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There was no word strong enough to accurately describe Hermione's crippling embarrassment. As if her abysmal marks in Potions had not been enough, she managed to expose not only herself to poison, but Malfoy too. All of their classmates witnessed the unforgettable mistake, and by dinnertime, she suspected the rest of the school would have their own versions of what happened—and none of them would be particularly flattering.

 

Once Madam Pomfrey was satisfied with Hermione's dozens of tests, the eighth-year girl could not wait to return to Arithmancy, where her talents would be put to better use, and where Malfoy sat behind her so she did not have to see him out of her peripheral vision. To her dismay, Professor Slughorn had other plans for her.

 

She sat beside Malfoy awkwardly as Slughorn stared back at them with his lips curved downward. According to the clock on his office wall, she had already missed Arithmancy.

 

"Miss Granger, Mr. Malfoy," the professor said, gravely, steepling his fingers. "I thank you both for joining me. The subject matter seemed a bit too delicate to discuss in the hall..."

 

"I don't see what's so delicate about it," Malfoy sneered. "She poisoned me."

 

Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but Slughorn held up a pudgy finger. "Accidents often happen in my classroom, Mr. Malfoy, and when they do, we use it as an opportunity to learn. I'm sure you know as well as I that Miss Granger is a capable witch, and after this incident, I assume that she will be much more careful with her potion-making."

 

Suddenly, Hermione's cheeks felt incredibly warm. Never had she made such a dire mistake in a class, and Malfoy being involved only made it worse.

 

"But, sir—"

 

"Because of your proclivity for top-notch potions and your apparent need to be rid of your prejudices, I have decided that there is an obvious solution to all of this." A small vial on Slughorn's desk began shrieking, but ceased as he tapped it with his wand. "Rather than detention, I'd like to entrust you with mentoring Miss Granger."

 

Hermione's stomach lurched. Never had she needed a mentor, but if she had, Draco Malfoy would be one of her last choices—perhaps just ahead of Pansy Parkinson. His knack for the coursework was undeniable, yet that did not mean that he would be able to teach her much of anything. After all, her poor marks were clearly due to stress, and being forced to spend time with Malfoy was certain to trigger more of it.

 

"I'll take the detention, thanks," Malfoy spat, crossing his arms.

 

"Unfortunately, it isn't a choice, Mr. Malfoy. As the Head of Slytherin House, it is my duty to assure that you leave this school with the best education that you can, and while you excel in my class, you have a lot to learn about people, my boy. Miss Granger is a talented girl. I suspect you won't have much trouble in tutoring her."

 

"What if I'd rather you give him detention too?" Hermione cut in.

 

"Well, I can't have you poisoning my class, Miss Granger," Slughorn said, lightly. "Besides, I suspect you would rather see good marks on your N.E.W.T. than avoid Mr. Malfoy here."

 

Defeated, Hermione clenched her jaw. She did not know what she would do if she didn't pass her N.E.W.T., and she most certainly would not pass if she exposed another classmate—or classmates—to toxic chemicals.

 

"How long do I have to do this?" Malfoy growled.

 

"As long as it takes," Slughorn replied, airily. "When the two of you meet will be up to you, but it must be at least once per week until I see an improvement in your attitude and an improvement in Miss Granger's performance—no offense meant to you, Miss Granger. Surely, you can be trusted to arrange that between yourselves."

 

"Yes, of course, Professor," Hermione said. "I—we'll—find time."

 

"Superb!" Slughorn gave her a nod. "Well, that will be all. The two of you ought to go get some dinner. Tiring afternoon, I imagine, with all of those silly tests that Poppy made you endure. Bit over-the-top, in my honest opinion, but Professor McGonagall insists we're more careful, so more careful, we must be."

 

Seething, Malfoy shot her a glare and stomped out. Hermione waited a few seconds before leaving, nervously smiling at Professor Slughorn while she waited. She was in no rush to be anywhere near her new mentor, so despite her growling stomach, she went back to her private dormitory as she had been most evenings. Her argument with Ginny suddenly seemed unimportant.

