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Hermione hurried through the halls, and found that most of the students were still making their way up from the ball, as Draco had said, and she spotted Ginny.

"How was the library Hermione?" Ginny asked, teasing her friend.

"Very enlightening." Hermione said, rolling her eyes.

"Only you would leave a party to go to the library Hermione." Seamus teased.

"Well, I found a really interesting book!" Hermione defended.

"Yeah, a book on the history of snogging." Ginny laughed.

"Ha, bloody, ha Ginny." Hermione grumbled.

When they had made it up to their dorm, and changed out of their fancy clothes, Hermione started feeling more like herself than she had in days.

"I am so glad that is over." Hermione said, as she laid her Order of Merlin in her empty school trunk.

"Well you made it through without committing any serious faux pas." Ginny said with a smile. "You look happier than you have in a long time."

“I think I am.” Hermione said with a smile.

“So he… treats you nicely?” Ginny asked, sounding skeptical.

“Yes, he does.” Hermione said, blushing. “He did send me the dress. And the brooch.”

“No way.” Ginny said. “He gave you a brooch worth thousands of galleons and you weren’t even dating at the time?”

“He said he didn’t like seeing me unhappy.” Hermione explained. “He watched me open all those ridiculous dress robes that kept getting sent, and he knew I wanted something that covered my scar. And the brooch he had made from an old family heirloom… and Bellatrix’s knife.”

“Wait, what?” Ginny demanded. “That’s where the goblin silver came from?”

“Yes, he had it melted down, but used some of it for the brooch. He said it would be fitting to make something to hold up my medal.” Hermione said.

“Wow.” Ginny said, scrunching up her face in distress. “‘Mione, you are seriously messing with my worldview here. I can’t grasp the concept of a Malfoy who gives thoughtful, and expensive, presents to the person he tormented all through school.”

“Yeah, about that.” Hermione said, blushing again. “He said he has had a crush on me since first year.”

“Come again?” Ginny asked, agog.

“Yeah, I asked him who his first crush was, and after a bit of prodding he admitted it.” Hermione explained.

“Wow, you covered a lot of ground tonight.” Ginny said.

“Yeah, we did.” Hermione said, smiling.

“Ok, don’t hate me for this, but… Hermione, how do you know he’s really changed?” Ginny asked. “I mean, he’s done some pretty awful stuff. You don’t know how bad it got here last year.”

“I know, believe me, it’s always in the back of my head.” Hermione sighed. “I can’t explain it. It’s something about the way he talks.”

“The way he talks makes you think he’s changed?” Ginny said, skeptically.

“Yes, it’s hard to explain.” Hermione sighed. “He’s constantly reminding me that he’s not a good person, and that I shouldn’t be around him. The way he talks about trying to follow his probation, it’s like he’s not doing it because he has to, but because he wants to do it for himself.”

“Well, I guess that’s good?” Ginny asked.

“I think it is.” Hermione said, “He really doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. I think he’s actually happy his parents got put in Azkaban, he said it gave him a fresh start.”

“Ok, but ‘Mione… say you’re right. Say he’s completely changed, and wants to be a ‘good guy’ now.” Ginny pressed, “You guys are still going to have a hell of a time if you want this to go anywhere. I mean, eventually you’d have to go public, and everyone would freak!”

“Yeah, he said as much himself.” Hermione said sadly.

“Ok, so… are you prepared for that?” Ginny asked. “Because lets face it, the whole wizarding world expects you to marry my brother.”

“Is that what Witch Weekly decided?” Hermione said sarcastically, “Because the last I’d heard, it’s readers couldn’t decide if I should be with Ron or Harry?”

“Well, the pictures from the Ceremony kind of sealed the deal.” Ginny smirked. “Now that everyone knows Harry and I are together, they’ve automatically paired up you and Ron. And I thought you liked Ron?”

“I do like Ron, Ginny.” Hermione said, “But you have to admit, we’ve never been able to make it happen. We never seem to be interested in each other at the same time, and now he’s busy with Auror training, and I’m here. I feel like we only work as friends.”

“You know he’s not assertive enough to make anything happen.” Ginny said.

“He was plenty assertive with Lavender.” Hermione snapped.

“I guess.” Ginny said, looking at the floor.

