Giddy, she settled into a seat close to her favorite breakfast foods: scrambled eggs, sausages, and blueberry scones.

 

She handpicked the three largest and most heavily glazed scones, piled the eggs high, and took as many sausages as she could fit onto the last small portion of her plate. Two second-years stared at her in awe.

 

"What?" she asked, her mouth already full.

 

"Nothing!" the second-years exclaimed in unison. They reddened and looked down at their plates; one of them chased a rogue tomato with his fork while the other spent a rather long while fussing over her bacon.

 

Hermione quickly forgot about the duo seated opposite her, as she found it difficult to think about anything other than the delicious sustenance that she had been passing up for an entire month, sans a day or two. Too long had her morning meal consisted primarily of small bites of toast and spoonfuls of baked beans; too long had depression eaten away at her.

 

She was half-finished with her mountain of scrambled eggs when someone shouted, "Hermione!"

 

Ginny Weasley sidled along the walkway between the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables, earning a few annoyed glances from some Ravenclaws of the broad-shouldered variety. Both tables were packed much more tightly than they had been when Hermione first arrived. How she did not notice everyone or the crescendo of common breakfast chatter, she did not know.

 

"Morning, Ginny," Hermione said. She took a bite of her third scone. The chewing filled her ears, along with a tiny voice that encouraged her to take another from the pastry platter.

 

"Where have you been?" Ginny asked as she sat down and started to fix a plate—one that was noticeably less ambitious than the one in front of Hermione. "Half the school was claiming you'd gone mental."

 

"No, nothing like that," Hermione laughed, before shoving the rest of her scone into her mouth. "Adda osha go—" She swallowed. "Excuse me! Had a potion go awry in Slughorn's. Madam Pomfrey decided to keep me for a few days afterwards... I'm out for good now—or at least until I set my hair on fire again."

 

"Must've been quite nasty then, if she kept you so long..." Ginny was slowly cutting into a slab of ham when she noticed Hermione scooping another monstrous helping of eggs onto her plate. "Merlin, Hermione! Did she not feed you while you were in there?"

 

"She fed me plenty, really," Hermione admitted, dropping the serving spoon back into the bowl. "That's actually why she made me stay... Apparently, I was a bit underweight..."

 

"Oh, Hermione, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"

 

Hermione shook her head. "No, no. It's quite alright. I just—I might be eating a bit more than usual for a few days. We'd been making Gorge Potions in Slughorn's when I ended up in the hospital wing, so lucky for me, she had a fresh load of it... I'm to finish two more bottles or else I have to go back." Frowning, she added, "They've been charmed to buzz at me if I miss a dose."

 

"It wasn't..." Ginny averted her gaze and scraped her fork against her teeth. "It wasn't because of my—my brother or anything, was it?"

 

Taken aback, Hermione firmly said, "No! Of course not! Merlin, Ginny, did you think I was doing it on purpose?"

 

"Well, I dunno... You've seemed rather depressed lately..."

 

"War is depressing. Shocking, isn't it?" Hermione said, coldly. "It's a bit irritating to come in here and have everyone ogle at me and remind me that just a few months ago, I was running from Snatchers and being tortured by Death Eaters and—" She saw Malfoy enter the Great Hall, his arms held close to his person and his neck craned as though he were searching for someone. "It just isn't as easy as I hoped it would be. That's it."

 

"Hermione—"

 

"Does Malfoy come here during lunch and dinner?" Hermione interrupted, watching the blond Slytherin as he looked around the gargantuan room. Her eyes met his and he hurried towards the Slytherin table. "This is the first time I've seen him at breakfast in weeks."

 

"What?" Ginny asked, blinking. "I don't know. Maybe? I don't exactly go looking for him..."

 

"He looks ill," Hermione noted. She stabbed into a sausage. "Paler than usual, if that's possible—and if Madam Pomfrey saw how thin he is, she'd probably be shoving Gorge Potion down his throat instead of mine."

 

"I mean, I guess so," Ginny said, turning around to peek at the Slytherin table between two quarreling Ravenclaws. Whatever Malfoy did upon seeing her, it was enough for Ginny to make a rude hand gesture at him. "Obviously he's not that ill. He's still a prat."

 

"Didn't say he wasn't," Hermione said, midchew. "I was just thinking how he looked like that during our sixth year when he was—well, you know."

 

"You don't think he's up to something, do you?"

 

"Up to something? No, nothing like that..."

 

Hermione had considered that he might be slipping into his old habits—suspected it even—yet Malfoy was a notorious coward, and he would be far too afraid of the Ministry's wrath to misbehave. The haughty pureblood was many things, but daft was not one of them.

 

"He is awfully unpopular lately, isn't he?" Ginny pointed out, glancing behind her again. "Even Pansy Parkinson wants nothing to do with him. I heard her and Evan Siftwell having a go at him the other day after Astronomy. Something about his—er—inadequacies."

 

"Pansy Parkinson is foul. She has no room to be 'having a go' at anyone." Hermione tore into another scone with more force than she intended.

 

"That's what happens when your mummy and daddy spoil you too much. I reckon Siftwell and her are a good match in that way. He's a prat too."

 

"Siftwell's that boy she's always clinging onto? With the dark hair?"

 

"That's the one. Honestly, I was surprised she went for him because I'm pretty sure his mum's a Muggle..." Ginny raised her brows judgmentally and cut into the waffle on her plate. "Parkinson likes her Seekers though..."

 

"He's a Seeker? I thought Malfoy would be their pick."

 

"I dunno. His whole house hates him, don't they? And he's not exactly in the best shape right now... I thought they'd get Harper, but he didn't come back this year... Only option left is Siftwell."

 

Hermione was not sure why she was invested in the logistics of Slytherin's Quidditch team. If Harry tried having such a conversation with her two years prior, she would have changed the subject at once. Alas, she found herself asking, "How do you figure? He's never played for their team before, has he?"

 

"No, he's tried out every year we've had a season, though. Apparently, it's always been a really close call between him and Malfoy but Malfoy had more experience. What with Malfoy looking like a walking corpse and all, I think it's safe to assume Siftwell's got it in the bag."

 

"If you put half this much effort into Defense Against the Dark Arts and Care of Magical Creatures, you wouldn't have to cheat off me," Hermione mused.

 

"It's my job!" Ginny held up her hands in surrender. "Quidditch Captain is a pretty big deal, you know... The only reason I know Siftwell is even trying out again is because I've been gossiping with Brielle Minks and I promise you I wouldn't be doing that if I weren't taking this whole thing seriously."

 

"Brielle Minks? Isn't she the one that had her eardrums blown out by Moaning Myrtle?"

 

"That's her. Her brother and Siftwell are mates. I sort of heard her talking about them in the library and decided to make friends with her to get a bit of a leg-up on the competition... She's miserable, really, but she's not all bad once you get to know her." Ginny sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else. "As for our team, I have my eye on a few. Can never know who'll actually show up to tryouts, though." Suddenly, her eyes lit up. "Oh! The post!"

 

Several owls swooped in. Altius landed in front of Ginny with a thick envelope, and when Hermione risked a quick glimpse, she saw that Malfoy was ripping into a small parcel. His eagle owl was perched on his shoulder, waiting patiently for a treat.

 

Hermione dabbed her mouth. "Well, I'm going to start walking down to Hagrid's. I'll see you there."

 

"I'll walk down with you if you'll wait just a moment," Ginny replied, proffering Altius a nibble of smoked mackerel. She ripped into the envelope. "Sorry, it's a bit weighty, so I think Harry's sent a long one this time..."

 

"I'd rather leave now," Hermione said, simply. "I'll see you in class."

 

Before Ginny could get another word in, Hermione shuffled out of the Great Hall. How dreadfully unfair it was that Draco Malfoy was receiving care packages while her parents did not even know who she was. How sad it was that Harry mailed Ginny at least five times a week while Ron could not even answer one of her dozen letters. War was cruel, and the aftermath, it seemed, was crueler.

 

 

***

 

 

Care of Magical Creatures was beginning to remind Hermione why she stopped taking the course in the first place. There was a syllabus that was provided, but rarely did they follow it, as Hagrid tended to focus on whatever bizarre creature he was able to obtain most recently. Whether he obtained it legally or not was a different question altogether, and it was this that gave Hermione the treacherous thought that she had had so many times: Hagrid, no matter how kind, was not qualified to be a professor.

 

When the class ended, Hermione immediately shoved Hairy Beasts and Scaly Pets into her satchel, eager to get to Ancient Runes before the second bell. Unfortunately, Hagrid rounded on her as she was preparing to leave.

 

"Heard 'bout yeh bein' stuck in the hospital wing," he said. "You bin doin' everythin' Madam Pomfrey says, have yeh?"

 

"Yes, Hagrid," Hermione said, exasperatedly, though she was also a bit relieved that he wasn't asking her about his teaching skills. That was a subject she had already dodged several times that year. "Sorry, but I'm in a bit of a hurry..."

 

"Oh, I won't keep yeh... Checkin' in ter make sure yeh get better's all..." He waited for a seventh-year to pass by and lowered his voice. "Heard yeh poisoned Malfoy too."

 

"Not on purpose! I was—" She glanced at her watch. "I'm really sorry, Hagrid, but I really have to go. Professor Babbling will dock points if I'm late."

 

"Fine, fine," Hagrid grunted. "I ought ter get Billy put away anyway..."

 

Billy was Hagrid's newest addition to his bizarre collection of magical creatures. The harmless name hardly did the creature any justice, as it was a rather untamed griffin that Ginny joked would more suitably be called "Killy".

 

Hermione pivoted around and opened her mouth to speak to the last Weasley remaining at Hogwarts; their route was similar, so they tended to walk back to the castle together. To her surprise, all that she saw was the back of Ginny's head, her red hair bouncing up and down with each inclining step. Hermione assumed that this was some form of payback since she had not accompanied Ginny down after breakfast, and with a pang of guilt, she hiked up the hill that dwarfed the gamekeeper's hut.

 

"I see you made it just by the skin of your teeth, Miss Granger," Professor Babbling said as Hermione brushed past her and breathlessly found her seat behind Atlas Paisley. The second bell sounded and the wide-nosed woman clasped her hands together. "I'll take Wednesday's translations, then."

 

A few groans echoed around the room. Fluetta Soots, a mousy Hufflepuff that always wore the same blue barrette, stifled a miserable sob as her fourteen-inch-long parchment floated into Babbling's thick fingers; Atlas Paisley shot her a smirk.

 

Hermione sympathized with the girl's anxiousness. Ancient Runes had always been one of the most difficult classes that she chose to take, as the runes never seemed to mean the same thing twice. Having done her homework from her bed in the hospital wing, she retrieved her translation and sent it to the front.

 

"I see a severe variation in parchment length," Professor Babbling said, pointedly. Indeed, the stack of homework in her hands ranged from six inches to scrolls so long that they curled upon themselves. "That's never a good sign."

 

Fluetta buried her face in her hands, muttering "stupid, stupid, stupid" over and over again. Atlas Paisley's air of confidence had dwindled too, which was a welcome change to many, including Hermione.

 

They spent the rest of the class reviewing Runic vowels and magical words, a review that Professor Babbling dubbed "absolutely crucial" if they planned on passing their N.E.W.T.s. Only two students had correctly listed Gelbeon's Forty-Six Runes of Ancient Magic three classes prior; Hermione was, proudly, one of the two.

 

Nevertheless, talent did not excuse her from assignments. Because her merit meant little but marks when it came to the coursework, Hermione left Ancient Runes with an overwhelming number of pages to translate, just like everyone else had. Copying the page numbers took so long, in fact, that she ended up jogging to Defense Against the Dark Arts.

 

By the time that she reached the third-floor classroom, nearly all of her classmates were already seated. In the back of the room, like usual, was Malfoy, his cheeks gaunt and his skin so pale that it was a sickly shade of lavender. Upon deciding that she shouldn't stare, she strode past him and found her seat beside Ginny.

 

"Did you do the reading? I forgot." Ginny said, as though they had not each snubbed one another before and after Hagrid's class.

 

"Of course I did it," Hermione said, pulling out Defense Against the Dark Arts in the Civilized Age. She was grateful that Ginny didn't seem to be upset with her. "I'll help you, of course, but you really ought to start paying more attention if you want to pass your N.E.W.T.s..."

 

"I know, I know. I'm just distracted—what with my new duties as Quidditch Captain and Harry being off with the Ministry and all..."

 

Hermione understood more than Ginny knew, yet she could not help but feel a bit annoyed as well. Terrors of war and the quiet melancholy of heartbreak were Hermione's distractions; Ginny simply had to manage who was going to throw a Quaffle and writing back her boyfriend, who had miraculously become much more eloquent than Hermione ever remembered him being. If she could trade problems with Ginny, she wouldn't think twice, especially since she still had to meet with Malfoy for the foreseeable future.

 

The distractions, despite Hermione's advice, continued. Whittlewood spent most of the class period rattling on about countering water spells, which seemed to inspire Ginny's doodles on the parchment in front of her. Hermione directed a glare of disapproval at a crude picture of two merpeople; they seemed to be a reimagination of Harry and Ginny if they grew gills and lived in the Great Lake.

 

Ginny was not the only one that was ignoring the monotonous lecture either. Hermione and Malfoy could get into serious trouble if they did not meet once per week, so she found herself turning to look at him as discreetly as possible, trying to gauge his mood. He was fiddling with a small object that kept wrapping around his forefinger. What it was, Hermione was not sure.

 

Scheduling more time with him seemed impossible when his mere presence made her want to blast a hundred hexes in his direction. Apparently, he felt the same way, because he scowled at her and motioned for her to turn back around.

 

Their first meeting had gone so poorly that she considered asking Professor Slughorn to rethink the punishment. She was, however, far too embarrassed by her marks to even approach the stout man. Not to mention, it felt like she would be letting Malfoy win. He detested her and the blood he dubbed too dirty for magic, so if she fought to separate herself from him, he would only be getting exactly what he wanted.

 

"Please give me your chapter summaries on Monday," Professor Whittlewood said. "For full credit, you must summarize each Dark spell of the water element and which spell you would use to counter it. I will not accept something silly like 'Stupefy' either... I want the specific counter that would only work for the spell given..."

 

"Isn't that more like an essay, then?" a seventh-year whispered.

 

The complaint sounded very much like something that Ron or Harry might say, and even with Ginny at her side, Hermione felt an incredible sense of loneliness. Perhaps it was a blessing, because the wound did not cut as deep when Ginny announced she was going to the common room to write to Harry after lunch. She did not think to invite Hermione along, and Hermione took this as a sign that she was unwelcome.

 

Without anyone to speak to, the war heroine spent most of her free period in the library, her stomach roiling from either stress or the six ham sandwiches she had eaten. She twisted her quill in her hands, wondering what her summertime beau was doing. It was a habit that she knew to be a bad one, but she could not break free of it no matter how hard she tried. During her three-night stint in the hospital wing, she thought of two things: Ron and war. Why she had been gullible enough to believe that that might change upon her release, she wasn't sure. It was never as simple as that.

 

Before she knew it, the bell had sounded. The parchment in front of her was blank, set aside a few swirls that she had aimlessly penned as she revisited a rather steamy August evening with the boy she so adored.

 

The walk to Transfiguration should have put her mind at ease, yet she still was plagued by thoughts of her redheaded paramour. The handsome woman that she kept picturing, a woman that she could not even be sure existed, was wrapped around him, touching him in places Hermione had been far too shy to touch him during their time together. He was tugging at her glittering robes, running his fingers up her—

 

Then, Malfoy stalked past her. Whatever she thought Ron and the dream-woman might be doing, it was suddenly unimportant.

 

"Tomorrow," she said, loudly, before she could stop herself. "Be in the library at three o' clock."

 

He whipped around. His eyes were a piercing shade of silver, somehow softer than those of his father, even when they were gleaming with fury. It was a color that Hermione had seen only on him—a color that may have been hauntingly beautiful in another life.

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"We have to meet," Hermione said, matter-of-factly. "My marks are still—" She drew in a deep breath. "—not the best—and Slughorn said we have to meet until I improve. We might as well do it tomorrow and have it out of the way."

 

"You can't just bark orders at me," Malfoy scoffed, storming towards her. "Who do you think you are, Granger?"

 

"The sooner my marks go up, the sooner I can be away from you. So will you be there or should I report you to Slughorn?"

 

He glared at her for a moment before finally muttering, "Fine, but from now on, don't talk to me like I'm some kind of idiot. I'm not your brainless pet Weasley."

 

With that, he stomped to Zigg's class. Hermione trailed behind him, wishing very much that he was, as he so elegantly put it, her "brainless pet Weasley".

 


 

Author's Note: Please leave reviews! They definitely keep me motivated to keep updating regularly. :) 



Chapter 11: Bleeding
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Waiting in the library was a joyous occasion during Hermione's younger years. Back then, huddling around bookshelves meant solving forbidden mysteries with her two best friends, which she had discovered to be exactly her brand of mischief. As Harry and Ron moved into their careers, Hermione was in school alone—older, wiser, and much more battered. No longer was she waiting for her friends. Instead, she was expecting the arrival of one of her least favorite schoolmates, and that made her feel nothing less than nauseated.

 

She was halfway through the assigned chapter, a rather fascinating read about Hamilton Pertinger, when she saw her appointment turn the corner. Ethereally tall and fair, Draco Malfoy glided towards her like a phantom, his face expressionless and a scarlet book held tightly to his side.

 

"You're late."

 

"It's Saturday, Granger," he drawled, plopping his copy of Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students onto the table. "Surely, you can handle a ten-minute shift in your afternoon schedule."

 

Keeping the peace was in Hermione's best interest, so instead of arguing with him, she merely cleared her throat and said, "So I was reading about Pertinger's antidote for chronic wand wrist."

 

He pulled out the chair beside her and sat down. An air of ennui, Fraser fir, and new parchment emanated from him. "Is that so?"

 

"Yes." Hermione was unsure what annoyed her about his lack of interest, yet something about it made her feel even queasier than she did before. "It seems fairly easy. If I focus on it, I really think I could make a successful batch and get top marks on Tuesday. Then maybe Slughorn will let us both off."

 

Malfoy flipped through his book until he reached the chapter illustration (a crude drawing of a mustached man holding a vial) that matched Hermione's. "Considering your track record this year, I'm not going to get my hopes up."

 

"I've worked with fluxweed before. I think the most important thing will be to source it from the most recent full moon," Hermione went on, ignoring his comment. Her stomach was still twisting every-which-way. "It says here they want a fresh pick when it's not yet full-sized, which is unusual since a lot of potions require it to age for several moon cycles... Anyway, the last full moon was nearly three weeks ago, so it won't be completely fresh, but it should do, assuming Slughorn got it from Sprout when he ought to've. I guess we are only trying to change the state of the tendons and the muscles in one specific area, so maybe it doesn't need to be very potent..."

 

"Spent those few days in the hospital wing studying, did you?"

 

"No—in second year I had to spend quite a long while making a—" She paused for a second, realizing that what she was about to reveal to Malfoy might be a betrayal of her friends' trust. Rather than divulge, she deadpanned, "I'm experienced with it. Let's just say that."

 

Certainty danced in his pools of grey. "Ah, right. Your little Polyjuice experiment."

 

Hermione's face became incredibly hot. Harry and Ron would never forgive her if she confessed it to him, despite all the time that had passed. Alas, he already knew. He was far too confident to be voicing mere speculation.

 

"I—well I—how did you—"

 

"Myrtle," he said, shortly. "Said your lot were the last ones to spend much time with her before—before I—" The depiction of Hamilton Pertinger seemed suspiciously interesting to him, all of a sudden. "Anyway, there's not much risk of you turning into a cat this time, but if you can make a Polyjuice Potion, you surely should be able to be make everything we've been doing in class. You need to get out of that bushy head of yours, though. It's not doing you any favors."

 

She was not sure what was more surprising: the fact that Malfoy knew she had been brewing Polyjuice Potion in the second-floor girls' lavatory or the fact that he almost sounded empathetic.

 

"Right," she managed, thickly. "Erm—well, I think if I study I won't have too much trouble with this. I'm caught up in Charms and Ancient Runes so I'll have lots of time to read up. I was going to check out the ancillary texts, so long as you've turned them in..."

 

"I had to. I didn't plan on it but Pince has that awful spell on them and they started burning a hole in my—hang on. You don't take Charms."

 

"Actually, I do take Charms," Hermione corrected him, turning the page of her textbook. A group of giggling fifth-years gained her attention briefly before she turned back to skim a section about the dangers of using underdeveloped Dugbog fins. "Professor Flitwick approved me to do independent study, so I don't have to sit in on the lectures. I wasn't going to be able to take Ancient Runes otherwise."

 

"Independent study," he repeated, acidly. "Typical."

 

"Do you have a problem with that?"

 

"No. It wouldn't be the first time someone gave you some sort of special privilege, would it?"

 

"Don't you dare lecture me about privilege, Malfoy. I'm sure you recall there was a time not so long ago where my position was far less privileged than yours."

 

After scrutinizing her for a moment, he pointed at a line of text. "Step Nineteen. Tell me why it's pertinent to stir clockwise instead of counterclockwise."

 

Flummoxed, Hermione said, "Erm—I mean, basic potion theory is that when you want to increase, you stir clockwise, and when you want to decrease, you stir counterclockwise." Finding the step he spoke of, she added, "Since we're trying to increase the volume, clockwise stirring only makes sense."

 

"Very good, Granger. You're using that brain of yours now."

 

"Was that a compliment?" Hermione asked. Her insides, inexplicably, were twisting once more.

 

The corner of his lip twitched upward so quickly that Hermione thought she might have imagined it. His signature scowl followed suit. "Don't get used to it. Step Twenty-Six: It's going to be really important that you use blue bottleslugs rather than red ones because the red ones—"

 

Before Malfoy could finish his sentence, his textbook darted out from beneath his forefinger and up into the air. It lingered there for a second and just as he reached into his robes for his wand, the book landed hard on his head. Cursing, he rubbed his scalp.

 

Laughter could be heard from the end of the aisle, and as Hermione trained her wand on the perpetrators, her jaw stiffened. Pansy Parkinson and Daphne Greengrass stood there, smirking with a group of sixth-years, apparently unworried about the hexes that Hermione was prepared to cast.

 

"Oh is your little Mudblood going to protect you, Draco?" Pansy let out a terrible cackle. "I knew you always fancied her but I must admit, I'm appalled to see her actually sitting with you. I figured even she was better than that."

 

Malfoy was fuming, yet he did not seize his wand. Instead, he furiously picked up the book and rifled through the pages, undoubtedly searching for the chapter that they had been reading.

 

"He probably Imperiused her like he does everyone else," Daphne said. She cuffed hands with a bespectacled sixth-year boy and added, "Come on, Peter. He might get us too if we aren't careful."

 

Daphne marched out of eyeshot, pulling the boy behind her. Pansy, on the other hand, kept her feet planted firmly in place; an accomplished smirk was painted across her lips and her left hand was still tightly curled around her wand.

 

"Granger, I do hope you know his parents won't approve—or maybe they will." She glanced at Malfoy. "Some sort of ploy to get your family back in the Ministry's good graces, is it?"

 

"There's really no need to be jealous, Pansy," Hermione said, bitterly, using her wand to tap her book, which was still open to the instructions for making Pertinger's wand wrist antidote, or as he so named it, Pertinger Potion. "We're just studying."

 

Pansy's grin widened, as did her dark eyes. "Potions? Oh, that's good, Granger. You certainly need it." Finally, she tucked her wand back into her robes. "By the way, Draco, if you want your schoolbag, you'll need to talk to Evan. I'm sure he knows where it might be hanging around."

 

Giggling madly, she turned on her heel and chased after Daphne and Peter. The other two sixth-years hesitated, yet once she shrieked at them, they begrudgingly trudged in her direction.

 

"She's an absolute bitch," Hermione growled, crossing her arms. Rarely did she use such language, yet she could not help it when it came to the likes of Pansy Parkinson. Of everyone at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hermione thought the Slytherin girl to be the worst of them all—and that included the hateful boy that sat beside her. "Who does she think she is? Coming over here and insulting the both of us like we're worth less than the dirt on her shoe... And what was that about your schoolbag?"

 

"It's nothing," he grumbled, impatiently. "So as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, let's talk about Step Twenty-Six. Why the blue bottleslugs rather than the red?"

 

Shaken, Hermione started to graze over paragraphs for an answer she already knew. Upon realizing that she didn't need a book to tell her about the differences in bottleslugs, she said, "Er—right. Well, blue bottleslugs are used for healing and red bottleslugs are just more of a thickener than anything... I'm sorry, I don't mean to dwell on it, but why does Evan Siftwell have your schoolbag?"

 

"What's it to you, Granger?" He was heavily fixated on his book again. "Step Thirty-Three—"

 

"Malfoy, you have to tell a professor about him and Pansy! Madam Pince, even! She'd lose her hat if she heard that Pansy's been using books as blunt weapons," she insisted. "Even when we were kids—I mean there was that time with my teeth—I guess and that time that I slapped you, but that's not the point! Parkinson cannot just come in here, unprovoked, and be hitting people in the head with textbooks! Oh, if we were still prefects—"

 

"I am not about to go run to a professor because some prat stole my bag. Now, if you would please bloody focus, I'd appreciate it if you looked at Step Thirty-Three."

 

Hermione, unpleased with Malfoy's disinterest in reprimanding Pansy and Siftwell, read the instruction that he mentioned. "Yes, submerge the butterweed slowly. What about it?"

 

"Tell me what would happen if you submerged it too fast," he said, rubbing his head again.

 

"The potion could spit at me and burn my skin," she replied, sounding rather bothered, "because I haven't yet added the midge wings."

 

"Yes, that's right." He was still pawing at the spot on his head, seeming far too distracted to have even heard her answer. "You'll need to know that for the essay due Tuesday."

 

When Malfoy pulled his hand away at last, Hermione noticed a telling splotch of crimson. Perhaps, had she been a little taller, she would have noticed it before.

 

"You didn't tell me you were bleeding!" she exclaimed, scrambling to her feet. Standing over the sitting wizard, she saw patches of red in his platinum locks that were usually so pristine. "That book did hit you quite hard, though..."

 

Hermione then did what came naturally to her. Just as she would have done for Harry, Ron, or anyone else, she carefully fingered his scalp in search of the wound.

 

"What are you doing?" he spat, jerking away from her.

 

She glared at him and combed through his hair once more. "I'm helping you."

 

Reluctantly, he settled into the walnut library chair and allowed her to assist. With her wand pointed directly at the abrasion, Hermione murmured some healing spellwork, followed by "Scourgify!", which left his hair as clean as it was when he first sat next to her.

 

"Is that better?"

 

"I guess. I could've done it myself."

 

Hermione removed her fingers from his shimmering strands and irately sat back down. Revulsion laced her tone when she halfheartedly said, "You're welcome."

 

Malfoy must have thought that the moment was too awkward to salvage, because he hurriedly closed his book and stood, making a point to create several feet of space between them.

 

"Study a lot, as you said you would. And we shouldn't meet here anymore. It's far too public."

 

Hermione raised an eyebrow. Meeting in private with Malfoy would not be as easy as it was with Harry and Ron. They did not share a common room, and many of the unused classrooms were being used by professors whose rooms were still littered with rubble. There was, of course, Myrtle's bathroom, yet Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that he wanted to avoid Myrtle just as much as she did.

 

"Okay... Where would you want to meet that isn't public? I suppose there's the Room of Requirement—"

 

"No," he said, quickly. "No, not there."

 

"Well, sorry, Malfoy, but we can't exactly both fit behind that hideous statue you love so much, and I'm not about to go squeezing into a broom cupboard with you. There's the Astronomy Tower but people use that for—" She grimaced. "Well, you know what it's for!"

 

"We can figure out the place later, but it can't be here. Being seen with each other isn't going to do either of us any favors, and unless you want me to tell everyone you're with me for Remedial Potions—"

 

"Slughorn never called it that!" she hissed. "And keep your voice down, please!"

 

"You see my point, then."

 

"Okay, fine—not here," she conceded. "I'm going to study the rest of the weekend, so maybe I'll do really well and we won't have to meet again, anyway."

 

He avoided her gaze. "Right. Well, I ought to be going. If you have any questions, you know where you can find me."

 

Then, without another word, he left Hermione to sit alone. To her horror, she couldn't help but wonder what he did to make his hair so soft.

 



Chapter 12: Asking
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Tuesday was to beckon success. At least, this was how Hermione felt when she woke up and traipsed down to the Great Hall for breakfast. She was not terribly hungry, as she had taken her last dose of Gorge Potion that Sunday, yet the enticing smell of bacon gave her all the encouragement she needed.

 

"Morning, Hermione," Ginny greeted her through a mouthful of what Hermione could only assume were potatoes. Her plate was a graveyard for a meal recently departed, red remains of baked beans and all.

 

"Morning," Hermione replied, wordlessly summoning the bacon. A fourth-year jumped as the platter slid away from him, but she paid him little attention and served herself three piping hot slices. Chewing on a piece, she grinned. "Lovely day, isn't it?"

 

Ginny stabbed a chunk of blood sausage. "Guess so. Hope the weather doesn't turn before tryouts."

 

Tryouts: a word Ron had used ceaselessly during their last year at Hogwarts. Hermione could almost see it falling from his chapped, pink lips, waving solemnly to her as both a distant memory and a familiar, nagging friend.

 

"Oh, that's right," she said, shaking Ron from her thoughts. "Those are this evening, aren't they? I nearly forgot."

 

"Yeah, just after dinner." Ginny's fair skin had gone a tinge green. "First and last tryouts as Captain."

 

"Big day. You aren't feeling nervous, are you?"

 

"Nervous? I mean, I think I should be—or all of Gryffindor should be, rather," she answered, sourly. "Robins and Coote are both in the hospital wing from a run-in with Hagrid's stupid griffin and the Rollins twins have got detention so they won't be able to show. I'm pretty sure they were the only ones that were even going out for Keeper and the second Beater position." Each irate gesticulation that she made was another brave—and risky—swing of the sausage. "I wanted to move it to next week but Zigg refused to allow it. Claimed we were already cutting it too close to the first game of the season." She tucked her flaming red hair behind her ear and finally cut into the blood sausage with much more force than necessary. "I'm half-tempted to go to McGonagall over the whole thing, honestly. She would never let us go into tryouts with two of our main players out."

 

"You think she'd listen?" Hermione asked, buttering a piece of toast.

 

"Who knows. She'll probably tell me I have to listen to the new Head of House," Ginny grumbled, "but if he had half a brain, I wouldn't be going to her for help, would I?"

 

The general consensus of the student body was that Professor Zigg was one of the worst teachers in the school; some even theorized that he was a friend of the Carrows who applied only to torture the students as much as he could without breaking McGonagall's new rules. Hermione, on the other hand, thought his adeptness for Transfiguration was remarkable, and as such, he was a worthy professor. Though, instead of telling Ginny this, she opted for, "So what does that mean for the team?"

 

"It means we'll need a good Seeker if we plan on beating Ravenclaw next month," Ginny said, moodily. "It wouldn't matter if I had Sinéad Murphy as a Keeper—not when we're going up against Spatt and Brigham."

 

"Who's Sinéad Murphy?"

 

"Of the Ballycastle Bats? Merlin, Hermione, she was only the best Keeper in the league last season."

 

"Er—right," Hermione said, a bit embarrassed. She dabbed her mouth with her napkin. "You don't have any Seekers in mind, then?"

 

"None," Ginny replied sadly. "If only Harry had come for one more year. I would've liked to win Quidditch Cup as Captain just once."

 

Hermione decided not to point out that Ginny wouldn't be a captain at all if Harry were there. Supporting Weasleys was difficult when it came to Quidditch, except this time, Hermione could not use a Confundus Charm to solve the problem.

 

"What about you?" Ginny asked, shoveling more beans onto her plate. "You think Slughorn's going to let you off?"

 

Relieved to avoid any more Quidditch talk, Hermione said, "I think so. I hope so."

 

"Well, do your best to make it happen. First Hogsmeade weekend is three weeks from now and Harry's already said he's going to try and come. I suspect Luna and Neville might make an appearance too."

 

"Anyone else?" Hermione said, casually.

 

Ginny shook her head, her expression knowing and apologetic. "Don't think so. Not that Harry mentioned, anyway."

 

Hermione nodded and excused herself to study. If there was one thing that could ruin her day, it would be thinking too hard about Ronald Weasley.

 

 

***

 

 

By the time Hermione reached the dungeons, she had already spent far too long thinking about the upcoming Hogsmeade weekend. It did not escape her that Harry could likely convince Ron to come, and that with Ginny's help, Hermione could ask him to do exactly that. Yet, she did not know what she would do if the redheaded boy actually showed. After almost two full months apart, she wasn't sure whether she would want to embrace him or slap him.

 

Malfoy arrived shortly after she settled into her seat. Their eyes met briefly, his swirling with warning, and all Hermione's thoughts of Ron washed away. She let him distract her during class far too often, and if her meetings with Malfoy were ever going to end, she had to focus on the potion she had spent so much time studying.

 

"Hello, everyone—oh, Miss Limmonsquidge, I see that your thumb has healed up quite nicely! Good to know this old chap can still brew a good batch of Skele-Gro!" Once he finished examining the plump girl's hand, Professor Slughorn cracked his spine loudly and raised his bushy eyebrows at the class. "Anyway, beautiful bit of sunshine today—and in October! A good omen for us all, I think." He scratched his mustache, perhaps realizing that his point was lost, as there were no windows in the cold, musty dungeon. "Well, I hope you've all read the chapter. When you're my age, this particular potion may come of some great use to you... You can buy it, of course, but you'll save a good Galleon making it at home..."

 

Professor Slughorn rambled for at least ten more minutes before releasing everyone to gather their ingredients. Hermione would have been the first one to the cupboard if Imogene Fortescue hadn't knocked a cauldron over, which rolled all the way down the aisle and tripped Hermione, who fell onto the floor. Pansy Parkinson stepped on her fingers with a facetious "oops!" and her signature cackle.

 

"Oi! Watch where you're going, Parkinson!" Melvin Biddlesby said, offering Hermione a hand.

 

The boy had a plain face, a face that was so forgettable that Slughorn could not even remember his name. He fawned over Hermione whenever he had the chance, and perhaps it was this that made her dislike him. Nevertheless, she thanked him for the help.

 

"No trouble, no trouble at all," he said, tailing her much more closely than she preferred.

 

He pushed past a handful of other students that were crowding the cupboard behind her, only to breathe down her neck in a way that was a grim reminder of a date she once had with Cormac McLaggen. From the corner of her eye, Hermione noticed him opening and closing his mouth as though he wanted to say something. Finally, he did.

 

"You know, Hogsmeade weekend is coming up..." he choked out. "It's erm—well, I don't have anyone to go with and—er—well, I was wondering if you'd like to—usually I'd be afraid of all the Death Eaters on the loose, but with you—I mean, you're a hero—ow!"

 

Hermione, who was busy rummaging through vials of fluxweed, thought she may have witnessed Malfoy elbow the seventh-year in the chest. Smiling a bit, she found the vial marked with the date of the most recent full moon, plucked out a few leaves, passed it to Malfoy, and returned to her table.

 

The instructions were stitched into the dendrites of her brain, as she had spent the entire weekend and most of that morning memorizing them. Even still, she glanced at the book to confirm everything that she already knew: gradually apply heat to the rainwater and pig's blood, add the chopped lavender, wait until it comes to a boil.

 

Unfortunately, memorizing the instructions was only half the battle. By the time the mixture started to bubble, Hermione was convinced that her classmates wanted her to fail. Jezebel Twitt and Melinda Tatting were giggling at a boy who had two bottleslugs stuck to his forehead, Melvin Biddlesby kept swiveling around to look at her, and worst of all, a petite blonde girl had made some sort of gas that reeked of cat litter. Determined, Hermione ignored them and chopped her fluxweed. There was no time for distractions.

 

She was on Step Thirty-Nine by the time she looked up from her cauldron again. Pansy Parkinson was shrieking. Apparently, she had cut her finger whilst trying to chop the Dugbog fin.

 

Six steps later, Hermione was proudly staring at her own reflection. The translucent aquamarine potion perfectly matched the description in the book, and after a cursory glance at the rest of the class, she thought she might even have the best brew of everyone—except perhaps Malfoy, who seemed to have yielded nearly a third more than she did.

 

"You ought to be wrapping up, everyone!" Slughorn announced, pacing the aisles. He stopped in front of Melvin Biddlesby and shook his head. "On second thought, Biddleburg, you might want to empty your cauldron now. Based on the smell, I'd wager that you added a few too many belchfrog eggs... Could go sour all too quickly if you mixed in that fluxweed..."

 

Slughorn inspected several more potions, including Pansy Parkinson's, which was "not quite passable" and Malfoy's, which was "superb, as expected". When he crossed the aisle from Malfoy's table to Hermione's, she clasped her hands behind her back and waited for Slughorn's assessment.

 

"Oho! Fantastic color, moderately reflective, thin consistency... Miss Granger, I daresay this is worthy of an 'O' for the day!" He clapped her on the shoulder. "An amazing improvement, dear girl, an amazing improvement..."

 

As Slughorn waddled back down the aisle, Hermione beamed at Malfoy. The fair Slytherin's expression, however, was indistinguishable.

 

The bell rang moments later. Students shuffled out of the room, but Hermione motioned for Malfoy to stay back with her. His face was still unreadable, yet he nodded, nonetheless.

 

The classroom was empty all except the two of them and Slughorn, who did not seem to notice either of them as he closed the door behind Dewey Blunk. When he wheeled around, his bushy brows shot upward.

 

"Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy—to what do I owe the pleasure?"

 

"Well Professor," Hermione started, approaching him, "Malfoy and I were hoping that our punishment would be—well—we thought it should be considered served, since I—since I had a successful brew today."

 

"Ah, naturally," Slughorn said, twisting the edges of his mustache. "It was a vast improvement today, Miss Granger. I'm sure I said as much..."

 

"Yes," Hermione agreed, "and because I improved so vastly, I shouldn't have to meet with Malfoy anymore. Wouldn't you agree?"

 

Slughorn sighed. "I suppose I must come out and say it, then. Miss Granger, I mean no offense to you. In fact, I'm getting the old Slug Club together and I'd like you and Mr. Malfoy to join me when we meet next Wednesday..."

 

"What time will that be?" Malfoy asked, a little too eagerly.

 

"Seven o' clock!" Slughorn replied. "There will be butterbeer, but no plus ones this time. I'd like everyone in the club to get to know one another—"

 

"Professor, while we appreciate the invitation, you haven't answered my question. Can Malfoy and I stop meeting or not?"

 

"Miss Granger, I would love to say yes," Professor Slughorn mumbled, wiping his sweating forehead with his sleeve, "but I fear that one successful brew isn't enough to guarantee continuous results. If you are able to keep up with this next week, we can reevaluate."

 

"That hardly seems fair," Malfoy growled. "I lived up to my end of the deal already!"

 

Apparently, the Slug Club invitation was not enough to please him after all.

 

"Yes, Mr. Malfoy, for one week you've lived up to your end of the deal, but until I know Miss Granger can pass the N.E.W.T. for this class, you will need to continue meeting with her, whether you like it or not."

 

Hermione, too, thought the answer to be less than sufficient. "But Professor—"

 

"That's my final word!" Professor Slughorn insisted. He peeked at his wristwatch. "Merlin's beard, look at the time! Miss Granger, you really ought to be getting to your next class. I know you're not happy with me, but a witch of your stature can surely keep up the good work into next week!"

 

Furious, Hermione stamped towards the door without so much as a "thank you" or a "yes, Professor". She heard Malfoy trudging behind her until Slughorn stopped him.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, I'd like you to stay for a quick chat, if you wouldn't mind."

 

As the door closed at her back, Hermione very much wished that she had one of the Weasley twins' Extendable Ears. 

 

 

***

 

 

Ninety-seven numbers stood between Hermione and the end of her Arithmancy quiz. Occasionally, she flexed her wrist and risked a glance at Atlas Paisley, whose tongue was poking just slightly out the corner of his mouth; he was so close to the parchment that she thought his nose might touch it.

 

Only the most established students were able to take Arithmancy at the N.E.W.T. level, so the majority of her fellow classmates were notoriously studious—perhaps not as studious as herself or Atlas Paisley, but studious, nonetheless. Hoping to receive high marks, they counted on their fingers, pushed their quills, and examined the lines of their palms. There was, however, one girl that thought less about her academic future and more about possibilities of romance.

 

"Ten again," she hissed. "Grace, it's exactly like I said! It's everywhere! He's my soulmate, Grace—I just know it."

 

Hermione turned to shoot a cautionary glare at her. Malfoy, who sat beside the girl, had his pale brows drawn together in confusion, or perhaps, it was annoyance.

 

"Grace, are you listening to me?"

 

"Shh!" It was not only Grace that was shushing the girl, as the sound came from all sides.

 

"But Grace, I've been telling you I'm not mad and this is proof—"

 

"Miss Moge, there isn't a problem, is there?" Professor Vector asked, rigidly.

 

"N-no, Professor," the girl replied, quietly. "Not at all."

 

"Good, because I wouldn't want to have to take any points from Hufflepuff House due to sheer insolence." Professor Vector scanned the classroom. "Is there anyone else that finds this to be an appropriate time for conversation?"

 

Some stared. Others continued working. Professor Vector nodded, triumphantly, and returned to her book.

 

The three-hour class was nearly over by the time that Hermione finished the final problem. Most of her classmates were still writing, including Malfoy and the irritating Hufflepuff that sat beside him. Alas, it was not long before the girl began to whisper once more.

 

"It came up ten more times. Ten more tens. Grace, I have to ask him. Based on the number of threes I ran into, I know I'll pay for it if I don't—"

 

"Some people are still working!" Hermione shouted, whipping around. Her eyes landed on Malfoy, who did not appear to be confident in one of his answers as he wrote it down.

 

"What is all this fuss again?" Professor Vector snapped. "Miss Moge, I did warn you about those points from Hufflepuff—" The bell rang. "Ah, quizzes to the front, please! Mr. Malfoy, bell's rung! No more writing! Miss Moge—I will be docking Hufflepuff five points—Mr. Malfoy! I said no more writing!"

 

Hermione followed Atlas Paisley to the front of the room. He seemed rather pleased with himself as he handed his quiz to the professor.

 

"I daresay you'd grant those five points to Slytherin if you saw my answer for the sixty-fourth question, Professor."

 

Professor Vector's lips were pressed into a firm line. "That remains to be seen." As he shuffled away in defeat, Vector snatched Hermione's quiz from between her fingers and said, "Thank you, Miss Granger. I do appreciate you keeping the class in line when my back is turned."

 

Hermione bashfully replied, "Happy to help."

 

She slipped out of the room and leaned against the wall beside the familiar portrait of Perennia Rattleputt, who was powdering her cheeks in her monogrammed mirror. Whatever Slughorn had said to Malfoy, it had been important enough that he would not say it while she was in the room, and naturally, this piqued her interest. Perhaps, with a bit of prying, Malfoy would tell her what it was.

 

After everyone else left, including Moge (she made a point to glare at Hermione on her way out), Malfoy finally stepped into the hall. He did not stop when he saw Hermione, but kept walking as quickly as his long legs would carry him.

 

She ran after the Death Eater. As she fell into step beside him, she inquired, "How d'you think you did on your quiz?"

 

"Save the small talk for one of your stupid little friends," he jeered. "I know you only want to ask me what Slughorn said."

 

"Well, what did he say?" she asked, nervously.

 

Malfoy kept walking much too fast for her. "If it was your business, he would have told you, wouldn't he have?"

 

His brisk pace somehow quickened and before Hermione could respond with something clever, he was halfway down the corridor.