 

 

***

 

 

Friday's Defense Against the Dark Arts lecture might have been interesting if it were not for Professor Whittlewood. The elderly woman's monotonous chapter reviews were neverending, and with Malfoy glaring daggers in her direction, Hermione was convinced that the lesson would be the death of her.

 

Like she often did, Whittlewood called upon Hermione for several of the more challenging questions. Usually, Hermione would be pleased by this, but her thoughts of Ron, Harry, Ginny, and Malfoy were spilling over into her studies, leaving her unable to think of anything else.

 

"Miss Granger?"

 

Her classmates were staring at her, wearing amused smirks as she stumbled through yet another interaction with the bespectacled professor. Malfoy, however, was scowling.

 

"Miss Granger, I really am surprised that you didn't find time to read the chapter. Please be prepared next time," Professor Whittlewood hummed, disappointedly. "For all of you that did read it, you'd know that there is a counter. A diagonal swoop of the wand and 'Incribro' will do it."

 

A few seventh-years muttered the counterspell under their breath. Hermione, however, did not need to practice the spell, as she had mastered it by the time that she was fourteen. Why she could not answer Whittlewood correctly, she did not know, but she suspected that her distractions were starting to take a toll on her overall performance rather than just Potions.

 

Nightmares of war often robbed her of sleep. Alas, with no word from Ron or Harry, she found herself sleeping less and less. Fog clouded her brain, reminding her that rest was imperative for sound thinking, yet when the time for rest came, the fog mocked her, diminishing into the night to clear the path for unwelcome thoughts. Harry's mangled body. Ron and a handsome woman held close to his side. The same woman murdering him. As outlandish as her ponderings were, they haunted her all the same.

 

Then, there was the final component of her misery. Within six days, she was expected to work with the foulest boy that she had ever met—one that not only was prejudiced against her and everyone like her, but one that also watched her squirm upon the floor of his family home. She had spent a good portion of the evening watching the moonlight dance upon the ceiling, thinking to herself about everything that he might say and how she might have to respond. Being civil with Malfoy had never been easy, and this experience would be one of her most challenging tests yet.

 

The bell rang and she scurried out of the room. She needed to escape—to escape Ginny, Malfoy, Whittlewood, and everyone else that made her question herself. Unfortunately, someone grabbed her arm.

 

"Where do you think you're going?"

 

Hermione wheeled around and was met with narrow, steel eyes. The long, elegant fingers that were wrapped around her bicep belonged to the person she wanted to avoid most.

 

"To my dorm," she said, calmly removing his hand from her person. "I have a free period before Transfiguration. What's it to you?"

 

"Trust me, Granger, I'd rather be anywhere than standing here in the hallway with you." His eyes briefly trailed over her shoulder. "Unfortunately, we will both be in a bit of trouble if we don't do as Slughorn asked, so we ought to schedule a time over the weekend and get this bloody thing over with."

 

Curious what Malfoy had been looking at, Hermione glanced behind her. There stood Ginny, her ginger eyebrows furrowed and her jaw agape. Several others were watching them with interest too, likely wondering what exactly a war heroine and a notorious Death Eater could be discussing. This, for as long as it took her to improve her marks in Potions, would be her reality.

 

"Can we discuss this later? Maybe without an audience?"

 

Malfoy flared his nostrils. Without a word, he turned on his heel, his robes sweeping behind him, and stalked down the corridor.

 

 

***

 

 

Hermione half-expected Malfoy to approach her again after Transfiguration, another class that they, regrettably, shared. Fortunately for her, Professor McGonagall's replacement, Professor Zigg, was as strict, if not stricter, than his predecessor, and Malfoy was caught rolling his eyes one too many times.

 

"Mr. Malfoy, ten points from Slytherin for your attitude, and see me after class," Zigg demanded. "I expect that kind of nonsense from my first-years, but not from N.E.W.T. students."

