The door to the cellar creaked open to reveal a dark figure slipping inside. This was a secret entrance that only members of the family were aware of. He was positive that the house was not being watched, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful. Especially when it could mean capture and a very long prison term. Large puddles formed on the rough stone steps as the figure crept down the stairs as quietly as he could.
He moved to the door that led to the pantry and turned the knob slowly. He peeked around the corner to make sure that he was alone before he proceeded to the stairs that would take him to the bedrooms on the second floor. He was shivering from the cold, soaked to the bone after running through the heavy downpour outside.
But it was worth it and he did not regret going out on such a dreadful night. It was either this or stay in his hideout and face the possibility of being dragged away to Azkaban. Only his wits and acute instinct for survival had enabled him to elude the hunters.
As far as he could tell, the authorities were still unaware of his whereabouts and he wanted it to stay that way. They had stopped monitoring this house after three months of his non-appearance. They were probably now waiting for him at either one of his resthouses in the country. As if he would be that stupid!
He’d thought of waking up his wife but he remembered that she’d already left, choosing to stay in her family’s ancestral home to avoid the constant stream of reporters and Ministry investigators alike. She would not have welcomed him with open arms, anyway, even if she was here. He knew how much she hated him right now and he doubted if she’d already altered her stand. He truly wanted to make things right, to explain himself to her, but her last words to him still rang in his ears.
Besides, after he has retrieved what he had come for, it would not matter anyway. Things between them would change. EVERYTHING would change!
He walked to the room at the end of the hall – his son’s room. This was the last room he had visited before he made his disappearing act. After everything started to unravel, he knew that it would be the safest place to hide his precious, albeit illegal, artifact. His wife would not even dream of searching her son’s room; she trusted him that much.
And why shouldn’t she? As it turned out, he was as different from his father as night was from day. It caused a pang in his heart. Oh, yes! Despite what everyone thought, he did have a heart. And it had broken into a million pieces when he saw his world crumbling before his very eyes. How could they turn against him like that? Didn’t they know that he was just looking after the family name and legacy? How could they choose to betray their bloodline?
But enough of that! He had work to do and he must do it fast!
The room was pitch-black, but he didn’t need any illumination to accomplish his purpose. He knew this room like the back of his hand. The thick carpeting muffled his steps so he moved freely across the floor, straight to the large, four-poster bed. He went down on his knees when his hands felt the bed. Sliding his hand beneath the thick mattress, he pressed on the round button recessed into the wood frame. After hearing the telltale click, he moved his fingers to the small compartment that he knew was now open.
His heart hammered against his chest, fearing what he would find. Had his inquisitive son discovered his secret? He hoped not! A great sigh issued from his lips when his hand felt the cold, metallic object nestled within the compartment. He wasted no time in pocketing it before running down the stairs and out into the pouring rain.
When he was a few meters away from the house, he turned to look up at the darkened structure. The next time he came back here, he would no longer be skulking in the shadows. He would be welcomed as lord of his own castle again.
He would take back everything he’d lost during the war – his dignity, his pride, his rightful place in society. He would even take back his traitorous wife and his disillusioned son!
And this time, things would stay the way that they should – he would make sure of that!
Hogwarts looked the same and yet it didn’t. It was the same ancient structure that has housed thousands of students for centuries, yet there was something different to it. There was an air of unmistakable melancholia and grief, like the very stones were groaning silently. Perhaps because it still hasn’t finished mourning its losses. Or perhaps because what used to be a place of adventure and fun had turned into a place of sorrow and broken promises.
At least that’s how it felt like to Hermione Granger, one-third of the Golden Trio, war heroine, one of the saviors of Wizardkind.
She sighed as she slung her backpack on her shoulders. Such lofty titles! She didn’t even deserve half of it. Except the one-third of the Golden Trio bit. That one she really was. Up until last month, that is. Now she didn’t even know if she was still part of a Trio. Or if she even wanted to be. One thing’s for sure – she’s not too keen on being with one of their members. The red-headed one to be precise.
Everything was going smoothly, or so she thought. They started being ‘together’ right after the war. After that hot, face-melting kiss that they shared in the Chamber of Secrets, it was the only logical outcome. But then, after a few weeks, the fights started. They would argue about the simplest of things, with Ron blowing up at the slightest provocation.
Then, Ron began spending more and more time away from her. Even when she was at the Burrow, he would make excuses (Quidditch practice with Harry, or Dean, or whoever) and leave her in the company of his mom and siblings. Good thing she was already best friends with Ginny, so it didn’t seem so awkward for her to stay there even when Ron was out. She reasoned that he was just getting more serious about Quidditch, even thinking of turning it into a profession after they graduate from Hogwarts, so he needed all the training that he could get. She missed him, but if that’s what he wanted, then she’d support him all the way.
Until she saw him with Padma Patil at Honeydukes, being all sweet and attentive. And on a day that he said he would be out practicing with Harry!
That was their biggest fight ever. Ron, of course, denied that anything was going on between him and Padma. He even accused Hermione of being paranoid. She apologized, mortified that she was probably reading too much into an innocent meeting with an old friend (or flame?). Ron ‘forgave’ her and things went back to normal for the next few days. She slipped back into complacency and before she knew it, he was also back to his old habit of leaving her in the Burrow. It went on like that for another month, until she caught him again with Padma. This time, Ron could no longer make excuses. It seemed quite hard to explain how his lips were inadvertently glued to Padma’s at Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop. She walked away without saying goodbye and that was the end of their very short-lived romance. It may have been short-lived, but it still hurt like hell. And now, she didn’t know how she would be able to face him again.
A voice calling out her name pulled her away from her dismal thoughts. She turned around and saw Harry walking briskly toward her, his brows knotted in a deep frown.
“Hermione! Will you please wait up. We’ve been hollering your name for ages!”
Hermione saw Ginny right behind him, her brows arched in question.
“I’m sorry, guys. I was just running my schedule through my head. I wanted to make sure that I won’t miss anything,” she replied, smiling sheepishly at her best friends.
“Are you okay?” Ginny asked, reaching for her hand.
Hermione’s throat closed up on her, touched by the genuine concern she heard in Ginny’s voice. She swallowed her oncoming tears and nodded, squeezing Ginny’s hand. “I’m okay, Gin. Don’t worry about me. What’s your first class, by the way?”
“Uhm, I have History and I think it’s Advanced Potions with Professor Slughorn for Harry. Right, hon?”
“Yes, it is. What’s your first class, Mione?” Harry replied, slipping his hand behind Ginny’s waist, pulling her close.
Hermione had seen the two in such a stance countless of times, but somehow she felt uncomfortable seeing them like that now. She needed to get away lest she ruined the day for her best friends.
“Great! I’ll see you at Potions then, Harry. I’ll just make a detour to the library. I need to get something from there. Good luck with your first class, Gin. I hope you don’t fall asleep. Bye!” She waved, turned and walked as fast as she could, leaving the two gawking at her retreating figure.
She did not go to the library, though. She locked herself in one of the stalls in the ladies’ room and cried her eyes out.
Draco Malfoy pinned the HeadBoy badge on his robe with trepidation. Under any other circumstance, he would’ve strutted around with it. But after everything that had happened to all of them because of the war (which up to now he felt a little responsible for), he hardly considered himself worthy of such honor. Why couldn’t have HeadMistress McGonagall chosen someone else? Why not Potter or Longbottom? They were truly the two biggest heroes of the war, so why didn’t she choose either of the two? Granger deserved the spot, McGonagall informed him that she was the HeadGirl, but him? Sometimes he really wondered if there wasn’t something wrong inside the HeadMistress’ noggin.
He shook his head and glanced at his image in the mirror. Physically, he looked the same, yet he really wasn’t. The past year had changed him so much he could hardly recognize himself. Where was the cocky, arrogant, spoiled brat that he once was? Where was the self-assured, immature snob who bullied his classmates out of boredom? The Draco that was looking back at him now was a grown-up version, a wiser, stronger version of that young, insecure boy. And he could bet half his inheritance that no one ever considered that he was even that. All they saw was the obnoxious Draco. And could he blame them? Up until that time when he decided to finally declare what was truly in his heart and mind, people saw him as nothing but a teenage Death Eater. No one ever thought that all his life, he was being forced into a role that he couldn’t get out of.