 

"Sunday!" she blurted, jogging after him. "For Potions."

 

"Playing secretary and making my schedule now, are you? I already told you, Granger, you can't order me around."

 

"Then who can? Voldemort?" The comment, much like her demand, escaped her lips before she could stop it.

 

He rounded on her, frenziedly. "You know nothing of the Dark Lord, you disgusting little—" Composing himself, he stood up straight and started moving in the other direction once more. "I'm sure you understand that I've had my fill of being told what to do. We may have to meet, but until you are able to approach me with some level of etiquette, I'm afraid I'll have to decline your invitation."

 

"Well, I assumed you wouldn't want to do it on a weekday, and Saturday is Halloween."

 

Hermione's breaths were shallowing as she tried to keep up with him. Ron's legs were longer than Malfoy's, but rarely did the redhead make her work so hard to stay by his side. Maybe now, he would. Maybe now, he wanted her beside him just as little as Malfoy did.

 

"How perceptive of you," Malfoy said, still refusing to look at her. "When did you have in mind?"

 

"Three again," she said, firmly, pushing away her thoughts of Ron. "I was thinking that we could take a shortcut to the Shrieking Shack, but it can be a bit dangerous... You probably won't like it much... Perhaps, the Forbidden Forest would be better..."

 

"The Forbidden Forest?" he asked, halting. He turned to sneer at her. "Are you mad, Granger?"

 

"Well, I'm happy to meet in the library, but you seem to have a problem with it. I'm merely presenting the few options that we have that wouldn't be public, in a lavatory, or in the Room of Requirement."

 

"There are classrooms with all sorts of rubble in them," he pointed out. "I've been in them before—"

 

"Yes, and so have others," Hermione cut him off. "Have you been in them lately, Malfoy? People have started using them when the Astronomy Tower is occupied, if you get my meaning. Not to mention, Filch and his awful cat have been patrolling them constantly. We'll be run off before we so much as open our books and we'll land ourselves in detention. Plus, McGonagall's warned us off it for a reason. Nobody knows what kind of curses could be lingering in those rooms, and I'd rather not be one of the ones to find out."

 

"And the Forbidden Forest is safer?"

 

Hermione shrugged. "Filch doesn't go in there and I imagine your Death Eater friends weren't cursing the trees. If they did, Hagrid and Firenze would've found out by now."

 

He narrowed his grey eyes. "Fine. But we meet by that oaf's hut. I'm not going to search the whole bloody forest for you."

 

"That's okay with me," Hermione replied. "Well, I suppose I'll see you in class tomorrow."

 

Malfoy stared at her for a long moment, almost as though he were trying to work out a difficult problem. Finally, he said, "Yeah. Yeah, I suppose you will." 

 


Author's Note: Sorry for the delay! I had family in town. I love reviews, so please leave them! The next chapters beckon some big surprises, so please stay tuned and tell your friends!



Chapter 13: Hexing
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The Halloween celebration was extravagant that year. Perhaps, it was because the day had fallen on a weekend, or perhaps, it was because McGonagall was feeling particularly festive due to the defeat of Voldemort. No matter the reason, Argus Filch had littered every corridor with enchanted orange confetti, and with each step between the Slytherin Common Room and the bathroom, Draco was reminded that he would be spending the holiday alone.

 

According to hallway gossip between a fifth-year and the Ravenclaw boy that she was latched onto, Halloween was not the only cause for all of the excitement. The first Quidditch game of the year—Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw—was quickly approaching, as well as the first Hogsmeade weekend since Draco's sixth year. Neither event interested him.

 

Usually, on a Saturday, he would have slipped into the shadows of the centaur statue, but Granger now knew that she could find him there, and Filch was abnormally alert that day. When he crossed the common room to visit the lavatory, he had heard Astoria Greengrass complaining that Peeves stole the Squib's bucket of enchanted confetti and the caretaker, in turn, was taking his anger out on the students. Draco, after spending eight years with Argus Filch, believed her.

 

Limited in his options, he decided to stay in his dormitory, which, to his relief, had been empty all day, sans himself. His time alone also presented him with the opportunity to try and fix his dreadful mattress, though, had he been a younger, less reserved form of himself, he may have simply swapped it for another. Of all the beds, his was incontestably the worst. This, he knew, because he, Blaise Zabini, and Theodore Nott had taken the best beds the year before, leaving the two lumpiest for Crabbe and Goyle. In the end, Goyle blasted a hole in the mattress in an attempt to make it more comfortable. Back then, Draco had snidely reminded him to practice his Smoothing Charm.

 

To Draco's dismay, the holey mattress would require advanced magic to be repaired. He thought he was on the verge of discovering the right spell when he was rudely interrupted.

 

"Oi!"

 

Draco jumped and dropped Your Charmed Home into his lap before turning to glance at the dormitory entrance. Standing in the doorframe was Jensen Broadmoor, anxiously fiddling with the sleeve of his casual navy robes.

 

"What?" Draco asked, edgily.

 

Broadmoor would not make eye contact with him. He kept picking at his sleeve as he said, "Erm—P-Pansy was looking for you. She's in the common room, if you wouldn't mind—er—talking to her."

 

"My mother taught me not to take leisurely strolls in the courtyards of my enemies," Draco said, coldly. "If she wants to see me, she can come in here and talk to me herself."

 

With that, he picked up his book and found the spell that he had been researching. The door clicked behind Broadmoor; to Draco, this was his cue.

 

"Satiata Foraminis!"

 

The hole began to fill itself, but only halfway. Frowning, Draco raised his wand and chanted the spell again, this time, with a tighter flick of his wrist.

 

As the rest of the hole filled with pillowy goose feathers, he heard the door swing open a second time.

 

"Draco."

 

He recognized that soft purr—the same purr that accompanied fragile fingers carding through his hair and giggles by the common room fireplace. When he was a small boy, he lived to hear it. As a troubled teenager, it was a familiar comfort. Now that he was of age, he realized that it was sickly-sweet—the type of voice that made him think of Dark Magic lessons with his aunt or Inquisitorial Squad meetings with Dolores Umbridge.

 

"What do you want, Pansy?" he asked, pivoting to meet her dark eyes. Based on her attitude towards him since the start of the year, he did not think it wise to expose his back to her.

 

"I'm not here for confrontation," she said, quietly, removing a black bag from her shoulder. "I just thought you may want this."

 

He watched her intently, waiting for her to transfigure into the snake she was. "If this is some sort of trap, I implore you to remember that I've always outperformed you in defensive spells."

 

The floor seemed all too interesting to her. "I've already told you. I'm not here for anything like that."

 

Draco examined her for a long while before finally jerking his head towards his four-poster. "You can leave it there."

 

Pansy dropped the bag on top of his newly-repaired mattress and sat on the edge. The pewter frame softly creaked under her slight weight and the goose-feathers settled around her in a semicircle. Vulnerability emanated from her, but unlike her usual iciness, it felt genuine—unfeigned.

 

"You haven't been showing for meals," she pointed out, "not since Granger got out of the hospital wing."

 

The statement did not warrant a reply, not even if it was laced with a question. Even if it had, it was a question he was too afraid to answer; it was too difficult to admit, too dangerous to utter.

 

"I didn't have a chance to talk to you after we ran into you in the library," she went on, wringing her hands, "a chance to say I'm sorry."

 

Draco was fixed on her, wondering what she had learned and why she had such a sudden change of heart. His stomach was twisting in knots: a feeling he had grown used to in recent weeks, yet this time, it was different. The nerves clawing at his throat were not comprised of guilt or remorse. They were comprised of the unknown, as though something was about to change but he could not put his finger on what it was.

 

"Goyle wrote me," she divulged. "He told me what happened in that room when—when you and him fled with Granger and her friends. He told me how Crabbe used Fiendfyre and how he—he—" The words faltered on her tongue, ending in a meaningless squeak as she stifled a sob.

 

"Killed himself," Draco finished for her. "I hate to admit it, but he would've killed Goyle and me too if it weren't for Potter's lot."

 

"I didn't know. Nobody knew. I just thought you'd turned your back on him..." A teardrop slowly streamed down her cheek. "When you three never showed up, I thought—I thought you'd killed him and left Goyle to be arrested... And then when you weren't sentenced at your trial, I wondered—I thought maybe you struck a deal of some sort—with Potter, you know..."

 

"Potter testified on my behalf," Draco said, plainly, "and it was of his own accord. Anyone that knows Potter knows he couldn't be bribed into anything."

 

Blinking quickly, Pansy wiped away her tears. "And Professor Burbage—what the Prophet said was true? You-Know-Who killed her?"

 

He winced. The memory was one that he preferred to keep distant. Nightmares were best left intangible.

 

"Yes."

 

She drew in a deep breath and stood, still fingering the corners of her watering eyes. "I'm sorry, Draco. I didn't know—I mean, nobody did. There were so many rumors..."

 

"Rumors are far easier than the complexities of truth."

 

"Right..." Pansy trailed off, almost as though she did not quite understand him. "Erm—well, I thought you might want to come with me for the Halloween feast, but I probably shouldn't ask such things, should I?"

 

Draco had no intention of joining her, yet he still felt compelled to ask, "Because of Siftwell?"

 

Pansy shook her head, sniffling. "We split yesterday morning after I caught him snogging some slag from Ravenclaw. I meant because of Granger."

 

"Granger?" The name felt like putty in his mouth. "What does Granger have to do with anything?"

 

With a sad smile, Pansy replied, "Well, Draco, you've been watching her since third year—looking at her the way I used to wish you'd look at me. I just never thought I'd see her look at you the same way."

 

Draco parted his lips, but no words came out. There were a thousand questions whirring in a part of his brain that he had trained to become dormant, and as they whizzed around, he did not seem to have the capacity to speak.

 

"Happy Halloween, Draco." Pansy murmured. She slowly walked to the door, only to glance back at him and say, "You deserve it, you know. A chance with her, I mean, even if it means you and I can't be friends."

 

With those final words, she stepped out of the boys' dormitory and closed the door behind her, leaving her departing olive branch lying on his bed in the form of a schoolbag.

 

 

***

 

 

The hut by the forest, rebuilt and as tall as the half-giant that was housed there, was belching smoke from its stone chimney. It was a bleak day, with the sun dipping languidly behind the clouds that threatened the frigid rain of early November, and as Draco waited by the edge of the Forbidden Forest, he cursed the Muggle-born that invited him there. Even the library was better than soaking robes and territorial centaurs.

 

Faraway thunder roared, and a frizzy mane peeked over the crest of the hill. Granger, lips pursed and satchel held close to her side, marched towards him, though she did not seem all that pleased about it.

 

"It sounds like it might storm," she noted, not stopping as she neared him. Instead, she went right into the thicket of trees that separated the grounds from the forest. After a few steps, she whipped around and raised her brows. "Are you coming or what?"

 

"Well, considering it's about to rain," Draco began, following her, "I thought maybe the library wouldn't be so bad after all."

 

"The library," she repeated, blasting a branch that blocked the narrow deer trail. "After all that fuss you made about being seen with me, you're asking me to walk all the way back to the library?"

 

The sky had already been a deep grey when they were still within the grounds of Hogwarts, but the forest was so dark that it might have been nightfall. Granger was moving quickly, charming branches away whenever they crossed her path. Her actions were sporadic and thoughtless, and the faster she went, the more irate Draco grew.

 

"Granger! Granger, slow down!"

 

She rounded on him, chest heaving and umber eyes glittering fiercely. "Or you could keep up."

 

Draco, taken aback, caught up to her. Alas, as soon as he did, she was slashing her wand through the forest once more. There was something wild about her—something unhinged.

 

They had been trekking through the Forbidden Forest for at least ten minutes, passing three separate clearings, and still, she kept going. Rain sprinkled across Draco's nose, phantomlike and cautionary. Between the two of them, he seemed to be the only one with any level of rationale, and as such, it was his responsibility to make her see reason.

 

"Granger!" he shouted. "Granger, come off it! It's raining!"

 

"It's barely raining, Malfoy!" she shouted back. There was a hitch in her voice, almost as though she were crying.

 

What was driving her to act so rashly, he did not know. Hoping that she would calm down once they found a place to settle, and hoping that she would agree to go to the library instead, he trailed behind her.

 

Then, he fell. His face met the cold, wet mud and the crack of his nose was quickly followed by the metallic taste of blood touching his tongue. Groaning, he opened his eyes to mere slits and took in his surroundings. Thick roots from a nearby ash tree were darting in all directions, ordering them to leave its forest home and return to their own world.

 

With a grunt, he rolled into a sitting position and hugged his ribs. The rain was picking up, pattering down on him in heavy drops; it loudly beat against the forest floor. In fact, it was so loud, that he did not hear Granger barrelling towards him.

 

"What happened?" she demanded, reaching down to him. "Why are you bleeding?"

 

Slapping her hand away, he growled, "Keep your hands off of me, Mudblood."

 

Her eyes widened. Draco scrambled to his feet, realizing the word had escaped his lips before he could stop it. He wanted to apologize as soon as he said it, but the mad look in her eyes told him that nothing could erase the damage that had been done. Not to mention, his pride was far too strong.

 

"You're right. I am a Mudblood," she echoed, her tone quiet, yet frantic and terrifying. Brandishing her wand, she hissed, "And I can still curse you just as well as any other witch or wizard."

 

His jaw clenched. "You don't have it in you."

 

"Don't you dare tell me what I have in me and what I don't, Malfoy," she warned.

 

"As if you'd risk getting in trouble with McGonagall just to get one over on me. I don't know what your problem is, Granger, but—"

 

"My problem is you!"

 

"Oh, please!" Draco spat, stalking a step closer. "If your broomstick wasn't shoved so far up your own arse—"

 

"Acidiunculus!"

 

Suddenly, he felt boils sprouting all over his face. The sensation of dried blood cracking on skin struck the nerves in his cheeks and his mouth as every bit of his face expanded into large, painful growths. Potter had hit Goyle with a similar jinx when they were young, but this spell was different. Each boil burned as it grew, and when one finally popped, it felt as though someone had set fire to his flesh.

 

"What did you do to me, you stupid—"

 

"Acid-Pimple Hex," she said, matter-of-factly. "You'll be wanting to visit the hospital wing for that."

 

Then, without as much as an apology, she flounced out of the forest, leaving Draco dumbstruck and afflicted.

 



Chapter 14: Meeting
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It was Wednesday. How Hermione had managed to make it to the middle of the week without answering for her rulebreaking or going mad during the wait, she was unsure, but it had been two days since Malfoy was released from the hospital wing, three days since she had a proper meal, and three nights since she had slept more than an hour or two. Still, she had not been reprimanded—not by Zigg, not by McGonagall, not even by Professor Slughorn.

 

The incident in the Forbidden Forest had changed something within her, and based on his actions, it had changed something in Malfoy too. No longer did he meet her gaze or jeer at her during class. He did not even shoot her a glance when her failed brew of Dortilute burned a hole in her sleeve or when she confused the incantation for the Blinding Curse with the incantation for the Shredding Curse. Once upon a time, his lack of insults would have delighted her. Alas, this time, she was befuddled.

 

Hexing her childhood bully was a mistake, and Hermione recognized as much as soon as she had done it. She had joined him for their meeting after a rather terrible argument with Ginny, and since she was already quite heated, it only took his utterance of "Mudblood" to push her over the edge.

 

War was a criminal—a criminal that had robbed her of her appetite, her sanity, and apparently, her sense of self-control.

 

Perhaps in a moment of uncharacteristic intuition, Hagrid had noticed this, as he had given her the job of Stunning and bucketing fish for the day. Hermione, who would usually cringe carrying out such a barbaric request, gladly obliged. By the time the third smelt lay motionless, she decided that the experience was oddly cathartic.

 

There was, however, a problem: the stink of the job did not drive away the classmate that she was avoiding.

 

"Still mad at me?" Ginny asked, plopping onto the ground beside her.

 

Rather than acknowledging her friend, Hermione kept chanting "Stupefy!" at flopping fish after flopping fish. It was the first time that year that Hermione was truly appreciative of Care of Magical Creatures.

 

"Look, I'm sorry. I was just upset. I didn't mean it."

 

"Oh, so you don't think I'm pathetic?" Hermione challenged, chucking a smelt into the bucket, forcefully.

 

"Of course not."

 

"If you didn't mean it, you shouldn't have said it."

 

She hit one of the fish with such a violent Stunning Spell that its eyes popped out. Ginny grimaced.

 

"I was just mad at Buhlman for bollocksing up that scrimmage," the Weasley girl explained. "Then you were on about my brother and I sort of..."

 

"Sort of insulted me," Hermione finished for her, sourly.

 

With a heavy sigh, Ginny said, "Yes, and I'm sorry. If you still want me to, I'm writing Harry today so I can have him ask."

 

"No, don't fuss over it... I don't think I'm going to go on that trip, anyway." Hermione tossed the last fish in the bucket and stretched her arms out behind her, sinking her palms into the grass. Weak apologies were a Weasley favorite, and despite her better judgment, she always ended up accepting them. "I assume Slughorn invited you to the Slug Club meeting tonight?"

 

"Unfortunately. He promised he'd get me in touch with Gwenog Jones and Elsia Twitt, though. Are you going too?"

 

"I think so," Hermione said, plucking a blade of grass from the earth. She threw it back at the ground, but the wind carried it away before it could land. "I really want him to let me and Malfoy off. After I—oh I didn't tell you!"

 

"You're the one who hexed him."

 

Hermione flushed. "I—how did you—well, he deserved it, Ginny, he really did... He called me a—"

 

"Don't have to justify it to me. I'm just shocked it took you so long. I would've hexed him ages ago." With a smirk, the redhead pulled her wand from her robes and gave it a dramatic swish. "Personally, I would've gone with the Bat-Bogey, but poison boils are good too."

 

"Acidic boils," Hermione corrected her through a giggle.

 

"Even better."

 

And with the grievances aired, Hermione sat with her friend for the rest of the morning period, wishing that the rest of the world could find resolve as quickly as they could.

 

 

***

 

 

The Slug Club was not Hermione's idea of a respectable extracurricular activity. Unlike the academic clubs she had been a part of in primary school, it was a place solely to schmooze and be schmoozed, which was, perhaps, adequate training for the world as it was, but Hermione detested such notions; to her, careers should only be possible through merit, not the connections one made.

 

Nevertheless, Professor Slughorn was expecting her, and if she were absent, there would be no escaping her weekly meetings with Malfoy. After the sheer embarrassment of losing her temper, she would do anything to be rid of the obligation, even if that meant enduring an entire evening with Slughorn and his insufferable club members.

 

The journey to the Potions master's office was familiar in the worst of ways. Peeves cackled as she passed him by, asking her if she was "joining Sluggy-Wuggy's poshy-woshy party", Filch's cat followed her for several minutes, and as she approached Slughorn's door, a nearby portrait said, "Your handsome boyfriend isn't with you this time? Nice jawline, that boy had". The woman in the portrait was speaking of Cormac McLaggen, a boy that Hermione had no desire to remember.

 

Bubbles and glittering streamers greeted her as she begrudgingly opened the door and stepped inside. She recognized most of the faces at the large, round table, sans a few students that seemed to be much younger than she was. Jezebel Twitt and Melinda Tatting were sipping butterbeer, Ginny was having a seemingly acrimonious conversation with Dewey Blunk, and Imogene Fortescue was hunched over a book with a set of twin boys that Hermione had seen only in the halls.

 

"Miss Granger!" Professor Slughorn exclaimed, beckoning her. "Welcome, welcome! May I offer you a refreshment? Plenty of butterbeer to go round—or tea if you prefer it..."

 

Hermione respectfully declined and eyed the table. There were only two seats left—one by a boy with long, chestnut hair and the other by Imogene Fortescue. Reluctantly, she sat next to the stranger, inwardly praying that Malfoy would not show up and claim the empty seat beside her.

 

"You're Hermione Granger," the boy said, pointedly, holding out a hand.

 

Hermione shook it; his firm grip took her by surprise.

 

"I am—and you are?"

 

"Tobias Quincy."

 

"Of the Quality Quidditch Supplies Quincys?"

 

The Heirs and Heiresses of Diagon Alley, a book that was collecting dust in the bottom of Hermione's wardrobe, mentioned the family a number of times.

 

"Those're the ones."

 

"You must know an awful lot about broomsticks."

 

"More than most," he replied, swirling the butterbeer in his mug. "I'm not too interested in the family business, though. Always fancied the idea of breeding toads, actually."

 

Professor Slughorn coughed loudly. Tobias Quincy did not seem to think much of it, but Hermione had a feeling that he would not be receiving an invitation to the second Slug Club meeting.

 

"Well, that sounds like a fascinating profession," Hermione lied, fighting an amused smirk as Melinda Tatting pounded a still-choking Slughorn hard on the back.

 

"Does it? Most girls think I'm absolutely mental when I tell them that. It takes a lot of work though, breeding toads, especially once you get into magical species..."

 

Tobias described toad-breeding in enough detail to make a round girl complain of queasiness, but Hermione had stopped listening. Her focus had been drawn to the doorway, where Malfoy was suddenly standing, looking extraordinarily out of place.

 

"Oho! Mr. Malfoy! So glad you could make it, dear boy," Slughorn said, gesturing the single open seat. Thanks to Melinda, he had regained his composure. "Come, come. Can I get you a butterbeer? Or perhaps a nice glass of mead?"

 

"No thank you, Professor." Malfoy sat down beside Hermione, careful not to acknowledge her. "I prefer to stay sharp for my Thursday classes."

 

"Respectable, very respectable," Slughorn said, waving his wand. His goblet levitated towards the wooden keg, which quickly began releasing its frothy, golden liquid. "A better man than I, as you can see..."

 

"That's debatable, sir," Malfoy replied, smoothly.

 

Professor Slughorn chuckled and took a long swig from his goblet as soon as it returned to his hand. "So, Miss Twitt, I was wondering if you could provide me with your sister's contact information. Miss Weasley and Mr. Blunk here are both fine Chasers and I was hoping to help them get in touch with a few league figureheads..."

 

Ginny and Dewey Blunk stopped arguing. Much like the twins beside Imogene Fortescue, they had clearly shown up for the club's intended purpose: connections.

 

Hermione, on the other hand, had no interest in befriending more famous Quidditch players. Perhaps this was why she seemed to be the only one that was vaguely aware of Tobias, who was still giving an in-depth lecture on toads. His slow, droning voice was like the annoying buzz of the Muffliato Charm—mere white noise in comparison to the distraction of Malfoy's arrival and Slughorn's overbearing hospitality, yet still irritating, like a mosquito beating its wings.

 

"...and then the stink gland opens up and that'll get her good and ready to mate. Then, the male sort of climbs on her back. It's quite a process, really."

 

"Amazing," Hermione said, disinterestedly.

 

"Well, if you think that's amazing, you won't believe what the Russian Ice-Spitter does during winter..."

 

Tobias's voice was miles away. Hermione kept eyeing the boy on her other side—the one that, inexplicably, told nobody that she attacked him in the Forbidden Forest.

 

"...then once it's frozen, the female..."

 

The blond was still silent. Even the Slytherins at the table hadn't made an effort to converse with him, and he made no effort with them either. On his other side, Imogene was pointing at a moving portrait in the large book she was poring over. The mousy heiress had drawn her elbow quite close to herself, careful not to touch Malfoy, yet she had not made as much of an effort to avoid the pucker-faced twin on her other side. To her, the boy was poison, and Hermione had a sneaking suspicion that Imogene was not alone in feeling that way.

 

"...but, of course, you're Muggle-born, so you may not be familiar..."

 

The sudden statement surprised Hermione, and apparently, it caught Malfoy's attention too. Quickly, he turned to Tobias, a scowl on his face and his silver eyes as sharp as his tongue.

 

"You better watch it, Quincy. She's been known to hex wizards that talk about her parentage."

 

Frazzled, Tobias glanced from him to Hermione.

 

"But he meant nothing by it! 'Muggle-born' is certainly not the term you used and you know it, you treacherous little snake!"

 

"Mr. Malfoy, Miss Granger—is there a problem?" Professor Slughorn asked, concernedly.

 

Everyone was looking at them, sans Ginny and Dewey Blunk, who had continued their heated discussion. Accusations of a cursed broom seemed to be fueling the rivalry between the Gryffindor and Slytherin Quidditch players, yet that was, apparently, much less fascinating than Hermione and Malfoy's disagreement.

 

"No, of course not!" Hermione said, smiling tightly. "We were just having a bit of a debate on—" Her eyes darted to Tobias as she gripped her wand under the table. "—mating patterns in toads."

 

Tobias blinked, still clearly quite confused.

 

Professor Slughorn stared at her, calculatingly, before finally taking a long drink of butterbeer and deciding against challenging her. "Well, by all means, do carry on..." He turned back to Ginny. "Now, Miss Weasley, not to interrupt you and Mr. Blunk, but a little birdie told me that you may know a thing or two about Harry Potter. A good friend of mine, he is... Would you happen to know how he's doing?"

 

Under the table, Hermione flicked her wand twice. Tobias suddenly continued his story right where he left off, which was exactly what she intended for him to do. He, like the rest of the club members, would no longer be able to hear her and Malfoy's conversation, though eventually, someone would notice their lips moving. Nevertheless, Hermione was not worried about that. She planned to be finished with the snarky boy far before drawing any unwanted attention.

 

"Listen, just because you didn't tell on me doesn't mean you get to act like an absolute prat," she hissed. When Malfoy narrowed his eyes, she added, "They can't hear us."

 

"...frozen sperm melts..."

 

"We can hear them, though, unfortunately."

 

He stared at her for a long moment before saying, "I think you're missing out on some important information, Granger. Sounds like your new boyfriend is getting to the good part."

 

"...her eggs will start growing tadpoles..."

 

Malfoy raised his brows. "Compelling stuff. You looking forward to having his tadpoles?"

 

Hermione scowled and lifted the jinx. Tobias seemed a bit taken aback when he caught a glimpse of his wristwatch and realized he had been discussing his strange hobby for nearly thirty minutes, innocently unaware of the fact that Hermione had cast a spell upon him.

 

Silence blanketed Hermione, Tobias, and Malfoy for some time. Occasionally, the clunk of Tobias's mug colliding with the table would break the tension, but to Hermione, it was not nearly often enough.

 

"Speaking of relationships, Miss Granger, I must ask if you have a lucky young man in your life?" Professor Slughorn asked. "I do hope you'll excuse me, but rumor had it that you and Ronald Weasley were a bit of an item."

 

In a span of no more than ten minutes, two men had made unwelcome comments about her relationship status. Though she would never admit it, she much preferred Malfoy's facetious jeering to Professor Slughorn's honest curiosity.

 

"I prefer to keep those matters private," she said, thickly.

 

"My apologies, my apologies..." Professor Slughorn said. His eyes awkwardly pinballed from side-to-side before settling on the twins beside Imogene Fortescue. "And what about you, Ardif and Arlin—still seeing those two young ladies from Beauxbatons, are you?"

 

Hermione had lost her nerve. No longer could she muster asking Slughorn for a favor again, as he was sure to turn her down after her refusal to spoonfeed him the information he craved. Plus, she would have to speak to him alone, and at that moment, a private conversation with the Potions master seemed just as gut-wrenchingly difficult as destroying a Horcrux.

 

So rather than concocting a plan, she sat silently for a long while, occasionally nodding at Tobias, who had decided to move onto a new topic: the widespread mistreatment of amphibians. Between his rambling, the stress of thinking of Ron's radio silence, and Malfoy being inches away from her, she could not stand it by the time the clock struck eight.

 

She stood and tried to walk away quietly, but Professor Slughorn looked up at her.

 

"Dear girl, is everything alright?"

 

She smiled weakly, hoping that he did not see through it as she suspected he might. "Yes, of course, Professor. It's just getting a bit late and I have a Charms assignment to complete."

 

He frowned, not in a way that suggested he disbelieved her, but in a solemn way: a way that said he regretted losing the presence of his star club member. Malfoy must have noticed too, because he rolled his eyes.

 

"Yes, well, alright. Studies come before socializing, of course..."

 

"Thank you, Professor. I'll see you tomorrow."

 

Anxiously, she hurried out of his office, well aware that everyone was likely watching her. She hoped that Ginny might follow in an effort to comfort her, but she didn't, so, completely alone, she cried quietly and went back to her dorm, wondering why Ron abandoned her and how on earth she was going to get out of another disastrous meeting with Malfoy.

 



Chapter 15: Clearing
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The small bit of aptitude that Granger had shown in Potions had quickly waned. Explosions and sleeve-eating acid were the results of some of her worst failures, though the Figgleswort she had managed to tangle in her fringe was an egregious offender as well. The toxic flower had left her with a nasty rash that even earned a grimace from her starry-eyed seventh-year admirer, a boy whose name was unimportant enough that Slughorn could not remember it. Draco, who had not spoken to Granger since the first Slug Club meeting, found it both immensely irritating and wonderfully amusing.

 

Class had been dismissed, and like he so often was, Draco would be the last out the door. Granger had broken a vial of Acromantula venom and, perhaps in a roundabout attempt to teach Draco some sort of lesson, Slughorn asked him to clean it up while the clumsy Gryffindor visited the hospital wing. He swallowed his dozens of complaints as he scrubbed the contaminated surface with Cleansing Potion; a measly Scouring Charm wouldn't do the trick.

 

"Thank you, Mr. Malfoy," Professor Slughorn said, finally, clapping him on the shoulder. "I do think that will be enough scrubbing. Powerful Cleansing Potion, that is—made a few special tweaks and I daresay you could eat off a dragon's backside after just a drop."

 

Draco tried not to picture such a horrendous image and dropped the rag. Cleaning spills was a job fit for Argus Filch or one of the school's many house-elves, yet somehow, time and time again, he was given the task of sopping up Granger's messes. The Malfoy heir did not know why Slughorn was so determined to make him into the girl's personal slave, but he was growing tired of it.

 

"Pity those vials went to waste, though. Acromantula venom is pricier than ever, it is..." Professor Slughorn rambled, fixing his gaze on Draco.

 

"Yes, it's a shame, sir. I ought to be getting to Arithmancy, though—"

 

"Before you go running off, I do have a bit of a bone to pick with you," Slughorn admitted. "You see, Mr. Malfoy, I thought I had made myself quite clear during our last little chat, but since you've been neglecting your duties, maybe you thought that I was bluffing."

 

"Sir, I can explain—"

 

"There's nothing to explain, boy! You have not met with Miss Granger outside of class or club meetings since one very brief occasion two weeks ago, and as you know, I will have to confer with the headmistress if the agreement is not met. You understand this time, I trust? Surely, it will not happen again?"

 

Draco might have expected such a speech from Severus Snape, but coming from Horace Slughorn, it seemed utterly ridiculous. The man was hardly strict enough to tell McGonagall much of anything, especially when it came to his star pupil, and even if he did, the most she could do was command Granger to meet with him.

 

"Well, Professor, considering she dragged me into the Forbidden Forest last time, I'd expect a bit of leniency," Draco spat. "My father may not be as important as he once was, but if my mother were to make a complaint to the Board of Governors, I guarantee they'd be compelled to listen."

 

"Ah, so it was Miss Granger that hexed you," Slughorn said, thoughtfully, leaning against the table. "I suspected as much..."

 

Draco sucked in his cheeks. "I didn't say that."

 

The stout professor studied him for a long moment before saying, "Mr. Malfoy, I needn't ask what differences you and Miss Granger have, as they are obvious, given...recent circumstances. I do, however, ask that you continue with your meetings until your attitude improves."

 

"I thought it was until her marks improve," Draco said, unable to hide his biting tone, "sir."

 

"Miss Granger's marks will only improve when you've removed yourself from your archaic beliefs that so many in our house, unfortunately, have. When I charmed your textbook, that was not meant to be a burden, dear boy. It was a gift."

 

Draco briefly regarded the textbook, which was still lying atop his nearby table. The last time he and the professor discussed he and Granger's punishment, the Head of House had charmed the book to log any time that it came within ten feet of Granger. While Draco understood why Slughorn was sterner with him than he was with the Muggle-born, he still found it to be completely unfair—especially since she was the one hurling hexes.

 

"And when does Granger get a charm on her textbook, Professor?"

 

"Mr. Malfoy, I am not sure how to put this lightly, I'm afraid," Slughorn said with a frown. "I don’t know that Professor McGonagall has explained this to you, but she asked me to assure that it’s perfectly clear to all students. Because of the—er—past year’s events, she will have no tolerance at all for intolerance or insubordination. I imagine this goes doubly for you due to your—oh, dear boy, I’m not much good at this, not much good at all… You’re a bright young man—certainly, you already know..." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "As your Head of House, the best advice I can give is that you must behave flawlessly while you are here at Hogwarts… Anything less may put you under the headmistress’s scrutiny and it would be a downright shame to waste all of that potential…”

 

Draco suddenly felt a pang of guilt. He knew that Slughorn was not being overbearing just for the sake of it; he wanted the best for Draco, and ever since Severus Snape's passing, the blond teenager did not know he would ever have such guidance within the walls of Hogwarts again.

 

"Well, thank you, Professor. I really do need to get to Professor Vector's, though. She docks points for lateness."

 

"I won't keep you any longer, then... I'll write a note for you, but I know she's been getting quite bothered with those. Last time I sent you with one, she asked if you'd been forging them..." As Draco picked up his book, the round man asked, "You will plan something soon, won't you, Mr. Malfoy? I do think that if you approach this with an open mind, you'll find Miss Granger can teach you just as much as you can teach her."

 

Draco, while he doubted that very much, nodded and simply said, "Yes, Professor."

 

 

***

 

 

Number charts had never been Draco's strong suit, but if he had known how truly impossible they would be at the N.E.W.T. level, he never would have opted to take Arithmancy. Professor Vector kept her lips pressed into a firm line as she passed back graded assignments, and after Draco saw his marks, he had to stifle a groan. Not only had he not passed, but there was a note scribbled across the top that read: MUCH IMPROVEMENT NEEDED. He avoided the professor's gaze for the rest of the period, instead carefully watching the back of a very messy head of hair.

 

Hermione Granger, despite her social standing, was a thorn in his side. After Professor Slughorn's comments and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that he always felt in Arithmancy, the last person he wanted to talk to was the girl that hexed him—the same girl that had slapped him in their third year. He was, however, obligated to do so. If he knew anything about Minerva McGonagall, it was that she was strict, and like Slughorn, he suspected she was itching for any opportunity to bar him from the grounds. Draco had chosen to spend another year at Hogwarts for a reason, and he was determined to finish it, no matter the odds.

 

"Remember to review chapters seven through ten!" Professor Vector said as students started shuffling out of her classroom. "There will be a quiz next week!"

 

Due to the placement of his seat, Draco was one of the last people out of the room. By the time he made it out the door, Granger was already halfway down the hallway, her bushy locks bouncing behind her with each hasty stride. Fortunately, his long legs carried him much faster than hers did, and it was not long before he fell into step beside her.

 

"What do you want, Malfoy?" she growled.

 

"It's not anything that I want, Granger," he retorted. "It is, however, something of an obligation."

 

She let out a derisive laugh. "If you think I'm going to willingly spend even one single second with you, you couldn't be more wrong. I'll go to Zigg, Slughorn, and McGonagall if I have to, but I am not—"

 

"I welcome you to do so, Granger. Merlin knows you have a much better chance of putting an end to this than I do, but until you do, we have to keep meeting. I could be in an awful lot of trouble if we don't—possibly even expelled."

 

She stopped and narrowed her eyes. "And why would I care about that?"

 

"Because I imagine, if I were to get into trouble, you would too," he casually elucidated. "Usually, the school frowns upon insubordination, but leading your classmates into the Forbidden Forest and hexing them? Well, I suspect that's severe enough to have to involve McGonagall."

 

"Are you blackmailing me?"

 

His gaze, he knew, was telling. "Sunday—one o'clock. We meet in the library this time. Pansy won't give us any trouble."

 

Granger started walking again, though her purposeful hustle had been replaced by a miserable drag of her feet. After a silent moment of consideration, she said, "And if I convince Slughorn to let us off?"

 

"Then I'll be just as pleased as I'm sure you'll be."

 

The girl examined every inch of him, from his brow to his toes. Draco had been studied in such a way more times than he could count, and still, he detested it. She was searching for a lie. If she searched for too long, she might find it.

 

"Alright then," she finally conceded. "Not the library, though. Madam Pince and I—well, we had a bit of a disagreement. She's sort of—ahem—banned me—temporarily."

 

It was Draco's turn to search for the lie. He had never heard of anyone being banned from the library. "And why is that?"

 

"I sort of—well, it doesn't matter." Embarrassment pinkened her cheeks. "We have to meet in the Forbidden Forest."

 

"Fine," he said through gritted teeth. Still, he did not think the Forbidden Forest was the best of their many options, but her attitude made it difficult enough to plan their meetings. "Meet me by the oaf's hut, but I'm warning you, Granger: if you hex me, I will tell Zigg."

 

"And if you call me a Mudblood again, you'll be lucky if all I do is hex you."

 

 

***

 

 

The path through the Forbidden Forest was just as uninviting as Draco remembered. Great branches darted to and fro, sometimes of their own accord rather than in the direction of the wind, and that was not the worst of it: The stench of rotting animal carcasses permeated the air and the blanket of leaves lining the deer trail hid patches of treacherous mud that made Draco slide down small foothills, despite the Traction Charm on his shoes. Only by jagged rays of sunlight and the Wand-Lighting Charm could he make out the back of Granger's bushy head.

 

"Are we nearly there?" he asked, shooting a spell at an elm branch that was swinging madly. "I've seen at least six places that would've been perfectly acceptable and my shoes are covered in mud. I get you're used to Weasley and his hand-me-downs, but these were expensive, Granger."

 

"You really are impatient," she sighed, stepping over a bundle of exposed roots. "Those 'perfectly acceptable' places are stargazing circles; we wouldn't want to disrespect the centaurs and intrude."

 

"Stargazing circles?" Draco echoed, incredulously. "It's midday. There are no stars to be gazed at!"

 

"Yes, but it's the principle, isn't it?" she said resolutely, edging around a large, open area.

 

Draco, who had no desire to trek through the Forbidden Forest until nightfall, crossed through the small spaces between the trees and stepped upon the soil of the clearing. Suddenly, the welcome warmth of the autumnal sun touched his pale skin, embracing him like a long-lost friend. On the far side of the wide space, he could see a path that was far more traveled, likely by the heavy fall of centaur hooves. Whether Granger was daft or brilliant for avoiding their stead, he did not know.

 

"Malfoy, we can't!"

 

"Ah, but as you can see," Draco said, smugly climbing atop a large boulder, "we most certainly can."

 

"It's disrespectful!"

 

"Well, suit yourself, Granger," he said with a shrug, "but I'm not about to spend my entire day looking for some secret place just because some horse-men want to stargaze at an hour past noon."

 

"Horse-men?" Granger repeated, stalking towards him. "That is an absolutely foul insult and you know it!"

 

Draco pulled out his textbook and looked at her feet. "Whatever they are, you're on their territory now and you haven't burst into flames, so I must assume it's safe."

 

Jaw clenched, she took three steps back towards the brush. The girl always had a holier-than-thou air about her, but even Draco was shocked by her impossible stubbornness.

 

"Didn't that idiot gamekeeper of yours keep a giant here? What we're doing isn't worse than that."

 

"Hagrid is not an idiot!" Her voice faltered. "He's friends with the centaurs. They—they respect him."

 

"Then they must be idiots too," he sniggered, flipping through pages. "Come on, then. Are we going to study or not?"

 

Glaring still, Granger succumbed and marched towards him once more, her arms crossed. "I still don't agree with this, Malfoy." Refusing to sit, she added, "I see you got your bag back."

 

"Pansy brought it to me," he explained, shortly. "Now, are you just going to stand there or are you going to wipe the drool from your mouth and learn something?"

 

"Pansy just brought it to you, did she? Even after that scene in the library?" Disbelief laced her words—so did poison.

 

"That's right."

 

"Did you do something to her?"

 

Draco snorted. "I didn't put her under the Imperius Curse, if that's what you're asking."

 

"That wasn't what I was asking at all," she lied, distractedly. Every few seconds, she would look around, as though she thought someone was watching them. Nearby woodland animals seemed less bothered by her than she was of them, gasping as they leaped from tree to tree or the wind blew their everyday sounds in her direction. "Did you hear that?"

 

"It was a squirrel, Granger. I told you we could've done this in the library," Draco reminded her with a roll of his eyes, "but you opted for the alternative."

 

"I'm banned from there. I told you."

 

"And how exactly did you manage that?"

 

Her face flushed. She was still standing, determined not to sit down. "I—erm—I just did something to a book, okay? Madam Pince c-caught me."

 

"Well, well, well! Breaking all sorts of rules lately, aren't we, Granger?" He gestured her satchel. "Speaking of books, you ought to get yours out. Not much to be learned staring at the bloody trees."

 

After examining her surroundings once more, she groaned and plopped onto the hard ground beneath a lone sycamore.

 

"The grass is wet!"

 

"Not to remind you again, but you are the one that wanted to meet here."

 

"Yes, well, we won't be seen together here, will we?" Granger said, her tone sour. She gingerly opened the cover of Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students, confirming a suspicion that Draco had had since they initially planned to meet.

 

"You weren't really banned from the library, were you?"

 

"Well, maybe I just didn't want to be ridiculed again. Can you blame me?"

 

He scrutinized her for a moment, trying to decide whether or not she deserved to know she had wounded him. Once he came to his conclusion, he said, "If you didn't want to be ridiculed, you'd do something about that hair of yours."

 

The wild-headed girl scowled.

 

"Page ninety-nine."

 

"Er—right. Thanks."

 

For nearly an hour, they studied. Set aside a handful of off-color remarks, the two of them worked civilly, occasionally basking in Granger's academic successes and quickly remedying her few failures. Draco, mostly satisfied with her work, was beginning to put his book back into his schoolbag, but before he could, the bag fell off of the boulder he was seated upon.

 

His Arithmancy book had tumbled to the ground, and along with it, there was a piece of parchment—a piece of parchment that he recognized all too well. Before he could seize it, Granger picked it up.

 

"'Much improvement needed'?" she read. "Malfoy, are you failing Arithmancy?"

 

"That's none of your business, Granger," he muttered, reaching for the marked number chart.

 

"Hold on," she said, scanning the page. "How did you get twenty-seven here? You should've—oh, I see what you did..."

 

"Give it back!"

 

Pursing her lips, she handed it to him. "I could help you, you know. I'm tied for top of the class."

 

"I hadn't noticed." 

 

He folded the parchment and tucked it back into his schoolbag, quietly praying that she would find any reason at all to change the subject to something less horribly shameful. Even if it meant confronting a group of angry centaurs, he would be gracious for the diversion.

 

"Well, if you want a few pointers," she propositioned, "we can always extend one of our meetings."

 

The thought of spending more time with Granger made Draco more nervous than he had been in a long while. Yet, somehow, his invitation spilled from his mouth before he could stop it.

 

"Perhaps next Sunday?"

 

Then, she smiled at him—a genuine smile—the kind that he had only seen her flash at Potter and Weasley. If his heart had been beating faster when she offered to help him, it was positively thudding against his chest wall as he waited for her answer.

 

"Sure. We can meet by Hagrid's again—same time as today." Her face flushed a bit. "Erm—we probably should walk back together. We're pretty deep in the forest and it's mating season for Acromantulas; they'll be more aggressive than usual."

 

"And why is it that you failed to tell me that?"

 

"Because you never would've agreed to come here if I did," she laughed. "Come on, then. If we leave now, we'll get back before they wake."

 

Draco, rather than trudging behind, stayed close to her side, wary of their surroundings and especially prepared to curse anything that had eight legs. Escorting a girl, despite the location, had never made Draco feel sick, but as he strode beside her along the narrow deer trail, he fought the urge to vomit, quietly wondering if Weasley and Potter felt like that all the time.



