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Rubeus Hagrid is in a good mood today. He has promptly divided his Monday class, 7th year Gryffindors and Slytherins, into two groups and placed them a good twenty feet from each other.

He nods approvingly at the neat clustering of each house, like Muggle soldiers of ancient times when they would go to war. The students are surprised at this exacting arrangement but are noticeably relieved at the same time.

Today signals the beginning of Practicals Week. It is the rigorous, credited activity of the 7th years in preparation for their mock N.E.W.T.s which will be held the following week. In other words, everyone’s Christmas holidays will be preempted by this hellacious affair and the last thing the students and teachers need is another feisty diatribe between select members of their houses.

Draco Malfoy hardly cared for it at all. In fact, he’s one of those thankful for Hagrid’s sudden surge of firmness. This should divert attention from anything dodgy going on between him and Hermione Granger and it might even make that mysterious sneezing being think twice about what it saw.

He runs a slightly shaking gloved hand through his white-blond hair, throwing a cursory glance at Hermione who is standing on the front lines of Gryffindor, speaking with Parvati Patil. His breath catches in his throat, enthralled at how stunning she looks so early in the morning. But the sudden appearance of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley beside her made him quickly redirect his gaze on the leaf-covered ground. He sighs.

He’d been reduced to a bundle of nerves over the weekend. He’s half-expected the news to come up during mealtimes or Quidditch practice. After all, his friendship with Hermione is certainly a story not worth keeping to one’s self. Carefully, he’s listened in on all the stories that are going around, even checked for the freshest lot of vandalism on desks and walls.

But there was nothing. All in all, it is strange and at the same time, upsetting. He’s been involved in a lot of mischief just to result to the naïve assurance that the issue will never come up. It will, definitely. And the hold up only says that it will be in the worst way possible.

Hagrid’s voice calling roll brok him out of his thoughts. He has just rounded up a dozen Rhinotahs onto the large expanse of grass between the two houses.

“You lot remember them?” he asks everyone. There were some scattered sighs of relief and uncomfortable grunts from the class. “Yeah, they’re yer practicals. Hope everyone remembers everythin’ I taught.”

Draco stares emptily at the creatures. He attempts to block out Hagrid’s voice as he just heard something distinctly familiar.

“At-choo!”

And there it is.

He spins around, checking to see where it came from. He curses silently as he surveys each and every face. The way everyone is bundled up today, anyone of them could have a cold. But he knew he got it right this time. And what luck. For sure, whoever it was that saw them that day, is a Slytherin. His face is grim.

“Hey, Longbottom!” calls out Goyle, who is standing beside him, “Reckon you’ll ace this one, eh?”

There is some collective snickering. Hagrid reprimands the students and resumes roll call. Draco looks at Hermione, now patting Neville’s back reassuringly. She doesn’t look like she heard the sneeze at all.

“At-choo!”

Draco cranes his neck over to the left side. It seems to be coming from behind. Then, he catches sight of Pansy Parkinson. She is rolling her eyes at Karla Haughton who is sporting a very red nose. Draco’s heart skips a beat. ‘Oh no,’ he panics. ‘No.’

Slowly and as cautiously as possible, he walks away from his position at Slytherin’s front lines and moves back a few rows towards where the two girls are standing.

“Haven’t you been to the Infirmary yet?” Pansy asks.

“Just went there this afternoon,” the girl gasps in reply. “Ghastly, this.” She catches sight of Draco and their eyes lock.

“All that sniffing, can’t stand it anymore," complains Pansy, oblivious to what is conspiring in stares between Malfoy and her friend. “You should’ve gone during the weekend.”

“I tried,” Karla answers, keeping her eyes on Draco. Her eyes twinkle and he thinks he sees a smile form slightly on her lips. “But other things were in the way.”

Draco’s jaw tightens. He squeezes through two tall Slytherin girls and stands beside Karla.

“Oh,” Pansy says morosely, eyeing Draco coolly through narrowed eyes, “It’s you.”

“You need something?” Karla asks him, casting Pansy a reproachful look.

He flippantly shrugs. “Hey, listen. Do you have a minute?”

Karla laughs. “We’re having our practicals, Draco. Don’t think any of us have a minute for anything, do you?” She smiles smugly at him. “I have all the time in the world after class though. We can talk then, if you’re not… busy?”

Draco frowns at her as Hagrid cries out, “Elliot, Patricia!” Several heads look their way as their half-giant teacher waits for an answer. This is obviously not a good time to continue his conversation with Karla.

“Elliot, Patricia?” Hagrid calls again. He looks expectantly at their group.

“Where is she?" Draco hears Pansy whisper to Karla.

“Don’t worry,” she whispers back, “She’ll be here.”

“Ah,” Hagrid says, looking towards the pathway that led to his house. Running on it is Patricia Elliot, looking aghast. “There you are.”

