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The Green Girl

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Hermione Granger knew all about the houses at Hogwarts. After all, she’d read Hogwarts: A History cover to cover. Multiple times. She’d spent some time thinking about what house she’d be sorted into. 

 

Slytherin was clearly out; their apparent obsession with bloodlines combined with her being Muggle-born made that a no. She didn’t think she was nice enough for Hufflepuff; it seemed like a dreadful thing to say about oneself, but she was reasonably self-aware, and she didn’t think she had quite the right spirit for that house. She’d considered Ravenclaw; she knew she was bright and that seemed like a sensible result, if maybe a bit predictable. What she really wanted, though, was Gryffindor. To be brave and bold sounded wonderful. 

 

And beloved. She could tell that the Gryffindors were the darlings of the school, even with a quick glance. They were laughing at their seats, all golden and glorious, as she waited, standing with the boys she’d met on the train as they scared themselves into ridiculous fits over the sorting ceremony. She’d never really had friends, not good friends, and that’s what she wanted more than anything.

 

She figured it would probably be Ravenclaw but still hoped for Gryffindor.

 

When the hat barely made it on to her head before it shouted out ‘Slytherin’ she had to ask it to repeat itself. Off you go, girlie, it said. You’ll be great in Slytherin.

 

She stood up and looked, shakily, at the table of her new house. She’d only taken a few steps towards them when the booing started. She spun around, and some ginger boys at the Gryffindor table were actually booing her. She pinched her lips together, trying not to cry and looked back at the boys she’d met on the train. Neither would look at her.

 

Oh, this was just great. Bloody hat.

 

She walked with brisk steps towards the table she’d been assigned, sat down with a loud thunk and glared at the rest of the room, blinking away the water. “Don’t mind them,” an older girl said. “Fucking arseholes, all of them. You’re one of us now.”

 

“I’m Muggle-born,” Hermione choked out, figuring she might as well get it over with. 

 

There was a pause – long enough to be incredibly awkward and for her to consider whether dropping out was an option - until a plain girl in her year shrugged and, as the snotty blond boy from the train sat down, one of the older boys said, “Yeah, well, you’re our Muggle-born now. We take care of our own.”

 

She heard some other kids mutter, “We have to.”

 

“Muggle-born?” the blond kid looked at her, and she sighed, expecting some kind of harassment, but he stuck out his hand. “Draco Malfoy.”

 

“Hermione Granger,” she said, taking his hand. He yanked her closer to him on the seat to make room for a lanky boy with dark hair.

 

“Theo,” he said. “We got a Muggle-born in our year.”

 

“Sweet,” was all the newest boy said. 

 

“I saw you with Weasley on the train,” Draco continued. “It was his older brothers that booed you,” he added and she clenched her jaw and glared back across the room at the golden, laughing bastards. “What’s he like?”

 

There was another pause, and she could tell their end of the long table was listening to her answer. “He chews with his mouth open,” she said, slowly, “and he mostly seemed to want to suck up to that Potter kid.”

 

Laughter floated up the table, and she heard someone say, “Figures. Loser.”

 

“Want to get even for the booing?” The dark-haired boy had shoved further over to make room for a dark-skinned boy, and now she was pushed right up against Draco’s side.

 

“Yeah,” she said. “Got any ideas?”

 

He grinned at her, a mean little grin, and she found herself grinning back. Hufflepuff would, after all, have been a bad fit but this, well, she could do this. The plain girl across the table leaned forward to hear, and Hermione was tucked into a group of cheerful, plotting delinquents. A group, she thought, of friends.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Potions was brilliant. Hermione sat with Theodore Nott, and as she listened, rapt, to the professor’s speech about bottling fame and stopping up death she passed the boy a quick note: How would you bottle up death? 

 

He rolled his eyes.

 

The professor seemed to have it in for the Potter kid, which was a bit odd since they’d just started, but as she herself was a bit miffed that, as far as the Boy Who Lived was concerned, she had become invisible as soon as she’d been sorted into Slytherin she couldn’t exactly feel bad for the brat.

 

The professor had started the first class by asking the boy a variety of questions, and Theo had had to physically restrain her from shoving her hand into the air. “Cut it out,” he’d hissed at her. “You’ll look like a brown-nosing swot.”

 

“But I know the answer,” she’d hissed back.

 

“So what?” he’d replied, and, at his narrow-eyed glare, she’d stopped raising her hand. Whatever else she’d figured out since she’d been sorted, one thing was eminently clear: Slytherins looked after their own. Even if Theo wasn’t her chum – and he was – he’d have kept her from making herself look bad if it took hexing her into immobility.

 

Slytherin, as it turned out, was also brilliant. She’d punched some boy who called her a mudblood and, instead of getting into trouble the way she had when she’d handled bullies at her primary school – Hermione could be very physical when she was angry – everyone had laughed at the kid she’d pummeled and told him to watch his language around their housemate. “Go call the Gryffindorks mudbloods if you want to be vulgar,” an older girl had said with a sneer before adding to Hermione, “He does it again, go for the balls.” 

 

“He does it again,” Draco had said, “he won’t have any balls left for her to kick.”

 

She’d shoved him for that. “I can look after myself,” she’d said, and he’d grinned his evil little grin at her. 

 

“Yep,” he’d said. “If you couldn’t, you wouldn’t be any fun.”

 

Draco was also brilliant; spoiled and impulsive and mean as a snake but brilliant. Having friends – real friends – was amazing. She never ever wanted to leave this place.

 

Flying, unfortunately, wasn’t brilliant. Or, rather, she wasn’t brilliant at it. That Draco was was particularly annoying. He spent so much of their first flying lesson offering her tongue-in-cheek suggestions Theo had finally told him to cut it out before he became the second member of the ‘Slytherins Hermione Has Punched’ club.

 

At least there was one boy worse than her, she thought as she sat down in the grass and sulked. Pansy flopped down next to her and Blaise joined them, his long legs kicked out in front of him as they watched some Griffyndor whose name she couldn’t remember lose control of his broom.

 

“See,” Blaise said, poking Hermione. “It could have been worse.”

 

“Yeah,” she said, lying back. “I could have been sorted in with them. I wanted to be, you know.”

 

Pansy gave a dramatic shudder before asking. “What’s Draco doing? Why is he getting into it with Potter again? What now?”

 

Hermione sighed. “Wasn’t it your turn to watch him?” she muttered. “I wish he’d leave the kid alone.”

 

“Potter’s a spoiled brat,” Pansy said, lying down next to her, “and Draco can look out for himself.” Hermione rolled her eyes. As far as she could tell, Draco was drawn to trouble like the proverbial bee to honey, with never a backup plan to his name.

 

“Shit.” Blaise pointed up at the sky, at Draco streaking towards the ground as fast as he could while Potter swooped higher in the air. Both girls sat up and watched as Draco landed smoothly and he, Greg, and Vincent sauntered over to them, smug grins plastered on their faces. “Cutting it close, mate,” Blaise added as Professor McGonagall, protector of all things Gryffindor, came racing out of the building shrieking at Harry Potter.

 

“Did you really steal that stupid kid’s stupid thing?” Hermione demanded, overhearing the excuses and protests as Potter was dragged off by his ear. “Are you an idiot?”

 

“Oh, Hermione, why are you sticking up for him?” Draco asked, flopping down next to her and tugging on her hair. “Didn’t he do that wrinkled nose thing at you just this morning? That ‘I can’t possibly go near this one because she might suddenly turn evil and devour my soul’ oh-so-superior Gryffindor sneer?”

 

“He did,” Blaise confirmed. “You didn’t see it because you were reading out loud from Quidditch Through the Ages. As if that would help.” She shoved at him, and he laughed. “Don’t worry, we’ll give you remedial flying lessons on the sly. Can’t have you embarrassing our house and it’s not like Madame Hooch gives a crap whether anyone but her precious Quidditch players can fly.”

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“You challenged him to a what?!” Hermione hissed at Draco across the table in their common room. “You are an idiot. You’re going to go sneaking around, losing points for Slytherin, all because you just can’t leave that worthless git alone. What is wrong with you?”

 

“Oh, come on, Hermione,” Draco said, stuffing a sweet his mother had sent him into his mouth and passing her the box. She eyed him with some irritation but couldn’t resist the petit fours. 

 

“I bet he doesn’t even show,” Theo said, reaching into the box. “That Gryffindor bravery bullshite is all talk.”

 

“They’re brave,” Blaise said, “they’re just stupid about it. You want someone to run right towards death, get at Gryff. You want someone to win, Slytherin.”

 

“Hey,” Draco looked at his box. “You prats ate all my cake.”

 

“And it was so nice of you to share,” Hermione said, “especially since you’re going to end up losing points for Slytherin tonight when you get caught out past curfew dueling Harry Potter.”

 

“I won’t get caught,” Draco said with confidence. 

 

It turned out that both he and Theo were right; Potter didn’t show, but Draco managed to avoid getting caught. “Told ya,” he said to Hermione as they headed to breakfast. She rolled her eyes again, an expression she was rapidly becoming too familiar with when dealing with Draco. 

 

“If you had to sneak out you could have at least beaten the little jerk,” she muttered. “Why is he still here, anyway? Shouldn’t he have been sent home or something after flying around like a crazy person after we were told not to?”

 

“I dunno,” Greg muttered. “What’s he got?”

 

Their least favorite first year was walking towards them in the hall, holding a long, narrow package with something approaching reverence. “Let’s find out,” Draco suggested, and they stepped in front of the boy and blocked his way

 

“I don’t see why we’re doing this,” Hermione muttered to Theo. “Who cares what Potter gets in the mail?”

 

“We’re humoring Draco because he gets cake in the mail,” Theo said, clearly enough for Draco to hear them. Their blond friend shot back a look of utter irritation; since his minions made no attempt to stop him, he snatched the package out of Potter’s hands.

 

“That’s a broom,” he laughed. “You’re in trouble now, Potter. First years aren’t allowed to have them.”

 

“It’s a Nimbus 2000,” Ron bragged.

 

Hermione leaned over to Theo and said loudly, “Is he actually bragging about another boy’s broomstick?” Ron flushed, and Theo bit his lip and looked down at her, a grin on his face. 

 

“I’m on the Quidditch team,” Potter was bragging, and Hermione could see that Draco, who talked about Quidditch so much she wanted to scream some days, was about to snap.

 

“Well, isn’t that nice for you,” she said. “Some of us play by the rules, but I guess if you’re a celebrity when you break the rules you get rewarded by having more bent for you.”

 

“I wonder if he’ll get a write up in the Prophet,” Theo chimed in as Draco slowly backed away from the hated boy. Hermione grabbed his hand to make sure he wouldn’t do something rash. 

 

“Oh, I’m sure he will,” she said. “After all, he’s famous. He’s so famous his little sidekick knows all about his broom.” She waggled the fingers of her free hand in the air at that and Theo snickered. “Have fun playing with your broom, boys,” she said as she hauled Draco off down the corridor, Theo and Greg behind them.

 

“That is so unfair,” she ranted later in their common room. “If you’d gotten caught flying around like that – “

 

“Well,” Greg said, “his father would have shown up, and everything would have been fine.”

 

“Fine!” Hermione snapped. “If you had gotten caught – “

 

“I would have been so dead,” Greg said, slouching back into his seat. 

 

“Rules apply to everyone, or they apply to no one,” Hermione said, seething. “It’s not right.”

 

“You didn’t really think the world was fair, did you?” Theo asked, rolling his eyes at her. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

After that, Hermione’s dislike of Ron Weasley and Harry Potter shifted from mild annoyance because they’d dropped her once she was sorted, into a far more active urge to torment the pair. She got her next chance in Charms when Weasley was unable to make his feather float.

 

“You’re saying it wrong,” Hermione said as clearly as she could to Weasley. “You need to follow the pronunciation guide in the book, not the one in your head. Rules, Weasley. Magic follows predictable rules.”

 

“Let’s see you do it if you’re so clever,” the boy snapped and, with a little smirk, she cast the charm, and the feather floated in front of her. 

 

“Yes!” Professor Flitwick clapped his hands. “Miss Granger’s got it! Five points to Slytherin.”

 

As they all streamed out of the classroom and wound their way through the courtyard, Weasley sniped to Potter, “I hate that Granger girl. She’s just such a horror; I bet she’s got no friends even in Slytherin.”

 

Harry Potter pointed across the open space to where Greg Goyle was spinning the girl in question around while she pounded on his back and laughed. Malfoy’s voice carried through the air. “That’s our girl, showing those gits who knows how to do it.”

 

“Put me down,” Weasley could hear her wailing, “or I’ll hex you when you least expect it!” Even Pansy Parkinson, who had her hand tucked into Malfoy’s, was smirking. She nudged the blond and pointed over to Weasley and Potter and the whole group of Slytherins, including Hermione, waved mockingly at the pair. 

 

“I think,” said Harry Potter, “she’s got friends.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

 

“I don’t see why I have to go.” Hermione stared up at Blaise and Greg with some annoyance. Draco was off holding Pansy’s hand somewhere, a relationship that alternated between cute and annoying, and Theo was probably already in the stands. The boy had an unhealthy love of Quidditch. She, however, had no such thing. It was cold outside. It was wet. And here, down in their lovely common room, it was warm. There was a fire. She had a book. “Take Vincent and Millie.”

 

“Vincent has detention, and Millie’s out there already with Theo.”

 

“Theo hates Millie,” Hermione said, wrinkling her nose.

 

“Try telling her that,” Greg muttered and she laughed. “No,” he insisted. “She’s nuts for him, and he’s trying so hard to be all polite at her, but you know how boy-crazy she is.”

 

“Poor Theo,” Hermione grinned, but, still unmoved by the prospect of a Quidditch match on this cold day, she made no attempt to get up. Blaise, however, just yanked her blanket off of her.

 

“You have to come. House pride thing. I’ll loan you a jumper if you’re cold but come on already.”

 

“You can sit between Millie and Theo and save him,” Greg wheedled, and Hermione snorted. 

 

“I’ll sit between you and Blaise, and you can keep me warm.”

 

“Done,” Greg said, and Hermione frowned at him.

 

“Why do I feel I’ve been played?”

 

“Because you have,” said Blaise, “and despite your weird regard for rules, you aren’t stupid.”

 

With a grumble and a discrete tuck of her book into a pocket, she joined the pair just in time to see the game begin. After a bit during which there was much screeching and cheering from the stands, none of which really interested her, she leaned into Greg and asked, “When does it get interesting?”

 

“It’s interesting now,” he said with a sigh and Blaise wrapped an arm around her and tugged her in towards him. 

 

“I see you trying to pull your book out,” he muttered. “No reading in the stands, Hermione.”

 

“Look!” Greg yelled, poking her, “they’ve spotted the snitch!”

 

She heard herself yelling “Go Flint!” as the older boy knocked Potter off course, keeping the brat from grabbing the ball and ending the game. The announcer’s claim that the foul – and she acknowledged it was a foul but in a game that involved hitting giant balls at players to knock them off their brooms, it seemed pretty mild to her – was obvious and disgusting cheating had her hissing at Blaise, “Is the commentary always this one-sided?”

 

“Yep,” said an older boy sitting behind them. “Everyone hates us. We’re evil you know.” He wiggled his fingers at the three of them and Hermione, turning to look at him, laughed. 

 

“We’re just better than they are,” Blaise said, his eyes on the field. “And they know it.”

 

“Score!” Greg yelled, and the cheer from their section of the stands was deafening. 

 

“How much longer is this going to take,” Hermione whispered to Blaise though her attention had been caught by Potter, who seemed to have forgotten how to fly. “And what’s up with him?” she asked, and the boy at her side followed her pointed finger to look at Potter, whose broom was bucking.

 

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Blaise said shortly, and she shrugged and went back to trying to decide whether Greg or Blaise put out more body heat because this was really not a pleasant day. But whatever was going on with Potter was getting worse and soon they were all watching, fascinated, as his obviously hexed broom shook and twitched. He finally plummeted towards the ground and, just as she was sure he was about to die, he righted himself and – what the? – caught the snitch, which essentially fell into his hand.

 

“That can’t be right,” she hissed at Greg who was staring in open-mouthed shock at the field. “Does that even count?” Flint was yelling it wasn’t a fair catch, but the announcer was already declaring it a Gryffindor victory and Hermione had her arms wrapped around herself and was muttering, “I can’t believe you made me come out in the cold just to watch this. This was terrible.”

 

They glumly wound their way down the stands, Flint still yelling in the background, and went back to their common room. “I hate Quidditch,” Hermione muttered before plopping down on a couch next to Theo, who had managed to shake Millie, and who tugged on her hair before slumping against her. 

 

“That sucked,” he said, and she nodded.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“It’s COLD,” she complained, but the whining was half laughter as she threw the last few snowballs at Draco and Greg. Winter had come, and with it, snow and everything was covered in a blanket that hid any imperfections. They’d been out for over an hour; she’d had snow shoved down her coat, and she’d tackled Draco and pushed him into a drift making Greg laugh as the other boy sputtered that she was cheating

 

“I thought you wanted me to cheat more,” she’d said, smirking at him. “'You and your thing about rules, Hermione. You need to get over that.’ Wasn’t that what you said just this morning when I wouldn’t let you copy my essay?”

 

Now they were trooping back into the castle, ready to charm elves out of hot chocolate, shaking the snow from their hair and clothes, when they got stuck behind a giant tree that blocked the corridor as the groundskeeper moved it into the main hall for Yule.

 

Draco, cold and wet, was even less pleasant than usual. “Do you think you could move this tree? Some of us are trying to pass here.” When he spotted the dynamic duo, he added with a sneer, “Trying to make some extra cash, Weasley? I mean, I know you’re poor and all, but having to do odd jobs around school? Really?”

 

“Now Draco,” Hermione said, using her sweetest voice. “It’s not his fault his family home makes that groundkeeper’s hut look like a mansion.”

 

“Maybe he’ll get to be groundskeeper when he grows up?” Draco said, turning to her with a smirk. 

 

“That might be too intellectually rigorous for – “

 

Ron dove towards them, howling with fury and had snatched Draco’s coat in his fist when Professor Snape came up behind them. 

 

“Fighting?” the man asked with a sneer. “That’s against Hogwart’s Rules, Weasley. Five points from Gryffindor.”

 

“He was provoked,” the groundskeeper said glaring at the teacher, but the professor shrugged.

 

“Then he should learn self-control.” The man glanced at the three Slytherins. “You three are dripping all over the hall. Go get yourselves dried up and order some cocoa from the kitchens before you get sick.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Hermione said. “We’ll do that.”

 

“Oh,” the man added, “and, Miss Granger?”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“I was impressed by your last potions essay. Keep up the good work.”

 

Ron Weasley and Harry Potter both glared at her as she took Draco and Greg by the hands and led them past the furious pair. She smirked at them, then schooled her expression to a far more respectful one as she passed Professor Snape.

 

“What does ‘too intellectually rigorous’ mean?” Greg asked as they walked away.

 

“It means he’s too stupid to do the job,” Draco drawled, and Hermione glanced back to grin at both Ron and Harry who had their fists clenched at their sides. The little jerks thought they were too good to acknowledge any Slytherin, but she’d show them. 

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Theo had spent the better part of the afternoon instructing Hermione in Yule traditions until she’d thrown her hands up and asked why there wasn’t a wizard traditions class instead of Muggle Studies. “Who cares about Muggle studies?” she’d practically screeched. “None of you are going to run off and live in Muggle Britain, are you?”

 

There were rude snorts from several older students in the common room and at least one coughing fit.

 

“You don’t exactly need to know how the British mail works or what one might watch on the tele! It’s a waste of time! Why can’t I have a class on something useful instead of being tormented this way?” She’d crumpled forward and pillowed her head on her folded arms at that point. 

 

“What’s up with her?” Greg asked, and Draco shrugged.

 

“Theo has decided it’s his sacred duty to school her in all things pureblooded,” Blaise drawled from another table. “He’s being somewhat relentless.”

 

“Yule is not that complicated,” Theo said.

 

“It wouldn’t be, mate, if you stuck to the basics. Give all your friends a present, nothing too expensive or you look stuck on yourself. No jewelry unless you’re engaged to the girl, which is hardly relevant for any of us,” Blaise said. 

 

“Could be relevant,” Theo argued. “People sometimes get engaged as children.”

 

“Merlin, Theo,” Draco said. “No one does that anymore.”

 

“Purebloods still engage children to one another,” Hermione said, wrinkling her nose. “Eww.”

 

“Do Muggles not do that?” Theo asked.

 

“No!” She stuck her tongue out. “That’s gross.”

 

“Gotta agree with her,” Draco said.

 

 Hermione dutifully shopped and wrapped and shipped presents out. A book on Quidditch for Theo, a scarf for Blaise, candy for Greg and Vincent. She got Muggle lip-glosses for Pansy and Millie, knowing the combination of makeup and the forbidden lure of Muggle goods would be irresistible to both girls. She stood a long time at the shop, looking at a tiny golden snitch charm for Draco and finally decided it might be too much and settled on an actual, training snitch.

 

He sent her a bracelet. It wasn’t fancy; she wasn’t sure if the cheap glass beads even counted as jewelry in his world, but she stared at it for a long time when she opened the box, stared at it so long the owl hooted impatiently at her until she shook herself and handed him a treat. She wore it every day at home on break, only taking it off when she returned to school. 

 

She wasn’t sure what it meant. Wasn’t sure it meant anything. He was kind of dating Pansy, if by ‘dating’ one meant holding hands in the corridors and sitting together at Quidditch matches and on the couch in the common room. And, though the intricacies of pureblood Yule etiquette - as filtered through Theo - had almost made her throw things, she had noticed they had rules for everything. She wasn’t sure if wearing it would end up committing her to something, so she didn’t.

 

She did hug him on the train and said, “I love it.” 

 

“When we’re older I’ll give you a real one,” he said with a grin, and she felt herself exhale, a kind of relieved but nervous exhalation. 

 

“Brat,” she said, and his grin got bigger.

 

“I learned a new curse,” he said with a smirk. “The first person to give you that ‘dirty Slytherin’ look gets it.”

 

“You are so going to lose us every point we’ve ever gotten,” she said, shoving him and he put on the innocent face he used when confronted by teachers. “But thank you.”

 

“No one picks on my housemate,” he said.

 

“They don’t pick, exactly,” she said, sitting down squishing herself up against the window to make room for Theo and Greg, who’d trooped in and who were arguing about some obscure Quidditch rule. “They just… sneer. They look at all of us like we’re diseased and contagious.”

 

“I know,” he said, his voice low and angry. “Someday they’ll all be sorry.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When she found him laughing outside the library, his mean little laugh, she sighed. “What have you done?” She asked him.

 

“Nothing,” he said, rolling his wand between his hands.

 

She grabbed him and started hauling him to the dungeons. “You need to learn to lie better,” she told him. “Was it Weasley or Potter you harassed?”

 

“Neither,” he said with the smug primness that made her want to kick him in the shin. “I just didn’t like the look on Longbottom’s stupid face, so I leg-locked him.”

 

“And what look was that? Utter terror at the sight of you?”

 

“It’s like he has ‘pick on me’ written on his forehead,” Draco admitted with a grin. “But he was telling some girl not to worry she couldn’t do as well as you in Charms because – “ but there he cut himself off, some sudden sense of tactfulness jutting in between his brain and his mouth.

 

“Because I’m just a stinking Slytherin,” Hermione said, a question in her voice; the look on Draco’s face confirmed it. He watched her expression quiver for a moment before she set it into her stubborn ‘no one can hurt me’ glare.

 

“He didn’t mean it,” Draco offered. “He just wanted to make whoever she was feel better.”

 

“He meant it,” Hermione said. “They all mean it.” She blinked fiercely a few times. 

 

“Yeah,” Draco said, “But you’re worth twelve of those idiots. C’mon. I got a new box from my mum this morning. I bet it’s got some of those cakes you like so much.”

 

Hermione smiled a little at that. “How come she always sends those now?”

 

“Because I told her you liked them,” he said.

 

Hermione stopped walking towards their dormitory and, once he was a few feet ahead of her, Draco stopped too and turned back toward her. “What?” he demanded.

 

“Your mother is sending cakes to you for me?” she asked, and he looked confused.

 

“Well, yeah. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

 

“But….” Hermione trailed off, then said, “Muggle-born.”

 

“Oh, like she cares about that,” Draco said, rolling his eyes. “Haven’t you figured out by now that no one does?” He stopped to consider. “Well, my crazy aunt might from what I’ve heard about her, but she’s in Azkaban, so it’s not like anyone exactly worries about her opinion. You’re Slytherin, you stupid girl. You’re one of us.”

 

Her smile was shaky, so Draco gave her a shove. “Don’t make me hex you as if you were some dopey Gryffindork. C’mon.” He began to race down the hall and, swiping at her eyes, Hermione followed.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione’s feelings on Quidditch remained the same, which would have been fine if everyone hadn’t absolutely insisted she go to yet another game. 

 

“We aren’t even playing in this one,” she whined as Draco dragged her to the stands. “I don’t see why I have to gooooo.” She drew the last word out as they passed a group of Gryffindors, there to cheer on their rotten seeker, apparently the youngest seeker ever since the dawn of time.  

 

Ron Weasley looked at her as they passed, her hand clasped tightly in Draco’s as if he were afraid if she got loose she’d bolt back to the common room. Weasley jabbed her in the side with an elbow, and she gasped at the sudden shock.

 

“Sorry,” the boy said with a smirk. “Didn’t see you there.”

 

Malfoy looked at the boy and then at Greg and Theo, who were following Hermione. Vincent, as usual, was in detention. “You know how I think they pick Gryffindor team members,” he said loudly. “They get the people they feel sorry for. Potter’s got no parents, the Weasleys have no money. It’s sweet, really.”

 

Hermione sighed and nudged him forward to their seats. “Look, it’s Neville Longbottom,” Draco was saying as they sat down. “You remember Neville, right, Hermione? He’s the one who can’t reason his way out of a paper sack. I’m surprised he’s not on the team too.”

 

“You leave him alone,” Ron snapped, not turning from the game.

 

“If brains were gold, Neville would be poorer than you,” Draco taunted as Theo began to tug Hermione away from the brewing confrontation. As Potter started flying towards the ground at a ridiculous speed, Draco added, “Oh, you’re in luck Weasley. Looks like your buddy might have found some money on the ground.”

 

Ron turned and threw himself across the stands at Draco as Theo yanked Hermione wholly out of the way. Neville and Greg joined in, and the four boys missed it as Potter caught the snitch again because they were busy punching one another. 

 

“Honestly,” Hermione muttered to Theo as they looked at the brawl going on near their feet. “At least this time the game was short.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione spread out the color-coded exam study tables she’d made for all her friends.

 

“Hermione,” Greg said, looking at his, “exams aren’t for ages.”

 

“But it’s important to be prepared, and it’s only ten weeks away,” she said, her voice starting to rise. “I should have been studying for ages, and you keep making me go to Quidditch games. I don’t know what I’m going to – “

 

Theo pulled the entire pile away from her and calmly dumped the lot in the fire. “Stop,” he said. “Stop with the swot thing before you make yourself miserable. And unbearable.”

 

“Theo!” she wailed, watching her tables and charts go up in flames.

 

He shoved a chocolate frog at her. “Sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “I’m just protecting you from yourself.”

 

“Nicolas Flamel,” she said after she opened the package. “Darn. I already have five of these.”

 

. . . . . . . .

 

“You are not going to believe what I found out,” Draco said, pouring himself some juice and smirking.

 

“Oh?” Hermione had her head into her Charms book and was drilling herself on all the secondary and tertiary uses for every charm they were supposed to know.

 

“The groundskeeper guy, the one Potter and Weasley are always visiting?”

 

“Mmm?”

 

“He has a dragon.”

 

“You’re right.” Hermione looked up at him. “I don’t believe that. The man lives in a wooden hut. How could he possibly be stupid enough to have a dragon? Plus,” she looked back down again, “one wouldn’t fit.”

 

“It’s a baby,” Draco said smugly, and she rolled her eyes.

 

“Draco, it’s not even legal to have a dragon.”

 

“I know.” She put her book away and gave her friend her full attention; the boy looked positively gleeful and that never boded well. He tended to be all bluster and no planning, and he’d end up hexing some stupid student right in front of a teacher and lose them all points.

 

“Draco, if he does have a dragon, we should tell someone.”

 

“We should,” he agreed.

 

“But we won’t, will we?” she asked with a sigh.

 

“Nope,” he grinned at her. “Not until we can get Potter and Weasley into as much trouble as possible.

 

“Your obsession with Potter is downright weird,” she muttered.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco’s obsession with the pair of Gryffindors might have been weird, but it was, she had to admit, great fun to go and torment Weasley. The git had apparently managed to get his hand chomped on by the baby dragon and, in a turn of events that shocked no one except the boy himself, the bite became infected and his hand swollen. Apparently, dragon fangs were poisonous.

 

“There’s a reason you aren’t supposed to have dragons,” Hermione said smugly as she and Draco headed to the hospital wing. “They’re dangerous.”

 

He stopped in the hall when she said that, the textbook they were taking to the Weasley boy as their excuse to visit him in one hand. “Dragons are dangerous,” he agreed, his voice low. “But only to outsiders. They’re fiercely protective of their own.”

 

She looked at him and, after a moment, said, “Well, Weasley’s clearly not one of the dragon’s own.”

 

Draco snorted at that. “I’d say not.”

 

“How’s your hand?” Hermione gushed at Weasley once they were in the Infirmary. “We were just so worried.”

 

“How did you say this happened again?” Draco asked, watching the mediwitch without seeming to.

 

“A dog bite,” Weasley muttered. “Thanks for bringing me my book. You can go now.”

 

“Oh, no,” Hermione said. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you alone here to suffer without me.” She picked up a note from the side table and said, “Your brother the dragon-keeper wrote you? Wasn’t that nice of him. It must be really nice having a large family to look after you when you get a dog bite.” She cast a woeful look at Malfoy and handed him the note while Weasley reached out to try and grab it from her. “I’m an only child, you know.”

 

“Me too,” Draco said with a sneer. “Though, I always thought having more kids than you can afford to feed was stupid, and who wants nothing but hand-me-downs?”

 

“Saturday at midnight?” Hermione leaned in closer. “How interesting that your brother, the dragon-keeper, is coming by then when you just got yourself nipped in the hand by something he might be interested in.”

 

“We should tell,” Draco said.

 

“We should let the dragon bite all of them,” Hermione corrected.

 

“I like the way you think,” Draco smirked.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Tonight’s the night,” Draco whispered, and she nodded back in silent accord. Greg and Vincent followed them as they snuck their way towards the tallest tower. “We’ll catch that git with his dragon and rat him out to Snape and then he’ll be gone.”

 

They waited in an alcove by the stairs, and everything would have gone smashingly if McGonagall hadn’t decided she needed a walk. She didn’t believe them, of course. “How dare you,” she gasped when she found them out. “Wandering about when it’s near midnight?”

 

“But Professor,” Hermione pleaded, “It’s Potter. He’s got a dragon.”

 

“Is that rubbish really the best you can do? Out after curfew with three boys and she blames it on a dragon,” McGonagall huffed. “In my day… oh! Detention for all of you and twenty points from Slytherin. I’ll be talking to Professor Snape about these ridiculous lies you’re telling!”

 

As she was dragging them off, Hermione and Draco quite literally by their ears with Greg and Vincent trailing behind them, they could hear a faint laugh that sounded a lot like Potter. They exchanged looks, and Hermione mouthed, “But where is he?” and Draco shrugged, his eyes narrowed. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Wherever he was, apparently McGonagall had caught him too, and Weasley as well. The overnight loss of twenty points from Slytherin was overshadowed by the far more monumental loss of one hundred and fifty from Gryffindor. Hermione and Draco quietly smirked at one another at the commotion – the utter loathing – that followed Potter all day as his housemates discovered he was the one responsible for their point loss. 

 

“It’s worth having to do detention with that git, isn’t it?” Draco asked, and Hermione grinned. 

 

“It really is,” she agreed. 

 

Vincent and Greg were assigned to the kitchens; they both already had a long-standing relationship helping the elves scrub pans, and McGonagall clearly thought they were followers. Draco and Hermione she had tagged as troublemakers, and they were informed their detention would be served with Hagrid and that Filch would take them there.

 

“I don’t see why we can’t just write lines,” Draco grumbled, and Hermione gave him a hard shove.

 

“Doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. “It’s worth it, right?”

 

“I suppose,” he said, looking like he didn’t suppose at all. 

 

She started to agree with him when she discovered the idiot groundskeeper was taking them into the so-called Forbidden Forest to help him track down an injured unicorn. In what sane universe did a school employee take children into the woods – woods they had been explicitly told the first day of the year they were never, ever to go into – to track down a hurt and wild animal? 

 

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” she muttered, and Draco shot her a grateful look even as Weasley taunted them.

 

“Scared, you two?” 

 

“Sensible,” she snapped back.

 

“What if the thing that got the unicorn finds us before we find it?” Draco asked, his voice trembling a little, and the groundskeeper laughed.

 

“You’ll be fine,” he promised, a promise Hermione had trouble crediting given this was a man who’d thought having a dragon in a wooden hut was a good idea.  

 

“I’m not doing it,” she said.

 

The groundskeeper narrowed his eyes at her and said, “You got in trouble, and you’ll do what you’re told.”

 

“I don’t think so,” she shook her head. “C’mon Draco. We’ll go back to the castle and write a quick note to your father. Didn’t you tell me he was on the Board of Governors?”

 

“Yes,” he said, his voice still a little shaky.

 

“This,” she said, glaring at the groundskeeper, “is the most insane idea I’ve ever heard of. Sending a group of eleven-year-olds into the woods at night. And I’m quite sure Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy will agree with me.”

 

Draco seemed to be getting his feet back under him now that Hermione had taken over and was refusing to go along with this trek into the woods. “They would,” he said. “They’d be livid to know the school put me in danger.”

 

“They might,” Hermione drawled, “even demand the resignation of the people responsible. That would be,” she paused and looked around, “Oh, yes. That would be you.” She looked at Hagrid and smirked. 

 

The man glared at her, but she just smiled at him and said, “Well, Draco, shall we head back up to the castle now?”

 

“Fine,” the groundskeeper said, gritting his teeth. “You two brats can wait in my cottage until we come back.”

 

“Should we write lines while we wait?” Hermione asked, her voice sweet. “For our detention?”

 

The man stomped off without answering, Potter, and Weasley following him.

 

“That was brilliant,” Draco breathed, looking at her. “You’re utterly brilliant.”

 

She grinned at him, and they settled down to wait until the unicorn hunting party returned. 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“I love exams,” Hermione said with a satisfied smile on her face as she lay on the grass with Theo and Pansy. “And those were so much easier than I expected them to be.”

 

“Why do you love exams?” Pansy asked, trying to spot Draco.

 

“Class is so boring most days,” Hermione said. “At least on exam days I have something to do the entire time.”

 

“You need to skiv off more,” Theo said.

 

“Skiv off from class?” Hermione asked, sounding horrified.

 

“Yep,” Theo grinned. “Next year I’m totally getting you to do it.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“This is gorgeous,” Hermione breathed, looking around the Great Hall. Green and silver decorations hung everywhere, and there was a huge banner with their serpent crest behind the head table.

 

“Looks good, doesn’t it?” Draco took her arm. “Seventh year in a row. We’re the best house, after all. We get all the best students, swots and jocks both, and we win.”

 

“We won fair and square,” she agreed as they squeezed into the benches at their table. 

 

The headmaster was making one of his dotty announcements, and she tuned him out until he read off their point total – four hundred and seventy-two, which made it one hundred and sixty more than their hated rivals the Gryffindors – and they all began banging their goblets on the table and cheering. She looked over at Potter and Weasley and smirked at them. See what happens when you play by the rules, she thought. You win

 

Until the unthinkable happened.

 

Dumbledore announced he had some last-minute point changes. To Weasley, for a chess game, fifty points.

 

“What’s going on?” she hissed to Draco. “No one gets fifty points for winning a game of chess. I only got ten when I – “ but he cut her off.

 

“I don’t know. Shut up.”

 

To Parvati Patil, using logic. Fifty points.

 

Hermione turned to Theo and looked at him, and he shook his head, helplessly.

 

To Harry Potter. For bravery. Sixty points.

 

Hermione started to cry. She’d spent the whole year working and earning points, five here, ten there. A whole year of excellence and any recognition of that – the fair recognition she’d earned – had just been wiped out by a casually unfair authority figure. 

 

“We’re still tied,” Draco said, wrapping his arm around her. “It’s a tie, Hermione. Don’t cry.”

 

To Neville Longbottom, for standing up to his friends. Ten points.