Zabini’s voice calling out to him cut into his musings. He brushed his hair back with his hand, smoothed his robe and turned toward the door.
“Malfoy! We’re going to be late! Enough with your primping. I’m sure you’re prettier than half the girls in our class, anyway,” Zabini hollered.
Draco chuckled at his friend’s statement. He really should get a move on. Bending down, he grabbed his backpack, slung it over his shoulders and strode out the room. Zabini jumped to his feet and followed him to the door.
“What’s got your knickers in a knot, Zabini? So eager to start with your lessons? That’s a first for sure!”
“Pansy’s already waiting for us. You know how she gets when we’re late. We won’t hear the end of it! And I don’t want my first day ruined just yet.”
“You’re whipped, man,” Draco threw over his shoulder.
“Hah! Let’s see if you’re any better at handling your girlfriend,” Zabini retorted.
“Which is why I have no plans of having one.”
“Oh, right! I forgot that girls, for you, are good at only one thing.”
“Damn right, you are! I have no intention of turning into a sniveling fool like you.”
“Okay! Enough already! Let’s not get worked up before we even get to class. We’re having Potions with the Gryffindors, you know.”
Draco groaned. Even though they’re now on speaking terms with their former nemeses, there was still a sort of barrier that they could not seem to overcome. It really isn’t that easy to forget all those years of bad blood between the two houses. Only a miracle could change that.
His thoughts went back to the last days of the war. He’d admitted to his mother of his intention to switch sides. She was against it, of course. Not because she still believed in the Dark Lord’s cause, but because she feared what his father would do to him if he found out. But he saw no other way to right the wrongs that he has done. He owed as much to Dumbledore. Even after the great man found out about his mission, he still tried to help him. Up to the very last minute of his life, actually. And he could never dismiss that lightly.
He pulled himself from his musings when they reached the Dungeon, the site of their Advanced Potions class. Most of their classmates were already there, even the Gryffindors. Blaise pushed past him and rushed to sit beside Pansy, who was glaring at both of them. Draco chose to sit on the last row, away from the lovebirds. Sometimes it was hard not to get annoyed with their constant whisperings. Dumping his backpack on his desk, he leaned back in his chair and waited for Professor Slughorn to finish what he was writing on the board. He smirked as he realized that it was a potion he was very familiar with. Today’s work would be a breeze.
Draco leaned on his bag and sighed. He shouldn’t be here. It was only because his mother begged him to finish his studies that he was compelled to come back to Hogwarts. The war had changed a lot of things, but he feared that some things would never do. The opinion of people, for one. Even though he fought side by side with some of his classmates from Gryffindor during the war, they still kept a safe distance from him now. They treated him quite civilly, but with a coldness that was even worse than their former disdain. A slight movement to his left caught his attention. When he turned to look, he was surprised to see Hermione Granger sitting beside him. He whipped his head around to look for the Weas-, Weasley (he really should start ditching his former nasty nicknames for the Gryffindors!) and he saw him sitting up front with Longbottom.
“I think you’ve got the wrong seat, Granger. Your gang is up front, why are you hanging about in the shadows here with me?”
Silence. Hermione’s eyes were downcast, her fingers fumbling at the clasp of her backpack. Draco’s brows knotted into a frown. He’d half expected a quick retort from her and he wondered what made her wake up on the wrong side of bed. He saw that she was getting frustrated with the troublesome clasp so he reached out and grabbed the bag from her.
“Here, let me,” he said as he clicked on the clasp and opened the front flap of the bag. He shoved the bag back to Hermione and took a closer look at her. Her eyes were puffy and her nose was red. She had obviously been crying.
“Hey, Granger, what’s wrong,” he asked, leaning close.
Hermione’s head shot up and her eyes flashed in anger.
“Mind your own business, Malfoy.”
“Hey, don’t snap at me. I was just trying to help.”
“Well, I don’t need it.”
“You obviously did, just a minute ago. You couldn’t even open your damned bag.”
“I could’ve! If you didn’t just grab it from me and acted like my damn savior!” Hermione whispered furiously at him.
“Well, excuse me, Miss I-Can-Do-Everything-By-Myself! Remind me never to come to your aid anytime soon. Or better yet, make that never,” Draco snapped back. He couldn’t understand how his emotions seemed to go up and down whenever he was near her. How could his concern turn into annoyance in a flick of a finger? He shot a parting glance at her and turned his attention back to Professor Slughorn who’d just started to address the class.
“Good morning, everyone! So, we’re going to do something different today. As you can see, I have here two glasses filled with strips of parchment. You will each get one,” he gave one glass to Longbottom and the other to Nott.
“Get one then pass it along. Since we’re all starting anew, and this is a brand new day at Hogwarts,” he chuckled, “Merlin, the whole wizarding world, actually! I’d like to foster camaraderie amongst all the Houses. So, you will see that if you’re a Gryffindor, the name on the parchment that you picked out will be of someone from Slytherin and vise versa. I’ve charmed the parchments to do that on their own. And just so you won’t get tempted to cheat, the moment you pick out the parchment, the partners’ names will be reflected on the board automatically.”
A slight murmur, mostly grumbling, echoed in the room. “Go on, pass it along, Daley. That’s right. Yes, go on. Take note that whoever you picked out will be your partner for the rest of the year.”
And just as the Professor had said, names were now appearing on the board: LONGBOTTOM – NOTT, POTTER – ZABINI, PARKINSON - WEASLEY….
The grumbling grew louder as more and more names were revealed. It seemed that none of them were happy with their partners. This really would be an interesting year for the Advanced Potions class of Professor Slughorn.
Draco took the glass from Finnigan, he could see that there were just two strips of parchment left. One for him and one for Hermione.
I have a bad feeling about this, he thought.
He dipped his finger inside and picked one of the last two remaining strips then passed the glass along to Hermione. Then, he looked up the board and waited for their names to appear. He didn’t even open the folded strip of paper, he just knew who his partner would be.
And as predicted, their names appeared on the board just as he heard Hermione squeak, “Oh, no! Merlin help me!”
MALFOY – GRANGER.
There are days that don't really take off the way that you want them to. And for Hermione, this was definitely one of those days. After a disastrous Potions class, everything just continued to go downhill. She was late for her Runes class (which was actually Malfoy's fault – they had to stay behind and clean up the mess they created), then she forgot her book for Charms class, so she had to go back to the Tower to retrieve it (making her miss lunch in the process!), then Defence Against the Dark Arts was with the Slytherins again! She spent most of her time purposely ignoring Malfoy (which gave her a stiff neck since he sat beside her just to annoy her).
Hermione sighed as she trudged up to the Great Hall. Will this day never end? She would've preferred to go straight to bed but her stomach was already protesting. She couldn't miss dinner since she'd already missed lunch, if she did she'd only wake up hungry in the middle of the night and then she won't be able to sleep. Which in turn would make her cranky in the morning. So, she dragged herself to dinner and prepared for the worst.
The Hall was almost full when she got there. The four tables were already filled with students gorging on the delicious fare. Her stomach growled as the aroma of roasted chicken and pudding greeted her. She moved toward the Gryffindor table but stopped in her tracks when she saw Ron and Padma sitting close together, exchanging spoonfuls of pudding. She'd forgotten that the rules have been relaxed and students were now free to sit wherever they chose to. She looked around and indeed, most of the tables were mixed with Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors sitting together. Only the Slytherins sat apart in their old table. I guess some things never really change.
Ginny waved to her and motioned for her to sit beside Luna, but that would make her sit right across Padma and Ron. She waved back and she shook her head, casting a surreptitious glance at Ron. Ginny got the message and gave her a small, sad smile. Hermione turned back and took a seat at the table nearest the entrance. The first-years sitting there gawked at her, eyeing her Head Girl badge nervously.
"Don't worry, I don't bite," she smiled at the two first-years, a black-haired boy and a red-headed one with glasses (why did she feel like they looked somewhat familiar?). Their shoulders slumped visibly in relief at her assurance.
"I'm Hermione, by the way – Gryffindor. How about you two?"
"I'm Luke, Ravenclaw, and this is my cousin, Thomas. He got sorted into Slytherin," the one with the black hair said.