 

Hermione smiled and recited her spell. Finally, with a short sense of relief, she was able to transform her rabbit into a cowboy boot with only three minutes to spare.

 

Sadly, her mood was ruined as she walked to the greenhouses and saw two fifth-years kissing in the hallway. When Malfoy was not tormenting her, thoughts of Ronald Weasley were quick to take his place. 

 

 

***

 

 

The next day, a growl woke Hermione from her slumber. Infrequent meals were not enough to satiate her primal needs, and her loose-fitting robes served as a daily reminder. The witch, once so bright, had become mere famine and restlessness.

 

Terror wove through her sleep cycle, drawing deep purple circles beneath her eyes and pounding at the walls of her skull. After an evening of crying herself to sleep over Ronald Weasley, she wanted nothing more than pleasant dreams, but whether she was awake or not, memories of war always plagued her in the dead of night.

 

Her camisole, moistened by sweat, clung to her small frame. She peeled it off to change into a jumper and a skirt, and as she did so, she caught a glimpse of herself in her mirror. Lines of ribs peeked back at her.

 

The Saturday morning trek to the library was, fortunately, quiet, as the few students that were awake were eating breakfast in the Great Hall. Once she found an isolated corner, she opened her Herbology book, A Guide for the Advanced Herbologist, and began to read the assigned chapter.

 

Merman's Wart, a bulbous, white fungus, has a myriad of use cases. Because of its multipurpose nature, it is oftentimes utilized as a main ingredient in potions that are meant to heal, moisturize, and regenerate. Some of the potions featuring this ingredient are able to fade magical scars, slow the spread of venom, repair cracking skin, and even build muscles.

 

Unfortunately for Potioneers and Healers alike, Merman's Wart is incredibly rare. Found only in the rivers of Borneo, the fungus—

 

Hermione could not picture the rivers of Borneo. In fact, she could not even recall the content of the paragraph that she had just read. Harry's glassy eyes were staring at her, vacantly, his brow slick with sweat as he whispered in Parseltongue. Ron was kissing Lavender. Fred lay, motionless, as Mrs. Weasley sobbed over his bloodied corpse.

 

After rereading the paragraph thrice, Hermione finally felt that she had retained the information.

 

Unfortunately for Potioneers and Healers alike, Merman's Wart is incredibly rare. Found only in the rivers of Borneo, the fungus is one of the scarcest in the world. It earned its name as the merpeople of Borneo have been harvesting it for centuries, specifically to slow the venom of the Four-Ringed River Serpent, a magical serpent that some believe may be related to the basilisk.

 

Because this ingredient is not common—

 

The insistent thought of another girl kissing Ron made her feel sick. No longer could it be Lavender, but Hermione knew that Ron would be meeting women all over the United Kingdom while he traveled for his new job. There were girls in the world that were much more experienced than she was—more willing to experiment in ways that she had not been ready to experiment.

 

Gritting her teeth, Hermione stared at the text on the page. Ron was far too loyal to move on after spending a long, romantic summer with her. She was sure of it.

 

Because this ingredient is not common, there are few that are qualified to work with it. Herbologists, Potioneers, and Healers from Borneo that have specialized in its use have spread their knowledge to those in Western countries, but there are not many that are fortunate enough to make the journey to—

 

Frustrated, she groaned and slammed her book shut, earning a disapproving glare from Madam Pince.

 

After all that Ronald had said to her, she could not believe that he had the audacity to ignore her letters. He spoke to her in the way that many girls dreamed boys might speak to them, but perhaps, it was just that: a senseless dream.

 

"Ronald, you're drunk."

 

"Maybe," he purred, sloppily kissing his way up her neck. "Merlin, you're pretty. You know that, right?"

 

"Am I?" She tugged at his robes. "I don't believe you."

 

"B-blimey, Hermione. I-I—"

 

"Hey!" Harry shouted from outside the door. "Ron, we have to be up early to meet Shacklebolt. You better not be—"

 

"Thought I might find you here."

 

Ginny was standing over her, a hand on her hip. In her other hand, she held a folded leaf of parchment.