“I’m sorry Ginny, I just… I don’t want to be in a relationship because people expect it.” Hermione explained. “I mean, what if Draco is the love of my life, and I don’t take a chance because we fought on different sides in a war neither of us wanted any part in?”

“I’m sorry, I just don’t understand.” Ginny admitted.

“Ginny, you got lucky.” Hermione explained. “You’ve always loved Harry, it worked out for you. But I’ve always done what other people needed. I kept the boys going, I kept them alive. Now I have to keep myself going. And I like the way I feel when I’m with Draco. It’s exciting, and interesting, and it makes me feel… awake!”

She ran her hands through her tangled hair. “Maybe it will end in disaster, maybe we will date for a few weeks a fizzle out. But I feel like I need to know.”

“Well, I would be more concerned if you didn’t seem so much happier tonight than you were before the dance.” Ginny admitted. “So obviously he’s doing something right. Just… don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“I don’t think I am.” Hermione smiled.

The girls’ conversation ended abruptly when their dorm mates started returning from the ball, and Hermione fell asleep feeling more content than she had in months.

The next morning, it seemed like everyone was running late to breakfast after a late night out. The Great Hall was only about half full of students, but Draco was one of the first down.

He usually didn’t come down this early, but he was hoping to see Hermione, and he knew that she was usually an early riser.

He waited at the Slytherin table, carefully watching for her to make her way in, hoping that she hadn’t come to her senses in the reality of the morning. It wouldn’t be surprising if she realized she made a mistake. Draco told himself, trying to temper his hope. But when Hermione came into the room, she looked for him immediately and risked a small smile in his direction. Relief flooded his mind, and he smiled discreetly back.

He watched her interact with her housemates; the makeup and finery of the previous evening had made her look radiant, but Hermione in her school uniform looked more natural. Draco was sad when breakfast ended, and the students began making their way to class. He shouldered his bag and headed upstairs, reminding himself that he’d see her in defense, and it was a double period.

Hermione was giddy all morning, Draco had smiled at her at breakfast, and he never smiled in public. She wade her way to defense that afternoon with anticipation of seeing him again. When she got to class, she was intrigued to find the desks moved to the sides of the room, and a dueling space set up in the middle.

“What’s going on?” She whispered to Ginny, as the students crowded around the edges of the room.

“Dunno, Bill didn’t mention anything.” Ginny whispered back. “I know he was trying to find something more engaging for the group.”

At that moment, Bill tapped his wand on the blackboard for attention and called, “Good morning everyone. As you can see, we’re going to be trying something new today. Due to the fact that you have already exhausted the required Newt subjects, I thought we’d try something a little different in defense. An inter house Dueling Competition.”

Whispers of excitement filled the room, and Bill held up his hands for quiet, before continuing. “There will be several different ways to earn points. The first, obviously, is defeating your opponent in a duel, which will take place at the end of each week. Additional points can be earned for mastering difficult or unusual dueling spells.”

Hermione was thrilled to hear the second part of the information, and couldn’t wait to get to the library.

“For todays class, we’re going to be learning the formal rules of dueling. I know most of you have real life dueling and fighting experience, but this is sport dueling, and it’s quite different.” Bill continued.

They spent an engaging double period going over the rules of competitive dueling, as well as formal stances and techniques. The whole class seemed thrilled to have new material, and were listening closely.

When the double period ended, and they all left to go down to dinner, the group was buzzing with excitement.

“Did you really not know Bill was going to have us start dueling?” Hermione asked Ginny.

“No, he never mentioned it.” Ginny said, “But I’m glad people seem excited. Bill was getting really frustrated trying to teach us the Newt information, only to find that almost everyone already knew it.”

“I can’t wait to start looking up unusual spells!” Hermione exclaimed, as they sat down to dinner. “I wonder if Bill is going to limit how many extra credit points we can earn?”

“That was the most Hermione-ish question ever.” Ginny teased.

“Well if he puts a cap on the extra points, I can just teach spells to you and Neville so that Gryffindor can win!” Hermione gushed. “I wonder if we’ll get house points for this?!”

“Down girl.” Neville joked.

Hermione was bouncing in her seat, as she quickly ate her dinner. She was about to jump up to head to the Library, when Ginny passed her a bit of parchment.