 

“No we’re not,” she said, “we’re not tied,” and she and her friends stared in horror as the room’s decorations were changed, as the whole school cheered that they had lost the school cup. 

 

“It’s not fair,” she said, her voice choked.

 

“You thought life was fair?” Theo asked her, and she pressed her lips together.

 

“I don’t anymore,” was all she said.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Hermione had had a great summer. She owled with both Theo and Draco regularly, and if her parents were slightly uncomfortable their daughter seemed to have mostly boys as friends, they were mostly successful in hiding their feelings. The sting of losing the House Cup faded a bit, and by the time she got her book list, she was ready to start a new year.

 

We’re going to Diagon Alley on Wednesday to get my books.  She wrote Draco. Can we meet up?

 

He grinned the mean little grin she’d missed over the summer when he saw her waiting to meet him at the ice cream shop before he put on his polite smile. “Hermione, this is my father. Father, Hermione Granger.”

 

The aristocratic man peered down at her, and she had a brief, sinking feeling that his opinion of her ancestry was less open-minded than Draco had led her to believe when he held his hand out and said, “Oh, yes. Miss Granger. The little girl in Slytherin who likes the cakes. I’m pleased to meet you at last.”

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, sir,” she said, taking his hand, and he smiled.

 

“Where are your parents, Miss Granger?” he asked, and her smile faltered for a moment.

 

“They’re Muggles, sir,” she said. “I’m Muggle-born, and they find all this a little disconcerting so they just dropped me off and said they’d pick me up later.”

 

“But that’s terrible. You must allow Draco and I to escort you on your shopping trip.”

 

“That’s so kind,” she said, stumbling over the words, “but I couldn’t impose.”

 

“The company of a beautiful girl is never an imposition,” he corrected her. “Draco, offer her your arm. Before we tackle this appalling reading list you’ve been sent, I have to do a personal errand.” He turned to Hermione. “You don’t mind, do you, Miss Granger? I promise I’ll treat you both to sundaes when we’re done to make it up to you both.”

 

“I…. thank you,” she said, shooting a quick look at Draco who looked grateful she’d acceded to his father’s demands. She suspected very few people said no to this man.

 

Mr. Malfoy led them both down a dimly lit alley into a shop she’d never seen before. Borgin and Burkes she read, and the man leading them inside cautioned both her and Draco. “Touch nothing,” he said. “Not everything in here is as sanitized as the little toys they give you at school.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Hermione said, and he smiled at her before drumming his fingers on the counter. Draco had bent down and was looking at a bunch of skulls on a lower shelf. 

 

“I want a racing broom,” he told her. “Stupid Potter has that Nimbus 2000 and I want to try out this year.”

 

She sighed. “Of course you do.”

 

“He’s not even good,” Draco was going on, and she could sense his father watching them both. “He’s just famous. Stupid famous Potter. Everyone thinks he’s so smart with his broom and his scar and his…”

 

“I don’t,” she said, pulling his arm away before he could pick up one of the skulls. “Would you stop? I haven’t seen you all summer, and you’re already just droning on about that stupid boy.”

 

“Children,” Mr. Malfoy said, “let me remind you it’s not prudent to seem… less than enamored of Harry Potter when most people see him as the hero who made the Dark Lord… ah, Mr. Borgin.”

 

“I like her,” he would say later to Narcissa. “I didn’t expect to, Muggle-born and all. But she’s got the right attitude about Potter, and she seems to have some control over Draco.” 

 

Now he shooed the children away, and Hermione watched him hand a list to the man who’d come out to speak to him. “What’s that?” Draco asked her, and she looked at the withered hand that had caught his eye.

 

“Hand of Glory,” she said. “Stick a candle in it, and it’ll give light only to you. A thief’s best friend.”

 

“How do you know that, Miss Granger?” Mr. Malfoy asked her, and she shuffled her feet and swallowed hard before answering.

 

“I like to read, sir.”

 

“Indeed.” He looked at Mr. Borgin, who looked impressed at her easy identification of the hideous thing. “I somehow doubt the Hand of Glory was in your first-year textbooks.”

 

“No, sir,” she admitted but didn’t elaborate, and he smiled again.

 

“I begin to see why the young lady has better grades than you do, Draco,” he said, and Draco flushed under his scrutiny.

 

“When you graduate, if you keep up with your ‘reading,’” Mr. Borgin said to Hermione, “please consider coming to see me for a position.”

 

“I think the young lady has a brighter future ahead of her than life as an assistant in your shop,” Mr. Malfoy said dismissively, and now it was Borgin’s turn to flush.

 

“He likes you,” Draco whispered in awe. “I’ve never seen that before. The only one of my friends he likes is Theo, and that’s just because he’s been friends with Theo’s dad since forever.”

 

Hermione rolled her eyes and turned to look at a gorgeous opal necklace. “It’s cursed,” Draco said, and she snorted.

 

“I can read the sign, Draco.” They continued to tease and bicker as he pointed out one peculiar item after another until Mr. Malfoy announced he was done and pointed towards the door. Draco transformed from her chum to a faintly nervous young man and offered her his arm very formally and led her from the shop into the dodgy looking street. 

 

“Come with me,” Mr. Malfoy commanded, and they followed him down the street and back towards Flourish and Blotts.

 

The bookstore was mobbed because of a book signing. Hermione wrinkled her nose and pushed through the crowds, gathering her books and groaning at the weight. “Draco,” she heard his father say, “Go help your friend. I’ll meet you both at the counter.”

 

“I can carry my own stuff,” she hissed, but Draco yanked the books out of her hands.

 

“If I’ve been told to carry them and I don’t, he’ll lecture me all night on courtesy and what’s due a young witch of position and on and on. Just let me do it.” Draco sounded sullen, and she winced.

 

“But, Draco,” she said, trying to tug the books back out of his hands with no success, “I’m not a young witch of position. I’m me.” But he refused to relinquish the books. She finally gave up and just let him hold them while she piled more books for both of them onto the stack. They’d dumped one pile on the counter and gone back for more – the book list really was long this year – when they stopped and stared at the author signing books. The man had his arm around Harry Potter, of all people, and was posing for a photograph.

 

He was nattering on about how he was going to be Harry Potter’s teacher this year, that he’d taken a position at Hogwarts. Hermione looked over at Draco; he had his snake-mean smile in place and was watching Potter try to squirm away from the older man with obvious pleasure.

 

“Bet you loved that, didn’t you Potter?” he drawled once their classmate had extricated himself and dumped a pile of books into some little girl’s cauldron. Potter flushed.

 

“Of course he did,” Hermione chimed in. “Famous Harry Potter causes a commotion even in a bookstore.

 

“Leave him alone,” the little girl said, glaring at Draco and Hermione. “He didn’t want any of that.”

 

“A girlfriend,” Draco said. “Look, Hermione, Potter’s got a girlfriend.”

 

“She’s a bit young, isn’t she?” Hermione asked, eyeing the diminutive ginger girl with curiosity. “Is she even old enough to go to Hogwarts?”

 

“I start this year,” the girl said, tossing her head. She eyed Hermione’s Slytherin t-shirt with a sneer of her own. “I won’t be in that House, though. I’d sooner die.”

 

“That could be arranged,” Draco muttered, and Hermione gave him what she hoped was a quelling look. 

 

“Who’re you talking to, Ginny?” Ron Weasley came over, and the family resemblance between him and the little girl in front of them was unmistakable. The boy looked at Hermione and Draco with disgust. “Stay away from these gits, Gin. They’re nothing but trouble.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and smirked at them both. “Bet you’re surprised to see Harry here.”

 

“Why would we be?” Hermione asked, rolling her eyes. “He needs to get books too.”

 

“Hadn’t given Potter’s shopping needs much thought, to be honest,” Draco said. “Kind of surprised to see you though, Weasley. Does your family go without food for a month to be able to afford books for you, your brothers, and the tiny red one here?”

 

Ron Weasley lunged towards Draco, but Harry Potter grabbed onto his jacket and pulled him back.

 

“Ron!” A portly red-haired man came over, breathing hard as he fought his way through the crowds. “What are you doing?”

 

Hermione had the sudden, natural fear of a child caught mid-skirmish by an adult until she felt a hand on her shoulder and, glancing behind her, saw Mr. Malfoy, who had one hand resting on her and another on Draco. She turned back to the clan in front of her, confident smile back on her face. “Mr. Weasley,” Draco’s father drawled. “I’m surprised you have time to take your lot shopping what with how busy it’s been at the Ministry. All those raids. I do hope they’re paying you overtime.”

 

He left one hand on Hermione but took the other off his son to reach down into Ginny Weasley’s cauldron of books. Pulling out a battered textbook, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Obviously not,” he sighed. “If you’re going to be a disgrace to wizardry you ought to at least be well-compensated for it.”

 

“We have very different ideas of what it means to be a disgrace,” Arthur Weasley choked out.

 

“Apparently.” Mr. Malfoy regarded the book with what seemed to be genuine pity before dropping it back into the girl’s cauldron. “Come, children. Let’s purchase your books and then, I believe, we need to pick up a broom for Draco, and I promised you both ice cream.” He paused. “Miss Granger, would you like a broom as well? I would be happy to make some recommendations and treat you to a...”

 

Hermione quickly said, “Thank you, sir, but you’ve already been too generous with your time and your offer of ice cream. A broom is too much and I couldn’t…”

 

“Hermione hates flying,” Draco cut in. “She’d never use it.”

 

“Any sensible person would hate flying if she were forced to use those school brooms,” Lucius Malfoy had turned away from the Weasley’s as though he had wiped them from his mind. “They’re a disgrace and dangerous to boot. No, no, child. If I let you return to that school without a decent broom, my own wife would never forgive me for putting Draco’s friend at risk.”

 

“You can’t just buy her a broom,” Ron Weasley blurted out, and Mr. Malfoy turned to look at the child with a politely curious look on his face.

 

“Why on earth not?”

 

“She’s Muggle-born,” Ron said with vicious pleasure, clearly expecting Draco’s father to end his obvious patronage of the girl when he heard this bit of news. Mr. Malfoy blinked a few times and then looked at Mr. Weasley.

 

“I had no idea you had inculcated such prejudice in your offspring, Arthur. Fascinating. Just when I thought you could sink no lower.” Mr. Malfoy turned away from the Weasleys again and, leading both his charges to the counter, continued to insist Hermione would quite like flying if she would simply try a decent broom. Not a racing broom, no, nothing like what Draco wanted, but a good, well-made broom. She continued to object that it was just too much all the way to the broom store where the man bought Draco two brooms: a racing broom and a simpler broom, ‘in case you need to loan one to a friend.’

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione grabbed Daphne by one hand and Pansy by another and dragged them into a compartment and the three of them flopped onto seats.

 

“Did you bring them?” Pansy demanded, and Hermione nodded and began pulling Muggle fashion magazines out of her bag. 

 

“Merlin, I love these,” Daphne leaned back and started flipping through a British Vogue with a sigh of pleasure. “I wish my mother would let me have them.”

 

“If my parents caught me with these I’d be grounded until I was married,” Pansy said with a groan, “but look at this.” She held up a picture of a woman in a dress with an embroidered top, and a short skirt made almost wholly of feathers; the woman had a coat flung over her shoulder, gloves that reached above her elbow and a hat that could only be described as ‘jaunty.’ “I want it.”

 

“Where would you wear it?” Hermione asked.

 

“So boringly practical,” Daphne muttered.

 

The door to the compartment opened, and the three girls shoved their magazines into their bags with quick, guilty thrusts as Theo stuck his head in.

 

“What are you three up to?” he asked, studying their faces.

 

“Nothing,” Pansy said. “How was your summer, Theo?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco passed Hermione a copy of the Evening Prophet

 

“They flew a magical car? People saw them?” She asked him in horror. “That’s why they weren’t on the train? That may be the stupidest, most ridiculous… please tell me they’ve been expelled.”

 

She looked at his face and sighed.

 

“They haven’t been expelled, have they?”

 

“Fucking Potter,” Draco said, and she nodded in agreement. 

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Listening to the Howler Weasley’s mother sent him about the car incident cheered both of them up. “Still,” Hermione said, the proverbial dog with a bone. “They should have been expelled.”

. . . . . . . . .

 

“What class do we have next,” Theo asked as they stood in the courtyard, squinting at his schedule with dismay. 

 

“Defense against the Dark Arts,” Hermione said, and he looked over at her paper. 

 

“Hermione,” he asked, “Why do you have Lockhart’s lesson plans outlined in little hearts?”

 

She snatched the paper away from him and muttered something unintelligible before shoving it down into her bag. “What’s going on?” she asked, trying to distract him by pointing out some tiny boy who was taking a picture of Potter.

 

“I’m much more interested in your hearts,” Theo said, reaching towards her bag but Draco’s attention had been caught by the skirmish in front of them and, with a sigh, Theo straightened up and trailed after Draco as he strolled over to Potter. The tiny boy was asking Potter if he could have a picture taken with his hero and have Potter sign it. Draco started to laugh.

 

“Giving out signed pictures now, are you Potter?” he asked. His voice was loud and echoed around the courtyard. Hermione snickered, and Greg came hurrying over to join them eyeing Potter’s red face with a sneer. Theo just sighed. “Hey, everybody,” Draco raised his voice even more. “Harry Potter’s giving out photos to his fans.”

 

“Well,” Hermione said, “he is a celebrity.”

 

“I thought you liked those,” Theo needled her, and she glared at him.

 

“I am not,” Potter muttered, holding his bookbag closer to himself.

 

“You’re just jealous,” the camera-toting boy snapped, and Hermione’s laugh rang out, genuine and delighted.

 

“Of what?” she asked and then, with a sweet tone, she began to twist the knife. “Of having my mother die so I could survive, knowing every day of my life I’m the reason my parents are dead? Of being famous for just not dying?”

 

“It’s the scar, I think,” Draco said. “Girls like scars.”

 

“I think it’s ugly,” Hermione said with a shrug. 

 

“Eat slugs, Granger,” Weasley hissed, and Draco Malfoy narrowed his eyes.

 

“Be careful,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to get another note from your mummy. ‘If you put another toe out of line,’” he mimicked, his voice high and shrill.

 

A group of older Slytherins laughed at this and Weasley flushed. 

 

“Why don’t you give Weasley a picture,” Draco suggested. “He could sell it and double his family’s income for the month.”

 

With a shout of inchoate rage, Weasley pulled out a wand and pointed it at Draco.

 

“Why is that wand taped together,” Hermione asked, cocking her head to the side and quietly pulling out her own as if to examine it. “Do they still work that way?”

 

“Not very well,” Theo said with a smug grin. “Most people would just buy another one.”

 

“Why doesn’t he?” she asked.

 

“Oh, he can’t afford it,” Theo said with a shrug as Weasley turned redder and redder.

 

“Pity,” Hermione said. “Mine works fine. Put your wand away, Weasley, before I start to think you’re threatening my friend and overreact.”

 

“What’s going on here?” Gilderoy Lockhart, who was indeed their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, bustled over and Hermione smoothly slipped her wand back into her bag.

 

“Pictures!” The man exclaimed with delight. “I’ll take one with you for your friend here, Harry, and then we’ll both sign it. How does that sound?”

 

Draco snickered, and he, Greg, Theo, and Hermione drifted away towards class as Potter squirmed.

 

“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Greg said, poking at Hermione. “’You’re the reason your parents are dead.’ Ouch.”

 

“She’s brilliant,” Draco said, and Theo laughed. 

 

“Yeah, as long as she’s on our side she’s brilliant. Be careful she never decides she hates you, Draco.”

 

“Not gonna happen,” the boy said. “Race you slugs to class.” The four kids tore off across the courtyard, shrieking with simple joy as they ran.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“Hermione.” Theo nudged a first-year out of the spot next to her on the couch and yanked her book out of her hand. “I have a question for you.”

 

She sighed, a long-suffering, much-put-upon sigh, and waited for him to go on.

 

“I know,” he said, “that you’re an unbelievable swot, and that you color-code your notes using different colored highlighters to track something or other. I know you keep index cards to drill yourself on facts for class as you walk. I know…”

 

“Get on with it,” she muttered.

 

“And I was very impressed at how you froze all those pixies after Lockhart fled, leaving you, me, and Draco to clean up his mess. Not what I would have expected from a man with so much, err, experience.”

 

“Do you plan to get to your point before dinner?”

 

“What I don’t understand,” he said, voice completely innocent, “is how you knew Lockhart’s big dream is to market his own line of hair care products.”

 

Blaise and Pansy both started to laugh and even Draco looked up with a grin on his face as Hermione glared at Theo, snatched her copy of Wanderings with Werewolves out of his hand, and gathering all her things, began to stomp off towards her room.

 

“In all fairness,” Blaise said, voice raised, “she did get us ten points with her little crush.”

 

Hermione slammed her door.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“Explain to me why I have to watch the team practice?” Hermione whined as Draco dragged her towards the Quidditch pitch. 

 

“Because you love me?” he proposed, and she snorted.

 

“Get Pansy or Millie if you want someone to coo over you,” she suggested and then stopped. “Why are they here?”

 

The Gryffindor team was already on the field and having an argument with Flint. “Oh,” Draco said in the innocent voice that meant he was up to something, “they’d already booked the field, but we got special permission to share from Snape because the team needs extra time to train the new Seeker.”

 

“I still don’t see why you want me to watch… wait.” She stopped walking and looked at him. “Draco? Are you the new Seeker?”

 

When he nodded looking both smug and nervous at the same time, she flung herself forward into his arms and squealed as she hugged him. “I’ll come to every game,” she promised. “I’m so happy for you! Draco, that’s great! You must be thrilled.”

 

“I am,” he said, then said, nerves coloring his voice. “My father bought new broomsticks for the team but… I still had to try out. He bought them after I got on, I swear Hermione. I didn’t…”

 

“Of course you didn’t,” she hugged him again. “I’m so proud of you, Draco.”

 

They reached the arguing teams, Draco’s arm slung around her shoulders, right as Weasley, looking from an array of glorious new brooms to Draco, said, “Well, I guess we know why he’s the Seeker. At least you didn’t have to buy your way on our team, Harry.”

 

“Draco got on the team because he’s an amazing flyer,” Hermione said, her eyes flashing. “And no one had to bend any rules for him unlike for your precious Harry Potter.”

 

“No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood,” Weasley snapped and there was a sudden hush that lasted until Draco yanked out his wand.

 

Marcus Flint shoved the younger boy out of the way and blocked his access to Weasley. “He’s not worth it,” the older boy hissed. “How dare you!” Adrian Pucey was yelling as Draco screamed, “You’ll pay for that, Weasley.” He was trying to wriggle his way around Flint, wand still out and Weasley pulled out his own broken wand and cast a hex towards Draco.

 

The hex backfired and hit Weasley himself who started to cough. He stared in horror as he hacked out first one slug, then another, then still more. He kept choking up fat slugs as the Slytherin team stopped holding Draco back and started to laugh. Even Hermione, who’d been blinking back angry tears, started to laugh. Draco tucked his wand away and wrapped his arms around the girl, glaring over her shoulder at the boy who continued to spit up slugs. “I’ll get him for this,” he vowed, his voice muffled by her hair. “Slugs aren’t enough. I’ll get him, don’t worry, Hermione.”

 

“We’ll get him,” she corrected as she wiped at her eyes and hiccoughed a couple of times.

 

Later she said, “I know some of the… some of our Housemates, they…”

 

“You’re one of us,” Draco said, handing her one of the little cakes he’d saved from his last box. “House trumps blood.”

 

“You’ve called people Mudblood,” she said, quietly, nibbling at the slightly stale treat.

 

“Not Slytherins,” he said, “and not you.” He poked her, trying to nudge a smile out of her. “Besides, it’s total shite for Weasley to claim to be all ‘let’s protect the Muggle-born’ while calling you that.”

 

“He is an arse,” she agreed then sagged against the back of her seat. “I wish there weren’t blood prejudice.”

 

Draco snorted. “It’s really just people who’ve hated each other forever. My father’s a ‘blood purist,’ and he likes you but wouldn’t give the Longbottoms more than a sneer. The Weasley’s are blood traitors and, well, you heard that git today. Even if blood went away, we’d all still hate each other.”

 

“So it’s just picking a side,” she said, leaning her head up against him.

 

“Hat picked your side,” he said. “Gave you to us.”

 

“I don’t like having my fate decided by a hat,” she muttered.

 

. . . . . . . . . . 

 

Hermione, Theo, and Draco were walking through the hall, shoving and laughing as Hermione tried to keep Theo from checking her books for hearts around Lockhart’s name, when Theo suddenly stopped and said, his voice choked, “What’s that?”

 

Written on the wall in foot-high letters were the words

 

THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED

ENEMIES OF THE HEIR BEWARE

 

“What…”

 

Draco looked paler than usual and grabbed Hermione and turned her away from the sight but not before she saw the cat hanging, stiff as a board, from a torch bracket to the side of the writing.

 

“Draco,” she said, her voice tiny, “shouldn’t we do something?”

 

“We do not want to be found here,” he said, “trust me.”

 

But before they could escape a rushing stream of students poured into the hall. As each student came across the note and the apparently frozen cat, they froze too until the growing cluster of shocked students was pushed aside by the castle caretaker who came forward, demanding to know what was going on, until he saw the cat – his cat - and spun to stare at the gathered crowd.

 

“Who did this?” he demanded. Spotting Harry Potter, the man pointed a gnarled, shaking finger and said, “You – YOU did this to my cat! You’ve killed her, and I’ll kill you, you little….”

 

“Argus,” Dumbledore appeared from somewhere and calmed the hysterical man. “Get your cat, and we’ll go, and I’ll take a look at her. Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, please come with us.”

 

Draco was slowly edging Hermione away from the crowd, Theo close on their heels and, as soon as Dumbledore and Filch disappeared with the Gryffindor prats, the three of them headed for the dungeons. “Draco,” Hermione said, “what was that? What’s the Chamber of Secrets? Who’s the Heir?”

 

“With our luck, it’s Potter,” Theo muttered, and she jerked her head around to look at him.

 

“Heir to Slytherin,” Draco explained as they pushed their way into their common room.

 

“You three.” A seventh year stopped them. “Don’t go anywhere. House meeting.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

“So, let’s start with the basics.” The whole of Slytherin House was packed into their common room. As mere second years, Hermione and her friends were shoved up against a wall, pushed off the furniture by older students looking for places to sit. Between Draco and Theo, someone had been holding on to her since they’d found the sign and she’d gone from finding it annoying to being afraid, a fear she’d controlled by drilling herself on History of Magic facts. Now Draco tweaked the book out of her hand and poked her to get her to pay attention to the seventh-year girl standing at the front of the room.

 

“Anyone here think he’s the Heir to Slytherin?”

 

A nervous laugh greeted her question, and some wag called back, “Could be a girl.”

 

“Or she?” the girl added with a roll of her eyes. 

 

“What’s the heir to Slytherin?” Hermione hissed at Draco. It was Theo, though, who answered her. “Descendent of Salazar Slytherin. Kind of a myth, really. I’m pretty sure the whole family died out generations ago, but the idea is the person would have the same powers Slytherin did.”

 

“Like what?” 

 

“Parseltongue, general dislike of mud… Muggle-borns.”

 

The girl leading the meeting was talking again. “Anyone think it would be cute to leave that message on the wall?”

 

“People hate us enough,” a boy balanced on the arm of one of the couches – Hermione thought he was a sixth-year – muttered. “Fucking professors take points if we look at them funny and that business with the House Cup last year? Who’d be stupid enough to try to make people like us even less?”

 

“This is my O.W.L. year,” a girl said, her voice tinged with hysteria. “I don’t have time for Heirs and Chambers and – “

 

“Anyone have some kind of problem with Muggle-borns?”

 

“Not so long as they’re in our House,” someone muttered.

 

“Muggle Studies is a fucking waste of time,” someone else said to a general rumble of agreement. “I have a problem with that.”

 

Draco gave Hermione a vaguely apologetic look, and she shook her head. “What? He’s right.”

 

“See?” A student near her said. “Even Hermione, our resident Muggle-born, thinks that class is a waste.”

 

“That’s because she’s not an idiot,” someone said, and a wave of laughter swept the room.

 

“Any Parseltongues in the House?” the girl leading the meeting asked, and there was another round of laughter. 

 

“What’s Parseltongue?” Hermione hissed to Theo, who said, as quietly as he could, “The ability to talk to snakes. Salazar Slytherin had it. The Dark Lord had it. It’s… it’s not generally considered a good quality, it’s not something people talk about. It’s something the Heir would have.”

 

“What do we do about this?” Marcus Flint asked. “You know everyone will blame us.”

 

“Don’t get caught talking to snakes?” One wag suggested.

 

“I don’t know what we can do,” the girl leading the meeting admitted. “Keep our heads down, look out for each other – “

 

“Same old, same old,” someone said bitterly. “If something goes wrong, has to be one of us.”

 

“If the Dark Lord were still here…” someone began but was quickly hushed by the people near him. 

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Over the next week, all the students could talk about was the Chamber and the Heir. Speculations ran rampant as to who the mysterious Heir had to be, with people divided between Harry Potter (“Well, he did vanquish You-Know-Who.”) and some Slytherin (“Well, it would have to be one of those snakes, wouldn’t it?”) Hermione spent most of her time researching, shoving even Theo away when he tried to pry her from her books. Finally, he and Greg staged what they called an “intervention.”

 

“You have to stop,” Greg said. “You’re going to make yourself crazy. What are you even looking for?”

 

“Every copy of Hogwarts: A History has been checked out,” Hermione said with frustration, “And I left my copy at home.”

 

“Since that’s the only book more boring than the Wizarding Social Register I’m horrified you even own a copy,” Theo said. “What you are trying to do? Kill yourself with boredom?”

 

“No, you jerk,” she said, tugging on the book he had in his hand. “I’m trying to figure out what the Chamber is. I know it was in there, I can remember the name, but I can’t remember what it was.”

 

She got her chance to find out in History of Magic. The class was widely regarded as painfully dull; it was the only class taught by a ghost, and Professor Binns apparently believed that the pedagogical techniques that had been good enough for the seventeenth century were good enough for today. 

 

“Professor!” She waved her hand in the air, and Theo let his head fall to his desk with a dramatic and audible thump.

 

“Miss - err?” Binns seemed startled to have been interrupted in his discourse on the Warlock Convention of 1289.

 

“Granger, sir. And I’m sorry to interrupt, but I was wondering what you could tell us about the Chamber of Secrets.”

 

People around the room stopped doodling and looked up at her question.

 

“Miss Granger.” The ghost looked almost petulant at her question. “This is a history class. If you’d like to study myth and folklore, I suggest you try the library.” He paused. “Or perhaps Headmaster Dumbledore.”

 

A titter ran through the Slytherins in the room at that last comment.

 

“But sir,” she persisted, “surely most myth was originally based in fact. Just last week when you talked about the primary documents we should use to look at history you acknowledged that…” she started flipping through her papers and Binns looked somewhat astonished that she’d taken any notes in his class, much less the volume clearly evident before her.

 

“Yes, well.” He stopped her search. “You are quite right. It’s just that it’s such a lurid and sensational story and….” He looked up at the room of rapt faces and blinked a few times. “Very well. But this will not be on the next quiz. This is not part of the curriculum.

 

“As you surely know, Hogwarts was founded by four people, one of whom was Salazar Slytherin. He and his fellow founders had differing views on who should be offered a magical education in that he felt Muggle-borns should be excluded from the school. Eventually, he left the school over these differences but, according to rumor, left behind a secret chamber that only his true Heir could open.” The ghost looked around the room. “It’s nonsense, of course. People have looked for the Chamber for hundreds of years.”

 

“What’s the big deal about a secret room?” Lavender Brown, one of the less intelligent Gryffindor girls asked. “This place is filled with rooms no one uses.”

 

“There is,” Binns said, frowning at the girl, “a monster in the Chamber. Again, total nonsense, of course, but the legend has it that the true Heir will be able to control the monster and it will rid the school of all the Muggle-borns.”

 

“I knew Slytherin was vile,” Weasley drawled, “but I didn’t know they’d started all the pure-blood supremacy stuff. I wouldn’t be in that House if you paid me. I swear, if the hat had tried to put me in Slytherin I’d have gotten right back on the train and demanded to go home.”

 

“That’s nonsense,” Hermione said, putting down her quill and glaring at Weasley. “I’m Muggle-born, and I’ve not had any problems in Slytherin.”

 

“Not yet,” Weasley grinned at her. “But now that the Heir has opened that Chamber it’s just a matter of time before one of your loving Housemates gets rid of you and all that bushy, awful hair.”

 

“No loss,” Potter muttered, and Hermione turned to glare at him as well.

 

“It’s illogical and stupid,” Hermione said loudly. “If Salazar Slytherin wanted Muggle-borns gone so much why leave a monster in a chamber to come out and get them at some later date? Why not just kill them all himself?”

 

“Miss Granger does hit upon one the problems with the legend,” Binns said. “When, as historians, we look at sources such as these it’s of paramount importance that we – “

 

And,” she pressed on, “when the school was founded weren’t Muggles still killing witches and wizards?”

 

“Indeed they were,” Binns was trying to wrest control of the class away from Hermione, but she just plowed on.

 

“Salazar Slytherin had a good reason to keep Muggle-borns out in 990. Those reasons aren’t even relevant a thousand years later.” She settled back smugly into her seat. “The only people who’ve been nasty to me about being Muggle-born are people like you, Weasley. Slytherin House has moved on; it’s too bad you apparently haven’t.”

 

“Have I told you lately that you’re brilliant?” Draco asked as they walked out of class, and she grinned at him. 

 

“Nope.”

 

“Wanna go flying?”

 

She shuddered. “No.”

 

“Theo?”

 

“You’re on.” The two boys ran off, and she stuck her tongue out at their retreating backs before heading to the library to see if anyone had returned a copy of Hogwarts: A History. She had a niggling feeling there was something else about the Chamber she couldn’t quite remember.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The debate on whether or not Harry Potter was the Heir continued on, and you could track who believed it by which students avoided him in the halls and wouldn’t sit with him at meals.

 

Not that Hermione cared, but Draco had decided that Potter must be the Heir and was on the verge of keeping an actual journal tracking the git’s movements and she had to hear a lot of speculation about where the boy went and what he did.

 

“He went into the girl’s bathroom,” Draco said one day, voice filled with glee.

 

“Which one,” Hermione asked idly.

 

“Why do you care?”

 

“So I can make sure never to use that one,” she said, grinning at him.

 

“The one by where the… where we found the… you know. There’s a big ‘Out of Order’ sign on the door.”

 

“Oh, that one’s haunted.” Hermione looked back at her book. “Moaning Myrtle. She died back in the 40s or something, and she’s constantly flooding the place.”

 

“I bet Potter was in there figuring out how to release the monster,” Draco said to her, and she sighed.

 

“Does Potter speak Parseltongue?” she demanded, and at Draco’s grimace, she muttered, “Get back to me about how he’s the Heir when he can speak to snakes. Until then, take your boring obsession and talk to Millie about it.”

 

. . . . . . . .

 

“I’ve never seen you so excited to go to a Quidditch match,” Blaise said as Hermione hovered by the door of the common room. 

 

“I think she’s excited to see Draco play,” Greg said, wrapping a scarf around his neck. “Why is the weather always crap on match days?”

 

“Can’t be that,” Blaise said. “Our little Hermione is saving all her love for Professor Lockhart.”

 

“Shut up, Blaise,” she muttered as he grinned at her.

 

“Who wants to bet if we pull out her notes, there will be little hearts around ‘Hermione Lockhart’ all over the place,” he teased, and she flushed a deep red and grabbed Greg’s hand.

 

“Let’s go,” she said. “I want to get a good seat.”

 

Five minutes into the match she’d already begun to regret her promise to watch all the games. Not, of course, that she really had much choice. It was just so boring to watch everyone fly around, and the game seemed really dangerous with the bludgers flying all over the place. Well, maybe not all over the place.

 

“Greg,” she asked, “is that one bludger fixated on Potter?”

 

The boy looked over and narrowed his eyes. Greg wasn’t the best student ever, but he loved Quidditch – loved it – and the idea of someone rigging one of the balls clearly didn’t thrill him. “If they did,” he muttered, “no one will believe it wasn’t us. Even if we win…”

 

“People will assume it’s because we cheated,” she said, getting angry. “And we didn’t. We didn’t!”

 

“But no one will believe that,” Greg said, voice so low as to be barely audible under the roars of the crowd. “This sucks.”

 

The Gryffindors called a timeout and Hermione clutched at Greg’s arm as they watched the other side confer while their own team, up sixty to nothing, jeered. “They’re trying to decide what to do,” she said, and he nodded.

 

“If they call the game off, demand an inquiry, we win by default,” he said. “They’ll never do that.”

 

“This game is idiotic,” she said, and Greg shot her an annoyed look. 

 

“No one’s even hurt yet.”

 

“Yet,” she muttered, gripping him more tightly as play resumed and Draco soared back into the sky. She could see the Snitch hovering right above his ear, but he was so busy taunting Potter he didn’t see it; she tried yelling his name, but her voice was lost in the general uproar, and she stomped her foot with frustration. 

 

“Look who’s getting into the game,” Blaise teased.

 

She gasped as the possessed bludger slammed into Harry Potter and then buried her face into Greg’s shoulder as the other team’s seeker began to fly at Draco as fast as he could, leading that violent ball right towards her friend.

 

“Damn it!” she heard Greg say and she looked up to see Potter in the dirt. “Little prick caught the Snitch again,” Greg added.

 

“We lost,” Blaise added glumly.

 

“I hate this game,” Hermione muttered.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Who?” Theo passed Draco the pitcher of pumpkin juice and stared at Millie in confusion.

 

“Colin Creevey,” the girl said again. “You know, the little Gryffindor with the camera who follows Potter around everywhere.”

 

Theo flicked a glance and Draco and said, rather dryly, “We don’t all pay enough attention to Potter to know who the members of his fan club are, Millie.”

 

“Well, he was going up to see Potter in the hospital wing – he had to regrow bones after the game, you know, because Lockhart bungled fixing his broken arm – and he was petrified. Just like the cat.”

 

“That kid’s annoying,” Pansy said. “Can’t say I’m sorry I won’t run into him and his stupid camera all the time anymore.”

 

“He’s rude,” Hermione said with a shrug. “It’s like it doesn’t occur to him that people might not want that thing shoved in their faces all the time.”

 

“I didn’t know he bothered you,” Draco said, a dangerous look on his face and she kicked him under the table.

 

“I can take care of myself, Draco. Stop with the protective brother crap.”

 

Blaise was suddenly taken by a coughing fit, and Hermione stopped talking long enough to squint at him, but he waved her off.

 

“He wanted to do portraits of all the Muggle-borns at Hogwarts and wasn’t taking no for an answer. Not ‘Thank you, but I’m not interested.’ Not ‘No.’ Not ‘Bugger off.’” She shrugged. “I think, ‘If you stick that thing in my face again I’ll smash into so many shards no reparo in the world will fix it,’ finally got through to him.”

 

“What did he say to that?” Draco asked, and when Hermione flushed, he glared at her. “Tell me,” he insisted.

 

“I think it was something like, ‘stuck up Slytherin,’” she snapped. “I said he was rude.”

 

“I heard him,” Vincent said around a mouthful of scone. “He said you were a stuck up Slytherin bitch who thought she was better than everyone else.”

 

Hermione shrugged, her mouth tight. “Yeah, well,” she said, “I may be a bitch, but at least I don’t harass people to sit for portraits they aren’t interested in.”

 

“Why would you want to be grouped with a bunch of mud… Muggle-borns like that anyway?” Pansy asked. “It’s not like you have anything in common with them.”

 

“Exactly.” Hermione grinned at the girl. “If he’d said he wanted to do portraits of all the second year Slytherins I might have been interested.”

 

“Speaking of Muggles,” Daphne said, and Hermione grinned. 

 

“I’ll ask my mum to pick up some more.”

 

“More Muggles?” Theo asked, and all the girls started to giggle. Pansy muttered, “Don’t worry about it, Theo.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

It took a few days for Colin Creevey’s petrification, and what it meant, to fully circulate. “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened,” students whispered to each other. “The Muggle-borns are all at risk.”

 

“Someone goes with her everywhere,” Draco insisted. “Let the other Houses take care of their people; Slytherins protect our own.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When Hermione admitted she planned to stay at Hogwarts over Christmas Break, Draco immediately signed up to stay too. “Though,” he said to her, “if I don’t bring you home for dinner at least one night, my mother will do that thing where she looks disappointed in me.”

