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.
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.
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