“Almost forgot to give you this term’s Prefect rotations.” She said, with a wink.

Hermione took the parchment from Ginny, and noticed that she had been paired with Draco for every patrol. “Thanks Ginny!” She exclaimed.

“You’re welcome. Now go ahead and go to the library before you burst.” Ginny laughed.

Hermione laughed, and practically skipped out of the Great Hall, and up the stairs.

“Fancy meeting you here.” Draco whispered, as he sat down behind Hermione in the library.

“I was wondering if you would come this way.” Hermione replied. “I was just thinking of heading up to the other Library.”

“Hmmm, that sounds more to my liking.” Draco whispered.

Hermione grinned, and packed up her books. She quickly took the large stack up to Madame Pince who checked them out without comment, as she was used to Hermione taking out large amounts of books.

She balanced the large stack, and made her way up to the Room of Requirement, and picturing the library room, backed in and dropped the load off on the table.

She quickly settled in to study, searching for new and interesting spells to use in the Dueling Tournament. She didn't hear Draco when he came in a few minutes later.

"I don't think I've seen you this excited about an assignment all year." He laughed.

Hermione jumped at the sound of his voice. "I didn't hear you come it."

"You were quite focused!" Draco laughed. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"I'm trying to find spells for Bill's class." Hermione said, with a book still open in her lap. "How was today?"

"Today was a lot of waiting around to see your smiling face in defense class." Draco said, leaning over and kissing Hermione on the cheek before sitting down.

"This would be easier if we were in same house." Hermione said.

"If we were in the same house, I doubt we'd have to keep the relationship a secret." Draco joked. "I've never heard of an evil Gryffindor."

Hermione glared at him. "Please stop referring to yourself as evil."

"I'm not going to lie to you Hermione." Draco said seriously.

"I don't want to have the 'I'm so evil' conversation again." Hermione said stubbornly. "I just want to work on Bill's assignment."

"'Bill's' assignment, huh?" Draco teased.

"Professor Weasley." Hermione corrected, rolling her eyes. "I went to his wedding for crying out loud, I practically live with his family."

"Really?" Draco asked curiously. "I didn't know he was married."

"Yeah, he married Fleur Delacour, the summer before the war." Hermione said.

"Triwizard Fleur?" Draco asked, agog. "From Beauxbatons?"

"Yes. They're expecting a baby in the spring." Hermione said with a smile.

"Wow. You're really that close to the Weasleys?" Draco asked. "I mean, I know you're friends with Ron and Ginny, but I didn't know you were close with the whole family."

Hermione smiled. "I spend more time at the Weasley's house than I do at my own home."

"Really? Your parents don't mind?" Draco was curious.

"Well, I think they miss me, but they really don't understand this world." Hermione said. "I feel very disconnected when I'm at home. Harry did too, before he moved out."

"Hmmm. I haven't spent much time in the Muggle world." Draco said.

"Yeah, I didn't suspect you had." Hermione teased.

Draco glared at her, and then winked. "So what are you working on for 'Bill's class'?"

"Nothing in particular yet." Hermione said. "Just doing some preliminary research."

Draco chuckled. "Are you planning on winning by checking out every book in the library so no one else can even attempt?"

"Yeah right." Hermione said. "Everyone went straight up to nap after the ball last night."

"Well give me one of those." Draco said, grabbing a book. "If Slytherin is going to beat Gryffindor, I'm going to need to stay on my toes."

"Nice place?" Hermione asked.

"Is what a nice place?" Draco said, confused.

"That fantasy world you're living in." Hermione teased.

"Is that trash talk?" Draco laughed, "From Hermione Granger? I'm impressed!"

"Well while you're being impressed, be quiet." Hermione said. "I'm already behind on my study schedule."

Draco smiled, and settled in with his book, but he spent more time watching Hermione than he did reading.

After a several hours, Hermione feverishly taking notes the whole time, Draco put a hand under her chin and lifted her head up to break her concentration.

"Hey!" Hermione said, in the middle of copying out a paragraph from a defense book.

"It's been three hours Little Dragon." Draco said. "Can you spare some time for a distraction?

"Has it really been that long?" Hermione said, flexing her hand.