 

“That doesn’t seem like the worst fate ever,” Hermione said, and Draco just snorted.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The idea of a Dueling Club interested everyone; for what might be the first time since the start of school, Hermione was eager to go to an extra-curricular activity. Learning curses in the abstract was good, but learning how to actually use them, well, that sounded much better.

 

Theo and Blaise both groaned when they saw who was running the club and Hermione glared at them. Lockhart strode throughout the room, his robes billowing, and she could barely contain a sigh. Blaise glanced over at her and smirked.

 

Snape leaned up against a wall near the gathered Slytherins and watched the other professor explain the rules of the club with a condescending sneer on his face. When the two men actually dueled, giving a demonstration before the students began, Snape held his wand with casual confidence while Lockhart twirled and fussed. She twitched a bit. A duel, she thought, was not the place to show off. When Snape snapped “Expelliarmus!” and a flash of scarlet light threw Lockhart backward she looked at the black-clad, unattractive potions professor with a measuring glance as her Housemates cheered for their Head of House. 

 

Lockhart began to babble on about how that had been very basic and an excellent thing to demonstrate, but didn’t Snape feel that… and she tuned him out as she considered the uses of disarming your opponent. Would most people see that coming? What made for better offense: something flashy or something basic brilliantly executed? 

 

“I think someone’s little crush has been, err, crushed,” Blaise said in a stage whisper to Draco, who looked over at Hermione and smirked.

 

“That was an instructive duel,” was all she said.

 

The students were quickly paired off; Hermione was unsurprised to see Snape match Draco and Potter up together. When he placed her with some girl from Gryffindor she gave him a displeased look, and he murmured near her ear, “If I have to take the little twit to the infirmary I shall be quite annoyed. Keep it subtle, Miss Granger.”

 

She nodded politely at the other girl who looked her up and down and said, “I didn’t realize Muggles got sorted into Slytherin.”

 

“They don’t,” Hermione agreed. “But witches do.” 

 

“Now,” Lockhart was saying. “At the count of three, disarming only. One. Two. Three.”

 

Hermione had the other girl’s wand in her hand in by the time the ‘e’ was fully out of the man’s mouth, and she turned to see what was happening with her friends. Potter had hurled a rictusempra at Draco, and she began to seethe. Disarming only, huh? Draco had collapsed, giggling, at the tickling spell but still shot off a dancing spell and Potter began to do a jig.

 

“Enough!” Snape shouted and ended both enchantments. Hermione tossed the wand back at her worthless opponent and began to head over towards Draco only to be dragged back by Theo.

 

“He has to do this,” Theo hissed. “You can’t go protect him.”

 

“Potter…”

 

“Didn’t follow the rules?” Theo asked the question with a sneer. “And this surprises you?”

 

She crossed her arms but let Theo hold her back.

 

“Let’s try this again, just the one pair,” Lockhart was saying. “We’ll let you boys show how to block those unfriendly spells.” Lockhart took Harry and began to show him some complicated spell that involved much wiggling of his wand. Hermione eyed him with growing contempt. Meanwhile, Snape was whispering instructions into Draco’s ear. 

 

When the duel began Draco shouted out “Serpensortia!” and Hermione watched, rather surprised, as a large, black snake appeared from the tip of Draco’s wand and began moving towards the frozen Potter. 

 

“If you’re afraid, Potter,” Snape drawled, “I can get rid of it.”

 

“Allow me,” Lockhart said and, with a dramatic flourish of his wand, flung the snake into the air. When it landed it was right in front of some boy Hermione didn’t know it pulled itself up, ready to strike. 

 

Potter hissed some unintelligible thing at the snake, and it collapsed. Hermione looked at Blaise, confused, but the boy was looking at Potter with a coldly measuring expression on his face. She looked back at the scene unfolding before them as the boy who’d just been rescued from the snake shouted at Potter and raced from the room. People were finding reasons to move away from Potter who looked as confused as she felt until Theo breathed into her ear, “So, he is a Parselmouth,” and then she understood. 

 

She looked over at Draco who smiled at her, then at Snape, who met her questioning look with an inscrutable expression even as he waved the wand, and the snake disappeared into a puff of black smoke.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“So, now that we know he’s a Parselmouth,” Draco said, “can we talk about whether he’s the Heir?”

 

“If we heard him bragging,” Hermione said, hesitating over the words, “or we asked him questions about it and he told us… but we’d have to break a lot of rules, have to sneak into the Gryffindor common room and…”

 

“How would we do that?” Draco asked, eyes narrowed.

 

“There’s a way,” she admitted. “But it might be dangerous and…”

 

Theo rolled his eyes. “Do you plan to spit this out anytime soon?”

 

“Polyjuice Potion,” she blurted. “Professor Snape talked about it in class. Tricky to make but it transforms you into someone else. We’d turn ourselves into, well Weasley and that kid sister of his who’s always making eyes at Potter and… no one would know it was us! Potter would tell us anything if he thought that we were part of his adoring fan club.”

 

Theo nodded slowly. “We’d have to work fast; if I’m remembering right, it wears off in about an hour.”

 

“How do we get the recipe?” Draco demanded.

 

“Restricted section of the library,” she said. “I’ll get permission from Snape to do, I dunno, extra credit research on potions. You know he’d give it to me.”

 

“He does kind of shamelessly favor you,” Draco said.

 

“’snot my fault I’m a good student,” she said, tossing her hair.

 

“Merlin,” Theo muttered. “Watch where you’re throwing that stuff. You could take somebody’s eye out.”

 

. . . . . . . .

 

Moste Potente Potions?” Snape asked, eying Hermione with a sneer; she, Theo, and Draco stood in front of his desk, and she’d plastered what she hoped was an innocent expression on her face. “If you plan, Miss Granger, to try your hand at advanced work I do sincerely hope you don’t plan to steal my supplies and brew things up on the floor of some filthy toilet.”

 

“I, uh…” she stammered as he pulled out a quill and signed her request form.

 

“I shall assign you one hour per week to work in my private lab undisturbed,” he said. “It is unfortunate I am not able to provide you with an advanced class to meet your academic needs, but there are so few students with both talent and dedication it would be little more than private tutoring.”

 

As she was choking out her thanks, he waved his hand at them all irritably. “Go away, Miss Granger, and take your pure-blooded swains with you. I haven’t time to help you with whatever little project has piqued your interest so please try not to kill yourself.” He paused. “Or make a mess of my lab. I should be most upset to find it in a condition less pristine than the one in which I left it.”

 

“Well,” Theo said as they walked away, “I think we know which would upset him more, your death or a mess in his lab.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hermione looked back at the door to the classroom. “I think he’d quite dislike all the paperwork he’d have to fill out if I died in his lab.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione had no problems brewing and, leaving her potion to sit, looked longingly back at the well-stocked and immaculate lab before gently closing the door and meeting Theo, her assigned escort for the night.

 

“Honestly,” she muttered, “I’m fine. I really don’t need a pureblood escort everywhere I go to protect me from Potter.”

 

Theo looked at her and then said, “Well, he was found standing over the body of another petrified Muggle-born while you were in there making our potion, so I’m going with, yeah, you don’t get left alone.”

 

“What?” She looked at him in shock. “How is he even still at school? He was found over the body of a victim, and they’re still protecting him? How is that even…”

 

“Chosen One,” Theo said shortly. “He got rid of the Dark Lord so…”

 

“No body was ever found,” she said, and Theo turned and said, his voice sharp, “What?”

 

“Voldemort,” she said with patience. “They never found a body. I wouldn’t call that ‘gone.’ I’d call that ‘missing.’”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Christmas break was delightful. Even though Potter and all the Weasleys had stayed, so had Draco, Theo, and Greg. She kept checking on her potion, adding ingredients as required; Snape watched her come and go from his lab with half-lidded eyes but said nothing. On Yule itself, all four of them met to go to the Malfoy’s for dinner at what could only be termed a ‘command appearance.’

 

“Just… be polite,” Draco had said nervously. “Father already likes you, but if my mum decided you were… just be polite, okay?”

 

“I’m always polite to adults,” Hermione said dismissively. 

 

“She is,” Greg agreed. “She’ll kick you, and she tells us to bugger off all the time, but with professors, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Even Snape likes her.”

 

“McGonagall doesn’t like me,” she protested.

 

“Course not,” Greg snorted. “You’re a dirty Slytherin.”

 

Being a ‘dirty Slytherin’ was clearly an asset, however, in the Malfoy household. Mrs. Malfoy fussed over Greg and Theo, exclaiming how they had grown, before examining Hermione. Hand held out she said, “Welcome, my dear. Thank you for taking care of my Draco. He can be a bit impulsive at times, and it gets him into all sorts of scrapes.”

 

Hermione shook the woman’s hand and smiled, only a little nervously, and said, “I think it’s more that Draco takes cares of me, ma’am. He has since I was sorted and now he barely lets me out of his sight.”

 

“Don’t listen to her,” Theo drawled. “She’s threatened that Weasley boy with a wand at least once when he was going after Draco, and I had to physically hold her back from attacking Potter in the first Dueling Club meeting when he cheated and hexed Draco.”

 

Hermione flushed. “Theo makes it sound worse than it was.”

 

Narcissa Malfoy did not seem upset at her lack of demure, lady-like behavior, though, and asked her instead what she thought of Slytherin as she led all the children towards a small drawing-room that had punch set out. That pulled a much less nervous smile from Hermione. “I’m biased,” she admitted, “but I can’t imagine being happy anywhere else.”

 

“That’s exactly how I felt,” Mrs. Malfoy agreed, “though, of course, as a Black there was very little doubt as to which House I’d be in.”

 

Hermione flicked a quick, confused look at Draco and he filled her in. “Some families are almost always in one House or another. Mum’s from the Blacks, and they’re almost always in Slytherin, like the Malfoys and the Notts.”

 

“And the Goyles,” Greg added.

 

“The Weasleys are always in Gryffindor,” Draco finished.

 

“It’s very rare for a Muggle-born to be sorted into Slytherin,” Narcissa Malfoy continued. “When I heard that Draco’s newest friend was Muggle-born I confess I was a little worried people might make you feel unwelcome. That Draco might make you feel unwelcome.”

 

“No!” Hermione rushed to reassure the woman, not noticing the slight smile she and her husband exchanged. “Draco’s never been anything but great. Some people from other Houses have been… not as nice but everyone in Slytherin – “

 

“There was that one boy,” Greg said, but Theo snorted.

 

“She took care of him, and afterward about half a dozen fourth years kicked him around too. Anyone who goes after Hermione’ll get theirs; we take care of our own.”

 

“And always have,” Lucius Malfoy said smoothly. “And shall continue to do so. Draco, why don’t you show your friends the view from the back balcony while we wait for dinner to be ready? I’m sure you’d like a little time away from the repressive company of adults.”

 

Recognizing the dismissal, the children followed Draco out to another room where they could be faintly heard duly admiring the view before settling in to speculate whether Potter really was the Heir and, if so, would anyone ever hold him accountable.

 

Narcissa looked at Lucius. “I must say, you’re quite right.”

 

“I thought you would agree. Snape tells me she’s brewing Polyjuice Potion in his lab, wholly undirected.”

 

“Isn’t that a bit advanced for a second-year student?”

 

“Quite.” Lucius looked at her. “Apparently the children plan to turn themselves into the Weasleys to try to find out whether Potter is the Heir to Slytherin.”

 

Narcissa laughed, a delighted trill that carried out to the balcony and made Draco look nervously back towards the room where his parents were. “You don’t plan to stop them?”

 

“Of course not. Their initiative should be encouraged, and they can’t hurt themselves; Snape tells me the potion is perfect. They’ll have their little adventure and bond even more tightly.”

 

“You’re really okay with a Muggle-born?” Narcissa confirmed and Lucius looked out towards the children.

 

“I am with this one,” he said. “Every breeder knows you sometimes need an outcross for the strongest results.” He looked back at his wife. “He gave her a glass bead bracelet for Yule last year, you know.”

 

“Really?” She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “You didn’t do that until we were, oh, thirteen. Has she worn it?”

 

“Not publicly,” Lucius admitted. “But he didn’t cry his eyes out over it, so I suspect she’s let him know she appreciates it.”

 

“I’ll have to do something about that hair,” Narcissa said, and Lucius laughed. 

 

“I trust you to ensure by the time she’s of age she’s wholly presentable, love.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Over dinner, Narcissa asked Hermione about her parents, noted that the girl was quietly moving away from the Muggle world without comment, and asked what she thought of Muggle Studies.

 

“Oh boy,” Theo said with a groan, “here we go.”

 

Narcissa hid her amusement at the look Hermione shot Theo. “It’s a waste of time,” the girl said, gritting her teeth, then, looking at Narcissa, “begging your pardon, ma’am. I hope it’s not a special project of yours.”

 

“It’s not,” Narcissa reassured the girl, briefly meeting Lucius’ glance. “I’m curious why you think it’s a ‘waste of time’ as you put it. Surely they aren’t making you take it?”

 

“No, of course not,” Hermione said. “It’s an elective, after all, and none of us are taking it. But it’s still taking up valuable resources. No one leaves the Wizarding world to live with Muggles, it just doesn’t happen.”

 

“Very true,” Lucius said.

 

“But,” Hermione persisted, “People like me join the magical world every year.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Narcissa murmured. “I don’t think people like you join our world very often at all.”

 

Hermione looked at her, slightly confused while Draco began to choke on his water. “Are you okay?” Theo asked, and Draco muttered, “Fine, I’m fine.”

 

“You were saying,” Narcissa prompted and Hermione, frowning at Draco, returned to one of her favorite pet peeves.

 

“The resources that the school wastes teaching wizards who don’t care how to use a Muggle phone could be used teaching Muggle-borns things like wizarding social customs. Theo tries, but there isn’t even a book I can read, and I’m always afraid I’m saying the wrong thing. There’re rules for everything, and I don’t know them!” Hermione’s tone ended in a near wail, and Narcissa smiled at Lucius again.

 

“But there is a book,” she said as she signaled for the elves to clear and bring out dessert. “Several, really. I’ll send copies of them to you. I admit it’s not the same as having to grow up with Aunt Walburga’s endless lectures but probably somewhat less unpleasant.”

 

“Unless I have completely misread that child,” Lucius would say later, “she’ll have even the most obscure etiquette rule memorized by the next time you see her.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The potion was ready, and they all stared at the gurgling liquid with some dismay. Hermione had stolen robes from the laundry draped over a stool, and the red and gold seemed garish in the lab. “Does everyone have a hair?” Hermione asked, and Theo pulled out two red hairs.

 

“One from the git in our year, one from his little sister.”

 

“And who are you?” Hermione asked.

 

“I,” he said, rather smugly, “am your lookout.”

 

“Coward,” she muttered. “Do you not trust my brewing?”

 

Theo laughed. “You two go and entrap Saint Potter. I’ll make sure the weasels are out of your way.”

 

Draco took one hair and dropped it into his flask and cringed as the liquid boiled and bubbled and then settled back down, having turned an orangey-red color. Hermione took the longer hair and watched as, after she introduced it to the potion, the whole vial frothed and almost curdled before turning a rather dark red flecked with bits of black. 

 

“Huh,” said Theo. “Wouldn’t have expected that. Essence of girl Weasley is kind of dark.”

 

“Bottoms up?” Draco asked, and Hermione grinned at him and threw back her whole vial. Both boys watched as she seemed to melt and bubble and then, before them, stood a small, red-haired girl who glared at them both. 

 

“Well,” she said and nearly jumped at the different sound of her voice. “It worked?”

 

“It worked,” Draco said, and drank his in one swallow. He melted and shifted until Ron Weasley stood in the lab. “I feel stupider,” he muttered as Theo handed him his Gryffindor robe. 

 

“You look uglier, that’s for sure.”

 

“I’m starting to feel sorry for the girl,” Hermione said as she shrugged into the robes. “Can you imagine having to wear this color with this hair?”

 

“You’ve been hanging out with Pansy over those Muggle fashion magazines too long,” Theo snorted. “Stop worrying about the miniature red girl’s style woes and go quiz her stupid hero while I knock out the actual weasels and leave them in some kind of hideously embarrassing compromising position.” Draco and Hermione both looked at him, and he shrugged. “If you can’t keep it clean, keep it in the family.”

 

Draco made a gagging noise, and Hermione screwed up her face with utter disgust. “You’re really evil, Theo. Are you trying to make me sick?”

 

He smirked at her as the three of them left the lab.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Snape watched the two children transform and traipse out of his lab. If the Dark Lord did return, he wondered, how would the man handle a Muggle-born being quietly taken to the bosom of the family of one of his main supporters?

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Theo veered off to immobilize the two actual members of the weasel clan. Their discovery, hours later, passed out and in one another’s arms, fueled gossip that persisted for years.

 

Draco and Hermione found Potter outside the library.

 

“There you are,” he said to Draco. “Why’s she here?”

 

“My mum wants me to keep an eye on her,” Draco said, sounding bored. “What are you doing with this whole Chamber thing?”

 

“Well,” Potter said, slouching against the wall, “Go away.”

 

“No,” Hermione said, glaring at the boy. 

 

“As long as she stays away from Malfoy, she’ll be fine,” Potter said. “I love your mum, but I don’t see why you have to babysit.”

 

“What do you mean, ‘stay away from Malfoy’?” Hermione asked, trying to control her voice.

 

“Well, Malfoy’s clearly the Heir. Who else is that much of a pureblood snot?”

 

Draco looked at Potter with disgust but managed to say, “I don’t think so, mate. Isn’t he friends with that Granger girl? And she’s no pureblood.”

 

“Gad,” Potter made a face. “That swot. Can you believe he took her home for Yule? I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall for that little family gathering. I bet his parents just hate that he’s friends with her.” He seemed pleased by that idea. “I got my hands on a copy of that Hogwarts: A History book, and the last time the Chamber was opened a Muggle-born died. I wonder if anyone dies this time, if that’ll make Dumbledore get rid of Malfoy at last.”

 

“You’re sure it’s Malfoy?” Hermione asked.

 

“Who else would it be?” Potter frowned. “I wish Dumbledore would just expel that rotter. I’m tired of everyone thinking it’s me just because of the Parseltongue. And the voices thing. I asked Parvati about it, and she offered to read my cards. Like tarot cards are going to help if I’m hearing voices.” He sulked. “It’s so unfair, you know.”

 

“Not really,” Hermione said, and Potter looked at her. 

 

“Who opened the Chamber last time?” Hermione asked, and Potter shrugged.

 

“I dunno. Why are you even still here?” he asked, tone unfriendly. “Don’t you have little girl things to be doing, Ginny?

 

“I suppose I do,” she said and tromped off down the corridor. 

 

Draco sighed and made an apologetic noise and chased after her. 

 

“Well,” she said once they were out of earshot, “it’s not him. I wonder who it is.”

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

It was harder to enjoy the way the whole school seemed to believe Potter was the Heir once they knew he wasn’t. “I want to know,” Hermione muttered as she hauled book after book around, reading everything about the Chamber of Secrets she could find. “What petrifies things?” she asked, nose buried so deeply in a book even Theo’s teasing couldn’t extricate her. 

 

Draco finally gave up trying to follow her everywhere she went when all she did other than go to classes was to sit, surrounded by books in the library. It seemed safe enough; there had been no attacks in months. Maybe, they thought, the Heir and his tame monster were wary now that the school was on high alert. 

 

“Mr. Malfoy.” Draco looked up from an essay he was trying to pad to get an extra two inches. Professor Snape stood in the door of their common room. “Would you be so kind as to follow me?” The tone allowed no argument and Draco shoved his work into his bag and stood.

 

“I understand you and Miss Granger are… special friends,” the man said, his mouth one degree away from a sneer. 

 

“We… she’s one of my best mates,” Draco said with caution. “But there’s no… understanding or anything.”

 

“Mr. Nott.” Snape looked further into the room, and Theo jumped to his feet. “With us, if you please.”

 

The boys looked at one another in slowly growing horror as Snape led them silently through the halls towards the infirmary. Before he opened the door, he said, “This may come as a bit of a shock, but Miss Granger has been attacked, as has another student who is not in our House.”

 

Draco stood in the doorway for a moment and looked at Hermione, frozen on the bed, before he rushed forward and dropped to his knees at her bedside. “Hermione,” he whispered. “Can you hear me? It’s Draco. I’m right here, Hermione. I’m right here.”

 

“Can you explain this?” Madam Pomfrey held up a small hand mirror, and Draco shook his head. She looked at Theo, who shook his head as well before pulling a chair up to the side of his friend’s bed. 

 

“Hermione,” Theo said. “This isn’t fair. You don’t get to just go and get petrified. How are we supposed to get enough points to beat those Gryffindorks without you?” His voice choked at the end of the sentence.

 

Snape let them sit with her for a few minutes before he said, voice level, “I will escort you boys back to the dungeons. A strict curfew is being instituted; students are to remain in their dorms except during classes and meals.”

 

“I’m staying,” Draco said, not even looking back at Snape.

 

“Mr. Malfoy,” Snape said, sneering now. “You informed me that you and Miss Granger did not have an understanding. Was that inaccurate?” The boy shook his head, and Snape said, “Then you will return with me to your dormitory at once.” He softened his tone and added, “If you wish to send a message to your father regarding what has befallen Miss Granger, I will see to it that he gets it.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Lucius Malfoy strode into the school the next day, robes flung behind him. “Dumbledore,” he said, accosting the main in the main hall. “I demand an explanation.”

 

“Mr. Malfoy,” Dumbledore said, tone mild but eyes blazing. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

 

“Do you really want to do this here?” Lucius looked around the hall, at the groups of students not even pretending to look away. When Dumbledore didn’t respond, the man narrowed his eyes and said, “Very well, then. I have been charged by the Board of Governors to suspend you.” He pulled a roll of parchment out of one pocket and handed it over to the Headmaster. “You will find that it’s all in order, all twelve signatures in place.”

 

“How many people did you have to threaten to get that signed?” demanded Professor McGonagall, who had approached the pair.

 

“Not a one.” Lucius looked at her. “I realize you are used to operating with almost total autonomy, Minerva, but people start to object when multiple students are attacked and petrified by some monster you are apparently unable to find, much less stop. Did you think you could keep this under wraps because all the victims are Muggle-borns? That since none of them had parents with even the faintest idea how to so much as lodge a complaint you wouldn’t be held accountable for the stunning lack of competence?”

 

“I didn’t realize, Lucius, you were so concerned with the fates of the Muggle-born,” Dumbledore said with deceptive calm. 

 

“You have consistently overestimated my feelings on blood-purity,” Lucius said dismissively. “Try not to assume that because I do not share your somewhat narrow opinion on the Dark Arts and wizarding traditions that we are similarly opposed in all areas. I do believe my son’s best friend is a Muggle-born and you’ve not heard a word of censure from my lips on that matter, nor will you. She is a dear girl. She is also, or so I have been informed, lying petrified in your infirmary without so much as a word to her parents.”

 

“You have taken Miss Granger under your wing,” Dumbledore said, exchanging a glance with McGonagall. 

 

“You may think of it that way if you like.” Lucius Malfoy examined the other man. “However, I think you should be leaving now.”

 

“Albus,” McGonagall objected, “You can’t leave. There’s sure to be an attack as soon as you leave.”

 

“If I have been suspended by the Board, Minerva, I will, of course, go.” Dumbledore’s tone was very even. “However, I will never truly leave Hogwarts.”

 

“Poetic, I’m sure,” Lucius Malfoy said. “I find, however, that I am less interested in your flights of poetry than I am in the well-being of the children in your infirmary.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco walked about, covering his fear for Hermione by bragging to anyone who would listen that his father had gotten rid of Dumbledore. “Worst Headmaster this place has ever had,” he said. “Partial, incompetent old bugger. Maybe we’ll get a decent Headmaster now.” 

 

In Potions, he tried not to look at Hermione’s empty seat, instead said to Snape, “Maybe you could be Headmaster, sir.”

 

“Dumbledore is merely suspended,” Snape said through a tight-lipped smile.

 

“Still,” Draco persisted, “I’m sure you’d have my father’s vote, sir. I’m amazed they’ve even left this school open. Who knows who the monster will attack next.” He looked at Potter with loathing. “Maybe you, Potter. Maybe next time the thing will actually finish the job.”

 

. . . . . . . .

 

“She’ll be fine,” Theo said in the common room. Pansy and Daphne sat clutching their magazines, fingers turning pages of unmoving Muggle models one after another past their unseeing eyes. “Fine,” Theo said again.

 

“We heard you,” Draco snapped.

 

“You aren’t the only one who’s worried,” Blaise said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“It has to be Draco Malfoy,” one girl said to another in the hall. “Those Malfoys were in deep with the Dark Lord, and you know what Slytherins are like.”

 

“No,” the other girl shook her head. “He’d never hurt Hermione Granger. He’s half out of his mind with her petrified up there.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco sat at Hermione’s side. He’d been coming up every day after class to read to her from some of his favorite books. Madam Pomfrey’s insistence that she couldn’t hear him had only made him shrug. She didn’t respond with so much as a flutter of an eye, but he couldn’t stand to just sit there and do nothing and whenever he wasn’t there, he just worried.

 

“Hermione,” he said, setting the book down and reaching for her hand. “I… I wish you were here. I don’t know what to do, and you’re the one I need to help. My father owled your parents and told them you were sick; told them the medicines would be ready soon. Dumbledore hadn’t even informed them anything had happened.” He rested his fingers over her stiff, clenched hand and frowned when he realized she had something wadded up in her fist. He tugged at it and pulled out a sheet of paper.

 

“Basilisk,” he breathed, reading it. “Of course. You brilliant, brilliant girl.”

 

He ran through the halls, looking for Theo. “She figured it out,” he gasped when he found the boy. “It’s a basilisk.”

 

“Of course,” Theo said, looking at the paper in Draco’s hands. “Merlin, Draco. We should have thought of that.”

 

Neither of them noticed Harry Potter, who’d stepped back into the shadows the moment he saw Draco come tearing past. 

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Blaise looked at the paper. “Do we go tracking this thing ourselves?”

 

Draco rolled his eyes. “Are you an idiot? You want to go face down some kind of mythical beast living in some secret chamber? Do you have a death wish? We tell my father, let him bring in actual experts to deal with the thing.”

 

“Prat,” Blaise muttered, but his shoulders sagged with relief. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

By the time Lucius Malfoy arrived the school was in chaos. “What is going on?” He demanded as he walked to the Headmaster’s office. “Minerva,” he stopped short when the door opened to reveal Albus Dumbledore. “Albus.”

 

“Yes.” The man’s eyes twinkled. “Upon hearing that there had been another attack, I was summoned back to the school. It would seem no one could find a suitable replacement, and Professor McGonagall refused to take the position.”

 

“How very loyal of her,” Lucius said with a sneer. “Then I shall bring my information to you instead of her. My son has brought to my attention that his friend, Miss Granger, was doing research that has identified the monster as a basilisk. I am sure, Albus – “

 

“Yes, Lucius.” Dumbledore sat calmly. “I am aware.”

 

“I beg your pardon? Then why has nothing been done?”

 

“But something has been. The monster has been killed.”

 

“And do you know who opened the Chamber in the first place?” Lucius drawled.

 

“Indeed.” Albus Dumbledore leaned back in his seat and regarded his opponent. “The same man who did fifty years ago. Voldemort. This time, however, he used an enchanted diary to bespell an innocent girl and have her do the work for him.”

 

“A likely story,” Lucius snorted. “So a student opened the Chamber, and you’re claiming it was because she was possessed by a man who has been missing for years?”

 

“That is exactly what I am claiming.”

 

“And this student, this innocent girl who opened the Chamber and loosed a monster on your charges, am I to assume you don’t plan to punish her at all?” Lucius Malfoy looked nearly apoplectic. 

 

“I think being possessed by Voldemort is probably quite punishment enough, Lucius.”

 

“Would I be completely wrong in assuming this girl is one of your precious Gryffindors, Albus? An Order child, perhaps?”

 

“But Lucius, I suspect you know exactly who this child is.” Dumbledore leaned forward. “Fortunately she was rescued by her brother and another student, and fortunately the diary that possessed her has been destroyed. If it were to have become known that the daughter of a prominent pureblood family were killing Muggle-borns? Well, it would have discredited her father and the work he’s doing with the Muggle Protection Act, not to mention his work trying to track down Dark artifacts, would it not?” There was a long pause.

 

Lucius Malfoy narrowed his eyes, and he and the old wizard stared one another down. Finally, Lucius said, “This isn’t over.”

 

Dumbledore smiled. “If any more of Tom Riddle’s school things were to find themselves in the hands of my students I would know exactly where to look, Lucius. Go check on your little charge up in the infirmary. I’m sure she’d be delighted to know you were the architect of her misfortune.”

 

. . . . . . . .

 

“I am sorry, child,” Lucius said, brushing her hair out of her face. Hermione blinked at him, confused. Draco was hovering just behind his father, looking nervous and awkward. “We are at war, however much it may be a cold one, but I never intended for you to be a casualty.”

 

“I….” Hermione swallowed hard and tried to gather her thoughts. “You don’t need to apologize to me, sir.”

 

“Nevertheless, I insist you accept it.”

 

“I…” she looked at Draco who bit his lip and shrugged. “Of course,” she finally said.

 

“And you’ll come to stay with us at the Manor this summer for a few weeks,” Lucius added smoothly. “Daphne and Theo will be there as well, so there’s no need to be concerned about any appearance of impropriety. 

 

“I… I’d like that.”

 

Lucius walked the children out of the school to the train, resting one hand on Hermione’s shoulder. He gazed at Dumbledore, who looked back, as the three of them walked out toward the summer.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Summer holiday with the Malfoys was gloriously fun.  Hermione and Daphne looked at Muggle fashion magazines under the covers at night, they jeered at Theo and Draco as the boys showed off by racing their brooms through the park around Malfoy Manor, and Narcissa Malfoy took both girls out to have their hair and nails done followed by lunch. It was a “witches day out” where the woman smugly showed off the two girls to her friends. Hermione had tensed when the first woman who’d come by their table had said in a cool drawl, “I know the Greengrass family, of course, but I don’t believe I’ve heard the name Granger before.”

 

“Oh,” Narcissa Malfoy said, wine glass in hand, “Our Hermione’s Muggle-born. She’s the first Muggle-born sorted into Slytherin in - oh goodness, who knows how long. She’s the best student in the year, you know. Lucius and I both just adore her.”

 

“You’ve always been able to spot gems, Narcissa,” her friend said, smiling at both girls, and that was that.

 

“Do you like him?” Daphne asked, sighing over the shoes in French Vogue as they sat in their room their last night at the Manor.  

 

“Of course I like him,” Hermione muttered. “We’ve been friends since we were sorted.”

 

“Uh-huh. Do you like him?” Daphne persisted. “Because his parents like you.”

 

“Why would that matter?” Hermione asked, not looking at her friend.

 

“It matters,” Daphne said. “Trust me, it matters. And you haven’t answered.” 

 

“How about you?” Hermione asked, dodging the question. “Do you like Theo?”

 

“I dunno.” Daphne set the magazine down for a moment. “I mean, I do, but his mother’s dead and his father was a… I’m not sure my parents would be okay with that, you know? But they let me come here so, maybe? Or maybe they thought the Malfoys were considering me for Draco? Though that would have the same problem, you know?”

 

“Not really,” Hermione confessed with a sigh. 

She’d read all the books Narcissa Malfoy had sent to her, read them cover to cover until she’d nearly memorized them but all these subtle things purebloods did still confused her. You couldn’t just like a boy, you had to pass these weird parental inspections, and so did he, assuming your parents mattered which Daphne’s did and hers didn’t. And she had no idea what it was that Theo’s dad had been that Daphne’s parents might not like. “We’re just kids anyway.”

 

Daphne shook her head. “If my parents don’t like him there’s no point in… there’s just so few options, you know?”

 

“What electives do you want to take?” Hermione asked, looking at the list in front of her and changing the subject away from this so very uncomfortable one. “I can’t decide, but I’m thinking about Arithmancy and Ancient Runes.”

 

“Of course you are,” Daphne snorted and went back to her magazine. “What do you think of this pair?”

 

“They look uncomfortable,” Hermione said, looking over at the picture and wrinkling her nose. “And they’re purple. And those platforms. And how could you walk in them?

 

“They’re Vivienne Westwood,” Daphne said with a sigh. “How can you be Narcissa Malfoy’s darling and have so little interest in clothes?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“I know a secret,” Pansy sing-songed on the train.

 

“What?” Blaise looked up at her.

 

“Potter blew up his aunt. Accidental magic.” The girl looked smug.

 

“Isn’t he a little old to be having bursts of accidental magic?” Draco drawled, rather obviously admiring Pansy’s tight top.  “It’s like wetting your pants or something; fine if you’re two but a little embarrassing at this age; you’d think the Chosen One would have more self-control.”

 

“Guess not,” the girl said, preening a little under his gaze.  

 

Daphne, glancing at Hermione, tossed Pansy a robe. “Better put this on before someone docks points because you’re out of uniform. You look like a tramp.”

 

“Did he get expelled?” Hermione looked up from her Arithmancy book. “Someone please tell me he got expelled.”

 

“Hermione,” Daphne said. “Tell Pansy she looks like a tramp.”

 

“Huh?” Hermione looked at Pansy. “Is that allowed in the dress code?”

 

Pansy rolled her eyes. “No, little miss rule follower.”

 

“It’s cute,” Hermione said, looking back at her book and Pansy laughed, a laugh that was interrupted by a loud yowl from the cage at Hermione’s feet.

 

“What is that?” Blaise demanded.

 

“I got a cat,” Hermione said, a trifle defensively. “When I went to get my books. He seemed lonely.”

 

Blaise leaned forward and pulled the cover off the cat’s cage and began to snicker. “That is the ugliest cat I have ever seen. What’s his name? Hideous Face?”

 

“Stop!” Hermione cried, kneeling down to pull the cover back over the cage. “His name is Crookshanks. You’ll hurt his feelings. Besides, I think he’s gorgeous.”

 

“Since you like Pansy’s top I’m not sure you have great taste,” Daphne said.

 

“Hey!” Draco said. “I like Pansy’s top.”

 

“You would,” Daphne muttered.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"What's that?" 

 

The train had been slowing down, and it jerked to a sharp stop.

 

"I dunno," Draco said. "Maybe Potter landed a flying car on the tracks?"

 

Pansy snickered, but Hermione looked out the window at the blackness outside and shivered and, just then, all the lights went out, and the compartment was nothing but blackness.

 

She reached out for Draco's hand, and he twined his fingers in hers reassuringly as someone rustled and pulled out a wand and she muttered, "We'll get in trouble if we use magic, you know that."

 

"Even to get light?" Pansy asked, a quiver hidden behind her contemptuous drawl. 

 

"You think they'll let us bend rules the way the Gryffindorks can?" Hermione countered, and there were general mutterings of agreement. Then, before they could argue more, the lights came back on, the train was moving, and Draco pulled his hand out of hers with a sharp yank.

 

As they were gathering their things they overheard Neville Longbottom yammering on, his voice shaking, to one of his endlessly tedious Housemates how a Dementor ("There are what on the train?” Hermione hissed at Theo.) had come in their carriage, and Potter had passed out. "It was horrible," Neville was saying as Draco's eyes began to glitter with a mean light. "I thought I'd never be happy again."

 

Hermione muttered, "Don't go picking fights with that stupid boy." 

 

Pansy smirked at her before saying, "Are you his keeper now, Hermione? I didn't realize you'd become one of Potter's little fans."

 

"I'm not," Hermione said. "I would just like to get through one year without having to hear about Potter all the time."

 

"Too late," Blaise said, moving to stand next to her as Draco, flanked by Greg and Vincent, sauntered up to Potter and began haranguing him about fainting. Pansy was trailing behind them, her robe on but open, and Hermione sighed.

 

"C'mon, Theo said. "Let's get settled and we can place bets about which students get into our House this year."

 

The Weasley twins managed to restrain themselves from actually booing any children this year and soon a cluster of nervous-looking eleven-year-olds, including Daphne’s younger sister, had settled themselves at the foot of each table and Dumbledore was starting his annual, interminable speech.

 

"Let me guess," Daphne said, "The Forbidden Forest is still forbidden."

 

"Also, tendentious, bildungsroman, gimble," Theo said to a round of delighted laughter.

 

"There's a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher," Hermione said, eyeing the high table where a skinny man in a patched robe sat with the rest of the teachers, and, oddly enough, the groundskeeper, Hagrid.

 

"Hardly a surprise," Daphne snorted.

 

"He looks like they pulled him out of the gutter," Theo said. "I'm guessing no one will get a crush on this one."

 

Hermione smacked him on the shoulder, and he snickered. 