Chapter 16: Engaging
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Hermione had been spending more evenings in the common room, mostly to comfort Ginny after Gryffindor's loss to Ravenclaw. Josie Purmer, a tall girl from Slytherin House, had proudly announced that Ravenclaw's Seeker caught the Snitch after just thirty-eight minutes, giving them a win with two hundred points and Gryffindor a loss with twenty points. Ginny, who had taken most of the blame, had been reliving the match over and over again, repeatedly telling Hermione what she could have done to change the outcome. With Extraordinary Potions for Exemplary Students lain open in her lap, Hermione listened vaguely to the redhead's dozenth regret.

 

"If I'd just warned her, maybe she would've been ready for Burke—waved my hands or screamed at her or something! I thought it was common sense but I can't just assume everyone knows the basics...especially second-years... Merlin's beard, what was I thinking?"

 

Hermione feigned interest with a hum; this had become her way of assuring Ginny that she was listening, even when she was engrossed in one of her many schoolbooks.

 

"I'll have to train them all twice as hard if we want to win March's game," Ginny decided aloud. "Slytherin's bound to be at their best with Siftwell on the team. If we're lucky, maybe he'll injure himself beforehand..."

 

"Ginny!" Hermione exclaimed, appalled.

 

"What? He deserves it anyway, the git... I'm just glad Madam Hooch changed the schedule or else that would've been our first game. If we lost to Ravenclaw like that, Slytherin would've pummelled us..."

 

"Are you on about that bloody game again?" Lydia Clappord asked, hopping down the steps from the boys' dormitory. Her friend was at her heel, his large cat in his arms.

 

"Piss off, Clappord," Ginny growled, still staring at the ceiling. She had sprawled across the sofa and put her hands behind her head, blatantly disregarding anyone that might want to sit down, not that many dared approach her since the match.

 

"I would," said Lydia, pushing her blonde hair behind her ear, "but Ben and I have homework to finish before we leave for Hogsmeade tomorrow."

 

"Go back upstairs and finish it, then."

 

The boy with the cat, who Hermione assumed to be Ben, reddened. "Well, we were trying but it was a bit—er—distracting up there."

 

"What he means to say," Lydia started, "is that Elizabeth Kirk and Sang Jae were practically attached at the mouth...again."

 

"Can't blame her. Sang's fit," Ginny said, nonchalantly.

 

"I don't care if he's fit or not! I don't want to see them licking each other's teeth while I'm trying to study!"

 

Ben grimaced and squeezed his cat closer to his chest. The tabby complained and writhed in his arms, earning a small "shush, you" and a scratch behind the ears.

 

"Hang on a second. You're a prefect," Hermione pointed out, closing her book. "Snogging's against school rules—especially in the dormitories. Couldn't you just make them stop?"

 

"Don't give her any ideas," Ginny mumbled.

 

Lydia ignored the comment. "I don't want to watch it, but that doesn't mean I'm going to interrupt them! Must've been awful trying to date when you were a prefect."

 

"I'll have you know that I was a very good prefect, thanks!"

 

"Hmm, right," the blonde said, disbelievingly, before turning back to Ben. "Let's try the library. I imagine there'll be a whole lot less lecturing and—" She gave Ginny a pitying glance. "—sulking."

 

"Yeah, alright." He dropped his cat onto the common room floor and awkwardly waved at Hermione and Ginny. "Nice chatting with you both."

 

Lydia murmured something at the dark-haired boy, but the studious pair was already climbing through the portrait hole, which happened to be well outside of Hermione's earshot. Hermione nearly wished that they hadn't left, because without them there, she would once more be Ginny's captive audience.

 

Ginny, seemingly unaware of Hermione's ache for silence, twisted a fiery lock of hair around her finger. "Speaking of Hogsmeade, you're coming with me, right?"

 

"I already told you that I'm not," Hermione said, resolutely, opening her book.

 

"But I didn't think you meant it!" Ginny swiftly sat up, her eyes wide. "Don't you want to see Harry?"

 

"Of course I do, but I have a lot of studying to do before I meet with Malfoy on Sunday."

 

Hermione knew better than to think that would be the end of their conversation. Before she could finish the first sentence on the page, Ginny asked, "You're ditching us because of Malfoy?"

 

"So I can spend less time with him."

 

"Rubbish. You can always study when we get back."

 

Hermione, desperate for some peace and quiet, decided to humor her. "I'll think about it."

 

"Good," Ginny replied, lying back down. "I know Harry would love to see you—Neville and Luna too."

 

A year prior, Hermione would not have doubted her friend's words, but with her and Harry's limited contact, Hermione was not sure that he cared to see her at all. Swallowing down the bitter thought, she started rereading the passage that Ginny had so dramatically interrupted, wholly aware that she, no matter what she said, would not be participating in the outing to Hogsmeade.

 

 

***

   

 

"Hermione? Is that you?"

 

His voice was distorted and distant—nothing more than a whisper among the corridor of knifelike brambles.

 

"It's me, Harry!" Hermione shouted, pushing a sharp branch from her path. It pricked her finger, which she sucked on to numb the sudden sting.

 

"Prove it." He sounded further away. "Prove you aren't an impostor!"

 

"If I were an impostor, why would I be looking for Ron? How would I know that he abandoned us last night?"

 

The brambles were closing in on her, hissing like snakes—hissing like Harry sometimes did in his sleep.

 

"Voldemort could know that! Volde—"

 

Suddenly, the hissing brambles were no longer brambles at all. They were hands, hands that seized her and pulled her wrists behind her back, hands that were forcing her onto the floor at the feet of Bellatrix Lestrange...

 

Hermione woke with a start, her chest heaving and her forehead slick with a film of sweat. Still reeling from the nightmare, she kicked off her damp sheets and glanced at her wristwatch: Breakfast would be starting soon.

 

A visit to the Great Hall would mean facing an insistent Ginny, and when Hermione thought about it, she was not all that hungry, anyway. Rather than arguing with the only friend she had left at Hogwarts, she decided to delve into her triweekly Charms lesson—a simple task that required quite a lot of focus; if she could not escape the vivid dreams, she could at least distract herself from them.

 

 

***

 

 

Hours had passed. Hermione had far exceeded the requirements listed on the Charms syllabus, and upon realizing that she was four chapters ahead, she decided that it was time to start the coursework she least wanted to do: her Ancient Runes translation. Unfortunately, Professor Babbling had much greater expectations than Professor Flitwick did, and the homework she assigned reflected as much.

 

The translation, though not particularly long, was ludicrously difficult. Full of nuance and a dialect Hermione was not familiar with, it seemed to be the type of document that a runeologist might need to translate, but hardly one that Hogwarts students needed to understand. Nevertheless, it was assigned to her, so she pushed onward, hoping that she was translating it properly with her clever use of context clues. Then, she reached the third paragraph.

 

At the very beginning of the first sentence, there was a rune she simply did not recognize. She stared at it for a long while, hoping that it was stained with water or that the ink had worn, yet the longer she stared, the more she realized that that was not the case. Irate, she seized her textbook and flipped to the end where the many symbols were translated into English and Welsh. The frustrated Gryffindor spent all too much time reading and rereading each and every column before she finally came to the conclusion that the rune clearly wasn't there.

 

Her plan to stay in her dormitory was foiled.

 

Befuddled by the strange mark, Hermione knocked on the back of Ulysse Moreau's frame three times. If she was going to go to the library, it was better to go while most of the student body was still in Hogsmeade.

 

"I was trying to sleep, you fille stupide!"

 

Hermione apologized as she stepped through the French nobleman's portrait hole. The Fat Lady had never been known for her manners, but Ulysse Moreau's poison tongue was far more threatening than the large woman's notorious mood swings or her ill-famed wine binges.

 

Fortunately, most of Ulysse and the Fat Lady's fellow portraits were quite pleasant, and they also happened to be some of Hermione's only company in the corridors, though she did not appreciate one medieval woman's comment about her hair. Aside from the depictions of the deceased, the halls were virtually empty. A group of first-years passed by, proudly announcing that the castle was all theirs, but this sentiment seemed to pass as soon as they saw Hermione. They scurried away, speaking in low voices, two of them nervously glancing back at her. When times were simpler, Hermione, Harry, and Ron might have reacted to an older student in the exact same way.

 

The hideous centaur statue was a much less welcome presence. It loomed over her like a great, ugly gargoyle with hooves, reminding her of Dolores Umbridge, the Forbidden Forest, and most upsettingly, her upcoming meeting with a particular blond Slytherin. With a heavy sigh, she pushed Malfoy out of her mind and stepped into her true home away from home: the Hogwarts library.

 

The intimate scene granted her serenity. She breathed in the scent of aged parchment and freshly polished wood, nearly forgetting what drew her to the place to begin with. It was a world that was truly hers, one that her friends had never understood—one that was her oasis amongst the chaos.

 

After taking in the beauty of her place of solace, she strode past Madam Pince, who was seated at her desk. Pinching her nose, the birdlike woman mumbled to herself in what Hermione believed to be Latin, although she could not be sure.

 

Weaving through the shelves, Hermione saw no sign of any other students. It was silent, set aside Madam Pince's occasional grumbles, the light sound of Hermione's shoes, and once she stopped in the Ancient Runes section, the thud! that echoed between the bookshelves as she pulled out tomes and defeatedly put them back. Then, after nearly thirty minutes, as she bent down to grab another book, she heard someone fishing through the shelves behind her.

 

"Should've known I'd run into you here," a familiar voice scoffed. "Your little ban has been lifted, has it?"

 

Hermione, somehow unsurprised to hear the cold tone, turned around and said, "Augmented Arithmancy? Good to see you're studying. Shouldn't you be in Hogsmeade, though?"

 

"Shouldn't you?"

 

"Too much to do," Hermione replied shortly, rifling through Obscure Runes for Advanced Translations, a seemingly promising text by Gil Affinack.

 

"No butterbeers with the Weasel Queen, then. Shame." Malfoy plucked out one more book and stacked it atop the scarlet copy of Augmented Arithmancy. "Til tomorrow, Granger."

 

"See you, Malfoy."

 

Then, as quickly as he was there, he was gone.

 

 

***

 

 

The strange rune was indeed mentioned in Obscure Runes for Advanced Translations. To Hermione's horror, it was, however, the first of many new symbols. The hours ticked on, and it was not until she heard Ulysse Moreau arguing with someone that she realized it was well past dinnertime.

 

"...strict orders. You may not enter without the company of the resident of the dormitory."

 

"But I have the password!"

 

Hermione recognized the voice as Ginny's.

 

"And how you have it, I do not know, but—"

 

Hermione leaned over from her small desk and knocked on the back of Ulysse's frame. "Let her in, Ulysse!"

 

"Fine, I suppose, since you have the resident's approval, that I can allow you inside," Ulysse conceded, "but I will be reporting you to the headmistress if I hear of any funny business! I am close personal friends with Eupraxia Mole, and you know where she is hung!"

 

Ginny sputtered a curse word and the silver-framed canvas reluctantly swung open. Before Hermione could even greet her, the redhead stumbled through the portrait hole and shoved her hand in Hermione's face.

 

"Hermione, he proposed!" she exclaimed in a pitch that Hermione had never heard her use before. Upon her finger, a diamond glittered between two small garnets—gems that had to cost Harry a large portion of his inheritance. "Oh, it was so beautiful, Hermione... Like a dream, really..." With a euphoric sigh, she dropped onto the single twin bed by the window. "My mum's going to lose her hat—not that I care..."

 

Hermione stared at the expensive ring from afar as Ginny admired it under the candlelight. Ever since she was a small girl, her parents warned her about young marriage, and after Ginny's announcement, she could not help but sadly reflect upon their words.

 

"A career should always come before—before...boys," her mother had said, sourly, fixing the collar of her blouse. "How my sister is allowing your cousin to marry that awful Lucas boy... They're mad, positively mad—the lot of them!"

 

"What your mother is trying to say," her father started, kneeling down beside her, "is that you're a special young lady and you should do something with yourself before you commit to someone. If he's going to marry my little Hermione, he'd best be quite the young man." He winked at her and ruffled her hair. "Now let's go get your shoes on, yeah?"

 

"Well? Aren't you going to say something?" Ginny's arms were crossed over her chest. It was no longer the ring that she was examining; it was Hermione.

 

"Oh! Sorry, er—congratulations?" Hermione managed, perhaps a bit more skeptically than she meant for it to sound.

 

"Are you asking me or telling me?"

 

"Telling you, of course." She swallowed hard.

 

"You think we're too young, don't you?"

 

Hermione chewed on her lip, trying to fight the dizziness of malnourishment. "I mean, it does seem a bit rushed..."

 

"My mum's bound to think the same thing. Her and my dad were young when they got married, though," Ginny said, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. "Harry's parents too."

 

"Maybe your mother has some insight," Hermione suggested, thinking about what her father had said to her before Cousin Ramona's wedding. "You want to play Quidditch for a living, don't you? Maybe your mother was never given a chance to do anything more than be a housewife and she wants you to have better opportunities than she did."

 

"So you think I'd throw my career away just because I'm getting married?" Ginny asked, getting to her feet. The octave of her voice warned Hermione not to press any further. "You think I'll get pregnant right off, do you? Lose my broom legs and end up brewing spit-up remedies and blasting boggarts from linen closets like some sort of common kitchen-witch?"

 

"Ginny, that's not what I said—"

 

"Look, I get that you're upset because you and my brother can't work things out, but other people are allowed to move forward in their relationships, Hermione."

 

"That's what you think?" Hermione asked, acidly. "That I'm bitter because of your brother?"

 

"Excuse me for preferring to believe that over the fact that my best friend can't be happy for me!"

 

"Gin—" Hermione reached out for her, but Ginny wrenched her arm away.

 

"I'd prefer if you didn't touch me," she spat. "Have fun with Malfoy tomorrow."

 

"I'll have more fun with him than I'm having with you right now!"

 

The words slipped past Hermione's lips as quickly as the gasp that followed, but the more that Hermione thought about it, the more she realized that it was the dismal truth.

 

"Yeah? Maybe he'll propose then. More likely than my brother ever coming around."

 

Even after Ginny left, the words hung in the air of Hermione's lonely dormitory. Did Ginny know something that she didn't? Were they simply wordsmeaningless and designed only to hurt?

 

Perhaps, she didn't want to know.


Author's Note: Sorry for the delay! I've been busy over the holidays. Thank so much for the wonderful reviews. If you're a new reader, please do leave some feedback! I adore you all. 



Chapter 17: Feeding
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It was far too cold for a trip to the Forbidden Forest. The cool breeze in the dungeons was always a telltale sign of the harsh northern climate that awaited beyond the castle walls, and if that was not convincing enough, there were the unavoidable and positively nauseating whimpers of wealthy Slytherin girls. Pampered by house-elves and gifted with blankets of Italian wool, Slytherin heiresses spent most of the winter curled up by the common room fireplace, asking boys to bring them sweets and promises of storybook romance. Draco, before his darkest destiny called upon him, had done just that. Alas, Pansy Parkinson was no longer his problem—at least not in the romantic sense.

 

"For a castle full of house-elves, this place really isn't very accommodating, is it?" said Pansy, pulling a beige blanket close to her chin. To Draco's surprise, she was sprawled across the sofa, her head in Evan Siftwell's lap as he tossed a shrunken Quaffle into the air. "You'd think they'd put in some extra effort to keep the dungeons warm considering we sleep down here!"

 

"Would if we were in any other house, wouldn't they?" Siftwell growled. "Couldn't allow their precious Gryffindors to be left in the cold."

 

Standing on the last step of the dormitory stairs, Draco knew that the group could not see him through his powerful Disillusionment Charm, yet his pounding heart told him otherwise. Siftwell was already disgruntled, and Draco did not want any form of confrontation—especially since Pansy's allegiance seemed to have shifted once more.

 

"Aren't the Hufflepuffs in the dungeons too, though?" Astoria Greengrass pointed out.

 

"And their common room is riddled with enchantments to keep it warm, unlike ours," Daphne replied, her nose barely peeking over the edge of the thick quilt she had wrapped around herself. "When I was dating Elijah Vinnhorn, he snuck me in there and it's nothing like it is in here. It's well-lit and comfortable and the spells even make it look like there's sunshine..."

 

Astoria, who had opted for a thick cloak rather than a blanket, crossed her arms. "What's stopping us from making our common room the same way? Last I checked, there's no rule saying we can't spruce it up. Maybe a couple of charms, a few extra candles, perhaps some Mrs. Bebble's Cozy Spray..."

 

The conversation would, hopefully, give Draco the cover he needed. He slunk through the room in the shadows as Astoria started rambling on about her decorative intent, but there was one problem—and her name was Pansy.

 

His childhood girlfriend appeared to see right through his spellwork, and the grave look on her face asked him for one favor: not to ruin the social status that she had clearly reacquired.

 

"The point is," Daphne said, "Slytherin House hasn't been in the good graces of Hogwarts for a very long time now, and it's only gotten worse since the war. Now that another Gryffindor is in charge, we should expect the cold to be the least of our worries."

 

"It's gotten so bad that McGonagall made Madam Hooch change the Quidditch schedule," Siftwell claimed, throwing the tiny Quaffle at the wall. "Said it was because she thought we might beat up on them, but she obviously just wanted to give Weasley more time for her team to practice."

 

"I hate that bloody girl," Pansy snarled.

 

Draco finally reached the door at the other end of the room, stepped out, inhaled deeply, and canceled the Disillusionment Charm. If there was anything he didn't miss about spending time with Pansy, it was conversations like the one he had just witnessed. He had grown beyond such talk.

 

Glad to leave the dungeon, Draco basked in the warmth of the main level of the castle. The corridors were crowded, mostly with younger students that spoke of lunch and nursing their first Hogsmeade hangovers of the school-year. As usual, they eyed and dodged him as he passed them by.

 

Unlike the castle, the grounds were barren—except for two first-years on Silver Arrows and Madam Hooch, who was tailing them on a rather ratty Cleansweep Four. It had been all too long since Draco had been on a broomstick. In another universe, perhaps he would be talking with Quidditch recruiters rather than trudging across the Hogwarts grounds for the eighth year, and in that universe, he would not be meeting with Hermione Granger. Bizarrely, he was not sure if that was a universe he feared or preferred.

 

Regardless of his fears and his preferences, his childhood rival had been pushing Draco to spend more and more time by Rubeus Hagrid's hut near the forest. Black clouds cut through the fog-grey sky where the gamekeeper's chimney burped smoke, and to the right of the outbuilding, there stood a familiar slim figure with impossibly large hair. As he drew closer, he saw the exasperated look on her face—and the bloodstained bucket in her hand.

 

"You really are taking your time, aren't you?"

 

"Pardon me. My legs tend to lock up a bit when it's effing freezing out."

 

"It's hardly freezing. Crisp, sure, but not freezing..." She was kicking the dirt with the toe of her shoe and swinging the bucket back and forth—both signs of anxiousness.

 

"There's something you aren't telling me."

 

"It isn't anything major. We do need to make an extra stop in the forest for Hagrid, though." Her eyes would not meet his. It was almost as though she were afraid of disappointing him, but Draco knew how unlikely that was, so he assumed it was simply because she did not want to deal with his reaction. "It should be quick."

 

He could not look away from the bucket.

 

When he was forced to take Care of Magical Creatures, he remembered the giant always carried a bucket that looked quite like the one in her hand. From it, he would toss fish and rodents and slugs to his many terrible beasts, including the hippogriff that attacked Draco in his third year, and it was this that gave Draco a sobering thought: What if they were off to feed a hippogriff—or worse?

 

"I assume that bloody bucket will be involved somehow?"

 

"Unfortunately, yes." She held up the bucket and puckered her nose as the wretched smell hit her. Inside were at least a dozen dead ferrets, all stinking of blood and the early stages of decay. "They're for the Acromantulas."

 

"The Acromantulas," he repeated. "So we're doing his job, then?"

 

"I volunteered to do it today, since we were already going back there. Besides, it's to protect ourselves—in case they're hungry. They'll go after something that's already dead before they'll go after us." She grimaced. "Easy prey and all that."

 

"Or we could stay out of the forest entirely and find somewhere else to study—ideally, somewhere warm and Acromantula-free."

 

The library no longer seemed like a place he should suggest, considering what he had seen that morning. Draco had never had the audacity to involve himself with another girl during his time with Pansy, but considering her incessant and baseless jealousy, he had a feeling she and Siftwell would be going everywhere together for a long while. A smeared image was, quite possibly, her greatest fear, and she wasn't going to let a younger boy make a fool of her twice.

 

Still, there were other places—places that were hidden and free of his shameful history, places within the castle.

 

"I already told Hagrid I'd go, so we're going," Granger said, firmly. Stubbornly, she pivoted and started to march towards the forest, Draco's arguments be damned. "You look like you could get some sun, anyway."

 

"What sun?" Draco asked incredulously, chasing after her. "The sun hasn't been out all day!"

 

She shrugged and ducked under a barbed branch. "It might come out soon. You know, if you asked the horse-men, I'm sure they could tell you all about it."

 

"Are you really still on about that?"

 

"I'm not on about anything," she replied, hopping over a small stump. "I just think it's funny how you hide behind their statue and trample all over their land but you still can't seem to respect them."

 

"If I had it my way, we wouldn't be going anywhere near their land, so don't go blaming me for that."

 

Apparently, that resonated with her, because she said nothing. The only sound between them was the shattering leaves and cracking twigs beneath their feet, and as Draco followed her, he realized how different their path had become. Instead of moving straight east, they were teetering south, and before he knew it, they were on a trail that was all too wide for deer.

 

"You might want to keep your wand drawn." Finally, the self-righteous Gryffindor had broken the silence. "I doubt they'll come out since it's daytime, but it is their mating season..."

 

"Just leave the stupid ferrets so we can go."

 

"If you don't stop complaining, these aren't the only ferrets I'll be leaving here," she grumbled, running her free hand along a tree trunk. Her fingers moved upward before stopping in midair. Disgust etched into her face and she shook her hand violently, almost as though she were trying to get something off of it. "Uck!"

 

Then, Draco saw it. A glimmer of sunlight peeked between the cloud cover through the outstretched tree branches, and wavering in the space between the trunk and a twig, there was a thick web. It jiggled to and fro, disturbed from Granger prodding at it, whispering promises of the return of its maker. He took her advice and seized his wand.

 

"This is a good spot," she said, wiping the web-laden hand on her jumper.

 

Seeming strangely distracted, Granger shook the bucket until each rotting ferret had tumbled to the base of the tree. She mumbled a spell and the empty bucket vanished, but something was keeping her feet glued to the ground.

 

"Granger?"

 

The girl seemed spellbound—enchanted by a force Draco could not see. Confused, he drew his brows together and took a step towards her, eager to be far, far away from the breeding place of Acromantulas.

 

"Granger, we have to go."

 

She pressed a finger to her lips and continued glancing around. What she was searching for, Draco did not know, but he was not going to entertain her foolish games. The scent of dead ferret would reach the Acromantulas eventually, and when it did, he wanted to be nowhere near their territory.

 

"Come on, you bloody woman!" he exclaimed, reaching out to tug her by the forearm.

 

Resisting his pull, she looked the other way, peering between the trees. If the war was not over, he might have thought she was trapping him.

 

Then, he heard it. Skittering legs—far too many of them—sounded against the forest floor. Battle and keen ears had trained him for that moment, and as two gnashing fangs drew closer to Granger, he shouted a curse.

 

Where there was one, there were more, and this realization must have caused the sudden change in Granger, because she had wrenched her arm away from his, only to grab his hand and sprint towards the trail they had come from. He buried the hot feeling in his throat as her fingers brushed against his flesh.

 

Granger wove between the trees, still holding onto his hand, and he immediately understood what she was trying to do. The Acromantulas were far too large to fit between the forking birches. Once they had made it through enough small spaces to feel safe, she stopped and sucked in deep breaths, her hand no longer cuffed around his.

 

"I thought we brought the ferrets so they didn't want to eat us," Draco complained, clutching a stitch in his side.

 

"They are, but it doesn't mean they wouldn't if they got the chance. Acromantulas are hardly friendly," she explained. "I told Hagrid he shouldn't have gotten mates for them, but—" She stopped. "Never mind."

 

"Are you telling me that he is letting them mate?"

 

"Forget I said anything," she said, thickly. "He means well, he really does—"

 

"He means well? He has students feeding man-eating spiders!"

 

"It's only because I asked!" she said, exasperated. "And we're hardly everyday students, Malfoy. At the risk of complimenting you, I daresay we can both handle ourselves."

 

Under any other circumstances, Draco would have mocked her for complimenting him, yet he was too worried about the issue at hand. Why she was willing to risk his life was obvious, but why was she willing to risk hers?

 

"You never actually explained why you asked. It's not exactly normal to want to associate with those—those things."

 

She groaned and leaned against one of the narrow birches. Had she been a healthy weight, the trunk would have bent.

 

"Professor Slughorn—I—I thought he might let us off sooner if I replaced the Acromantula venom I dropped. During mating season they tend to—well they tend to kill each other...and I thought maybe I could find a dead one and—oh, it was silly of me."

 

"You volunteered us for this just so you could suck up to Slughorn?"

 

"Well I thought—"

 

"You're barking mad!" Draco shouted. "We could've been killed!"

 

"Don't be so dramatic," she scoffed, rounding back in the other direction. "It was for your benefit too—and all the noise you're making will only attract them."

 

Draco paled and followed her. Even yelling at Granger wasn't worth facing a group of hungry Acromantulas.

 

Before long, they found the same clearing where they had settled during their last meeting. Granger seemed much less bothered by its intended purpose than the last time, as she stepped past the trees and spread out a blanket by a young jack pine. If he was not so worried about the beasts of the forest, Draco might have taken it as a victory.

 

"I've been doing rather well in Potions, really," she said, fishing through her small satchel. Since she had a blanket stored in there, Draco assumed she had charmed it to carry much more than it appeared to. "Ancient Runes sort of took up all of my time yesterday so I didn't quite get to study much else, but I am familiar with the potion we're doing this week. I thought we could review it briefly and then take a look at your Arithmancy essay."

 

Draco mulled it over as he settled onto the boulder and fingered Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students. Granger's dangerous gamble with the Acromantulas certainly did not make him want to spend any more time in the Forbidden Forest, yet he could not stand the embarrassment of a failing Arithmancy N.E.W.T. either.

 

"Fine. Tell me what you know, then."

 

In her usual insufferable fashion, she rattled off several facts about the potion they would be working on next class. It was a salve for burns, an intermediate-level potion that Draco had made during the war; Granger, he imagined, likely had experience with it for the same reason that he did.

 

"Well, as long as you can remember all that, you should pass," he muttered, tiredly. "Just don't get in your own head and muck it up."

 

"Right. So, Arithmancy, then. Did you finish your essay?"

 

Draco, a bit too ashamed to admit his shortcomings, nodded.

 

"Let's have it," she said, holding her hand out.

 

Begrudgingly, Draco pulled a leaf of parchment from between the pages of his Arithmancy book and Granger used "Accio" to summon it towards her. Her large umber eyes darted back and forth as they moved from line to line, lulling Draco into a trance he was too weak to avoid.

 

If his father knew that he was accepting help from Hermione Granger, there was no telling what he would do. The man had been warning Draco of the girl since he was a small boy, and even after losing the war, his father's prejudices remained.

 

"Impressive marks, Draco," his father purred. His silver eyes were fixated on the parchment in his hands. "I am almost inclined to tell you that I'm proud of you."

 

"Almost, Father?"

 

Lucius Malfoy sighed and placed the parchment atop his mahogany desk. Cowering at his heel was Dobby, the strangest and ugliest of their many house-elves.

 

"As a member of the Board of Governors, I am informed of all goings-on within Hogwarts, including the grades of the students there. Tell me, Draco, who is Hermione Granger? I'm afraid I do not recognize her surname."

 

Draco swallowed, his hands cuffed behind his back and his posture impeccable. By the age of six, he was taught he must look respectable, because if he did not, he would know the wrath of his father's cane.

 

"She's a classmate of mine, sir—from Gryffindor House."

 

"A half-blood?"

 

Shaking his head, anxiously, Draco stammered, "N-no, sir. She's—she's Muggle-born."

 

"Muggle-born," his father repeated, standing. "Your marks fell short of those of a Muggle-born?"

 

"She—she's a swot, Father!" Draco defended himself. "She's always in the library, and she hangs around Potter, so the professors favor her—"

 

"Enough!" Lucius shouted, slamming his palms against the desk, a violent threat that caused both Draco and Dobby to wince. "Malfoys do not come second to Mudbloods!"

 

"Mudbloods, sir?" Draco was nearly afraid to ask, but the question had already slipped out.

 

"Those with dirty blood, Draco," his father explained, drumming his fingers atop the surface of his desk. "Thieves of magic—foul, impure beasts that should not even be permitted to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."

 

"Muggle-borns," Draco said, understanding at once.

 

"Yes, Muggle-borns," Lucius replied. "Salazar Slytherin understood that they did not belong. Unfortunately, due to Dumbledore's foolishness, people like Hermione Granger will continue to be allowed to study at Hogwarts, and do you know what it means when her marks surpass yours? Do you understand the implications?"

 

"Yes, Father."

 

"And will you let it happen again?"

 

Lucius's long, menacing fingers stroked the cane leaning against his desk. There were few things that Draco feared more than that cane, and he was certain that his father knew it.

 

With a gulp, Draco answered, "N-no, Father."

 

"And because of all this—" He was wrapping his fingers around the cane, preparing it for its purpose. "—do you understand what I must do?"

 

Draco closed his eyes.

 

"Yes, Father."

 

"Well, honestly, I agree with most of your logic here," Granger finally said, knocking Draco back into reality, "especially the bit where you said numbers aren't all-knowing."

 

"Brilliant. I have the approval of Gryffindor's most arrogant swot. Someone alert the Prophet!"

 

She rolled her eyes. "It doesn't matter what I think. Vector would hate this. You didn't even add together your personality numbers!" She tapped her wand against the parchment and two entire paragraphs disappeared. "Instead of saying that they aren't all-knowing, write about how you haven't unlocked the potential of all of your numbers yet—and add the numbers together like you were supposed to."

 

Draco did not like doing what Hermione Granger ordered him to do, but he followed her direction, nonetheless. After all, he wanted to pass the class, and without better grades on his essays, he would be hard-pressed to do well on the N.E.W.T.

 

"I shouldn't have even taken this bloody class."

 

"Don't be silly. You just need some help," she said, flipping through her Potions textbook, "like I did."

 

It did not escape him that she had paid him yet another compliment, but again, he kept it to himself.

 

 

***

 

 

"Malfoy, this is actually really good! By Vector's standards, even." Granger said, nearly an hour later. "It's all applicable to your number charts too."

 

"I'm dreadful at those," Draco was surprised to hear himself admit.

 

"Well, I didn't get that Acromantula venom, so I doubt Slughorn will let us off this week. I can help you again next Sunday, if you'd like."

 

Of all the people in the world, Hermione Granger was treating him like a human—the same girl who he had watched his aunt torture in his home. Gryffindor women were notoriously hardheaded, and Granger probably more than most, yet for some reason, she was willing to work with him beyond the confines of Slughorn's punishment. Admiration was not a word Draco wanted to use, but he could think of none better.

 

"We'll see."

 

They were the only words he could manage. If he opened his mouth again, his reservations might have failed him.

 

"Yeah. Yeah, alright," she said, scratching the flesh above her eyebrow. "We should get back to the castle, though. It looks like it might rain."

 

Draco nodded, though somehow, even with the nearby Acromantulas, he wanted to continue sitting with her. Her company was better than none, and when he thought about it for too long, he wondered if he even enjoyed it.

 


Author's Note: I know I haven't put out an update in eight days, so this chapter is a bit longer. Reviews are appreciated, as always! 



Chapter 18: Delivering
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Snowflakes zigzagged in the fickle highland air, reminding Hermione of December's imminence. The holidays brought back memories of her parents, and as she watched Professor Flitwick hanging wreaths upon the gargoyles, she recalled the melancholy truth: Her parents, now somewhere in Australia, did not have the same memories that she had. Her childhood lived in her mind only, and until all of Voldemort's supporters were in Azkaban, that was where they would have to stay.

 

"Did you hear what I said?"

 

Startled, Hermione replied, "Sorry, no."

 

Ginny had not fully forgiven Hermione for her views on young marriage, and Hermione was not sure that she had fully forgiven Ginny either. Nevertheless, after a letter from Harry and a week and a half of not speaking, they were spending time together again, and to Hermione's dismay, spending time with Ginny meant wedding planning.

 

"I said: Do you think we should go with lilies for centerpieces? You know, for Harry's mum? I thought it would be a good idea, since she can't be there and all..."

 

"I think you should ask Harry," Hermione said, stiffly.

 

"Yeah, alright."

 

A stuffy silence filled the air for a long while, set aside the white noise of bickering Slytherin girls and Argus Filch, who was distraught over the recent whereabouts of his favorite mop. Apparently, Madam Hooch had found it on top of Ravenclaw Tower.

 

"On the roof!" he shrieked. Mrs. Norris wrapped around his ankle, proffering whatever comfort she could. "I've been lookin' for that mop for weeks!"

 

The Slytherin girls stopped arguing to watch the scene unfold.

 

"Argus, please do calm down," Madam Hooch said, shouldering her broomstick. "It's just a mop. It was probably Peeves or a student playing a harmless prank."

 

"Harmless prank? Frozen solid, it is!"

 

With only a few wreaths left to hang, Professor Flitwick snapped his fingers and the course yarn of the mop fell freely, no longer frozen in a dirty heap.

 

"Thank you, Professor..." Filch trailed off, sounding rather disappointed. "That still doesn't solve who needs punishing, though, does it?"

 

Ginny, who seemed completely oblivious to their surroundings, pointed at a photograph in her magazine.

 

"Do you think this is too lacy?"

 

The wedding dress she was gesturing came equipped with a long, lace train, and to Hermione, it looked like something one might expect to see in an expensive Muggle wedding—perhaps one between two celebrities that would have lots of paparazzi and television coverage. She was not sure it fit Ginny's taste, but she decided to keep that to herself.

 

"I wouldn't know, really. You could ask your mother, though. I'm sure she'd tell you."

 

If something were inappropriate, Mrs. Weasley would not only tell Ginny, but she would explain why it was inappropriate, what would be more appropriate, and how she could likely create the most appropriate version herself.

 

"Oh, I'm sure she'd have plenty to say about it," Ginny muttered. She let out a heavy sigh and marked the page in Magical Marriages, which she had been burying her nose in since she announced her engagement to Harry. Professor Whittlewood had confiscated it at least three times, but apparently, Ginny had cleverly been making copies.

 

"You still haven't told her," Hermione deduced.

 

"I'll tell her when we're home for Christmas," Ginny claimed, stretching her legs. "Anyway, I ought to get to the pitch. See you."

 

Hermione stifled a giggle as she predicted the look on Mrs. Weasley's face, followed by the long lecture that was bound to follow. Then, she remembered that she may not bear witness to such a lecture, because she might not be joining the Weasleys for Christmas that year.

 

Her heart sank.

 

She was invited, of course; that was part of Harry's letter, though Hermione wasn't certain that it could be called a letter. On a jagged corner of scrap parchment, he had scribbled to her what could more accurately be described as a note—a second thought that he had stuffed in an envelope meant for Ginny. A busy Auror's chicken scratch was scrawled across the back in the form of meaningless numbers, addresses, and a few names, some of which Hermione recognized, and some that she didn't. If Hermione had to guess, she would have thought he was working when he decided to write it, and instead of taking his time, he rushed it so he could send it to Ginny, for whom he had practically penned a novel.

 

It was embarrassing to think that Ginny had probably read it. In fact, Hermione was quite sure that was why there was still tension between the two of them.

 

Hermione—

 

Are you going to the Burrow for Christmas? You really should. And make up with Ginny, please. She needs a girl to do all of this wedding stuff with.

 

Hope to see you soon.

 

Harry

 

If Hermione were Ginny, she would have wanted a legitimate apology too—not one that was put into motion by her fiancé, though the fact that Harry was somebody's fiancé at all was rather laughable. He was so incredibly young, and Ginny was even younger.

 

Were they even old enough to understand what marriage meant? Ginny had done her fair share of dating other boys, but Harry had terribly limited experience with girls, so how could he know if he was moving too quickly?

 

Hermione could not make sense of it.

 

She did, however, wonder what it would be like to have a fiancé while she was still a mere schoolgirl. Would she too ignore her professors while browsing floral arrangements? What color would look best with the Weasleys' flaming hair? Would Ron cry when he saw her walk down the aisle?

 

"Of course he wouldn't," she mumbled to herself.

 

She almost finished the thought aloud: Because he would never ask me in the first place.

Suddenly, she felt like going back to her dormitory. At least there, she had the distraction of coursework and books, which were, to Hermione, the sort of things a girl in school should be worrying about.

 

There would be time for weddings and summer romance in the future, and when the time came, she would find someone much better than Ronald Bilius Weasley.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students lay across Hermione's lap. She was curled up in bed, studying the potion she and Malfoy would be discussing the next day, and as usual, she was glad to have her mind on her studies rather than Ron.

 

While she never believed she would be looking forward to a meeting with Malfoy, she was starting to enjoy having someone to study with. It was rare that anyone was academic enough to help her in the same way that she helped them.

 

Her recent grades were, after all, remarkable.

 

"Oho! Fine work once again, Miss Granger!" Professor Slughorn had told her earlier that week. "I do hope you'll be coming to the Slug Club Christmas party?"

 

"Of course, Professor."

 

Based on her repeated success, she would be shocked if she and Malfoy were still meeting by the Christmas party. Hermione was confident that she could have performed just as well without his help, but maybe it was the desire to be finished with the punishment that made her stop creating distractions in the classroom, because as much as she would deny it, she had been distracted—pathetically distracted.

 

Much like Ginny felt the need to ogle at sample dinner menus and bouquets in Magical Marriages, Hermione had felt the need to write to Ron. Not only did she write to him, but she also worried about his reaction, so she edited and rewrote and overexplained nearly every point she made.

 

It was exhausting.

 

What was even more exhausting was pretending she was failing due to her own shortcomings. Malfoy had mistaken her scribblings for notes, and while she desperately wanted to tell him that she would have a perfect "O" if she had actually been taking notes, she couldn't. If he knew that she was writing love letters to Ronald Weasley, the teasing would be endless.

 

It was as she pondered this that she realized it had been a while since she had sent Ron any letters at all. Her marks in Potions had become important enough that the urge to write to Ron vanished, but the thought of him still made her heart ache.

 

She would not know what to do if she had to face him again.

 

It was then that she came to terms with something she suspected she already knew: She would have to disappoint Harry and the Weasleys that year, because as long as Ron would be at the Burrow for Christmas, she would not be.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Sunday breakfast sounded truly dreadful. Nightmares of war and Ron and the nameless, handsome woman plagued Hermione's sleep, leaving her with a throat full of bile and violet pouches beneath her eyes. Alas, feeling quite nauseated, she still found herself in the Great Hall, staring at Ginny as the girl pored over Wizarding Weddings.

 

"Orabelle nicked it off Madam Pince's desk. We reckon Filch finally popped the question," Ginny snickered.

 

Hermione grumbled nothing in particular. She did not endorse stealing, even if it was from the most miserable woman at Hogwarts.

 

"I think I like it better than Magical Marriages too. It's quite a bit longer and there's a whole section for decorative charms."

 

Decorative charms sounded much more interesting than flower arrangements or color swatching, and for the first time that morning, Hermione ceased regretting her Sunday visit to the Great Hall.

 

"Are there any you like?" she asked, sleepily.

 

"Well, I do like the Glitter Charm," Ginny said, pointing at a glimmering photograph in the magazine, "It says here that you can do any colors you want... Oh, violet and gold would be so pretty with my hair, don't you think?"

 

"I do, and this spell wouldn't be very hard." Hermione leaned towards Ginny to read the text. "I could help with something like this."

 

For the first time in nearly two weeks, Ginny beamed. "Would you really?"

 

"Of course."

 

Seizing a crumpet, Ginny flipped the page. She took a large bite and asked, "So you aren't on about the age thing anymore, then?"

 

"I still think you're both young," Hermione admitted, "but that doesn't mean I won't help. You're my best friends."

 

The redhead visibly relaxed and reached past her friend to stab a sausage. "Thanks, Hermione. Really, it means a lot. I know it means a lot to Harry too."

 

"It's nothing. I know the two of you will be good together."

 

She would never admit she was wrong, because she did not believe that she was, but there was nobody that deserved happiness more than Harry and Ginny. Even through the horrors of war, they had emerged stronger than ever, which was more than she could say for her and Ron, so maybe, however unlikely, the two of them knew something that she didn't.

 

Maybe love, like Quidditch, left a void in her library of knowledge.

 

Ginny interrupted her thoughts by pointing at a set of purple, puffy-sleeved bridesmaid robes. Never in all of her years had Hermione seen anything uglier, and that included the frilly dress robes Ron wore to the Yule Ball.

 

"These are ghastly. Who in their right mind would make their friends and family wear these?" Ginny groused.

 

"Wear what?" Lydia Clappord took a seat to Ginny's left and peered down at the magazine. She crinkled her nose in disapproval. "Oh, they're positively hideous. I never knew purple could be so ugly." With a glance at Hermione, she added, "Just imagine how you'd look in one of these—with that hair of yours and all."

 

"Her hair is fine," Ginny snapped, "and if any of my bridesmaids could pull off one of these dresses, it's Hermione. My veela sister-in-law, however, would look like that portrait of Catrice Capiden on the fourth floor."

 

Hermione snorted. Fleur would, indeed, resemble Catrice Capiden, a rather infamous witch who was renowned for her over-the-top robe designs and melodramatic demeanor. The Fat Lady and her friend, Violet, were known to drink far too much red wine and gossip about Catrice for hours on end.

 

"Your sister-in-law is a veela? All the more reason to make her wear something atrocious, in my opinion," Lydia said, scooping a heaping pile of potatoes onto her plate. "Hermione, aren't you going to eat something?"

 

Distracted by the magazine, Ginny did not seem to realize that Hermione had not been eating until that moment. She turned to glare at her friend. "Great question, actually. When was the last time you ate?"

 

"Yesterday," Hermione murmured. "I'm just not all that hungry."

 

"I don't care," Ginny said moodily. She grabbed a crumpet and dropped it onto Hermione's empty plate. "Eat."

 

"Yes, alright," Hermione sighed, breaking apart the breakfast pastry. Even after the smallest bite that she could muster, her stomach roiled in protest.

 

Lydia seemed pleased enough with her efforts, but Ginny was watching her with narrow eyes.

 

"A rat couldn't live on that little nibble."

 

Hermione groaned and raised another stomach-churning morsel to her mouth, but before she could bite into it, the morning owls came to her rescue.

 

Ginny's usual visitor dropped a hefty envelope in front of her, as he often did. Then, something strange happened. Just behind Altius's snow-white form was an impossibly fluffy owl with a large blue bow around its neck. This owl, one that Hermione did not recognize, had a small, ornately decorated envelope tied to its foot, and it was hopping across the table—hopping towards her.

 

"That's Luna's owl," Ginny commented as the bird parked in front of Hermione with a loud hoot. "I recognize the bow."

 

Hermione untied the envelope and turned it in her hands to find a seal of beautiful bronze wax. In it, the symbol of the Deathly Hallows was stamped, likely the choice stamp of Luna's father, Xenophilius Lovegood. How curious it was to see it again. How hauntingly familiar it was.

 

"I wonder what she wants," Hermione said, breaking the seal.