"Yep." Draco said, with a laugh.

Hermione put her book down, and stretched, "Well what kind of distraction did you have in mind?"

Draco laughed and snatched Hermione's book, tossing it on the table he slipped an arm around her and pulled her onto his lap.

"Oh." Hermione said, blushing. "That kind of distraction."

"You're adorable when you're shy." Draco teased, kissing Hermione softly on the lips, which only made Hermione blush a brighter shade of red.

Draco laughed and kissed Hermione again, this time she relaxed into the kiss, and slipped her hands into Draco's hair.

She found it so easy to let go when she was with him; it was as though her usual logical, calculating self disappeared. When she had kissed Ron, her mind had been racing the whole time, trying to analyze the situation. She found it both invigorating and slightly terrifying, as she slid down on the sofa and Draco moved with her.

Draco had one arm around her waist, and the other behind her head pulling her impossibly close. Hermione moaned involuntarily against Draco’s lips, and he deepened the kiss, teasing her mouth with his tongue.

Draco couldn’t calculate how much time had passed if he wanted to. It could have been five minutes or fifty. It was as though they were made to fit together, and he didn’t ever want the moment to end.

Hermione had slid a up the back of his shirt, and he was suddenly nervous that she would notice the scars on his back. Sure enough, she ran her fingers over one of the many lines and he briefly pulled back from her.

“Draco, what?” She asked, breathless. She realized that her skirt had ridden up dangerously high, and her sweater was askew; she tugged the fabric, trying to right it.

Draco noticed her trying to fix her skirt, and realized that he’d probably pushed her further than she was comfortable with. He knew she was inexperienced, and he immediately felt like a jerk.

“I’m sorry Hermione, I got carried away.” He whispered, backing away from her on the sofa.

“I’d say we both did.” Hermione laughed, noticing that she’d untucked Draco’s shirt and completely messed up his hair.

“I’m sorry.” Draco repeated, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to pressure you.”

“Draco!” Hermione exclaimed. “You weren’t pressuring me, we were just kissing.”

“Yes, but I don’t ever want to be that guy.” Draco said, shaking his head. “And I practically climbed on top of you without even asking.”

“Draco.” Hermione said, exasperated. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Your skirt was all pushed up.” Draco said, disgusted with himself.

“Oh for Merlin’s sake.” Hermione rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure that was gravity Draco. I’m not that fragile, you don’t have to be afraid you’re going to break me or offend me.”

“I just know… that I’m more…” Draco struggled to explain. “I have more of a past than you. I don’t ever want you to feel uncomfortable.”

“Draco, answer a question for me.” Hermione said.

“Anything.” Draco said, immediately.

“If I had asked you to stop, what would have have done?” Hermione questioned.

“I would have stopped.” He said simply.

“Ok, then we don’t have a problem!” Hermione insisted. “I never told you to stop, I never felt pressured. If anything, kissing you is the only time I can get out of my own head and relax!”

“So I just ruined the moment for nothing.” Draco sighed.

“Actually, you started pulling away when I felt that scar on your back.” Hermione pointed out.

“Damn.” Draco hissed. “You noticed that?”

“Well it feels pretty deep.” Hermione said.

“They are, it is.” Draco said, kicking himself.

“What are they from?” Hermione asked.

“My past.” Draco said, resting his head in his hands.

“That’s a bit vague.” Hermione said softly.

Draco didn’t respond, and after a moment Hermione rested a hand on his back. He jumped briefly in response, but then relaxed and allowed her to push his sweater and shirt higher up and see the collection of scars on his back.

“Draco!” Hermione gasped, “What happened to you?”

“Do we really need to discuss this Hermione?” Draco asked softly.

“We don’t need to discuss anything.” Hermione said gently, “But I’d hoped you’d trust me enough by now to tell me.”

“It’s not that interesting of a story.” Draco said quietly. “My father is an asshole.”

“Your father did this?” Hermione gasped. “How? Why?!”

“Well, you might remember around our second year, the ministry was doing loads of raids, trying to track down dark objects?” Draco asked.

Hermione nodded, remembering the argument between Lucious and Mr. Weasley at Flourish and Blotts.