 

"Snape doesn't like him," she said, and they all turned to look at their Head of House. He was staring at the new professor with a look of absolute loathing on his face. 

 

"No," Greg said, a curious tone in his voice. "He really doesn't. I wonder why."

 

"What I wonder," Hermione said, reaching for some bread, "is why the Ministry has stationed soul-sucking prison guards around the school."

 

"Haven't you heard?" Pansy leaned toward her with a delighted smile on her face. "Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban."

 

"Who?"

 

"Well." She was clearly delighted to be able to fill Hermione in on the gossip. "He was a murderer. Thirteen people with a single curse. Sent to Azkaban without a trial, or so I heard. And he's Potter's godfather."

 

"Trust Potter to have a mass murderer as a godfather," Draco muttered.

 

"Would you STOP?" Hermione demanded. "I'm going to start to think you have a crush on that stupid boy if you keep bringing him up at every possible opportunity."

 

Draco flushed as Theo and Greg both laughed.

 

"Not that there's anything wrong with that," Hermione added primly to another round of laughter.

 

"Anyway," Pansy said, glaring at Hermione, "he was apparently obsessed with Potter, even in prison. Kept muttering, ‘He's at Hogwarts now, he's at Hogwarts now,’ so they think he's going to come here to try to kill him."

 

"Did that man just say the groundskeeper is the new Care of Magical Creatures professor?" Vincent demanded. He’d been listening to the introductions rather than the gossip about Potter and the mysterious, violent criminal the boy apparently had coming after him. "A derelict and a servant? Are they kidding?"

 

Hermione was too busy watching Snape to respond; he was glaring at the new professor Lupin with a vehemence that scared her. Something was very wrong.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Draco mimicked a fainting fit over breakfast to rounds of laughter. That Potter has passed out on the train still hadn’t stopped amusing him. “One year,” Hermione muttered. “Could we have one year that isn’t all about Harry Potter?” 

 

"Potter," Pansy called as the boy walked in, "the Dementors are coming!"

 

Draco smirked at her with gleeful approval, and Hermione rolled her eyes and sat with Daphne. 

 

"So I've been doing some reading," she said, and Theo groaned.

 

"Please tell me it wasn't Hogwarts: A History," he said.

 

"Actually it was about Dementors," she said. "We need to learn how to cast something called a 'Patronus' to defend ourselves from them."

 

"And why," Theo asked, "do we need to defend ourselves against them?"

 

"Look," Hermione said, "if there were a werewolf in the school, I'd try to figure out a way to defend against THAT.” He shuddered when she said, ‘werewolf.’ “Last year it was a basilisk, this year Dementors. At least this year we KNOW what it is."

 

"Why do I have a feeling this 'Patronus' thing isn't going to be covered in the regular curriculum?" Theo asked, and Hermione glared at him. "Fine," he said, "but only since I know you won't let it go. Go figure out the spell to do this 'Patronus' and Daph, and I will practice it with you, okay?"

 

"Why are we agreeing to this?" Daphne asked.

 

"Because I'll keep you in Vogues?"

 

"Deal." But she said it with an audible sigh.

 

. . . . . . . .

 

"Hermione." It was Greg, and he looked white.

 

"What is it?" she asked as the boy hovered near her, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

 

"I think you should come," was all he said and she shoved all her books and homework into a bag and followed him as he half walked, half ran through the halls.

 

When she saw they were approaching the infirmary she said, voice nervous, "Greg..." but he just kept going.

 

When she saw Draco, robes off and blood drenching his partially shredded white shirt as Madam Pomfrey wrapped one arm in a bandage, she clapped her hand to her mouth. "What did you do?" she demanded, and Greg started to laugh.

 

She spun and glared at him. "What did he do?"

 

"He was attacked by that great big monster in Care of Magical Creatures," Pansy sniffled, "Weren't you Drakey?"

 

"Drakey?" Hermione looked at the girl for a moment before walking up to Draco and looking at his face. "It wasn't some run-in with Potter?" she asked.

 

"No," he muttered, "and it really hurts. You could try being sympathetic."

 

"I'm sorry," she said, sounding a bit guilty. "I assumed you'd gotten into it with Potter again. Are you okay? Tell me what happened."

 

Draco launched into a long story about how he'd been completely innocent, just following instructions, and what kind of a teacher had actually dangerous creatures in a class with third years? Hermione stopped worrying a few minutes into the meandering story; he was clearly fine.

 

"Why're you taking that class, anyway?" she asked when he stopped for breath. "I mean, do you have some secret yearning to work in a zoo or something?"

 

"What else was I supposed to take?" he whined, and she rolled her eyes.

 

"I dunno. How about Runes?" Hermione asked. "Or Arithmancy."

 

"We aren't all total swots," Pansy said.

 

"I didn't know it'd be the groundskeeper teaching the class," Draco objected. "It was a proper teacher last year. Hagrid’s a menace. Did you know he thought it was funny we couldn't open our books? Funny! To assign a book that bites!"

 

Hermione watched Pansy stroke Draco's uninjured arm and stepped back towards Greg, who'd stood there during the whole conversation, a solid presence behind her. "Did you see it?" she asked Greg, who nodded.

 

"Vincent and I were right there; it really did just attack him," Greg confirmed. "He said something kind of rude and - "

 

"Draco," Hermione said with a sigh. "You actually tried to be a jerk to it, didn't you?"

 

"It's an animal," he muttered. "And I was just fooling around." He sounded sullen. "I'm owling my father."

 

"It's ridiculous to have animals that dangerous in a class," Hermione agreed, her eyes still fixed on Pansy. "Tell your father I said 'hi,' okay?"

 

"Sure," said Draco, turning to give Pansy a look of deep suffering.

 

"I think I'll head back to work on my equations," Hermione said, hovering a bit.

 

"Sounds good," said Draco. "I'll see you later?"

 

"Yeah," she said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco sauntered into Potions, his arm in a sling, Greg and Vincent behind him. "Oh, Draco, does it still hurt?" Pansy cooed.

 

Hermione stiffened her shoulders and turned towards Blaise, who she'd been assigned to work with this term, and said, "What page?"

 

The boy looked over at Pansy fawning on Draco and frowned but started flipping through their open Potions book to find the Shrinking Solution.

 

"Professor," Draco said, his voice filled with mean delight. "I'll need help cutting up my roots."

 

"I'll help you, Draco," Pansy said.

 

"Weasley, help Mr. Malfoy, please," Snape said without looking over.

 

"You have got to be kidding me," Ron Weasley muttered but began cutting up a second allotment of roots.

 

"Was he wearing that sling this morning?" Hermione hissed to Blaise, "because I didn't notice it."

 

Blaise slid their roots into the cauldron and murmured, "I couldn't say."

 

"She's just encouraging him," Hermione muttered.

 

"Unless you want people to think you care," Blaise said, "I'd keep quiet."

 

"Sir," Draco said, "Weasley has mangled my roots on purpose."

 

Hermione had to hide her smile at the cheerful malice in Draco's voice. As much as she thought encouraging him to whine about his arm was a bad idea, she always liked watching him go after the Terrible Twosome. 

 

"Weasley, change roots with Mr. Malfoy," Snape instructed, and Weasley's groan could be heard throughout the room.

 

"You have something to say, Mr. Weasley?" Snape inquired, and the boy sullenly muttered something that might have been, "No, sir," as he shoved his roots towards Draco.

 

"I don't," Hermione muttered as she chopped the caterpillars into mathematically near-identical slivers. "Care, I mean. It's just... you know how Draco is."

 

 "Sir," Draco whined. "I need help skinning my shrivelfig."

 

"Potter." Snape didn't even give further instructions and Hermione, carefully skinning her own, watched as the Chosen One ripped the skin off a shrivelfig and nearly hurled it at Draco's head.

 

"Good." Blaise wiped his hands off and looked at her, not quite scuffing his toe along the floor as he said so quickly she could barely understand him, "Theo-Daphne-and-I-were-all-going-to-go-to-Hogsmeade-together-when-we-go-and-I-wondered-if-maybe-you'd-go-with-us?"

 

She heard Draco say, "Thanks, Pansy. It just really hurts, you know?" and she smiled at Blaise. 

 

"I'd love to," she said.

 

He exhaled in obvious relief and then grinned at her, nerves replaced by the boy she knew. "Good. It'll be fun."

 

"Your arm isn't hurt," Harry Potter was hissing at Draco who smiled his mean little smile and then drawled, "How's your groundskeeper turned professor friend, Hagrid? You'd better visit him while you can; my father was very unhappy I'd been hurt in his class and after last year's thing with Weasley's sister setting a basilisk on students the Board of Governors was quite unhappy to hear another student had been hurt."

 

"That's what you're on about," Potter breathed. "You want to get Hagrid fired."

 

"You've found me out," Draco sneered, "but there're other benefits too. Chop my caterpillars for me, Weasley."

 

The boy didn't even bother to object; he just took a pile and started angrily chopping them. "I don't suppose you heard that Sirius Black was spotted nearby," Draco continued. "If it were me, I'd want revenge, but maybe Gryffs don't have proper family feeling."

 

 "What do you mean?" Harry snapped. Hermione, her potion long since done and simmering, watched the Potter boy mangle a caterpillar in his anger.

 

"Oh." Draco met her eye and grinned, and she couldn't help but smile back. "You don't know?"

 

 "He's just trying to bother you," Weasley muttered. "Don't pay any attention to that rotter."

 

But whatever Draco meant was drowned out by the end of class bustle as everyone bottled up a sample and Snape made assorted disparaging noises as each was turned in to him. "I swear, you become more incompetent with each passing day," he said to Neville, eyeing the boy's lurid orange potion. "I'm not even sure why your grandmother bothers sending you here. Surely a Muggle day school would better suit your abilities."

 

Hermione handed him her potion and, examining the green color, he said, "If you'd be so kind as to wait after class. I'd like a word, Miss Granger."

 

She nodded and Draco, handing in his own potion gave her a quick wave before heading out the door, Pansy clinging to his side.

 

 "Like a limpet," Hermione muttered under her breath.

 

Blaise slouched by the door, waiting for her as Snape collected the last of his samples with a disdainful sniff at Harry Potter, who walked slowly towards the door, clearly hoping to hear her scolded by the perpetually unpleasant teacher.

 

 "Though I did sign your course selections, Miss Granger, I wanted to speak to you about your elective selections. Arithmancy and Runes? That seems a bit... ambitious."

 

"Theo has the same schedule, sir," she said as politely as she could, "and none of the other electives seemed interesting to me."

 

 "Pity," he said, looking at her. "You might have kept young Mr. Malfoy out of trouble in Care of Magical Creatures."

 

She shrugged and said, "I doubt it, sir. He tends to find trouble."

 

"He finds less of it with you around," Snape observed. "How about Divination? Or Muggle Studies?"

 

"Divination’s a load of rot, sir," she said. "Begging your pardon."

 

 "Not quite accurate, Miss Granger, but as the Sight cannot be taught, I cannot find fault of your assessment within the confines of a school curriculum. You haven't addressed Muggle Studies."

 

 "A complete waste of time, sir, especially since I’m Muggle-born," Hermione said. "Would you have even signed off on my classes if I’d that included that?"

 

 "No, I would not have." He stood and loomed over her. "Unlike some of my colleagues, I try to ensure that students in my House neither fill their schedule with easy O.W.L.s nor work themselves into nervous breakdowns. That said, I have obtained permission to offer you private advanced lessons, Miss Granger. If you feel that you can successfully manage an additional course despite your elective selections, we'll meet weekly." He looked over at Harry Potter with a sneer. "Why are you still here? I assure you, Potter, I shall not be offering you advanced potion tutoring."

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“So,” Professor Lupin surveyed the children in the classroom. “You’re the Slytherin group.”

 

Hermione felt her shoulders tense. Of course, the man was prejudiced.  Of course, he was. She pulled her book out and slammed it on her desk and yanked out a quill and some paper and held her hand, poised and ready to take notes, while she stared at the raggedy man and waited for him to get started. 

 

“You can put your things away,” he said, sending an amused look her way. “We’ll be doing a practical lesson today. Bring your wands and follow me.”

 

Draco looked at her, and she shrugged. Well, this was new. Other than the pixie incident last year they’d never done anything in this class other than take notes. The class traipsed down the hall, following the professor into an unused classroom with a large wardrobe pushed up against one wall.

 

“Boggarts,” Professor Lupin said, leaning against the desk in the new room. “What can you tell me about them?”

 

They all looked at him with passive faces until he sighed and looked at Hermione. “Miss Granger, isn’t it?”

 

She nodded.

 

“I understand you’re doing an independent study with Professor Snape. I assume that means you’re – “

 

“It’s a shapeshifter,” she cut him off, her tone coolly polite. “It takes the shape of whatever you’re most afraid of.”

 

“Ah, so you are indeed quite the student. I assumed you must be to have attracted positive attention from Professor Snape.”

 

Hermione put what passed for a sweet smile on her face.  “I’m very grateful for his time and good opinion. Sir.”  

 

“Yes, well.” Professor Lupin turned back to the rest of the class. “Boggarts like dark places: closets, under the bed, cupboards and the like. They’re reasonably common; any housewife should know how to get rid of them.”

 

The man didn’t seem to notice the way the girls in the class all stiffened at that. “Or the staff should,” Pansy said, her voice a quiet drawl. A ripple of laughter flowed through the privileged children clustered in the room. 

Most of them had been raised by nannies and house elves; the closest thing Pansy would ever be to a housewife was a society hostess. That didn’t mean she, or any of them, cared for his casual sexism.

 

“So,” the man went on, ignoring the interruption. “Right now because there are so many of us we have an advantage. Who knows why that is?”

 

Draco rolled his eyes and answered without waiting to be called on. “It doesn’t know what to be. Should it be a life without servants to scare Pansy or an overdue library book to scare Hermione?”

 

Another round of laughter floated through the room, and the professor smiled. “Exactly. I once saw a confused boggart turn itself into half a slug; not frightening at all. The charm that repels a boggart is quite simple but requires a great force of mind because you must force the boggart to assume a shape you find amusing which, in the grip of fear, can be quite difficult. Would anyone like to go first?”

 

There was a subtle shuffling as all the students drifted towards the back of their little cluster and shoved one another forward until Vincent was stuck at the front, a look of dumb terror on his face. Academics were not his strength.

 

“Thank you for volunteering,” Lupin said in a tone devoid of any irony. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name?”

 

“Vincent Crabbe,” the boy muttered, and Lupin startled for a moment before catching himself.  

 

“Ah, Mr. Crabbe. And what are you most afraid of?”

 

He flushed and Hermione, stepping up to put her hand on his arm, snapped, “How is this a good lesson? Making people reveal their greatest fears? In public? Maybe Vincent doesn’t want the rest of us to know he’s scared of snakes or frogs or overdue library books?”

 

“And how would you suggest teaching this simple spell without a practical class, Miss Granger?” Professor Lupin asked, drawing himself up. “I didn’t realize being Snape’s favorite meant you also got to dictate lesson plans to other professors.”

 

Hermione flushed but held her ground. “It’s not fair,” she insisted. “You could do it in private.”

 

Lupin regarded her with an expression of irritation on his face. “At least one student needs to do it publicly, Miss Granger, to illustrate the technique.”

 

“You could be the example,” she said, but he shook his head.  

 

“Are you volunteering, Miss Granger, to take Mr. Crabbe’s place as an example?”  

 

She paled but stepped forward.  

 

“So, Miss Granger,” he asked, “What are you afraid of?”

 

“I suppose we’ll all find out very soon,” she said, her mouth set in a grim line.

 

He paused and looked at her before nodding. “Fine. The incantation you need to use is riddikulus. Would you be so kind as to say that for me so I can be sure you have the pronunciation correct?”

 

Riddikulus,” she said, and he nodded, his own mouth tight as the two of them glared at one another.  

 

“Well done. That, however, is the easy part. You also need to imagine the thing you fear as something very funny. What amuses you, Miss Granger?”

 

“That Draco thinks my biggest fear is overdue library books works,” she said.

 

“All right.” He looked at her as if weighing whether to go on. “Picture a pile of overdue library books, Miss Granger. Perhaps with a few books that chatter at you and nag about being returned? Can you do that?”

 

She tapped her foot and looked first at the wardrobe and then at him. “Can we get on with it?” Vincent sucked in his breath, and Theo blew out a low whistle. None of them had ever heard her be so rude to a teacher.  

 

“Whatever it is, she’s terrified of it,” Theo murmured, and Daphne nodded.

 

Lupin opened the wardrobe door, and Draco Malfoy strolled out, supercilious sneer on his face, nothing out of place. He raked his eyes over Hermione, starting at her feet and sniffing when he finally got to her hair. “Mudblood,” he said. “As if you’ll ever belong. As if I’d ever really be friends with the likes of you.”  

 

He opened his mouth to go on, but she waved her wand, eyes narrowed, and snapped out, “Riddikulus,” and in Draco’s place there was a pile of books, one of which was indeed nattering on in a fussy voice about overdue fines as it flapped its pages at her.   

 

“Are we done?” She looked at Professor Lupin, who nodded briskly and asked, “Who wants to go next?”

 

Blaise glanced at Draco who looked paler than usual, then at Hermione who had her fists clenched at her side and was breathing hard. He grabbed her and pulled her into a hug and glared at Professor Lupin who, he had to admit, looked a little shocked; apparently it hadn’t occurred to the man that some of them might have fears a little more raw than vampires or snakes. “What an arsehole,” he muttered into her ear. 

 

Vincent, as it turned out, was afraid of fire.  Theo was afraid of werewolves.  Daphne was afraid of spiders. The rest of the class passed without incident until, when Professor Lupin was trying to herd the boggart back into the wardrobe for his next class, it turned into a glowing white orb.  

 

Hermione looked at the boggart and then looked at Lupin as he said, “riddikulus” and pushed the house-elf wearing a party hat and frilly pink lingerie firmly back into the wardrobe.

 

“I wonder why Professor Lupin’s afraid of crystal balls,” Pansy said as they made their way to their next class.  

 

“Yeah,” Hermione said. “I wonder.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Did Blaise ask you?” Daphne asked from her bed, and when Hermione looked up from the Rune’s homework on her desk with obvious confusion on her face, the girl clarified. “To go to Hogsmeade.”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Hermione said, going back to her homework.  

 

“And you said….” Daphne drew out the last word expectantly.

 

“I said yes,” Hermione said, carefully copying the diagrams from the book. “What else would I have said?”

 

“He was worried you might be holding out for Draco to ask you,” Daphne said. “At least, that’s what he told Theo.”

 

“I think,” Hermione said, her voice clipped, “that Draco already has someone to go shopping with and to buy candy for and to – “

 

“Does your cat have to do that in front of us?” Daphne cut her off with a shudder as Crookshanks jumped up on Hermione’s desk with a large spider in his mouth.

 

“Did you catch that all by yourself?” Hermione cooed. “You clever boy.”

 

“Can’t he catch a rat or something,” Daphne demanded. “Does it have to be spiders?”

 

Hermione laughed but moved to block her friend’s view of the offending spider. “Well, Crooksie? My roommate wants you to get her a rat? Can you find a rat in the castle, you sweet cat? Can you?”

 

Licking his chops, the cat bounded off and disappeared.

 

“If he does bring back a rat, what are we supposed to do with it?” Daphne asked, and Hermione shrugged. 

 

“Give it to the boys, I guess? None of them have a pet. Or use it in potions? Guess it depends if it’s alive or dead.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione, Blaise, Daphne, and Theo walked to Hogsmeade the morning of Halloween. Draco, followed by Greg and Vincent with Pansy on his arm, had beaten them out the door, sneering at Harry Potter as he waited to have his name checked against the list of students who had permission to visit the village.

 

“Not going, Potter?” he’d snickered. “Afraid of the Dementors?”

 

Hermione made a point of not glaring at their backs. “So,” she said loudly, “Where are we going first?”

 

“I assume you want to go to the bookstore,” Blaise said, and she grinned at him.  

 

“We don’t have to do that first.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . 

 

“We have to sleep in the Great Hall?” Hermione did not sound amused, and Professor Snape turned towards her.

 

“While I admit I find the idea as patently absurd as you do, Miss Granger, our esteemed Headmaster has decided that the best way to protect you all from the murderous lunatic who seems to have snuck into the school is to keep you in one room, and I am not inclined to argue with him.”

 

The whole of Slytherin House trooped out to the Hall after their head of House and stared at the pouffy purple sleeping bags scattered on the stone floor with obvious dismay.

 

“What is going on?” Daphne demanded as she pulled hers next to Theo and Hermione. 

 

“It was Sirius Black,” Pansy whispered. “Peeves saw him. He slashed the portrait that was the entrance to the Gryffindor common room when she wouldn’t let him in. He’s after Potter.”

 

“That’s awful,” Hermione said, and Pansy looked at her.

 

“Since when are you a fan?”

 

“I don’t like him,” Hermione said, slipping into her sleeping bag. “It’s still probably terrifying to have some lunatic after you. Merlin, Pansy. I can dislike someone and not want him dead.” 

 

“Whatever,” Pansy said.

 

“I’m not a fan,” Hermione insisted.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

She was still awake, fuming, when she overheard Dumbledore and Snape talking. She’d been running through all the things she could have said – should have said – to Pansy.  ‘One year,’ she thought. ‘We can’t even manage one year without everything being about Potter,’ and ‘You know, his mother likes me,’ and ‘Fine, just go on and encourage him to constantly antagonize the teachers’ pet because that certainly qualifies as cunning.’ The only consolation was that he hadn’t moved his sleeping bag to be near Pansy but had stayed in a little cluster with Greg and Vincent.  And not her.

 

“Headmaster.” It was Snape. “Everything has been searched; there’s no sign of him.”

 

“You’re quite sure?”

 

“I would be unlikely to miss Sirius Black. Nor, despite my fervent desire to do so, have I cursed him and left him to rot somewhere.” Snape’s voice was low, but the contempt carried, and Hermione laid very still, all thoughts of Pansy gone from her mind.

 

“Well, I hardly expected him to linger,” Dumbledore said with a sigh. “I’ve spent the evening contemplating how he might have gotten in, but each theory is more outrageous than the last.”

 

“You do recall, I assume, our conversation at the beginning of the term?”

 

“Clearly.” Dumbledore’s tone was a warning to stop talking, but Snape persisted.

 

“They were very close, once.”  

 

“No one in the castle would have helped Sirius Black to enter.” No one, not even Snape, would have continued the conversation at that point. Hermione burned to know who was the person in the castle close to Sirius Black, but with no more information forthcoming she lay still and began to consider all the possibilities.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco spent much of his time bemoaning his hurt arm and how he couldn’t possibly play Quidditch. 

 

Hermione, sitting on the common room couch passing Arithmancy notes back and forth to Theo, said only, “If you’d taken a class that actually challenged you instead of trying to game the system you wouldn’t have gotten hurt.” Other than that she refused to acknowledge his arm, his perpetual need to have things carried, or how Pansy poured his juice at every meal.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Professor Lupin is ill today, and I will be taking over his class.” Professor Snape regarded the mixed Gryffindor and Slytherin Defense Against the Dark Arts class with his usual sneer. “In order to permit this, we will be combining your classes for the duration of his illness; I am sure you will all be quite capable of controlling your understandable adolescent rivalries. As Professor Lupin has not seen fit to leave any form of record of the material he’s covered nor anything approaching a lesson plan – “

 

Harry Potter came skidding through the door, mumbling, “Sorry I’m late,” and Hermione looked from him to Snape, watching with glee the moment he realized it wasn’t Professor Lupin he faced.

 

“How good of you to deign to join us, Mr. Potter. Ten points from Gryffindor for your tardiness.”

 

“Where’s Professor Lupin?”

 

Hermione sucked in her breath. No one spoke to Snape like that, especially not any of the Gryffindors.

 

“If you had been here on time, you would have heard me say that he was ill. Now – “

 

“But what’s wrong with him?” Potter’s voice was laced with accusation as if he thought Snape might have poisoned the man himself. Hermione and Daphne exchanged ‘oh, he’s going to get it now’ looks.

 

“Nothing that will kill him.” The ‘unfortunately’ was left unsaid but hung in the room.  “Five more points from Gryffindor for your cheek. Do not make me ask you to sit, or I will make it fifty.”  

 

The boy slid into his chair, glaring at the professor.  

 

“Now, if I might, with Potter’s kind permission, begin the lesson, I would like you all to turn to page 394.”  

 

There was a brief pause, and Weasley muttered, “Figures with this git we’d be back to taking notes. Lupin’s the best Defense teacher we’ve ever had. We’ve done Red Caps and grindylows, and now it’s back to reading about – “ he was flipping through the pages, but Hermione had already gotten there.

 

“Werewolves,” she breathed, looking up at Snape.

 

“Exactly, Miss Granger,” he said. “Can anyone besides Miss Granger tell me how one might tell the difference between a werewolf and a true wolf?”

 

“But we haven’t done this yet,” Parvati whined. “We’re doing hinky-punks.”

 

“I was unaware, Miss Patil, that you were both hard of hearing and illiterate. I am sure those burdens are a strain on your tiny little mind and am truly sorry for your struggles.” He didn’t sound sorry at all. “Perhaps someone capable of reading the text could inform Miss Patil how to recognize a werewolf?”

 

’The werewolf,’” Ron Weasley read, his voice laden with sarcasm, “differs from the true wolf in several small ways. First – “

 

“I don’t recall having seen your hand in the air, nor having called on you, Mr. Weasley.” Snape glowered at the boy.  

 

“You asked, and I was answering,” Ron muttered. “I don’t see why you ask the question if you don’t want someone to tell you the answer. It’s just right there in the – “

 

“Five points from Gryffindor for being insufferably rude,” Snape said. “And a detention for speaking out of turn.”

 

The rest of the class was spent taking notes while Snape stalked about between the desks. When the period was over, he said, “Two rolls of parchment on how to recognize and kill werewolves by Monday. Weasley, stay after class, and see me about scheduling your detention.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

 

Hermione absolutely refused to go to the Gryffindor / Hufflepuff Quidditch match. She huffed, and she pointed out the weather, and she complained, and Blaise and Greg didn’t listen to a single word of her objections.

 

“We aren’t even playing,” she wailed at last.  “And it’s raining!”

 

“It’s Quidditch,” Greg said, thick face set in a stubborn expression as Blaise held out one of his extra jumpers. She glared at them both while she tugged the extra layer on.

 

“What else are you going to do?” Blaise asked, handing her charmed pocket warmers to help keep her hands warm.  “Homework? Some of your extra potions stuff?”

 

“Well, yeah,” she admitted. “Snape has me chopping flobberworms into even slices. You have to freeze them to keep them rigid and then – “

 

“You really wanted to chop flobberworms over going to a Quidditch match with me?” Blaise looked mostly mocking, but also a little hurt, and Hermione quickly tucked her arm into his.

 

“Of course not,” she said and then sighed at his smirk.

 

“You are just so easy to manipulate,” he told her and then dodged as she tried to kick him. “But I’m glad you’re coming,” he added.

 

The game was miserable. The weather was miserable.  It was rainy and windy and, even huddled under a giant umbrella and flanked by Greg and Blaise, Hermione was cold, wet, and unhappy. “Could this get any more miserable?” she muttered, and Blaise grinned.

 

“Potter could catch the snitch again?”

 

She laughed at that but just huddled more tightly against his side, soaking in what warmth she could. It seemed to be getting colder and colder. She felt so dreary sitting there in the rain, as though nothing could ever be good again. She couldn’t even muster the energy to pick her head up and watch the game. 

What was the point? Blaise slumped next to her, his usual mischievous energy drained away, and Greg let the umbrella wobble and rain was sliding down the back of her neck, but she couldn’t even care enough to move. Everything was cold and wet and awful, and everything always would be. She turned a dispirited eye on the field, expecting to see Potter catching the snitch in some unlikely and depressing way because that’s what always happened and instead saw so many black-robed wraiths she could barely see the field.

 

‘Dementors.’ Her brain whispered to her, ‘you only feel this way because of Dementors.’

 

Funny, she thought, how knowing that didn’t actually make the feelings go away. She just stared at the wraiths, mired in despair and apathy until she saw Dumbledore run out onto the field and cast something silvery – a Patronus, her brain said again. That’s a Patronus. You wanted to learn how to do that but got distracted – and the Dementors fell back, chased away by the shining light and the water dripping down the back of her neck became annoying enough to grab the umbrella and hold it upright again.  

 

“You okay?” she asked Greg, and he shook his head and muttered something. Blaise shivered and lowered his face to her hair and inhaled.   

 

“Let’s go back in,” Blaise said. “Looks like the game’s over.”

 

“Potter caught it again?” she asked, but he snorted, and a tiny bit of happiness caught in her soul and began to spark.

 

“Looks like Hufflepuff won and our fair hero is off to the infirmary again.”

 

“It amazes me that boy isn’t dead yet,” Hermione said, standing up starting to pick her way down the stands.

 

“Give it time,” Greg muttered.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione perched on a stool in Professor Snape’s lab. “Do you have a preference as to what you’d like to start work on this week, Miss Granger?” he asked.

 

“Wolfsbane,” she said.

 

“Any reason why that particular potion?” he asked, pulling a worn sheet of paper with the instructions from the top of a pile of notes on a nearby shelf.

 

“Not really,” she said, watching him.

 

“Very well, Miss Granger. Follow these instructions, and I shall critique the work when you have completed it.”

 

“You don’t plan to help me?”

 

“Though this is generally considered a rather complex brewing task I think you’ll find it comparable to Polyjuice,” he said and, as her head shot up to look at him before he closed the door, he tipped his own head towards her. “Miss Granger.”

 

“Professor Snape,” she said just before the door shut and he paused.

 

“Miss Granger?”  

 

“The Dementors, at the Quidditch match,” she said the words in a rush. “Why did they come in?”

 

“They were hungry, I expect.” Snape looked at her as though she were stupid. “They feed on happiness, on joy. Even that dreary, wet sporting probably seemed a feast to them. I’m sure you’ve done enough reading to have determined that, Miss Granger.”

 

“Yes,” she admitted.  

 

She could feel Professor Snape studying her as if he were weighing what he might say. “There are defenses,” he said at last. “Ways to fight them off. The charm is… quite advanced. Well beyond what a third-year student is capable of.”

 

“The Patronus Charm,” she said, and he nodded.

 

“You have done your homework, Miss Granger. Well, I’d expect nothing less.”

 

“Show me how to do it,” she demanded, and he actually snorted.

 

“Do you really think that you, at thirteen, could manage to do a charm most adult wizards can’t manage?”

 

“You wouldn’t have brought it up if you weren’t considering showing me,” she persisted, jaw thrust out stubbornly, and the black-clad man sneered at her.  

 

“Maybe another day, Miss Granger. For now, contemplate the proper preparation of Wolfsbane and try to chop another batch of flobberworms. This time I’d like to see you get all the slices the same width as I’d clearly requested you do last time. If you can’t even follow directions on how to cut worms, I fail to see how I’m supposed to help you learn to repel yet another monster.”

 

Hermione smiled and picking up the potion instructions began to read the lengthy and detailed ingredients list as Snape shut the door behind himself.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Time passed, Hermione’s flobberworm chopping became more and more exact, and soon the term was almost over. To everyone’s delight, another Hogsmeade trip was announced for the last weekend of the term. Hermione didn’t even wait for Draco to ask her; she’d been ignoring the way he and Pansy sat on the couches and did their Care of Magical Creatures reading together, but it wasn’t quite possible to ignore the way they held hands.

 

“Do you think he’s kissed her?” she asked Daphne glumly one night. She’d fished a box out of the bottom of her trunk and was holding it in her hand, weighing it. She hadn’t taken the bracelet out at school, had never worn it publicly. Daphne watched her, watched her shove the box back away without opening it.

 

“We can do our Christmas shopping in Hogsmeade,” the girl finally said, ignoring Hermione’s question. “Unless I can hint I want more of that Muggle makeup.”

 

“Makeup it is. What should I get for Blaise?” Hermione asked. “What’s appropriate?”

 

“A book about Quidditch?” Daphne suggested, and Hermione sighed. “Candy?”

 

“Maybe candy,” Hermione agreed. “What are you getting Theo?”

 

Daphne flushed. “A tie tack,” she said, and Hermione looked over at her.  

 

“Isn’t that… does that mean your parents have…”

 

Daphne nodded. “My mum said it was really too early for anything official, but the Notts were part of the Sacred Twenty Eight, and if you wanted to exclude Death Eaters from the list of possible families we’d have to look outside Slytherin and, well, you know.”

 

“Not really,” Hermione admitted. 

 

“Like they’d be okay with a Weasley.” Daphne made a face.

 

“If they insisted on purebloods there’s always Neville,” Hermione said and at that Daphne threw a pillow at her.

 

“I am not dating Neville Longbottom. Not at all. Not ever. Certainly not an understanding kind of dating. Yuck.”

 

“Oh, come on,” Hermione said, pushing away thoughts of how she wasn’t a pureblood, not even close, thoughts about how no one would think she was good enough for their precious pureblood boys. “He’s cute enough.”

 

“If you’re blind,” Daphne said. “And that grandmother? Have you met her? I’d rather have Bellatrix Lestrange as family than that old bat.” She paused.  “Now, Blaise. Blaise is cute.”

 

“Yeah, well, Blaise is getting candy from me, not a tie tack. They’re all getting candy.” She paused.  “Daph?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I’m really happy for you.”

 

“Thanks.” The girl ducked her head. “I mean, it could all come to nothing, it’s early, and these things fall apart all the time but…”

 

“Still,” Hermione grinned at her friend. “That’s pretty cool that you two are openly… whatever you are.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . 

 

It was Pansy, of course, who overheard the gossip in Hogsmeade. “The real news,” she said, almost breathlessly as they sprawled in front of the fire, “isn’t that Sirius Black killed all those people, or even that he was Potter’s parents’ best friend and that he betrayed them to the Dark Lord.  The real news is that Potter didn’t know any of the stuff about his parents and the Black guy and he found out because he hid while teachers were talking and overheard them. You should have seen his face,” she chortled.  

 

“Wow.” Hermione leaned against Blaise, who was holding her hand in a way that managed to be both defiant and tentative at the same time. “What an awful way to find out.”

 

“You’re always so sympathetic to that rotter,” Draco complained, wrapping an arm around Pansy.  

 

“I am not,” Hermione said, looking angry.  “Just because I don’t encourage your little obsession the way Pansy does, doesn’t mean I’m all gooey for Potter.”  

 

“She’s gooey for Blaise,” Daphne said, a sly look on her face.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Whoever Hermione might have been gooey for, she was ‘cordially requested’ to join the Malfoy’s for dinner one evening over Christmas break. “Cordially requested my arse,” she muttered, reading the invitation. “Ordered’s more like. I wonder if that git’s invited Pansy.”

Despite her stomping and frowning and muttering, however, she spent so much time wondering what to wear and changing her mind and changing clothes that after she finally left her mother murmured to her father, “Poor girl’s got it bad, doesn’t she. I wonder what these Malfoys are like, whether they’re nice people.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Mr. Granger reassured his wife. “Our daughter’s not going to be friends with some boy who’s, I don’t know, from a family of terrorists or something.”

Mrs. Granger laughed. “Well, I meant more nice as in pleasant to have over for tea. Of course, they aren’t terrorists. Don’t be absurd.”

When she arrived at Malfoy Manor, Hermione was pleased to see that Pansy had not been invited but that Theo, wearing a neatly tacked tie, and Daphne were both there. Theo’s father was also present, and Hermione was a bit surprised to see how much older Nott Senior was. He flirted with Daphne in a charmingly old fashioned manner and, with the ease of many years practice, Daphne dimpled and flirted right back; she was no stranger to older gentlemen dining with her parents and complimenting her, one of the newest generation of pretty Slytherin girls, and she knew her role in this particular play.

As had happened the year before, the youngsters made a brief command appearance with their adult hosts before being shooed away until dinner. Daphne and Theo held hands and looked awkward, and Daphne blushed far more than was becoming in a Slytherin. Draco and Hermione stood about, hands thrust into pockets and spoke somewhat stiffly about Quidditch and the progress they were making in Charms.

“I’ve got some news,” Lucius Malfoy said after they’d all sat down and the elves had served the first course.

“Oh?” Nott Senior asked, nodding permission to Theo to help himself to a small bit of wine.

“The hippogriff that attacked Draco will be subject to a hearing in April by the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures.”

“And the fool of a teacher that thought hippogriffs were a good lesson for third years?” Nott asked.

“Still employed, I’m afraid,” Lucius admitted.

“How badly hurt was Draco?”

“It was awful,” Draco piped up, and Hermione made a face.

“You disagree?” Narcissa asked her, and the girl flushed.

