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Hermione was possibly the only one who noticed the constant presence of an Auror on the premises. Her name was Emily Sherman, and she was a third year trainee. Due to the shortage in the department, she had been deemed competent to protect Hogwarts, something she took extremely seriously. She had introduced herself to Hermione, but from then on had remained distant and alert.

Hermione had inquired about her in a letter to Harry and Ron, and they had responded that she was top of the class of third year trainees. Her heart dropped a bit when Harry explained that Emily had been recruited and partially trained by Tonks. It spoke volumes to her commitment and skill that she had not only joined at such a dangerous time, but survived the fall of the ministry.

Draco had seemingly gained a bit of respect back from the Slytherins, who now treated him mostly with indifference. He wasn't sure what to think of their reaction, because it meant they thought he was slipping back into his old ways. However, at the same time it meant that he could go through his day somewhat normally, and he no longer had partners forced on him in potions. In fact, more often than not, he found Blaise willingly sitting at his table in potions.

Finally, one afternoon as they were leaving Potions, Draco noticed that Blaise was waiting for him in the hall as he left. He jerked his head to the side, indicating that Draco should follow him, and turned down the corridor leading deeper into the dungeons. Curious where Blaise was headed, Draco shrugged his shoulders and followed him.

“Where are we going, there’s nothing down here but Snape’s old office.” Draco asked.

Blaise didn’t answer, until they were a bit farther down. He cast a Muffliato around them and the asked, “Are you working with them again?”

“Working with who?” Draco asked, confused.

“The Death Eaters.” Blaise said, as though it were obvious.

“I… I don’t think I can talk to you about that.” Draco said, being evasive.

“Look, there’s a rumor going around that when Granger went missing, she was at your house.” Blaise hissed. “Are you really going to throw your life away like this?”

“Blaise, what are you talking about.” Draco said, putting his ‘Arrogant Malfoy’ façade on. “The Ministry let me go, they obviously can’t pin anything on me.”

“Look, I’ve avoided you this year because I thought you’d turned into a complete Blood Traitor.” Blaise pointed out. “But if siding with Potter was all just a front to stay out of Azkaban, then I apologize. But you must know, throwing your lot back in with the Death Eaters is suicide. The Aurors are rounding them up faster than you can say Hippogryph.”

“I know what I’m doing Zabini.” Draco said, trying to sound angry.

“If you’re trying to get back into the circle, you obviously don’t.” Blaise snapped. “Look, your probation is almost over. If you stay out of trouble, you can get on with your life. Get the hell out of here. I know you hate Mudblood Granger, but killing her is just going to end your life too.”

Draco winced at the word Mudblood.

Blaise thought he’d figured Draco out, so he continued, “Let the Mudblood go, she’s too high profile. Suck it up for the next few months, and then we can get the hell out of here. Go see the world. Your father is obviously off your back, and my mother has a new boyfriend in Italy, so she’ll be out of my hair.”

“Why the sudden interest in being my friend?” Draco asked, redirecting the conversation.

“Well, besides the fact that most of our class is dead or in hiding because they were stupid?” Blaise pointed out. “I know you didn’t want to join when you did. Your father made you.”

“There’s no such thing as an unwilling Death Eater Zabini.” Draco said, though not as harshly as he’d intended.

“Okay, but were you willingly following Voldemort, or were you trying to make your father proud?” Blaise said, cutting right to the point.

Draco didn’t say anything, he hadn’t realized that Blaise had been paying that much attention to him over the years.

“Look, Draco… I don’t remember my father, so I can’t even imagine the pressure of living up to that kind of expectation.” Blaise admitted. “But I’d hate to think that we’ve treated you unfairly all year and driven you away from having some semblance of a normal life. And I think, you and I probably have more in common than you realize.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind.” Draco mumbled.

Blaise canceled the charm, and stalked back up the hallway, leaving a confused Draco in his wake.

“So he just… left?” Hermione asked. “He didn’t say anything else?”

It was after dinner that evening, and after a bit of prodding from Hermione about Draco’s odd mood, he had relayed the whole conversation to her.

“No, and he sat by me at dinner.” Draco said, still sounding confused. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

“What do you mean?” Hermione asked, genuinely confused. “It sounds like he’s trying to be your friend.”