"Slytherin? Then, why aren't you at the Slytherin table," a familiar voice said. Thomas paled at seeing the Head Boy badge pinned on the newcomer's robes.
Hermione closed her eyes and counted to ten before opening them again to smile at Luke and Thomas. "You really don't have to sit at the Slytherin table if you don't want to, Thomas. Look at the Hufflepuffs, Gryffindors and Ravenclaws. They're all sitting together and no one's telling them to do otherwise."
Thomas nodded but still cast a nervous glance at the one with the Head Boy badge. He kept his head down as he stabbed at his veggies. Luke did the same, his eyes focused on his pudding.
Draco chuckled as he sat down beside Hermione. "That's right, boys. What the Head Girl said is true. You can sit anywhere you want and with anyone you want. I was just messing with you, Thomas."
Thomas nodded, his eyes twinkling as he smiled. Luke also smiled and soon the two were back to eating and talking to each other, the persons of authority sitting before them momentarily forgotten.
"So, why is the Head Girl sitting with two first-years? Not comfortable sitting with the Ravenclaws?" Draco said as he piled his plate with food. He could almost feel the heat of Hermione's glare.
"And what is the Head Boy doing here? Why aren't you sitting with your Slytherin friends? Where's your House pride, Malfoy?" Hermione sneered, filling her plate with veggies, chicken and corn bread.
"Well, I was about to join them, actually, but I heard you bullying these poor boys so I just had to come to their rescue. Don't want you terrifying them before going to bed."
"Bullying? Terrifying? As far as I can remember, it was you who almost scared the wits out of Thomas with that Slytherin nonsense of yours."
"Slytherin nonsense? And what exactly do you mean by that?"
"It's as I've said, nonsense. Just look around you, Malfoy. There are no House tables, anymore. Ravenclaws, Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, all eating, talking, sitting together. Except for the Slytherins who still chose to segregate themselves," Hermione said gesturing to the other tables.
Draco did not have to look around to see the truth of her words. It was the first thing he noticed, even during lunch. But it wasn't entirely the Slytherins' fault. Practically no one chose to sit beside a Slytherin.
"Maybe it's not because they wanted to 'segregate' themselves but rather that they had no choice because no one dared invite them to sit with the other houses. And no one even ventured to join the Slytherin table," Draco replied, trying to keep his simmering anger at bay. He had hoped that the war would finally end all that crap about House segregation, but it was clear that old prejudices die hard. People still viewed the Slytherins as the scum of the earth. Even after a lot of them had fought and bled in the war. Himself included.
"That is so not true, Malfoy," Hermione protested.
"Really? Can you prove it? During the welcome feast last night, did anyone of you invite a Slytherin to your table?" Malfoy turned to Hermione with brows raised, the beginning of a sneer forming on his lips.
"I – I wasn't very attentive last night," Hermione said, her voice barely above a whisper. Last night I was a walking zombie, she wanted to add. How could she have noticed anything other than Ron and Padma pawing at each other? She had to focus on restraining herself from raining curses at Ron during the welcome feast that she wasn't sure if she even ate at all!
"What was that? I didn't quite get it."
Hermione groaned. Will he never stop pestering me? "I said I didn't notice. I wasn't paying attention last night."
"And why weren't you?"
"I had other things on my mind, okay? Just go away, Malfoy!"
"I'm not yet done with dinner. Besides, you may be Head Girl, but are you forgetting that I'm Head Boy? You can't just order me around, Granger."
Draco took a sip of pumpkin juice and turned to look at Hermione. He was expecting to meet her glare but Hermione's eyes were somewhere else. He followed her line of sight and inwardly sighed when he saw what she was looking at. You are such a git, Weaslebee!
He glanced back at Hermione and saw her staring at her food, pushing her veggies around on her plate, her brows knotted in a tight frown. Draco didn't know why he didn't care to see her in such a state. Somehow, he felt like it was his responsibility to cheer her up. But what could he say? Aside from their sporadic verbal jousting, they'd never really talked to each other. And most of those exchanges were peppered with insults and unkind words. Yet, Hermione seemed at her best during those times. Perhaps if he just diverted her attention for a while…
"Didn't your parents ever tell you not to play with your food?" Draco asked, determined to annoy Hermione out of her melancholia.
"Didn't your parents ever tell you to keep out of other people's business?" Hermione blanched as she realized what she had just said. "I – I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
Draco stiffened at the mention of his parents. The past year had caused so much devastation to his family and he just hadn't come to terms with that yet. Still, he didn't want to make a big deal out of it or (strangely!) to make Hermione feel guilty about that harsh reminder of his situation.
"Don't bother, Granger. I'll just pretend I didn't hear you."
"No, really, Draco. I didn't mean to…to say anything about…about," she was cut off by the incredulous look on Draco's face.
"Did you just call me by my first name?" Draco smirked.
"What? No! No, I didn't!" Hermione gasped.
"Yes, you did."
"I did not!"
"Yes, you did. I'm not yet hard of hearing, you know. You said Draco."
"Well, you heard wrong. I would never do such a thing."
"You did, too."
"I DID NOT!"
A few heads turned their way and the two first-years before them froze in their seats. Hermione gave them all a bland smile then turned to Draco and whispered furiously at him.
"Alright! So what if I did? It was just a slip," Hermione bit her tongue as she realized her mistake. Now he would think that I call him Draco in my mind!
"A slip….hmmm," Draco drawled, his lips frozen in a lopsided smile. "A slip means that you're used to doing something, but only in secret. And calling someone by their first name means that you're a bit on intimate terms with that person. Like a friend, or a…lover?"
Hermione snorted at that. "You're delusional, Malfoy," she said, spearing an asparagus rather too harshly. Why ever did I call him by his first name?
Draco leaned closer and whispered into Hermione's ears. "So, you're probably thinking of me on more intimate terms, hmm?"
"Oh, come on! It'll be our little secret," he continued, taunting Hermione by leaning in closer, their arms now brushing against each other.
"Will you just drop it, Malfoy!"
Draco smiled inside, satisfied that he now had Hermione's full attention. She hasn't even looked once at the Gryffindor table during their exchange. Now, let's see how far you'd go, Granger. He moved closer to Hermione, his lips almost touching her ear as he whispered.
"Now, tell me, am I often in your thoughts, Hermione?"
Hermione shot out of her seat and glared down at Draco, her cheeks turning a bright pink.
"You are an impossible, self-absorbed, arrogant, annoying buffoon, Malfoy! And I don't want to ever speak with you again! Ever! You hear?"
And with that, she turned tail and stormed out of the Hall.
Draco grinned, shaking his head as he took another sip of pumpkin juice. Some things just never change, do they?
The moment Hermione entered the Gryffindor Common Room, she let the tears flow down freely. She didn't know why she got so worked up just now. She really must learn how to get a hold of her emotions. And to think that it was Malfoy who made her lose her temper! How many times during their last six years together had she been exposed to his arrogance? What he did back at the Great Hall should not have surprised her. It's just nerves, she reasoned. She'd been upset over Ron, so it was understandable.
Hermione tossed her bag on the couch facing the fireplace. This was their special spot, the place where she, Harry and Ron used to hang out and talk. Would it feel strange if she sat on it alone? She pushed her backpack aside and dumped herself on the familiar couch. It felt no different, it was the same plushy, squishy seat, yet it wasn't the same. It felt…lonely.
She slumped against the back of the couch then wiped her eyes and cheeks with the back of her hand. The fire was starting to go out so she took her wand out and uttered a spell to rekindle the flames. If only I could use my wand to rekindle what Ron and I had lost. Hermione mentally slapped herself for thinking such a self-defeating thought. She sighed as she leaned back on the couch. Her arms went behind her head, while her tired eyes closed of their own accord.
She really needed to deal with their situation before she turned into a bitter, ex-girlfriend. Her pride would not let her turn into that. She'd survived the war, she definitely would be able to survive a simple break-up.
If only Malfoy would let her be! Why does he keep on butting into her life? He's such a nosy, annoying git! She really should give him a piece of her mind one of these days. Or maybe she could hex him while he's not looking.
Her rather violent train of thought was broken when a body suddenly dropped beside her on the couch. She opened one eye to see who the intruder was. Harry.
"I know you're awake, Hermione. Stop pretending you're asleep," her bestfriend said.