“I’m sure it hurt quite a lot,” she said, trying to cover her gaffe, “but…”

“He milked it, didn’t he?” Narcissa asked, amused fondness in her tone.

“A lot,” Hermione admitted, and all the adults at the table laughed, and Draco shot her a dirty look.

Seeing the look, Nott Senior smiled indulgently. “If you will permit an old man a word of advice?”

“Of course, sir,” Draco said, stubborn look still in place but years of insistence on formal manners overruling his adolescent intransigence.

“Your world is going to be filled with people who will tell you what you want to hear. A… friend… who is honest with you is someone to treasure.” He looked away from the boy, his face growing momentarily maudlin. “Theodore’s mother never let me get away with anything, and I miss that woman every day.”

“I miss her too,” Narcissa said gently. “She was a wonderful woman.”

“Well,” Nott Senior collected himself and smiled at Daphne and Hermione. “The next generation of Slytherin girls appear to be just as lovely and forthright as the last.” He raised his wine glass and toasted them both before taking a sip.

After dinner, after Daphne and Hermione had been sent home, Draco sullenly kicked at the carpet. “I’m so tired of how they think they can map out our whole lives for us,” he said to Theo, who just fingered his tie tack and frowned at his friend.

“Then tell your parents you’re not interested in her,” he said, but Draco shook his head, and Theo sighed.

. . . . . . . . . .

“He got a firebolt?” Draco sounded outraged. “But that’s better than my broom!”

Hermione and Daphne made eye contact and tried, unsuccessfully, not to giggle.

“What?!” he demanded.

“Just… boys and their broomstick comparisons,” Hermione said, her giggles turning into gasping laughter.

“You’re still a better flyer,” Pansy said, running her hand over his arm, her eyes on the laughing girls.

“I didn’t realize you knew enough to be able to make a comparison,” Daphne said, knives out as Hermione made an almost imperceptible twitch.

Draco looked from one girl to another, obviously confused but hiding it with a smirk.

. . . . . . . . . .

“Your flobberworms are finally acceptable,” Professor Snape said, poking at the pile of meticulously sliced worms with disdain.
“Albeit barely.”

Hermione had learned to take such praise as she could get from this man; in class he would say “Well, Miss Granger has done it properly so at least I don’t need to have concerns that there was a misprint in the book that led the rest of you to this gross display of utter incompetence,” but in private he criticized everything she did. Her Wolfsbane potion, while it would certainly work, failed to have the exact proper consistency and so he poured her first attempt out in front of her.

He made her drink the Hair-Raising potion she brewed and, though his lips twitched at the sight and he offered her an antidote before permitting her to leave the lab, he still pronounced it “not quite strong enough to cope with your hair, Miss Granger. You’ll have to see if you can modify the potion for greater efficacy. Two feet on possible variations, if you please.” But nothing – nothing – drove him to greater demands for obsessive accuracy than ingredient preparation.

She’d been chopping flobberworms for months chasing the elusive ideal of perfectly identical slices.

‘Barely acceptable’ was, in this context, nearly gushing praise.

“Meet me in the History of Magic classroom at 8PM on Thursday,” he instructed and, at her confused look, he sneered, “You did still want to fail miserably at producing a Patronus, did you not, Miss Granger?” At her response, he added, “Pick your jaw up off the floor, Miss Granger. I anticipate no success at all, but I have procured the boggart Professor Lupin used in his stunningly misguided lesson, and if you can manage to muster the good sense to be more afraid of Dementors than of a teenage boy rater nauseatingly enchanted by you, you can at least try the charm.”

“Yes, sir,” she heard herself babbling. “Thank you.”

“Think nothing of it, Miss Granger. Now bottle those flobberworms so the first years can use them and get out.”

Snape watched her work and, as he had before, thanked the stars that the gods had been kind enough to him, once in his miserable life, not to make this one a ginger. To see a Muggle-born witch in Slytherin, to see what could have been, that was hard enough.
If she’d actually looked at all like Lily… but even the woman’s wretched, trouble-making son looked nothing like her, acted nothing like her.

How to best stay true to that lost love, he’d wondered, watching the bushy-haired, somewhat unkind girl as she worked. He’d lifted his lips in a condemning sneer when he’d heard she’d taken Vincent Crabbe’s place as the first victim of that absurd boggart lesson. “How Gryffindor of her,” he’d said in the staffroom. Still, he’d been amused by her defiance of Lupin and impressed by her loyalty to her friend; Vincent, he suspected, would stand behind her in any coming confrontation.

Gryffindors. They were mindlessly loyal to the first person that fed them, rather like dogs. But the ability to inculcate loyalty in a pack of disdainful purebloods, well, he’d seen that trait before.

Was he best honoring the woman he’d loved by protecting the son or by protecting the Muggle-born witch who, like Lily, was the brightest student in her year? The witch who, like Lily, was sure to come to the attention of the Dark Lord?

. . . . . . . . . .

“Now,” Snape drawled, eyeing the nervous and eager girl in front of him, “to produce a Patronus you must draw upon your happiest memory. Each Patronus charm is different, drawing upon and taking shape from the happy thoughts of the wizard who produces it, but if you manage to do it correctly, which of course you will not, you will produce a shield that will stand between yourself and the Dementor.”

“So I just think happy thoughts?” she asked, doubt obvious in her tone.

“It’s hardly that simple, Miss Granger. You must control your mind. You must conjure joy at will, in the face of despair. Grown wizards are unable to do this. Nevertheless, as proof that the burden of this particular crop of Gryffindors has finally snapped my mind, I am endeavoring to teach you.”

“And I’m very grateful, sir,” she said.

“Save your pretty manners for the Malfoys and attempt to discover a happy memory,” Snape sneered.

Hermione thought about the day she’d been told she was a witch and gripped her wand, her fist clenched around the wooden stick that had become an extension of herself.

“The charm is ‘expecto patronum.’ Once you’ve found some tedious adolescent memory that fills you with joy, hold it in your mind and cast the spell.” Snape sounded utterly bored with the whole proceeding, but in truth, he was watching the witch closely. Even attempting something this advanced so young was impressive; he didn’t expect her to succeed but found himself curious whether she’d manage to conjure any result at all.

“Expecto patronum,” she whispered, waving the wand. Nothing happened.

“Do at least try to sound confident,” Snape suggested, examining his nails. Potions ingredients had an unfortunate tendency to get lodged in them. “And maybe a memory that makes you happy enough not to sound like you’re afraid a werewolf will eat you would be more effective.”

Hermione thought about the day she’d been sorted and how immediate and unquestioning her acceptance into her House had been. “Expecto patronum,” she said more firmly, and the tiniest poof of silver mist might have wound its way from the tip of her wand towards the ceiling, where it dispersed.

“Try again, Miss Granger,” Snape said. “A happy memory. You do have some kind of happy memory, don’t you?”

She pulled one last memory into her mind, almost defiantly, and snapped, “Expecto patronum,” and this time a distinct, albeit formless, cloud emerged, and Snape regarded it with impressed eyes.

“Expecto patronum,” he said, and his doe scampered forth, prancing around the room with a pleased step, stopping to sniff at Hermione before launching herself out the window and away.

“She’s beautiful,” Hermione breathed, watching the patronus scamper away.

“Yes,” Snape said. “Yes, she was.”

Hermione snapped her head around to look at him, but he had already slid his wand away. “However, as you undoubtedly see, Miss Granger, without a threat to keep her interest, she’s already dispersed. I would like you to attempt, using whatever that final memory was, to cast this whenever you find yourself with some time and solitude. It is possible that you might, with exceptional diligence, be somewhat less incompetent than your peers.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course, procuring the boggart proved to be a waste of my valuable time as you were unable to advance to the point of needing one. We shall have to meet again, once you have practiced so that my effort was not wholly worthless.”

“I’m very sorry, sir. Yes, sir.” But Hermione was smiling. ‘You might be somewhat less incompetent’ was high praise and the plan to meet again praise of the highest order indeed.

. . . . . . . . . .

“They’re going to give him the Kiss,” Draco said. Pansy was away, for once, and not gushing her insipid enthusiasm for whatever drivel came out of Draco’s mouth. Hermione sometimes wondered if he said deliberately stupid things just to see if there was anything Pansy wouldn’t agree with him about.

Now Hermione looked at him, not especially interested. “Who?” She asked.

“Sirius Black. They’re going to give him the Dementor’s Kiss.”

“Assuming they catch him,” she said. “Why do you care?”

“He’s my cousin,” Draco said, slouching lower against the couch as he stared into the flames of the common room fire. “Well, second cousin, I guess. I didn’t know, my mother told me. And Aunt Walburga burned him off the tapestry, so I guess he doesn’t count, but…”

“But you don’t want him to die,” Hermione said, putting her Arithmancy book down and moving to sit next to him.

“No,” Draco admitted. “I mean, it’s stupid, and he’s bloody crazy, and he’s after Potter and, I mean, I hate Potter – “

“I know, trust me, I know,” Hermione muttered.

“But he’s still family. Even if he has to die, to lose his soul… that’s….” Draco shuddered.

“It’s pretty awful,” Hermione agreed, and they sat together in quiet accord for a long while.

. . . . . . . . . .

When Crookshanks showed up with the rat in his mouth, still very much alive, he looked extremely pleased with himself.
“How is it cats have almost no facial expressions but can still seem smug?” Blaise asked as he gingerly dropped the squirming rat into a cage he’d transfigured out of a box.

“That’s a pretty ugly rat,” Draco said, poking at it with one finger. “It looks like it might die at any moment. And I think it might have mange.”

“Do rats even get mange?” Hermione asked, and the boy shrugged.

“You know whose rat that is, right?” Theo asked, smirking as he looked at the creature that had huddled itself in the back of its new cage as far away from Draco as it could get. “That is Ron Weasley’s rat.”

“No!” Hermione looked at the miserable creature with fresh interest. “I bet he thinks it’s dead. I bet he’s miserable.”

“Do we give it back to him?” Greg asked, and the whole group laughed.

“Gentlemen,” Draco announced. “I think we have a new pet. Welcome to Slytherin, Ratty.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Hermione had stopped even trying to get out of going to Quidditch matches. When she met Blaise at the door, she asked, “Where’s Greg?” and he shrugged.

“Blaise,” she said, drawing his name out. “What are you two doing?”

“I’m not doing anything,” he said, the picture of wounded innocence. “I mean, if you don’t want to go to the match with just me just say so.”

“Uh-huh,” Hermione narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that stupid boy’s stupid broomstick, does it? You haven’t all gone off and done something that’s going to lose us all points, have you?”

“Can we just go?” Blaise asked, and Theo came up behind them, hand firmly tucked into Daphne’s.

“What’s the holdup?”

“Someone seems to think Greg’s being missing is part of some plot around Potter’s broomstick.”

“Trust me,” Theo said. “No one’s messed with Potter’s broom.”

The game was as dull as usual. Pansy and Draco were both missing, which was a relief because they hand-holding and simpering made her feel ill. Still, everything proceeded just as she expected it to – did people really like watching this? – until she saw Harry Potter produce a Patronus.

How come he could do it? She felt resentful and sullen for a good long minute before she bothered to wonder why he’d cast a Patronus in the middle of a Quidditch match.

“Stupid git caught the snitch again,” Theo said behind her. “It’s like he’s unstoppable.”

She looked down at the field where three Dementors had fallen over and were tangled in a pile of black robes. “Oh, no,” she muttered. “You arseholes didn’t. It’s bad enough everyone thinks we cheat at everything, but you had to go and…” She turned on Blaise. “Tell me you didn’t know about this!”

“I wasn’t involved,” he tempered, and she glared at him.

“And you didn’t stop them, did you?”

McGonagall was yelling at the miscreants, and Hermione heard, horrified, the phrase, “Fifty points from Slytherin.”

“You – “ she glared at Blaise then spun to look at Theo who was smirking at her. Even Daphne looked amused, if a little guilty.

“Come on, Hermione,” Theo wheedled. “He’s such a git. And you have to admit it was funny.”

“I do not,” she said, nearly stomping her foot.
She looked back at the pile of robes and the people extricating themselves. Draco. Greg.
Vincent. Marcus. And Pansy. They’d all pulled a prank and left her out, hadn’t even told her. “I don’t think it’s funny at all.”

She wrenched herself away from the stands and went back to her dorm room alone. She didn’t start to cry until she’d pulled the curtains around her bed.
. . . . . . . . . .

Hermione had trouble forgiving Draco. He’d lost points. He’d left her out. When Sirius Black managed to get into the Gryffindor dormitories because Neville Longbottom had written all the passwords down, she didn’t even check to see if he was okay. Not, she thought to herself, that he even noticed she was ignoring him. He had Pansy and all of Slytherin, and she had… well, she had her cat. She had her cat and a lot of time to practice her Patronus. If that Harry Potter could do it, she’d figure it out too.

When Neville got a Howler over breakfast, she didn’t even smile though the rest of the table laughed; she just shrugged and scooped her books up and headed to class.

“What’s the matter with her?” Draco asked. Theo and Daphne looked uncomfortably at one another but didn’t say anything.

“She’s just in a snit about the Dementor thing,” Pansy said. “You know what she’s like.”

“But that was funny,” Draco said, confused.

Pansy tossed her hair. “She hasn’t even really spoken to Blaise since it happened, she’s so shirty about it. Or maybe he hasn’t spoken to her. Guess he finally got tired of her attitude.”

“I thought they were a thing,” Draco said.

“Were being the important word there,” Pansy said.
“Not anymore.”

. . . . . . . . . .

She didn’t go on the Hogsmeade trip, missed seeing the disembodied head of Harry Potter – who’d clearly gotten an Invisibility Cloak somehow – throw mud at Draco.

She didn’t miss Draco gloating about it afterward.
He’d needled Ron about the hippogriff,
Potter, who wasn’t even allowed out of the castle, had thrown mud, he’d told Snape, Potter had gotten in trouble.
It had been a nearly perfect day.

She’d spent it in the library.

“The best part of it,” Draco said, his arm slung around Pansy, “is that the big monster lost his appeal.” He drew the finger of his other hand across his throat and Millie, Greg, and Pansy all laughed. Vincent, always part of Draco’s entourage, looked up at Hermione.

“Hey,” he said, “I wish you could have seen it, Hermione. It was really funny, the mud coming out of nowhere and then look on Potter’s face when he got him.” He frowned.
“I missed you. Why didn’t you come?”

She smiled at him, a bit of a watery smile, and said, “Thanks, Vince. I had a lot of Arithmancy work to do.”

“But Theo came,” he said, squinting at her but she was already gathering up all of her books and heading back to her room.

. . . . . . . . . .

Hermione had researched Sirius Black, Potter’s godfather, and Draco’s second cousin. Draco was so upset about it in his weird, private way. It was something he’d shared with her – just her – and not Pansy, and she wanted to know more, find some way to make it better for Draco.

What she’d found had bothered her. The papers were full of lurid stories of his supposed crimes, but there didn’t seem to be any account of an actual trial. Potter’s parents had been murdered, that seemed clear and fairly awful. Black had been found weeping at the site. That he’d confessed seemed less clear. ‘It’s my fault’ could mean ‘I did it’ or ‘I did something that let this happen.’

She was pretty sure he hadn’t had a trial.

She was pretty sure she didn’t like a culture that threw a possibly innocent man into prison with Dementors without even giving him a trial.

She decided she’d better keep that opinion of wizarding culture to herself.

. . . . . . . . . .

All the boys were cheerfully trying to scare Potter before the next Quidditch match. They cornered him in the hallway, they made fun of his emotional attachment to the doomed hippogriff. He was easy to rile.

“Honestly,” Hermione muttered one day, watching Draco retreat, laughing, from another encounter with Potter. “You can be such an evil little cockroach.”

“But you love me anyway,” Draco grinned at her and at her sigh his smile faltered. “Hey. We’re friends, right? Friends forever?”

“Yeah,” she said with another sigh. “Friends forever.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Hermione trudged up to watch yet another Quidditch game.
She didn’t know why she bothered. She slumped on the bench and studied the Slytherin flag someone had pressed into her hand. The game was dirty with both sides breaking as many rules as they could. The commentator was utterly biased.

Vincent settled next to her.

“We never win,” she muttered, just waiting for Potter to catch the stupid Snitch again. “It feels symbolic.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Play fair, play dirty. Slytherins never win. Not at Quidditch. Not at anything.”

“How dirty would you play to win?” he asked her, and she shrugged as she watched the field below her.

“Pretty dirty, I think,” she finally admitted, and he nodded.

“Me too,” he said.

. . . . . . . . . .

Hermione had her head down into her books for exams; spending all her time studying kept her mind busy. The whole House was subdued after Gryffindor’s Quidditch victory and Pansy had spent most of her waking hours telling Draco how it wasn’t fair and that no one appreciated him.

Blaise eyed Hermione as she didn’t acknowledge Pansy or Draco and hauled the other boy down to the lake. They came back with bloodied lips, and one of Draco’s eyes was swelling shut, but they both refused to talk about whatever it was that had sparked their fight and made a point of standing with their arms slung over one another, defusing any rumor of an actual falling out.

Greg told an eager Millie that he’d heard Draco say, “If she doesn’t wear it in public it doesn’t count, and if were true you’d have been way out of line taking her down to Hogsmeade and stuff anyway.”

Blaise had, so the gossip said, hit Draco in the eye at that point and called him an arsehole who didn’t deserve what he had.

No one told Hermione any of the gossip; Pansy was her usual source for this kind of information anyway, and Pansy seemed uninterested in pursuing exactly what had driven Blaise to pummel his friend.

“Do you think,” Hermione asked Theo as they walked out of their first exam, “that my teapot looked like a tortoise? I was worried it looked too much like a turtle. Do you think she’ll dock points for that?”

He shoved her. “Merlin, what do I have to do to you to make you less of a swot?”

“Never gonna happen,” she said with a grin, and he spun her around.

“It’s good to see you smiling again, Hermione,” he said.

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing over to an officious looking little man.

“Minister Fudge,” Theo said, looking briefly impressed.
“I wonder why he’s here.”

“It’s for the execution,” Draco joined them and flung an arm over Hermione’s shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the way she tensed. “The hippogriff’s finally getting the axe.”

“Literally.” Hermione pointed to a black-clad man who’d joined the Minister. He had an axe shoved through a holder in his belt.

Pansy fell into step beside them, and Draco pulled his arm off Hermione and took her hand. “I’d have pegged you as a bleeding heart hippogriff lover, Hermione, especially given what a big Potter fan you’ve become this year.”

“Try not to be such a bitch,” Hermione said, her voice mostly – but only mostly - devoid of malice. “It doesn’t go with your hair.”

Pansy laughed and then laughed again with delight as Hermione pulled fashion magazines out of her bag and handed them over.
“You’re the best,” she said, and Draco looked at Theo who shrugged.

Hermione looked back at the executioner. “I thought they had an appeal scheduled. Seems funny to have the execution all ready to go. What if the thing wins the appeal?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “It won’t. It hurt me, Hermione.”

“Told you,” Pansy said, face already down in her magazine. “Hippogriff lover.”

“I just like things to be fair,” Hermione said.
“It should get its appeal. I mean, I’d be just as upset if you were executed or thrown into prison without a trial.”

“So Gryffindor, that sense of fair play you have,” Theo teased.

“No need to get nasty,” she said, shoving at him and they all laughed.

. . . . . . . . . .

Theodore Nott leaned back on his bed and eyed his friend. “Do you think he’s coming back?” he asked.

“Who?” Draco asked warily.

“The Dark Lord,” Theo said.

“Vanquished by Saint Potter,” Draco said. “Don’t we all live in the Land of Dumbledore now?”

Theo snorted. “It was Hermione who pointed it out to me. He’s not dead. He’s missing. They never found a body. And missing things have a way of turning up again, even if not exactly how you expect them to.”

Draco glanced at their door. “Do you want him back?”

“Yes,” Theo said shortly. “I’m sick of this anti-Slytherin bullshite. And so are you. There’s only one problem.”

“What’s that?” Draco asked

“Hermione. The Muggle-born witch with whom you may or may not have an understanding, despite the way you’re messing around with Pansy. The girl your parents had over for the official inspection visit, not that she knew what it was. She’d have run screaming if she’d known. Muggles don’t do it this way as far as I can tell. She grew up in a whole different world, mate. She’s not… she doesn’t know how things work. Not the way you do. Not the way Daphne does. She’s read books but… it’s all different because she’s Muggle-born. You have to be… you have to be more… you have to think, Draco.”

“No one cares she’s Muggle-born,” Draco said, staring mulishly at his friend.

“I don’t care. You don’t care. Your parents don’t care. I think your Aunt Bellatrix would care. You told me once your family burned your other aunt off the family tree because she married a Muggle-born.”

“He wasn’t Slytherin,” Draco said, but a note of tension had crept into his voice.

“I think you need to talk to your father,” Theo said. “If He comes back, you might have a problem.” Their rat – Weasley’s rat – scurried around in its cage, and Theo looked at it curiously.

“She’s Slytherin,” Draco said again.

Theo opened up the latch and tossed some rat snacks into the cage. “And you saw her boggart. She’s no idiot, Draco. She knows her background makes her - ”

“She’d be an asset in any war,” Draco said, his voice stiff. “She’s smart, and she’s talented, and she’s – “

“You don’t have to convince me,” Theo said.
“But you might want to think about how you plan to convince the Dark Lord if it ever comes to that.”

“Fuck,” said Draco. “You let the rat out.”

They both watched as Ratty jumped down to the floor and scurried away.

Theo shrugged. “Well, it’s not like I planned to take the thing home. I was just going to release it outdoors anyway, let something eat it.”

. . . . . . . . . .

With exams over and the year almost done most of Slytherin were partying. Draco and Theo had barricaded themselves in their room, probably getting good and drunk on better liquor than most of their Housemates Hermione thought to herself. She still felt a little stiff around her friends, the sting of being left out of the Dementor prank hadn’t quite faded.

They all thought she was such a rule-following swot.
It wasn’t fair. And Draco and Theo knew she’d brewed the Polyjuice Potion. Daphne and Pansy knew she smuggled them magazines that would get them both in loads of trouble. But somehow, because she cared about her grades and cared about points and wanted to win people tagged her as a… a… a bleeding heart hippogriff lover.

As if she gave a damn about the stupid hippogriff. It had hurt Draco; she’d kill it herself if they let her.

Not, of course, that he deserved her killing the hippogriff.

Stupid jerk.

She let herself out of the common room and slipped away outside. She’d show them. She’d go for a walk when it wasn’t allowed. “I’ll go out after curfew,” she muttered. “Let them all sit around and drink their cheap beer and feel sick tomorrow.”

She walked and walked and didn’t pay attention to where she was going until she realized she was at the Whomping Willow and Potter and Weasley were both following a black dog through a tunnel at the base of the tree.

She tilted her head to the side and wondered why anyone would be so stupid as to run into a tree that could kill you to chase a stray dog; neither boy seemed to have fared well, and Weasley looked like he might have been broken by the flailing branches of the tree. She stood there, wondering if she should go for help, when Crookshanks sauntered up and, slipping below the branches of the tree, jumped up onto a knot on the trunk.

All the branches stopped moving, and she looked at her cat. “You are a clever boy, aren’t you?” she said and her curiosity, as it so often could do, got the best of her and she darted through the tree’s strangely still branches until she made it into the same tunnel the boys had gone down.

She lit a quick lumos and walked through a dim tunnel, following her smug seeming cat, until she stopped just outside what seemed like a small room. Potter and Weasley were arguing, as beat up as they were, with a tall, black-haired man with wild eyes who had what seemed to be Ron Weasley’s wand in his hand. His face was gaunt, and his teeth were terribly yellow.

As the daughter of two dentists, she couldn’t help but notice his teeth. They were terrible.

The dog the boys had followed was nowhere to be seen.

“Harry,” Ron was moaning, and she realized the tree really had hurt him quite badly. “He’s the dog. He’s an Animagus! It’s Sirius Black!”

Of course. She looked at the man again.

“Expelliarmus,” the man muttered and snatched Potter’s wand from the air.

That disarming trick really was quite good.
She’d thought that before.

“You’ll have to kill us both,” Ron was saying, “I won’t let you just kill Harry!”

That was really idiotic, she thought. Just being mindlessly defiant in the face of an armed man who might be a psychotic killer – though, then again, he might not – was not going to help at all.

“Only one person’s going to die tonight,” the man said, looking about the room.

“You killed my parents!” Potter was snarling.
“You killed thirteen Muggles to get at Peter Pettigrew. What happened? Did you go soft in Azkaban?”

“Oh, shite,” Hermione stepped into the room. “Potter, I know you’re an idiot, but if he wanted to kill you, he’d have done it by now. He might be a crazed killer, but I don’t think he’s after you.”

She glared at the man, her wand held tightly in her grip. “What do you want, Black?”

“Why do you care?” the man said, looking at her wand, Weasley’s wand wavering in his unsteady hand.

“You’re Draco’s cousin. He doesn’t want you dead.” Her eyes were narrow slits in her face. “So, I don’t want you dead. And you didn’t get a trial, and that’s not right.”

“Peter Pettigrew,” the man said, breathing hard.
“The Secret-Keeper. The rat.”

“The rat?” Ron sounded horrified. Crookshanks was twining about Hermione’s ankles doing that smug cat look again. “My rat?”

“Peter was the Secret-Keeper?” Potter said in disbelief. “Peter Pettigrew betrayed my parents?”

“My rat’s a grown man?” Weasley asked in disgust.

“And you slept with him every night, didn’t you?” smirked Hermione, her wand still on Black. “Find your stupid rat and kill him, Black. Then get out, or they’ll catch you and give you the Dementor’s Kiss.”

“My rat’s a grown man!” Weasley yelled it this time, and there was crashing as Professor Lupin came rushing down the same tunnel Hermione had followed and barreled into the room.

“Where is he, Sirius?” Lupin asked, his voice low and intense, and Sirius Black pointed at Ron. “You switched, didn’t you? You switched without telling me.”

“It was supposed…” the man said, struggling now to stay upright, “to be an extra layer of safety.”

Remus Lupin and Sirius Black took a quick measure of one another and then Lupin turned to Hermione. “You can lower your wand, Miss Granger.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, backing away towards the door. “I’m in a shack with a murderer and a werewolf. I think I’ll keep a firm hand on my wand.”

“A werewolf?” Potter looked at her.

“Merlin, you’re slow,” she muttered.
“It’s no wonder you weren’t sorted into Ravenclaw. Didn’t you notice he was always out of class and ill on the full moon? I’ve been brewing his Wolfsbane for months.”

“You have?” Lupin looked at her in some shock.

“Part of my tutoring,” she said. “Do you think you two could find the rat and get on with it?”

“It’s a full moon tonight,” Potter said very slowly, backing away from Lupin and towards the door with Hermione.

“Shite,” Hermione muttered.

“And you call me slow,” Potter said.

Ron Weasley’s rat took that moment to skitter out of his pocket and race across the room. He might have escaped if Crookshanks hadn’t pounced on him again.
To escape immediate death at the hands of a large, orange cat the rat shifted and stretched and there, on the ground before them, was an overweight, terrified man with thinning, patchy hair and beady eyes.

“Wow,” Hermione said. “Theo really was overdoing it with the rat treats, wasn’t he?”

“What do you mean?” Weasley looked at her.
“Theo… rat treats… you Slytherin bastards have had my rat all this time!”

Hermione smirked at him. “We gave him a good home, Weasley. A clean cage, lots and lots of rat treats…”

“I thought he was dead,” Weasley yelled. “What kind of a horrible, heartless bitch are you? Who petnaps someone’s rat?”

“My cat,” Hermione said.

“Please,” the man on the floor said, “I can explain.”

They never did hear what he planned to offer as an excuse, however, because the moon made the last, final step towards fullness and Lupin began to shift and change before them.

“Wolfbane,” he gasped, “I didn’t take it today. Run!”

Hermione opened the door to the shack and raced out into Hogsmeade, Harry Potter right behind her. Sirius Black stopped long enough to scoop up the broken Ron Weasley and slam the door of the shack shut behind him, locking Remus Lupin in.

Peter, it was later assumed, turned back into a rat and slunk away into the night.

“Off to see his master,” Sirius Black said bitterly.

“You need to run,” Hermione said, looking at the man.

“How?” he said, snorting. “How do I get away fast enough to evade the Dementors and the Ministry?”

“Buckbeak,” Harry Potter said suddenly. “They haven’t killed him yet; he lost his appeal, the execution’s scheduled for midnight. We’ve still got thirty minutes. We’ll carry Ron up to the execution site, tell them a werewolf attacked him, broke his leg.”

“That will distract them,” Hermione agreed. “And you can ride off on the stupid hippogriff.”

. . . . . . . . .

“I can’t believe the hippogriff escaped,” Draco complained over breakfast. “Right before they were going to kill it too.”

“I blame you,” Pansy said, looking at Hermione with a sniff. “What were you doing out with Weasley and Potter anyway?”

“I told you,” Hermione said, putting another piece of bacon on her plate, “I went for a walk because I didn’t feel like going to the party – “

“And since when do you go out and take a stroll after curfew anyway?” Theo demanded.

“I’m not quite the rule-following good girl you think,” Hermione said smugly. “When I was out, I saw Potter and Weasley sneaking into the Shrieking Shack, and I thought I’d catch them getting into trouble, and instead all three of us caught Lupin turning into a werewolf.”

Theo visibly shuddered at the idea of a werewolf, and she patted his hand consolingly.

“He got Weasley’s leg before we could get back out of the shack and then Potter and I dragged him up to the execution site because it seemed like the closest place to get help, Potter and… Potter chattering away the whole time. In all the hustle about us, someone cut the hippogriff free, and it flew off.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Draco said, eyes narrowed, and Hermione shrugged.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to tell you everything. I do have a life apart from being your mate, you know.”

Draco huffed rather unattractively and, batting Pansy’s hand away from the pitcher, poured his own juice.

“Did you get my mother’s note about the Quidditch Cup?” he asked, and Hermione sighed.

“Quidditch? Really?
Do I have to?”

“Yes!” Daphne and Theo said at once.

Hermione grinned at them, pretending not to notice the ugly look that flashed across Pansy’s face. “Well, if I have to, I guess I’ll see you all there.”

Chapter Text

The Malfoys owled that they would pick her up on Sunday at 5:00 PM.

 

“It’s to see the Quidditch World Cup game,” she told her parents. “Bulgaria versus Ireland.”

 

“Since when have you liked sports?” her father asked. “I tried to get you to play youth football and you wouldn’t even put on the shoes.”

 

“It bores me silly,” she admitted, “but it’s kind of a big deal they got tickets and invited me to go. I’ll probably spend most of the game looking at magazines with Daphne.”

 

She was nervous how the Malfoys would act around her parents; did they even know how to function in the Muggle world? Would they Apparate onto the front lawn or try to Floo in? 

 

She needn’t have worried. They pulled up in front of the house exactly at five in a car that made her father let out a low whistle. “You didn’t tell me these people were quite so wealthy,” he murmured as Lucius and Draco came up the walk, Narcissa somewhat behind them because she’d been fussing with a heel that had caught in a crack in the pavement. They were even dressed well within the bounds of normal Muggle attire. A little too swanky, perhaps, for a suburban neighborhood but no one ever complained their child’s friend’s parents dressed too well. No robes. No obvious wands. None of the peculiar delight in Victorian frippery that so many witches effected.

 

Though, now that she thought about it, Hermione had never seen Narcissa dressed in anything odd. Maybe, she thought, that was a class thing because some of the parents she’d seen picking their children up from the train certainly wore clothes that could be politely described as ‘interesting.’

 

“It’s so nice to meet you at last,” Mr. Granger said. “Hermione’s told me so much about Draco, and it was so nice of you to have her over last summer. I wish we’d had a chance to have you over beforehand, but our practice was so busy, and she’s always been such an independent girl.”

 

Lucius Malfoy held out his hand, and Mr. Granger shook it. “Likewise,” he said. “I was so glad Draco made a friend who has a knack for keeping him out of trouble.” Mr. Granger gestured into the house, and Lucius stepped over the threshold, Draco and Narcissa in his wake. “You know how boys at that age are.”

 

“I know how I was,” Mr. Granger said with a laugh. “I was so grateful we had a daughter. Can we get you a drink?”

 

“Thank you,” Narcissa said, sitting down with Mrs. Granger. Draco and Hermione stood, controlling the urge to shuffle their feet.

 

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, go outside,” Mrs. Granger said. “You two make me antsy.”

 

“Draco, why don’t you help Hermione with her things,” Lucius suggested. “There’s room in the boot.”

 

As the two teens gratefully fled the room Narcissa laughed. “We were planning on taking them out to dinner and letting them squirm for a bit in a formal setting before letting them loose at the World Cup tomorrow. Theo and Daphne – the other two children in their year who are joining us – are going to meet us with Daphne’s parents at the restaurant. Would you like to join us?”

 

“Thank you, but no,” Mrs. Granger said with polite, if insincere, regret. She’d never quite gotten comfortable with the magical world her daughter was joining. “You’re a brave woman to have four teenagers in your house for two weeks.”

 

The ‘how do you plan to chaperone them’ inquiry hung, unasked, in the air.

 

Narcissa controlled the urge to stiffen, reminding herself that this poor, Muggle woman had no idea how offensive even the veiled suggestion was that Draco couldn’t be trusted to behave himself around girls who were his social equals. All she said was, “I know. And I’m such a light sleeper I doubt I’ll get a moment’s rest the whole time, but we asked Draco if he’d like to bring some friends to the game and, well, he and Theo have been inseparable since they were toddlers and the two girls have been over to our home so many times they feel like they belong there. The energy of young people is so delightful, don’t you think? All that innocence and the charmingly naïve way they have of thinking they can get away with things when, of course, we know every move they make?”

 

Reassured, Mrs. Granger only said, “Well, let me know if you get tired of her, and we’ll take her back.”

 

“We could never get tired of your Hermione,” Lucius said. “We’d kidnap her and install her in a guest room permanently if we thought we could.”

 

Mrs. Granger laughed. Narcissa Malfoy just smiled at her husband.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Your parents have a car?” Hermione asked as they shoved her trunk into the boot. 

 

Draco just shrugged. “My father says it’s foolish not to be able to blend in with a majority of the inhabitants of Britain even if they are just Muggles.” He grinned at her. “You didn’t think we were like the stupid Weasleys, did you? Collecting Muggle trash with no idea how it works?”

 

“The Weasleys do what?” she asked, adding, “I don’t think you’re exactly going to blend in with this car based on my dad’s reaction to it.”

 

Draco laughed and lounged up against the side of the vehicle, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Hermione tried to control the way her breathing got faster at the sight of him. ‘It’s just Draco,’ she told herself. ‘You’ve known him for years, and he only wants to be friends. He’s got Pansy to go all gooey over him.’

 

Though, of course, it wasn’t Pansy who’d been invited to go to the World Cup with him. It wasn’t Pansy who his parents regularly invited over.

 

She wondered whether he’d given Pansy a bracelet too.

 

“Arthur Weasley,” he was saying, “has some weird obsession with Muggle technology but gets it all wrong. It’s pathetic.”

 

“What can you expect?” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’d be too logical – too much like work - to actually ask someone who knows what the stuff does. Much cleverer to just poke at it until it blows up or something.”

 

Draco laughed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah. Well, no one ever said the Weasleys were clever or hard-working.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They stood there shifting and posturing and pushing their hair out of their eyes until Narcissa and Lucius came out the door and herded the awkward teens into the back seat of the car.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“We’ll have to Portkey in, of course,” Narcissa said frowning a bit. “You children are all too young to Apparate. “Dreadful way to travel, but it can’t be helped. Staggering the arrival of crowds for the World Cup to avoid detection by Muggles has been a bit of a logistical problem.”

 

“People with the cheap seats had to start arriving two weeks ago,” Draco said in an aside to Hermione with a sneer. “Not a problem we have.”

 

“No,” Narcissa agreed. “And your father arranged for a private Portkey so we won’t need to go tramping about through the fields to find one of the public ones. Still, we’ll get there earlier than I’d like.”

 

Hermione slung her bag over her shoulder, and Daphne linked her arm with Theo as they waited with the Malfoys for the Portkey activation time. When the wretched thing activated and she felt herself being sucked forward, feet over head like she was tumbling through the void, she found herself in perfect agreement with Narcissa Malfoy; this was a terrible way to travel. 

 

The part where you fell out of nothingness onto an open field wasn’t much better.

 

Lucius handed some small object to Narcissa and Hermione heard him murmur, “Just in case you need to pull the children out of here. It’s not supposed to happen until after the game, but you know how overeager some people can be and with Riddle not quite well yet...”