“Sorry, Mr. Hagrid," she pants. She replaces Draco on his spot beside Goyle. “I think I’ve lost—“

“Any later and I’d take you out of this class, Elliot,” Hagrid says gruffly. He casts a cagey eye on the whole class. “Jus’ because I’ve bin light most o’ the time, doesn’t mean I haven’t got limits. Show me a bit o’ respect then maybe I’ll start thinking that you lot deserve to pass your N.E.W.T.s!”

Everybody is frozen solid by the newfound severity of the gamekeeper. That’s why it surprises Draco that Patricia has the nerve to continue speaking. “But it’s a really expensive necklace,” she whimpered, “I think someone stole it.”

Draco swallows hard. There it is—the reason why they didn’t just let the secret out the cage. A story would just be regarded as any daft rumor. But an exposé will surely get everyone’s attention and Hermione in trouble.

Hagrid throws another frightening look at Patricia. She starts to cower behind Goyle who looks equally nervous.

“Abbott, Hannah!” Hagrid suddenly shouts, calling forth the Gryffindor student for her practicals. He points a warning finger at Patricia before proceeding to guide a Rhinotah closer to Hannah. He then calls on three Slytherins to join her.

“What are you doing?” Draco whispers to Karla.

The girl only bats her eyes at him, her face innocent. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He turns to face Pansy and grabs her arm. “Don’t do this.”

She shoots him an angry look but she speaks to him, oddly enough, in her calmest voice, “Too late.”

“Granger, Hermione!” Hagrid shouts. “You’re the last one.” He nods to the rest. “We’ll do five students at a time, a’right?”

Draco freezes at the mention of her name. Pansy pries his hand from her arm and smirks as she watches Hermione walk to the center of the class towards the largest Rhinotah. His hands feel clammy. He should warn her. But how? A cough? Wink or wave?

‘Come on, you git!’ he curses. ‘Just do something.’ He swiftly takes his wand out of his pocket but apparently, that isn’t fast enough. His next actions were frozen by Patricia’s high-pitched shouts.

“That’s mine!” she cries from where she stands, pointing a menacing finger at Hermione. “Look, that’s it over there!”

“Elliot!” shouts Hagrid in a booming voice. “What is it this time?”

“But Mr. Hagrid," she protests, "that’s my necklace! The one I lost! Look, she’s wearing it!” Hagrid glowers for a moment but turns to look at Hermione. The poor girl looks panic-stricken, gripping her Rhinotah’s leash so tightly that her knuckles are turning white.

"This is mine," Hermione whispers in her hoarse voice, her fingers touching the delicate jewelry clinging around her neck. Draco feels his heart break as she sees her face become slowly strewn with webs of confusion.

"Do you expect us to believe that?" Karla snaps at her

“Hermione,” Hagrid says slowly, “That’s a Slytherin Graduate’s Necklace.”

The whole class started buzzing with whispers of shock and surprise. Draco feels overwhelmed. Suddenly there are too much people around him. He feels small and Hermione looks small.

"Only sold to 7th year Slytherins,” Patricia adds. "Yours, Granger? I don’t think so."

"I swear, it’s mine!" she cries. Her eyes meet Draco’s. "I didn’t know it’s a graduate...it was... given to me as a gift..."

"Really? By whom?" Patricia challenges.

Silence. Hermione doesn’t answer but only looks at Draco. He looks back at her pleading eyes. Nobody will believe her if she tells them. He knows she needs him to say it.

But he keeps his mouth shut. Tears begin to form at the corners of her eyes. Draco avoids her gaze. Once again, he makes her cry but this time he feels terrible about it. Sick to the pit of his stomach. He can feel Pansy looking at him triumphantly.

“The Mudblood’s a liar and a thief,” Karla declares, raising a perfectly arched brow.

“Don’t call her that!” Ron angrily shouts.

“Now hold on,” Harry says, looking at Hagrid. “This is Hermione we’re talking about. What they’re accusing her of doing—that’s impossible!”

"Is it?" Pansy snaps. She nods at Hermione. “If that is yours Granger, then how come the Burglar Spell just broke?"

For a moment, she is confused. Then, Hermione shrieks in horror as the beautiful silver necklace resting on her collarbone transforms into a scaly, bright green serpent. It slithers around her neck and hisses. She grabs it and throws it on the ground with disgust.

"Snake!" cries several students. Some climb up rocks while the others start towards the Slytherin side of the clearing. The easily excited Rhinotahs start stomping up a huge cloud of dust.

“Elliot, pick that snake up!” Hagrid cries as he attempts to subdue the huge creatures. Patricia fetches the green snake and takes it in her hand. Almost immediately, it turns back to being a necklace.

“She deserves to be punished, Mr. Hagrid!” exclaims Pansy.

The rest of the students who saw how the snake changed back into being a necklace in Patricia’s hand look at their teacher expectantly. He doesn’t respond. Still busy calming down the Rhinotahs, the gamekeeper is at loss for words.

At this point, a silver-grey cat pounces into view and stands on top of the tallest rock in the clearing, the one not reached by most students. It starts to speak in Minerva McGonagall’s voice.

