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,
"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,
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 week—creation 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 you—oh, 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.
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