 

The stationary parchment that she pulled out reminded her very much of both Lovegoods. Spindles, stars, and moons decorated the edges: the things of Luna. Then, at the top was, once again, the triangle, the circle, and the line: the cloak, the stone, and the wand. A more welcome sight was just below that; in Luna's curly, girlish penmanship was not a note, but a true letter—a letter that was quirky and hopeful and everything that Luna Lovegood represented.

 

Hermione did not realize just how much she missed the airy girl until that moment.

 

Dear Hermione,

 

I hope you are well. How is Hogwarts? Neville and I have missed it very much, as well as our old friends. I rarely leave my home, though my father has been more permitting as of late. He does not often trust Aurors, but he likes Neville well enough.

 

Of course, with all of the rumors of Death Eaters sending Gendelsnicks out on their behalf, I understand why my father prefers I do not leave. I would never want to run into one of those, especially since they are quite sneaky. You will only know if one has bitten you if you have terrible dandruff, and if you already have dandruff, that isn't much help at all, is it?

 

Fortunately, Neville does not work next weekend, and as Hogwarts students will be allowed to go to Hogsmeade, we were hoping that you would join us at the Hog's Head next Saturday. We saw Ginny Weasley rather briefly, but we were sad to see that you did not join her. I am ever so pleased to learn of her and Harry Potter's engagement! They are both quite lovely, don't you think?

 

I ought to finish writing this. My father is asking me to help him rid the houseplants of Bibbles.

 

I do hope you will be able to make it.

 

Sincerely,

Luna Lovegood

 

Ginny quirked an eyebrow. "Well? How is she?"

 

"Frankly, she seems a bit bored being stuck in her father's house," Hermione summarized. "She and Neville will be in Hogsmeade next weekend, though, so maybe that'll cheer her up."

 

"Are you going to meet them there, then?"

 

Hermione, rather honestly, said, "I don't know. Possibly."



Chapter 19: Tattling
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Hermione was too stubborn to admit that the Forbidden Forest was an intolerable temperature. Even through her spellwork, the bitter wind lapped at her flushed cheeks, a feat she thought impossible after all of the time she spent perfecting a half-dozen charms of the warming variety. It was this that had led her to pull her scarf over her face, and while the subtle movement should not have been noticeable, a rare smirk adorned Malfoy's lips.

 

"Did I not tell you that it was too cold?"

 

The words were precisely what she expected. Hoping to avoid another one of his monologues, she shifted her attention back to the parchment she had been examining; it was but a feeble distraction from his penetrating gaze.

 

"It's not too cold," she insisted. "It'll be fine once the wind stops."

 

"And if it doesn't stop?"

 

Hermione did not have an answer to the inevitable question, so she passed the parchment back to Malfoy and said, "I circled the numbers that need redoing. You should've known your destiny number was off when the meaning was 'to be helpful to others' and not 'to be a haughty little dunderhead'."

 

"Awfully rude for someone that is only passing Potions because of my helpfulness." He pointed at a number with his quill. "And how exactly is this one wrong?"

 

"Because you were supposed to subtract rather than add—and regarding your self-proclaimed helpfulness, you're only helping me because Slughorn is making you. That hardly counts."

 

Malfoy, who had not bothered to open his book, fixed his error and said nothing more than: "It's twenty-two, then."

 

His calm nature surprised Hermione. Draco Malfoy had been defensive since their first year, and if she had not been glad to dodge confrontation, she might have felt a bit melancholy that he let that bit of himself go. Whatever fire he once possessed had been stomped into mere ashes.

 

It was a strange tragedy indeed.

 

"That's right," she said, still verging on inner conflict. "'Your destiny number aligns with that of Hobartus Wuppet, and thusly, finding your true self lies in your future, much like Hobartus Wuppet had to find himself in his patch of poisonous daisies.'"

 

"Poisonous daisies?" Malfoy echoed. "If I find myself in a patch of poisonous daisies, I'm most certainly not going to stick around to find much of anything."

 

Hermione smiled, a little relieved to see his spark again. "Don't tell Professor Vector that."

 

With a light chuckle, Malfoy finished correcting his number chart without needing so much as another hint. Hermione, as she watched him, wondered how it was that she was making harmless jokes with her childhood bully while Ron could not even find time to send her an owl.

 

The war was responsible for a world of many changes, but she never thought losing Ron's friendship would be one of them.

 

"What's the look for, Granger? Starting to get frostbite?"

 

"No."

 

"What's your problem, then?"

 

She shook her head. "Nothing. Are you finished?"

 

"Yeah," he replied, passing the number chart to her. "I still think it's a load of rubbish, though. Bloody poisonous daisies."

 

Hermione checked it once more. "I'm inclined to agree with you, but it's worlds better than Divination with Trelawney. At least numbers have some kind of merit." Satisfied with his answers, she handed the parchment back to him and added, "We can head back now if you want."

 

Malfoy was still watching her with the utmost skepticism, but apparently he decided against pestering her, because he simply said, "Yeah, alright. Let me pack my things."

 

They walked back together quietly, which Hermione believed took a lot of effort on Malfoy's behalf, yet it had become their distorted form of normalcy, nonetheless.

 

In a way, Hermione felt guilty for sequestering their sessions into the most dangerous place she possibly could. Studying there had been her idea, and so far, the two of them had faced frigid temperatures, cursed vegetation, hungry Acromantulas, and each other. Malfoy tended to complain, but in that instance, she had given him good reason to.

 

Festering in her remorse, she blurted, "I am sorry about the Acromantulas."

 

"That took you long enough," he retorted.

 

"Right—erm—sorry. They should be wintering soon, though," she went on, recalling a Care of Magical Creatures lesson from the week prior. "They hibernate from the middle of December until the end of March. That's why Hagrid's been feeding them. They'd likely die, otherwise, since there aren't many animals in the forest anymore..."

 

Hagrid's hut was looming over them from the crest of the hill.

 

"If he had any sense, he would let them."

 

"Malfoy! That's terrible!"

 

"And those things aren't?"

 

"Well, they might be, but they still are living creatures and they have to eat the same as you and I do. Hagrid's doing the right thing by caring for them."

 

"He's lucky they don't try to eat him."

 

Hermione laughed a little bit. Still, it surprised her how much more often she was laughing. When was the exact moment that they became civil? Were they civil? They certainly could not be considered friends—but they were not enemies either.

 

Were they?

 

As she pondered such things, she noticed that they were flanking the hut, which was smoking warmly as it always did. There, they would usually part ways, both to be rid of each other and to avoid the prying eyes of the judgmental student population. Alas, they kept walking towards the castle, with only a small bit of space between them.

 

"Are you going to the Slug Club Christmas party?" she asked, suddenly.

 

"Naturally," he drawled. "How could I pass up an opportunity to be lectured on toad-breeding?"

 

Hermione snorted, which she immediately realized was incredibly unladylike. "I doubt Slughorn invited him to the party after that, actually. You might want to prepare yourself for Imogene Fortescue, though. I'm sure she'll be giving lectures on her lineage again."

 

"Better hers than mine."

 

Hermione decided it was better not to discuss the Malfoy family, so they awkwardly trekked all the way back to the castle, where her study partner went down to the dungeons and she ascended the stairs of Gryffindor Tower. She had promised Ginny that she would help her with her Defense Against the Dark Arts homework, though she had made the promise begrudgingly. If Ginny had been paying attention in class, she would have known how truly simple the homework was.

 

Unfortunately, when Hermione stepped through the portrait hole, it became apparent that they would not be doing any homework that afternoon.

 

Orabelle Wood's dulcet Scottish accent was barely audible over the crackling fireplace, but she was certainly speaking, as Hermione could still hear her soft murmurs. The girl appeared to be comforting Ginny, who had collected a handful of the brunette's robes to sob into.

 

"What's going on with her?" she whispered, sitting to Ginny's right.

 

Orabelle ran her fingers through Ginny's red locks, a motherly gesture that Hermione might have tried if she had been there first. It was good to see Ginny confiding in someone, but somehow, she still could not help her envy. Two of her friends seemed a lifetime away, and here sat a girl she barely knew stealing her third.

 

"She's been like this for nearly an hour."

 

Ginny sniffled and dropped Orabelle's robes. "Sorry, I—I'm being silly, aren't I?"

 

"Absolutely not! If my brother did what yours did... Well, I'd probably go mad—or kill him..."

 

Of all of Ginny's brothers, there were only two that Hermione knew to cross lines that might bother Ginny, and ever since Fred's passing, George was an unlikely candidate.

 

Almost afraid of the answer, Hermione once again asked, "Ginny, what exactly happened?"

 

"My mum sent me a letter saying she knew about the engagement," Ginny said, thickly, blinking back more tears. "I'd show you but I chucked it in the fire."

 

"Basically, her brother opened his stupid gob."

 

Hermione had never been more annoyed with Orabelle Wood than she was at that moment. She wanted to have a conversation with her friend—a friend who was clearly distraught and needed her support—but Orabelle insisted on being much more involved than she needed to be.

 

"Obviously, she wasn't very pleased," Ginny grumbled. "She made it quite clear we'll be discussing it over the holidays, and wrote three different times about how disappointed she was in me."

 

"And which brother sent it?" Hermione dared to ask.

 

"Which one d'you think?"

 

Hermione groaned. "Ronald."

 

"That's the one." Ginny sighed and pulled her knees to her chin.

 

Hermione thought she was going to vomit. Ronald had time to interrupt Ginny and Harry's happiness, yet somehow, he did not have time for her. He was no longer the boy she spent so much time kissing over the course of the summer. That version of Ron would never stoop so low.

 

"Of course, Mum claimed she was only upset I didn't send her an owl... I know better, though. Frankly, I was a bit shocked it wasn't a Howler, but she was probably just afraid my classmates might hear how much of a ruddy embarrassment I am to the family..."

 

"You're not an embarrassment," Orabelle cooed, pulling Ginny into another hug. "Unless your mum's a Death Eater, I imagine she'd be proper proud you're marrying Harry bloody Potter."

 

Ginny gave Orabelle's arm a halfhearted pat. "It's actually Harry's fault, really. I told him not to tell Ron, but I think he must've said something before he even proposed, because he got all twitchy like he does when he's bollocksed something up..."

 

Hermione could no longer control her rage. Disagreeing with Ginny's decision to get married at such a young age, she could understand, but to actually try and ruin her special news—that was unforgivable.

 

"He—is—just—awful!" Hermione said through gritted teeth. "I can't believe him!"

 

"Harry?" Ginny asked, knitting her brows together, obviously ready to come to her fiancé's defense.

 

"No! Ronald!"

 

"Oh, right." Her shoulders settled. "I thought Percy was the biggest prat of my brothers, but Ron might have him beat now."

 

"Oh, he definitely does," Hermione growled, suddenly feeling much more sided with Ginny than she was before. "Your mum will come around, but Ron—well, what do you plan to do about him?"

 

"What do you mean 'do about him'?"

 

"I mean, he won't learn his lesson if you don't do something."

 

Bias played a strong role in Hermione's perspective. As she was a bright girl, she knew this, yet she did not let stop her emotions from running wild. If she had anything to say about it, she and Ginny would both get their revenge on Ronald Weasley. 

 

"You could use that Bat-Bogey spell you like so much," Orabelle suggested.

 

"It's high on my list of possibilities right now," Ginny mumbled, "but honestly, I just want my mum to accept all of this. It was meant to be good news, not the end of the world."

 

Hermione softened. "She'll come around, Gin. And you know she'll help with the wedding once she sees the plans you've been making. She won't be able to resist."

 

Ginny sighed and wiped her eyes. "I know."

 

"She was probably just shocked hearing it from your brother instead of you," Orabelle said, though Hermione wondered what business it was of hers, since she had never even met Mrs. Weasley. "She'll realize he was trying to stick his wand in the wrong cauldron once she finds out you wanted to tell her in person. Then, once it's all sorted with her, you'll be able to give your git of a brother a good tongue-lashing."

 

"I liked your Bat-Bogey idea better."

 

Hermione, although she did not admit it, liked it better too.

 

 

***

    

 

Hair-Lengthening Potion was not nearly as advanced as some potions that Hermione had made in her scholarly years. With all of the studying that she and Draco had been doing, brewing a batch of the mauve mixture should have been a simple task, but her mind was back on Ron, and when there were thoughts of Ron, there was a much stronger likelihood of failure.

 

She had learned that the hard way.

 

"Professor!" Pansy Parkinson squawked without bothering to raise her hand. "Can we keep this once we're done?"

 

Professor Slughorn frowned. Hermione assumed he had planned on selling it to somebody, because Madam Pomfrey certainly did not need such a potion, and there were no classes that had any use for it. There was, of course, the obvious theory that the professor wanted to use it himself, but the drinker had to have hair for the potion to work—a fact he would know better than anyone.

 

"I'm sorry, Miss Parkinson, but allowing a student to take home a potion for self-use would be inconceivably irresponsible of me..."

 

"Well, can't you look at it and tell us if they're good?"

 

"Of course I can, but if someone's is not good, it's hardly fair to them!"

 

Pansy scowled and told her redheaded friend, "He just wants them all for himself! It's not our fault he's bald."

 

Hermione could not imagine getting upset over something so simple—not when she was grieving the death of her summer romance.

 

Ron had all the time in the world to try and make Ginny's life a living hell, but he could not so much as write her back.

 

With his newfound fame and his new lifestyle as an Auror, perhaps he realized he never cared for her like she cared for him. Perhaps he realized he only pursued her because it was easy, because she was simply there.

 

"Granger!"

 

Malfoy was glaring at her, and when she looked down at her hands, she saw why. She had crushed the milkweed.

 

"You're supposed to pluck the pods!"

 

"I know!"

 

Annoyed with Ron, Malfoy, and even herself, she stomped to the cupboard to retrieve more milkweed. When she closed the door, she jumped, for a familiar blond boy was fuming over her.

 

"You scared me!"

 

"Yeah, well you should be more scared of the marks you'll receive if you can't get yourself sorted out," he muttered. "Hand me the cat hair, yeah?"

 

"Yeah, alright."

 

Hermione opened the cupboard once more, passed him a vial of cat hair, and went back to her table to finish brewing her potion. She stirred and watched and stirred and watched, mentally shaking herself whenever thoughts of Ron came to interrupt her focus. Finally, with a perfect mauve brew in front of her, she grinned.

 

Maybe Ron was losing his power over her after all.

 


Author's Note: This isn't my favorite chapter, but I hope you enjoy as there's a bit more Malfoy. Next chapter will be a reference from a long chapter in Wreck, but still please read, as it will be from a different perspective than the one portrayed in Wreck, so it will still be new content.



Chapter 20: Drinking
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The week had been long. Pansy Parkinson and her boyfriend had been particularly bloodthirsty, and when there were not any first-years around, they would try and hunt down Draco to test their jeers and jinxes. Because of this, he had spent most of the week silently hiding behind the centaur statue, ducking between bookshelves in the library, and avoiding meals even more than usual. To top it all off, he had received a rather stiff letter from the one woman he hated to disappoint: his mother.

 

Dearest Draco,

 

I do hope you are enjoying your time at school. France has been beautiful, but this place is terribly empty without you here with us. However, your father and I both are proud of you for continuing your education.

 

There has been a bit of an inconvenience, though, and I was wondering if you may know anything about it.

 

Since returning from leaving you at Platform 9¾, Wimby has been struggling with her speech. Whenever I ask her a question, she is quiet until I demand an answer. Recently, she stated that she is afraid her linguistic tendencies may bother me, and that you were the one to inform her of this. I do hope you did not say anything that may have given her this idea, Draco. I often do not know if the silver has been cleaned until I find time to check for myself! As you know, I am far too busy for such menial tasks, so it is pertinent that Wimby communicates.

 

When you see her for the holidays, please right this wrong, as I have been patient with her for weeks now, but the behavior has continued.

 

With love,

Narcissa Malfoy

 

P.S. Your invitation to this year's holiday feast should be folded within the parchment. This year, it will not be at Malfoy Manor, but at the Avuelle property here in France. Your father will arrange a Portkey and Wimby and I will meet you at King's Cross Station. Mathilde will be joining us, so please, Draco, do dress your best. We owe her many thanks for how accommodating she has been.

 

Draco had folded the parchment and tucked it in his schoolbag, along with the silver-embroidered invitation. He had not intended on joining his classmates in Hogsmeade, but the more he thought about failing his mother and spending the holidays with his father, the more he needed a drink.

 

There were many reasons that he should have avoided the small Wizarding village, and those were the reasons he would have to be as stealthy as possible.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Under the veil of a Disillusionment Charm, Draco passed by the Three Broomsticks, outside of which stood Pansy Parkinson, suspiciously latched onto someone's arm. She was whining as usual, but she was not whining to the person Draco might have expected.

 

Rather than the sleepy gaze of Evan Siftwell, it was Theodore Nott that was staring back at him. Draco's old friend knew of his mastery of the Disillusionment Charm, and if Draco did not know better, he might have thought that the bucktoothed Slytherin could see past his magic.

 

After all, Disillusionment Charms were not like Potter's revered Invisibility Cloak, as they were imperfect, and the trained eye could catch the phantom breeze of robes or a quick slip of loose bits of cobblestone. Theodore, due to his father's place in the war, may have been alert enough to notice something out of place. If he had, he was likely to pinpoint Draco as the hidden culprit.

 

"Are you coming, Theo? It's cold."

 

Theodore gave Draco—or what would, to him, look like empty air—one final glance, and followed Pansy inside. "Yeah, sorry."

 

Draco was surely unwelcome at the Three Broomsticks, so he decided to continue walking until he reached the Hog's Head Inn. Still, he wondered why Pansy Parkinson and Theodore Nott may be meeting alone, as Theodore rarely made his presence known since the end of the war. How was it that Pansy, of all people, could draw him out into the public? She had never liked him much, yet there she was, tugging on his arm.

 

Draco assumed his questions would never be answered, as he could never enter the Three Broomsticks again. Standing in front of the Hog's Head Inn, he wondered how the darker corners of the village would receive him in contrast to the more popular spots. The war had put him in a strange sort of limbo, unrespected by Dark witches and wizards and downright evil to everyone else—but there were those that did not fall under either category. These were the types that would, undoubtedly, be drinking in Aberforth Dumbledore's filthy pub.

 

He finally lifted the charm and, anxious, stepped inside. He was pleased to see that it was quiet for a Saturday, giving him time to linger among the few drunks before facing anyone less forgiving.

 

There was, however, someone that did worry him. By the bar was the same barman that had always been there, the man that was later revealed to be the brother of Albus Dumbledore, and this was only man there that Draco could not read. The papers loved Aberforth Dumbledore, but Draco wondered if they knew the man beyond the legacy: a grumpy goat-wrangler who served shady beverages to even shadier patrons.

 

"Ahem." Draco awkwardly pressed his lips together. "Could I possibly buy a Fizzlebit Ale?"

 

Aberforth grunted in response before reaching beneath the bar for a pint glass.

 

Draco placed a Galleon on the bartop, and in exchange, the bearded man pushed the single ale his way. Draco's nod was his silent thanks, and with that, he went back to a table in the frontmost corner. With only a few pubgoers strewn about, he chose to adjust himself to fit perfectly behind one of the largest men there: a dirty, bare-chested fellow that Draco assumed to be a Squib.

 

Slowly, Draco sipped. Witches and wizards ambled in, though Draco was certain that at least a few were hags. It was not until he hit the bottom of his glass that two familiar faces shuffled inside: One awkward and the other fair-faced and ash blonde, they were nothing like the rest of the establishment's visitors.

 

"I do think she'll come," Luna Lovegood sang in her usual airy-fairy manner.

 

"I dunno, love. Did she write back?" Neville Longbottom replied.

 

"She thanked me for the invitation, and in many cases, that would mean she wasn't going to come, but the rest of her letter was quite nice, so I think she's at least considered it."

 

The duo seated themselves at a table that was, to Draco's relief, plenty far away. His place behind the large man would keep him hidden until he decided to leave under the cover of another Disillusionment Charm.

 

Then, he realized who they had been referring to.

 

Hermione Granger had walked into the dingy pub, her hair messier than usual and her eyes darting around as she searched for her friends. Draco ducked lowly behind the large man, who was now passed out.

 

"Oh, there they are," Granger muttered to herself.

 

Draco watched her plod away. Only when her feet had made it across the room did he rise behind the large man once more, and there he sat alone, listening to the chatter of the pub—especially that of Granger and her friends.

 

They spent mostly spent their time ordering beer, butterbeer, and talking—the sort of things that normal teenagers did before the war began. Longbottom prattled on about his job, Lovegood complained about Wrackspurts and being stuck in her father's house, and Granger claimed she was enjoying her time at Hogwarts. Draco heard the fib in her tone.

 

Then, after nearly an hour, through the fat man's snores, he barely heard Granger say, "I'm sure someone has thought of it. If you'll excuse me, I need to go to the restroom."

 

Less than a minute had passed, and already, Lovegood had brought up Wrackspurts again.

 

“We really ought to take care of those Wrackspurts of yours, Neville. You know, if you leave them for too long they could lead to irreversible brain damage.”

 

Draco did not believe her, and he imagined anyone else with sense would doubt her too.

 

“You never told me that before! I thought they just made your brain fuzzy!

 

“Well, there haven’t been many studies on it, but some older witches and wizards claim they were never quite right again after having them a long while. Usually, they’ll go away after a dose of that potion I brewed you last Tuesday, but it seems you still have quite a lot of them left.”

 

“So we need the stronger potion, like you said. Is it possible?”

 

Foolish Longbottom may have killed the Dark Lord's awful snake and he may have gotten a job as an Auror, but still, he was just as daft as Draco always thought him to be.

 

“Anything is possible," Lovegood replied. "I suppose we would need more Wiggentree bark.”

 

“I have loads of Wiggentree bark at the house! Fresh too!”

 

“We may be able to get rid of those Wrackspurts faster than we thought, then.”

 

With Granger still absent, Lovegood and Neville paid their tab and started towards the door. Draco ducked down behind the fat man, yet Luna Lovegood seemed to turn around and look right at him. He decided she had just had one of her little delusions, because the smile on her face could not have been directed towards anyone of the Malfoy surname.

 

Granger's inevitable reaction followed. From behind the fat man, Draco could hardly see her, but it was hard to miss her curly locks whipping around as she searched for her friends. "Neville! Luna!”

 

A few patrons turned her way. The unbathed man sitting at the bar seemed particularly interested in her.

 

“Luna? Neville?”

 

"Someone tell Potter's little girlfriend to shut her bloody trap," the fat man garbled before falling asleep once more.

 

Draco assumed that Granger had not heard him, because she went to the bar to have a short conversation with Aberforth Dumbledore. He poured her a glass of what looked like firewhisky.

 

Next, the unbathed man tipped his green hat, and muttered something that Draco did not hear. Whatever it was, Granger seemed bothered by it, as she grimaced and scooted away.

 

“Oh c’mon! I’ll buy ya another!"

 

It was then that Draco realized what was happening, and without thinking, he stood and began to storm across the room, a sneer on his face. Wizards living in society's underbelly were unlikely to respect a woman, let alone a woman with Granger's parentage. They would, however, respect a Malfoy.

 

“N-no thank you. I mean no offense, but my mother taught me not to take drinks from strangers.”

 

"Listen, Mudblood, I’m tryin’ ‘o be a nice guy here, but you're makin' it difficult.”

 

Unsurprised, Draco seized his wand and growled, “I believe she said no thank you.”

 

Draco was familiar with the look of horror in the man's eyes. Those that knew what Draco was capable of knew better than to get in his way, and this man had done so in his most vulnerable state: drunk.

 

“Mr. Malfoy! I was—I was only bein' a gentleman... I don't want no trouble...”

 

“Then you best leave."

 

The man did not even pay his tab before scurrying out. Whispers filled the room, many shocked that Draco Malfoy would dare show his face, while others speculated what might have happened to the man if he did not listen.

 

Draco was certain one woman said, "A Malfoy defendin' a Mudblood? Sad times we live in, sad times..."

 

Their opinions did not matter. Draco knew he had, for once, done the right thing.

 

“I had it under control," Granger muttered.

 

“Did you?” Draco patronized. “It didn’t look very under control to me—unless you’ve started spending your nights with grimy old men instead of Weasley.”

 

Her face pinkened and in a scandalized tone, she rushedly said, “I’ve never spent the night with Ron.”

 

“Good to know. May I sit?”

 

“It's hardly my place to deny you service," she said, beckoning the stool beside her.

 

Sitting beside her felt strange, especially in a public place. She was afraid of being seen with him—ever since their first meeting in the library, she seemed more embarrassed of being seen with him than he was of being seen with her—yet she was willing to join him in Hogsmeade, in the same place that her friends allegedly frequented.

 

He decided it was best not to risk a glimpse at her. If he did, maybe her eyes would revoke the invitation she extended.

 

“I saw Loony and Longbottom left. Interesting company you keep, Granger.”

 

Even as he worried about overstaying his welcome, the near-insult slipped from between his lips. Habits did not die easily.

 

"Her name is Luna, and they’re lovely. They just had to leave.”

 

Dumbledore's brother, the grouchy barman, emerged from the narrow, mildewed archway that undoubtedly led to a second room, though Draco never wanted to learn what might be back there. The disconcerting rumor of the man's history with goats was already more than he ever wanted to know.

 

“Yes, so I heard. Longbottom had a nasty case of the Wrackspurts. Pity." He met Aberforth's eyes and tapped the surface of the bar. “I’ll take what this one’s having.”

 

Aberforth poured a glass of firewhisky and slid it towards him, but his reluctance was not lost on Draco. The elderly man glanced at Granger too, a sign that she was safe in his pub, even if it meant he would have to duel someone—particularly someone of Malfoy lineage.

 

“So where are your friends?”

 

Draco finally dared to lay his eyes upon her. One hand was wrapped around her glass, while the other was squeezing her own thigh. It was a nervous habit of hers; she tended to do it when she was not sure about an answer. He had not seen her do it in awhile.

 

Alas, it was not her that should have been nervous. Somebody had actually bothered to come and visit her. This alone was more than Draco had been awarded.

 

“No need to mock me. We both know I don’t have any friends."

 

There was a long pause, filled only by the buzzing of other patrons, all much more drunk than either of them.

 

“Never a night with Weasley, then," he recalled with a smirk, hoping to break the awkward air. “Somehow that surprises me.”

 

“Why?” The leer she gave could have burned a hole in greater men than he. "I'm not easy, if that's what you're implying.”

 

Draco chuckled. Easy was not a word he ever would have used when it came to the likes of Hermione Granger. Nevertheless, he always thought that Weasley had, somehow, broken her thick shell.

 

"I just thought you two seemed rather attached.”

 

“Ron and I are friends.”

 

Draco watched her for a second, before deciding not to press any further. Behind her hard, umber eyes, there was a solemnity that suggested there was a much longer story to tell, but not one that she wanted to share with him.

 

"Only friends, then."

 

The silence that followed was long enough for three more wizards to enter, order drinks, and find their seats. He and Granger were far from friends, yet Draco did not think she detested him as much as she once did. Whatever act he had once put on was certainly fading, and he was sure she noticed the diminishment of the Malfoy mask he had worn for so many years.

 

"So how have you been?" he said at last.

 

It came out as confidently as he prayed it would, though it felt rather lame.

 

"How have I been?” she repeated, slowly. “Why are you asking me that?”

 

“Well, Granger, in the civilized world, it’s a common courtesy to ask.”

 

She glared at him and downed her drink. "So suddenly you're an expert on the civilized world.”

 

Draco quieted himself once more as he tried to work out how to respond to her. In the end, he knew there was no correct response, but his truth was her truth, and maybe that would resonate with her the way it resonated with him.

 

"Surely things are better than they were before, though. I mean, back when he was...around.”

 

"They are, I suppose.” She knocked on the bar. “Aberforth, may I have another, please?"

 

Draco straightened his spine, finished his firewhisky, and did the same. Strained social scenarios were nothing new for a young heir, but for some reason, it was much more painful when it was Granger.

 

History ran deep in their blood—his pure, hers far from it. Only war could have shown him that despite everything that he had ever been taught, it was his blood that was tainted all along. It was tainted with acts of his father, his mother, and worst of all, those of Bellatrix Lestrange.

 

"Another for me as well, thank you."

 

Aberforth filled their tumblers, though he did not seem incredibly pleased about it.

 

“So is this what you do during Hogsmeade weekends?” Granger asked. “Come drink firewhisky by yourself?”

 

“Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m actually not by myself,” he retorted.

 

As usual, he blamed himself for the long silence that followed. The drinks he tossed back could either help him relax or cause him to say something much worse than he already had.

 

“Why did you stand up for me? You didn’t have to do that.”

 

Draco ran his tongue across his teeth and throated the glass of firewhisky in his hand. "My mother taught me to keep my fellow man in line when it comes to how they treat women. If he didn't learn his lesson then, he would've gone on to try it on someone else." He patted the bar, ordering another. "It was better to run him off before he caused more trouble."

 

“Well, I appreciate it."

 

They were quiet again before Granger confessed, "I didn’t even see you in here." She took a small sip and cringed. “Where were you?”

 

“In the corner. I've developed superb hiding skills this year, if you hadn't noticed."

 

She laughed a laugh that could stop his heart. In fact, if he thought about it longer than he dared, he might have admitted to himself that it did.

 

"I did notice, actually." It was apparent that she had not learned her lesson, as she took another sip and glanced at some smarmy characters behind them. "There really isn't anyone here to hide from, though. Rather silly to be lurking in dark corners."

 

Dark corners had become his only friend. Of course, Granger could not understand that.

 

"Easy for you to say. You don't have the Ministry trying to find every reason to put you in Azkaban or McGonagall itching to expel you."

 

“Don't be so dramatic. They can’t put you in Azkaban.”

 

He busied his lips with another drink so he could choose his words carefully.

 

“The Ministry believes I’m reformed just about as much as you do. A single misstep and they'll gladly put me behind bars."

 

The Gryffindor seemed inhumanly focused on her firewhisky right then.

 

“Your silence speaks volumes, Granger."

 

“Well—”

 

"Just leave it,” he spat before finishing his drink and tapping the bar again.

 

The amber liquid filled the glass to the brim, and as Aberforth Dumbledore pushed it towards him, it spilled over the edge. Apparently, Draco nor Aberforth cared, because nobody bothered to clean it up.

 

“Draco, slow down!” Granger demanded.

 

He locked eyes with her. She was terribly pretty—prettier than any of the other girls at Hogwarts. She was also stubborn, occasionally violent, and a breed of pretentious that rivaled his own. In a way, she was not so different from himself, except in one glaring way: she was good, and he was not.

 

“Why should I?”

 

“Well, I—never mind.” More, she drank.

 

“I could drink myself to death and no one would care."

 

He downed his firewhisky and pounded his knuckles on the bar once more. Umber eyes were sure to drive him to madness, and here they were, willingly, watching him.

 

“That’s rubbish and you know it, Malfoy."

 

“Is it?”

 

“Nobody wants you dead. That's just crude."

 

"Oh, I'll bet there are plenty of people in the Ministry that would disagree."

 

Those umber eyes were watching him again—so nearly in the way he once imagined she would. He had let go of such dreams many years ago, but the drunker he got, the more he remembered how he thought of her so often when his dark cloud cleared. Once, he had even thought to save her; his father wanted to kidnap her from the Quidditch World Cup, but Draco found her first, and with the type of behavior she would have expected from him, he hid his secret in a jeer...

 

"Your aunt tortured me, you know," she finally whispered.

 

"All the more reason for my bloodline to come to an end as far as you and your little friends are concerned, isn't it?" he growled, pushing away his buried fantasies with harsh reminders of the truth.

 

Then, she shook her head. It should have surprised him, but it did not, because she was far too noble to wish death upon anyone.

 

"Your aunt tortured me and—and y-you watched. You watched every horrible, sickening second of it."

 

"You aren’t exactly defending your point, Granger,” he mumbled. “If I were in your shoes, I’d blast the Killing Curse at me right now. Suppose I should keep my hand on my wand in case you decide to take me up on that.”

 

“Draco, you aren’t listening to me,” she slurred, surprising Draco with the use of his given name. “Your family has done despicable things to me, to the people I care about. But the war is over and here we are, drinking firewhisky. Maybe it's time to move on, you know?"

 

Bellatrix haunted her dreams just as she haunted his. It was yet another shared trauma, and if he dwelled on it, he might overanalyze exactly what that meant.

 

"I don't claim to be a good person, Granger, but what Bellatrix did was vile."

 

Without a drop of malice, she inquired, "Even though I'm just a Mudblood?"

 

"Nobody deserves to be tortured. I suspect you and I both learned that the hard way."

 

Fluttering eyelids were something Draco associated with Pansy Parkinson—a manipulative tactic he had grown to loathe. Yet, when Granger, did it, it was innocent and vulnerable; neither word could even begin to describe Pansy.

 

“I’m drunk and I should hate you, Malfoy. Stop giving me reasons not to.”

 

Unlike his childhood sweetheart, Granger did not feign her inebriation for attention.

 

"Don't worry. You’ll hate me tomorrow."

 

The words resonated with him more than they could have possibly resonated with her.

 

“You know what I think? I think—hmm. Maybe it’s not my place to say.”

 

Emotions ran high when the blood was poisoned with alcohol. The very thing Draco had spent year after year fighting was impossible to avoid, and if she could offer any sliver of hope, he might have taken it.

 

“Tell me.”

 

She hummed again and then said, "Well, I don't think you're as bad as you let on."

 

He shoved the sliver back at her where it had lived since he was a boy. Draco had many weaknesses, but misinterpretation was not one of them, and what she was saying could not have been what he wished she meant. Her words were laced with intoxication and well-meaning, because that was all that she was: well-meaning.

 

“You don't know what I'm capable of, Granger. You have no idea what I've done."

 

She tucked her wild locks behind her ear, yet several sprung forward anyway, as they tended to do. Trying to force them back, she replied, “Perhaps not, but I do know you're sitting by a Mudblood—by choice."

 

Draco chuckled. “I suppose that’s true.”

 

Then she stared at him. For a moment, he was afraid she was about to vomit in his lap.

 

What she actually said might as well have been vomit: “If we don’t let the war end, it never will, you know."

 

"Well, isn't that profound," he muttered, rolling his eyes.

 

"But it's the truth!" She gave the bar a violent slap. "As long as we let it rule the way we live our lives, we might as well still be fighting. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of fighting."

 

Her words were followed by a long silence as Draco contemplated her meaning.

 

"Why didn’t you leave the pub as soon as you saw me?” he finally asked.

 

She tried to blow her untamed locks from her face, but they simply landed right back where they last were. “I dunno. We could be getting along worse, lately, right? And I guess I don’t have friends either. Not real friends, considering they just ditched me over some bloody Wrackspurts... Well, there's Ginny, but lately, our conversations are rather limited to flower arrangements and dessert trays... It's all a bit pathetic, really.”

 

Draco snorted, hardly convinced that Hermione Granger was nearly as unpopular as he was. “What about Potter and Weasley? And you mustn't forget your friends at the Prophet. There wasn't a day in summer that I could read so much as the Quidditch column without seeing your mugs."

 

"I don't exactly have tea with Berdus Bickwalt or Yaven Dodd after they find a hundred different ways to ask me what it was like to be Muggle-born during the war.” She paused. "And I don't really talk to Harry and Ron anymore, either. Not much, anyway.”

 

“Is that right?”

 

“Ron and I haven't spoken since I left. We were seeing each other, I suppose, over summer, so I think it's all a bit confusing for him,” she sighed, resting her face in the palm of her hand. “I think I’m over it, though. We were just being silly, if I think about it."

 

Draco could not have controlled the smirk on his face even if he wanted to. Granger and Weasley had already gone down the path he always thought they would—and it had not worked out.

 

“So you weren’t spending nights with him but you wanted to.”

 

“I did not!”

 

"I’ll take your word for it,” he teased, before rapping on the bar again.

 

“It’s the truth!” Granger laughed, trying to hide her impossibly red face. “I mean—I guess I liked him but—well, things change. He didn’t come back to school and he’s an Auror now and I honestly think it’s better for the both of us. He needed to learn how to get by in life without me doing his homework for him.”

 

“So that's how Weasel was passing classes."

 

"I'd rather not talk any more about him. What about you, though? You never seemed like the type to care about your N.E.W.T. marks, but all of a sudden you're back at Hogwarts and you're actually trying for once. Why?”

 

“Where else was I going to go? Death Eaters want me dead. The rest of the Wizarding world wants me in Azkaban. Hiding away at school for a year seemed like the easiest thing to do.”

 

“That’s a bit sad.”

 

Draco sucked on his teeth. “I don't want your pity."

 

“It’s not that. I just—I don't know...”

 

He eyed her, realizing how horribly close to honesty he had become. "I shouldn't have sat here."

 

"Don't do that."

 

"Do what?"

 

“Act like you're the Dark Lord himself! It's exhausting, honestly."

 

"I may not be him, but I may as well be."

 

"If you’re such a brute, why didn’t you just let that creep have his way with me?” she asked.

 

Draco frowned. “You’re drunk.”

 

“Maybe so,” she laughed, locking eyes with him. Suddenly, her voice was much more serious. “But you intervened for a reason. A lesser wizard wouldn't have done as much."

 

The entire situation, to Draco, was unprocessable.

 

“You know, if Ron saw you with me he’d call you a ferret and hex you,” she giggled.

 

“Thought you didn’t want to discuss Weasley."

 

Whatever happened between her and the redheaded nitwit, it had hurt her, and she was using Draco as a way to upset him. The thought was a bit sobering. Still, he wanted to believe there was more to it.

 

“I don’t! I just—I think I’m just a bit tipsy,” she admitted, resting her face in her hand. The rest of her drink disappeared down her gullet and she clacked her fingernails against the bar.

 

“So it seems,” Draco mumbled.

 

Then, Granger fell. She let out a loud yelp, drawing beady eyes from all around the pub. Unsure what else to do, Draco helped her back to a standing position. Her legs wobbled beneath her and she stumbled a bit, laughing wildly. Draco sighed, his mind still on Ronald Weasley, and took her drink. Somehow, it had not spilled.

 

“We ought to get you back to the castle.”

 

"Th-thank you. I almost fell flat on my face.” Her laughter was loud and neverending and the sweetest sound he'd ever heard.

 

Draco snickered and held his hand against her arm, helping her catch her balance once more. “How much did you drink before I joined you?"

 

“Not much! Really! I just—I'm not much of a drinker..." With each giggle, Draco tried to remember what he thought a giggle sounded like. Usually, they were mean-spirited—only aired when there was new gossip or if someone had been harmed. Hers were so different, so genuine. "I'm more of a—" She hiccupped, choking on her laughter. "—butterbeer type."

 

Draco opened his mouth to respond, yet he was interrupted by the flash of a camera. He blinked several times, blinded by the light.

 

"Of course someone would be—" Granger hiccupped again in between laughs. "—taking pictures of us." She cackled and coiled her arm around him, holding her index and middle finger above his head. "Pose, Draco. We might as well give them a show."

 

The camera flashed several more times and the man holding it rushed out of the inn.

 

“What the hell was that?” Draco asked, still seeing spots.

 

Granger stumbled again, but he caught her in his arms as she giggled, uncontrollably. “Prob’ly the Prophet. Who cares? They're all a bunch of—" She stopped to let out a hiccup. "Malfoy—no, Malfoy, listen to me!” She pawed at his face in a way that might have been annoying if she were Pansy. Fortunately, she was not. "Thank you.”

 

“For?”

 

Still grabbing his face rather roughly, she slurred, “Well, firstly, for sending away that terrible man. That and—well, honestly, I had fun." Another hiccup escaped her throat as she seized the drink from the bar, to Draco's protest, and downed it. "I don't think I've been able to have fun since, well, you know. It's been a long time.”

 

The young heir held his arm around her to help her stand, amused and a bit sad as he watched her cry with joy. Then, her face froze as she hit her wall of toxicity. It was clear that she was far too inebriated to walk back alone, so Draco motioned Aberforth over and pointed to both himself and Granger before dropping several Galleons on the bar.

 

“If I hear that girl didn’t get home safe, I’ll invent a fourth Unforgivable Curse just for you. Mark my words.”

 

Draco nodded and steadied her as they stepped out of the inn. He was too drunk to think about everything he had learned, but one detail was niggling: She had only been friendly with him to teach Weasley some sort of lesson, yet she still seemed to be having fun.

 

That likely meant nothing. Fun was hard to avoid when one was as drunk as she was.

 

Granger groaned. “I drank too much.”

 

“Clearly.”

 



Chapter 21: Walking
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Dragging Hermione Granger back to Hogwarts was a challenging task. She chattered and laughed and stumbled and staggered all the way down the High Street, making no effort to quiet herself as they passed the more popular stops like Honeydukes and the Three Broomsticks, both of which were bustling with villagers and students alike. Luckily, only a group of fourth-year girls seemed to notice the two of them walking together, and they all were too preoccupied to care as they dreamily recapped their visit to Hogsmeade's most romantic haunt, Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop.

 

"Madam P-Puddifoot's!" Granger hiccuped as soon as the girls passed. "I can't believe people still go there."

 

"Frankly, Puddifoot could stay in business on Slytherin Sickles alone," Draco admitted, keenly watching her as she swayed ahead of him. "Girls of a particular background practically beg to be taken there."

 

"That's sort of—" She hiccuped again. "—pathetic."

 

"I suppose."

 

"So girls have begged you then?"

 

"I took Pansy a few times in our fourth and fifth year." Scandalized by his recollections of the place, he added, "She seemed to enjoy herself."

 

"But how? It's like paying to be stuck in Trelawney's room on a weekend."

 

Draco replied with a snort. His mother might have screamed if she heard such a sound come from his nose.

 

The short walk continued, though it was taking longer than it should have taken, as Granger kept darting this way and that, complaining of litter and collecting rubbish from the cobblestone street. She stuffed it all into her purse and it occurred to Draco that she might have forgotten she could make it all vanish rather than carry it around with her. He decided not to say anything, though, as her wand would likely be turned on him if he mentioned her Muggle heritage and one of their many inefficiencies.

 

Then suddenly, she came to a halt. She helplessly stared at Draco with bulging eyes, and after a brief second of wobbling to and fro, she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the ground.

 

"Merlin, Granger."

 

Draco took it upon himself to charm away the rogue chunks that had stuck to her curls. She murmured a small "thank you" and leaned against him for the walk up the hill.

 

They would have, Draco realized, looked rather cozy to anyone that happened to be walking behind them. Granger might have hated that, but she was too drunk to be making such distinctions in that moment, so he steadied her to the crest of the hill and back down it again.

 

"I feel dreadful," she grumbled, putting much more of her weight on him than he thought she needed to.

 

"Yes, well, you drank quite a lot."

 

"I want to go to bed."

 

As they came upon the edge of the Great Lake, Draco maneuvered around Granger so she was not standing so close to it. In her state, she was far too likely to stumble into its frigid waters, and rumor had it that the giant squid was less forgiving around winter.

 

"Malfoy, you're being such a—" She hiccuped and burped, nearly at the same time. "Excuse me!"

 

Draco wondered what she was going to say, but decided against asking, as she probably did not remember. Instead, he continued leading her towards the gatehouse just ahead, where he saw a silhouette standing alone.

 

As they drew nearer, he recognized it to be Pansy. Her shrill voice pierced his ears.

 

"Is she drunk?"

 

Granger had chosen the worst time possible to fall onto the ground. She pawed at Draco's hand for some help back up, and as he heaved her, he offered Pansy a stern gaze.

 

"You can't tell anyone, Pansy."

 

"And what exactly am I not telling anyone?" she asked, lifting a dark brow.

 

Draco knew what she was trying to do, but it would not work—not when he knew what he knew. "Well Pansy, unless you want me to tell everyone about you and Theodore Nott, I imagine you won't tell anyone anything."