 

“Understood,” she said, her hand brushing across his cheek in a rare example of public intimacy. 

 

“Shall I show you our tent?” Lucius Malfoy turned to the children and Hermione began to follow him towards a crowded campsite. “Draco, offer the girl your arm,” Lucius instructed without even looking back.

 

He held a hand out and said, “Hermione?” and she took it and let him lead her onward, ducking her face to let her hair hide the way she could feel herself flush.

 

“I sent someone from work out earlier to set up the tent,” Lucius Malfoy was saying, “and it should be… yes, here it is.”

 

He stopped in front of what looked like an unprepossessing Muggle camping tent and, ducking slightly, pushed the flap aside and held it open for his wife. Narcissa smiled at him and bent her head to enter. Draco handed Hermione through next, and she straightened up once she was inside and looked around with awe.

 

She was in a charming weekend cottage. A bright and sunny kitchen was to her right with a table large enough to seat the six of them. To the left was a comfortable sitting area, complete with a chess set and a small bookshelf filled with worn paperbacks. A row of doors from the back of the room to what she could only assume were bedrooms.

 

“We shouldn’t need to stay the night,” Narcissa said, following her gaze, “though with Quidditch, of course, one never knows so I had them set up this tent instead of the smaller one. 

 

“Thank you, again, so much for inviting me,” Hermione said. “It was really so kind of you.”

 

“Nonsense,” Narcissa said, smiling at the girl. “You know we think of you quite like family.”

 

“Should we go find our seats?” Draco asked, hovering near the door, obviously eager to escape his parents. “I can show her the sights?”

 

Lucius gave his son a quelling look, and the boy shriveled a little under the examination. “The game doesn’t start for quite some time, Draco, but you are welcome to go for a walk with your friends. Be back by dinner, if you please, and we’ll walk over to the Top Box after we’ve eaten.” He turned towards Narcissa and then, almost as an afterthought, handed Draco a heavy coin bag. “In case you need to buy a snack or a souvenir or something. Take care of your guests, son.” 

 

And, with that, Draco, Hermione, Theo, and Daphne fled the adults into the raucous crowds of the campground. They stopped first at a cart where a man sold them cups of hot chocolate and sugared scones; Draco made a show of paying for all of them and Theo sighed and shoved his own money back down into a pocket. 

 

They wandered, drinking their chocolate, through people waving flags, past a heated argument about an obscure rule change that might - or might not – give Ireland an advantage. At some point, they reached an enclave of Bulgarian campers, most of whom seemed to be displaying photos of a scowling teenage boy who reached out to catch a golden Snitch over and over and over again.

 

“Who’s that?” Hermione asked, and Theo groaned.

 

“You really don’t follow Quidditch, do you?” he asked, and she rolled her eyes.

 

“It’s Viktor Krum,” Draco informed her. “Probably the best Quidditch player in the world.”

 

“I take it he plays for Bulgaria?” she asked, and Daphne covered her mouth and started to giggle.

 

“Yes, Hermione,” she said. “He plays for Bulgaria. He’s their Seeker.”

 

“Oh, like you, Draco,” she said, smiling at the boy, who smirked at her and swaggered a bit at her comparison. 

 

“Well,” Theo drawled, “they do play the same position, but I’m thinking Viktor Krum might be a little bit better than Draco.”

 

Hermione shrugged and looked back at the posters. “He looks grumpy.”

 

“He looks hot,” Daphne corrected, and then at Theo’s look, she said, “What? He does.”

 

They spent several hours wandering around before they returned to the tent. Narcissa Malfoy was relaxing in one of the soft armchairs reading a wizarding fashion magazine. “I’ve set out a variety of snacks and sandwiches,” she said, gesturing toward the table. “You children help yourselves. Just make sure you eat something healthy and not only the sweets.”

 

“Where’s Father?” Draco asked as he and Theo both piled plates with sandwiches, crisps, and biscuits. 

 

“Meeting with some associates,” Narcissa said. “He’ll be back in time to walk over to the Box with us, don’t fret.” She held the magazine out towards Hermione. “I think this dress would look lovely on you, dear.”

 

Hermione looked at the simple blue gown and smiled for a moment, imagining herself done up for a grand ball like the model who spun and waved from the picture. “It’s beautiful,” she agreed, “but I don’t think I have any real use for a formal dress.”

 

Narcissa just smiled. “Well, if you girls should happen to find you need one this year, I’d be happy to take you both shopping.” 

 

“That’s so kind,” Daphne said, and Narcissa just dimpled at her. 

 

“Not kind at all, child; I’m being utterly selfish. I love Draco dearly – and you too, Theodore - but boys are not nearly as fun to dress and shop for as girls, and now that you’re all growing up you’re simply going to have to indulge me as I pretend you are both the daughters I never had.” 

 

When Lucius joined them they all made their way up the unpleasantly rickety stairs to the Top Box. Hermione sighed when she saw Harry Potter and the whole crowd of Weasleys already sitting there. Draco was already bristling and sneering, and Narcissa looked vaguely affronted, as though someone had left something rotted out and expected her to ignore it. Lucius Malfoy looked at Arthur Weasley with obvious distaste.

 

“What on earth did you sell to be able to afford these tickets?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “Surely your house isn’t worth this much?” When he caught sight of Ludo Bagman, hovering behind the Weasley clan, he snorted. 

 

Hermione hid her smile as Ron Weasley glared from her to Draco to Daphne and back again. Harry Potter slouched in his seat, apparently wishing he were anywhere but here.

 

“Surely these aren’t all your children?” the Weasley patriarch asked. “Been taking in strays, Lucius?”

 

“Not at all.” He raked his eyes over the Weasley’s shabby attire with obvious disdain. “Theodore Nott’s father and I have been friends for many years, and we look upon his son quite like a member of the family. And the girls are always a delight to have around.”

 

“Yes, we know all about your friendship with Nott,” Weasley snapped. “Long time political buddies, aren’t you?”

 

Lucius smiled. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. Perhaps you’d like to clarify?”

 

There was a long pause before Lucius gravely helped his wife into a seat and, with a look at both boys, directed them to do the same for their dates.  

 

“There was a time,” Lucius said, at last, his voice low and quiet, “when public debate about issues facing the wizarding world was encouraged. Now my sister-in-law sits in Azkaban on trumped-up charges, and you sit here, in a box you can’t afford, because of political favors you’ve done and scandals you’ve helped smooth over while men of goodwill are not permitted to meet freely. When you close people out of the political process, Arthur, don’t be too surprised if they find other ways of achieving their goals.”

 

“Are you threatening me?” the man demanded.

 

Lucius raised his brows in a supercilious expression that reminded Hermione of Draco at his most condescending. “I am making an observation about history and oppression, Arthur. Do try to keep up.” Then he sat next to Narcissa and, turning his back on the still-simmering Weasley, asked her whether she’d like him to fetch her a program or, perhaps, some roasted nuts.

 

Watching the Quidditch World Cup confirmed for Hermione that she found Quidditch boring no matter what the level of play. She could tell the players were superb; she just didn’t care. “Aren’t you having fun?” Draco asked, leaning over to whisper in her ear.

 

She smiled at him and shrugged. “I just like watching you play more,” she said, and he grinned at that, a happy expression that made her want to fling herself into his arms and hug him the way she had when they were younger.

 

She didn’t though and instead just turned back to pretend to watch the game. Draco watched her for a moment longer before he turned back as well and leaned forward, following some intricate play with great concentration.

 

Ireland won. Hermione pretended to care.

 

When they went back to the Malfoy tent Lucius and Narcissa exchanged a look and then she said, “Well, children, I, at least, would much prefer to sleep in my own bed. Come outside with me and we’ll Portkey back to the Manor.”

 

“Why can’t we stay for the post-game celebrations?” Draco demanded, and Lucius turned to him.

 

“Are you arguing with your mother?”

 

“No, sir,” he muttered.

 

“Good. Because for a moment I thought you might be complaining about taking the ladies home. Post-game celebrations can get a little rough, and they’re no place for children or your mother.”

 

Theo turned to look at Lucius Malfoy with a serious look on his young face. “Are you saying…?” he asked, his voice trailing off.

 

“The wheel of fate is always turning,” Lucius Malfoy said. “Those who were once on the top can find themselves on the bottom.”

 

“Good,” Theo said fiercely. “Good.”

 

“Keep that opinion to yourself for a while longer,” Lucius Malfoy recommended, “and take the girls home.”

 

“Will do, sir,” Theo said and, with a quick look at Draco, he offered his arm to Daphne and led her out of the tent. 

 

Draco followed with Hermione, but before she was out, she heard Narcissa say, “Stay safe, love.”

 

Then they were all Portkeying back to the Manor, and Narcissa was ordering biscuits and chocolate, and they were all sitting around a fire in one of the sitting rooms.

 

“What’s going on?” Hermione asked Draco in a low undertone.

 

“Nothing you need to worry about,” he said, staring into the fire. 

 

. . . . . . . . . 

 

Hermione looked up at Draco when he came down to breakfast the following morning. She slid the Daily Prophet across the table with its photo of the Dark Mark hanging in the sky above the site of the Quidditch World Cup. "Do you have anything to tell me?" she asked, her voice very quiet.

 

"I was here all night," he said, his voice sullen. "As Father was so very careful to point out, it wasn't a place for children."

 

"If you had been older, would you have been there?" 

 

He poured himself some juice and sat down in a chair, slouching as he scowled at her.

 

"Would you care?"

 

"I don't want you to get hurt," she said, her voice getting louder. "People who do... protests... get hurt."

 

"You don't need to worry about me," he muttered. "I'm too young to do anything dangerous."

 

"And when won't you be 'too young'?" she demanded.

 

"I don't know, Hermione. When I'm sixteen or seventeen, I guess. It doesn't matter." He slammed his juice glass down and stood up. "Merlin, Pansy's right. You do think you're my keeper. Well, you're not." He stormed out of the room, and she pulled the paper back towards her and read some more about the way the mark of Voldemort - the Dark Lord Harry Potter had supposedly vanquished - had appeared above the campground and she thought about Lucius and Draco and Theo and how Daphne had once said her parents had decided the son of a Death Eater was an acceptable choice for their daughter.

 

She wondered who had come up with the name 'Death Eater.' It certainly hadn't been someone interested in peaceful protest and sit-ins.

 

"Oh good, there you are," Narcissa walked into the room and tweaked the paper out of her hands. "No need to read this trash. I was looking over the Hogwarts packing lists for this year, and they appear to be requiring one set of dress robes. It sounds like you might need a pretty dress after all." She smiled at Hermione. "What do you say to a little shopping trip - just us girls - today?" 

 

"That sounds great," Hermione said. "Do you think we could try to find a dress that would go with a bracelet I have? If we get a chance to dress up at school this year, I think I'd like to wear it."

 

Narcissa Malfoy, who had passed her sullen, teenage son on the way in, just said, "Of course we can."

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The Malfoys dropped all four children off at the train station. “Have fun,” Narcissa said. “We may have to forego our annual Yule dinner; I have a feeling you might want to stay over at school for the whole vacation this year.”

 

“Do try to stay out of trouble,” Lucius said, his voice more amused than anything else. “We’ll see you all at the… well, we’ll see you all.”

 

As they trooped onto the train, looking for an open compartment, they passed some of their least favorite classmates packed together talking with excitement about the World Cup.

 

“We were in the Top Box,” Ron Weasley was saying with pride. “You could see everything.”

 

“For the only time in your life,” Hermione said, leaning against the door and looking the boy over with disdain. Draco and Daphne stood behind her; Theo had rolled his eyes and gone on to track down a place to sit. 

 

“Like you could have gotten into that Box without the Malfoys,” Weasley said with a sneer. “No one wants a Slytherin Muggle-born like you around; it’s like the worst of both worlds. Your parents wouldn’t have even known how to buy tickets.”

 

“What is that?” Draco asked, pointing to a maroon velvet sleeve that hung out of an improperly closed trunk. Moldy lace was attached to the end of the worn velvet and Draco cast what looked to be a genuinely pitying look at Ginny Weasley. “Is that really the best dress robe you could find, even used?” 

 

Hermione grabbed onto the sleeve and pulled and held up the robe for everyone to look at. “Err... Draco,” she said. “This isn’t a girl’s dress. I think this must be Ronald’s.”

 

Daphne was laughing so hard she was gasping. “I think that might have been in fashion in, what, 1760?”

 

“Vintage,” Hermione said with mock approval. “Very daring of you, Weasley. It’s not every man who can pull something like this off.”

 

“The thing with vintage,” Daphne said, her eyes watering, “is you can never quite get the preservation smell out.”

 

Weasley yanked the robes back out of Hermione’s hands and muttered, “Eat shite, you – “

 

He found himself pressed down against the seats of his compartment, Draco’s hand at his throat. “Be very careful, Weasley.”

 

“C’mon, Draco,” Hermione said, pulling the boy back. “He’s not worth it.” With a contemptuous look at the boy still splayed out over the compartment seat, Draco turned to go. Daphne looked at the velvet robes, now lying on the floor, and snickered as she followed the pair.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione cheered when each of the new first years was sorted into Slytherin. The wretched Weasley twins hissed at the first little boy who joined them, and she leaned down the table towards him and said, “They booed me too, the rotters. Don’t mind them.”

 

He gave her a wobbly thumbs up.

 

Pansy was cooing over Draco and, if he flashed a somewhat guilty look in her direction, Hermione noticed that he didn’t make any real effort to discourage the girl’s attentions. Blaise was chatting up a third-year girl she didn’t know, and Greg and Vincent were heads down whispering about something.

 

“Hermione,” Greg looked over at her, “you guys were at the World Cup, weren’t you?”

 

“Yeah,” she said, her tone a question.

 

“You… okay?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked.

 

“It just got kinda rough there at the end,” he said rather obliquely, and she stared at him as he added, “People might not… they might not all know you’re… you know… one of us.”

 

“No,” she said. “I don’t know. I was there with Draco’s family.”

 

He nodded and seemed to be trying to find a way to say something but then shrugged and turned his attention back to this year’s speech.

 

No Quidditch. Hermione couldn’t be quite sure she’d heard that. It was too good to be true. No sitting out in the cold rain while Potter caught the Snitch again. No getting dragged away from books and fireplaces and her cat to go sit in stands and worry Draco would get hurt by one of those awful Bludgers.

 

Dumbledore was about to go on when the door burst open, and a most peculiar man stepped through. He was covered in scars and half of his nose was missing. He stomped towards the high table with a noticeable limp and, strangest of all, he had a false eye that rolled and spun and looked all around the room even as the man himself leaned towards Dumbledore and said something that didn’t carry. Dumbledore gestured to an empty seat, and the man took it, throwing back his cloak to reveal a carved wooden leg.

 

It occurred to Hermione at that moment that the Muggle world had far superior prosthetics. 

 

She knew she shouldn’t stare – it was very rude to stare – but she couldn’t seem to make her eyes look anywhere else but at this man as Dumbledore announced he was happy to introduce the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Alastor Moody.

 

“Mad-Eye Moody,” Vincent said in a disbelieving undertone as all sane eyes in the room continued to fix on the mad eye in question. “An Auror. Retired now.

 

 

“A what?” Hermione asked him.

 

“They catch Dark Wizards,” Vincent said, his tone guarded now. “Work for the Ministry. Half the cells in Azkaban are probably filled with people he’s nabbed.”

 

“And I’m sure all those people had a proper trial, too,” Hermione muttered, stabbing at her dinner with her fork, still watching the new professor.

 

Vincent snorted.

 

Theo, his voice low, said, “Once you’re accused of being a Dark wizard there’s not much defense you can muster. Even if there is a trial – “

 

“Almost no one’s ever found innocent,” Daphne said. “Not unless they can claim Imperius.”

 

There was a sudden movement, and everyone within earshot tried very hard to not look over at Draco. Following their half-finished head turns, Hermione glanced over at him only to see him with one hand up Pansy’s shirt and his mouth near her ear.

 

She looked back at the head table very quickly.

 

They all watched the new professor, postures wary. His eye spun and wavered until Hermione was quite sure it was staring at her. She looked down and began cutting her meat with careful hands.

 

“Now,” Dumbledore was going on. “I’m quite excited to announce that Hogwarts will play host to a grand athletic event.”

 

She should have known there would be a catch to the reprieve from Quidditch.

 

As she ate the Headmaster droned on and on about international magical cooperation and centuries since the last tournament because of the death toll – 

 

“The what?” Hermione hissed. No one else seemed especially bothered by that.

 

 

- and the other European schools would be here in October, and there was a magic cup that would choose the competitors from a roster of volunteers and don’t put your name in it to volunteer if you’re underage.

 

Draco looked disappointed he wouldn’t be able to hurl himself into danger. Hermione felt relieved. Why anyone would want to put himself in harm’s way for something as stupid and worthless as a sporting event was beyond her. She was grateful there was no way she’d have to do more than sit in stands and pretend to care about the outcome.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

At breakfast the next morning Draco’s owl arrived, dropping off his usual supply of cakes and sweets, as well as a copy of the Daily Prophet. Hermione poured herself some juice and pulled the paper towards her. 

 

“There’s an article on the Weasleys,” Draco said. “Daddy dearest apparently got caught trying to cover up Mad-Eye Moody going full crazy.”

 

“Our new professor Moody?” Hermione asked with a frown.

 

“Could there be more than one?” he asked with a sneer.

 

She read the article over breakfast and had to admit that, even allowing for the obvious sensationalist slant, it sounded like Arthur Weasley had tried to use his influence to protect the disquieting old Auror from prosecution. “So…” she looked over at Draco, “we’re being taught by a paranoid lunatic with strong ties to Gryffindor?”

 

“Pretty much,” he said, and she sagged at the table.

 

“Great. Maybe we should have kept the werewolf.”

 

After breakfast, they were walking towards the courtyard when Weasley pushed past them. “Move it, Slytherins,” he muttered.

 

Hermione glared at the boy’s back, but Draco pulled the Prophet back out of his bag. “Oh Weasley,” he drawled. “Did you know you’re family’s famous?”

 

Draco began to read the article out loud as a crowd gathered. When he finished, he folded it over to show a photograph. “And look, they included a picture of your parents, the happy influence peddlers. I do think I might have to apologize, though.”

 

“Really?” Weasley turned and looked at the blond boy standing there.

 

“Yeah. I’d always implied you guys were so poor you couldn’t afford food but looking at your mother, well, I’d say she’s not going hungry.”

 

“At least she doesn’t look like she’s always smelled something bad,” Harry Potter snapped. 

 

“Go fuck yourself,” Hermione said. “Arsehole.”

 

“Oh, yeah, you’re their little pet, aren’t you?” Weasley said. “Stayed with them this summer, they even took you out on walks to the World Cup and everything. Tell me, Miss Holier-Than-Thou-Muggle-Born, does his mom always have that look on her face or just when Draco’s around?”

 

“Don’t you dare insult my mother,” Draco hissed.

 

“Then you keep your own fucking mouth shut,” Potter suggested and turned to walk away.

 

There was a loud bang as Draco drew his wand and shot a curse off at Potter, which was followed by another, more emphatic, bang as Draco was suddenly transformed, to Hermione’s horror, into a white ferret. She fell to her knees beside the animal and was about to gather it into her arms when she heard a raspy voice shout out, “Leave him, missy.” She turned her head to see Professor Moody stalking towards them. “Did he get you, lad?” he was asking Harry Potter.

 

“No, missed,” Potter said shortly.

 

Moody began limping towards Hermione where she knelt on the cobblestone floor, and she stood and put her body between his and the ferret, who, terrified, took off running for the dungeons. Moody snapped, “Oh, no, you don’t,” and with a flick of his wand threw the ferret into the air and let it land with an audible thumb back on the stone floor. The animal staggered to his feet and tried to run again as Hermione began to scream for help and Moody threw the little white creature into the air again and again.

 

“You never attack someone from behind,” the man growled. “Scummy, cowardly thing to do and I. Hate. Cowards.”

 

“Professor Moody!” Minerva McGonagall was running towards them. “Stop this at once. Is that a student?! Oh my GODRIC! We never use transfiguration as a punishment!”

 

Hermione had gathered the shaking beast into her arms and was stroking his head and murmuring things at it as McGonagall lit into Moody. “Never… in all my years… Surely Dumbledore…”

 

The man shrugged. “I thought a little slapping around would knock some sense into the little bastard.”

 

McGonagall gestured at Hermione with a sharp, furious wave and the girl lowered the ferret down to the ground where he quickly transformed back into a shaking and bruised Draco Malfoy. The boy muttered something about ‘my father,’ and Moody sneered.

 

“Your father and I are friends of old, my boy. I’m sure he’d love a chance to talk to me again.”

 

Draco clamped his mouth shut and glared, mutinously, at the old Auror but Hermione straightened and looked at the man and said, in a voice that, despite being totally level, carried throughout the whole courtyard. “I wouldn’t worry about Lucius Malfoy if I were you.”

 

“I don’t, girlie,” the man said. “Let me give you a little advice; don’t be aligning yourself with the likes of – “

 

“I’d worry about me. Because, someday, I will kill you for that.”

 

A hush fell over the already nearly silent courtyard.

 

“Like I’m going to be scared of a little schoolgirl,” the man said with a snort as Minerva McGonagall said, “You can’t threaten a Professor, Miss Granger.”

 

“Then take points, Ma’am,” Hermione said very politely, her eyes fixed on Alastor Moody who was giving her an oddly speculative look. “Or give me a detention.”

 

“Get him to the infirmary,” was all McGonagall said. “Moody, I’d like a word in private if you please.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione pulled out a quill and took a sheet of parchment and began to write.

 

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy,

 

Please forgive my impertinence in writing to you but…

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Narcissa read the letter and then passed it over to her husband.

 

“Crouch did what to our son?” Lucius said a low snarl after he read the note.

 

“She thinks it’s Mad-Eye Moody, of course,” Narcissa said, leaning back in her seat with a deceptively casual air and watching her husband. “She doesn’t mention it, but apparently she told the man, in full hearing of Minerva McGonagall and a courtyard full of students, that she would kill him someday in retaliation.”

 

Lucius, still furious but fighting back a smile, looked at his wife. “I deplore such a lack of subtlety.”

 

“She is still a child,” Narcissa said with a shrug. “He reported her threats back, of course.”

 

“And?”

 

“And apparently he’s amused and intrigued.”

 

Lucius folded the note in half and handed it back to Narcissa. “Your intelligence network has always rather frightened me,” he said, his tone fond. “We’re still in agreement about her, then?”

 

“Oh yes,” Narcissa said. “Loyal, bloodthirsty, devoted to Draco? I do hope when he finally stops chasing that Parkinson chit she makes him work for it a little.”

 

“I’m sure she will,” Lucius said. “Especially if you have any influence.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When they walked into their first Defense Against the Dark Arts class, Hermione sat next to Draco. 

 

“I’m sitting with Draco,” Pansy said and Hermione, who was pulling her textbook, parchment, and a quill out of her bag, didn’t even look up.

 

“No,” she said. “You don’t. Not in this class.”

 

“He’s my boyfriend,” Pansy snapped and Hermione, noting Draco’s slight cringe with an almost suppressed smirk, just shrugged.

 

“And he’s my friend, and in this class, he sits with me, understand?”

 

“Just… I’ll see you after class, okay Pans?” Draco said.

 

“You do realize I think you’re an idiot, right?” Hermione said, and the boy flushed and muttered something under his breath about girls all being crazy.

 

Professor Moody walked in and stared at the group of Slytherin fourth-year students with barely concealed disdain, and Hermione looked at him steadily. Funny. She’d thought Remus Lupin had been biased against her House. He’s been milquetoast compared to this man, who yanked an attendance sheet off his desk and began reading off names with a snarl, his prosthetic eye seeking out each student as his own read the paper in front of him. He seemed to linger over Theo, Greg, Vincent, and Draco with particular loathing in his voice. 

 

“Well,” he said, at last, looking them over. “Lupin left me a note on what he’d covered. You seem to be fairly well grounded in creatures.” He said the last word with a bit of a sneer. “However, you are sadly lacking in experience with curses, so that’s what we’ll be covering this year. Specifically, Unforgivable Curses. Can anyone tell me what makes a curse unforgivable?”

 

He stared around the room before pointing at Mille. “You,” he snapped. “What makes a curse an Unforgivable?”

 

“They’re…. unforgivable?” she squeaked.

 

“Yes,” he said, turning to write ‘unforgivable’ on a chalkboard. “Use of any of these three spells gets you a one-way ticket to Azkaban. Can any of you little snakes tell me one of them?” He looked at Draco. “How about you, boy?”

 

“Imperius,” Draco said, his voice shaking only a little. Hermione, her eyes watching Moody with unwavering intensity reached a hand out and laid it on Draco’s shoulder.

 

“Yes. I’m sure your family has lots of experience with the Imperius Curse, Mr. Malfoy. Lots of wizards claimed they only worked for You-Know-Who under the influence of the Imperius. The trick, of course, is ferreting out the liars.” He glowered at Draco before turning to write ‘Imperius’ on the board.

 

“Who can name another one?” he asked. “You. Miss Parkinson.”

 

“Cruciatus,” she said, her voice stumbling a little bit over the word.

 

“Exactly. The Torture Curse.” As he was writing this one on the blackboard, he asked, without turning around, “And the last one?”

 

“Avada Kedavra,” Hermione said, her voice cool. “The Killing Curse.”

 

Mad-Eye Moody turned to look at her. “That’s right,” he said. “The Killing Curse.” He regarded her for a long, silent moment before looking up at the rest of the class. “Now, the Ministry says you lot aren’t ready to see what a Dark Curse looks like until sixth-year, but that’s a load of codswallop. I say you need to know what you’re up against. Constant vigilance! Dark Wizards are everywhere, where you least expect them!”

 

“We’ll be starting with the Imperius and working our way up, or down if you prefer, from there. You need to know what these curses look like and how to defend yourself from them! Vigilance!” He was shouting by the end of his introduction, and he stopped and panted for a few moments. Hermione had the unkind thought that he could have done with a little less vigilance and a little more activity before he snapped, “Well, start taking notes, people. I’m not getting any younger, and this information is for your benefit, not mine.”

 

At the end of the class, as they were gathering their things and moved toward the hall, Draco said, very quietly, “Thank you.”

 

Hermione shrugged. “As you and Pansy both like to point out, I think I’m your keeper.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"So, Hermione." Pansy had been working her way up to this conversation for a while, and Hermione looked up from her Runes homework with a polite expression on her face. "You and Draco."

 

"Yeah?" Hermione said.

 

"Are you two just friends or kind of more?"

 

Hermione stared at Pansy, feeling somewhat incredulous. "You've spent most of this year so far with your tongue down his throat, and now you ask me whether we might be more than friends?"

 

"It's just... your friendship is weird," Pansy said. 

 

Hermione shrugged at that. "Draco's weird, in case you hadn't noticed."

 

"You spend a lot of time with his family," Pansy persisted.

 

"So does Daphne," Hermione said.

 

"Yeah, but she can't exactly go over to Theo's because his mother's dead," Pansy said.

 

Hermione shrugged again and looked back down at her homework, mind already on Runes again when Pansy said, "So you don't have an understanding or anything?"

 

"You mean like Theo and Daphne?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Hermione snorted. "If we have some kind of weird pureblood understanding thing, you could have fooled me."

 

"Okay," Pansy said. "Good."

 

“Why?” Hermione asked. “Do you two have an understanding? Any little gifts of jewelry you’re being discreet about?”

 

Pansy made a face. “No,” she admitted. “I was hoping he’d give me something at Yule.”

 

“Well, good luck with that,” Hermione said.

   

 

 

Chapter Text

Professor Moody had decided that they each had to experience the Imperius Curse to see if they could resist it. Greg and Vincent looked at once another uncomfortably, and Pansy objected. “It’s an Unforgivable Curse you want to put on us!”

 

“The other Houses have all done it,” the man said, “but if you feel none of you can handle it, that you don’t want to find out what it feels like until the person cursing you is a Death Eater, well, I’ll exempt your fragile little minds from this lesson.” He waved a hand towards the door, contempt evident in every line of his body, and Pansy ducked her head and muttered that wasn’t what she’d meant.

 

Hermione watched her classmates do ridiculous things one at a time. Theo hopped up and down like a frog; Draco scampered around the room on his knees; Vincent played peek-a-boo with Millie.

 

When it was her turn, she felt a wonderful sense of relaxation float through her, and she smiled dreamily. The feeling of utter well-being lasted until a voice in her head told her to go slap Draco. She even started walking towards him until she wondered why she’d want to do that.

 

Slap Draco , the voice said again.

 

I don’t think so, she argued with herself. What a silly thing to do. Slap Pansy maybe, but why would she want to slap Draco?

 

Well, she could think of a few reasons, but that didn’t mean she planned to do it. 

 

She forced her head to turn and look at the professor, watching her. She closed her eyes and shook her head and then raised her hand, almost against her will. 

 

No, definitely against her will. This was, now that she thought about it, very much like trying to conjure a Patronus. She could almost hear Snape saying, ‘You have to control your mind, you worthless girl,’ and she looked at her hand, the hand that was moving without any control on her part at all.

 

She slammed it down on the desk next to Draco as hard as she could and then felt the sense of floating well-being leave her.

 

“Well done,” Moody said, rather begrudgingly. “You managed to mostly resist the curse.”

 

“I think I might have broken something in my hand,” she said, holding up her hand and wincing. 

 

Professor Moody shrugged. “Go to the infirmary.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . 

 

“He said he’d heard I made a good ferret,” Draco fumed. Hermione reached into that day’s treat box and pulled out one of her favorite cakes.

 

“Who said that?” she asked, her voice low in their common room.

 

“Hagrid,” he said, his anger and manufactured outrage covering the humiliation and fear he still felt whenever he thought about the incident with Moody. He’d only been bruised – Hermione had been hurt worse when she broke two bones in her hand in the man’s class – but the experience had badly shaken him.

 

“In class?” Hermione asked.

 

“Yes.” Draco looked at her with sullen resentment fogging his eyes.

 

“That bastard,” she said, and he looked startled at her vehemence. She was generally so unwilling to sympathize with his drama these days – the way she’d dismissed his injured arm the year before still obviously rankled – that she could tell he hadn’t expected her to really care about Hagrid’s comment, but it made her livid. How dare that great oaf use humiliation to coerce Draco’s obedience? She’d heard the endless carping of the Gryffindors who couldn’t stop complaining how Professor Snape mocked their proficiency in class, but everything was just fine when their little tame professor - a man who should have been fired – made fun of Draco’s awful transfiguration trauma. Moody had hurt him, and another teacher thought it was okay to bring that up? 

 

“Everybody laughed,” Draco muttered, and she reached a hand out to him.

 

“Those fucking bastards. I’m so sorry,” she said, her fury coloring her tone. “Those worthless jerks will get theirs someday, Draco. I promise.”

 

He flashed her a somewhat wan smile. “You’re the best, Hermione.”

 

“I thought I was the best,” Pansy said, settling down onto his lap.

 

“Different kind of best,” he said with a much cheekier grin as Hermione excused herself and left them to their tasteless common room snogging.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

A sign had been posted in the entrance hall informing students classes would be dismissed half an hour early on Friday, October 30th so that everyone could congregate in front of the castle to welcome the students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang before the Welcoming Feast.

 

“One week,” Draco said, and Daphne shrugged.

 

“We’re too young to participate,” she said, “so it’s just a bunch of people who are sure to figure out quickly enough that Slytherins are for hating.”

 

“And a dance,” Millie said, looking longingly at Vincent. 

 

“And a dance,” Hermione agreed, trying not to laugh at the way Vincent was managing not to make any eye contact with Millie at all.

 

Hermione dismissed the Beauxbatons students the moment she saw them. Led by a Head of School who was clearly part giant, none of them had dressed appropriately for the fall in Scotland, and they stood outside their flying carriages, shivering, while Dumbledore and their giant exchanged pleasantries. It was hard to take seriously people who couldn’t even be bothered to look up the weather of the place they were going to be staying for months.

 

The Durmstrang students, who arrived via a showy boat that emerged from the lake, were dressed much more sensibly. Their Headmaster, a man named Karkaroff, greeted Dumbledore with a relaxed smile but, rather than making his students wait while he chatted he just said, “We need to get the children in, Dumbledore. Krum has a slight cold.”

 

The ripple that the name created through the assembled students was impressive. “Krum,” people whispered to one another. “Does he mean Viktor Krum?”

 

“Draco,” Greg hissed in great excitement. “It’s Viktor Krum?”

 

Hermione rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Greg. He’s just a Quidditch player.”

 

“Hermione!” Greg sounded horrified at her cavalier dismissal. “He’s the best Seeker in the world. And he’s here.”

 

The Durmstrang students sat down at the Slytherin table, to the obvious dismay of the Quidditch mad students in other Houses and Hermione contained her amusement as Greg, Vincent, and Draco leaned forward and began chatting him up with obvious hero worship. Hermione glanced over at the Gryffindor table and smirked at the forlorn glares Potter and Weasley were sending their way. She smiled at one of the boys from Durmstrang – not Krum because there was no way she was going to join the masses in fawning on the poor man – who leaned over and asked her a question about the magical ceiling and soon they were deep into a conversation about illusory spells. She found herself impressed; Durmstrang clearly didn’t water their curriculum down with nonsense like Muggle Studies or Divination. She idly dropped that she’d been brewing Wolfsbane successfully since her third year and he pulled out a copy of Moste Potente Potions, and she moved to sit next to him. By the time Karkaroff was being seated at the high table the two of them were talking about the best ways to modify extant recipes and whether the phase of the moon really had any effect on potion efficacy or was that just an old hedge witch’s tale.

 

“Look,” Pansy said, her voice carrying. “Our resident swot has found someone to talk to.”

 

Viktor Krum looked up at that and smiled at Hermione and his classmate. She smiled back, charmed by how much friendlier he looked in person than in his glowering publicity posters.

 

Dumbledore welcomed all the students to the Great Hall and to Hogwarts and made some banal comment about how he was sure they would all be very comfortable during their stay, a comment that elicited an obvious snort of disdain from one of the Beauxbaton girls.

 

“Next time wear a jumper,” Hermione muttered, and both her potions conversationalist and Viktor Krum laughed.

 

Ludo Bagman, who Hermione recognized from the World Cup, joined the professors and school heads at the high table along with a somewhat portly, officious looking man she didn’t recognize. “Who’s that?” she hissed at Theo, who glanced up and narrowed his eyes.

 

“Bartimus Crouch,” he said. “He was in charge of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement during the war. He changed the rules so Aurors could use Unforgivables without fear, encouraged people to name suspected supporters. If an Auror attacked you, well, you probably deserved it, right? Law enforcement’s never brutal to innocent people, right? They shouldn’t have dressed that way or gone down that street. Their body language was threatening, so it was understandable the Aurors attacked. If someone named you as a conspirator, you probably were.” Theo shrugged bitterly, his eyes never leaving the man at the high table. “He put a lot of people in Azkaban.”

 

“Including Sirius Black,” Draco muttered.

 

“Trials optional, I take it?” Hermione said, eyeing the man as the Durmstrang students looked at their tablemates.

 

“Well,” Theo said in a low voice, “he gave his own son a trial. Found him guilty, of course, but there was a show trial.”

 

“Lovely,” Hermione muttered.

 

“Didn’t work out for him,” Theo said. “He was demoted to the Department of International Magical Cooperation.” He looked over at Hermione. “Have you read any histories of the last war?”

 

She shrugged and said, “A couple, but…”

 

“Biased, I bet,” he said with a snort. “I’ll see if I can find one for you at home. Just… don’t let anyone see you reading it.”

 

Dumbledore was explaining the rules of the Triwizard Tournament and the ways a champion from each school would be selected, but Hermione had, as usual, stopped paying attention to his speechmaking. She wouldn’t be entering, there was an Age Line that would keep Draco from doing something stupid and entering, and more than that she didn’t care about. She assumed all the students from Durmstrang would enter; why else would they be here?

 

After dinner, Karkaroff came over and collected his charges who would, apparently, be sleeping on the boat. The passed Potter on the way out of the hall, and Karkaroff stopped to stare at the boy’s forehead in evident shock.

 

“Yes,” drawled Professor Moody, “it’s Harry Potter.”

 

“You,” said Karkaroff, looking at Moody with what looked, to Hermione, to be fear.

 

“Yes,” Moody said, “it’s me. Now get out.” As Karkaroff led the Durmstrang students out of the hall, Krum eyed Potter with a curious expression on his face and Moody stared after the group with obvious dislike on his.

 

. . . . . . . . . . 