"I was asleep until you unceremoniously dumped your big butt here beside me."
"No, you weren't. I could almost hear those gears turning inside your head. Besides, I'm well aware that you cannot sleep with the light on."
Hermione heard the soft chuckle in Harry's voice. Of course, he knew that. They'd spent months together searching for the Horcruxes, sleeping in tents and in whatever refuge they could find. And she'd always asked them to turn off all the lights so that she could sleep.
"Okay, I concede. I was thinking, that's all."
"Does 'stuff' include a certain red-headed Gryffindor Quidditch player?"
"Ha-ha. Give it up, Hermione. I'm your bestfriend, I know what you're thinking about."
Indeed, he was her bestfriend, but Harry couldn't be more wrong. Of course, she couldn't tell him that she was actually thinking about a platinum-blonde Slytherin Quidditch player and not a red-headed Gryffindor.
"Okay, Harry. If you're really my bestfriend, what's on my mind right now?"
"Ron," Harry answered without hesitation.
"And why would I be thinking of Weasle-King?"
Hermione shifted in her seat when she heard Harry sigh. She really shouldn't be toying with him. He was just trying to help.
"Mione, we really should talk. The three of us," Harry said, his eyes pleading.
"I'm not sure if I'm ready for that," Hermione said, staring at the flames.
"I understand. I won't force you into doing anything you don't want to. But don't you think it would be easier if you dealt with Ron as soon as possible? You need to get it all out or else it would fester inside and start poisoning you."
Harry was right, of course. But she was afraid of what she would do to Ron if she ever confronted him while she was still dealing with her own hurt.
The portrait door opened to admit Ginny and a few other Gryffindors. Ginny smiled at them then headed up to the Girl's Dormitory. Hermione's heart slammed against her chest when Ron showed up right behind a first year boy. She averted her eyes, but she knew that he'd already seen her looking at him. And just as she'd feared, Ron made his way toward them, stopping directly behind her.
"Hermione, can we please talk?" Ron said. Harry made to leave but Hermione stopped him with her hand. Her eyes were the ones pleading now. A silent message passed between them and Harry nodded.
"Sure, Ron. Grab a seat," Hermione replied, her voice cracking just a bit.
"No, Ron. I don't think that's a good idea. It's better if Harry's here so he could do counter curses should I be tempted to hex you." She wished she could see Ron's face.
"Come on, Ron. Let's do this. I won't interrupt. Think of me as a…a referee," Harry said, smirking up at his other bestfriend.
Ron shook his head and sighed. He moved from behind the couch and pulled an armchair close. He sat on the edge, his hands resting on his knees. Looking up, he saw that Hermione was staring at him with an inscrutable expression. He didn't know which was better, her wrath or her silence.
"So, what do you want to talk about, Ronald?"
Ron swallowed involuntarily. This is bad, Hermione never called him Ronald unless she's extremely pissed and at the end of her patience. He took a deep breath and rummaged through his brain for a good opening. Nothing came to mind.
"Well? You're the one who wanted to talk, so start talking," Hermione said.
Ron glanced at Harry, looking for a hint or a clue on how to start, but Harry only raised his brows at him. He could tell that Harry would not be helping him out on this one. He couldn't blame him. It's his fault, anyway. Harry had told him that if he really wanted out, he should make a clean break with Hermione first before going out with Padma. But he stupidly ignored that advice and now he must face the consequence of that decision. He cleared his throat before he started talking.
"I-I just want to clear things up between us, Mione," he began looking up into Hermione's hard eyes. They were a dark shade of brown now, not like their usual light caramel color. Ron swallowed again. She's furious!
"What is there to clear up, Ronald? Your actions were pretty obvious. I got the message loud and clear so I see no point in talking about it. It would be like beating a dead horse – useless," Hermione replied, the venom in her voice apparent.
Ron turned his eyes to Harry. He was staring at him blankly with those emerald-green eyes of his. Cold and detached. Harry, he could tell, was still mad at him for tainting their friendship. He'd harangued him about the incident at Madam Pudifoot's, they even came close to blows over it. Obviously, he was on Hermione's side on this one. Ron felt his chest constricting. He didn't plan to end their friendship this way, but it seems that the decision had already been made for him. Still, he must try his best to salvage whatever he could.
"I-I want to apologize for what happened, Hermione. At Madam Pudifoot's. It was tasteless and crude," he was cut off by a loud snort from Hermione.
"This isn't just about that, Ronald. It's about the whole mess of a relationship that we had."
Ron blinked at Hermione. He couldn't understand what she was trying to say. They had a good friendship going on – the three of them. Was she also now regretting being friends?
"What are you trying to say, Hermione? That you regret being friends with Harry and me?"
Hermione smirked and rolled her eyes.
"You really are so dense sometimes, Ron. I was referring to what we had after that damned kiss! Not that I'm totally regretting being friends! Come to think of it, we should've stayed that way even after that kiss."
Yes, he agreed with Hermione on that. Why did they ever make so much out of that kiss? They were confused and terrified by what was happening outside Hogwarts, but at the same time exhilarated by their success at getting rid of another Horcrux. Their emotions were at a high and it seemed like the only rational way to express them. It's just that he thought that he felt more than friendship for Hermione after that kiss. And then it was too late to back out. He couldn't tell her that he was just swept by his emotional high during that time. It seemed callous and cold. But he apparently did the same anyway. Now, even their friendship is at threat.
"I'm sorry, Hermione. I didn't mean to hurt you. I just didn't know what to do! Your friendship means so much to me that I didn't want to tell you that…"
"That you regretted kissing me," Hermione finished for him. To be honest, that's also how she felt when things between them started to fall apart – they shouldn't have kissed. And now that she'd finally admitted that to herself, her heart started to ease away from all the bitterness that she had been harboring against Ron. They were both at fault, anyway. She was trying too hard to make it work, to hold on to a relationship that was doomed even from the start, while he was trying too hard to let her (even though deep inside he was dying to get out). Ron gave her all the signs, she kept ignoring them. It was a perfect recipe for disaster.
Or perhaps friends don't really make good lovers, after all.
Hermione took a deep breath and chanced a glance at Harry. His emerald eyes were glistening as his lips curved into a tentative smile. He was more than just a friend, he was like the sibling she never had. Their bond was even stronger than what she had with Ron. And it was perfect. Their friendship – her, Harry and Ron – was perfect. Did she really have the heart to ruin it just because she made the mistake of kissing her other best friend? It's time that she healed not only her heart, but also their broken friendship. They were not called the Golden Trio for nothing.
"I'm sorry, too, Ron. I guess, we were never meant to be more than friends," she said at last.
Ron's remorseful eyes brightened as he looked at Harry, who was smiling at him, relief showing on his face.
"So, d-does this mean th-that…" Ron stammered, still unable to believe that things will be going back to normal.
"The Golden Trio is back together," Hermione continued. There may still be a little corner of her heart that needed healing, but she will deal with that later. For now, it is enough that she's been able to mend fences with two of the most important people in her life. Whatever happened between her and Ron is now in the past.
She looked at her two friends and her heart glowed. They will always be the Golden Trio. And nothing can ever change their friendship. Nothing can ever replace what they have. They are friends for life and they will always stand by each other – no matter what!
Harry let out a deep breath as he put his arms around Hermione and hugged her tight. "Merlin! I'm so glad that's over! I've been wracking my brains for counter curses this past half hour and I couldn't even come up with one!"
"What? You mean that if I turned Ron into a bouncing ferret, you wouldn't have been able to change him back?" Hermione asked laughingly, disengaging herself from Harry's embrace to look at him. Harry shook his head. She turned to Ron and laughed harder when she saw his pale face grimacing at Harry.
And they all went back to being the best of friends, teasing and engaging in light banter, the previous conversation forgotten and done with. Then, Harry cleared his throat and turned to Hermione.
"Now that that's behind us, I need to ask you something, Hermione."
Hermione turned to Harry, her bright, caramel orbs round and questioning.
"What was that all about with you and Malfoy in the Great Hall?" Harry asked, his brows arched high up. Ron also turned to Hermione, nodding, curiosity etched on his freckled face.
It was now Hermione's turn to gulp air and blanch a solid white.
Damn you, Malfoy! Now I have to explain to my best friends something I don't understand myself! I will definitely hex you the next time that I see you!