 

She blanched. "He told you!"

 

"He didn't have to," Draco snapped, patting Granger on the back as she vomited again. "I saw you two at the Three Broomsticks. Rather public place to be meeting someone you meant to keep private."

 

"At least I didn't come back to the grounds with him."

 

Granger wiped her mouth with her sleeve and groaned.

 

"But you felt guilty enough to wait around here at the gates for a while. What're you waiting for? Too embarrassed to face your little boyfriend?"

 

"It's none of your business, Draco," Pansy said through gritted teeth. "If you say a word, I swear I'll make you regret it."

 

Granger was starting to wander ahead again, and based on the amount of stumbling she was doing, she required assistance.

 

"Then we have an understanding." He started after the Gryffindor girl for what felt like the hundredth time that evening and without looking back, he shouted, "Get back to the castle safely, yeah?"

 

"Yeah," Pansy grumbled, nearly inaudible as he created more and more distance between them. "Thanks."

 

As Draco caught up with Granger, he noticed the prying eyes of the student body. Some were clueless first-years, but there was a blonde girl that he recognized as a Gryffindor prefect, and it was her that was shaking her head in disapproval.

 

"Can you handle yourself once we get to the castle?" he asked, his voice low.

 

"Erm...yeah, probably," Granger mumbled, rubbing her temples. "Why is everyone—" She hiccuped. "—looking at me? Do I—do I seem that drunk?"

 

Draco glared at the first-years, who paled and scattered. "Well, Granger, I don't think you being drunk is the problem."

 

The castle loomed overhead, and as he ignored the judgmental watch of Professor Zigg, Draco accompanied Granger into the building. He was still a little tipsy, but he was steady, unlike her.

 

"Do you need help to get up to Gryffindor Tower?"

 

She shook her head. "I'm not—oh God." She held a hand to her mouth as though she were going to vomit again. After a long moment, the spell seemed to be over. "Sorry. Erm—yeah, I wasn't going to the common room. I need to go to my—" She made a face and swallowed. "—dormitory."

 

"Is your dormitory not attached to the common room?"

 

"No, it's—ahem—it's behind a portrait... He's sort of r-rude..."

 

"A portrait," Draco repeated. "If you haven't noticed, Granger, there are lots of portraits here."

 

She ignored him and started down the corridor. With a heavy sigh, he followed her, quite aware that she would get in a lot of trouble if she were caught as inebriated as she was, and he did not want his name to come up if that happened. Though he would not admit it, he was also a bit worried.

 

Following Granger around the castle was even worse than being seen with her on the grounds. Passersby pointed and whispered, professors narrowed their eyes, and a prefect even asked him what he was doing. By the time he convinced the Ravenclaw girl that he was not up to anything suspicious, Granger was long gone.

 

He plodded down the halls in search of her, nervous that she might have brought too much attention to herself and landed in McGonagall's office. Only when he heard her arguing with a Frenchman did he find her.

 

"...absolutely is the password!"

 

"It would be if you weren't slurring it like some sort of cheap alley witch from Rue Coupe-Feu!"

 

"Granger," Draco hissed, storming towards her. "Keep your voice down. You're going to get us both in trouble."

 

"Your friend has some sense. I would listen to him if I were you," the rude French portrait said.

 

"But I need in my room," she whined. "Brioche, brioche, brioche!"

 

"Fine then," the Frenchman sighed, "but I am quite tempted to report this to one of my good friends in the headmistress's office. You might have heard of her? A Miss Eupraxia Mole?"

 

The portrait swung open and Draco watched as Granger stumbled inside. Apparently, the rumors had been true when people claimed the girl that been given a private dormitory.

 

"She did not invite you in." The portrait snapped shut.

 

"Who said I wanted to be invited in?" Draco spat, and with that, he started the trek to the dungeons.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The next morning, Draco crossed the Slytherin Common Room much less conspicuously than he would usually dare. As they often were on weekends, Pansy, Evan Siftwell, the Greengrass sisters, and two younger girls were gossiping by the crackling fireplace, blankets wrapped around all but Siftwell. Pansy's head was lain in the Quidditch player's lap, which had to bother Astoria Greengrass, as Pansy was taking up much more space than necessary and the poor youngest Greengrass had been sequestered to the floor.

 

Draco took the final step down from the boys' dormitory, and right then, every pair of eyes landed on him except Pansy's.

 

"Getting a bit brave, I see."

 

Too tired to take Siftwell seriously, Draco drawled, "If your definition of bravery is rolling out of bed at well past nine, I suppose I've made the cut. Maybe I should ask McGonagall for some sort of medal."

 

Siftwell did not seem to like that answer, because he stood up from his place on the sofa, nearly knocking Pansy to the floor, and stomped towards Draco with a balled fist.

 

"You know what I meant!" he growled, nostrils flaring like those of a dragon. "I warned you, Malfoy. Slytherin wants nothing to do with you, and yet here you are, making an arse of our entire house, gallivanting around with Potter's little Mudblood. And now you dare come down those stairs with that smug look on your face and expect me to stand by and let you?"

 

Draco wondered if Pansy had told him about the previous evening. He assumed that she didn't.

 

"I'm not smug about anything," he finally decided to say, though the words felt unnatural rolling off his tongue.

 

Looking him up and down, Siftwell sniffed, "That's what I thought."

 

Draco swallowed his pride and brushed past the younger wizard. Whatever hunger he was feeling had wholly disappeared, but the Great Hall seemed like a safer option than being alone with any other Slytherins, especially Evan Siftwell and his group of simpering cronies.

 

Judgment emanated from everyone that passed him in the corridors. It did not seem that unusual, but he suspected rumors had traveled fast—or that the Daily Prophet had made its rounds. Granger tended to end up on the front page, and he figured he would be joining her.

 

When he finally reached his destination, he ignored the snarky comments from his fellow house members, as he was too surprised to see Granger that he could think of little else. Over the hunched backs of two Ravenclaws, he watched her as she sat quietly by herself, chewing on a sensible breakfast of jam on toast.

 

It was apparent that she had not yet recovered from the previous evening, as there were dark circles beneath her eyes that he could see even from his lonely place at the Slytherin table. Then, there was her hair. It was, impossibly, messier than it had been when he walked her to the uninviting entrance of her private dormitory.

 

In between bites, she waggled her fingers at him, and judging by the expectant stare she offered, he assumed she wanted him to wave back to her.

 

He didn't.

 

Instead, he downed a goblet of water and sat in silence, wondering how on earth he was supposed to act when he met with her that afternoon.

 



Chapter 22: Arguing
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Hermione was eating her third piece of toast. The crunching only made her pounding head feel worse, but she remembered Muggle media claiming that eating was the best cure after a drunken night, so she persevered, nonetheless. As she slathered a fourth piece of toast with currant jam, she tried to rearrange her impossibly askew thoughts, hoping that the migraine would subside as she started making sense out of her own reality. Her Saturday had, after all, been strange, and after seeing Malfoy that morning, she had a feeling their meeting was going to be even stranger.

 

Draco Malfoy was sorry. That much, she was sure of. After spending so much time with him, she had begun to understand his language that he kept so private: the language that shone only in his steel eyes, occasionally accompanied by gesticulations or a distracting remark. The look he had given her that morning was the look she had never known she wanted, but now that it had happened, an inexplicable weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

 

Before she could ponder any longer, Ginny plopped down in the spot to her left. The redhead carried a disgruntled air about her; if Hermione did not know better, she might have thought Gryffindor lost another Quidditch game.

 

"Good morning," Hermione said in between bites.

 

Ginny forcefully stabbed a kipper. "Morning."

 

"Is something wrong?"

 

"Wrong?" Ginny sniffed. "Why would something be wrong?"

 

"I don't know," Hermione replied, pointing at the disfigured fillet, "but you've mangled your kipper."

 

"It's my kipper. I can mangle it if I want."

 

Hermione's head ached far too much to play guessing games that morning, so she ate her toast and let Ginny keep pouting in a fashion that very much reminded her of Ron. It was only when she was ready to go back to her dormitory that the Weasley girl decided to ask the question she had clearly been itching to ask.

 

"So yesterday, you met with Luna and Neville, right?"

 

"Yes, of course," Hermione replied, casting a wordless Vanishing Spell on the crumbs upon her front. "Why?"

 

"Well, Lydia Clappord claimed she saw you last night—drunk." Ginny's dark eyes searched her own. "According to her, you were with Malfoy."

 

Hermione knew that Ginny would find out, eventually. Others, including Pansy Parkinson, had seen the two of them, and a reporter had even taken a photograph. With such brewing gossip, the outpouring of truth was unavoidable and Hermione was bright enough to know that. Nevertheless, it was a conversation she was not yet prepared for—not while she was still recovering from the confusing night in question.

 

"Luna and Neville left me alone at the Hog's Head because of another one of Luna's silly little delusions," she said, pointedly. "I got far too drunk and Malfoy walked me back to the castle. That's it."

 

"That doesn't sound like Malfoy," Ginny said, disbelievingly.

 

"Well, that's what happened!"

 

Unfortunately, her omissions would not slip by so easily. A slew of owls flapped into the Great Hall, dipping down to deliver the post and accept their Knuts and treats as they always did. Hermione gulped when a rather twitchy owl dropped in front of a nearby second-year. A rolled-up newspaper was tied to its leg.

 

"Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy?"

 

A Ravenclaw gasped and exclaimed, "Are they dating?"

 

"I told you they were together last night! I saw them!"

 

Ginny swung her legs around, and marched towards the second-year. With fire in her eyes, she shouted "give me that!" and, to the second-year's protest, snagged the newspaper. Her jaw was set as she slapped it on the table and sat back down, waiting for an explanation.

 

Staring back at Hermione was an image of herself and Malfoy. Her moving likeness was alternating between a grin and a laugh, giddier than she had seen herself since midsummer, while Malfoy appeared to be flustered as she gave him bunny ears with her fingers. The last time she had given somebody bunny ears, she was in primary school.

 

"Just walked you back to the castle, did he?" Ginny finally asked, cocking a brow. She poked the headline with her forefinger and added, "Or is this 'Criminal and the War Heroine' nonsense something I should be worried about?"

 

"Ginny, you weren't there—"

 

"Don't change the subject. Is something going on between you two?"

 

"Are you serious? It's Malfoy!"

 

"Yes, it is Malfoy, and here you are looking like you're having a ripe old time with him."

 

"And maybe I wouldn't have been if you came with me!"

 

For hours, Hermione had begged Ginny to come with her to meet Luna and Neville, but Ginny had refused as she had to "avoid spending money before the wedding", an excuse that Hermione hardly could believe, let alone forgive. Harry's fortune was sure to pay for the entire affair.

 

"Don't blame this on me, Hermione. Whatever you're doing with him, I don't care, but don't blame me when Harry and Ron come asking questions." She gestured the ogling second-year. "As you can see, you spending time with Malfoy is clearly going to earn you that extra attention you wanted."

 

"You think I want this?"

 

Ginny shrugged. "Just seems a bit funny that you'd choose the one person my brother hates the most. I mean, I don't blame you. If I were trying to make Harry jealous, Malfoy'd be my first pick too."

 

Hermione could not listen to such accusations. Instead, she wordlessly stood up and stamped out of the Great Hall. Her morning was better-spent nursing her hangover than it was defending herself when there was nothing to defend.

 

Besides, she would need her strength by afternoon. If facing Ginny was a challenge, facing Malfoy was sure to be hell.

 

 

***

 

 

Impatient, Hermione waited by Hagrid's hut. Her headache had barely subsided, likely due to the many hours she spent thinking about her aimless tiff with Ginny that morning. Once upon a time, Hermione tried to make Ron jealous with Cormac McLaggen, but postwar, she was far beyond such pettiness. If Ginny was a good friend, she would know that.

 

"I can drink with whomever I please," Hermione muttered to herself, "and if I choose to drink with Malfoy, it has nothing to do with Ronald Weasley."

 

For another few moments, she revisited her talking points to assure she would win her next argument with her friend—to assure her that Ronald was the furthest thing from her mind when she let Malfoy sit with her that evening. She had quietly recited the disagreement three times when the blond Slytherin finally came down the hill, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

 

"It's cold again."

 

"I guess so."

 

They followed the trails they almost always followed, once in awhile warning one another of cursed vegetation or slick mud—simple words filling empty air to make it seem less empty. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

Malfoy stumbled over raised roots and cursed to himself, though he denied it when Hermione asked him if he was okay. It was the most substance their conversation had during the entire walk.

 

Before long, they had settled into their usual spots in their usual place, where they silently studied. Malfoy was poring over his Arithmancy notes while Hermione focused on Potions—a subject he had apparently entrusted her to learn on her own, at least for the day.

 

Hermione had nearly finished her notes for the chapter when Malfoy asked, "Primordial past number: add or subtract from the ancestral number?"

 

"Subtract."

 

It had to have been twenty minutes later when Hermione was reviewing her notes, searching for an answer that she had been trying to find since she started the chapter. Her notes, unfortunately, failed her, and asking Malfoy was her last resort.

 

"Splitterwort is poisonous if ingested, isn't it?"

 

"Unless it's diluted, yes."

 

The silence that followed was louder than any silence Hermione had ever known. Without Harry, without Ron, without Ginny, without Luna or Neville, and now, strangely, without Draco Malfoy, she was utterly alone. Friendship had guided her through even the darkest times, and now, with evenings full of nightmares and days full of arguments, she had nobody to turn to for some sense of normalcy—not even her former enemy.

 

The world was changing, and it had left her behind.

 

As tears threatened to fall, Hermione tried to blink them back, determined to wait until she was alone—but she couldn't.

 

They streamed down her cheeks, and all the while, she stared at her notes, not bothering to fix the smudging ink. There would be a time to clean up the water stains. Malfoy was too close, though. If he saw her quietly casting spells, he might have noticed she was crying.

 

Then, absentmindedly, she sniffled.

 

Panicking, she wiped away her tears, hoping that he would think her running nose was only due to the cold air.

 

"What are you sobbing about? Get an Exceeds Expectations on your last essay?"

 

He was much more astute than most teenage boys. He always had been.

 

Hermione wished that he wasn't.

 

"No," she breathed, still wiping her eyes. "I'm fine."

 

"Just tell me. We won't get much done unless you spit it out."

 

It was not the kindhearted way that Harry Potter may have asked her to admit she was upset. It was the way Ronald Weasley would demand she told him what was wrong so he could confirm it was not his fault, and as such, he would hold no blame.

 

She shook the thought of Ron and met Malfoy's searing gaze.

 

"Well if you must know," she started, setting her quill down on her book, "Ginny and I had a bit of a disagreement."

 

"About what? She find out you used to have a thing for Potter?"

 

"No!" Granger's face flushed, though she was not entirely sure why. Many times, she had been accused of being in love with Harry, sometimes even in the public eye. "Harry and I—we aren't—he's like my brother. And it had nothing to do with Harry. It had to do with—" She paused, trying to decide whether she should even bother telling him the truth. "—with you, actually."

 

"With me? What about me?"

 

"She thought that we were—I don't know—friends, I suppose?" Hermione stopped again, and she felt her expression falter as she decided whether or not she ought to be honest. She finally added nothing more than, "She thought I'd gone mad."

 

"And what did you tell her?"

 

Hermione cleared her throat. "I told her the truth. I was drunk, and she ought to come with me next time so it doesn't happen again."

 

While that was what she had told Ginny, she had not lied when she told Malfoy she had fun.

 

Fun: such a distant feeling. She wanted to feel it again. Maybe they were not close friends, but would another drink hurt?

 

It didn't matter. They would never drink together again—not after all of the attention they received.

 

Malfoy stared at her for a moment before mumbling, "Good. Maybe next time she'll keep you sorted since you clearly can't be trusted with liquor."

 

Hermione did not know what she had expected him to say, but she found herself disappointed by his response. Nevertheless, she decided it was best not to let it show, so she asked, "Did you work out all of your Arithmancy prompts?"

 

"Yes," he answered, evenly.

 

"You're working faster than before," Hermione said, wondering if he had picked up on her subtle compliment: the extended olive branch.

 

"Yeah well, I didn't have much of a choice if I wanted to pass my N.E.W.T." He closed his book and began shoving it into his schoolbag. With one final heave, he clasped the schoolbag shut and added, "There isn't much of a point in taking the class if I'm not going to finish with a N.E.W.T."

 

"I suppose that's fair," Hermione sighed. His snarkiness was not lost on her. "Are you going back to the castle?"

 

"No, I was just packing my things so I could spend the rest of my day here in the cold bloody woods," he jeered.

 

"Right, erm—let me pack up. We shouldn't walk by ourselves."

 

Malfoy rolled his eyes and waited. The walk back was silent.

 



Chapter 23: Dreaming
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As she often did when she wanted something, the sharp-jawed woman coyly twirled her espresso hair around her long, elegant forefinger. Like the rest of her fingers, it was a rich sepia, stacked with costly gold and silver rings and manicured with a faux square nail. Unexpectedly, it was painted maroon. She usually chose a plainer look.

 

"Well now, you look a picture, don't you?" she purred, batting her full, black lashes. Shaded by them, her twinkling eyes were evergreen.

 

"I do not," Ronald Weasley replied, bashfully. "These robes make me look a right git."

 

The woman raked her long fingernails along his navy collar. With a trace of a playful smile, she said, "I beg to differ."

 

She seized the fabric and dragged him down towards her to press her nude lips to his. Then, their undeniable spark burst aflame. Ron drank her in like fine wine, fisting her dark hair to bring her closer to him, earning a small, quivering moan from the depths of her throat. Those feminine fingers of hers clawed at his robes, desperate to remove the cloth barrier, desperate to feel his snowy skin. Her mouth moved to his neck and then—

 

Suddenly, he pulled away. Resting his forehead against hers, he whispered, "I have to get to work."

 

"Oh, but we were just starting to have fun."

 

Ron's laugh was deep and hearty as he took her slight hands in his and kissed her knuckles. "I know what you mean, darling. I really do have to go in, though. There have been reports of Dark Magic near Omagh."

 

"Can't Harry take care of it?" she groused. "He defeated You-Know-Who, didn't he?"

 

"Only with my help!" Ron exclaimed, releasing her hands only to throw his own in the air. "He never would've beat him if it weren't for me—or Neville, or Hermione, or Luna... Loads of people helped, really..."

 

"Hermione," the woman repeated, acidly. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't talk about her."

 

"We did—I mean, I won't. I mean—" He sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. She was just—she was there is all."

 

"I don't care where she was. As far as you're concerned, she doesn't exist." The woman crossed her arms. "Unless you'd rather go running off to her."

 

Ron paled. "Of course not! You're—you're gorgeous. Hermione, I mean, she's okay, but she's nothing special..."

 

"That's what I thought." She tapped him on the nose and gave him one more chaste kiss. "Well, you best get going, I suppose. Wouldn't want to keep the Ministry waiting."

 

"Right," Ron agreed with a nod. He started towards the dead fireplace, though each step seemed more and more reluctant. "I'll be back for dinner."

 

"Yes, dinner, of course... Oh, and Ronald?"

 

He whipped back around, but what he saw was not the pleading pout he expected. Instead, right at the bridge of his nose, was the tip of his lover's familiar aspen wand.

 

"Avada Kedavra!"

 

Hermione woke with a start.

 

The terrible dream meant something, and for the first time in Hermione's curious life, she did not care to know what it was.

 

With a groan, she reached under her pillow, retrieved her wand, and murmured, "Lumos."

 

Blinking away the stars of newfound light, she raised the lit tip of her wand to her loose wristwatch. The hour hand was parked halfway between two bold Roman numerals: V and VI.

 

Doubting that she would get any more sleep, she lay on her back and stared at the stone ceiling, trying to decide whether or not she dared join her schoolmates for breakfast. Avoiding Ginny was difficult enough, but avoiding the gossip of the entire student body was impossible—a suspicion of hers that Monday morning had confirmed.

 

The jeers replayed over and over again.

 

"Good morning, traitor."

 

"Wonder what Harry Potter thinks of her."

 

"She's always been a bit of a slag, though, hasn't she? In my first year, she was all over Viktor Krum."

 

Hermione, too exhausted to listen to more insults, decided to skip Tuesday breakfast.

 

 

***

 

 

Even Professor Slughorn had heard some version of the rumors—at least that was what Hermione had deduced. As students shuffled into the room, she watched the teacher's eyes dart from her to Malfoy and back again—back and forth, back and forth. It was rather like he was trying to solve a particularly difficult equation and Malfoy was one factor while she was the other.

 

Positively scarlet, she sunk into her seat.

 

"Shouldn't the happy couple be sitting together?" said Pansy Parkinson's redheaded friend. She smirked, baring her crooked teeth which glinted menacingly under the soft dungeon candlelight. "I don't know why everyone's so shocked. Evil and ugly go together like firewhisky and pumpkin juice, don't you think, Pans?"

 

Pansy glanced at Malfoy and mumbled something under her breath. Hermione was surprised that the Slytherin girl had not taken the opportunity to bully her two favorite targets, but no matter the reason, she figured it was best to accept her small victory. It was, after all, the first one she'd had since Saturday.

 

The bell sounded and the last handful of students scrambled to their seats. Still, the classroom remained abuzz, and while Hermione could not hear everything that was being said, she was certain her name was on more tongues than she would have liked.

 

"Yes, yes, I know you're all still a bit riled up over the Hogsmeade weekend," Professor Slughorn said, waving his hands, "but we're back in class now, so let's settle down, yes?"

 

The requested descrescendo commenced, though Hermione heard a few more whispers of her and Malfoy's surnames.

 

Slughorn, who did not seem bothered at all by the simmering voices, jabbed a stubby finger at the blackboard right as a charmed piece of chalk fell to the floor. Written in his magical script were three words: Toe-Growing Potion.

 

The lack of notes told Hermione that he was too distracted to charm the copy onto the board, and while it seemed typical of a lazy man like Horace Slughorn, she could hardly judge him. She was rather distracted herself.

 

"Toe-Growing Potion," he read loudly, emphasizing each word with a tap of the board. "Can any of you imagine why someone may want to grow their toes?"

 

Hermione's hand shot upward instinctively, though she regretted it as soon as she, once again, drew unwanted attention from her pointing and snickering classmates. It was like she was in primary school all over again, with fearful Muggles that gossiped about her bizarre fits that led to flaming swingsets and exploding peas. Somehow, primary school seemed preferable.

 

Professor Slughorn still seemed wholly unaware of his students' immature behavior as he raised his bushy brows and said, "Yes? Miss Granger?"

 

"W-well," she stammered, all too aware of the many eyes that were glued to her, "I've never seen anyone use it, but I've read about the Toe-Shrinking Hex."

 

"Oho! Very good, Miss Granger, very good indeed. A little-known hex nowadays, though it was quite popular when I first started teaching here... Had to grow many a shrunken toe back then... A good potion to know in case it ever makes a comeback!"

 

The disinterested grumble from the class suggested that the hex was unlikely to become popular again any time soon.

 

Once Slughorn finally finished his slow introduction, the class crowded the ingredient cupboard, elbowing one another and swearing as they worked against the ticking clock. The clamor even led to a shriek that Hermione recognized as Pansy Parkinson's.

 

"How dare you! I'll have you know: this bracelet is worth more than you and your entire family!"

 

Hermione, unwilling to subject herself to any more ridicule or an angry Pansy Parkinson, decided to wait until everyone returned to their tables. Apparently, Malfoy had the same idea that she did, because he stayed in his seat, his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.

 

Eventually, students started slinking back from the ingredient cupboard, their hands full and, in the case of Pansy Parkinson and her friend, their eyes wild. Hermione moved to retrieve her ingredients, but just as she did, Melvin Biddlesby knocked her textbook onto the floor.

 

"Sorry about that," he said with a smirk.

 

Hermione nearly raised her wand to the haughty boy. Alas, he was not worth the argument, so she picked up her book, set it on her table, and followed Malfoy to the ingredient cupboard instead.

 

It was there that she awkwardly watched his robes crease with each movement he made. Rather than passing her the ingredients, he reshelved them, leaving her to summon some of the items that were on high shelves that even he could barely reach. An inexplicable stroke of sadness swept over her.

 

If Malfoy, the boy who had spouted his hatred towards her for years, could act as though she didn't exist, did she really exist at all? Had she already lived out her purpose, left only in the world to be collected by the likes of Horace Slughorn?

 

As she chopped the six required salamander tails, it felt like she was not chopping them at all—almost as though her hands belonged to a phantom, but certainly not her phantom.

 

The phantom hands moved deftly. The cauldron hissed as the tails hit the copper bottom.

 

She crushed the beetles with the side of her knife. Harry had taught her that once, or rather, the Half-Blood Prince had. The man taught her more than she gave him credit for, and he died for the very cause the Malfoys fought.

 

Her mind was everywhere but on the snoutweed she was slicing.

 

Slice.

 

Death.

 

Slice.

 

Bellatrix.

 

Slice.

 

Fred.

 

Slice.

 

Malfoy.

 

Then, there was blood—a lot of blood. Crimson streams pooled around her cutting board, staining the deep green snoutweed an awful shade of inky black. Breathing carefully, she pointed her wand at the wound and attempted to heal it. There was only one problem.

 

"Professor!"

 

Jezebel Twitt had stopped in front of Hermione's lonely table with an empty flagon in her grasp and terror in her honey eyes.

 

Desperate to be released from another terrible meeting in the Forbidden Forest, Hermione silently willed her magic to close the gash. The edges slowly began to close, only to stop and split open again.

 

"Yes, Miss Twitt? What is it?" Slughorn asked, waddling down the aisle.

 

Hermione tried the spell again, to no avail. More blood gushed from the deep cut, and all she could do was fall back upon Muggle methods. She applied pressure with the fabric of her robes and waited for Slughorn to, once again, send her to the hospital wing.

 

"It's Granger's finger. She—"

 

"Oh my!" Slughorn gasped. "All from a finger, you say? Please do let me get a good look, Miss Granger... That's quite a lot of blood..." He gasped again when she reluctantly removed the gathered fabric. "Merlin's beard! Another trip to the hospital wing is in order, I'm afraid... Quite dangerous to have an open wound in such close proximity to snoutweed... And to think I just sent the last of my dittany down to Madam Pomfrey! Terrible timing on my part, terrible timing indeed... Miss Twitt, will you please accompany her? Be sure to mention the snoutweed... She'll need a few extra potions for that..."

 

Jezebel gave him a withering look before grumbling, "Yeah, alright. Come on, Granger."

 

Cradling her hand, Hermione followed Jezebel out of the classroom. Rarely had a single week brought her so much shame.

 

 

***

 

 

"You've been skipping meals again, Miss Granger," Madam Pomfrey tutted, "and you do not seem very well-rested either. Are you sleeping at night?"

 

The healer was applying dittany to Hermione's careless wound.

 

"Sometimes," the war heroine muttered, trying not to look at the ugly gash she had given herself.

 

"Nightmares, I presume?"

 

Hermione was silent. The mediwitch was astute enough to understand the meaning.

 

"No need to worry, dear. I'll send you off with a few vials of Dreamless Sleep—charmed, of course, to avoid overuse." Madam Pomfrey applied the fourth salve to the wound—a pale yellow paste that Hermione did not recognize. "No offense to you, of course, Miss Granger. Dreamless Sleep can be dangerously addictive even in the most responsible of hands."

 

"So I've read."

 

"You're familiar then," the healer noted. "Watch this salve for any bubbling and pop any that form. I'll be back in a blink."

 

She scurried to the back of the wing, leaving Hermione to pop three small yellow bubbles.

 

It was not long before the healer returned with several vials in her hand. Some were deep purple, while others were the familiar shade that Hermione associated with Gorge Potion.

 

"And do me a favor, Miss Granger?"

 

Hermione cocked her head in wonder.

 

"Do try and take care of yourself. Even your friend Mr. Potter never visited this often in a year."

 



Chapter 24: Vomiting
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Hermione did not think Madam Pomfrey was capable of making mistakes. Alas, as she hunched over one of the toilets in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom, she wondered if the potions she had drunk were meant to be taken together. The first potion had certainly done its job: She slept without interruption and woke only when the charm on her watch dinged loudly. Then, she took the Gorge Potion, a potion she had taken without problem in the past, and as she trekked to the Great Hall for a hearty breakfast, she had the sudden urge to vomit—which she did.

 

She was quite certain two small Hufflepuffs saw the bile stain the corridor floor.

 

Embarrassed, she hurried towards the first place that seemed safe. There was only one lavatory where she was sure not to be bothered by the living, and that was where she had to go.

 

"Are your friends coming?" Myrtle inquired, hovering over her. "The tall one and—" She sighed, dreamily. "—Harry?"

 

"No, they don't go to Hogwarts anymore, Myrtle," Hermione irately answered before emptying the contents of her stomach once more. "They left after our sixth year."

 

"Left Hogwarts? Without so much as a goodbye!" Myrtle shrieked. She swept down into the next stall over and let out a terrible sob. "After all the time he spent with me! He's just as bad as the other boy!"

 

Hermione finished retching and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. "What other boy?"

 

With a howling sigh, Myrtle said, "The handsome one. The blond. Draco."

 

"Of course," Hermione muttered.

 

She flushed the toilet, but knelt over the bowl a little longer, watching her sick swirl downward. Her gurgling stomach was threatening her again and she could not afford the ridicule of throwing up in the corridor twice.

 

"He used to spend hours and hours with me in the boys' loo—the one in this hallway," Myrtle lamented, floating above Hermione's stall once more. "Always so sensitive—not like Harry. Harry was always up to something, but Draco, oh Draco sometimes came just to talk with me. And who better than Moaning Myrtle to understand him?" She sniffled and wiped away her nonexistent tears. "Even when those awful people were asking him to do terrible things, he would look for me in that—"

 

"What people?" Hermione demanded, drawing her brows together. "The Carrows?"

 

"I was speaking!"

 

"I—I'm sorry. I was just wondering."

 

Myrtle sunk down to her level and stared at her with transparent eyes. "Why? What makes him so interesting to you?"

 

"Nothing! I just—I just heard a lot of—a lot of stories—about the—erm—about the Carrows."

 

"Mmm, yes, they were dreadful," Myrtle bewailed. "Of course, I didn't interact with either of them often, but one of them took to flushing me down the toilet whenever she had the chance..."

 

"So what about Draco? How did they treat him? And—erm—the rest of the students?"

 

"Well, I wouldn't know much about the other students. I don't get many visitors, you know," Myrtle said, acidly. "As for Draco, they were always asking him to turn in other students. He didn't want to because he knew what would happen if he did." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Torture."

 

"They didn't—they didn't make him torture others, did they?"

 

"How am I to know? He was always crying... Always saying how much he wanted it to be over... There were a lot of names, you know. Too many to keep track of. Students he pitied..." She paused to examine Hermione for a long moment. "It's funny. Once, he even mentioned you."

 

Hermione did not know what to think of that.

 

"And what did he say?"

 

"He said it was his fault—something that happened to you. I told him he probably couldn't have helped it if he tried, but he's not as kind of a boy as I thought since he hasn't visited me, so maybe it was..." She drew so close to Hermione that Hermione thought she might go right through her. "Was it?"

 

Hermione swallowed and shook her head. "No. It wasn't his fault."

 

"Hmm," Myrtle hummed, narrowing her eyes. She whipped upward and put her hands on her hips. "Well, if you speak to him, tell him that he is not welcome in my lavatory until he apologizes!"

 

Still feeling queasy, Hermione agreed and took the opportunity to leave. Somehow, Draco Malfoy had left her with even more questions than before.

 

 

***

 

 

Upon starting the day's lesson in Care of Magical Creatures, Hermione was thankful for being unable to eat. Though Billy had killed a badger, an achievement that made Hagrid prouder than she had ever seen him, it was the class's job to make sure he ate enough, and a single badger was too little for an adult griffin. This meant they had to feed him several petrified gnomes.

 

"This seems a bit barbaric, Hagrid." Hermione grimaced as she picked up her first gnome, frozen in time with its arms mid-flail. She wanted to vomit again, but her stomach had nothing left. "I mean, they're still alive."

 

"Petrified, though. Won' feel a thing! And it'd be more barbaric to chuck 'em from the greenhouses and let 'em starve, wouldn' it?"

 

Unsure that she agreed with his sentiments, Hermione decided to wait and watch Lisa Turpin throw her gnome first. Billy seemed enthralled with the rare treat.

 

"But couldn't we let them off into the forest or something?"

 

"Mandrake juice is too valuable to be usin' on gnomes, innit?" Hagrid pointed out. "Bein' petrified in the middle o' the forest ain't gonna end any better for 'em. Now, c'mon then. Toss 'er to Billy."

 

Hermione shook off the use of the word "her" and tossed the helpless creature to the griffin. He happily masticated it, and this might have brought Hermione some peace if it were not for the guts dripping from his sharp, golden beak.

 

The next student to feed the griffin was Ginny. She did not seem bothered at all until the griffin regurgitated much of his meal and ate it all over again. It reminded Hermione of a nature documentary she had seen once as a girl. Back then, she could not stand watching the wild robin feed its young, but after watching Billy eat the same meal twice, the documentary seemed tame.

 

Hermione risked a step closer to Ginny and said, "Disgusting, isn't it?"

 

"That's an understatement."

 

"Slughorn's Christmas party is coming up," Hermione noted, hoping that small talk might suffice in place of an apology. After all, she had no reason to be sorry.

 

"It is. Are you bringing anyone?"

 

The judgmental tone was not lost on Hermione. Ginny was not asking if she was bringing anyone; she wanted to know if she was bringing Malfoy.

 

"No," she answered, hastily. "No, absolutely not. I don't even know that I'm going yet."

 

"You have to go. If you aren't there to hold me back, I might actually kill Dewey Blunk." Ginny smirked. "You missed it last time, but after you left I almost hexed him. I only stopped because Slughorn interrupted. Maybe next time I'll drag him to the Forbidden Forest where there aren't any teachers around."

 

Hermione could not help but laugh. Forgiving her friend would only come with time, but right then, she desperately needed somebody, and unlike Harry and Ronald, Ginny was there.

 

"Think he's good an' full now," Hagrid announced to the class. "Any volunteers to fill 'is water trough?"

 

Ginny, along with the rest of the students, looked from the griffin to a nearby bucket of water to the large trough. Throwing fish and gnomes to the beast was terrifying enough.

 

"'ermione? Ginny Weasley?"

 

Hermione and Ginny exchanged nervous glances. It was all too often that they were asked to take on daunting tasks because no other students wanted to.

 

"Yeah, alright," Hermione sighed. From afar, she shouted, "Aguamenti!"

 

"Oh, good thinking," Ginny said quietly, following suit.

 

"Well, that's one way to do it," Hagrid grunted. He seemed a bit disappointed by their method.

 

Once the trough was full, Billy began to drink and the class encircled him. Nobody in the class particularly liked the griffin, but even Hermione had to admit that he was an impressive creature. It was much easier to admire him when he was too distracted to seem threatening.

 

Not long thereafter, the bell rang.

 

With the awkward safety of harmless topics, Hermione walked back to the castle with Ginny. There was still an unresolved air between them, but they were speaking, and that would have to do.

 

 

***

 

 

Defense Against the Dark Arts was, somehow, worse than spending the morning feeding gnomes to Billy. Professor Whittlewood had decided to focus her lecture on practical magic, which was a bit out of the ordinary, as she, like Umbridge, usually favored textbook readings.

 

"The headmistress has been worried we may not be casting enough spells in class," Whittlewood explained, "so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start exploring the types of spells you might see if you did, in fact, come in contact with the Dark Arts."

 

Hermione nearly asked why they had not been doing that in the first place, but she held her tongue.

 

"Today, you will all be assigned one of the four elements. Once you receive your element, you must pair up with someone of a different element. No fire with fire, no air with air, and so on and so forth. Then, I want you each to decide who will cast defending spells and who will cast offensive spells. You must use spells of your element. This should not be too difficult if you've been paying attention during the last few weeks."

 

The class began rumbling with confused banter. Dueling with the elements was far beyond classroom magic.

 

"Settle down! Settle down!" Whittlewood said, her dusty voice barely audible over the frazzled din. "I will be right here if anything is to go awry!"

 

Hermione was assigned earth; Ginny, water. The two paired together, though Ginny did not take too kindly to the pairing, as she was quite certain Hermione had an advantage.

 

"Water clearly will only help earth."

 

"That isn't true," Hermione pointed out. "Water is detrimental to earth all the time in nature. There are flash floods, mudslides, tsunamis—"

 

"Yeah, alright, I get it. Water spells, though..." She hunched over her book. "I suppose we could try—"

 

A blast of fire darted over Ginny's head and Hermione screamed. They had only just partnered up and people were already reciting curses she had only seen in battle.

 

"I thought that was Fiendfyre," Ginny said, lowly.

 

"Me too."

 

As Ginny practiced the Water-Serpent Curse—an effort that was going poorly—Hermione watched Draco Malfoy from afar. He too had been assigned the element of earth, and he was somehow beating Fay Dunbar, who had been given fire.

 

"That Singeing Hex didn't do much of anything," Hermione muttered.

 

"What Singeing Hex?" Ginny asked. "Dunbar's?"

 

"Erm—yeah. She tried to go after that vine Malfoy produced. I don't know how he did it, actually. That's not magic I'm familiar with..."

 

Ginny cocked a brow. "She looks scared stiff. Probably put out that Whittlewood forced her to pair up with Malfoy."

 

"Yes, probably," Hermione said, shortly. "Ahem. Anyway, did you figure out how to make the water serpent? I'd rather not have a boring duel like they are. Malfoy's not even trying."

 

"I'd be less likely to think you fancied Malfoy if you stopped bloody talking about him," Ginny said, though her tone was full of mirth.

 

"I don't fancy him!" Hermione hissed. "I've just seen him duel is all. When he's really trying, his face gets all—I don't know—scrunched."

 

"Scrunched," repeated Ginny.

 

"Yes. He's in my year, Ginny. In case you forgot, I was tortured in his house. I know how he duels."

 

Ginny frowned. "Right. Erm—sorry. Want to give this duel thing a try?"

 

Wanting anything but to discuss Malfoy any further, Hermione nodded and raised her wand.

 

Alas, before Ginny could try summoning the serpent, another serpent was cast—one that was far out of a seventh-year's control.

 

"Gulping gargoyles!" Professor Whittlewood exclaimed, quickly training her wand on the elemental beast. "A water serpent that size shouldn't even be possible!"

 

Everyone backed away from the creature in horror, including the seventh-year that had cast it. Only after a long struggle had Whittlewood managed to fade its form. Unfortunately, she was too late. The classroom was flooded.

 

Whittlewood, up to her ankles in water, looked around the room and breathed in deeply. "Well, I suppose that is what happens when we duel with elements, class. A very real possibility when you work with this type of magic..." She cleared her throat. "Charms isn't exactly in the syllabus, but maybe this is an opportunity to work on drying spells..."

 

Whatever else Whittlewood was muttering about, Hermione did not hear. She was far too busy watching Draco Malfoy, whose silver eyes were fixed very intently on her.



Chapter 25: Partying
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Gold was not her color. At least, that was what she decided as she pulled at the glittering sequins and compared the showstopping shade to her wan complexion. She might have looked ravishing two years earlier, but lack of sleep and a depleting appetite had left her with visible bones and deep semicircles below her glassy eyes—certain signs that she was meant to wear something conservative, something that would not draw any attention.

 

"It's too much," she said, smoothing down the front.

 

"It is not," Ginny retorted with a roll of her eyes. "You loved it when you picked it out this summer."

 

"When I picked it out this summer I was—" Hermione stopped herself. She had nearly admitted how much weight she had lost, and that was a conversation she was not prepared to have again.

 

"You were what?"

 

"I was—I was standing in different lighting," she lied. "I thought it was a bit less...yellow."

 

"I thought you liked it because it was a bit yellow."

 

The longer Hermione looked, the more she wanted to tear it off and never put it on again. Floor-length and much more expensive than it should have been, the dress hugged the curvature of her jutting hipbones and wrapped around the edges of her protruding ribcage. It fit like a glove, but it was a glove she never wanted to wear.

 

"That's it. I'm not going."

 

"You can't back out now," Ginny whined. "Besides, you look gorgeous."

 

Hermione frowned and tugged at the neckline, which dipped lower than she remembered. She supposed that was the consequence of weight loss; her breasts were no longer as full as they had been when she first tried on the garment, and because of this, the neckline loosely plunged, threatening to expose more of her than she was comfortable exposing.

 

"You don't think it's a bit...low-cut?"

 

"Of course it is, but it's a party. You can show off a little," Ginny reassured her.

 

"I don't remember yours being this revealing," Hermione commented, still fussing with the plunging neckline.

 

"It's not, but I'm getting married. If Harry were coming, it would probably be even more revealing than yours." She wore a devious smirk. "Oh come on! You want to impress Tobias Quincy, don't you?"

 

"Of course not!"

 

Ginny laughed. "Calm down. I'm only joking."

 

"Right. Right, of course," Hermione said with a relieved sigh. She ran her fingertips along the lines of her ribs. "You're sure it isn't too much?"

 

"I'm sure. Now sit down. If I don't start in on your hair now, we'll never get there on time."

 

Even though Hermione was not so sure about the dress, she sunk to the floor in front of her bed where Ginny was sitting. There was the sound of a bottle being uncorked, immediately followed by the smell of Sleekeazy's Hair Potion: It was distinctly floral with hints of something foul, like the scent of lavender was only there to cover the stink of another more pungent ingredient. Hermione's nose puckered as Ginny dropped a thick glob atop her scalp. The feeling was familiar, but uncomfortable.

 

The first time she had used the product, she was a small fourth-year attending the Yule Ball and, for the first time in her life, she had felt pretty. All heads turned when she entered the room, and it was not only because she was with Viktor Krum. While she pretended she could not hear the many whispers, she had. There were jealous hisses from other girls and awestruck stares from every boy she knew.

 

Even Malfoy could not tear his gaze away from her. Rumor had it that he and Pansy Parkinson had a rather nasty fight over his wandering eyes.

 

"D'you think Slughorn will even invite him?"

 

Hermione winced as Ginny combed the potion through her thick locks. "Why wouldn't he?"

 

"Well, I was a bit distracted, but from what I gathered, wasn't he going on about toads and their bloody breeding habits?"

 

"Oh, Tobias, right. Er—yeah. Yes, he was on about that for a good while."

 

"Who did you think I was talking about?" Ginny paused for a moment and in their reflection, Hermione noticed she had quirked a brow.

 

"Erm—nobody. Sorry. I was just—I was just thinking about an assignment I forgot to proofread. I'll—erm—I'll need to do that after the party."

 

"Er—right," Ginny said, sounding a bit unconvinced. "Can you turn your head to the left?"

 

Obliging, Hermione felt her stomach flip. Again, she was thinking about Malfoy, and to further her horror, she was afraid—not afraid of him or of what he might be doing, but afraid that he might not show up to the Christmas party.

 

 

***

 

 

Professor Slughorn's office was impressively more festive than it had been in Hermione's sixth year. Glittering fairy lights, emerald drapery, and braided garland lined the entire space, while a sprig of mistletoe hung above the snow-kissed conifer arbor in the corner. As though that were not enough, large crimson bows dotted the ceiling and a heaping buffet emanated the rich smell of roast turkey and venison gravy. It may have been welcoming to most, but to Hermione, it was suspicious.

 

By the buffet, a house-elf was stacking a silver tray high with elegant hors d'oeuvres and it was this subtle detail that confirmed what Hermione suspected. Professor Slughorn was not responsible for the decorations at all. Instead, the chore was forced upon the castle's resident house-elves, notoriously busy creatures that had been cursed with lifelong servitude under Magical Law.