 

“Where’s Vincent?” Millie asked, looking around the common room.

 

“Another detention,” Greg said. At the girl’s questioning look, he added, “He was responsible for the dung bombs in Herbology.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Daphne, I have a question.” Hermione had been looking through the books Narcissa had given her years ago about aristocratic wizarding manners and customs. 

 

“Mmm?” Daphne didn’t look up from the essay she was writing on Divination. “I wish I hadn’t taken this stupid class. Should I predict that I’m going to suffer debilitating headaches or that tragedy will befall a loved one?”

 

“Tragedy,” Hermione suggested. “Too easy to track down whether you get headaches or not but surely someone you know somewhere will have something bad happen to them, thus proving your prediction right.”

 

“Good call.” Daphne returned to writing a bit before she said, “What did you want to ask me?”

 

“You know with you and Theo?”

 

“What about us?”

 

“What would it mean if he were to take another girl to, say, Hogsmeade?”

 

Daphne threw a confused look at her roommate and friend. “You can go to Hogsmeade with Theo, Hermione. I’m not exactly worried he’s going to…”

 

“No, I don’t mean a friend. I mean… what if he took another girl to Hogsmeade. Or something.” Hermione’s voice was much too casual, and Daphne set her quill down and looked over. 

 

“Oh,” she said, then again, “oh.” She paused. “You mean other than that he was being a total arse?”

 

Hermione waited without saying anything, and finally, Daphne said, “It would be a pretty major slap in the face. I mean, I’ve met his father; he’s met my parents. If he were going to decide that this courting thing wasn’t really working out, he should have the stones to tell me, you know? Just playing tonsil hockey with some girl without actually telling me no more understanding, well.” She bit her lip. “It would be really, really out of line. No one would blame me for telling him to fuck off. And he’d probably have a hard time finding any girl who’d want anything to do with him after that.”

 

“What if you didn’t want to tell him to fuck off, didn’t want to end it? What if you just wanted to make him squirm? What if you weren’t even sure you had an understanding?”

 

Daphne smiled a slow, mean smile. “Oh,” she said, “I might make sure to be publicly seen with someone that would make him really unhappy, not just a mutual friend who he’d refuse to see as a rival. He wouldn’t be able to say anything because of his own crap. And then I’d make him earn his way back into my good graces, make sure that there was no mistaking what understanding we had the second time around.”

 

“Thanks,” Hermione said, pulling out her own homework. 

 

“Make him squirm,” Daphne said. “A lot. The bastard deserves it.”

 

“Oh, I plan on it.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

The Halloween Feast dragged on, and Hermione poked rather listlessly at her food. The whole Hall was crackling with anticipation, waiting for the dramatic Goblet of Fire to spit forth the Champions. The Hogwarts students had been dropping their names in over the past twenty-four hours, one at a time, and underage Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw students had all been caught trying to cheat and get their names into the Cup. 

 

“Any would-be cheats from our House?” Hermione had asked Greg who’d shaken his head.

 

“Cassius Warrington put his name in, but I don’t think anyone else did,” the boy had said. 

 

The visiting students had been lined up by their respective Heads and had dropped their names in one at a time with very little drama. Now they all sat, all trying to pretend to be far too cool to care about when the Cup would spit out the names, most failing.

 

“Do you want it to be you?” Hermione asked one of the Durmstrang students who just laughed.

 

“It’ll be Viktor,” he said. 

 

He was right. One of the shivering lovelies from Beauxbaton, Fleur Delacour, was selected, then Viktor Krum, both to loud cheers. Cedric Diggory, from Hufflepuff, was declared the Hogwarts Champion to universal cheers from all the tables save Gryffindor where Ron Weasley yelled out, “No!” and threw his napkin down in obvious, boorish disappointment. 

 

Dumbledore waited for the cheers to die down before beginning one of his speeches, this one encouraging them all to support their respective champions when the Goblet belched forth red flame and spit out a fourth piece of paper.

 

Hermione looked at Draco, who shrugged as Dumbledore grabbed the paper and read the name aloud.

 

“Harry Potter.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . 

 

“Stop!” Hermione nearly screeched. Draco had been going on and on and on about how unfair it was, how Potter broke all the rules and just got rewarded, and it was always about Potter. “Shut up! I am so tired of hearing about that stupid, stupid boy! So what if someone threw his name in? We all know he’s a worthless cheater; they’re all worthless cheaters. Do you think he’ll win? Really?”

 

Draco snapped his mouth shut but stared at her mulishly. “It’s not fair,” he muttered again.

 

“So? Let him play in this stupid game with its stupid Goblet of Fire and its stupid binding magical contract. He’ll just look like an idiot.” She stomped her foot. “And he’ll probably die. And you can tell him that if you want. Over half the Triwizard Champions have died and that stupid boy is always getting into freak accidents even without competing in a ridiculously unsafe stupid thing.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

She ran into Harry Potter, looking glum, in the library. “What’s wrong with our little Triwizard champion?” she asked with a smirk.

 

He glared at her before muttering, “No one believes I didn’t put my name in that stupid Cup.”

 

She gave him the ‘you’re an idiot’ look with which Draco was more than familiar. “Of course, you didn’t. You aren’t nearly good enough at magic to have pulled that off.”

 

He looked somewhat affronted before he said, disbelief in his tone, “You believe me?” She gave him a disgusted look, and he muttered, “It would figure the one person who believes me is you.”

 

She shrugged, and he asked her, “Who do you think did it?”

 

“Someone who wants you dead?” He glared at her at that, and she shrugged again. “Well, it does have a pretty high death toll, and it’s not like you’ll be able to match the other contestants spell for spell.”

 

‘Granger,” he muttered and then sighed and blurted out in a rush, “I never got a chance to thank you for last year with Sirius. It’s… he’s… having someone who gives a crap is new and… it’s nice and… fuck, I owe you.”

 

She looked at him, first with perplexity and then with pity. There was a whole story in that fumbled sentence and not a good one. No wonder he put up with Weasley’s tantrums.

 

Before she could say anything, Pansy walked by and said, with great glee, “I knew it! I knew you were one of Potter’s fans!”

 

“Yes, that’s right Pansy,” Hermione said, shoving away her new knowledge about Potter. “I’m his biggest fan. I draw pictures of him in my notebooks, and right now I’m getting him to sign my copy of Wizards Most Likely to Die Before Finishing School.” As she spoke, she fished a copy of French Elle out of her bag and passed it over. “For you, in the noble spirit of international cooperation.” 

 

Pansy grabbed it with a grin and said, “Thanks,” before walking off.

 

“No problem,” Hermione said, waiting until the girl was out of earshot before muttering something rude under her breath.

 

“So… she’s nasty to you, and you’re nasty to her, and you’re still giving her things?” Harry Potter asked with confusion and self-righteous disdain mixed in his voice.

 

“Don’t even try to understand Slytherin politics,” Hermione advised as she hitched her bag up back over her shoulder. “And, Potter, a suggestion?”

 

“Yeah?” he said.

 

“Don’t try to win, just try to make it out alive. That’ll be hard enough.” She paused before adding, “And someone cheated to get you into this stupid competition. Don’t be too noble to cheat to survive.” 

 

“I didn’t know you cared,” he said.

 

“I don’t,” she said with a snort. “But, as Theo points out on a regular basis, I’m weighed down with this weird sense of fair play.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"What are you doing?" Hermione asked

 

Draco looked rather unpleasantly guilty as he glanced up from the table in the common room that he had been hunched over with Daphne, Theo, Greg, and Blaise.

 

"Nothing," he said. 

 

She snorted. 

 

"You'll be mad," Theo said. "You were mad about the Dementor thing."

 

She held her hand out, and with a sigh, Draco handed over a badge. She started to laugh when she read them. ‘Support Cedric Diggory – the real Hogwarts Champion!’ was spelled out in glowing red letters.

 

"That's not all," Daphne said. She picked another one off the table and pressed it, and the message changed to one that read, ‘Potter Stinks’ in green letters.

 

"You know," Hermione said, "I've never really noticed anything wrong with his personal hygiene." 

 

Daphne laughed.

 

"Who did the work on them?" Hermione asked.

 

"I did," Blaise said.

 

"That makes sense," Hermione said nodding.

 

"Why?" Draco asked.

 

Hermione shrugged. "Well," she said, "Blaise has always been better at charming than you."

 

"So," Draco said, looking away from Daphne who was snickering into her hand, "you aren't mad?"

 

"I can't wait to see his face," was all Hermione said. She got her chance in double Potions. All the Slytherin students wore their badges, and when Harry Potter saw them, he turned bright red and glared at his laughing classmates. He reached for his wand and then hesitated.

 

Draco said, "Go on, Potter. Your babysitter isn't around to protect you now."

 

"Draco," Hermione said with an exasperated tone in her voice.

 

"You need her to keep you in line, Malfoy?" Weasley said from the wall where he was leaning with some of the other boys from Gryffindor.

 

The boys looked at one another, and then Potter yelled, "Densaugeo!" at the same time that Draco screamed, "Furnunculus!"

 

The hexes bounced off of one another. Potter's hit Hermione in the face, and Draco's hit Parvati. Parvati screeched and put her hands to her face where giant, puss-filled boils were already erupting. Hermione put her hands to her own face in horror. Theo hurried forward and pulled Hermione's hands away from her face as Parvati continued to screech. It wasn't pretty. Her front teeth had started to grow, rather like those of a beaver, and they didn't stop until they reached well past her chin.

 

"Do I dare ask what is going on here?"

 

All of the students spun around at the familiar sneering drawl of Professor Snape. He looked at Hermione and raised his eyebrows but merely turned to Draco and said, "Explain."

 

"Potter attacked me, sir," Draco said.

 

"We attacked one another at the same time!" Potter exclaimed in frustrated fury.

 

"He hit Hermione! Look!"

 

Snape examined Hermione and said, without changing his expression, "Go to the hospital wing, Miss Granger."

 

She nodded and fled from the room, leaving her bag on the floor in her haste.

 

"Malfoy hit Parvati!” Potter said.

 

Snape examined the girl's face, which was now covered with pustule upon pustule, many of which seemed to be oozing. "I see no difference," he said and turned to go towards his desk. The girl started to weep and ran from the room, following in Hermione's footsteps toward the infirmary.  

 

Weasley and Potter both began to yell about the injustice of Snape's treatment of the two girls, but the man simply looked at them and, with a level gaze, said, "Fifty points from Gryffindor and a detention for Mr. Potter."

 

The Slytherins all laughed as they sat down, their badges flashing, and Potter stomped to his seat.

 

"Mr. Malfoy," Professor Snape said, "Miss Granger appears to have left her bag. Would you be so kind as to take it to her?"

 

"Yes, sir," Draco said and, scooping up the bag, he began to leave the room.

 

Before he could get through the door, Professor Snape added, "Please see me this afternoon, Mr. Malfoy. I would like to have a word with you."

 

Draco gulped but said, "Yes, sir."

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

"Mr. Malfoy." 

 

Professor Snape said the words as he studied the boy standing in front of him. Draco was neatly dressed, with not a single hair astray. His usual sneer had been replaced with a far more conciliatory expression, and if he weren't shifting uneasily from one foot to the other, it was clear that this self-control took an act of will.

 

"Yes, sir?" the boy asked.

 

"Sometimes it occurs to me that you might not be the brightest star in the sky," Professor Snape said. He leaned back and looked at the child who was unable to contain his flash of temper at the criticism. "Any sensible person would manage to get through the majority his days without antagonizing Dumbledore's darling. That you seem to be constitutionally unable to manage such a feat perplexes me, and the only conclusion I can come to is that you are simply dim. Given that you are my godson, I find this somewhat depressing."

 

"You don't like him either," Draco said sullenly.

 

"My feelings about Mr. Potter are not relevant," Professor Snape said. "Though I will point out I have managed to resist the temptation, despite significant provocation, to ever make a badge that reads ‘Potter Stinks.’"

 

Draco thrust his lower lip out in a pout. 

 

"You are not stupid enough to be totally unaware of politics," Snape continued smoothly. "It is impolitic to seem to be constantly setting yourself against Potter. He is, if I have to remind you, the Chosen One. The Boy who Lived. Watch yourself."

 

"Yes, sir," Draco said. "May I go now?"

 

"Not quite yet," Snape said. "I have one more thing to say to you, Mr. Malfoy."

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

He tapped his fingers on the desk. "Miss Granger is not a witch to be trifled with. Unless you want to find yourself out in the proverbial cold, I would recommend that you stop chasing girls based on their tight jumpers and look towards keeping what you have, assuming you still want it. Muggle-born witches can be -," and here Snape paused for a moment as though considering precisely what word to use. "They can be unforgiving," he finally said, his eyes distant and sad. "Don't let yourself be unforgiven."

 

Draco swallowed hard.

 

Snape looked up at the boy and said, scowl firmly back in place, "Why are you still here, Mr. Malfoy?"

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Pansy and Draco were giggling over an article in the Daily Prophet when she passed them. “Hey, Hermione,” Draco called out. “Have you read this? Potter gave an interview. He still cries at night about his parents. It’s so great.”

 

Hermione flicked a quick glance at Theo, who was calmly ignoring the dig at people who cried over their dead parents. “You should know better than to believe that trash,” she said.

 

“Oh, that’s right,” Pansy pulled herself away from Draco and turned to look at Hermione as she joined Daphne and Theo at a table. “The little third wheel’s a Potter fan.”

 

“Give it a rest, Pans,” Draco said, getting up and fumbling with his books. “Hermione, I was going to ask you a question about Charms – “

 

She cut him off. “If you only want to talk to me about homework, don’t bother; I’m not your little cheat sheet. I’m sure Pansy can help you.” She picked her stuff up. “I’ll be in my room. Later, Daph.”

 

Draco was left standing at the couch, his Charms book in his hand, watching her go up the stairs while Theo let out a low whistle.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The day of the first task was remarkably good weather, and Hermione was only slightly miffed that the entire afternoon schedule had been canceled so they could all troop down to the stands. She sat with Greg, Vincent, and Millie. Blaise was still deeply in love – or whatever it was he was – with the little third year he’d been with all year and while they were cute to watch she missed his teasing attention. Theo and Daphne were snuggled under a blanket together, and it occurred to her that maybe she didn’t want to pay too much attention to them. Draco was sitting with Pansy, and if he looked a little unhappy to be there, well, that was his own fault.

 

When that Ludo Bagman announced the champions had to steal a golden egg from a dragon she could feel her mouth drop open. How was this a reasonable sporting event for children? She’d thought Quidditch was dangerous, but this was insane.   

 

She hid her face in Vincent’s shoulder while Cedric Diggory stole his egg. Vincent awkwardly patted her head as the crowd roared. Finally, he said, “It’s okay, Hermione. He got it,” and she breathed out a sigh of relief. 

 

“I really thought he’d die,” she muttered, and Greg hugged her.

 

“There’s referees all along the wall,” he said. “No one’s going to die.”

 

She watched the Delacour girl get her egg by charming the dragon into sleep, and then Viktor Krum got his with a pretty straightforward curse to the dragon. Finally, Potter was ushered out. She wondered how he’d manage it, as his spell work was clearly not going to be up to the standards of the other two she’d watched and was impressed when he summoned his broom all the way from the castle. That was good charm work; she hadn’t thought he’d had that in him. Smart of him, really, she thought, to play to his strengths. He might be a prat with, from what she’d gleaned, a shitty life, but he really could fly.

 

Not that she’d tell Draco that. His jealousy was already out of hand though why he’d be jealous of some barely talented wizard with almost no friends whose life was so empty he was grateful to have a mass-murdering, possibly insane, godfather who cared about him she had no idea. It was just pathetic.

 

She looked over at Draco, sitting with Pansy and watching his nemesis dart about the playing field, avoiding a fire-breathing dragon.

 

His jealousy.

 

Now that was an interesting idea.

 

Potter snagged the egg – of course – and the task was over. 

 

She was unsurprised when he tied for first place. That boy lived a charmed life at school and had from the start.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Professor Snape made the official announcement of the Yule Ball to the assembled Slytherins in their common room.

 

“As I am sure you are all already aware one of the more interminable parts of the Triwizard Tournament is the Yule Ball. Fourth-year students and above may attend, assuming they are properly attired and can control their basest, adolescent urges. If I am forced to reprimand any student in my House for slovenly attire or public displays of gross indecency, you will find yourselves wishing I had merely taken points off, have-I-made-myself-perfectly-clear?”

 

He had.

 

. . . . . . . . . 

 

Hermione had her head down over a book when Krum approached her. “You are Herm-own-ninny, yes?” he asked, and she sighed.

 

“Yes,” she said.

 

He sat down at her table and squinted at her, and she wondered whether it was possible the best Seeker in the world was nearsighted. “You are Muggle-born, right?”

 

“Yes,” she said, tensing. Conversations that started like this rarely ended well.

 

“Durmstrang doesn’t allow Muggle-borns in,” he said.

 

“Well, bully for you,” she muttered and began to gather her things, but he was still talking.

 

“You are in Slytherin?”

 

She tugged on the green tie she had one and said, voice clipped, “Obviously.”

 

“But Slytherin is for Dark witches, Dark wizards. Dark wizards… they don’t care for Muggle-borns.”

 

She ground her teeth and then said, as calmly as she could, “I’m not sure what things are like up in the frozen north, but I have found the only people who don’t seem to have a problem with my ancestry are in Slytherin. Now, if you’ll excuse me – “

 

“I don’t mean to be offense,” he said, holding his hand out. “You are just… contradiction. Is that the word? You are contradiction. Dark wizards don’t like Muggle-borns, but you spend summer with the Malfoys. Slytherin is for blood purists, but you are there. This school… it bans Dark Arts, but you know Moste Potent Potions. You are… interesting contradiction. And beautiful.”

 

She settled back down into the seat and looked that the boy who was studying her. His gallantry had been heavy and awkward, but she suspected it had been sincere enough.  

 

“I like Potions,” she said, and he nodded.

 

“You get… privilege to work with Dark potions?”

 

“I get special tutoring,” she corrected him. “They aren’t Dark potions.”

 

He shook his thick head. “I talk to Poliakoff. You know Dark potions.”

 

“No,” she said and he shrugged.

 

“I never contradict beautiful girl,” he said, but she could tell as far as he was concerned she’d confirmed his suspicion. “Miss Herm-own-ninny? Would you do me honor of being my date at the Yule Ball?”

 

Hermione looked at him, the best Seeker in the world, and smiled; Theo would have known to be wary of that smile, but the complicated man in front of her didn’t know her nearly well enough for that. Viktor Krum was an excellent choice. Better even than what she’d been planning. “Certainly, Viktor. I’d be delighted to be your date at the ball.”

 

“Is good.” He stood and smiled down at her. “I see you there, yes?”

 

“Yes,” she said, thinking of the dress she’d bought on her shopping trip with Narcissa. “You’ll see me there.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Greg approached her in their common room, dragging his feet and blushing. “Hermione-would-you-go-with-me-to-the-ball?” he choked out in one long stream.

 

Hermione frowned. “Oh, Greg. I’m so sorry; I wish I’d known you planned to ask me, but I already have a date.”

 

He sagged in something rather dishearteningly like relief, and she caught the quick look he sent towards Draco, who was on a couch with his back to them working on some essay or other. “Who?” he demanded, and she smiled.

 

“Viktor,” she said, tone sweet.

 

“Viktor?” Greg goggled at her. “Viktor Krum?”

 

“You don’t need to sound quite so shocked,” she said, enjoying watching this play out. “I’m hardly some kind of pariah no boy would want; just because you lot don’t think of me as a girl doesn’t mean no one does. He told me I was beautiful, you know.”

 

“It’s just… Viktor Krum,” he sounded awed, and she watched Draco stiffen on the couch out of the corner of her eye.

 

“Do you want me to get you an autograph or something? I know you’re a big fan,” she teased.

 

He blushed but muttered, “If you could?” and she laughed.

 

“Of course I can, Greg. You’re one of my best mates.” She raised her voice. “Draco? Do you want me to get you an autograph from my date too? I know how much you admire Viktor and, I have to admit, you were right. He’s pretty great.”

 

“That… no thanks,” the boy muttered without turning around.

 

She stood up and, gathering her things, got ready to go up to her room. “Greg,” she said quietly, “I’ve got a date, but I know someone who’d love to have you ask her.” As his questioning look, she tipped her head towards Millie, who was sitting alone at a table working on homework. He stared at her and Hermione give him a little nudge towards the other girl. 

 

Daphne met her in their room and said, once the door was closed, “Nice work. Who were you going to get if Krum hadn’t asked you?”

 

Hermione laughed. “Potter.” At Daphne’s disbelieving look, she grinned. “It’s not like he has any friends and, well, he owes me.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Pansy opened her box of candy from Draco with a forced smile on her face. “Thank you for the Christmas present,” she said, and he shrugged, his eyes searching the room. 

 

“Where’s Hermione?” he asked.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione had worried about what to do with her hair as, in general, no amount of brushing, blowing, or charm work could tame into anything other than a wild mass of kinked curls. 

 

“It’s not that I don’t love your hair,” Daphne had said, frowning at it as they practiced the hair they planned to do, “it’s just…” she paused and then, giving up her attempt at a twist, said, “I have an idea, but I think it might be against the rules.”

 

Now, still not sure whether this broke the rules or not, Hermione sat with one of the Malfoy house-elves chattering at her as she worked some kind of unspoken elf magic and turned Hermione’s hair into a wild updo with little sproingy curls that fell from the piled mass in an apparently haphazard manner that had taken at least an hour to manage. 

 

“Do you mind waiting on wizards and witches?” Hermione asked curiously as the little creature started fastening tiny rhinestones into her hair.

 

The elf sniffed, seemingly rather offended. “I’m a good house-elf, I am,” she said. “I takes care of my people. No harm comes to my people when I’m about.”

 

“I don’t think I’d like it,” Hermione admitted, and the elf sniffed again.

 

“Well, I shouldn’t like being a witch, having to use a wand to do anything. Witches and wizards is so limited. It’s why elveses have to take care of them. You can’t even do your own hair.” The elf stuck another jewel into her hair and, when Hermione tried to look at herself in the mirror, smacked her on the ear. “You’ll wait, you will, until Rilly’s done with you.”

 

Daphne laughed. “Do you see that bracelet, Rilly? Draco gave her that.”

 

Rilly squealed and babbled almost incoherently for a few moments before going back to putting in jewels – the proper placement of each one appeared to be a matter of significant importance requiring a lot of thought. “A new Malfoy,” she finally squeaked. 

 

“I don’t know, Rilly,” Hermione said, glaring at Daphne. “He’s not even my date for the dance. I think planning a wedding might be a little premature.”

 

Rilly sniffed. “Young Mr. Malfoy is a bad boy,” she said, “giving you that and not taking you.” She did something vigorous to Hermione’s hair that made her yelp. “I’ll punish myself for saying he’s bad but ashamed is what he should be.”

 

“Can I forbid you to punish yourself?” Hermione asked curiously.

 

Rilly looked at the bracelet and then said, sounding very pleased, “Miss Hermione is a clever Malfoy.”

 

“Well then, I forbid you to punish yourself,” Hermione said, and the little creature finally let her look at herself in the mirror.

 

“Rilly,” Hermione breathed. “It’s… it’s beautiful.”

 

“And the hair looks good too,” Daphne drawled from her bed. “If he doesn’t look at you dressed that way and with that hair and squirm every time he sees you with Krum he’s a total idiot.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

“Theo, where’s Hermione?” Draco asked as he fastened a corsage onto Pansy without even really looking at her.

 

“Oh, she’ll be coming down in a bit,” Daphne said, taking Theo’s arm. “She wanted to fuss with her hair a bit more and, besides, she’ll be walking in with the Durmstrang students since she’s with Krum.”

 

“She’s not with Krum,” Draco muttered, but he offered his arm to Pansy and led her out the door and towards the Great Hall.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco managed to throw a couple of insults at Weasley just for the sake of good form, but his heart wasn’t in it; maybe the target of the moldy, dated robes was just not challenging enough, he thought. Pansy had some flouncy pink thing on that made her look strangely shapeless and was clinging to his arm with such a determined grip he finally snapped at her to ease up a bit. “I’m not going anywhere,” he hissed. “You don’t need to hold on like you’re trying to pull me out of Sinking Sands.”

 

She relaxed her grip, and he held her chair out for her. He could see the high table from where he was; he could see Potter and that Cedric Diggory were already in place with their dates. Potter’d apparently managed to snag one of the Patil twins, which was impressive. Well, being a Champion probably didn’t hurt.

 

When the Durmstrang students walked into the Hall, following Karkaroff, his eyes found Hermione and his jaw dropped.

 

This girl didn’t look anything like Hermione. Hermione had wild hair that she usually had shoved back in some kind of barely contained ponytail. Hermione wore her skirts longer than any of the other girls and usually had some huge jumper she’d snagged from Greg or Blaise that obscured any hint of a shape.

 

No, he considered the matter again. She looked like Hermione. Just… more so.

 

She hadn’t smoothed out her wild hair but instead piled it top of her head in some way that sparkled and that left little curls to dance around her face and shoulders. 

 

Of course, it was hard to focus on her hair given what she was wearing.

 

She had on some kind of white slip – was it even okay to wear something like that by itself? – that clung to her body and ended mid-thigh. It was covered by a transparent overdress that had lines of crystals sewn into it and that somehow, somewhere, shifted into being just strands of those crystals that swung about her knees. She sparkled with every movement. In a room full of girls dressed in brightly colored taffeta with flounces and bows she looked like…

 

“Fuck,” Greg said, looking at her. “She’s fucking hot.”

 

Draco glared at him, and he quickly picked up his menu and asked Millie what she thought sounded good.

 

Draco looked back at Hermione and swallowed hard. 

 

She had on one piece of jewelry: a simple bracelet of cheap glass beads.

 

“Let’s go get the girls some punch,” Draco suggested and Theo, exchanging a smirk with Daphne, rose at Draco’s unspoken command.

 

“What a good idea,” Theo said.

 

“Maybe she doesn’t know it means,” he hissed at Theo as soon as they were away from the table and Theo laughed as he watched Viktor Krum hold a chair at the high table out for Hermione. 

 

“Oh mate, I think she knows exactly what that bracelet means. You are, in a word, fucked.” He shook his head. “I tried to warn you.”

 

Draco slouched back to the table, punch for himself and Pansy in his tightly gripped hands.

 

After dinner, the dancing began. Pansy slipped into his arms with the ease of a girl who’d been taking dance lessons since she could walk. Draco tried to keep his attention on her but not watching Hermione – who danced with Krum and then with Potter – was hard.

 

“My mother would never let me wear anything like that,” Pansy said with a sniff when Hermione, back in Krum’s grubby arms, passed by them on the floor.

 

“It’s very… short,” Draco said, adding quickly, “You look lovely. That color suits you.”

 

Pansy preened under his compliment. She was still smug when he deposited her on a chair next to Greg and Millie and fetched her another glass of punch, so smug she didn’t even bat an eye when he asked Hermione if she’d care to dance.

 

They danced in silence for a while until Draco blurted out, “You can’t wear that.”

 

“I beg your pardon?” Hermione asked him, sounding somewhat offended.

 

“You look like a tramp.”

 

Yes. Definitely offended. “I bought this dress on a shopping trip with your mother, and if Narcissa Malfoy thinks it’s acceptable, I hardly think you have any right to complain.”

 

“It’s just…” he flicked his head down towards the bracelet on her wrist. “You can’t wear that and be dressed like this on a date with him.”

 

“Oh really?” Draco blanched at the tone of her voice. “Because as far as I can tell this little bauble is just a piece of jewelry that means nothing at all. It certainly doesn’t limit who I can date, and it will never limit how I can dress.”

 

“It doesn’t,” he muttered.

 

“Oh?” she asked as his hand tightened on her. “It doesn’t what?”

 

“Doesn’t mean nothing,” he muttered again, and she laughed, an apparently delighted sound that made several people within hearing smile. Draco, who could see how her eyes were narrowed and angry, wasn’t one of them.

 

“So you think it means I’m going to sit on some shelf and wait for you to be done pawing whatever girl crosses your path?”

 

“I…”

 

“Because I can assure you that is not going to happen.”

 

“Okay, I get it,” he said, sounding angry himself now. “I’ve been an arsehole.” 

 

“Oh, I don’t think you quite get it yet,” she said as the song came to an end. “Have a lovely evening with your girlfriend.”

 

He watched her return to Viktor Krum’s side, her dress clinging to her and the tiny gems in her hair sparkling. Her date handed her a cup of punch, and he could hear her laugh and watched her put her hand on Viktor’s arm and lean in towards him, and he had to resist the urge to storm over there and punch Viktor Krum in his stupid, worthless, best-Seeker-in-the-world, Triwizard-champion face.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Draco stalked outside, having abandoned Pansy with Millie. He’d managed to imply he and Theo were going to go get high, which had impressed the stupid chit enough to not object to being left alone. The two of them wandered through the magically heated, ridiculously unseasonable, rose garden without speaking until they heard Professor Snape say, “I don’t understand your concern, Igor.”

 

“It’s getting darker,” the other man hissed.

 

Theo looked at Draco and casually brushed his fingers over his forearm, a question in his eyes, and Draco nodded. “Karkaroff too?” Theo mouthed, and Draco shrugged.

 

“Severus, it’s been getting clearer for months, you can’t pretend it isn’t happening. What are we going to do?”

 

“Flee, if you think you can,” Snape suggested, his tone laced with contempt. “I will tender your regrets if you like.”

 

The pair of adults rounded the corner and Snape snarled and pointed his wand at a bush. Two partially dressed students emerged from the shadows and fled across the garden. “Ten points from Ravenclaw,” the man snapped as he identified the girl. “Ten points from Hufflepuff,” he added with some disgust at the boy.

 

He spotted Draco and Theo and huffed out a breath of what sounded like utter exasperation. “I do hope that the two of you aren’t out here removing the clothing of your unfortunate dates in rosebushes like your moronic classmates.”

 

“No, sir,” Theo said. “Daphne wanted to sit out a few numbers so she could chat with Hermione, so Draco and I took a little walk.”

 

“Well, walk back inside,” Snape suggested as Karkaroff looked at them rather nervously.

 

“Yes, sir,” Draco said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione smirked as she read the article in the Daily Prophet

 

“I see,” she said to Vincent, “that you have recovered from the tragic bite you took from a flobberworm last year.”

 

“I was afraid I’d lose the finger,” he said, his totally serious tone only slightly marred when his voice cracked on ‘finger.’  

 

“You can be a prick,” she said to Draco as he walked by, “but I have to admit this article is pretty brilliant. ‘We’re just too scared to say anything.’ I could hug you. Was he really making you all take care of some awful hybrid he didn’t know anything about?”

 

“He was,” Greg said, flopping next to her on the couch. “The things were terrifying, gross monsters that caused burns and exploded and sucked blood. The unicorn the sub had today was much cooler, even if I didn’t get to touch it.”

 

“I did,” Pansy said with a dreamy sigh. “It was… this was what I thought Care of Magical Creatures would be. Unicorns and fairies and… not… not monsters.” She and Hermione had circled around one another after the ball and then decided to pretend the contretemps over Draco had never happened; after all, they were still both Slytherin, and they still had to live and work together for years.

 

Hermione was still railing against Hagrid. “How does that man stay employed? It’s not just monsters, it’s a violation of the Ban on Experimental Breeding! It’s so against the rules I don’t even know where to begin,” she demanded. “He’s an unsafe menace.”

 

“And a half-giant,” Draco said.

 

“Oh, who cares about that?” Hermione said impatiently. “I wouldn’t care he were a full giant if he weren’t also incompetent and a danger who plays favorites. He needs to be fired!” She looked around at her friends who weren’t meeting her eyes, and then she sighed. “He’s not going to be fired, is he?”

 

Theo slipped a book into her hands. She took a quick look at the title and then tucked it into her bag. “He probably won’t even be charged for his breeding experiment, much less held accountable for putting students at risk,” Theo said quietly. “He’s one of Dumbledore’s pets, and that means he’s untouchable.”

 

“It’s not fair,” Hermione muttered and, at Theo’s look, said, “I know, I know, but it’s not.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Miss Granger,” Snape looked at her. “Headmaster Dumbledore would like to have a word with you in his office if you please.”

 

She obediently followed her Head of House through the halls to the Headmaster’s office where she saw Ron Weasley, of all people, Cho Chang, and some little girl who looked quite a bit like the Beauxbaton champion.

 

“In the second task,” Dumbledore said, his eyes twinkling in a way that made her suspicious, “each of the Champions must go beneath the lake to retrieve a hostage, someone they most fear to lose. They have been told they have only one hour to find and save you, after which you’ll perish but, of course, you’ll be perfectly safe. Indeed, you won’t even know what’s happening until your rescue as we’ll have you under a Sleeping Charm.”

 

Hermione must have looked like she couldn’t believe what she was hearing because Weasley sneered, “Too much of a coward to do it, little Miss Slytherin?”

 

She looked at him very steadily until he flushed and Dumbledore finally said, “Of course, if any of the potential hostages would prefer not to participate we will certainly not force them.”

 

She turned to look at Dumbledore and said, “Am I really to believe I’m the person Viktor Krum fears most to lose? That seems far fetched.”

 

Dumbledore twinkled at her again and admitted, “Convenience might have played a small role in your selection as well, Miss Granger, though I assure you the boy really does have a bit of a crush on you.” He paused. “Do you have any objection to being held up, publicly, as the person he most fears to lose?”

 

She smiled. “No, that’s fine.” She looked at Ron. “I assume you’re Potter’s one true love?”

 

Weasley turned as red as his hair.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy joined Draco in the stands for the second task. “It’s lovely to see you, darling,” Narcissa said. “Daphne,” she acknowledged the girl. “You look lovely. Did you have a nice time at the ball?”

 

“I did, thank you, Mrs. Malfoy,” she said.

 

“Did you get the book I sent you?” Lucius asked Theo, who nodded.

 

“Thank you, sir. I thought my father had a copy but – “

 

“Yes, well,” Mr. Malfoy shrugged as he brushed the seat off for Narcissa, “people are wary of keeping certain materials around. He might not have wanted to send it to you. Don’t let it be confiscated.”

 

“I won’t, sir,” Theo said.

 

Pansy simpered at Draco before Vincent could haul her away. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your parents, Draco?”

 

“Uh… Mother, Father, you know Vince Crabbe, of course, and this is my friend, Pansy Parkinson,” Draco said, looking furious and cornered. 

 

“Hello Vincent, you’re looking well. Nice to meet you, Miss Parkinson,” Narcissa said.

 

“Thank you, ma’am,” Vincent said before he hissed, “Come on,” at Pansy. “Come sit with me and Greg and Millie.”

 

Draco mouthed ‘thank you’ at Vincent who gave him a thumbs up but mouthed ‘you owe me’ back at him.

 

“Where’s Hermione?” Narcissa asked, looking around. “I wanted to ask her how her dress was received at the ball.”

 

“I don’t know,” Daphne said. “I haven’t seen her all day.” She looked slyly at Draco. “Maybe she’s wishing the champions good luck before their next task.”

 

“I didn’t know she was close to Potter or Diggory,” Lucius said. “Has she made friends with the little veela from Beauxbatons? They don’t usually make women friends especially well.”

 

“No,” Daphne said, “Viktor Krum.”

 

“Funny,” said Narcissa, “I didn’t have the impression she really cared for Quidditch that much.”

 

“Well,” Daphne said, “he is much better looking up close.”

 

Draco looked like he’d swallowed a fly, but he said nothing and Narcissa smiled somewhat conspiratorially at Daphne.

 

“Tell me about the ball,” she said, and Daphne launched into a detailed description about what every girl had worn, who had danced with whom, and who had gotten caught in the rosebushes. (“No Slytherins got caught behaving so disgracefully, I hope,” Lucius said at that to which Theo said with a smirk, “Would any of us be stupid enough to get caught?” Lucius mostly smothered his laugh at that.)

 

They all hushed as Ludo Bagman began to explain the task. Each champion was to go into the lake to retrieve ‘that which they most feared to lose.’ The hostages were being guarded by merpeople and, after one hour, the hostage would be lost.

 

“I wonder who the hostages are?” Narcissa asked, rather idly, as the announcer went on.

 

“Our two hometown champions, Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter, will be retrieving Cho Chang and Ronald Weasley.” There were some hoots and cheers from the assembled crowd.

 

“She was his date to the Yule Ball,” Daphne whispered to Narcissa. “Pretty girl, long dark hair. She’s in Ravenclaw, so I assume she’s smart.”

 

“Weasley?” Lucius asked with a raised eyebrow. 