“Well, obviously they found more than a few banned items when they raided the manor.” Draco explained. “My father should have gone to Azkaban then, but he managed to buy his way out and get probation.”

Hermione nodded again, letting Draco continue.

“Well, obviously the terms of his probation were similar to what mine are now: no dark magic.” Draco said, sounding detached. “So while he was on probation, he couldn’t use the Cruciatis curse, so he had to switch to muggle methods of punishment when I misbehaved.”

“Let me get this straight…” Hermione exclaimed. “You father couldn’t use magic to torture you, so he whipped you? When you were twelve?”

Draco just nodded, looking embarrassed.

“I’m going to kill him!” Hermione cried. “I'm going to get Harry to sneak me into Azkaban and I’m going to kill him.”

Draco wasn’t sure what Hermione’s reaction would be, but he certainly hadn’t expected a death threat. He burst out laughing.

“What?” Hermione said, distracted from her plans.

“Hermione, my father isn’t worth your time.” Draco laughed, pulling Hermione close. “He can’t hurt me anymore. Don’t waste another minute thinking about him.”

“But Draco!” Hermione was still upset. “He tortured you. He doesn’t deserve to live.”

“Hermione, he doesn’t deserve the honor of you killing him.” Draco said, seriously. “He doesn’t even deserve to have you think about him.”

“It wouldn’t be honorable.” Hermione grumbled.

Draco chuckled again. “Besides,” He said, “What makes you think that I would let you go anywhere near Azkaban?”

“I think I’d like to see you try and stop me from going anywhere I want to go!” Hermione said, indignant.

“I’m not trying to control you,” Draco said, honestly, “I just don’t want you anywhere near that place. I don’t want it to taint you.”

“It wouldn’t ‘taint me’.” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “And I refer to my earlier statement about not being as fragile as you think I am.”

“I know you’re not fragile.” Draco said, “But you don’t understand what it means to set foot in that building. You said Potter goes there; ask him sometime.”

Hermione didn’t back down, “I can handle it Draco.”

“Little Dragon, I didn’t for a moment think you couldn’t.” Draco explained. “I just don’t want you to ever experience anything like that. I want to protect you from everything evil in the world!”

“Including you?” Hermione asked. “Is that why you’re always trying to convince me that you’re evil?”

“Of course,” Draco said simply. “One day you’ll realize it, and you’ll go back to Weasley, and have the life you deserve. A life where you don’t have to hide; where you can have a fabulous career and a bunch of kids, and the only reason anyone takes your picture is because you’re a hero, not because you’re seeing a Death Eater.”

“Draco, I thought we were in this together?” Hermione cried, “You want me to go be with Ron?”

“Of course not,” Draco said. “I want to live in an alternate reality where I didn’t make so many mistakes, where I could marry you, and have children with you, and see you every day for the rest of my life. But I know that’s not this reality, and I love you too much to want anything but the best future for you.”

Hermione was shocked; she felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. She counted down from ten, trying to gather her thoughts. He loves me? She thought to herself, replaying the moment in her head. Then she thought back to their previous conversation, he had said that there was only one person in the world that he loved.

“Look, I can see you overanalyzing the situation.” Draco said, with a sad smile. “I understand completely if you don’t return my feelings, I just wanted you to know where I’m coming from.”

“But Draco, you said there was only one person you love in the world?” Hermione gasped.

“I did say that.” Draco said, looking at his feet.

“I… I don’t know what to say?” Hermione said, uncertainly. This was unknown territory for her.

“You don’t need to say anything Hermione.” Draco said, “I know that this is too much to process. So just don’t say anything, let the moment pass and we can forget it ever happened.”

“But I don’t want to forget it ever happened.” Hermione said quietly.

Draco’s head popped up and he met Hermione’s eyes, “You don’t?”

“Well no!” Hermione said, “Look, just because I don’t know if I feel the same, doesn’t mean I want to forget it! 'Sometimes she did not know what she feared, what she desired: whether she feared or desired what had been or what would be, and precisely what she desired, she did not know.'

“Anna Karenina?” Draco said with a smile. “I’m going to choose to take the fact that you’re quoting one of the greatest love stories of all time as a good sign.”

Hermione blushed. “Well, it’s not a bad sign.”

Authors Note:

The book quoted in this chapter is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.

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