 

"Erm—yeah. I—"

 

"Look, I'm not here to talk about the fact that you've been avoiding me," Ginny said, quickly. She held the parchment out towards Hermione. "Harry wrote you."

 

"Really?" Hermione asked in disbelief, accepting the letter. Receiving mail from Harry made her ecstatic, mostly because he may have an update regarding Ron. If anyone would know what her summertime beau was doing, it would be him. "Thank you. I'm sorry, I—"

 

"I'm not here to talk about that," Ginny said, gruffly. She lowered down to the floor beside her friend. "Sorry for the ripped corner... I had to wrestle it away from Altius since it wasn't my post..."

 

Hermione noticed scratch marks on Ginny's hands and felt a sinking sense of guilt as she unfolded the letter.

 

Dear Hermione,

 

Sorry it took a while to write back. I've been really busy with training.

 

Shacklebolt has us in the field more now. We have a lot of leads on Death Eaters that escaped during the war. Can't say much on that, though. It's all confidential until we catch them and go to trial. Can never be too careful about what I put in writing.

 

Anyway, how are you? How is Hogwarts? Is McGonagall a good headmistress? I bet you're glad to be back in school. You've always been brilliant.

 

Write back soon.

 

Harry

 

Hermione, though she was glad to hear that Harry was well, still knew little of Ron. Smiling through her aching heart, she mustered, "Thanks, Gin."

 

"No problem," Ginny replied. "Erm—I did have one thing I wanted to ask you about."

 

"Ask away," Hermione said, feeling quite ill as she rifled through the many possibilities of Ron's silence. Maybe Harry hadn't mentioned him because he knew she would take the news poorly. Maybe Ron had met a girl in the field—one more like Lavender Brown. Maybe his newfound success had driven them apart. Maybe she wasn't worldly enough for him now that he had a career. Whatever reality it was that Harry was avoiding, she wanted to avoid it too.

 

"Well, er—what were you and Malfoy talking about in the hallway?"

 

Hermione let out a telling groan. "He's—ahem—supposed to help me with my Potions studies."

 

"You're studying with Malfoy?" Ginny asked, confusedly. "Why?"

 

"Slughorn's making us. I—er—well, I'm not doing as well in Potions as I'd like to be," Hermione explained. "Apparently, Malfoy is quite good, so when he called me a nasty name in class—no, don't give me that look, Ginny! Don't go blasting a Bat-Bogey at him or anything. Honestly, I probably deserved it, in a way... You see, I sort of poisoned him—"

 

"You poisoned him?" Ginny sounded more gleeful than she did concerned.

 

"It wasn't on purpose! But anyway, Slughorn made him mentor me as a sort of punishment. It's supposed to teach him to treat Muggle-borns better or something. He's really taking this whole Head of Slytherin thing pretty seriously..."

 

"So this is a bit of a punishment for both of you then," Ginny said, pointedly. "I mean, Malfoy shouldn't be mentoring you on anything. That's no secret."

 

"It's fine. If I hadn't poisoned him, I wouldn't be stuck studying with him. We get to stop as soon as I start doing better in Potions, so I'll just study a lot on my own and we'll be done with it." Hermione said, feigning confidence. "Erm—do you know how your brother is doing? Ron, I mean."

 

"He hasn't written and Harry doesn't mention him much. Why? Haven't you heard from him?"

 

"No, I haven't."

 

"So that's why you've been—oh, that troll! When I see him, I'll—" Ginny balled a fist.

 

"It's fine," Hermione interjected. "He's probably just been busy."

 

"I can ask Harry to—"

 

"No! I mean—no. I'll—erm—I'm sure he'll get back to me. Thanks, though." Hermione smiled, but she could barely breathe. "And thanks for the letter. You didn't have to do that."

 

"Yeah," Ginny replied, getting to her feet. "Nothing to be fussed about. You're sure you're okay?"

 

"I'm sure."

 

The words did not sound like they had come from her lips. She was not even sure that they had.

 

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