 

Apparently, this did not bother anyone else, because Imogene Fortescue, Jezebel Twitt, and their dates hardly paid the little elf any attention. Hermione, on the other hand, had drawn all four pairs of eyes, and she could feel more landing on her.

 

"Miss Granger! Miss Weasley! How wonderful that you were both able to make it," Slughorn greeted them. "Come, come. A few of your schoolmates were a bit early, as you can see..."

 

Hermione anxiously patted her flat hair and followed the professor past the entryway. She quickly became the subject of many whispers and pointing fingers—and it was not because of her revealing dress.

 

"A goblet of eggnog for you, miss?"

 

Hermione peered down to meet the bulbous stare of an eager house-elf—a different one than she had seen by the buffet. Upon the elf's silver tray were several bejeweled goblets, all filled to the brim with alcoholic offerings that she had likely been forced to mix herself.

 

With a smile, Hermione accepted one and said, "Thank you so much. You're doing a brilliant job—" Suddenly, she realized she did not know how to address the elf, so she bent to the creature's level and asked, "Sorry, what's your name?"

 

"Eeba's name?" the house-elf croaked back. "Oh, a kind witch, you are! A kind witch indeed—"

 

"Excuse me!"

 

Hermione looked up to see a plump blonde girl with a wide nose and thick, clumped mascara. Dressed in shimmering seafoam green, she was hitched on the arm of one of the only two twins in the Slug Club, and she appeared all too proud to be there.

 

"I'd like some eggnog, Ardif."

 

"Y-yes, of course!" the boy stammered. "Anything you want, sugar-drop."

 

As he moved forward to take a goblet, Hermione noticed he stepped on the house-elf's toe. Eeba made a face, but did not make the mistake of slipping out a sound.

 

"You could be more polite, you know!" Hermione yelled, balling her fist. "You stepped on her toe and you didn't even apologize!"

 

The blonde girl let out a hearty chuckle. "Funny how someone shagging a Malfoy seems so worried about the affairs of elves. You do know his family likely has a dozen of them, don't you?"

 

"She isn't shagging Malfoy, you chit!" Ginny growled. "And speaking of shagging, maybe you ought to ask your little boyfriend about the Beauxbatons girl he always talks about in our meetings!"

 

Ardif blanched under the searing leer of his date. Immediately, low-volume accusations fell from her glossy lips and she began tugging him through the room's small crowd to, undoubtedly, scold him.

 

"Thanks, Gin," Hermione said.

 

"Nothing to fuss about. She was asking for it."

 

Hermione hoped to apologize to the house-elf, but during her and the blonde's quarrel, the short creature had disappeared amongst the small crowd. With a heavy sigh, Hermione noted, "At least we aren't the only ones that didn't bring dates."

 

Beside an ice sculpture of an ugly cherub, Dewey Blunk stood with his arms crossed. Alone and rocking on his heels, he was the most awkward person in the room.

 

"If you're talking about Blunk, he has a date," Ginny said, "supposedly."

 

"How do you know?"

 

"Clappord told me she caught him snogging some girl in the dungeons yesterday."

 

"That doesn't mean he has a—oh. Never mind."

 

A brunette slunk away from Melinda Tatting and her square-jawed date, only to latch onto the arm of the Slytherin in question. She ghosted his ear as she whispered something to him, earning several disinterested nods in response.

 

Nothing about the girl seemed particularly problematic, but when she glanced upward, Ginny breathed, "Merlin's beard! It's her?"

 

"What's wrong?" Hermione whispered.

 

"That girl—I know her. She's been hanging around our Quidditch practices."

 

Blunk and his date were staring at the two of them and Hermione realized how terribly obvious it probably was that she and Ginny were talking about them. She cleared her throat and averted her gaze to the entryway. There, beside a rosy-cheeked Slughorn, was the person she was most afraid to see.

 

Her heart started to hammer in her chest.

 

"Oh, Granger! Your date is finally here!"

 

The voice belonged to Imogene Fortescue. The willowy heiress was smirking at her from across the room, holding up her goblet as though she wanted to propose a toast. To her left was a tall boy with a rather sizeable gut and a light blue tie to match her dress robes. The boy gave Hermione an apologetic look.

 

"He's not my—"

 

"Ahem!" Slughorn clasped his hands together as Malfoy sneered and tromped towards the buffet. "I do hope everyone is having a good time?"

 

"Absolutely, Professor," Imogene said, still smirking. "I can't thank you enough for the invitation."

 

"Yes, of course," he murmured, glancing from her to Hermione. "Has everyone had the opportunity to get a bit of eggnog? There's a house-elf around here somewhere... Oh, where did that elf go?"

 

Professor Slughorn, then, clearly wanting to avoid any confrontation between the two girls, started shuffling through the cramped room to find the house-elf called Eeba.

 

Hermione had been so focused on Imogene that she did not even notice Dewey Blunk and his date approaching.

 

"Weasley."

 

"Blunk."

 

Surprised by their sudden visitors, Hermione nearly choked on her drink. The brunette on Blunk's arm examined her, almost as though she could not believe she was seeing the Gryffindor in the flesh.

"Hermione Granger," she started, "I'm surprised to see you here."

 

"And why is that?"

 

"Well, as cute as that picture of you and Malfoy was, it did cause a bit of a stir around the school, didn't it? How long has that been going on?"

 

"Firstly, I have no idea who you are, so I'm not sure why you're even talking to me," Hermione said, curtly. She was clenching her fist so hard that her nails were digging into her palm. "Secondly, despite whatever rumors the Daily Prophet has conjured, nothing is going on between me and Draco Malfoy."

 

"Of course not," the girl said with a wink. "A Muggle-born would never be caught with a Malfoy—especially not one of your stature."

 

"It has nothing to do with being a Muggle-born. I'm simply not interested in him in that way and I'm sure he's not interested in me in that way either."

 

Her stomach was flipping again.

 

"If you say so. All that I'm saying is that you looked quite happy with him in that photograph. Honestly, I didn't even believe it was you without that scowl on your face."

 

Hermione narrowed her eyes.

 

"Yes, that's the one!"

 

"You're just jealous that she's important enough to be in the news," Ginny said, acidly.

 

Imogene Fortescue must have sensed the tension, because she was gliding towards them with a twinkling smile and her bored date in tow. From across the room, the plump blonde girl was wiping mascara-black tears away and eyeing the situation.

 

"Oh no. You've caught me. I've always wanted to be in the paper for sleeping with the enemy."

 

Imogene Fortescue snorted. Her date, on the other hand, did not seem to find it all that funny. Frowning, Imogene elbowed him in the side.

 

"Sleeping with the enemy?" Ginny repeated. "She isn't sleeping with anyone!"

 

Hermione thought the room was closing in around her. Was Professor Slughorn's office always so small? Surely there were not that many guests?

 

"What? Jealous, Weasley?" Blunk's date shot back with a smirk. "Wish she was sleeping with you?"

 

Ginny was reaching for her wand, but Hermione quickly stopped her and shook her head.

 

"She's not worth it, Gin."

 

From the corner of her eye, she risked a glance at Malfoy. He was standing at the buffet, positively fuming and knuckles white from gripping his goblet too hard.

 

"Yeah, you're right," Ginny muttered. "Come on. I saw a house-elf carrying a banoffee pie I wanted a slice of."

 

Then, just as the two of them turned to find the house-elf, Blunk shouted, "Keep larding up, Weasley! You won't be able to get your broom off the ground!"

 

Ginny pivoted and shot him a glare. "You better watch your back on the pitch, Blunk, and if I see that little girlfriend of yours at another Gryffindor practice, you best believe you'll be the one paying for it."

 

He stalked towards her. The two of them were so close that their noses were nearly touching. "Is that a threat, Weasley?"

 

"Don't!" his date interjected, tugging him back by his robes. "She's Granger's friend and we know the kind of sketchy company that one keeps. Merlin knows what kind of curses she might blast at you..."

 

"Oh, shove off!" Ginny growled. "She hardly keeps Malfoy as company. She was drunk—"

 

"So she was drinking with him?" Imogene Fortescue cut in. "How...interesting."

 

"Not with him." Ginny's argument was failing. "I'm sure you've been drunk in public before, Imogene, so if you'd get off your high broomstick, I'd appreciate it."

 

"I've been drunk a lot of times, but I've never ended up in a photograph with a war criminal," Imogene purred. She lifted her drink to her lips and took a dramatic sip.

 

Hermione could not listen anymore. Feeling rather dizzy, she set her goblet on a passing tray and said, "Well, it was nice to visit with everyone, but if you'll all excuse me, I have a paper to proofread." She cleared her throat and fixed the sagging neckline of her dress. "I'll see you later, Gin."

 

Then, without so much as thanking the professor, she stormed out of the extravagant room.

 



Chapter 26: Talking
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The air was stagnant and suffocating. Portraits embroidering the walls asked her what was wrong—while a few others commented on the inappropriateness of her dress—but Hermione could barely hear any of them. Focused on getting back to her faraway dormitory, she moved as briskly as she could in her uncomfortable, strappy high heels. Only there could she avoid the harsh judgment of her peers. Only there could she escape the sinking feeling in her stomach.

 

Up the stairs she went, past the Bloody Baron and past Peeves the Poltergeist, who the baron was berating for scaring a group of first-years. Slytherin's ghost terrified Hermione even more than he once did, now that she knew he was the murderer of Helena Ravenclaw.

 

Love rarely ended well for women.

 

She shook sour thoughts of Shakespearean romance and wound through the many paths of the castle, one of which a Hufflepuff prefect was pacing. Before the badged boy could utter a word, she was already well onto the next hallway—the last obstacle between her and the safety of her bed.

 

"Hermione Granger! What a sight for sore eyes on this fine evening. We haven't had the chance—"

 

"I'm sorry, Nick. It's not a good time."

 

Lifting the skirt of her dress, she circled around the ghost and hurried down the stone corridor. Some portraits snored while others complained of her loud gait, but their voices were a mile away. There was only one portrait that she wanted to see, and when she found him sipping wine with Sir Cadogan, she let out a sigh of relief.

 

"Back already, are you?"

 

"I don't want to hear it, Ulysse. Brio—" She had nearly forgotten that the password changed. "Sorry. La neige."

 

Ulysse's frame moved aside, which apparently Sir Cadogan did not expect, as he stumbled over his own discarded helmet, spilling his wine all over Ulysse's beige robes. The nobleman cursed in French, and, ignoring him, Hermione swung one leg through the portrait hole. It was notably smaller than the hole behind the Fat Lady or Ariana Dumbledore, but perhaps that was how it was so well-hidden.

 

"Party didn't tickle your fancy?"

 

Still with only one leg through the hole, Hermione was in a rather compromising position, so when the familiar, bored drawl sent her hobbling backward in surprise, she nearly fell. Fortunately, she was sober, unlike Sir Cadogan, and as such, she was able to regain her balance, plant her feet on the corridor floor, and growl, "You and that ruddy Disillusionment Charm."

 

"It does come in handy." He leaned against a portrait on the wall opposite her, much to the long-nosed wizard's protest. "Especially when it comes to slipping away from rather terrible parties."

 

Hermione had come to know Malfoy as a constant—an unusual constant, and often a negative one, but a constant, nonetheless. His absence had been apparent since their post-Hogsmeade meeting, and suddenly, he was there again—exactly as Ron had come back after leaving her and Harry alone in the woods. Back then, she was angry. This time, she did not know how to feel.

 

Fear and relief and confusion left her with dozens of whirring questions. She only dared to ask one.

 

"Why did you follow me here?"

 

Silver eyes were boring into her—molten pools of mercury, curious and trepidatious just as she was.

 

"I don't know."

 

"You don't know," she repeated.

 

Whatever game Malfoy was playing, she did not have time for it. Her haven was behind her, and she wheeled around to return to it. After all, the dormitory was a better constant than Malfoy: It was predictable, warm, and safe—three words that could never describe the young Death Eater.

 

Her gurgling intestines interrupted her dramatic exit.

 

"Been skipping meals, have you?"

 

"That's none of your business."

 

His silver pools were suddenly tarnished and murky—unreadable.

 

"I only ask because there are spells for that."

 

The young heir could have been setting a trap. Whatever truth was in her drunken words must have resonated with him, because he knew he could approach her without so much as an invitation. Maybe he thought he could manipulate her too.

 

Warily, she inquired, "Food-conjuring spells? But that defies—"

 

"The spells I speak of don't conjure food, Granger; we both know that's not possible. They're meant to keep you from feeling hungry or thirsty for a while. That's it."

 

"I've never heard of such a thing."

 

Horcrux hunting would have been much more manageable if the three of them had not felt as hungry during times when food was scarce. She had spent days sorting through tomes to determine which were important and which were not. How could she have missed magic so critical for survival?

 

"I'm not lying to you, if that's what you're getting at."

 

"That's not what I was getting at, actually!"

 

Malfoy did not seem to believe her, and he was right not to. Through gritted teeth, he said, "Fine. If you come with me, I'll teach you."

 

"Come with you where?"

 

Company was precisely what Hermione needed. Nevertheless, he was still Malfoy, and she was too intelligent to overlook her lingering suspicions.

 

"I assume you won't be needing inside, then?" Ulysse drawled.

 

"I'm not sure," Hermione said, crossing her arms. "Is there any reason I might want to go back to my dormitory instead of with you, Draco?"

 

Ulysse Moreau grumbled and closed the portrait hole while Sir Cadogan hummed a tune and poured more wine into each of their glasses. Malfoy, on the other hand, had knit his brows together. It was not anger that he was emanating, but befuddlement.

 

"Well?" Hermione pressed, paying Ulysse no attention at all.

 

"I'm not out to curse you, Granger. If I were, I would've done it already."

 

"That's reassuring," she spat. After a brief pause, she asked, "So where are we going, then?"

 

"For a walk."

 

"You want to go for a walk."

 

"Yes, it's this thing where you move your legs and you go places. Maybe you've heard of it."

 

"It's not so much what it is that concerns me, Malfoy. I want to know why."

 

He kicked the wall with the heel of his shiny black shoe. The portrait behind him huffed, "You almost kicked me in the head, you stupid boy!"

 

Malfoy ignored the long-nosed wizard. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Filch cleans this part of the castle round now. I, for one, am not keen on doing detention with him for something as juvenile as being out of bed without a prefect's badge."

 

"We might get seen together again," Hermione pointed out. "Is that really something you want to risk after recent...accusations?"

 

"I've been accused of worse."

 

Hermione searched his eyes for dishonesty. All she found was the glint of loneliness—the same glint she so often found in her own.

 

"We can't be long."

 

With a nod, Malfoy rounded and padded down the corridor. He had slowed his usual long-legged strides, a detail that was not lost on Hermione as she fell into step beside him.

 

The two trudged down the hallway, accompanied only by the sound of flickering torches and apneic paintings of witches and wizards long deceased. Why he wanted to go for a walk with her, she did not know, but if she pushed aside her own inhibitions, she was glad he did.

 

Finally, in an effort to avoid her own thoughts, she decided to break the awkward air. "That girl with Dewey Blunk—"

 

"Cerita Grubbly. She's a sixth-year."

 

"Grubbly as in Grubbly-Plank? Are they related?"

 

"Yes, but as you could tell, Cerita charms far fewer unicorns."

 

"Well, if unicorns aren't her forte, I happen to know a griffin she could try her luck with," Hermione muttered.

 

Malfoy snorted and their blanket of silence draped over them once more. Hermione still could not understand why he wanted to go for a walk with her, and the more time they spent saying nothing, the more she questioned his motives—as well as her own.

 

"Did you ever do this before the war?" she suddenly asked. "Wander the corridors and such?"

 

He halted. "Why?"

 

"It's just a question."

 

He watched her intently before continuing onward. "I was a prefect. If you were performing your basic responsibilities instead of babysitting Weasley, you'd know wandering the corridors was sort of the whole point."

 

"You didn't have to invite me along if you just wanted to be rude!" Hermione shouted, stalking after him. His pace had become nearly too fast for her.

 

"Sorry."

 

Breathily, she marched just behind him and asked again, "So did you?"

 

He did not answer her.

 

"Well, I did," she admitted, "and not just because I was a prefect—and not with Harry or—" She cleared her throat. "—or with R-Ronald."

 

A question was in the way he looked at her then, and to her horror, her heart fluttered. Anxiety had a way of doing that, and she had to convince herself that was all that it was: anxiety.

 

"I'd practice spells," she elaborated as she shook the feeling, "around the castle. I used to do them in the common room or the girls' dormitory, but people thought it to be a bit annoying."

 

"Complaining about practicing magic?" he scoffed. "Gryffindors are even more pathetic than I thought."

 

They were approaching a path not often traveled and Hermione noted that they had to have been walking quite a long while to reach it. A dusty, dimly lit staircase beckoned her to sit on the bottom step. In all of her time as a prefect, she had never seen anyone in that corner of the castle.

 

"It's probably my own fault, honestly," she admitted, clunking her bony knees together. "I can get a bit—erm—obsessive. People were trying to do homework and I was always fussing with wand techniques."

 

"Wand techniques are important," he replied, sliding down the wall across from her. "Any self-respecting wizard would agree."

 

"I suppose I don't know many self-respecting wizards, then."

 

His steel eyes shone brightly even in the semidarkness. Hermione did not know how long they said nothing, but she must have been watching those eyes for ages. She was searching them again, but she wasn't sure what she was hoping to find.

 

"Are you leaving for the holidays?" she blurted.

 

"I'm going to Avuelle," he said absently, "with my mother and father."

 

The posh Wizarding village of Avuelle, France seemed like a fitting place for the Malfoy family. Hermione imagined that their Yule celebration would be traditional and lavishly decorated—something quite different from the way she always spent holidays with the Weasleys.

 

She could even picture Malfoy there, his pale hair green beneath the charmed fairy lights, polished silver dishware lain out before him by his family's French house-elves. When they were younger, she thought Malfoy basked in his wealth and all it granted him, but the only time she saw Malfoy truly surrounded by his wealth, he was terrified and miserable. She imagined the Lestranges and Lord Voldemort were to blame for that.

 

Perhaps, it was actually his father.

 

"You don't sound all that pleased."

 

"That's because I'm not."

 

"I see."

 

He was somewhere else after that. Metallic orbs had glazed over for nearly an entire minute before he asked, "And what about your family? What do Muggles do for Christmas?"

 

Hermione sighed and rested her head against the cold, stone wall. She decided not to tell him that her parents had no memory of her and she had sent them to Australia, where they had spent over a year of their new life. As he held onto his secrets, she would hold onto her own. Already, they had given each other more than they should have.

 

"I don't actually celebrate with my family. I usually go to the Burrow."

 

"Weasley's?"

 

"Yes," she said, her face pinkening. "Not this year, though."

 

He looked like he was trying to decide something. Before he could, her stomach grumbled again.

 

His expression turned to that of annoyance and he pulled out his wand. His long, elegant fingers fit his new wand well, and after their last Defense Against the Dark Arts class, it was clear to Hermione that he was its master.

 

"Ventra Exprimendum."

 

The peculiar pain of weaning off food had diminished. At least one spell was capable of dulling the ache of famine, and an unexpected sense of trust swelled in its place.

 

"How did you—"

 

"Swish twice, then flick. You'll feel twice as hungry after it lifts in the morning."

 

"I should eat breakfast then," Hermione deduced.

 

He nodded.

 

When Hermione had decided to come back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, she did not know what would come of a year without Harry, Ron, or mortal peril, but she most certainly did not think that she would be going on spontaneous walks with Draco Malfoy, let alone enjoying one.

 

"Avuelle, then. You must have family there."

 

"Sort of."

 

"Sort of," she echoed.

 

"Yes, Granger, sort of."

 

Hermione realized what this must mean. The family was not of pure blood.

 

Based on her own blood status, she determined that she needed to change the subject.

 

"You know, I don't know that I've ever seen Slughorn sweat as much as he was tonight."

 

Malfoy laughed: a real true, belly laugh that Hermione might have shared with Harry. "It looked like he'd taken a dip in the lake."

 

"And the way he snuck off when he should've intervened! I've seen fifth-year prefects defuse situations better."

 

"It almost would've been better if he invited that bloke that liked the frogs."

 

Hermione chuckled, noting how like Ginny he was. "Tobias."

 

"Right, your boyfriend."

 

Her face was so hot that it had to have been bright red. "I'll hex you again, Malfoy. I swear it."

 

"You wouldn't dare." 

 

"Do you want to test me?" she asked, drawing her wand, though it was a bluff.

 

Then, a shadow danced under the torchlight and Hermione's newly-full stomach sank. Spending time with Malfoy made her insides twist when she was doing it in secret, but being caught made her want to vomit.

 

"Erm—hello."

 

The intruder was the other Hufflepuff prefect—a slight girl with dark, bulging eyes and long black hair. She was a head shorter than Hermione with thick teal spectacles and the traditional badge. It gleamed beneath the flame, misplaced upon the girl's oversized robes.

 

"Look, I don't know what you two are up to, but it is late, so if you could go back to your dorms and use the Astronomy Tower next time like everyone else does..."

 

"We were just coming back from Slughorn's party," Hermione said, gesturing her gown. "We weren't—you didn't think—"

 

"I don't need to know the details," the girl said, holding up her hands in surrender. "Please just—er—just get to your dorms. I can't have you blocking the stairs and I know you both used to be prefects, but—"

 

"You don't need to explain yourself," Hermione said, standing. She met Malfoy's eyes. "Erm—tomorrow at one? For our Potions lesson?"

 

"Yeah, sure," he mumbled, glancing at the prefect.

 

And with a withering look from the Hufflepuff, she started back towards her room. For once, she slept soundly.

 


Author's Note: I had a really hard time writing this chapter for some reason. I was feeling ill and I think I've been stressed out with the COVID-19 pandemic. With that being said, I am editing a future chapter, so I'm over the hump. Stay healthy, stay safe. And remember: "Constant vigilance." 



Chapter 27: Apologizing
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The Great Hall was bustling. It was the last day that everyone would be eating breakfast together before the long holiday break, and it was apparent that they wanted to enjoy the morning with their friends before parting ways. Words like "Christmas" and "mum" and "presents" filled the cinnamon-scented air—words that reminded Hermione how lonely her holiday was sure to be.

 

"I'm surprised to see you here," Ginny said, sitting across from her.

 

"I was hungry."

 

In truth, she was positively ravenous, and the way she mauled her pumpkin scone was proof.

 

The redhead was clearly hungry too, as she was smothering a slice of toast with baked beans. "I guess I thought you'd hole up in your dormitory for a while—after the way you left yesterday and all." 

 

Quietly, Hermione took another pumpkin scone from the nearby platter. If she spoke, she might have revealed too much about the previous evening, and that was not a conversation she wanted to have right before Ginny went back to the Burrow, where she would surely tell Harry every detail.

 

"Those bloody chits wouldn't even let it go once you were gone, either. After you left, they went in on Malfoy...as if that would accomplish anything." Ginny sucked some tomato sauce from her thumb. "He left maybe five minutes after you."

 

"Did he really?" 

 

Her voice cracked, but Ginny did not seem to notice.

 

"Yeah. I wasn't sure why he even showed up, honestly." Ginny took a large bite. With her mouth full of beans and toast, she added, "It's not like anyone talks to him other than you."

 

Hermione knew that her cheeks had to be the color of her friend's hair. Her face was impossibly hot, and before she could stop herself, she asked, "And what is that supposed to mean?" 

 

"You meet with him every weekend still, don't you? For Slughorn?"

 

"Oh..." Hermione trailed off. She sunk her teeth into the scone, partially because she was hungry and partially to ease her nerves. "Yes, I er—I still have to meet with him. Not that I want to or anything. Slughorn sort of forces me—well, forces the both of us."

 

"Right—and I'm pretty sure nobody else talks to him," Ginny replied, obviously confused by Hermione's outburst. "I mean, I've seen people call him a git here and there, but that doesn't count, really."

 

"That much is to be expected after what he did," Hermione said, straightening her posture. She cleared her throat. "So you'll be leaving for the Burrow tomorrow?"

 

Ginny nodded. "Yeah. You're still welcome to come, you know. Harry and my mum would love to see you."

 

"As lovely as that sounds," Hermione said, thinking of a face that deserved every bit of her magic, "I think I'll be better off in the castle this year."

 

"Better off than facing my brother, you mean."

 

Hermione glowered at her.

 

"You know he's being a prat. As soon as he sees you, he'll get over himself and he'll be trying to get back on your good side. All I'm saying is that you could make him squirm, and that—" Ginny emphasized the word by stabbing the air with her fork. "—could be quite funny."

 

"If I show up, that gives him hope," Hermione said, pointedly.

 

"Well, you want him back in the long run, don't you? I thought that's part of why you were so mopey."

 

The redhead had always been straightforward, but Hermione could not believe she had the gall to make such an assumption. Months had passed since she spoke to Ron Weasley, and after those months, she could not stand the idea of looking at him, let alone spend the holiday with him.

 

"Ronald has proven time and time again that he wants me only when it's convenient for him. I'm not going to give him the chance to prove it again."

 

"That's it, then," Ginny said, disbelievingly. "You're actually done with him?"

 

Hermione gave a stiff nod. "Yes."

 

"Then why does it matter if you come back to the Burrow or not?"

 

With a final bite of her second scone, Hermione admitted, "Because I don't want to change my mind."


 

 

***


 

 

As Hermione trudged through the snow, she was beginning to regret not moving their meeting to the library. In the distance, Hagrid's hut puffed black smoke, a stark contrast to the frost coating the trees and the snowballs flying through the air. Beside the hut, however, was someone that blended in too well. If she had not been looking for him, she may not have seen him, for he was just as fair as the falling flakes.

 

Among the frolicking youths, he was an enigma.

 

"It's cold," he said with a smirk.

 

"Don't start with that today," Hermione groaned, teeth chattering. She was acutely aware of the searing glares upon her. "Let's just go."

 

The wind carried whispers and at least one insult their way. Hermione ignored them and slipped between the heavy conifers, her unlikely companion much closer to her side than usual.

 

"I hope Slughorn doesn't expect us to do this all year," she muttered, hugging herself for warmth.

 

As soon as the words slipped past her lips, she wished she could take them back. Malfoy, whether she liked it or not, was a new and unexpected form of normalcy, and she was nearly sorry to see him leave for France.

 

"Make better marks, then," he spat, speeding past her.

 

His body warmth was gone, and she cast a silent charm upon herself to combat the frigidity until they found their place in the Forbidden Forest.

 

"Bloody snow," he was muttering under his breath when Hermione finally reached the clearing. Using a Fire-Making Spell, he melted a sheet of ice from the large boulder.

 

Hermione thought him to be clever, as she was merely going to kick the snow away from her patch of ground. Instead, she cast the same spell that he did and sunk into the warm, wet soil. A drying spell would have made her sitting place much cozier, but she did not feel like admitting her shortsightedness, so she endured the offputting squish of the mud on her bottom.

 

"I have a feeling we won't do much on our first day back." She fished through her satchel until she found her Potions textbook. "Slughorn will be too caught up in how the Tattings and the Twitts celebrate Christmas."

 

"Don't put your Galleons in one cauldron, Granger."

 

"Of course not. I was only saying it's a probability," she said, flipping to the eighteenth chapter.

 

Malfoy did not respond. Instead, he pulled out his Potions textbook as well. His Arithmancy book was nowhere to be seen, though Hermione assumed he had it with him. His schoolbag looked too heavy to only be carrying Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students.

 

"I took some notes on this chapter," Hermione informed him, skimming through the text. "I thought it was interesting how the puffskein hair changes color when it comes in contact with the goat's milk... I've never heard of anything having that reaction to a dairy product before..."

 

"Mmm, right," he hummed. His eyes did not meet hers as he asked, "So how long should you heat the goat's milk before you add the puffskein hair?"

 

Hermione drew her brows together and started flipping through the useless pages that contained more drivel than information. "Erm—I—I'm not sure..." She could not remember there being so many paragraphs in the introduction. "It's mentioned in the directions..."

 

"Yes, that is how directions work."

 

She glared at him. "How is it that we had a perfectly decent walk yesterday and today you're acting like a complete git?"

 

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Malfoy said, lowly, burying his face in his book.

 

"You do know what I'm talking about. You're just being difficult."

 

"Maybe you should've brought Weaslette along to keep the peace, then," he growled, "or maybe you should get even further up Slughorn's arse so he'll let us off."

 

"So that's what this is about," Hermione inhaled. "You're upset that I told Ginny not to let me drink with you again."

 

"I'm not upset about anything. I'm only making suggestions, Granger—suggestions you have no business disagreeing with since they were your idea."

 

"If you say so." Pointing at the instruction in the textbook, she added, "It's three and a half minutes, by the way."

 

"What?"

 

He had been somewhere else again. Hermione knew the look on his face, because she had seen it many times—in him, in her, in Harry. Harry had noticed it too. Back in their sixth year, he often gestured the blond, rambling on about the Slytherin's distracted nature and how he was certain that, despite Malfoy's age, he had taken the Dark Mark. Hermione felt ill thinking about that year. Never did she forget what he had done, but it was often easy to let it slip into the background.

 

"Erm—the goat's milk." The past was consuming her again. All she could do was shake her head and press on. "You're supposed to heat it for three and a half minutes."

 

His steel pools were burning a hole right through her. He knew she was panicking.

 

"That's right."

 

Then, without another word, he reached into his schoolbag and pulled out his Arithmancy book. Hermione quietly sucked down the cold winter air as visions of war flooded her memories, her eyes fixed upon him as he silently began to study.

 

With each page he turned, she felt a little less anxious. When his long fingers finally stopped turning and traveled to his chin, she revisited a recollection she had not thought about since summertime—one she had shrugged off as a small fight, but now, it mattered so much more than she ever thought it would.

 

"Can't believe Harry testified for that prat," Ron had complained, collapsing onto his bed.

 

"Well," Hermione started, fearing the redhead's reaction, "he was sort of a victim himself, wasn't he? I can't imagine what it'd be like to have Voldemort threatening my parents."

 

"If my dad was Lucius Malfoy, I'd be glad if Voldemort killed him!"

 

Hermione shook her head and sat by his feet. The ancient mattress creaked beneath her weight. "You can't say that, Ronald. Things aren't always so black and white."

 

"And some things are! After all he did to you? To Madam Rosmerta and Katie Bell? He deserves to rot in Azkaban and so do both of his horrible parents."

 

"Well, that isn't happening. Harry testified and justice took its course. That's all there is to it."

 

"Justice," he scoffed. "Justice would be the Killing Curse."

 

"Ronald!"

 

"Oh, come off it, Hermione. I'm not the only one that thinks as much!"

 

"I don't care what anyone else thinks! It doesn't make it any less barbaric!"

 

"So you're on his side then," Ron said, darkly, "again."

 

He didn't mean Malfoy.

 

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I think Harry was right to do what he did."

 

"Figures."

 

He rolled onto his side so he was no longer facing her.

 

"Are you actually mad at me for not wanting to have someone killed?"

 

Ron said nothing, and she shook her head.

 

"You're impossible." She stood up and stomped to the door. "I'll be downstairs if you decide to grow up."

 

He never apologized. The argument simply faded away, a ghost amongst their daily routine.

 

She never realized how relevant it would become.

 

As she continued to watch Malfoy, she wondered if she knew him better back then than she thought she did. His pale brows were knit together as he read the chapter for Arithmancy, noticeably confused and eager to learn; Hermione imagined she looked similar when she was trying to learn something she did not understand. It was in the details that she found their infinitesimal similarities.

 

"Malfoy?"

 

His head did not move, but his eyes did.

 

"What?"

 

"I just—I just wanted to apologize," she said, not entirely sure why she was sorry, but very sure that she was, "if I said anything that made you feel—I don't know—er—unwelcome..."

 

"I don't know what you're on about, Granger," he said, quickly looking down at his book.

 

Hermione's stomach sank. She did not say anything, but turned her attention back to Potions. They studied quietly like that for a long while.

 

Once the hour was up, Malfoy was the one to break the silence. 

 

"We should walk back."

 

Hermione nodded and collected her things. They started towards the trail when she said, "We should probably meet again before classes. Maybe that Sunday after you get back? Maybe two in the afternoon—so you have time to settle in."

 

"Yeah, fine." He was walking slowly again, keeping her pace.

 

Together they walked, but they said nothing. Only when they reached Hagrid's hut did they see the many students running amok, and Hermione realized it was probably best that they separated. Wordlessly, they split off, but Hermione only made it a few feet.

 

"Malfoy?"

 

He rounded and raised his eyebrows.

 

She gave him a small smile. "Have a happy Christmas, okay?"

 

He nodded. "Yeah, you do the same, Granger. Don't fuss when the elves try and feed you."

 

Then, he began walking back to the castle. Hermione, however, found herself glued to the same spot she was in. Her knees were shaking, and she was afraid she knew exactly why.



Chapter 28: Introducing
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King's Cross Station was as busy as it always was during the holidays. While Draco's schoolmates found their families, Muggles darted back and forth between the other platforms, some shouting about being late while others cooed at their small children.

 

"Adrian, come along, dear," a woman sang. A blond toddler ran towards her and proudly offered her a bright blue toy. "Brilliant! You did it, bubby!"

 

Even when he was as tiny as the Muggle boy, his mother had never spoken to him with such a swell of affection. Alas, he still looked forward to seeing her. Unlike his father, she had shown him the type of love he needed when the world was crashing around him, and for that, he was eternally grateful.

 

It was between a group of hurried Muggles, that he finally placed her. She was standing with her neck craned and worry spinning in her crystal blue eyes, almost like she thought he may not have shown.

 

"Mother," Draco said, dragging his luggage towards her. "It's lovely to see you."

 

She embraced him and pecked his cheek. "I have missed you, my son." 

 

"And I've missed you." He pulled away and frowned. "I assume Wimby will be joining us when we go to the Portkey?"

 

"No," she said, grimly. "We decided it was best that she stayed home. I don't know what has gotten into her but she has been acting" She glanced at a nearby Muggle. "Well, let's just say that she has not been herself lately."

 

Guilt overwhelmed Draco. He suspected that Wimby's mistakes led back to the day that she escorted him to that very train station. He had informed her that the way she talked was annoying, and according to his mother's letter, this sentiment had been looming over the elf ever since.

 

"Anyway," his matriarch sighed, "we ought to be going. The Portkey will be leaving shortly."

 

Draco nodded and followed her. He was not looking forward to traveling all the way to France via Portkey, but he did not have much of a choice.

 

 

***

 

 

Chateau Chausse was perhaps half the size of Malfoy Manor. The estate was perched upon a hill in a wealthy neighborhoodprobably the wealthiest Wizarding neighborhood in the French Rivierabut it was the smallest property on the street. It was the type of home that Narcissa Malfoy would refer to as "less luxurious than expected", the type an acquaintance of the family may live insomeone the Malfoys never intended on visiting again.

 

Draco could not picture his parents living happily in the chateau, though he did not mind the quaint rooms or the exceptionally brown courtyard. Only people could make him loathe the placeand they did.

 

As promised, Wimby and his father had been waiting in the sitting room when he and his mother arrived. While his mother complained of having to touch the Portkeya rather grotesque banana peel that was in a King's Cross binhis father nodded from behind a book that was holding his attention. Beside him stood Wimby. With wide eyes, she glanced from him to Draco.

 

"...as if I were some sort of common Mudblood!" Narcissa Malfoy hissed with disgust. "They issued it to us on purpose, Lucius, I just know it. They saw the Malfoy name and they found the filthiest object that they possibly could..."

 

Before she could finish her tale, Draco had wandered up the stairs to claim one of the many guestrooms. He opened three doorstwo bedrooms that were clearly already occupied and a bathroom decorated with seashellsbefore settling in a room comprised of a crush red velvet duvet and curtains, three towering bookshelves, and a walnut writing desk. The books were all in French, but he picked one out, nonetheless.

 

Two days had passed since then, and he still had not spoken more than two words to his father or the house-elf. Instead, he spent his days tucked away in his temporary bed-chamber, reading books that he could barely understand.

 

Unfortunately, he could not avoid them forever.

 

It was well past noon when the inevitable happened: The black door cracked open and his mother peered inside, pearls on her neck and silver dangling from her ears. Something somber was etched in the lines of her face, yet it was gone as soon as he noticed it.

 

"Mathilde will be arriving today."

 

"Wonderful," Draco muttered from behind his book. "Will her husband be joining us?"

 

"Draco, she is allowing us to stay on her property. Whatever differences we have, we must set aside for our own sakeno matter how unpalatable it may seem."

 

"Will Father be setting aside his differences, then?"

 

"Your father will treat her with respect as he has been for the past several months." Her voice wavered, but only briefly. "You will join us in the sitting room at no later than seven. Dress well."

 

"Yes, Mother," he said, stiffly.

 

A hint of a smile graced her lips. "That's a good boy."

 

The smile disappeared as she closed the door.

 

 

***

 

 

Seven o' clock arrived much faster than Draco would have liked. No matter how often he wore dress robes, they were still terribly itchy, and he found himself scratching his neck as they awaited Mathilde's arrival.

 

"Quit scratching, Draco," his mother said, quietly, almost as though someone else could hear her.

 

"Yes, Mother."

 

He clasped his hands in front of him to deter himself from clawing at the collar again. His father's hands were clasped in the same way, although Draco assumed that was to maintain his composure when his least favorite relative entered the room.

 

The loud knock finally came. The three Malfoys turned to their house-elf, whose bare feet were planted on the floor.

 

"Wimby!" Narcissa hissed. "Answer the door!"

 

Petrified, Wimby glanced at Draco.

 

The elf wordlessly marched out of the living room and Draco heard the French doors creak open. If the house-elf had been using her manners, she would have greeted Mathilde. Alas, she said nothing.

 

"Please, please, I am more zan capable. Sank you."

 

Footsteps sounded upon the mahogany floorboards. Draco straightened his shoulders as his mother had always taught him to do, and in walked a mousy Frenchwoman with wild hair and an orange, oversized purse. Inside the purse was a fluffy, growling dog.

 

"Narcissa, Lucius," she purred, reaching out with her free arm. Draco noticed how uncomfortable his parents looked as they gave her a half-embrace. "So lovely to 'ave you both." She pulled away and squealed. "Oh, and you must be Draco! 'ow wonderful it is to meet you at last!"

 

Draco tried not to wince as she pulled him into an informal half-hug and kissed his cheek. He felt her waxy pink lipstick stain his skin.

 

"Enchantée."

 

"And 'e speaks a bit of French too! What a darling, darling boy," Mathilde gushed. She bent over and released the poof of a canine to skitter across the hardwood floor. Immediately, it began barking at Draco's heels. "Veri! Veri, non! Non! Oh, don't mind 'er. She's just a bit feisty with strangers. Typical of Pomeranians..."

 

The disgusted expression on Narcissa Malfoy's face was shortlived as she stared down at the small dog, but Draco noticed it, nonetheless. Regaining her composure, she kneeled down to halfheartedly pat its head. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth and the disgusted expression came and went once more.

 

"Mathilde," she chimed, "we cannot thank you enough for being such a gracious host and we are so glad you will be joining us for Christmas. I do hope it isn't an imposition."

 

"Not an imposition, no," Mathilde replied, sinking into the tufted sofa. She patted the spot beside her. "Come, Draco. Narcissa, Lucius, please do sit. It's been too long since we've 'ad a visit."

 

The woman quite reminded Draco of Professor Trelawney. Manic and dressed in clothes that were even strange for a Muggle, she sported gnarled hair as white as his father's and a large pin of the Beauxbatons crest. Draco knew he had several relatives that he had never met, but never did he think they would be so vastly different from his parents.

 

"It certainly has." Draco's mother sat in one of the two armchairs, while his father took the other. Unlike many of the Blacks, she had always been the pinnacle of charmnoticeably when she was lying through her teeth. "Will Antonin be able to accompany us for our Christmas feast?"

 

"Yesand for Christmas Eve. 'e'll be 'ere tomorrow in the afternoon," Mathilde fished through her large, pumpkin-colored purse. At her feet, Veri sat and panted.

 

"That is just wonderful," Narcissa said, clasping her hands together. "Isn't it wonderful, Lucius?"

 

"Yes, just wonderful," he muttered. Whatever he wanted to say, he stifled by chewing on his thumbnail.

 

"It would've been better if 'e could 'ave joined us tonight," Mathilde said, plucking a large bone-shaped treat from her purse. She tossed it to the floor. "Va chercher!" Giggling with glee as Veri tore the treat apart, Mathilde went on. "'is work is not easy, you know. Zere 'ave been many nasty crimes all around France since 'e-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was defeated... Many Death Eaters 'ave come to our country to evade British Aurors."

 

"And how exactly would that affect the Muggle Management Department?" Lucius asked, acidly.

 

"Certainly it does not shock you zat zey would attack Muggles?" Mathilde leaned forward; Draco noticed a waft of her terribly strong perfume. "Zey do 'ate zem, after all."

 

Lucius swallowed. "Yes, well, how fortunate for them that Antonin works so hard to help them."

 

"'ow fortunate indeed," Mathilde said, darkly. 

 

Draco always knew that his father and Mathilde did not get along, but it was the first time he was feeling their resentment as it hung in the air. 

 

"So have you been enjoying Paris, Mathilde?" Narcissa asked, trying to cut the tension. "I have been meaning to ask if the cheese is as divine as I remember."

 

"Of course it is! It's Paris!"

 

"I will have to go back one of these days." For the first time that evening, Draco heard genuineness in her tone. "When things have settled, will you take me, Lucius?"

 

"Anything you want, my love." 

 

There was strain in his voice. Mathilde noticed it too, because she glanced at him and sighed. "Well, I am going to go read a bit before bed." Leaning closer to Draco, she whispered, "I am looking forward to getting to know each other, Draco. An aunt should know her nephew, after all."

 

"It is early for bed, is it not?" Narcissa asked. "Surely, you will join us for a late dinner before you retire?"

 

Again, Draco picked up on his mother's forced manners.

 

"No, no, I am not 'ungry. Far too tired to sink of food," Mathilde replied, getting to her feet. Her knees cracked. "Veri!"

 

The Pomeranian abandoned her treat and waddled across the room to her master. Her small pink tongue poked through her black fur, and for the first time since meeting the creature, Draco understood why she chose to keep it.

 

"Well, it was lovely to visit. We will have plenty of time to continue our chat tomorrow," Narcissa said, clearly relieved. "Wimby! Come help Mathilde with her things!"

 

"Oh no, I do not need any 'elp. All I 'ave is my bag and Veri..."

 

"Nonsense, it is her job," Narcissa insisted. "Wimby!"

 

Shoulders sagging, Wimby trudged into the sitting room. She looked frazzled, as though she had been doing something she was not supposed to be doing.

 

"Lady Malfoy calls W-W" She gulped and glanced at Draco. The sentence died on her tongue.

 

"Yes, yes. I called you. Help Mathilde with her bag."

 

"I can manage it myself, as I said," Mathilde replied, firmly. She flashed Wimby a smile. "You aren't looking well, dear. If you need a potion, there are plenty in the cabinet in the second-floor salle de bains."

 

Then, she went up the stairs with Veri in tow. Draco's mother was dumbstruck, and so was he.

 

 

***

 

 

Dodging Malfoy melodramatics had proven more difficult than Draco would have liked. All through breakfast and lunch, he stayed in his room, but as his watch's hour hand crept towards three, his mother knocked on his door to inform him that Antonin had arrived.

 

He slunk down the staircase, unsure what to expect. The only uncle he ever knew well, Rodolphus, was one of the most wretched men he had ever meta purist that believed all Muggles should be put to death. Antonin, a helper of Muggles, was quite the opposite.

 

"Draco, dear! Come meet your uncle, yes?" Mathilde's voice was warm and bright as she escorted him into the kitchen. "Antonin, this is Draco."