Hermione swallowed hard before turning a sheepish eye at Harry. How was she going to tell him about what made her lose her temper at Malfoy? She couldn't really quote him word for word! That would definitely turn Harry's raven locks white!
"I-it's nothing. Malfoy was just being his usual annoying, arrogant self. I was tired and didn't have much patience left so I blew up," Hermione replied, avoiding their eyes.
Harry glanced at Ron, who looked even more clueless than him. The redhead shrugged and raised his brows – I have no idea either, he was saying.
"You shouldn't let him get to you that easily, Hermione. You'd be working closely with him since he's the Head Boy. Give him a chance, maybe he's changed a bit," Harry said, nudging Hermione with his elbow.
Hermione snorted and blew a raspberry. She just can't believe that bit about Malfoy changing. He will always be a pompous git even though he'd switched sides during the war.
"I really don't know what Prof. McGonagall was thinking! Why did she appoint Malfoy as Head Boy? He may be smart, I concede that. We've always been vying for the top spot in almost every subject, but brains are not enough to qualify him for such a responsibility! What would he do, bully the younger kids into following him? Even if he'd changed, I doubt if it would make that much difference." Hermione was red in the face by the time she finished with her tirade.
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Harry hung his head as his arms rested on his knees. Perhaps it's time that he told his best friends about what Malfoy, the Malfoys actually, have really done for him. About how their actions that night might have turned the tide of the battle. He'd already told Professor McGonagall, and maybe that's the reason why she appointed Malfoy Head Boy. He really didn't know why he hadn't told Ron and Hermione about it sooner. Maybe because they were so caught up with the cleaning up and dealing with. They'd lost so many – Fred, Lupin, Tonks, Mad-Eye, Lavander, Dobby and even Hedwig. He just had enough bad memories from the past year that he needed to cope with them slowly, painfully, that those two incidents kept getting pushed back the recesses of his mind.
Or maybe because telling them about it would take him back to that most horrible, and yet glorious, night of his life. Talking with McGonagall about it was like doing a debrief after a battle; straightforward, curt and emotionless. Just facts.
But with his friends, it would be entirely different. He would be reliving that night.
"Hermione, Ron, there is something that you should know – about what happened in the Forbidden Forest, and right before my battle with Voldemort. I really don't know why it took me this long to divulge this information to you. Whatever my convoluted brain's reason is, believe me, it's not intentional."
Hermione and Ron exchanged curious glances, both unable to fully comprehend what Harry was trying to say. They'd long wanted to ask Harry about what happened in the Forbidden Forest, why he came back seemingly dead, but most importantly, how he was able to make Voldemort believe that he was dead. They respected Harry's privacy, though, so they kept their questions to themselves.
After letting go of a long, ragged breath, Harry turned to Hermione and then to Ron. "I think it's best if I started with what happened in the Forbidden Forest. I've already told you about the things I learned in the Pensieve, of how it made me realize that the only way to defeat Voldemort was to let him kill me. But I never really told you what happened after that."
Both Hermione and Ron leaned forward, their eyes glued to Harry, eager to hear the rest of his story.
My heart was hammering so hard after I stepped back from the Pensieve. I didn't want to die, but I couldn't let my friends die for me either. This war had to stop and the only way to do it was to let Voldemort kill me. That's what the prophecy was all about, and that's the reason why Professor Dumbledore couldn't tell me about it.
I went down the stairs, my legs shaking with each step. This was it! Time to accept the truth, to face my destiny. I tried to keep away from everyone, especially Ginny. I knew that if I saw her, I wouldn't be able to go ahead with my plan. Thankfully, I met no one on my way out. Everyone was so busy searching for survivors, retrieving bodies and healing the wounded. It was better that way.
Soon enough, I was at the entrance to the Forbidden Forest. I remembered the snitch in my pocket. Dumbledore bequeathed it to me, so it had to mean something. I don't know what made me press it against my lips, but I did and it opened. Inside was the resurrection stone. I took it out, and I saw spirits swirl around me. I focused my eyes and realized that they were my mom, my dad, Sirius, and Lupin. They were there to give me strength for the final leg of my journey. They stayed with me up to the very last minute.
I stepped into the forest and went directly to where Voldemort and his army were. I moved quickly lest I changed my mind and ran like hell. It's not really in our nature to face death without flinching, our instinct for survival is so embedded in our psyche that only those who are not in their right mind would willingly go to their deaths.
It happened in a flash, literally! A flash of green light to be exact. I was so intent on staying put, on meeting my death head on that Voldemort's words did not even register in my brain. I kept telling myself to stand still and take it like a man. I didn't even feel the breath being cut off from me. All I knew was this feeling of lightness after that instance of excruciating pain hit my heart. And then, I was in a brightly lit place. Strange, how it felt like King's Cross to me. Then, I saw that piece of Voldemort that was in me, a withered, slimy thing wriggling on the ground. I don't know why even though deep inside me I knew that it was a part of him, that alien invader in my body that had caused me so much torment, I didn't feel hatred but only a deep sorrow and pity for it. As I contemplated that bit of Voldemort, Dumbledore appeared and he helped me make the most important choice that I could ever make. I could've moved on, a part of me wanted to. I was so tired of fighting, so tired of losing my friends because of this stupid war. But I also knew that I needed to finish what I had started. I owe that much to those who sacrificed themselves for what is right and what is good. I did not move on, I came back.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, the scent of pine and grass close against my nose. I didn't know what to do. I was defenseless, wandless, surrounded by Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Then I heard Bellatrix calling out to the Dark Lord. It seemed that he was also knocked out by his own spell and was just getting back to his feet. I stayed still, hurriedly formulating a plan of escape in my brain when I heard footsteps coming toward me. I almost panicked. What was I to do? How could I defeat Voldemort lying on the ground helpless?
A hand gently touched my arm. I knew I would be discovered, the person beside me would announce that I lived. Voldemort would just cast another killing spell at me and it would be over. Soft breath fanned against my cheek and I distinctly heard a woman's quiet voice.
"Is Draco still alive?" the voice whispered into my ear.
And I knew that it was his mother. I battled between telling her the truth and keeping still, pretending that I was truly dead. But that seemed stupid. She already knew that I wasn't dead, otherwise she wouldn't be talking to me, would she? I feared, though, that as soon as I confirmed that Draco was alive, that she would turn me over to Voldemort. She was the mother of my nemesis! She's the wife of the most privileged Death Eater! Her sister was within the inner circle of the Dark Lord. How could I even think that she would side with me? Something told me, however, to put my trust in her.
I gave her a small nod, my heart going to my throat. What she did next would mean life or death for me. I remained still, waiting for her to scream that I was still alive. It never came.
Instead, her hand squeezed my arm as she whispered to me again, "Thank you. Now, stay still." Another squeeze and I felt her getting to her feet.
"Dead. The boy is dead," she said, loudly and clearly.
I heard Hagrid bellow in grief while Voldemort and his army laughed and rejoiced. There was scuffling in the background then I felt Hagrid's large hands scooping me up from the ground. Voldemort was marching to Hogwarts to flaunt his trophy.
I was still rummaging inside my head for a plan. I must declare myself sooner or later. But how could I fight Voldemort without a wand? I'm not Dumbledore! I hadn't mastered wandless magic yet.
"Harry Potter is dead!" I heard Voldemort announce. Ginny screamed and my heart broke in two. I heard the cries and the sounds of defeat and I couldn't take it anymore. I must reveal myself, give hope to everyone who was fighting against the Dark Lord. I heard Neville and it strengthened my resolve, I must end this!
Then, I heard Lucius calling to Draco. It was the first time that I heard fear and genuine concern in his voice. He called out to him twice, but apparently, Draco wasn't heeding him. When I heard his mother calling to him, something tugged inside me. She saved me from Voldemort when she didn't have anything to gain by it. She saved me when there was no one left to do it. I must give her back her son.
I wriggled against Hagrid's hold and in his shock, he dropped me and I was on the ground scrambling to my feet. I was determined to join the Hogwarts defenders. All pandemonium broke lose as some of Voldemort's Death Eaters started apparating away, terrified by my unexpected return from death, while the rest started throwing curses at whoever stood in their way. Voldemort was also shooting curses at me. I ran towards Hogwarts, weaving amongst the fallen stones. I could see Defenders shooting counter curses at the remaining Death Eaters but I could not fight back, I was wandless!