“I wish to see Mr. Malfoy and Miss Granger in my office immediately.”

Hagrid exhales loudly, relieved that he’s spared of making a decision on the spot. “You heard the Patronus,” he says looking at Draco and Hermione. “Off you go! I’ll bring this up with Professor McGonagall soon as I sort this out.”

When the two students have reached a considerable distance from their classmates, Hagrid turns back to the rest of his students and barks orders once more. “Now you best be gettin’ off those rocks or I’ll make sure you stay here all night ‘til everyone finishes their practicals!”

*          *          *

Draco reaches Professor McGonagall’s office first. The door is ajar and reveals through the sliver of an opening, Hagrid’s head in the fireplace talking to the elderly teacher who is standing a few feet away.

“Thank you, Rubeus,” she says with finality, “I’ll take it from here.”

Draco quickly steps back from the door as McGonagall turns around to face her desk. He sees Hermione appear from the corner of the hallway, eyes downcast. He starts towards her.

“Hermione—“

“Malfoy?” says McGonagall from inside her office, interrupting him. “Step inside already, I hardly have five minutes for this. Is Miss Granger with you?”

Gingerly, he pushes back the heavy door and lets himself in. Hermione emerges from the same doorway a few seconds later, looking straight at the Transfiguration teacher.

“Good,” Professor McGonagall nods. She is her usual regal self, sitting behind her heavy birch desk. There are no chairs in front of it for sitting. It is a room for quick business and stubborn students. She peers at the two students over her glasses, and at Hermione slightly longer.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be quick. You’ll both be back in practicals in no time.” She leans back on her chair. “There will be a slight change in your detention schedule and I think you’ll both be pleased to hear it.” She pauses for a moment, looking thoughtful. “But with the care and concern you’ve shown Aurora the past few weeks as reported by Madame Pomfrey, perhaps you’ll also be slightly disappointed.”

“As it is, Aurora has been successfully Identified by one of our—“ She looks up, slightly irritated. “—anxious staff.”

Draco and Hermione look at her, surprised. McGonagall doesn’t notice as she is busy looking at a piece of parchment lying on her desk. “She will be handed over to her proper family a fortnight from now. So to help her adjust to new people, your detention will be cut down from five nights to just once a week. That’s Wednesdays after dinner.”

She returns her attention back to them. “Is that clear? Or do you need me to run it by you again?”

The two shake their heads.

“Good,” she says approvingly. Through her glasses, Draco sees her eyes turn to Hermione. “Now, I understand that there has been some problem regarding a stolen necklace?”

Hermione, who just about gained enough aplomb to look at McGonagall, shifted her gaze back on the floor. She nods.

“I am shocked, Miss Granger. I didn’t expect this from you.” She waits for Hermione to say something but the girl doesn’t even blink.

“Normally, this would call for suspension. But given your previous record, I agree with Rubeus that we shouldn’t result to something so severe, especially with the N.E.W.T.s coming up.”

McGonagall pauses again before continuing. “Unless, you can prove to me otherwise that you didn’t steal that necklace from Ms. Elliot. Hagrid did say you were pretty vehement in denying it.”

“Professor,” Draco speaks up, “If I may—“

“I stole it,” Hermione quickly interrupts. “The Burglar Spell broke, didn’t it? So I stole it.”

The elderly professor, whose eyes are now curiously looking at Draco, nods. “All right. You already have Wednesdays at the Infirmary. So the rest of the school week after dinner, you are to report to our gamekeeper for three hours of creature-grooming. Without magic.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, that settles it.” With one final wave of her hand, she sends off the two students back to Hagrid’s class.

Back at the hallway, Draco catches up with Hermione who now leads the hike back to the forest. They pass portraits and statues who all inquisitively stare, aware of the tension reigning between them.

“Hermione,” he beseeched. “I’m sorry.”

“Waited until we’re out of earshot, I see,” she says in a shaking voice. She doesn’t bother to turn around.

Draco clenched and unclenched his fists. “I didn’t know what came over me. I should’ve told everyone the truth.”

Hermione doesn’t answer and continues her brisk walk down the portrait-laden hallways.

“Please,” Draco says again, “Please, say something.”

For a moment, it seems that she might just stop. Her steps slow down and her tense back seem to relax a bit. But she doesn’t. She continues walking. She speaks again though.

“Go away,” she says in a whisper that struggles for control. “Leave me alone and don’t speak to me ever again.”

He can’t see her face but he can tell from her voice that she is crying. Slowly, he feels his resolve melt away by the second. He wants to continue pleading for her to stop and face him but no words leave his mouth. He is torn between doing what she asks and taking her into his arms.

“Please,” she adds quietly.

That’s when he stops walking and nods, hoping that she sees that somehow. That she knows he’s letting her be.

A cold sensation starts to spread inside his chest and crawls up to choke him with tears. He watches her retreating back. Later that night, he will look back on that hallway and remember how that vision of Hermione walking away left him feeling so broken and alone.

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