 

A short, plump man with a receding hairline spun and grinned. Draco was surprised to see that the man was cooking alongside Wimbysomething he was certain made Wimby terribly uncomfortable.

 

"Draco! Je suis ton oncle! Enchanté, enchchanté!" the man exclaimed. "I 'ope you're looking forward to ze Christmas Eve feast! Wimby and I are making quite the team 'ere, I sink."

 

"Enchanté," Draco echoed, confusedly. He averted his gaze to Mathilde, who was beaming. Behind her were his parents, who both looked far less than pleased. "Iermis there anything I can do to help with...all of this?"

 

The messy kitchen was overwhelming, and Draco had never seen a wizard cook a meal with a house-elf. It was unprecedented.

 

"You will not!" Lucius hissed. "Malfoys do not cook, Draco."

 

"He is being polite, Lucius," Draco's mother said through gritted teeth.

 

"Oui, zough it is not your fault for not recognizing it, Lucius. You would not know much of politeness being raised by Malfoys," Mathilde chided. "You are fortunate to 'ave raised such a good boy."

 

"How dare you speak ill of the House of Malfoy!"

 

Narcissa grabbed her husband's arm and shook her head. Draco had feared his father would be unable to control himself, and finally, he had lost the last dash of etiquette he had left.

 

"The House of Malfoy never did me much good, Lucius. I didn't sink I'd have to remind you," Mathilde said, coolly. Wrapping an arm around Draco, she said, "Your Uncle Antonin is a fantastic chef. 'e always makes zee Christmas feasts."

 

The hate in Lucius Malfoy emanated from him, but for the first time since Draco was a boy, he did not care. Mathilde and Antonin were warm and kindthe type of people he always wished he could have had as parents.

 

"Draco, come with me to the sitting room."

 

"Lucius" Narcissa warned.

 

"Yes, Lucius, listen to your wife," Mathilde said with a grin. "Clearly, she has more sense zan you."

 

If Lucius Malfoy became any angrier, steam might have billowed from his ears. Though Draco had lost a great amount of respect for his father, he sensed it was best to minimize the tension, so he followed him out of the kitchen and into the sitting room. There, Lucius sunk into one of the armchairs.

 

"Draco," he started, "I do not want this experience with Mathilde to blind you of your worth. You do understand that Malfoys do not stoop to the level of elves."

 

"Of course, Father."

 

"Good." He laced his fingers. "When ample time has passed, we will return to Malfoy Manor and never again will we be forced to visit these people."

 

Draco muttered some words of agreement. Alas, he was not so sure he meant them.


Author's Note: I've been ill on and off so if updates slow down, please excuse me while I take care of my health. I will update as I can, but my chronic illness has taken a difficult turn so I may not be able to provide an update every week for a little while.



Chapter 29: Chatting
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Dinner was deafeningly quiet.

 

The Malfoys sat on one side of the table while Antonin and Mathilde sat on the other, drawing a clear line between blood: pure and impure, muddled and clean. Alas, Lucius Malfoy did not seem reassured by the distance. He took long, loud drinks of red wine that were hardly appropriate at the dinner table, an act that earned many a glare from his perfect-postured wife and his disapproving brother-in-law. From afar, Draco noticed his father's stubble and deep lines surrounding his puffy, grey eyes. The man had not slept.

 

"Thank you again for the lovely meal, Antonin. It was exquisite," lilted Draco's mother. She dabbed her lip with her azure cloth napkin before refolding it in her lap.

 

"It was my pleasure. And Wimby was quite ze 'elp in ze kitchen."

 

Wimby was standing alert with her hands behind her back. She seemed surprised to receive credit.

 

"That is what she is meant to do," Lucius said hoarsely, his upper lip and teeth stained as burgundy as his pinot noir. "Wimby, tidy up!"

 

"Y-y-yes, M-Master" Wimby looked at Draco and coughed before hurriedly collecting the dirtied dishes.

 

Antonin leaned back and arched a bushy, greying brow. "You know, Lucius, my muzzer worked as a maid for most of 'er short life. She came to zis country from Croatia and worked 'er fingers to ze bone to provide for me and mon frère after my fazzer left. Without 'er, we would have been in ze streets."

 

"How quaint Muggle work is," Lucius said lightly. "It's fortunate for you that you inherited your father's gift."

 

"Even more fortunate to 'ave inherited my muzzer's decency."

 

Draco saw his father's mouth open to protest once more, though it closed upon his mother clearing her throat.

 

"If you would excuse us," she said, evenly, "Lucius and I are going to go sit in the living room and enjoy the fire."

 

Aware that he was the least controversial party in the room, Draco knew this to be his cue to occupy his aunt and uncle. His parents sauntered out of the dining room, and as Wimby clanked dishes together, he was forced to face two people that were somehow kind enough to let his parents stay on their property, no matter how terribly they were treated. The legacy of the Malfoys was great, but there was a human cost, and Draco was looking at a witch and wizard that knew that all too well.

 

"You were so quiet at dinner, Draco," Mathilde pointed out, lacing her small fingers, "but of course zat is not your fault. It is razzer strange being 'ere, no?"

 

The polite response was not the truth, and Draco had never learned how to interact with straightforward women. Maybe that was why Hermione Granger confused him so.

 

"It's okay, it's okay. I am not offended," Mathilde said with a chuckle. "Your uncle and I are so 'appy you were able to make it. Far too many years have passed without knowing our only nephew!"

 

Draco offered a small smile. "Well, I do appreciate the hospitality you've shown us. I know my parents are very grateful."

 

Antonin pressed his lips into a firm line and stood to assist Wimby. Mathilde suddenly seemed flustered, and it was then that Draco realized he must have touched a sore spot.

 

"Ahem. Excuse me." She reflected Draco's smilethe small, tentative type. "So you are back at 'ogwarts zis year?"

 

"Eryes. I'll be done in June."

 

"Ah, oui. I read zat ze last year did not count for anyone due to zeuhcircumstances." She watched him, gauging his reaction. "Ahem! Pardon me, I getuhI am not sure of ze English phrase... After meals, I feel a bit sick. Anyway...your muzzer tells me you were sorted into Slyzerin like her and your fazzer?"

 

Draco nodded. "I was."

 

"Green and silver, no?"

 

Draco nodded again.

 

"I remember seeing zose colors as a girl. My fazzeryour grandfazzer'e 'ad a brooch he gave my muzzer... Green and silver wi' za snake. I always wanted zat brooch, but I do not know what 'appened to it..."

 

The fragmentation of the Malfoy family was undeniable, for there they were, discussing family heirlooms, yet never was his aunt gifted with the Malfoy name. Never would she be added to the family tree, and as far as his father was concerned, she would never be his sister.

 

"Well, I suppose I should be a good 'ost and check on your parents." She patted Draco's hand. "You are a good boy, Draco."

 

They were words he could not quite digest.

 

 

***

 

 

At Malfoy Manor, Christmas Day was a spectacle. Narcissa Malfoy detested tacky décor, so colorful ribbon and garlands were, unlike at Hogwarts, permitted only on the main day of celebration. Overnight, elfin magic filled the air and sparkling ornaments and a tall spruce tree would be the only proof that tiny, calloused hands had done any work at all. When Draco was a boy, he would wake up and stare in wonder, quietly wishing that his home looked like that year-round.

 

Unfortunately, they were not at Malfoy Manor.

 

The morning did not beckon the ostentatious display of a Malfoy Christmas, and instead of making a scrumptious breakfast, Wimby was nowhere to be found. In the two sitting room armchairs were Mathilde and Antonin, both dressed in their nightrobes and humming contentedly.

 

"Joyeux Noël, Draco," Mathilde said before taking a loud sip from her mug. Atop her lap was a rising and falling Veri.

 

"Yeah you too," Draco muttered. "Where are my parents?"

 

"Still sleeping, I sink. Sit, sit."

 

Draco warily lowered onto the sofa. His aunt and uncle were warm people, people he never thought would want to even speak to him, let alone welcome him so cordially. 

 

"When we came downstairs, every cupboard in ze 'ouse was open," Mathilde said, stroking Veri. "I suspected ze elf."

 

"Very sorry about that. My mother will have a talk with her."

 

"Oh no, no!" Antonin exclaimed, shaking his head. A newspaper lay across his lap, but Draco could not understand the partially covered French headline. "Zat will not be necessary. She is as welcome as ze rest of ze family." 

 

Despite having been raised with house-elves, Draco had never once considered them family. To be fair, he had never considered Mathilde and Antonin to be family either, yet he was in their house, and even after his father's continuous prejudice, they seemed happy to open up their property to him, no matter how estranged he and Draco's mother were.

 

Mathilde cleared her throat and Veri's shiny black eyes cracked open. "Speaking of ze family, I wanted to ask you, Draco... How are zey treating you?"

 

It was a question he had never been asked, though he had considered it a number of times. Ever since he was a boy, his father did not treat him the way other boys seemed to be treated by their fathers, yet to him, it was impolite to admit as much, so all he said was, "Fine."

 

His aunt and uncle exchanged knowing glances.

 

"Even considering your littleergirlfriend?"

 

"I don't have a girloh, you read the Prophet," Draco mumbled. "I didn't think they printed it in France."

 

"Not the Prophet, no," Mathilde replied. She took another sip from her mug and made a face that told Draco it was far from tea. "Antonin, what newspaper was it zat we saw zat in?"

 

"I can't remember. Maybe ze Gazette?"

 

The article had gone international. Draco wanted to groan, but he was too nervous to do anything other than listen to the two of them. If his parents saw the publication, he was sure to face the consequences, even if it was yet another public misconception of the Malfoys. Their family's image was already smeared. Having a blood traitor for a son would surely send both of his parents over the proverbial edge.

 

"Wherever we saw it, we couldn't be prouder," Mathilde gushed. "'ermione Granger! A Muggle-born war 'eroine!"

 

"I think you have the wrong idea"

 

"Oh, don't you worry," Mathilde cut him off, pressing a finger to her lips. "We won't say anyzing in front of your parents."

 

"No, you don't understand"

 

"Don't understand what exactly?"

 

Draco's eyes bulged as he turned around to see his father standing in the stairwell. His nose was puckered and his searing winter eyes were panning across the room as though he were searching for something.

 

"Oh, nothing, Lucius. Draco here is just trying to explain 'ogwarts 'ouses to us," Mathilde lied, easily. "I trust you slept well?"

 

"I did, though it does not smell like the elf has started breakfast and it is well after ten. Has anyone seen her?"

 

Mathilde cleared her throat. "No, but she was looking for somezing, I sink. All ze cupboards were open."

 

"Ruddy elf," Lucius spat.

 

"I can make breakfast, Lucius," Antonin offered. "Mathilde and I don't usually"

 

"No!" Lucius forced a tight smile. "No, I will find Wimby and we will resolve this. Please, enjoy your morning."

 

His smile immediately disappeared and Draco slumped his shoulders. It was bound to be a very long day.

 

 

***

 

 

The year's gifts were less costly than usual. Draco's parents exchanged theirs, a bracelet for his mother and a set of velvet robes for his father, before giving him his. A book with a matte black cover and a silver tree bore a title he expected, but was less than thrilled to see. When he was a boy, he could not wait to receive his own copy of the book, but as a young man, there was something lackluster about it. 

 

"The Malfoy Tree," he murmured. "Erthank you."

 

"A must for any Malfoy heir," Lucius said, his gaze flickering towards his estranged half-sister.

 

"Is it accurate?" Mathilde asked, judgmentally.

 

"I'm sure I do not know what you mean, Mathilde. Please, elucidate."

 

"Lucius" Draco's mother warned.

 

"Please, Narcissa, I'm a grown woman. I sink I can 'andle my own bruzzer." Mathilde paused. "What I mean, Lucius, is that I doubt very much zat ze book 'as bastards like me."

 

"You aren't a Malfoy," Lucius hissed, pointedly.

 

"Ah, but our fazzer was, was he not?"

 

Lucius scowled, but Narcissa grabbed his wrist and shook her head. It was not because she disagreed. Draco knew that his mother did not mind that her own sister had been removed from the Black family tree and despite hearing the news, she still refused to acknowledge she had a young great-nephew. The Malfoy matriarch was simply too bright to let a silly argument get in the way of their housing, and if her husband pushed Mathilde too far, they might have to return to the shame they faced in Britain.

 

There was not much that Draco knew about his aunt and uncle, but one thing seemed certain. They were much better people than the man and woman that raised him.

 

 

***

 

 

Wimby did not turn up until after Mathilde and Antonin left for Paris late that evening. Draco heard his father scolding her from his bedroom, so he cast a muffling charm upon the door and continued flipping through The Malfoy Tree.

 

The tree itself, he knew by heart. The many stories within, he mostly knew. Of course, the book would only feature tales that made the Malfoys proud, and these would be the tales he had heard. His father would never divulge information that may be damning of their heritage, especially to a hired scribe, so Draco was unsurprised when he read mentions of his grandparents having only one child: a boy with grey eyes and platinum hair.

 

Mathilde, as she had expected, had been erased.



Chapter 30: Hinting
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Never had Hermione had a lonelier holiday.

 

Christmas came and passed, though if she had not been counting the days, she might not have known it was Christmas at all. The house-elves had prepared a feast that could have fed the entire school, but only a handful of students were there to eat it: three other Gryffindors, two Ravenclaws, six Hufflepuffs, and one Slytherin who could not have been older than eleven.

 

Hermione stared at her loaded plate, wondering how long it had taken the creatures to prepare such an extravagant meal only for most of it to go to waste. If she had not been marking the days on her calendar, she probably would not have been there to guiltily enjoy the few bites she could manage.

 

"Mind if I sit?"

 

The screeching of Hermione's knife came to a stop as she glanced up to see who was speaking to her. To her surprise, it was Fay Dunbar.

 

"Oherm, of course." She gestured the spot across from her. "Please."

 

"Thanks," Fay said, plopping down in front of the empty plate. She seized the pumpkin juice and began filling her goblet. "You don't usually stay in the castle for the holidays, do you?"

 

Cutting her ham once more, Hermione shook her head. "I have a few times, but the last two years that I was actually at Hogwarts, I went toermto a friend's."

 

"Right..." Fay grabbed an iced bun and tore off a tiny piece of it. Once she popped the crumb into her mouth, she chewed it for far too long, almost like she was trying to give off the appearance of eating without eating much at all. "I only ask because I'm always here for Christmas. Never have seen you beforeexcept at the Yule Ball, but everyone was here for that..."

 

Hermione was not sure what Fay was trying to say. Nevertheless, she silently nodded along with the girl's small talk. 

 

"I s'pose it makes sense you wouldn't be able to go to the Weasleys' place. You know, all things considered."

 

"I didn't say anything about the Weasleys."

 

"Well, Potter doesn't exactly have parents, does he?" Fay tore another tiny piece and tossed it into the air. After catching it on her tongue, she added, "Shame that the Malfoys are the way they are. I'd be a bit put out if my boyfriend's parents didn't invite me along for the holidaysnot that I have one."

 

"Malfoy's not my boyfriend," Hermione said gravely, though she felt the heat creeping up in her cheeks. "We just study together. It's sort of anermarrangement with Slughorn."

 

"Oh, right. Because of all of your little accidents." Fay stabbed a cooked carrot and bit into it, but just barely.

 

"No," Hermione replied through gritted teeth, "I mean, it's a contributing factor, yes, but Malfoy's prejudice has just as much to do with it as my little accidents."

 

"Can't be all that prejudiced with the way he looks at you," Fay pointed out. "When we were dueling in Whittlewood's, he couldn't take his eyes off you. Somehow he still beat me but I'm a bit shit at elemental spells, so I reckon he had an advantage..."

 

If Hermione had felt warm before, she was on the verge of sweating then.

 

"P-probably because he was mad," she rationalized, "that I landed us in the Prophet. He'd been glaring at me ever since."

 

Fay shrugged. "Maybe." She paused and chewed on her lip for a moment. "Bit of a weird picture, that one of you and him... He looked bloody terrified. You seemed pretty happy, though..."

 

"I was drunk," Hermione snapped. "I would've been happy if I were with Grindewald himself."

 

"Guess so," Fay said with another shrug. "So if it has nothing to do with him, why didn't you go to the Weasleys' this year?"

 

Hermione forced a tight smile. "It can get a bit crowded. I just needed a little space."

 

It was not exactly a lie.

 

 

***

 

 

Hermione spent the rest of her holiday break waiting. She barely slept, barely ate, and the more time she spent alone, the more that the folly of war consumed her.

 

Living nightmares nearly felt as real as the first time she experienced them. Harry was pronounced dead. Bellatrix was standing over her. Ron was leaving their encampment. Fifty people died for her and people like her, and still, she did not know how to live with that. Should she have died for the cause? Should she have replaced Fred or Nymphadora or Remus? She did not have a child; she did not have a twin; she did not even have parents that knew who she was.

 

"They wouldn't have cared if I died," she whispered to herself, thinking of the months of dejection of Molly and George Weasley. "They wouldn't even have known."

 

Days had passed since the Christmas feast, and she had only gone to the Great Hall for the occasional small lunch. Malfoy was right when he told her the sustenance spell would wear off, leaving her more ravenous than she was when she cast it. For that reason, she had stopped using it. The overwhelming loneliness of the Great Hall was too much to bear, especially when she knew the two people she loved most were not lonely at all. They had each other, and that was all that they needed, because it was all they believed they had.

 

She tried crying herself to sleep, but sleep never came.

 

 

***

 

 

It was the morning that students were set to return. With yet another sleepless night under her belt, Hermione pressed her palms into her aching eyes and rolled out of bed to change out of her pajamas. Every passing week seemed to symbolize a new divet of her body, a new bone jutting outward, or a new symptom of her depression. That day, with blackened, bloodshot eyes, she decided the symptom was insanity, because she was smearing on Evvi Quirke's Well-Slept Cover Stick and brushing the knots from her curls, wondering if she would get a glimpse of her unlikely constant in the Great Hall.

 

How bewildering her peculiar life truly was.

 

The walk to the Great Hall was quiet, as was the room itself. A colorful breakfast lined the tables of the four houses, and as Hermione seated herself at the Gryffindor table, she wondered if it would always be so quiet during the holidays. When she was a young girl during Christmas at Hogwarts, the castle was certainly emptier than usual, but never had she seen it as barren as it was. Parents were still scared. They wanted their children at their side, just in case something were to happen. 

 

"The aftershocks of war," she murmured to herself, thinking of Harry, Ron, and Neville.

 

Her three friends were capturing the Death Eaters that escaped, and if she were to believe the papers, there were a lot of them.

 

Fay Dunbar gave her a nod from the other end of the table. Forcing a smile, Hermione waggled her fingers in return. It was only seconds later when she heard the roar of the incoming students.

 

The stream of young witches and wizards flowed into the room, and Hermione's eyes danced across the throng, searching inexplicably for the ethereal glow of a blond Death Eater. Her heart was throbbing, and the reason terrified her.

 

"Hermione!"

 

A pair of arms had wrapped around her from behind and she felt a swoop of soft hair brush her cheek. Breaking away from her trance, she leaned back to see Ginny towering over her.

 

"Good to see you too," she said, bemusedly. Patting the spot beside her, she added, "How was the Burrow?"

 

"It was mostly good." Ginny rested her chin in her palm. "We all missed you, though. Ron wouldn't quit asking where you were."

 

"If he was so worried, he could have written to me," Hermione replied, straightening her posture. Her interest in Ron had diminished into nearly nothing, and she was not going to entertain Ginny's attempt to try and reunite them. "How were George and your parents? Better, I hope?"

 

"Mum was excited about the wedding. I did get a bit of a tongue-lashing for doing it so young, but she loves Harry, so I think that kept her spirits up enough to not mention Fred much..." She frowned. "Dad was mostly himself, but George... Well, I don't know if he'll ever be right again. There's this thing with magical twins"

 

"It's not just magical twins," Hermione corrected her, scooping a helping of beans onto her plate. "Muggle twins have it too. Their connection is special... I have cousins that are twins and II don't know what one of them would do without the other. I can't even imagine what George must be going through..."

 

"Me either. He wasn't himself. Could barely even manage to congratulate Harry and me, let alone tell any jokes or show us any new inventions. Don't think he's even made any, honestly."

 

"That's worrisome... He hasn't improved at all since summer?"

 

"Not really. Ron mentioned that he might start helping him with the shop, though..."

 

"I think he ought to."

 

"Mum said the same." Ginny plucked a few pieces of bacon from the tray. "She just wants him out of the field, though. Him and Harry had some pretty scary stories about being Aurors... Mum could barely bother being mad at Harry and I for our engagementnot with Ronald going on about chasing dangerous Death Eaters all over the country."

 

"Harry will keep him safe," Hermione said in a bored tone. She was becoming rather annoyed with all of the mentions of Ron Weasley, and she was even starting to suspect he had put Ginny up to it.

 

"You know how my mum is. Ron could be working in a pit of Pygmy Puffs and she'd still worry."

 

"With his grades, that might be all he's actually qualified to do."

 

Ginny giggled and bit into a slice of bacon. "So how was it here? I imagine it was pretty boring."

 

"It was fine," Hermione lied with a shrug. Again, she was looking around the roomlooking for him. "I'm ahead in all of my courses but one, but I'll be working on that later today."

 

"You mean with Malfoy," Ginny inferred, cocking a brow.

 

"Er, wellyes."

 

"Slughorn is making you meet while we're still on break? That seems a bit harsh."

 

"It's not that bad. He is the best in our class."

 

Still, she was searching for him, but she was trying not to give Ginny any idea that she was. Unfortunately, the Ravenclaws were crowding at the end of their table, leaving no gaps for her to get a clear view of the Slytherins.

 

"Still a git."

 

Hermione nearly wanted to defend him, but instead, just as she caught a peek of his impossibly white hair and snowy skin, she muttered, "Yes. He is."

 

"So that's all you've been doing during the holiday, then? Studying?"

 

That was far from the only thing Hermione had been doing. She'd been crying, starving, writhing, thinking. Alas, she cracked a challenging smile and said, "I read a few novels."

 

To her relief, Ginny nodded and delved into her breakfast. It gave Hermione the perfect opportunity to meet the stormy grey eyes of her constant.



Chapter 31: Kissing
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The morning was long past when the grey blanket of the Highlands blotted out the new winter sun. Upon the grounds, students sploshed in the rare January snowmelt, many giggling as they basked in reconciling with their friends, while others hurriedly flipped through the textbooks they had neglected since the start of the holiday. There was little that could have caught their attention, but the boy by the gamekeeper's hut had done just that.

 

On his toes, he rocked, and even from a distance, Hermione Granger could read his discomfited posture. She was adorned in handknit gloves and a thick scarf, and as she stomped through the mud, she was more than aware of the many pairs of eyes that followed her.

 

"You're late."

 

"Sorry. I had something to take care of," she lied, hugging herself for warmth. "Shall we?"

 

"Do I have a choice?" he asked, snidely.

 

"You always have a choice. You of all people should know that," Hermione clipped, heading straight for the line of trees. She turned and jerked her head. "Are you coming?"

 

His scowl was less dramatic than usual, but Hermione made a note of it, nonetheless. The fluttering in her stomach had thieved her of all patience and Malfoy had a way of instigating tiffs that could quickly lead to the nastiest of hexes.

 

She had to be wary of the fire inside of her, and she had to ensure she did not release it, even if Malfoy pushed her to her limit.

 

"How was France?"

 

"As expected."

 

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Hermione pulled her foot from a sludgy pile of muck and moved forward. Malfoy was refraining from taking his usual long strides, and while she appreciated the company, she was a bit frazzled by it. He was coldyet their improbable interactions had become as second nature to him as they had to her. It meant something. What that was, she could not decide.

 

"I read that the centaurs will be celebrating tonight. There's a meteor shower"

 

"The Quadrantids. I'm familiar," Malfoy muttered.

 

"I thought you might be. It starts at the Big Dipper and ends"

 

"At Draco. I know."

 

They had made it to the clearing, and Hermione felt the blood pounding in her ears. He was watching her carefullyquestioningly.

 

"Ahem... I just wanted to say that we'll want to be mindful of that," she said, glancing away from him. "The centaurs won't be happy if we disturb the area too much."

 

Malfoy watched her for another moment before mumbling "fine" and sitting on his usual boulder.

 

Hermione felt small as she dried a patch of earth and plopped onto the ground. He seemed so far above her on that tall rock of his.

 

"Did you study any of your Arithmancy?" 

 

"Some."

 

"Some," Hermione repeated, staring at him. "Your family kept you too busy to get any reading done?"

 

"My family is none of your business, Granger," he said through gritted teeth.

 

"Of course not, but if they're getting in the way of your academics"

 

His silver eyes bore right through her. "They're not. I simply found myself distracted by other reading material. Now if you're done harassing me, I'd like to finish my number chart."

 

Chewing on her lip, Hermione watched him furrow his brow and push his quill to the parchment. The feather of the quill did not move, as he hesitated to make his elegant, swooping strokes that she had learned to associate with his aristocratic penmanship.

 

"What other books did you read?" she found herself asking, truly curious what type of literature held Draco Malfoy's interest outside of required texts. "Anything interesting?"

 

He slowly wrote something down and replied, "Mostly French spellbooks."

 

"French spellbooks," Hermione echoed. 

 

"Yes, Granger, French spellbooks."

 

"That sounds...educational," she said, lamely. "Not as beneficial for your marks as Arithmancy, of course..."

 

"Considering you're so worried about marks, I have to assume you read your Potions book from front to back, then?" Malfoy snapped, scribbling rather furiously. "Unless my marks are, for some reason, more important to you than your own."

 

"No. I did get ahead in most of my classes, though." Her face must have been scarlet, because despite the nip of the winter air, she was suddenly sweltering. "I thoughterthat I'd be better waiting for you...for Potions, I mean."

 

"What? Can't read without my help?"

 

"Don't be stupid, Malfoy." She turned the page, refusing to look up at him when her face was so terribly hot. "I'm probably going to regret saying this, but I value your insight."

 

"I don't blame you. Probably the first time you've ever been given any considering you were always running around with Potter and the Weasel King."

 

"Why do you have to do that?"

 

"Do what?"

 

"Insult them for no reason—when they're not even here." Hermione's thick eyebrows were drawn together as she attempted to make sense out of her study partner's unyielding method of deflection. "Especially after what Harry did for you!"

 

Malfoy set his jaw and focused all too heavily on the pages before him. It was not clear whether he was embarrassed or if Hermione had gotten through to him, but she welcomed the contrasting silence.

 

For nearly an hour, they studied quietly. Hermione looked at her wristwatch and almost informed him that they could go back to the castle soon. Alas, the sun was finally peeking through the clouds and the angelic glow emanating from him had rendered her speechless. She once would have compared him to a ghost. How truly blind she had been.

 

"Do you need something?" he asked, scrunching his face in a way that ruined his briefly benign demeanor.

 

Embarrassed, Hermione said, "No."

 

"I'd be more inclined to believe you if you weren't staring at me like I was a troll in a teashop."

 

"I wasn't staring," Hermione fibbed, feeling her face go hot again. "I was just thinking about...something."

 

Malfoy raised a skeptical brow. "Go on."

 

"Well, I was thinking..." Certainly, she could not tell him that she was thinking about how unexplainably attractive she found him or that lately, her insides twisted every-which-way when she was near him. She could not admit that her nightmares were much worse since he had been gone, or that there were nights that she dreamed of him and they were the only nights she got much rest at all. No, she could not say such things, so with a sheepish smile, she said, "I was just thinking that we managed to serve a punishment for half the school year already. It's probably some sort of record."

 

She expected a scowl. She expected a scoff or an eye-roll. What she did not expect was the deep belly laugh he let out.

 

"Says something about your potion-making skills," he teased. "You've had more incidents this year alone than Finnigan had in all five of our O.W.L. years combined!"

 

Hermione frowned and shut her book. "I'll have you know that I am more than capable in Potions. I only do poorly because—" She almost revealed something terribly solemn, but instead, she grinned and said, "I have to look at your stupid, smirking face all day."

 

"That distracting, am I?"

 

Blushing, she opened her book again and began turning pages, one by one. "Only because of your incessant arrogance."

 

"You say that like you aren't just as arrogant."

 

"II—" Hermione faltered. "I have work to do. Let me know if you need any help."

 

She buried herself in Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students and reread the same paragraph over and over, trying to retain what the words meant, yet she couldn't. The wind whistled and Malfoy's parchments fluttered. She could not bring herself to look at him, but she imagined his snow blond locks were fluttering too, giving him the rare disheveled appearance that she had secretly admired for weeks. 

 

Never had she known the natural Malfoythe Malfoy that hid from the world behind perfectly pressed robes and impeccable posture. After eight years, she was finally being given the opportunity, and somehow, everything she found made her ecstatic and scared and nervous all at once, and it was this indescribable feeling that made her question her sanity.

 

"GRANGER!"

 

Shaking her head back into reality, she dragged her gaze from her textbook to Malfoy. The scowl on his face told her that she had done something wrong, and she immediately felt compelled to fix it.

 

"S-sorry, I waserreading."

 

"I almost thought you were bloody dead. I said your name about six times," he complained. "This question. It doesn't make any sense."

 

"Well, what is it?" she asked, trepidatiously getting up from her spot on the ground. It felt like she was going to vomit up her own heart, but still her feet carried her towards him. She sat beside him on the large boulder and tucked her hair behind her ear; they were so close that she could feel his warmth.

 

"This," he said, jabbing the page with his forefinger. "'Subtract your Lebellic number from your Fibbeccian number.' My Lebellic number is higher than my Fibbeccian number so"

 

"Well, if that's true, then your clarity number is negative," Hermione explained, leaning closer so she could see his work. "It's quite rare, but not impossible."

 

"And what does it mean if it is negative?"

 

She tilted her head to the side to take in his features. Even through the frown and the harsh lines at the bridge of his nose, he was handsome in a way she never knew boys could be handsome. He was broken and uncertain, yet sharp and composed. She knew so little about him, yet somehow, he was familiar enough to touch.

 

Alas, she didn't dare.

 

"It means that your path is unclearthat you can make a choice and fork from the paths you've taken before."

 

"That doesn't seem like it would be all that rare," he pointed out. "Anyone can change what they're doing."

 

Hermione shook her head. "Not as drastically as others." Checking his work briefly, she added, "Not as drastically as you."

 

"Arithmancy really is a load of rubbish."

 

"Maybe so."

 

She hugged her knees. According to auxiliary texts, his result was very rarerarer than he could likely comprehend.

 

"I assume yours said some nonsense you believe, then? Something about you being all bloody good and sure of yourself?"

 

"I don't really remember what it said. I did the assignment a week ago."

 

"Typical," he spat.

 

She shrugged. "There was nothing else to do. The castle was a lot emptier than I thought it would be."

 

Malfoy snorted, his finger trailing across the next question. "I would've killed to be back here, then. Could barely get a smidgen of peace where I was."

 

"France was bad, then."

 

"Like I said before, it was exactly as I expected it would be."

 

A frigid gust made Hermione's teeth chatter. "Okay, so you don't want to talk about it." She stretched her arms behind her and leaned back on her palms. "That's fine. We don't have to."

 

White noise enveloped them, then: the whistling wind, the turning of pages, the light scritch-scratch of Draco's quill. The overwhelming loneliness that Hermione had felt during the long holiday was coming back to her, settling into the depths of her diaphragm and begging her to reach out to him. He was just as companionless as she wasprobably more.

 

"I wasn't mocking you, you know," she pressed after several moments. "I was asking about France because I...because I...care...about your holidayand I suppose about your overall well-being...as a p-person..."

 

Where was her Gryffindor courage when she needed it most?

 

"Well, it was bloody miserable," he said, firmly, slamming his book shut.

 

Those grey eyes were boring into hers again, and his petal pink lips looked extraordinarily inviting. Boys had kissed her many times, but it was the first time she considered going firstand it was mortifying.

 

"Mine too," she whispered, studying his face.

 

Then, she did it. She leaned in and their lips collided. 

 

At first, he did not respond. Hermione had nearly pulled away when she felt him softly kiss her back.

 

Alas, it was brief.

 

The two of them separated and Hermione took a deep, anxious breath, wondering how in the world she could explain such an incident to her friendsto herself. Her questions and her attraction was challenging enough, but now, she had taken it a dozen steps further.

 

"What are you doing?" he demanded, his brows knit together. "Why did you do that?"

 

"II don't know," Hermione said, shakily. "I'mI'm sorry. II'llermI'll see you in class."

 

And with tears in her eyes, she summoned her belongings and she ran.


Author's Note: It happened! I love reading reviews, especially during this difficult time (my boyfriend of 8 years and I are splitting up and COVID19 is making it quite hard because I have to live with him til Mid-May...) Idk how I'm managing to still get content out given all of this and my chronic illness, but somehow I'm doing it. Hope you're all enjoying and staying healthy and safe.



Chapter 32: Dosing
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Nightmares. Neverending nightmares that not even potions could cure. Nightmares of Harry, nightmares of Ron, nightmares of Bellatrix and Malfoy. Hermione was not sure how much she had actually slept, but when she looked in the mirror, her eyes were bruised with the darkest circles she had ever seencircles that could even rival those that Draco Malfoy had in their sixth year.

 

Unsurprisingly, Madam Pomfrey was displeased with her stagnation.

 

"Yet another incident!" she fussed, dabbing the burns with dittany. "What in Merlin's name should I do with you?"

 

"I don't know." Hermione winced at the new pressure upon her injuries; they were certainly the worst burns she had all year. "I was really"

 

"Tired! Yes, you've said as much!" Still patting the blistering spots, Madam Pomfrey cast a judgmental glare. "If you've run out of your potions"

 

"I haven't! Iwell, they aren't helping much."

 

The healer did not look convinced. "Miss Granger, the potions I issued to you are potent enough to put a hippogriff to sleep and drive him to eat his own foot at the wake. You clearly are not sleeping, and as you are looking bonier than usual, I very much doubt are you eating adequately. Either you are not taking your potions or you used that brain of yours to undo the charm and you ran out long ago."

 

"Well, when I took the Gorge Potion the next day, I felt a bit sick, so I haven't been drinking it," Hermione admitted, holding out her burned arm so Madam Pomfrey could finally wrap it. "Actually, a bit sick may be an understatement... I vomited quite a lot in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom..."

 

"That explains your weight. What it does not explain is your lack of sleep." She leveled her gaze with Hermione's. "Miss Granger, if you are abusing Dreamless Sleep"

 

"I'm not!"

 

Madam Pomfrey drew in a deep breath, almost as though she was not sure she believed her. "Very well, then. Perhaps, you need a bigger dose."

 

"That can be quite dangerous, can't it?"

 

"No more dangerous than this road of destruction you are on now. Though I must warn you: If this doesn't work, you must come to me immediately. Do you understand?"

 

Hermione nodded, trying not to grimace as the healer finished wrapping her wounds.

 

"I'm afraid you won't be able to survive much longer like this, Miss Granger. You must start taking care of yourself, or I fear there won't be any more of you to take care of."

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

For twenty minutes, Hermione battled with herself. She knew she needed to eat, yet she was not sure how to dine with her house after what she did in the Forbidden Forest. Kissing Draco Malfoy felt like a betrayala betrayal to Ginny, to Dumbledore, to Harry and Ron and Godric Gryffindor himself.

 

Not eating felt like a betrayal too, but she simply wasn't hungry. How could she be when she could still taste his lips? He smelled of Fraser fir and musk and his tongue had a hint of spearmint...

 

"I'm afraid you won't be able to survive much longer like this, Miss Granger."

 

Remembering Madam Pomfrey's words, the young war heroine pushed Draco Malfoy out of her mind, fixed her far-too-large robes, swiped some Evvi Quirke's Well-Slept Cover Stick over her black semicircles, and nervously began her journey to the Great Hall. Looking Ginny in the eye was sure to be almost impossible, and if she saw Malfoy there, she wasn't sure what she would do.

 

But she had to eat.

 

"Let you out of the hospital wing, did they?" Ginny asked before taking a long swig of pumpkin juice.

 

"Yes," Hermione said, shortly. She sat down across from her friend, grateful that her back was to the Ravenclaw and Slytherin tables.

 

"Heard it was quite a nasty burn. Blunk's been telling everyone." With a mouthful of potatoes, Ginny added, "Don't worry, though. I have something in store for him come his team's next practice."

 

"Gin, don't do anything stupid. I really don't care if he's talking about it."

 

"Well, I do. Disrespectful prat."

 

Hermione did not respond. Instead, she chewed on a bread roll as Ginny shoveled her own dinner into her mouth. The Weasley girl was back to her usual routine: eating quickly and flipping through a bridal magazine that lay beside her half-empty plate. The edition must have been themed around winter, as every picture seemed to have frozen lakes and scarved attendees, with falling snow in the foreground and icicles dripping in the backdrop. There was, however, one picture that was half-hidden, as it was stained with part of the redhead's hearty evening meal; whether it was juice or gravy, Hermione could not tell.

 

"Scourgify!" Ginny smiled as the stain disappeared. "That's better."

 

Then, there was more silence.

 

The quiet between them only highlighted the white noise of the Great Hall. To Hermione, the general dinnertime chatter sounded like nothing. Younger students still spoke of gifts they received on Christmas while others spoke of spells, homework, Hogsmeade, Quidditch. It was all so painfully innocent.

 

How quickly the world forgot about war.

 

Then, a girl shouted, "No, really! I saw them!"

 

"Yeah, right. She'd never kiss him. That's like kissing a toad!"

 

Hermione went cold, and just then, she forgot about war too.

 

"I know what I saw!"

 

"Yes, well maybe you don't know what you saw!" Hermione hissed from several places away, earning many a confused look from her other fellow Gryffindors. "What two people do is none of your business, and you'd be wise to keep your nose out of their affairs!"

 

The girl and her two friends exchanged bewildered glances.

 

"But should they really be kissing on school grounds when they're meant to be working?" a sandy-blond girl asked. "It's not exactly like they were hiding it."

 

"Yeah, and it's Filch! Uck!" The first girlthe girl who insisted she saw the two of thempushed her plate away. "I can't even eat thinking about it."

 

Hermione frowned, realizing that many pairs of eyes were darting between her and the third-years. "Filch andand who?"

 

"And Pince, of course," the freckled boy said. "Who did you think we were talking about? Mrs. Norris?"

 

Hermione could have wrapped herself up in her blanket of relief. With a smile, she pointed out, "He has been known to kiss her."

 

"Poor Mrs. Norris," Ginny grumbled. She gestured Hermione with her spoon. "On the bright side, your little issue in Potions probably won't be worth talking about. Not with this going around."

 

The burns were the least of Hermione's worries, but in a world where they mattered, at least nobody knew that she had kissed Draco Malfoy, because that was something that would be worth talking aboutand something she would never live down.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Professor Whittlewood had given up on the hands-on teaching style that had been forced upon her. Instead, she sat in a wingback chair at the front of the classroom and drearily explained how to defend oneself against multiple assailants. Hermione, who had actually fought in the war, found her advice to be less than helpful.

 

"It's almost like she hasn't even seen combat," Hermione whispered to Ginny. "If she ever actually fought more than one person at a time, she'd know you can't always just blast a bunch of Stunning Spells in a row."

 

"I honestly don't care what she's on about. As long as she's talking and I don't have to do anything, I'm chuffed."

 

Usually, a statement like that might have bothered Hermione, but tucked cleverly between the pages of Ginny's textbook was yet another bridal magazine. Lightly humming to herself, the redhead was happily drawing hearts around several moving pictures, and it was this innocent image that made Hermione hold her tongue. What they were learning was useless, and if Ginny wanted to use the time to plan her and Harry's wedding, it would be fruitless to argue.

 

What she found more troubling was Malfoy. He was in the back like he always was, and Hermione desperately wanted to turn around to gauge his reception of her. However, she could not handle his inevitable jeers, so instead, she watched Ginny aimlessly mark nearly every wedding idea she laid eyes upon.

 

"...and always remember: If your opponent is more powerful than you are, use your surroundings! With the right spell, a candlestick can become a useful weapon and a tree makes a helpful shield in a pinch..."

 

Hermione wished there was a way to shield her from her classmate. She could practically feel his eyes burning a hole in the back of her head.

 

For a moment, she considered a Memory Charma way to make him forget the kiss even happenedbut the idea of performing a Memory Charm on anyone ever again made her feel physically illespecially her constant. That raised the question: Could he even be her constant anymore? Could she look to him for normalcy when she had polluted their unlikely formula?

 

Before she could think about the question for too long, Ginny elbowed her. Hermione glanced from a rambling Professor Whittlewood to her friend, who was pointing at some glass turquoise orbs that glowed ominously against the guest tables. They reminded her of the prophecies in the Department of Mysteries.

 

With an unimpressed glare, Hermione made her position on the decoration known.

 

"What's wrong?" Ginny mouthed. She frowned and gave the radiating picture a second glance.

 

Hermione crossed her arms and shook her head, turning her attention back to Whittlewood. The resemblance between the prophetic globes and the ugly orb was uncanny, and if Ginny was too dim to see as much, perhaps she was marrying the wrong person.

 

The rest of the period went by slowly, and when it ended, Hermione wordlessly sauntered to the door, doing her best to avoid Ginny and a lengthy explanation for her behavior. There, she caught a glimpse of Malfoy, but it was only the back of his blond head.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Despite Madam Pomfrey's advice and her previous sense of resolve, Hermione could not bring herself to eat dinner. Instead, she sat alone in her dormitory and stared at the ceiling for a long while, reliving every event she desperately wanted to forget. She was not sure how long she watched the inanimate blocks of stone, but it felt like hours.

 

Then, she was in the library. She did not remember walking there, and she certainly did not remember removing Magick Moste Evile from the Restricted Section, but she there she was: sequestered away at a lonely table, book in hand. Even stranger, a formally dressed Madam Pince was sauntering by with Argus Filch latched on her arm. Confused, Hermione looked down. Like Madam Pince, she was dressed formally too. More specifically, she was wearing the gold dress that she wore to Slughorn's Christmas party, except this time, it was accompanied by glimmering jewels of emerald and ruby.

 

"When did I"

 

"Put on that dress?" Ron finished for her, peeking around one of the nearby bookshelves.

 

His presence should have alarmed her, but it didn't.

 

"Yes, I don't remember"

 

"You put it on for the wedding. Don't tell Fleur, but it suits you much better."

 

"Really?" Hermione asked, beaming. "It's not too yellow?"

 

"Dunno. I always kinda liked yellow."

 

"I don't know if I like yellow or not," she replied, slowly. "Ron, when is the wedding?"

 

He shrugged. "Dunno. They told me to come get you, so I came to get you."

 

Hermione nodded and stood to join him, but as soon as she did, he disappeared around the bookshelf. Suddenly, the books came toppling down, sending clouds of dust into the air and blocking her only path out of her lonely section. The sensical thing to do would be to use her wand, yet her wand was nowhere to be found, and as she screamed for help, the books only fell faster.

 

Then, a force beyond her own had lifted them all. The silvery flecks of magic surrounded them, holding them high in the air, and in a moment of shock and awe, Hermione's eyes trailed down to meet her savior.

 

It was a stag.

 

"Harry!" she exclaimed, running towards the stag. "Oh, Harry"

 

The stag darted in the other direction, much like a true stag would, and every book fell once more. Hermione emitted a wretched sob and, trapped, she turned on her heel.

 

"Granger."

 

Malfoy had gotten past her and past the books. Since there was no Apparating in Hogwarts, it was a mystery how he managed to do as much.

 

"Malfoy, II think I'm late for the wedding."

 

"We have plenty of time," he murmured, tucking her hair behind her ear.

 

Then, the unthinkable happened. He drank in her features before softly pressing his lips to hers, and with her heart thudding in her chest, she kissed him back.