Just as I was about to jump behind a big fallen statue, I heard someone shout "Potter!". I turned just in time to see Draco tossing his wand at me as he stumbled to the ground, ducking away from a flash of red light thrown at him by a Death Eater. Thankfully, I caught the wand making it possible for me to fight Voldemort.
And the rest, as you know, is history.
Harry lifted his head to look at his two friends. Hermione's hands were covering her mouth, her eyes wide and bright with unshed tears. Ron was gawking at him, speechless.
"So, you see, Hermione. I owe the Malfoys more than I care to admit. I would've died in that Forest if not for Mrs. Malfoy. She risked her life back there. Had Bellatrix or even one of Voldemort's minions decided to check on me, I would've just been killed again by Voldemort. But Mrs. Malfoy took it upon herself to do the deed because she knew that her word would be trusted by the Dark Lord. Helping me return to Hogwarts in the process. Then, Draco gave up his only source of protection to help me defend myself against Voldemort. They're the unsung heroes of that final battle against Voldemort. I guess, deep inside, Draco and his mother aren't really that bad."
Harry leaned back on the couch, exhausted by his confession. He hadn't really thanked Draco and his mother for what they'd done. He just hoped that he would be able to return the favor one of these days. Little did he know that he would be given that chance sooner than he thought.
The Slytherin common room had never been as quiet as it was tonight. Most of the students have already gone to bed; exhausted by the demands of their first day back in school. Only a blonde-headed figure could be seen lounging on the plush, dragonhide couch, staring quietly at the blazing fire in the oversized fireplace. Being situated in the dungeons of the castle, the Slytherin dorms needed the extra warmth to keep its inhabitants comfortable. And tonight, Draco needed the familiar, soothing ambiance of his temporary 'home' in Hogwarts.
He really shouldn't be here. He should be in the dormitory for the Head Boy and Head Girl. It was his rightful place, but he still needed to get used to sleeping in quarters other than the one in the Slytherin dorms. Owing to the fact that not all of his former classmates have returned for their N.E.W.Ts, their dormitory had enough space to spare for one more occupant. And his roommates for the past six years, Zabini and Nott, were more than happy to indulge him. They didn't want him spending too much time in the company of the Gryffindor 'Bookworm', did they? Who knows what she'd do to him? Although they were not really fond of her, they still held a grudging respect for her spellcasting and knowing how Draco seemed to push her buttons all the time, they feared he'd be returning to them in the form of a ferret again. And this time, perhaps permanently!
Draco slouched farther down the couch, his long legs spread before him towards the fire, while his thoughts were (ironically) on the Bookworm that he was trying to avoid. He really couldn't understand why she always seemed to cause so much havoc to his temperament. One minute he would be calm and sane, but the moment she walks into the room, his senses would come alive, attuned into everything she's doing!
At first, he thought that it was because she annoyed the hell out of him (he really couldn't stand her Know-It-All attitude and Goody Two-Shoes mentality!) but after that night in Malfoy Manor, where she was tortured by his deranged aunt, Bellatrix, he really wasn't too sure anymore. Now, his ambivalent feelings about Granger were starting to take form, and it scared him!
"What are you still doing up, Malfoy?"
Zabini's voice cut into the silence and Draco almost jumped from his seat. He tossed his head and glared at his friend.
"What are you, my nanny? Mind your own business, Zabini," Draco sneered.
Zabini shook his head and jumped onto the empty space on the couch, his eyes narrowing at his blonde friend. Draco has become more reclusive since after the war, avoiding his friends at every turn, preferring to brood for hours on his own. Of course, it could be because of what happened to his family, but Zabini felt that there was more to it than Draco was letting on.
"Come on, Draco. Spill!" Zabini said, nudging Draco's leg with his bare foot. Draco grimaced and brusquely shoved Zabini's feet off of his leg.
"Knock it off, Zabini, or I'll hex you into oblivion!"
"Alright, alright! Geesh, you're such a girl!"
"Damn it! Will you just let me be? I've had enough nagging for one day, okay?"
"Aha! I knew it! The Bushy-haired Bookworm has gotten into your nerves again, hasn't she?" Zabini chortled.
"When did she ever not?" Draco mumbled.
"Look, Draco. You have to act cool towards her. Don't let her see how much she affects you," Zabini said, putting his feet down and scooting closer to Draco.
"And who told you that she has any effect on me?" Draco countered, his left brow raised arrogantly.
"Hmm...yeah, you're right. She doesn't affect you at all. Not one itsy-bitsy, tiny bit," Zabini chuckled.
"Shove it, Zabini, or I'll really hex you!" Malfoy growled, his hand moving down his pants pocket for his wand.
"Damn! She's really got you worked up this time, hasn't she? What were you trying to do, anyway? She seemed pretty upset at you, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I heard her screaming at you before she stormed out of the Great Hall earlier this evening, so I figured you must've have said something to upset her," Zabini said, shrugging.
"You heard that?"
"Everybody heard, Draco," Zabini smirked.
Draco raked his fingers through his blonde locks. Merlin! Now everyone's talking about us for sure! Damned woman couldn't even keep her voice down!
"What did you say to her, anyway?"
"Nothing! She was just being her usual Holier-than-thou self," Draco replied, scowling back at the fire.
"Strange. Granger's been pretty civil with all of us since we've switched sides. She's starting to be friends with some of us, actually."
Draco snorted and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. "That'll be the day," he grumbled.
Zabini sighed. He wasn't getting anywhere with Malfoy. He knew that his friend was hiding something, and he wouldn't rest until he at least had some idea about what it was. Time to change tactics.
"It's true! Just ask Nott. The freak is now gushing about her like a lovesick fool!"
Zabini smiled inside when Draco's head whipped in his direction, his eyes now a stormy gray and blazing with something akin to fury. Damn! Draco's smitten, too! Well, I've always thought that there was more to his professed 'hatred' for Granger than met the eye. And the idiot isn't even aware of it! Zabini almost chuckled as a sinister plan began to formulate in his mind. This will be fun to watch! Let's see if he'll bite.
"But, hey! Everything's changed after the war, right? Even the teachers are encouraging cooperation and friendship amongst the houses. So, Nott could actually ask Granger out and no one would even say a peep. I think it would be good, too. I'd have to start encouraging Nott about this. We, Slytherins, need to get off our high horses and start mingling with the mortals, don't you know," Zabini continued, keeping his eyes on his friend whose face had now turned a sickening greenish shade. Gotcha!
"Don't be such an ass, Zabini. Nott wouldn't do such a thing!" Draco spat at him.
Zabini feigned drowsiness by yawning loudly. "Maybe you're right. But we wouldn't know, would we? As I said, things are different now. Anyway, we have an early class tomorrow. Got to turn in for the night. Try to be nice to Granger, will you? For all you know, she might soon be dating one of your bestfriends," he said, tapping Malfoy's shoulder as he rose to his feet and headed back to their room leaving Draco glaring at the unsuspecting fireplace.
Hermione sat in front of a sumptuous breakfast feast at the Great Hall but she couldn't even bear to lift a measly piece of toast. It wasn't just because she had barely slept last night, but more because she could not get over the feeling of guilt that had lodged inside her chest after Harry's confession.
Who would've thought that Draco and his mother would do something as selfless as that? And to think that she'd been nothing but awful to Draco since they had gone back to Hogwarts. He'd tried to talk to her on the Hogwarts Express but she brushed him off without even a thought.
Well, actually, she would've brushed off anyone who approached her then. She had purposely availed of her privilege (as Head Girl) to sit up front primarily because she was avoiding Ron. She was so messed up during that time that she would've snubbed even Professor McGonagall herself had she the misfortune of even venturing near her. Still, it didn't excuse her abrasive behavior.
And now the guilt was eating her up whole making her even more miserable than she was when she'd arrived. The only way her conscience would be eased was if she apologized to Malfoy, but deep inside she knew that that was next to impossible. Her pride wouldn't let her.
Besides, this was Malfoy for Merlin's sake! The boy who had tortured her since she first set foot in Hogwarts, the one who ridiculed her every chance he got, the one who called her Mudblood (among other things) at every turn! How could she even dream of apologizing to such an ass!