“I think he is, but that’s a complicated game to play.” Draco sighed.

“How so?” Hermione asked.

“Well, for starters, it would mean acting like a different version of myself.” Draco explained. “He… called you a Mudblood.”

Hermione stiffened at the ugly word, as it hung between them.

“It made me mad.” He admitted. “It took everything in me not to jump to your defense. And that just made me mad at myself.”

“For not defending me, or for wanting to?” Hermione asked softly.

“For not defending you, for such a petty reason as having someone to talk to at dinner.” Draco said, sounding disgusted with himself. “I thought… I thought… ‘I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape’.”

Great Expectations.” Hermione murmured, and threw her arms around Draco, “That isn’t petty at all!”

“You’re not mad at me?” Draco asked, surprised.

“Mad at you for being upset with someone calling me a bad name?” Hermione asked, incredulous. “No. Of course not.”

“But I just stood there, and let him call you that.” Draco said, ducking his head.

“Well, it sounds a bit more complicated than that,” Hermione admitted, “But you’re the one who wants to keep our relationship a secret. I understand that that’s going to create some unusual situations.”

“Hermione, you know why we have to keep this a secret!” Draco whined. “The whole world loves you, and the whole world hates me. And I’m just getting Yaxley’s trust back, how am I going to be a double agent for you if I out myself as a blood traitor?!”

“That’s rubbish, the whole world doesn’t love me.” Hermione blushed, rolling her eyes.

“You don’t think so?” Draco asked. “One of the third years was discussing at dinner, if you would take a picture with him. Apparently he’s been bragging to his cousin at Ilvermorny that he knows you.”

“One kid in America hearing stories about me from his cousin isn’t the same as the whole world loving me.” Hermione pointed out.

“Still.” Draco said sadly. “You know once people find out about us, it’ll become a circus.”

“I don’t know that.” Hermione said stubbornly. “You’re assuming that.”

“You know I’m right ‘Mione.” Draco said softly.

“Well, back to the subject of Blaise.” Hermione said, “I don’t want you to drive away a possible friend because you’re concerned about spying for the Order.”

“You don’t?” Draco asked, agog.

“Of course not!” Hermione said, exasperated. “Draco, you’ve been isolated all year! When we’re not together, I have Neville, and Luna, and Ginny, and Ron, and Harry, and my Parents. You sit in your dorm and read.”

Draco mumbled something.

“What?” Hermione asked, laying a hand on his arm, right over his Dark Mark.

“I’ve never really had a real friend.” Draco admitted softly. “I had Crabbe and Goyle, who were really just goons.”

“I always wondered why you spent time with them.” Hermione admitted. “You may have been a prat when you were younger, but you were always smart. I never understood why you’d hang round with those oafs.”

“Convenience.” Draco sighed. “All our fathers were Death Eaters, so we were thrown together a lot as kids. And then later, they were the only ones who—understood isn’t the right word—the only ones who knew about my assignment in sixth year.”

Hermione nodded. “I guess that makes sense.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Draco, I think maybe you shouldn’t spy for the Order.” Hermione said softly. “There is too much to lose, and too little to gain.”

“But you don’t have a spy inside.” Draco pointed out.

“No, but we’ve managed without a spy for a while now.” Hermione explained. “And you know, eventually, you’d have to do something Dark. You saw what it did to Severus, after all those years.”

“Why don’t we put a pin in it, and see what happens.” Draco suggested. “Kingsley won’t let me near anything until I finish out my probation.”

Hermione knew it was a pointless argument, so she nodded. “It’s a Hogsmede weekend next week! Do you want to go to the village? You should get Blaise to go with you!”

“You trying to get rid of me?” Draco teased.

“No!” Hermione groaned. “But if you insist on keeping this a secret, it’s not like we can just cruise into the Three Broomsticks together.”

“I thought you were more of a Hog’s Head girl these days.” Draco chuckled. “Or have you kicked the Fire Whiskey habit.”

“Um, actually…” Hermione’s voice cut off.

“What is it?” Draco pressed.

“Well, I am going to the Hog’s Head.” Hermione admitted. “For an Order meeting.”