 

When she opened her eyes again, the world had changed.

 

No longer was she in the library, and no longer was she kissing Draco. Glowing orbs of prophecy replaced the fallen books, and her lips were locked with none other than those of Lucius Malfoy. She pulled away and tried to scream, but nothing came out.

 

"Ah, the Mudblood Draco speaks of so often," he purred. With a gloved hand, he traced her jawline. "Funny. He never mentioned how terribly ugly you are."

 

The tickle of breath upon her neck gave Hermione goosebumps. Alas, it was not Lucius's breath. It couldn't have been.

 

"You've had your fun, Lucius," Bellatrix Lestrange whispered. She kissed Hermione on the cheek, leaving the wax stain of her wine red lipstick. "It's my turn."

 

Lucius nodded and Disapparated, leaving Hermione alone with his deranged sister-in-law. The Department of Mysteries seemed much darker without his flaxen mane and mercuric eyes.

 

"It's been quite some time since I've played with a Mudblood..." Bellatrix trailed off, tapping her wand in her hand. "What a rare treat."

 

"It doesn't matter what you do to me, you know!" Hermione shouted. "Harry will kill Voldemort and you and everyone that ever associated with him will go to Azkaban for the rest of your sad, pathetic lives!"

 

"How dare you speak to your superiors like that!"

 

"You aren't my"

 

Eyes somehow both dead and wild, Bellatrix raised her wand.

 

"Crucio!"

 

Hermione woke with a start. Her sweat was cold and her sheet clung to her snowy, slick skin. Desperate to escape the nightmares, she reached for one of the vials of Dreamless Sleep, and she downed it.



Chapter 33: Holding
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Granger had more nerve than he had given her credit for.

 

Their routine had strayed from its usual path, yet Draco never expected it to climax the way that it did. The first time he imagined his lips on hers had been in an austerely embarrassing dream after the Yule Ball in their fourth year, but that was all that it was: a dream. Kissing the Gryffindor girl was not in his cards of fate. At least, that was what he thought.

 

Now, he had lived one of the rare fantasies that he was too cautious to explore, and he did not know how to move forwardespecially when he had been reliving moments of war ever since.

 

Once an enigma, his clever counterpart was suddenly very realtangible and raw and positively maddening. Over and over, he had replayed the events at Malfoy Manor, and now that she had kissed him, he found himself asking questions that he never dared to ponder.

 

What toll did Bellatrix's curses have on her psyche? Was it his fault? Could he have saved her?

 

Sans a Time-Turner, he would never know. So instead, he hoped to avoid her.

 

On Tuesday, he planned on approaching Professor Slughorn and begging him to release them from their punishment. Of course, ten minutes before the end of class, Granger burned herself, and Draco knew that she had sullied his chance.

 

The burns had been serious, and this time, it was not her hair.

 

That evening, he anxiously looked for her in the Great Hall, and he could only breathe when he saw her arguing with a dimwitted group of Gryffindors that seemed to have gotten under her skin. If she had simply followed the directions, he would not have to worry. If she had simply let things stay the way they were, he would not have to feel sick every time he saw her.

 

He had seen her in classes since then, and at the back of her bushy head, he stared. Unfortunately, that was not so easy in Potions.

 

"...and it's imperative that you do not stir any more than three times after adding the lambs' teeth..."

 

Draco might have scoffed if he were not focusing so heavily on his brew. Risking a glance anywhere else may have ended with his eyes on Granger, and that was the last thing that he needed.

 

Then, she let out a shriek.

 

Naturally, he turned her way, and she gave him a withering look as she patted out the fire that had taken to the ends of her hair. Draco flared his nostrils and quickly went back to tending to his potion. He was not going to get involved in her antics. It was a slippery slope.

 

"How much octopus powder did you use, boy?"

 

Frowning, Draco peered into his cauldron. The color was not quite right, and the consistency was uncharacteristically runny.

 

"Only a pinch, sir."

 

Slughorn shook his head. "I think you may need to reassess what a pinch is in the future, Mr. Malfoy. This will barely squeak by with an 'Acceptable' mark."

 

Draco stared at the swirling concoction. It was an amateur mistake, and he feared if he did not sort out his situation with Granger, that it may repeat.

 

 

***

 

 

In Arithmancy, they were given back their graded number charts. For the first time, Draco had received an "Exceeds Expectations", and while he wanted to share the moment of triumph with the person that helped him achieve it, he could not bring himself to talk to herespecially not in a classroom full of their peers.

 

Instead, he watched the back of her bushy head in silence until class was over.

 

He avoided her at dinner. He avoided her in the next day's classes. He even tried to avoid her in his nightmares, but that proved much more difficult than the rest.

 

By Friday afternoon, he was paying the price for all the time spent hiding in his dormitory and in the alcoves of the corridors. Gurgles from the depths of his stomach warned him that he was famished, and sucking on a sugar quill or casting a sustenance spell would not cure himat least, not considering his slow reactions and shaking hands. Lightheadedness steered him towards the Great Hall and though he craned his neck to look for her, he did not see Granger.

 

He was not sure whether he was disappointed or relieved.

 

The sandwich he ate was far from something he would be served at home, yet it tasted better than any of the grand feasts he had ever been served upon polished silver. Far too many sustenance spells had made him ravenous, and as he tore through the ham and cheddar, he grew increasingly unaware of his surroundings.

 

"Fancy seeing you here, Malfoy."

 

Draco recognized the voice as Evan Siftwell's. Latched onto his side was Pansy, but the girl refused to meet his gaze, which was hardly a surprise. After all, he had caught her with Theodore Nott, and with one slip of the tongue, Siftwell would likely end their relationship in a very public way.

 

"It's the Great Hall. I imagine you'll see a lot of people here."

 

"Are you taking an attitude with me, Death Eater?"

 

Malfoy ignored him and continued eating his sandwich. He did not have the patience for Siftwell, and he certainly did not have the patience for Pansy, who stood there and allowed him to act the way he did.

 

"What the bloody hell is wrong with you? Are you slow or something?" Siftwell seethed, smashing his palms against the tabletop. "Usually, when someone speaks to you, the polite thing to do is respond."

 

"And what do you expect me to say? That it's funny you have a problem with my background when you so casually throw the M-word around the common room?" Draco took a large bite of his sandwich, quite pleased with the many gasps from a group of Ravenclaws behind him. "Because I'm happy to say that."

 

Fuming, Siftwell glared over Draco's shoulder, presumably at the Ravenclaws. "What are you looking at? Last I checked, I was having a conversation with my good friend Malfoy, not you lot."

 

"Evan, let's just go"

 

Siftwell held a finger in Pansy's face, wordlessly shushing her. "In a moment, love. First, I'd like to teach Malfoy a little lesson."

 

He leaned in, his breath hot on Draco's face, and seized him by the front of the robes. Immediately, Draco dropped the last bit of his sandwich and reached for his wand, his grey eyes trained on the younger Slytherin.

 

"Don't you dare. You make one more move for your bloody wand and Pansy will hex you halfway to Wales. Got it?"

 

Pansy was wringing her hands, and while Draco suspected she wouldn't do it, he decided it was better not to take his chances. The girl was willing to do anything to impress men. She always had been and he was quite certain she always would be. His lip curled in defeat.

 

"Very good, Malfoy. Now, I think it's time to get something straight," Siftwell purred, his grip still tight on Draco's robes. "The dirt on my shoes is worth more than you are. You're an embarrassment to Slytherin and Purebloods everywhere, and as long as I'm in this school, you're to hold your head low and keep your tongue in your bloody mouth. Do you understand me?"

 

Draco gave him only a cold stare.

 

"I said, do you understand me!"

 

With one lick of his teeth, Draco hissed, "I'd watch who you're talking to, Siftwell. I suspect you've got a whole lot more to lose than I do." Still sneering, he pulled Siftwell's hand from his robes and rose to his feet. "Next time you decide to hurl threats, maybe try going after with someone a little more your speed. Perhaps Filch's cat would be a good place to start."

 

He stormed out of the Great Hall, all too eager to be away from anyone and everyone.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

It had been years since Draco had flown on the Quidditch pitch. He often wished he could go backback to when the world made sense, back to when dealings of the Dark Arts only concerned his parents and his deranged aunt. When he was on a broom, nothing else mattered.

 

If only the universe could be so simple again.

 

Snow whipped through the air as he walked to the one place that made him feel like a boy again. Maybe there, he would find some sense of solace.

 

After dragging his feet through the thick wintry blanket, he turned the corner to enter the pitch and somehow, he was not surprised when he saw that he was far from alone. From up in the stands, there was a wand pointed directly at him.

 

"Going to hex me, Granger?"

 

From boyhood, he had been trained in composure, so rather than seizing his own wand, he kept his hands tucked in his pockets. After all, it was not what she could do with her magic that he feared. It was what she could do without it.

 

He climbed the steps, his heart pounding, for, despite his fear, he was drawn to her.

 

"You startled me," she growled, lowering her wand. "Why are you down here, anyway?"

 

Uncertainly, he sat beside her, wholly aware of how cold the day was, but unwilling to return to the castle. He wanted to be far from heras far away as he could be, yet at the same time, he wanted nothing more than to be beside her, close to heras close as he had been the weekend before.

 

It was a dangerous feeling and he knew it.

 

"I could ask you the same thing. It's bloody freezing."

 

She said nothing, but her red-rimmed eyes begged him to stay.

 

"Have it your way, then," he sighed.

 

Beside him, she shifted in place. Draco, still wondering why he had not yet left, laced his fingers and hung his head. What she wanted should have been irrelevant; if they were fifteen, it would not have mattered to him, so why did it matter now?

 

He buried the answer as deeply as he could.

 

The cold was getting to them both, and while Draco was better at disguising his discomfort, the chattering of her teeth was a loud tattoo against the whistling wind. Draco watched her from the corner of his eye for a long while, debating whether or not he should taunt her.

 

He decided against it.

 

"Just as stubborn as always," he muttered, removing his jacket. He draped it around her shoulders, thinking of the many etiquette classes his mother had forced upon him during his youth. There was, of course, a stark difference. Etiquette as he had learned it was to be saved for pure-blooded women and pure-blooded women alone.

 

"Why did you do that?"

 

Her penetrating stare was almost too much to take. If his judgment was clouded, he may have done something rash, but he had spent years compartmentalizing and calculating. For once, he was grateful for the violent training that Bellatrix had made him endure.

 

"I'd rather hand you my jacket than carry you to the hospital wing for frostbite. Merlin knows they'd think I cursed you."

 

To his surprise, she smirked.

 

"Draco?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"Thank you," she whispered, tugging on his black pea coat, "for the jacket."

 

Then, he made the mistake of looking at her. For a long while, he studied her face, both wishing that he was as brave as she was and fearing the consequences if he were.

 

"Any time."

 

How long the silence was that followed, Draco did not know. All he knew was that the bell had not rung, and for that, he was not sure whether he was grateful or annoyed.

 

"I still see it."

 

The way her thick brows were drawn together told him exactly what she meant. Anxiety was eating him inside again.

 

"Me too, Granger."

 

Holding the jacket tightly around her, she scooted close to him. He watched her, wondering what her motives were, and so frazzled by her proximity that he thought he might vomit.

 

"Come here."

 

His arm wrapped around her shoulders, seemingly of its own accord. The words had not felt like his own, either.

 

The gears in her mind were moving; he could see as much in her dark eyes. Then, she lay her head on his shoulder, slowlyunsurely. It was so tentative that he could not have been certain she had done it at all, but he felt the weight of it, and that was the only evidence he had that she was not a hallucination.

 

Moments passed, and with each tick of his pocket watch, the discomfort faded. The companionable quiet was, perhaps, exactly what they both needed.

 

Or so he thought.

 

A soft sniffle warned him that she had begun crying, and with a frown, he tightened his grip. Plenty of women had cried around him, mostly Pansy and her miserable friends, but it was rare that he felt true compassion for them. The way Granger cried was not the way Pansy cried when a bracelet did not fit or when her hair was a mess. It was the way his mother cried. The way she sobbed when he was branded with the Dark Mark. The way she subtly dabbed her nose when Bellatrix cast the Cruciatus Curse upon him.

 

"Do you think it'll ever stop?"

 

For months, he had been asking himself the same question. He wanted to tell her what he wished were true, but he was afraid he would be lying.

 

Looking down into her pleading, tearful pools of umber, he whispered, "No."

 

"That's hardly comforting."

 

"But it's the truth. It won't go away."

 

She made a small noise. It was so small he might have imagined it.

 

"It may get better, though," he added quickly, thoroughly disturbed by his need to comfort her. "I can't say for sure."

 

The crying had stopped, but she curled her fingers around the front of his robes. A strange mix of fear and desire overcame himfear of what it all meant, and desire to protect her, desire to suffocate her misery.

 

"Why did you come out here?" she asked, her voice barely there.

 

"I imagine for the same reason that you did."

 

"Did you know I was out here?" Apprehensively, she bit her lip, though the octave of hopefulness was not lost on him.

 

"I didn't."

 

She nodded, and with an unspoken agreement between them, they held onto one another as the snow fell around them. They were unwilling to say what it all meant, and when the bell rang, they walked in silence.



Chapter 34: Defending
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Malfoy Manor had been veiled in darkness for far too long. Draco felt its wickedness in his veins and in his bones, yet somehow, all of the horrors he had witnessed there seemed to gradually dissipate, and in the center of the great room, he turned on his heel and let out a shuddering breath.

 

It was her.

 

Emanating a soft light that seemed to cut through all of Draco's chaos, Hermione Granger stood by the ticking grandfather clock.

 

"Granger," he whispered, crossing the room to meet her. The warmth of her skin was welcomingly familiar as he pulled her close and rested his forehead against hers. "What are you doing here?"

 

"He is coming, Draco."

 

Her eyes were wideunblinking.

 

"Who? Who's coming?"

 

"Voldemort."

 

The name came out as a hiss, and suddenly, the face he had come to know so well was sprouting shimmering green scales. He stumbled backward and she laughed her saccharine laugha laugh that lasted only seconds before she was more snake than woman, incapable of any language but Parseltongue.

 

"Very good, Nagini," the Dark Lord wheezed. Long, inhuman fingers traced the snake's chin, and if Draco thought him to be capable of love, he might have seen it in his monstrous red eyes just then. "Be patient, my pet. Dinner will be served very soon."

 

If Hermione Granger emanated light, Tom Riddle was an abyss of endless black.

 

"Surely, you will join us, Draco?" he purred. "I do think you will find this cut of meat to be rather...scrumptious."

 

Before Draco could answer, a cackle echoed from the shadows. Bellatrix Lestrange sauntered into the center of the room, lazily spinning her wand and whistling madly as she drew nearer to the only man she truly loved. Above her, a woman hovered, writhing and tied with her arms contorted bone-breakingly. Upon seeing the blood-matted mess of curls, Draco lunged at his aunt.

 

Alas, a force stopped him just short of her. She laughed mirthlessly, a sycophant to the Dark Lord and nothing else—a hollow shell of whatever soul might have once lived within her. Frozen in time, he watched her circle him like she was a predator and he was her prey.

 

"It seems you were right about your nephew, Bellatrix. A blood traitor with a soft spot for Harry Potter's Muggle-born friend. Please, forgive me for doubting you. I chose not to believe so little of your rich bloodline, but it seems Narcissa has not raised him as well as we thought."

 

"She is too soft on him, my lord. I always said as much. If I had a son, I would never allow him to act so insolently. I would kill anyone, even my own child, if they betrayed you, my lord, I swear it."

 

"I know you would, Bellatrix. You are my most loyal follower, and for that, you should be rewarded, but your stock have a tendency to be led astray. Perhaps I should have recognized the pattern. After all, your sister, Andromedashe too chose this way of life, did she not?"

 

"She is no sister of mine," Bellatrix spat, "and he is no nephew of mine, either! Let me kill him, my lord. Please."

 

"In time." He combed through her dark locks and Draco watched her eyes slowly shutter in pure love and longing. "First, Nagini must eat."

 

Then, with one snap of his bony fingers, Granger fell to the floor, still bound and trying to shake off the heavy ropes. The more she squirmed, the tighter they became, and because she was clever, she stopped moving.

 

That was when Nagini darted at her.

 

"No!" Draco screamed, all too familiar with the bloodshed those awful, razorlike teeth were responsible for. "Let her go! I'll do anything!"

 

But he was too late.

 

Clammy and wheezing, Draco jerked upright. The faux moon shone from his dormitory sky, and with Jensen Broadmoor sleeping soundly to his left, he lay back down and waited for morning to come.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

"I thought I might find you here."

 

With a scowl, Draco ceased his Disillusionment Charm. He made no effort to move so the Gryffindor girl could join him behind the ugly centaur, but she squeezed beside him, anyway.

 

"How did you know I was here?"

 

"Your charm wavered," she replied, matter-of-factly. "I wanted toermto set up our next meeting."

 

"I assumed it would be tomorrow."

 

"Yes, I assumed as much as well buterI was wondering if we ought to try the library again? It's just that it'swell, it's blizzarding out and the snow is piling up..."

 

"Not banned this time, then?" Draco asked, sourly.

 

Her face flushed. "No. And that's not to say we should always meet there. I know people can be terribly judgmental, and it will probably only be worse because ofwell, the circumstancesbut I really don't think we ought to be running around the Forbidden Forest with so much snow, because we really can't see our trail and I needed to get a book anyway"

 

"Merlin, Granger. I don't need a bloody speech. The library is fine."

 

The crease in her forehead disappeared. "Really? Well, in that case, how about we aim for two?"

 

"Yeah, alright."

 

"Brilliant. I'll see you then." She got to her feet and started to sidle past the statue, before stopping to face him once more. "Oh, and Malfoy?"

 

He raised his brows expectantly, though he was not sure what exactly it was that he was expecting.

 

Suddenly, her cheeks went pink again, and she shook her head. "Never mind. I'll see you tomorrow."

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The library was abuzz, and as Draco strode past Madam Pince's desk, he could see the sheer annoyance in her face. A group of students had gathered near a closeby alcove of bookcases, and from there, they pointed at her and made needlessly graphic kissing sounds.

 

He was not sure what they were doing, but it was obvious that Madam Pince was bound to be in a foul mood because of it. Hopefully, Granger had the sense to pick one of the more remote tablesone where they would draw the attention of neither the rambunctious younger students nor the stern librarian.

 

There were, after all, many scowls and giggles directed at him as he passed by the many bookshelves. One even suggested he had put Granger under the Imperius Curse, which was, of course, ridiculous, but not exactly an unexpected accusation.

 

Why else would Hermione Granger willingly spend time with a Death Eater?

 

Shrugging off yet another threat from a scrappy Gryffindor boy, he peeked past the final bookcase in the Herbology section. Finally, he had spotted the bush of curls for which he had been searching.

 

"Learning how to de-gnome the gardens today, are we?" he bemused, taking the seat across from her.

 

"People were crowding the other tables. I figured we'd rather not share." She scrunched her nose. "A lot of younger students have been skulking around to see Madam Pince. I didn't realize it'd be so busy here."

 

"I noticed she was unusually popular today. What's that all about?"

 

Turning the page of Exceptional Potions for Exemplary Students, she noted, "Apparently, she kissed Filch by the greenhouses."

 

Draco gagged. Storybooks had taught him that even the most hideous witches and wizards found someone to love them, but he never wanted to envision it.

 

"Bloody hell, Granger. You're supposed to warn a man when you're about to make him vomit."

 

"You asked." She shrugged.

 

He could not help but smirk. "I suppose that I did."

 

She smirked back at hima crooked thing he had seen a handful of times, yet not nearly often enough. Draco settled into the feeling of dread that he had grown so accustomed to, because that was the only way to describe the bubbling feeling in his stomach: dread.

 

"Ahem!" Combing through her thick curls, she turned her attention back to the book before her. "Sorry, we should probably get some work done... So I did get a bit of a headstart, but I wanted to ask you about the use of Asian waterwort here..." Draco watched her feminine fingers trace the page, and her mouth was moving but he was far too focused on those impossibly narrow fingers. If he were a luckier man, he might have known what they would feel like if they were running along his

 

"So could you?"

 

Fighting the heat in his cheeks, he knit his brows together and held his face in his hands. If she could not see that he was blushing, maybe she wouldn't know what he had ashamedly been pondering.

 

"Sorry, I missed that."

 

"Chilean or American waterwortcould you use one of those, instead? I mean, it only makes sense, but I couldn't be sure..."

 

It was her turn to blush. If Draco was not so focused on diverting her attention from him, he might have harassed her for caring about his opinion.

 

"Slughorn keeps Asian waterwort, so there's really no reason you would need to substitute it." He reached into his schoolbag and pulled out his Arithmancy book, eager to find anything to distract him from her. "That's not to say that you couldn't, though. Really any waterwort should react the same to the bonefish eyes."

 

"That's what I thought." Nodding, she scribbled something in the margin of her textbook.

 

"Did you just write in a textbook?"

 

"I forgot parchment. I can remove it later, it's really no big deal."

 

"Defiling a book is no big deal? Madam Pince would probably think differently. I'll bet she'd ban you again if she caught you."

 

She scowled. "You'll never let that go, will you?"

 

"Never."

 

They worked like that for a long while, with her confirming her many notions and him occasionally asking her about Arithmancy. To anyone that did not know their long past, they may have looked like two upstanding students hoping to pass their N.E.W.T.sold friends, even, considering their occasional banter. However, their history was far too public, and that was why it did not surprise Draco when a group of students stopped in front of them. He recognized them as Gryffindors.

 

"So it's true."

 

Granger's quill halted. "Can I help you?"

 

"No, we just had to see it for ourselves," a chubby boy said, firmly. "I didn't believe it. None of us did."

 

Narrowing her eyes, Granger asked, "Who are you? And what are you talking about?"

 

The boy's bright blue eyes darted from her to Draco. "You and 'im! Like the papers said. It's not right, is it? With all he's done."

 

"And what is it that he's done?" Granger challenged, craning her neck. "Since you're such an expert."

 

A tall girl in the group drew her dark brows together. "He's a Death Eater! And a murderer! How dare you get involved with thisthis monster? After all you stood for, after all you risked in the war, how could you be with him? We looked up to you. All of us did. We trusted you."

 

"And maybe I trust him!" she shouted, though Draco was quite sure she was saying as much just to save her own image. "I've known Draco since we were eleven. What do you know about him?"

 

"We know he's a Malfoy," a third girl cut in, crossing her arms. "We know he cursed Madam Rosmerta!"

 

"So you know what the Daily Prophet has told youa paper that's barely news and has no context. Maybe try getting to know a person before you make all kinds of rubbish accusations about them being a murderer."

 

The three Gryffindors exchanged confused glances.

 

Resolute, Granger turned her attention back to her book. "That's what I thought."

 

Whispering amongst themselves, the group scurried off. Draco did not hear everything that they said, but he imagined that their opinions on him had not changed.

 

"What was that?" he hissed.

 

"What do you mean 'what was that'? I was standing up for you."

 

"I mean, they're going to think," he started, "that we"

 

The words would not even form on his lips.

 

"Who cares what they think? Their opinions mean nothing to me and they should mean nothing to you too. Whatever misconceptions they have about you don't define you, and the sooner you learn that, the sooner you can stop being so miserable all the time."

 

Draco snorted. "Says you. You're just as miserable as I am."

 

"I suppose we both have some work to do then. Ahem. Speaking of which, have you started your number chart yet?"

 

"I was going to, but I needed to look something up and Madam Pince banned me from the library."

 

She groaned. "You're impossible."

 


Author's Note: I wanted to round this out on the lighthearted side of things, given some of the recent chapters. I'm moving so I'll be busy over the next couple of weeks, but more to come soon!



Chapter 35: Punishing
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Their meetings continued in the Forbidden Forest. Whether Hermione was disappointed or elated that Draco failed to bring up their kiss, she did not know, but no good would come of pondering it, so she simply enjoyed the next two weeks as they were. Each time they met, it felt more effortless, and to her glee, so did Potions.

 

Even her dreams were under control, and with an entire week of quality sleep, she felt more energized than she had been all year.

 

"Good morning!" she sang, deaf to the white noise of the Great Hall as she sat beside Ginny. "Beautiful day, isn't it?"

 

"Not really," Ginny mumbled. She pushed her food around on her plate; it was a symptom of nervousness that seemed to affect all Weasleys. "There's so much snow I'm going to have to cancel practice."

 

"Ah well, more time to catch up on your studies, then. Are there any blueberry scones today?"

 

"Nopecranberry." Ginny grumpily gestured an enormous platter of red-specked breakfast pastries. "I suspect the elves are trying to punish us all."

 

"Who could blame them if they were? It isn't like they're paid properly. Besides, cranberry isn't so bad," Hermione rambled, reaching across the table to take one. "They're much better than the orange ones."

 

"Barelyand I could've sworn you hated cranberry."

 

Hermione took a bite of the bittersweet scone and shrugged. "I suppose it depends on my mood."

 

"Right... Well, I ought to tell the team the news... I'll catch up with you later."

 

Leaving her plate half-full, Ginny stood up and ambled to the far end of the table. The boy she leaned down to talk to was a Quidditch player Hermione barely recognized, but it was not the boy that held her attention. It was who sauntered by him.

 

Apparently finished with his breakfast, Malfoy was leaving the Great Hall, and Hermione wanted nothing more than to see where he was going. In fact, that had become her daily routine: waking up, going to the Great Hall, watching Malfoy leave, and finding herself disturbed by her desire to follow him.

 

What an unexpected position he had put her in.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Horace Slughorn had taken Albus Dumbledore for granted. At least, this is what he had learned after working under Minerva McGonagall. The man may have had an unorthodox style, but never had he been as overbearing as the new headmistress. In some ways, Minerva managed to be more frightening than even Severus Snape, a feat that might have once seemed impossible.

 

Ten times that year, the stern woman had questioned his teaching methods, and as he sunk into his assigned chair at the long, oaken table, he asked himself why he bothered returning to Hogwarts at all. Argus Filch and Rolanda Hooch looked like they were asking themselves the same thing.

 

"Do we know what this is about?" Irma Pince asked, anxiously glancing at Filch.

 

Horace had heard the rumor about the two of them, just as everyone else at Hogwarts had. If they were indeed the reason for yet another one of Minerva's grueling lectures, he would be hard-pressed to resist poisoning them both.

 

"Doin' another one o' these, are we?" Hagrid asked. "Figured there wasn't much else we could discuss after the last few."

 

As he sat, the table rattled.

 

"You don't know what this is about then, Hagrid?" Firenze queried. His discomfort was clear as his haunches were backed against the wall, which was only a short distance from the table.

 

Despite the many large rooms in Hogwarts, Minerva insisted on holding meetings in a room narrower than the broom shed. Horace felt uncomfortable enough due to his wideness; he could not imagine how Hagrid and Firenze made enough room for themselves.

 

"Ah, you are all here already. I must say that that surprises me." Minerva's heeled boots click-clacked against the stone floor and she settled at the helm of the table. With the swoop of her hand, the door slammed shut. "I suppose you are all wondering what brings us here this evening."

 

"It is the question hanging in the air," Pomona Sprout replied.

 

"Yes, well, I'll get right to the point, then." Minerva laced her fingers atop the stack of parchments that she had brought with her. "It is no secret that recent circumstances have led to fewer completed O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s than ever recorded in the school's history, and though we've enrolled several new students this year, we sent a record number of acceptance letters and only a small portion of them chose to attend."

 

Bathsheda Babbling cocked a brow. "Of course, this result was expected, was it not?"

 

"It may have been expected, but that does not erase the concerns that the governors have expressed."

 

"But the board must understand why!" Filius Flitwick interjected. "It will take a few years for parents to be willing to send their children here againand who can blame them! Hogwarts was a battlefield less than a year ago! More than fifty people, including Albus Dumbledore, died here. Only time will turn this around."

 

"We don't have time, Filius!" Minerva snapped in a manner that was very unlike her. As the tiny man's jaw dropped in shock, she went on. "Without the support of the Board of Governors, we risk a decrease in funding, which, as you all know, can lead to losing vendors, cutting courses, and, heaven forbid, layoffs."

 

The table became abuzz just then.

 

"Quiet! Quiet, all of you! Now, we can avoid such unfortunate circumstances if we simply assess our current practices, audit them as necessary, and ensure that our studentsand more importantlytheir parents, feel that safety is the school's greatest concern. Naturally, it is, but we must do a better job of showing it, and to start, we must adjust some of our methodsparticularly, our approach to punishments."

 

"We're going back to the ol' cane, then, eh?" Filch asked, hopefully. "Teach 'em what happens when they break the rules?'

 

"Oh my, Argus. No, absolutely not. There will be no use of canes or spells or any other form of corporal punishment. Our goal is for parents to feel like their children are safe with us, not that we will leave them with bruises!"

 

Filch frowned.

 

"Surely nobody is beating the students," Horace said, though he might not have put it past the caretaker who obviously was so fond of the archaic method. "What is this all about, Minerva? Why is this suddenly such a concern? Did something happen?"

 

Minerva leafed through the paperwork before her. "Horace, I can assure you that no students are, to my knowledge, being beaten." She eyed Filch. "There was, however, a question of unusual punishment made by a select few families, and the Board of Governors believed this sort of behavior may be a direct result of last year's structure."

 

"Structure?" Pomona echoed. "I'd hardly call it structure! It was torture! It was prejudice! Minerva, to suggest that any one of us would be capable of carrying on the way that we were encouraged to act last year... Certainly, you know us better than that..."

 

"I do, Pomona, and I do not think any of you are responsible for the cruelty that some of your former colleagues might have been privy to. However, it is my job as Headmistress to address any concerns that parents and the Board of Governors may have."

 

"And their concern is that we are mistreating the students?" Sybil Trelawney deduced. "Minerva, I have not foreseen anyone harming any students, and I swear to you that I would tell you if I did..."

 

"That is very reassuring, Sybil. Now, it is my understanding that there have been two occasions when students were forced to stay after class to clean griffin droppings without their wands."

 

"Professor McGonagall, those boys"

 

"I will not hear of it, Hagrid! It won't happen again and that's that. In fact, I'm going to set the precedent that we do not issue any punishment that requires the students to come in close quarters to dangerous creatures." She sighed. "That brings me to my next line of business. Argus, chasing the students around with your mop is prohibited. If you break this rule, we will have to discuss the consequences. Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Butbut"

 

Irma briefly patted Filch's hand, an act that everybody seemed to notice, though nobody said anything. "Surely, Peeves is the exception?"

 

"Peeves is not a student, and I encourage you all to deal with him however you see fit. Just do your best not to scare the children, and involve the Bloody Baron as soon as possible to avoid making a spectacle."

 

Midge Whittlewood's hand slowly rose. "Ahem. I assume we will no longer be using your recommended hands-on approach, then?"

 

"Students still have to pass their O.W.L.s and their N.E.W.T.s. You are to ensure that they are able to do so."

 

While Midge seemed crestfallen, Arvell Zigg curled his lip in the same annoyed sneer he usually wore. "Perhaps it is best that you tell us what kind of punishments we can issue."

 

"Well, Arvell, I think it would be suitable to say traditional detention is always the best route. For serious infractions worthy of higher punishment, you are to send them to my office and I will work with their Head of House to determine the suitable consequence."

 

"Minerva, please excuse me, but traditional detention means what, exactly?" Irma cut in.

 

"Helping Argus with cleaning projects with the proper tools, assisting Pomona with weeds in the greenhouses on nonharmful species, writing lines with a traditional quill and ink... Detention should never require the student to undergo spells, handle dangerous materials or living things, and it should most certainly never involve a corporal element." She glanced at Filch, who, again, looked miserable. "Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Minerva, if I may?" Confusion was etched into the lines of Firenze's face.

 

"Please, Firenze."

 

"I suppose this would not be true for my class, but for many classes, dealing with dangerous materials and species is simply part of the coursework. Should we remove those parts of the syllabi?"

 

"Like I explained to Midge," Minerva said, stiffly, "students must still pass their O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s. For now, let's simply keep risk reduction in mind and refrain from using methods of punishment that involve interaction with any type of unnecessary danger."

 

Firenze nodded, though he appeared to be just as confused as he was when he asked the question.

 

"Is everything clear, then? Do we all have an understanding?"

 

The table grumbled in agreement. They all had their own forms of detention that required any one of the mentioned methods, and if they were not allowed to ask students to help with such tasks, that meant more work.

 

"Good. You may all head down to the Great Hall for dinner, then. I suspect it's nearly ready."

 

The professors began shuffling out, so silently that it was obvious they planned on complaining as soon as Minerva was out of earshot. The headmistress, on the other hand, stayed seated as she straightened her parchments.

 

"Minerva, may I have a moment?"

 

She looked up, clearly surprised that someone had stayed behind. "Of course, Horace. What is it?"

 

"Well, on the subject of detention, I suppose I have a rather unique case... I thought perhaps we could discuss it."

 

"If you make it brief, yes." She glanced at the ticking grandfather clock. "I have to follow up with the Board of Governors in twelve minutes."

 

"Rightahemwell, I'll be quick, then." He rubbed his chin, nervously. "Well, you're familiar with the arrangement I've made between Mr. Malfoy and Miss Granger"

 

"Is that still going on? I assumed that they had long ago finished serving that punishment."

 

"I ought to end it, then?"

 

"Yes, you ought to end it!" Minerva hissed. "If Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy suspect that you are singling out their boy, the board will have my head! Lucius Malfoy may be a villain to the rest of the world, but trust me when I say he still has friends on the Board of Governors."

 

"I understand. I'll talk to them today."

 

"Good, good." She collected her parchments, and as Horace crossed the room, she added, "For what it's worth, Horace, I do think that you had a noble cause in mind when you paired them together. I don't know if you saw the Prophet, but the fact Mr. Malfoy was willing to be seen in public with Miss Granger shows that he has far exceeded my expectations."

 

From behind his thick mustache, Horace smiled. "Mine too."

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Ever since she had improved her marks, the long trek to Professor Slughorn's class had become far less daunting for Hermione. Down the stairs she went, ignoring Pansy Parkinson scoffing at her from behind, and eager to brew the potion she and Malfoy had studied over the short weekend. She recalled the flash of pride in his eyes when she listed all ten ways Melting Draught could go wrong, and her heart swelled.

 

The Hermione Granger with sense was long gone, and the Hermione Granger that had a soft spot for Draco Malfoy had replaced her.

 

"Miss Granger, why you're out of breath! Is everything alright?"

 

"Just happy to be here, sir," she said, peeking past his wide frame to the tables in the back. When she did not see Draco there, her face fell, but she took it as an opportunity to fix her windswept locks. "Excuse me, Professor, I need to get to my table."

 

"Oh, of course! Very sorry, very sorry..." Slughorn stepped aside, allowing her to briskly make her way to her desk. "And Miss Granger, after class, if we could have a little chat?"

 

Hermione beamed. "Of course, sir."

 


Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Firstly, I'd like to apologize for my absence. I just moved and I'm still doing a lot of unpacking and sorting furniture and working tons of overtime. I'll keep updating but if it's a little less often, please bear with me!

 

Secondly, I do have a couple of questions for my readers, so if you'd kindly reply in a review, I'd be eternally grateful.

 

  1. Once this story comes to a close, I will be working on another Dramione WIP. Would y'all be interested in reading something a little darker with high stakes and a lot of action? I've been toying with an idea for a third war AU.
     
  2. Do I have any Reylo fans following me? I've been looking into doing a shortish WIP (under 100k) and if anyone would like to read something like that on FFN, I'd love if you'd let me know so I can decide whether it's worth working on.


Chapter 36: Dueling
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Three days had passed since Slughorn had informed Hermione and Malfoy that they were no longer required to meet. If it had been two months earlier, she would have been relieved. She would have basked in the weight that had been lifted from her shoulders. She would have excitedly told Ginny and she would have written to Ron and Harry, even though only one of them had bothered to write to her at all.

 

Time was the ficklest of phenomenons, for she did none of those things.

 

"So what are you going to do with your Sunday now?" Ginny asked. Her fork scraped against her teeth as she pulled it out of her mouth. "When's the last time you even had a Malfoyless weekend?"

 

When she told Ginny, she managed to crack a smile. It was forced.

 

"ErmI don't know. We started meeting just before Halloween."

 

"Oh right! When you hexed him. I'm still jealous you got to do that." As soon as the words left her mouth, her eyebrows lifted and she smacked the table with her palm. "Wait, you know what we should do! We ought to sneak into Hogsmeade and go shopping!"

 

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," Lydia Clappord mumbled from behind her textbook, "but if I can't find you on Sunday, I'll be forced to report you to Zigg, you know."

 

Ginny rolled her eyes and leaned in. "She wouldn't. Besides, it's a necessary trip. I'm out of wand polish and the next Hogsmeade weekend isn't for a few weeks."

 

"Maybe." Hermione had already decided she would not be sneaking into Hogsmeade, but humoring Ginny had become one of her many unexpected routines.

 

"Maybe," Ginny echoed. "You don't want to go?"

 

"I don't want to get caught. Besides, I have some extra polish you can borrow."

 

Ginny frowned. "You don't plan on celebrating, then? Your first free weekend and you're just going to sit about your dormitory?"

 

"I dunno. There's not much to celebrate really, is there?"

 

"Erare you kidding? You've been stuck with Malfoy practically all year and you're finally free of him! I think that's definitely worth celebrating. At the very least, we ought to break into the apology butterbeer Ron smuggled me"

 

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that too," Lydia snapped, flipping the page of her book.

 

"Shut up, Lydia." Ginny turned back to Hermione and scrunched her nose. "Sorry. I didn't mean to bring him up."

 

"It's fine. I'm glad he apologized, at least." The wild-haired Gryffindor glanced past her redheaded friend, hoping to see the boy she had come to know so well, but the Ravenclaws were blocking her view. Despite her dejection, she added, "That's better than I expected, really."

 

"Yeah, me too," Ginny replied. She bit her lip. "You aren't mad, then? That I talked to him?"

 

"Of course not. He's your brother."

 

"But he"

 

"I know very well what he did, Ginny. I just don't care anymore."

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

He was everywhere, but he was nowhere. He was in classes, he was in the Great Hall, and even when Hermione walked to the library, she caught the slightest glimmer of his Disillusionment Charm from behind the centaur statue. Alas, he seemed a lifetime away.

 

They had not spoken since Professor Slughorn relieved them of their weekly duty, and it seemed whenever Hermione had the urge to ask him if he still wanted to spend time with her, she lost her famed courage until he disappeared in the crowd. Her heart roared as she watched him draw away from her again and againa glowing beacon of snow-white among the endless sea of their fellow students.

 

They were all plainplain like her, plain like Harry and Ronald.

 

"Hey, are you coming?"

 

Ginny's voice pulled her back to reality. Defense Against the Dark Arts loomed over her, for it was yet another period that she shared with the enigma that was Draco Malfoy.

 

"I'm really not looking forward to this," Ginny groaned, folding her arms as Hermione fell into step beside her.

 

"Me either."

 

"You don't want to go to a class? Maybe the Fat Lady was onto something when she called you an impostor." Ginny glanced at her. "Did you not do the reading either?"

 

"No, I read it." Hermione felt her cheeks getting hot as one familiar face crossed her mind. "Whittlewood is just a terrible teacher."

 

Ginny snorted. "The only one worse was Umbridge."

 

"You're forgetting Crouch."

 

"Whittlewood is worse. At least he turned Malfoy into a ferret," Ginny grumbled. She sighed as they approached the Defense Against the Dark Arts Room. "You know, it's not too late to ditch."

 

As Hermione's eyes found the back of Malfoy's head, she nearly considered it.

 

The common Friday chatter filled the room. Whispers of weekend plans and recent gossip permeated Hermione's ears, and while she was not surprised that Malfoy was not partaking, she almost wished he would. If she knew what he planned on doing that weekend, perhaps she would find the bravery she needed to simply speak to him.

 

Although, if she was honest with herself, she would admit that she was making excuses.

 

Malfoy's plans were, indubitably, the same as they always were. He had no friends and he scarcely changed his routine. The short time they spent together on Sundays hardly cut into some otherwise grandiose agenda, and the coming Sunday would be no different.

 

"Settle down, everyone, settle down," Whittlewood rasped. "We are in for a very exciting class today, as I'm sure you all know after reading the chapter."

 

Ginny cleared her throat. Based on the body language of the rest of the class, she was not the only one that had not read the chapter.

 

"We aren't dueling with elements again, are we?" Hermione heard a girl behind her whisper.

 

"Today, we will be doing a little experiment." The elderly woman clasped her decrepit hands together in delight. "There are several schools of thought when it comes to self-defense, but if you read the chapter, you should have learned about the main two: Counterance and Offensient."

 

The soft din of flipping pages echoed as the majority of the class searched for the passages that they had not read.

 

"If you were to fight with the Counterance style, what would that mean? Miss Granger?"

 

As always, Hermione knew the answer, but with Malfoy behind her, she did not want him to judge her, and she found herself answering more shyly than usual.

 

"W-well, as the name suggests, you would focus primarily on defensive spells." After swallowing hard, she continued. "Essentially, you would only perform counter-curses."

 

"Very good, very good." Whittlewood put her hands on her hips and paced the front of the room. Her bespectacled eyes traced the many students opposite her, and as she stopped in front of a slight seventh-year girl, she said, "I suspect most of you have learned the alternate method. An Offensient defense is really more of an offense, and it can be quite effective. Can anyone tell me more about it? Who would choose an Offensient defenseand why?"

 

Fay Dunbar's hand slowly went into the air.

 

"Miss Dunbar?"

 

Fay pointed at a paragraph in Defense Against the Dark Arts in the Civilized Age. "'Most would adopt this sort of dueling style during battle as it lessens the number of enemies by humanely incapacitating them. In fact, it's the method many Aurors choose.'"

 

"Precisely!" Whittlewood exclaimed. "It's the exact method I prohibited you all from using when we dueled with the elements. Today, I will prohibit you from using it again."

 

There were several grumbles, but Hermione noticed that Malfoy was not one of them. She would have recognized his dramatic groan anywhere, and she did not hear it among those of her classmates.

 

"I'll be pairing you up with new partners this timeno one you've paired up with before. I don't want any of you to have any insight into your partner's dueling style."

 

"Does it really matter if she's forcing us to duel in a specific way, anyway?" Ginny whispered.

 

"Miss Weasley!" Whittlewood said, her voice teetering on the edge of fury. A small smile graced her face shortly thereafteras though she had won something. "You'll be working with Mr. Lepalt, today."

 

Ginny scowled. Rodrick Lepalt was a notoriously smelly seventh-year that rarely made it to class as he frequented the hospital wing to have his stinkblisters drained. He always claimed that it was genetic, but Hermione had read one could only contract it if they ate too many flobberworms.

 

"Now if you are all finished with the chitchat, let's discuss what we'll be doing today. Today, you won't be dueling with the Offensient style you are all so trained in. Instead, you're going to try the Counterance method. Of course, if you are all countering, there isn't much dueling being done, so one of you will be performing any combination of the following three spells, but you must use all three. The spells are: the Hair-Standing Jinx, the Leg-Locker Curse, and the Twitchy-Ears Hex. The counter-spells to these three spells are in your textbook, so it will be up you to properly cast them. Once the first of you finishes countering all three, switch places so everyone is able to get a bit of experience. You will have to fully utilize this method to pass your N.E.W.T.s, so it is pertinent that you all do your best. Is that understood?"

 

The class muttered in agreement, and with that, Whittlewood began assigning partners.

 

Lisa Turpin and Fay Dunbar were paired together, most of the seventh-years were paired with other seventh-years, and by the time it was nearing Hermione's turn to be issued a partner, she realized there were only three choices: Malfoy, Janine Watts, or a boy whose name she could never quite recall.

 

"I want to work with Arnold!" Janine said, suddenly.