Okay, granted – he's changed a bit. He no longer strutted with that infuriating smirk pasted on his face. In fact, he seemed to be always brooding now, his eyes downcast and avoiding contact. There's also an air of uncertainty about him, like he was always second-guessing himself.
But not when he's around her!
His confidence seemed to get to a certain high when he's annoying her. He's changed, yes. But his attitude towards her hasn't.
And that's why Hermione was in such a dilemma. How could she pacify her grief-stricken conscience without looking like a jackass in front of Malfoy? There must be some way to gain her much needed peace of mind that did not involve self-humiliation!
Her thoughts were halted when she felt someone elbowing her. And lo and behold! The object of her torment was suddenly sitting beside her, materializing from thin air!
"Malfoy! What are you doing here?" she blurted out before she could stop herself.
"Good morning to you, too," he replied, smirking as he piled his plate with toast, fried eggs, ham, and a few bits of bacon.
Hermione grimaced as she realized how rude she sounded. Another point against her. My, isn't she starting early today!
"I'm sorry. You just startled me," she mumbled.
Draco gave her a sideways look, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Did I just hear the great Hermione Granger mumble an apology to the nasty Slytherin sitting beside her?"
Hermione pouted and ignored him completely, turning her attention to her breakfast plate instead. She speared a sausage and sliced it into tiny strips. Then, she took a piece of toast, smeared it with butter and carefully placed the sliced sausages on top. She then folded the toast with sausage filling and was about to bite into it when she noticed the horrified look on Malfoy's face.
"What?" she asked, annoyed by his expression.
"That is so barbaric, Granger. Even for you," Draco muttered as he sliced the ham and forked the tiny piece into his mouth.
"Barbaric? Why, pray tell, is it so barbaric?"
"Well, for one, you're not supposed to fold your toast. Secondly, you don't mix butter with sausages," Draco replied, waving his fork in front of her.
"Who said so?"
"It's common table etiquette, Granger. Even a four-year-old knows that."
Hermione huffed and proceeded to repeat the process of buttering, sausaging, and folding. She took a big bite and smirked at Draco, challenging him to call her out on it.
Draco just shook his head and turned his attention back to his food, a slight frown creasing his brows. Why is she purposely trying to annoy me?
After Hermione had finished her sausages and folded buttered toasts, she dabbed her lips with her napkin and turned to Draco.
"Why are you eating here, Malfoy? Why aren't you sitting at the Slytherin table?"
Draco finished drinking his pumpkin juice before answering. "As you can see, Granger, there are no more exclusive house tables. They're all mixed now."
Hermione turned her gaze toward the table that the Slytherins used to monopolize. And indeed, she saw a couple of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs eating and chatting with the Slytherins there. She even saw Parvati Patil, a Gryffindor, sitting beside Blaise Zabini, totally engrossed in whatever Zabini was regaling her with.
"Okay, I didn't notice that," she murmured.
"You seem to overlook a lot of things lately, Granger. What's going on with you?"
When she turned back to Draco she saw him looking at her with narrowed eyes, a slight smirk adorning his pinkish lips. Hermione's breath caught in her throat. Damn! He is a handsome devil, isn't he? After mentally kicking herself for even thinking such a disgusting thought, she cleared her throat and replied in her haughtiest tone, "It's none of your business, Malfoy."
"Suit yourself, Granger. I couldn't care less, anyway," Malfoy retorted, picking a couple of strawberries from the fruit platter before him.
Hermione wanted to slap herself again. Marvelous, Hermione! Another point to add to your guilt list! Keep it up and you'd soon find yourself groveling before Malfoy asking for his forgiveness!
"Okay, this is getting a bit tiresome, don't you think?"
"What is, Granger?"
"This. Us, bickering like kids all the time. Aren't you getting tired of it?"
"What do you suggest, then, Granger?" Draco said, turning slightly to face Hermione.
"Look, seeing as we'd be working closely together for the entire year, not only because you're Head boy and I'm Head girl, but also because we're partners in Potions class and would be doing projects together, don't you think a little peace between us would help us deal with this school year that much easily?" she was practically breathless at the end of her statement.
Draco lifted his brows, waiting for her to continue. When she did not, he asked, "And?"
"I suggest a truce. Let's try not to act like eleven-year-olds."
"I'm not the one acting like an eleven-year-old," Draco muttered.
Hermione rolled her eyes. This is hopeless. And to think that I felt guilty about how I'd been treating him! Serves you right, Ms. I-can't-live-with-my-conscience!
"Fine. Let's keep on acting like children, then. I'm game if you are," she snarled as she started rising from her seat. A soft, warm hand curled around her wrist and pulled her gently down.
"Wait, I'm sorry, okay? That was uncalled for," Draco said, his stormy gray eyes latching on to her soft, brown ones.
"Did I just hear the high and mighty Slytherin prince apologize to a Mudblood?" Hermione said, smirking at Draco as she sat back down.
A couple of seconds passed before Draco's face broke into a genuine smile. "Did you just crack a joke, Granger?"
A bright blush spread across Hermione's cheeks. "Don't push it, Malfoy."
Draco chuckled as he raised both hands in mock surrender. "Okay! Okay! I won't say another word!"
Hermione nodded then put out her hand in front of Draco. "A truce, then?"
"A truce," Draco replied, taking Hermione's proferred hand. He would never admit it to anyone, but his heart soared during that short moment that he held Hermione's hand. For how could he admit to something that he couldn't even understand?
But there would be time enough to think back on that. He was in no hurry. Somehow, he had that strange feeling that this was just the beginning.
The beginning of what? Well, only time will tell.
And time, indeed, will – in ways that neither of them ever dreamed of.
The next two weeks passed by uneventfully. Everyone was buried in schoolwork, especially those preparing for their NEWTs , so there wasn't much time for relaxation and fun. Even the professors were moving about at a frantic pace (planning tests and projects were no easy feats, after all). Yet no one could be more harassed than Hermione Granger. Her school load was nothing short of torturous. Add to that her duties as Head Girl and no one would have blamed her if she checked herself into St. Mungo's anytime soon.
The dungeon was still dimly lit when Hermione entered it; proof that Professor Slughorn hasn't arrived yet. There weren't any students inside either. They were all still at the Great Hall having breakfast. She wasn't really hungry so she'd decided to come here straight in order to finish up on her essay for Arithmancy. Taking her usual seat in the front row, she took out parchment and quill and started writing her essay. She was half-way through her writing when she felt someone sit beside her. She knew without looking that it would be her Potions partner.
"You weren't at breakfast," Draco said.
"I wasn't hungry," Hermione muttered not pausing in her writing.
"You didn't have breakfast yesterday, either."
Hermione sighed and cast a sideways glance at Draco.
"I wasn't hungry yesterday, either, Malfoy."
"You know, Granger, it's not really good to start the day on an empty stomach. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
"Thanks for the reminder, mother."
Draco clucked his tongue as he shook his head. Then, he dug inside his bag, took out a napkin-wrapped sandwich and placed it on top of Hermione's essay. "It's your favorite, buttered toast and sausages."
Hermione turned to Malfoy, her eyes narrowing at him suspiciously. "What's the meaning of this?" she asked, pointing to the sandwich.
"A simple thank you would've sufficed, Granger," Draco replied with a smirk.
A deep sighed issued forth from Hermione as she put her quill down and turned back to Draco, her cheeks coloring a soft pink. "You're right, that was rude of me. Thank you for the sandwich, Malfoy."
"You're welcome, Granger. Now, eat up before Professor Slughorn gets here. We have a long day ahead of us or have you forgotten that we're having double Potions today?"
"Oh, darn, yes! I have forgotten!" Hermione groaned. She reached for the sandwich, unwrapped it and took a big bite before going back to her essay.
"You know, you should drop some of your subjects. You're obviously overloaded with work."
"That's what Harry said."
"Really? Well, I see Potter and I could agree on some things," Draco muttered.
"You can agree on a lot of things, Malfoy. If you'd only talk to each other."
"Don't push it, Granger. Being civil with you is bad enough. No need to add Saint Potter into the mix."
Hermione snorted as she started rolling up her parchment. "Don't be such a child, Malfoy. In case you haven't noticed, things are different now."