“You have got to be kidding me!” Draco cried. “You’ve been back at school for a few weeks, you’re still not even cleared by your Healer yet!”

“Draco, it’s a routine meeting.” Hermione explained. “We’re just getting updates, new codes and things. It’s not a big deal.”

“I want to come with you.” Draco demanded.

“Well, you can’t.” Hermione said sharply.

“Look, I don’t care if people find out about us.” Draco argued. “I’m not going to let you walk into the lions den alone.”

“Draco, don’t be overdramatic.” Hermione sighed. “You can’t come to the meeting because you’re not in the Order.”

Draco groaned. “It’s not such a secret society you know! Everyone knows about you!”

“No, they think they know about us.” Hermione insisted. “But they can only speculate on who is a member, and what we are doing. Which is basically nothing, now that the Aurors are getting their numbers up to snuff.”

Draco growled, crossing his arms. “I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to like it.” Hermione said with a smirk. “You do have to accept it.”

Draco sighed, he knew eventually this would come up. Just because Hermione was meant to avoid the Cruciatis didn’t mean she would automatically resign herself to sitting home and knitting.

“Nothing crazy happening?” He asked. “Just a routine meeting?”

“I promise.” Hermione said.

“Fine, but I’m going to come lurk around Hogsmede like a Dementor then.” Draco pouted.

“You can surely think of something more interesting to do on your first day of freedom.” Hermione laughed.

“In Hogsmede?” Draco chuckled. “I’m not exactly a Honeydukes man.”

“There’s a lot of new shops there now.” Hermione said. “So much closed down during the war, and didn’t open back up. You might be surprised.”

“Well, I do need to do some shopping.” Draco said, scratching his chin. “My gift stash is getting low.”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Yes, heaven forbid you go a single day without giving me a present.”

“I said a gift every day, and I am nothing if not a man of my word!” Draco insisted.

“Hey, how have you been doing that?” Hermione asked, looking curious. “How did you do the dress even? You’ve been under house arrest all this time.”

“Well…” Draco scuffed his toe along the rug. “My house elf has been helping me.”

“Your what?!” Hermione gasped. “Draco… you know how I feel about house elves!”

“Well, she wanted to help.” Draco said, sounding a bit defensive. “And besides, Darby is a free elf.”

“She’s… a free elf?” Hermione stuttered.

“Yes.” Draco said, matter-of-factly. “Darby was my personal elf, she was given to me the day I was born. When I was eleven, I freed her when I left for Hogwarts. I didn’t want my father to be able to give her orders.”

“You freed her when you were eleven?” Hermione was shocked. “And she’s still with you?”

“Well, I explained that I was doing it to protect her from my father.” Draco said softly. “Once I turned 17 and had access to my trust fund, I tried to pay her, but she wouldn’t have it.”

Hermione gaped at Draco.

"What?" Draco asked, looking nervous.

"I just..." Hermione was speechless, and threw her arms around Draco.

"Whoa, it's ok!" Draco said, hugging her back.

"Where is she?" Hermione asked, softly.

"She comes and goes from different Malfoy properties." Draco explained. "Unless I call her, she doesn't have specific chores, so she kind of maintains things at her own discretion."

"And she's been buying my presents?" Hermione inquired.

"Yes, she has access to my accounts, and I tell her things to bring back." Draco said, playing with Hermione's hair.

"Wow." Hermione said. "That's incredible. That's really a testament to the kind of man you are!"

"How do you figure?" Draco asked, softly.

"Well, you freed a slave when you were eleven, to keep her from being abused!" Hermione exclaimed. "And you obviously treat her well enough that she doesn't leave, even though she could! Draco, that says more about you than everything else I've learned this year!"

Draco blushed red. It didn't seem that complex to him. Darby had been his nanny and best friend all in one when he was young. Being an only child in an enormous manor hadn’t afforded him much in the way of entertainment, and she had kept him amused and out of trouble. There was no way he could leave her to his father’s devices.

“I don’t know about that.” He muttered, trying not to blush deeper.

“I do.” Hermione said, squeezing his hand.

“Can we talk about something else?” Draco asked.

“Sure.” Hermione chuckled. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Let’s play some more 20 Questions!” Draco grinned.

The book quoted in this chapter is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

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