A few seconds of silence passed before Malfoy replied in a soft, almost regretful, voice, "No, not really. Some things just don't."
The arrival of their classmates put a halt to their conversation. Harry and Ron waved to her and sat at the back while they awaited their partners. Hermione finished her sandwich and stashed her essay inside her bag. She noticed that Draco was back to his brooding, silent self. She really must talk to him about that. It's obvious that something's been bothering him these past few days and she wanted to know what that was. She reasoned that it was only to satisfy her curiosity (and to ensure the peace between them) and nothing more. What else could be her reason for wanting to help Draco other than that, right?
Professor Slughorn's voice pulled her back from her thoughts. He was writing the ingredients that they needed for the potion that they would be brewing. Just one look at the list and she already knew what it was. She's obviously not the only one who recognized the ingredients, though, since some of the girls were already giggling even before the Professor turned away from the board to ask them the name of the potion they would be working on today.
"I'm sure you are all familiar with this potion. You've already brewed this one in sixth year. Do you still remember what it's called?"
Draco shifted in his seat, mumbling under his breath. He turned to Hermione and whispered, "Why are we brewing Amortentia again? We've already done this! I can even brew it in my sleep."
Hermione stifled a laugh as she looked at the disgust written on Draco's face. "Perhaps the Professor just wants to make sure that we can all brew it properly. If you recall, not all of us were successful in brewing it in sixth year."
"Hmph! I did mine perfectly, so I don't need to do it again. This is a waste of time!"
"Let it go, Malfoy. We have no choice on the matter, anyway. Besides, it could be fun. We'd sail through this one, for sure."
"We'd sail through anything, Granger."
Hermione glanced at Draco and saw that he was staring at her with that inscrutable expression on his face again. She felt goosebumps crawling up her arms as her cheeks started heating up.
Damn! Don't blush, Hermione! He'll notice that and he'll start teasing you again! Why ever do you always blush when he looks at you that way?
"So, what's the name of our potion for today? And what does it do?" Professor Slughorn was saying to the class, looking around at the giggling girls. None ventured to raise a hand, though, so he turned to Hermione. "Miss Granger, perhaps you can enlighten us?"
"Amortentia, sir. It's the most powerful and most dangerous love potion known to man. It causes the drinker to have strong feelings for someone. But it cannot create a truly, unbreakable connection. It is more of an infatuation or obsession. The aroma is different for each person as it reminds them of what they are most attracted to. It is dangerous because what it creates is an illusion of love and not true love, at all, and can, therefore, be abused by certain potioneers," Hermione said, feeling suddenly uncomfortable.
"Very good, Miss Granger. Ten points to Gryffindor. Now, I am giving you an hour to prepare and brew the potion. Then, I will go around each pair to check on your work. The pair that brews the best potion will each be given a vial of Amortentia."
There were several squeals of delight, mostly from the girls. The boys looked rather revolted.
"Alright, then. Get on with it. I will be back when your hour is up," Professor Slughorn said before waddling out of the room.
A mad scramble for the supplies cupboard ensued right after the professor had left. Hermione looked about and saw the miserable looks on both Harry and Ron. Well, especially Ron since she was partnered with Parkinson and was now being ordered about by her.
"Should I get the ingredients?" she asked Draco.
"Whatever, Granger. This is ridiculous! Whoever would need a bottle of Amortentia? Perhaps it's best if we just don't brew it," Draco slumped back in his chair, his arms folded on his chest, brows knotted in a frown.
"Alright. I'll get the ingredients, then." Hermione rose from her seat without giving her Potions partner a backward glance. It seems that she would not be getting much help from him today.
When she got to the supplies cupboard, only Neville and Ron were left there. They were arguing about the ingredients, and they beamed when Hermione joined them.
"Hermione! Just the person we need!" Ron exclaimed.
"Why, what's wrong?" she asked.
"Neville and I are not sure about these two," Ron said, pointing to the last two ingredients. They were herbs and so were not in labeled bottles. Hermione reached up for the needed herbs and gave them to Ron and Neville.
"Thanks, Hermione. You truly are a lifesaver," Neville said. Having gathered all their needed ingredients, the two went back to their partners. Hermione gathered her own ingredients and walked back to her brooding partner, who was now leaning on the table, with a far-away look in his gray orbs.
"Stop pouting, Malfoy. We've got work to do. If you don't help me out, I won't share the potion with you. And that would be tragic, really," Hermione nudged Draco with her elbow in an attempt to draw him out of his gloom. She was rewarded with a smirk and a rolling of his eyes.
"I don't need a love potion to make a girl fall for me, Granger. I'll donate my share to you, seeing as you desperately need it."
"Oh, really? If you don't need it to make girls fall for you, then why don't you have a girlfriend?"
Draco huffed and jumped to his feet, taking the herbs from Hermione. "I don't want a girlfriend, that's why. Who would want to be a former Death Eater's girlfriend, anyway," Draco said, chopping up the herbs vigorously.
The last sentence was said so softly that had Hermione not been listening carefully, she wouldn't have heard it. But hear it, she did, and strangely, her heart went out to Draco. His past was really bothering him to the point of losing his confidence in himself. This school year must be torture for him. His family's fall from grace was beginning to take its toll and Hermione knew that it could destroy him if he didn't receive enough support or encouragement from his peers. It really wasn't his fault that his family had been brought up that way and had chosen to support the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, not everyone would be so generous and take this fact into account. People can be really cruel at times.
Without having a brilliant comeback to Draco's remark, Hermione decided to just concentrate on the task at hand. Although no words passed between them, they were still able to brew the potion to perfection. They worked seamlessly, each knowing instinctively what was needed to be done. Soon enough, their potion was exhibiting its distinctive mother-of-pearl sheen, with steam rising above it in lazy spirals. And just in time for Professor Slughorn's inspection, too.
"Perfect! See here, class. Miss Granger and Mr. Malfoy were able to brew the most impressive Amortentia I've ever seen for the longest time here in Hogwarts. You two really have a talent for potion-making!" Professor Slughorn beamed at the two.
A smattering of claps and hoots were heard from the class, mostly from Harry, Ron, and Zabini.
"Now, will you please step up to the cauldron and tell us what it smells like to you, Miss Granger."
Hermione moved closer to the cauldron, took a few whiffs of the potion and stepped back, her brows knotted in thought. "I smell old books, crisp new leather, and…minty chocolate?"
"Interesting, interesting! Now, your turn, Mr. Malfoy."
Draco stepped up to the cauldron and inhaled the steam rising from the potion. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then his lips rose in a lopsided grin.
"I smell old parchment, strawberries, rain and….vanilla."
"Very good, very good! Now, tell me, Ms. Granger. I know you were able to brew a perfect Amortentia in sixth year. Did you smell the same things back then?" Professor Slughorn asked, a knowing grin adorning his lips.
"Uhmm…no, Professor. It smelled different," she answered, two pink spots blotting her cheeks.
"What about you, Mr. Malfoy?"
"Yes, Professor. It smelled the same to me," Draco replied.
Professor Slughorn clapped his hands and turned back to the class. "Can anyone tell me why Ms. Granger's Amortentia smelled different to her back in sixth year?" Professor Slughorn pointed to Neville, "How about you, Mr. Longbottom?"
"Uh…maybe b-because the things t-that attracted her back in sixth year were different from the ones that attract her now?" Neville stammered, blushing from his toes up to the roots of his dark hair.
"Spot on, Mr. Longbottom!" Professor Slughorn exclaimed. He then turned to Zabini.
"And can you tell me, Mr. Zabini, why the smell of Mr. Malfoy's Amortentia remained the same for him?"
"Because he's still attracted to the same things he was attracted to back then?" Zabini replied.
"Right you are, Mr. Zabini! So, you see class, Amortentia is fully dependent on what attracts you at the moment. Its aroma can change without you knowing it. As for the case of Ms. Granger and Mr. Malfoy, it appears that Ms. Granger has had a change of heart while Mr. Malfoy remains consistent. He is still attracted to what attracted him before."
Hermione's blush deepened as her head involuntarily swept to Ron's direction. Had she turned the other way, she would've seen Draco's eyes pinned on her, enigmatic and guarded, but with that rare look of sadness that reached way down deep into his soul.