 

Theo shrugged. “Potter doesn’t exactly have a lot of friends; rumor said he could barely find a date to the ball even with being a champion. The pickings might have been slim.”

 

“Well, no real loss to the world if Potter fails to retrieve him and he drowns, I suppose,” Lucius Malfoy said.

 

“The lovely Fleur Delacour from Beauxbatons will be retrieving her younger sister,” the announcer continued to a flurry of polite applause. Without the gossipy pleasure of a potential adolescent romance, no one was quite as interested in this rescue.

 

“Finally, Viktor Krum of Durmstrang will be retrieving Hermione Granger.”

 

Draco’s hands, which had been resting lightly on the railing in front of him, suddenly tightened and Lucius turned to look at him, the movement slow and deliberate.

 

“Miss Granger is the person Viktor Krum most fears to lose?” Lucius asked, his voice smooth and uninflected. 

 

“Apparently,” Draco muttered.

 

“Cho Chang was the Diggory boy’s date to the Ball. Would I be amiss in surmising Miss Granger was Mr. Krum’s date?” Lucius still had absolutely no expression in his voice, but Daphne eased away from the Malfoys and Theo wrapped an arm around her.

 

“She was,” Draco said, hands still wrapped around the railing, eyes fixed on the lake as each contestant made his or her way to the water. 

 

“Fascinating,” Lucius said. “It would seem I need to apologize to you, son. I was under the impression you were fairly taken with Miss Granger and had been smoothing the way for a future alliance with the girl. Now I find that you’ve simply been too polite to tell me you aren’t even interested enough to take the girl to a school dance. I am sorry how thoroughly I seem to have misunderstood your friendship; I must have made things quite uncomfortable for you both. Should we extend an invitation this summer to the girl who you introduced to us earlier? Miss Parkinson?”

 

“Could we not do this now?” Draco finally choked out, turning to look at his father with a stricken look on his face. “Hermione’s already let me know I’m an arse. I’m not sure she’ll even let me court her now, even if that Bulgarian Seeker gets her out of the water safely.”

 

Lucius smiled. “Oh, I think this is the perfect time to do this. I think this is the perfect time to contemplate how you’ve apparently been treating not one, but two girls, because I assume, the lovely Miss Parkinson has no idea how you feel about Miss Granger.”

 

“Now dear,” Narcissa said, patting her husband on the knee. “Let’s not be hasty.”

 

“Oh, no,” Lucius said, his voice getting lower. “Let’s not think about how it seems Miss Granger is currently in danger of drowning because our son wanted to sow a few wild oats and decided, what? That because she was Muggle-born she wouldn’t recognize that having her spend part of every summer with us implied you had a relationship with her that we approved of? That you could do what you liked with no consideration for the girls involved? Did you really expect any girl of spirit to tolerate having her nose rubbed in your evident preference for another witch?”

 

“I don’t prefer Pansy,” Draco said, his voice ragged and so quiet they could barely hear him. “It’s just…”

 

“He’s just young,” Narcissa said, smiling at Lucius. “I’m sure if Miss Granger survives this, he’ll reconsider his choices.”

 

Draco didn’t say anything, just watched the water with almost unblinking eyes.

 

“He doesn’t really think they’d let students drown, does he?” Daphne whispered to Theo, who sniggered.

 

“I suspect he’s not exactly thinking straight right now.”

 

“Serves him right,” Daphne said with glee that sounded no less maliciously pleased for being nearly inaudible.

 

It was a very long hour, and at the end, Diggory broke the water surface first. Draco inhaled sharply at the movement in the water and then became totally rigid when he saw it wasn’t Krum with Hermione. When Krum appeared shortly thereafter, Hermione in tow, Draco sagged and buried his face in his hands. He was so busy shaking with relief he missed the real drama of the day when Harry Potter rescued not just his own hostage, but the little French girl as well.

 

“Very sporting of him,” Lucius declared, holding his hand out to help Narcissa to her feet. 

 

“I wonder how Potter knew about gillyweed,” Daphne said as she stood up and got ready to make her way out of the stands.

 

“Oh,” Theo said with a shrug. “I heard him talking to that Longbottom kid. Apparently Moody gave that kid a book about water plants and one of them was gillyweed.”

 

“Good thinking,” Lucius said. “You should never be too proud to let your close friends help you with difficult tasks.”

 

“Moody gave him the book?” Narcissa said with a slightly amused tone in her voice. “Mad-Eye Moody?”

 

“There’s more than one?” Daphne asked with a shudder and then looked at Theo, confused when Narcissa laughed at that.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

“Hermione, would you come down to the lake with me?” Draco didn’t even try to keep from shuffling his feet. He was smart enough to know that cocky self-confidence would get him a ‘no’ but admitting he was nervous might actually get her to go for a walk with him. He’d bungled the whole of last year and he really, really wanted to get this right.

 

“Sure.” Hermione put her book down and grabbed a cloak to throw over the jumper – Vincent’s this time - and they walked down in silence.

 

Once they were there, he said, in a bit of a rush, “There’s an article in Witch Weekly – “

 

“Why do you keep reading that trash?” she asked with a tired sigh.

 

“ – and it says you and Viktor… that he… that’s he asked you to go visit him in Bulgaria this summer.”

 

“Really?” She looked surprised at that, and he relaxed a little.

 

“So… it’s not true?”

 

“No, it’s true enough.” Hermione turned and looked out at the lake. “I’m just surprised anyone overheard that. He asked me after he’d rescued me.”

 

“What… what did you say?” He hated how he was stumbling over everything he said, but he didn’t seem to be able to articulate anything today.

 

She gave him a cool, amused look. “I told him I wasn’t sure what my summer plans were yet and that I’d have to ask my parents.”

 

“But you’re not going, right?”

 

Hermione still looked amused, and he felt himself squirm under her gaze. “I might.”

 

“I wish you wouldn’t,” he muttered and she laughed at that.

 

“Having Pansy over this summer?” she asked, and he crossed his arms over his chest and turned away from her.

 

“How long do you plan to make me suffer?”

 

“Oh, I think a good long time,” Hermione said, sounding pretty cheerful at that idea. 

 

“If I said I was sorry, would that help?”

 

“It might.”

 

“I’m really sorry,” Draco said and, without looking at her, reached out and slipped his hand into hers. He almost expected her to pull it away, and when she didn’t, he could feel something inside of him relax. “You looked beautiful at the ball, by the way.”

 

“Oh? I thought I looked like a tramp.”

 

“I was being a jerk,” he muttered. “I didn’t like the thought of you going to so much trouble to look beautiful for him.”

 

She snorted in derision at that, and he looked up at her. “You really are an idiot, you know that?”

 

“Girls are so confusing,” he mumbled under his breath though apparently, he wasn’t quiet enough because she laughed again. “I broke things off with Pansy,” he admitted. 

 

Hermione inhaled sharply at that, and he saw her clench her jaw as she controlled a tremble, but all she said was, “Good.”

 

He pulled her over a little closer to him and, as he did so, he caught a glimpse of something under the sleeve of the bulky jumper; he looked up at her, and she shrugged, and he pushed the knit back and stared at his bracelet.

 

“You’re wearing it,” he said, and then repeated himself. “You’re wearing it.”

 

“Is that okay?” she asked, and he nodded mutely. “I wasn’t sure,” she said.

 

“Be sure,” he said, running his fingers over the beads. “You can be sure.”

 

The smug expression of amused self-assurance was wiped from her face, and he watched her look utterly vulnerable for a moment, and he had the sudden stabbing realization that, as awful as he’d felt watching her with Krum, she’d felt the same, or worse, watching him with Pansy. She’d had to watch them for months. She’d had to watch them snogging in the bloody common room.

 

“I’ve been such an arsehole,” he whispered, and she smiled, somewhat tremulously, and he pulled her into a tight hug.  

 

“Yeah,” she agreed, “you really have.”

 

“You look beautiful this way too,” he said, “all bundled up in this stupid, giant jumper and your big green scarf with your hair all crazy.”

 

She made a bit of a disbelieving sound into his chest, and he let go of her with one hand so he could tug on her hair. 

 

“Don’t suppose you’d kiss me?” he asked, hope in his voice and she shoved him with a laugh.

 

“Don’t push your luck.” 

 

He pulled her back into a hug, and they stood there for a long time at the side of the lake.

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Unfortunately for Hermione, the article that linked her romantically with Viktor Krum resulted in more than a repentant Draco Malfoy.

 

“What is all that?” Blaise asked as multiple owls dropped letters on her plate at breakfast one day shortly after the article appeared.

 

Hermione made a face. “Viktor has a lot of fans, and some of them aren’t especially pleased with the idea he’s interested in me. And, I mean, the article wasn’t exactly that flattering to begin with.” She opened one of the notes and clenched her jaw before passing it to Blaise.

 

Someone had cut letters out of the newspaper and pasted them together to form a note that read, “Viktor Krum deserves better than you. Go back where you came from, Muggle.”

 

Blaise set it down slowly and pulled another one from her pile closer to him.

 

“Don’t bother,” she muttered. “They’ve all been pretty much the same. I’m Muggle scum. He’s a Quidditch god. Curses will be coming my way just as soon as they can remember how to do them. The spelling’s generally pretty bad.” She paused. “There was one with a drawing of me burning in a Muggle hell which was sort of well done, actually.”

 

Greg opened one and read it. “This is disgusting,” he said and passed it to Draco who read it and then crumbled it up with a violent gesture.

 

Blaise was looking at her with an inscrutable look on his face. “Do you get this a lot? This Muggle-born crap?”

 

She shrugged, and he grabbed her hand. “I’m serious. Do people throw this kind of shit at you?”

 

“Not in Slytherin,” she finally said. “But outside you guys? Yeah. People seem constantly surprised I’m able to, I don’t know, even dress myself much less do magic. It’s… Muggle-borns aren’t really welcome, you know?” She shoved the pile of unopened letters away from her. “They don’t even let people like me into Durmstrang.”

 

“People like you?” Draco was looking at her, obviously angry. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever fucking say that.”

 

“You’re one of us,” Millie said, her tone quiet but unrelenting. “We take care of our own, remember?” She pulled out her wand, and the pile of mail disappeared. At Hermione’s impressed look, the girl shrugged, a little self-consciously. “I was getting a lot of junk mail one summer, so my mum taught me how to get rid of it all at once.”

 

“You’re amazing, Millie,” Hermione said. “Thank you.”

 

“Who wrote that article, anyway?” Theo asked.

 

Millie pulled out her copy of Witch Weekly and checked. “Some cow named Rita Skeeter.”

 

They all looked at one another, and then Hermione said, “Well, I guess we know who to go after, don’t we?”

 

Draco flushed and muttered, sounding guilty, “I have something I need to tell you.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“So, let me get this straight,” Hermione said after they’d all gathered in a corner of their common room and Draco had confessed what he’d been up to. “Rita Skeeter is an unregistered Animagus, and you’ve been slipping her dirt about Potter all year?”

 

Draco looked over her shoulder at the wall behind her with a sullen expression on his angular face but nodded.

 

“Gah!” Hermione threw a pillow at him. “Greg!” she wailed, turning to the boy, “Why do you have to encourage him?”

 

“Vincent does too,” Greg muttered.

 

“Because it’s fun?” Vincent asked, looking like he was prepared to dodge any pillows the witch sent his way.

 

“All three of you are idiots,” she hissed. “Mille, back me up here.”

 

“It is fun to see the little twerp squirm,” Millie confessed. “Did you read the one where she outed him for claiming the Dark Lord is rising again?”

 

“And how would he know that?” Theo asked, his voice low and, Hermione thought, almost dangerous. 

 

“Apparently his headaches tell him,” Millie said primly, and Hermione stared at her before she started to laugh.

 

“He gets messages from the Dark Lord via headaches?”

 

Millie nodded, and at that, all of them howled with laughter.

 

“She went too far when she went after you, though,” Draco said, and they all nodded.

 

Hermione picked up a teacup and looked at it and, with a quick wave of her wand, transformed it to a mason jar with an air hole in the lid. She added a quick Unbreakable Charm and tossed it to Draco who caught it with his Seeker’s reflexes.

 

“Any moral qualms about bug-napping?” she asked, and there was another round of laughter.

 

“Well,” Theo said, eying the jar in Draco’s hand, “we are down a pet after Ratty ran off.”

 

“Remind me to tell you a funny story about Ratty someday,” Hermione said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Then it was time for the third task. The stands were filled with students and as many of their families as could get tickets. Hermione could see that Potter had no family and, instead, his portion of the champions’ box was filled with a hoard of Weasleys. 

 

She felt one of her increasingly frequent waves of pity for the poor kid. 

 

Then she was being pulled into a polite but sincere hug by Narcissa Malfoy who released her only to hold her out at arm’s length and look her over. “You look wonderful, my dear,” she said, her eyes flicking over the glass beads on Hermione’s wrist. “I can’t stay; I have a meeting with the Ladies Auxiliary - we’ve plans to start a free breakfast program for needy children in London – but I wanted to come with Lucius to see all you children.”

 

She turned from Hermione to beam at Daphne and then be introduced to Millie. “Greg Goyle,” Narcissa said, “I swear, you look more like your father every time I see you. We’ll have to have your whole family over this summer. Bring Miss Bulstrode. Heaven knows we have so many teenagers running around the Manor at this point that two more of you won’t even be noticeable.” 

 

Lucius was greeting a man Hermione recognized as Theo’s father, and Draco was dragging her to meet Greg’s father. “It’s so nice to meet you at last,” Mr. Goyle said to her. “Greg speaks very highly of you.”

 

“All lies,” Hermione said, dimpling at the man who laughed and chucked her chin. 

 

She was introduced to Vincent’s father, a serious-looking man with thinning hair and pale eyes who shook her hand and seemed pleased enough to meet her but who turned quickly away from her to talk in a low voice to Greg’s father.

 

Finally, the announcer made noises that the event was about to begin and the stands were filled with rustles as everyone settled into their seats and pulled out programs and whatever snacks they’d thought to bring with them. Narcissa waved to everyone and took off down the stairs, quickly disappearing from sight.

 

“So… we’re just all going to sit here and stare at a maze while they all try to get to the center?” Hermione asked.

 

Greg nodded glumly.

 

“Quidditch suddenly doesn’t seem so bad,” she muttered, and Greg and Draco both laughed. Draco flung an arm around her shoulder, and she leaned into him and sighed. “I should have brought a book.”

 

At one point, a shower of red sparks appeared over the edge of the maze, and Lucius Malfoy said, sounding as bored as Hermione felt, “Well, that’s one contestant down.” Then he put his hand over his forearm and flinched just a little.

 

“Are you okay, sir?” Hermione asked him, and he turned a reassuring smile on her. 

 

“Yes, sweet girl. Thank you. I do think I might excuse myself and go for a bit of a walk, however. This looks like it might go on for a bit.”

 

Theo’s father stood as well and said, “Mind if I join you, Lucius?”

 

Hermione looked at Draco in confusion as both Greg and Vincent’s fathers joined their fellow parents and made their way down the stairs of the viewing stands. He tightened his arm around her, and he and Theo watched the older men until they were out of sight.

 

“You don’t think…?” Draco asked, his voice trailing off.

 

“I think you should shut up,” Theo said, his eyes fixed on the hedge maze. 

 

“Draco, what’s going on?” Hermione asked in an undertone.

 

He turned to her at that and gave her a cocky grin, and if there were more tension in it than she could ever recall having seen before, there was also a clear warning. “The world’s most boring spectator sport, as far as I can tell: watching hedges grow.”

 

She smiled at him but looked back at Greg and Vincent, both of whom sat stiffly, their attention a little too fixed on the maze to be believable. They all sat there like that, rigid and focused while absolutely nothing happened and Hermione listened to the sound of her own heart beating.

 

“Do you think,” Draco finally said, “Potter will win again? He does seem to do pretty well in these things.”

 

“I don’t see Potter winning, no,” Theo said very lightly. “I wouldn’t put my money on him.”

 

At that moment, Potter fell out of nowhere onto the grass in front of the maze, one hand wrapped around the Triwizard Cup and another holding onto –

 

“Oh my God,” Hermione gasped. “That’s Cedric Diggory.”

 

And indeed it was. There was screaming, then, and people running onto the field, and someone screamed, “He’s dead,” and that was the shout that carried through the stands and people began to panic. Some ran down to the field where Cedric Diggory’s father was kneeling over the body of his son, sobbing great wracking sobs of agony and disbelief. Some ran from the stands in terror. 

 

Draco yanked Hermione to her feet and hissed at Theo, “To the common room. Now!” and all the Slytherins near them were slipping out of the stands, making their way through the hysterical throngs to the relative safety of the dungeons.

 

“What is going on?” Hermione demanded again once they were in their own space.

 

Theo looked at her, looked around their small group of huddled fourth-year students, and said in a low, intense voice, “The Dark Lord has risen again. He has called his Death Eaters to him. The wheel of fate has turned.”

 

“You’re all too young,” Hermione said, her voice almost hysterical. 

 

“Two years,” Theo said, watching her, “three at the most and I’ll take the Mark.”

 

“We all will,” Greg said his hand in Millie’s, his eyes on Hermione. She realized she was the one they were afraid would bolt. She was the one they weren’t sure of.

 

“It’s so dangerous,” she said, turning to Draco, her voice almost plea.

 

“We want to freedom to determine our own future,” he said. “You know what prejudice is like, Hermione. You experience it every day.” He sounded angry, so angry. “You said it yourself. People are surprised a Muggle-born can even dress herself. Slytherins are discriminated against too, at every turn. You’ve seen what the Ministry is like, throwing people into prison just on someone’s say-so, letting people like Arthur Weasley use his influence to protect his cronies.”

 

She nodded, and he gripped her hand. 

 

“The history people are taught is biased against us. We’re always the enemies.”

 

“History is written by the victors,” she whispered.

 

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Draco said, trying to will her to listen. “We can reshape the Ministry, make it fairer, more reasonable. We want fair trials. We want an end to the Auror brutality. Did you know they can use Unforgivables on anyone with no reason? Did you know that?”

 

“And who do you think they use them on?” Theo said bitterly. “Not Gryffindors. No, it’s the supposed Dark wizards. Slytherins. Us.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with the Dark Arts,” Draco said. “It’s just a… label. Whether something’s a Dark curse or a regular spell, that just depends on who’s doing the labeling. It’s not all Crucios and Avada Kadavras!”

 

“They teach them at Durmstrang,” she said. “I… they were impressed I’d done some of the potions work I’d done. Viktor asked if I’d gotten special permission to work with Dark potions and … they’re just potions. They aren’t… there’s nothing wrong with them.”

 

Draco pulled her into a tight hug. “Are you with us?” he asked, very quietly into her hair.

 

She drew back from him and gave him an offended look. “I’m a Slytherin,” she said.

 

A slow smile bloomed over Theo’s face, and Greg let out a breath she hadn’t known he was holding. Vincent smiled at her, a crooked smile. “Good,” he said. “’ Cause I think you have about three of my jumpers and I want them back before summer.”

 

“They’re mine now,” she said with a slightly smug grin, and he gave a shaky laugh before giving her a little shove.

 

“Give them back,” he said, and they all laughed a bit when she shook her head and grinned at him, nervous little laughs tinged with relief. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Dumbledore made an announcement over breakfast asking the students to leave Harry Potter alone and not to ask him what had happened in the maze during the third task. Draco started to make a disparaging comment, and Hermione turned on him and snapped, “You leave that stupid boy alone.”

 

For once, Draco listened to her.

 

The Leaving Feast was a somber affair with the Great Hall draped in black; Dumbledore raised a toast to Cedric Diggory.

 

“Cedric Diggory,” the students chorused back at him. Cho Chang, who had been what Cedric most feared to lose, sat, tears streaming down her face. 

 

“Cedric,” Dumbledore said, “was murdered by Lord Voldemort.”

 

A hush fell across the students, and Hermione felt Draco reach out and take her hand. 

 

“The Ministry does not want you to know this; it is probable that your parents will be horrified that I have told you this,” Dumbledore continued, and Hermione stared at the man in shock. This Hall was filled with children. He was telling people as young as eleven that the bogeyman was back, against the very explicit wishes of those children’s parents. Was he mad? Or did he want to form an army of children to throw against his opponent?

 

Draco leaned over towards Greg and murmured, “And, of course, let’s not mention how the Minister of Magic had a Dementor give a man accused of murder the Kiss without trial. He was a former Death Eater, so he wasn’t worthy of being treated fairly.”

 

That Mad-Eye Moody had turned out to be Bartimus Crouch, Jr., Death Eater and probable lunatic, had fueled gossip in the dungeon since the events at the maze. “Why,” Hermione had asked, “was he so hostile to all of you if he was a Death Eater?”

 

“He was angry none of our fathers went to Azkaban like he did,” Theo had said, his face pale. “He was here, working for the Dark Lord but…”

 

“I threatened to kill him because of the ferret thing,” Hermione had said. “I promised I would do it.”

 

“I think the Ministry took care of that for you,” Greg had said. No one said anything about what the Dark Lord might have thought about her threat to his follower.

 

Now Dumbledore was praising Harry Potter, who had managed to survive an encounter with the Dark Lord and who had returned Cedric’s body. He raised his glass to the boy, and the room followed suit.

 

Hermione kept her hands defiantly on the table in front of her. She wouldn’t toast the boy for not dying. She’d chosen her side and he, innocent fool that he was, was on the other one. None of the other Slytherins raised their glasses either.

 

She saw Potter one last time that year on the train home. He was pale and sitting with Weasley in a compartment. No one else was with them. Draco started to make a snide comment about Dumbledore’s favorite, but she shoved him away. “Go find us a compartment,” she said. Greg and Vincent leered in at the pair of Gryffindors, but she glared at them. “You too,” she ordered, and they slouched off, Greg shooting her a worried look.

 

She leaned against the door of the compartment and looked at the pair. 

 

“What do you want?” Weasley snapped at her.

 

“You’ve picked the losing side, Potter,” she said very quietly. “The Dark Lord is back, and you’re being turned into a pawn for Dumbledore.”

 

“Get out,” said Potter.

 

“You’ll die,” she said. “Dumbledore is going to send you out to die just like Cedric did.”

 

He got up and shut the compartment door in her face, and she let out a heavy breath and went to find Draco.

 

Well. She’d tried.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After how tense the end of the term had been the summer was surprisingly calm. The Malfoys insisted Hermione stay longer than usual, and if she suspected they were making a show of keeping her under their protection, she didn’t say anything. The official histories of the Death Eater movement painted the group as blood purity zealots; even the unofficial history Theo had slipped her didn’t try to hide the group’s interest in blood status issues or their utter disdain for Muggles.

 

Millie joined her and Daphne, there with Greg who had been dumped onto Narcissa Malfoy by his father. “It’s like school, almost,” Hermione said, stretching out on the patio on her stomach, magazines spread in front of her. The boys had gone off doing something that involved hurling balls at one another’s heads from their broomsticks, something which nearly promised injury. “It’s nice having all of us here.”

 

Millie shrugged away Hermione’s offer of magazines with a face. “I can’t wear any of that,” she said, waving her hands near her body. “I have these – “ she waggled her hands near her breasts, “ – and these.” She put her hands over her hips and shrugged. “None of that stuff works on me.”

 

Daphne looked at her and frowned for a moment and then pulled a book out from her bag and started to flip through it. Millie watched her, confused, when she exclaimed, “Yes!” and pulled out a sketchbook and started rapidly drawing something. “Look, Millie,” she said, “you can’t wear one of those slip dresses and look like the models, that’s true. We need to work  with  your curves. Here!” and she turned her sketch towards the other girl who looked at it, then put her hand to her mouth. Daphne was still talking, “If you wrapped fabric around your breasts like a vee, and then had the diagonal lines of the folds wrap around your waist to make it visually even smaller than it already is, then had a skirt that went out from your waist you’d look, well, nothing’s ever going to make you look like a waif, but you’d look va va va voom!”

 

Narcissa had come up behind them and looked over Daphne’s shoulder at the sketch. The girl had turned it back towards herself and was adding in a belt. “I didn’t know you were interested in design, Daphne,” Narcissa said.

 

The girl flushed. “I just really like clothes,” she mumbled.

 

“I see,” Narcissa murmured. “Would any of you be interested in joining me? I’ve planned a little outing this afternoon.”

 

All the girls nodded and began gathering up their things. “Daphne,” Narcissa added, “Bring your sketchbook.”

 

When they got back, the boys had returned from whatever ill-advised game they’d been playing and, other than Theo’s swollen lip, they seemed unharmed. Lucius rolled his eyes at Narcissa and muttered, “Boys!” as he kissed her cheek and she laughed. 

 

Greg looked at Millie, who’d clearly been sniffling, and at Daphne, who looked a little shell-shocked. “What did  you  all do?” he asked.

 

“I…” Daphne seemed unable to articulate what they’d done, and Narcissa stepped in to rescue her.

 

“We just showed some of Daphne’s fashion sketches to a friend of mine who works in that field, and she’s going to have her studio make one of her ideas up for Millie to see how it works in fabric rather than on paper.”

 

Daphne still seemed just in a daze. “I… I don’t know how to…” and she flung herself at Narcissa and hugged her, clearly not the first time she’d done so that afternoon.

 

“Don’t be silly, child, you have an eye,” Narcissa said fondly. 

 

“So… why’re  you  all upset?” Greg demanded of Millie.

 

“I… I’ve never been able… clothes look  bad  on me,” the girl finally choked out. “I’m not… pretty. Not like Daphne. I…”

 

“What are you talking about?” Greg looked at her in confusion. “You always look good. You’ve got…” he held his hands out and made this wiggle with them and then dropped them awkwardly to his side when Draco snickered. “Daphne looks like a stick.” Theo coughed, and Greg added, “No offense, Daph, but every time I see you, I want to feed you a sandwich or something.”

 

“Well,” Narcissa said, “I think I’ll leave you children to sort this fascinating descent into tactlessness out. Dinner is at six; Theo’s father will be joining us, so please make sure you’re all decently attired.” She shot a glance over at Draco. “That means  no  swim trunks, do you understand?”

 

“Yes, Mum,” he said with a grin that made her sigh before she disappeared into another part of the house.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

As dinner wound down, Lucius said, glass of wine in hand, “I had the dubious pleasure of running into Harry Potter at the Ministry today. He’s managed to wiggle out of another potential expulsion.”

 

“What did he do this time?” Daphne asked with a groan.

 

“Cast a Patronus in front of a Muggle. Apparently, he was attacked by Dementors.”

 

“Dementors?” Nott Senior looked momentarily perplexed, as though he were reviewing a mental checklist and confirming that, no, he hadn’t ordered a Dementor. “Really?”

 

Lucius shrugged. “It certainly wasn’t my doing,” he said. “But the child – who managed to get a full hearing instead of an immediate expulsion – gets off scot-free.”

 

“Isn’t there an exemption for life-threatening situations?” Hermione asked, confused.

 

“So asks the Potter fan,” Draco said with a groan.

 

“I just feel bad for him, that’s all. I mean, you have – “ Hermione waved her hands about the table, “ – family and friends and all while he’s got so little he’s grateful for a godfather who’s on the run from the Ministry and may be kind of crazy.”

 

Draco said, “How do  you  know he’s grateful?”

 

Hermione flushed. “So, remember the night the hippogriff got away a couple of years ago?”

 

Draco nodded, and the rest of the teenagers at the table began to become very interested in the conversation.

 

“Well, I was telling you the truth when I said I followed Weasley and Potter into the Shrieking Shack; I just left a few things out.”

 

“Like what, dear?” Narcissa asked.

 

“Well, I got into the shack through a tunnel that started under the Whomping Willow…”

 

“You got  near  that tree?” Draco sounded horrified.

 

“And then I followed them through the tunnel,” Hermione pressed on ignoring his look of growing shock and anger, “and there was Sirius Black, who, as it turns out, is an Animagus, and he wanted to kill Ratty.”

 

“Ratty?” Lucius asked.

 

“Ratty was the pet rat we sort of took from Weasley,” Theo muttered.

 

“We didn’t  take  him,” Hermione said. “My cat caught him, and we just failed to give him back.” She looked at the adults and said, her voice laced with guilt, “We weren’t mean to him or anything. We transfigured a nice cage for him, filled it with clean shavings, made sure he always had fresh water and food and lots of rat treats.” The last bit seemed to make her giggle, and she repeated, “ Lots  of rat treats.”

 

“No one would ever accuse you of being mean to animals,” Narcissa said, soothingly. “Why did Sirius want to kill your Ratty?”

 

“He was also an Animagus, some guy named Peter Pettigrew who...”

 

Nott Senior started to cough at this and Lucius had to hit him on the back a few times. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “you had  Peter Pettigrew  as a rat in a cage in your dorm?”

 

Narcissa was covering her mouth with her napkin and trying, not wholly successfully, not to laugh.

 

“You know him?” Hermione looked from one adult to another.

 

“He’s a Death Eater,” Lucius said. “Though not a very good one. Narcissa, it would be too rude to put out a bowl of rat treats at our next party, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Recruitment standards must have been low that year,” Hermione muttered and, at that, Narcissa stopped trying to hold in her giggling and simply laughed out loud with unladylike abandon. 

 

“Indeed,” Nott Senior said, not bothering to hide his own smile.

 

Lucius added, in an amused tone, “Not everyone who joins an organization turns out to be competent or reliable.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Narcissa tried to control herself. “Since Peter remains among the living I assume Sirius failed in his attempt?”

 

“Well, Remus Lupin started to transform into a werewolf…”

 

 “You were in a shack with an insane escapee from Azkaban and a werewolf,” Draco nearly growled.

 

“Let the girl finish,” Narcissa said with a frown.

 

“So we became a little more interested in getting away from the werewolf than in getting the rat and in the confusion he slunk off.” She took a deep breath, “And Potter, Weasley, and I created a diversion so Sirius could steal the hippogriff and escape. Then later Potter told me he was grateful to have Sirius and I thought his life had to be pretty empty if that were the case.”

 

“Why?” Draco demanded. “Why would you put yourself in danger that way to help  Potter’s godfather?”

 

Hermione looked at him, obviously a little perplexed. “Because you said he was your cousin, and you didn’t want him to receive the Kiss. I mean, I didn’t seek him out or anything, but when the opportunity to rescue him showed up, I took it. And it wasn’t fair that he never got a trial from the stupid Ministry.” She muttered the last part almost under her breath and missed the way the adults exchanged glances at her half-voiced political criticism.

 

“But why did you even go into the tunnel?” Draco looked like he wanted to start ripping his own hair out.

 

“I was curious what they were up to,” she said.

 

“So you went under a tree that can kill you, down a dark tunnel, following two boys who  hate  you?” He was nearly growling by the end of his question. “Sometimes I wonder why you weren’t sorted into Gryffindor! That’s the kind of idiot thing one of them would do!”

 

“No need to be nasty!” Hermione said, glaring at him. “And it did result in your cousin being rescued which I  thought  you wanted!”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with having a certain dash of daring adventure,” Narcissa said to Draco in a warning tone. Then, her eyes softening, she turned to Hermione. “And thank you, dear girl. Nothing –  nothing  – is as important as family to me and, while Sirius and I have been estranged since he ran off as a boy, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to know he is free from the Ministry.” She rose and walked around the table and, very formally, kissed Hermione on first one cheek and then the other. Draco stared at his mother, his eyes wide, but all she did was straighten and say, “Since I’m up I’m going to go check on the dessert. I’ve asked the elves to make a Hogwarts mess and last time they refused to believe it should actually  be  a mess. Can I get anyone anything?”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione had started to wonder whether Draco was ever going to try to kiss her again; he'd apparently taken the warning not to push his luck seriously, and he’d held her hand and nuzzled her hair but never taken any further liberties. While she'd picked up that quite a few things were, thanks to pureblood social codes, right out until after marriage, his shenanigans with Pansy had made it rather obvious that kissing was hardly one of them.

 

Except he wasn't kissing her and she wasn't sure what to do to change that. Other than a few fumbled, awkward moments with Blaise, moments that had ended abruptly when the other boy had discovered Draco already staked a claim, she was wholly inexperienced. The idea of just... doing it, just leaning over and kissing him, well, it made her stomach clench.

 

What if she did it  wrong ?

 

There needed to be a book on how to do this.

 

In stories, she'd noticed, no one ever seemed to wait for a kiss that never came or turn her face up only to find the boy was talking about Quidditch scores and not gazing down raptly into his supposed beloved's eyes. She'd just about given up and was sitting one late summer night by the Malfoy's pool, flicking through the pages of Vogue by the light of a lantern on the table while Theo and Daphne, who did  not  seem to have her problems, sat out of the pool of light and made noises only mostly covered by the sound of the pool filter when Draco stopped nattering on about some Wronski Feint thing or other and abruptly leaned over, pressed his lips to hers, and then pulled back as if he were afraid she might slap him.

 

When she just stared at him, he turned bright red and started to mutter an apology, so she blurted out, “Do it again.”

 

He licked his lips but still looked nervous – and maybe a tiny bit sneaky – and muttered, “I don’t want to push my luck.”

 

Hermione narrowed her eyes. Oh, was he trying to make her feel guilty about not falling into his arms right away after his crap with Pansy? Oh, no. She shrugged and set her magazine aside and said, “Well, in that case, I guess I’ll go organize my trunk for school or something.”

 

Draco looked slightly panicked as she stood up and started to walk towards the house. She walked slowly and counted one, two… and then she heard him follow her and felt his hand reach and grab hers. “Or,” he said, “I could do it again.”

 

She turned and said, “You could do that.”

 

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her up to him, and she could feel the heat of his body and this time when she looked up at him he wasn’t blathering on about games but brushing first the tip of his nose against hers and then pressing his lips to hers and she was still thinking that she had to be doing this wrong when she opened her mouth a little and he slipped her tongue inside and she froze a bit. Then she had her own arms around him, and she was kissing him back, and everything was okay; even if she wasn’t as experienced as Pansy, he didn’t seem to care.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione opened up the school list and looked it over. “Only two new books this year,” she observed. “Spells and some defense book.”

 

“I wonder who the new defense teacher is,” Draco said, opening his own envelope. They both stared as a green and silver badge fell out into his hand. 

 

“Prefect,” Hermione breathed, looking at the badge. “You’re the Slytherin prefect.”

 

“Where’s yours?” he asked, but she tipped her envelope upside down and shook it out and shrugged.

 

“I guess I’m not it.” 

 

“But...” Draco looked down at his own badge sounding as confused as Hermione felt, “that doesn’t make any sense. You’re the best student in our year. I mean, he has to pick some Slytherin girl. He has to.”

 

“’He has to’ what, dear?” Narcissa asked, coming up behind them and pulling the book list out of Hermione’s hands.

 

As she looked it over, Draco said, “Hermione’s not a prefect.”

 

“Really?” Narcissa sounded a bit surprised as well.

 

“But Draco is,” Hermione said and, at that, Narcissa turned and looked at her son. She didn’t do anything quite as undignified as shriek or gush, but a slow smile warmed her features as she regarded him.

 

“Oh, Draco,” she said. “How wonderful. I’m so very proud of you, and your father will be as well. A prefect.” She leaned down and kissed the top of his head. “Sometimes it seems like everything simply lines up and goes our way, doesn’t it?”

 

“Do I get a present or anything?” Draco asked, and she laughed and patted him on the shoulder.

 

“Nice try, dear one, but success should be its own reward. I’m not going to go out and buy you a set of dress robes or a new broom because you’ve been given extra responsibility at school.” 

 

Draco managed a token pout, but it disappeared under the grin he couldn’t contain when he looked back at his badge. “I’m a prefect,” he said. He looked back at Hermione and said it again, wonder in his voice. “They made me a  prefect .”

 

Narcissa pocketed the book list. “I’ll go pick these up for you this afternoon when I’m getting my nails done.”

 

After she left Draco, his eyes still shining, looking at Hermione and seemed to suddenly realize that his success came at the same time as her failure. “I… I’m sorry. It’s rotten that you didn’t get picked too.”

 

“It’s okay,” she muttered, scuffing her foot across the stones of the terrace floor. “It’s really brilliant that you got chosen. I’m really happy for you.”

 

 Draco nodded and said, “I’m going to go tell Theo and Greg, okay?”

 

“Yeah,” said Hermione. “I think they’re all sitting by the pool.”

 

Draco ran off, badge in hand, and she sat and stared down at the pages of her magazine. She’d hoped to be a prefect, expected to be one if she were being really honest. She got better marks than anyone in their year, better even than Draco and certainly better than any of the other girls in Slytherin. Other than that thing where she’d threatened to kill Moody she’d never been in trouble…

 

Well, okay. She’d been caught out after curfew with Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley, who’d had a fairly suspicious broken leg, but that was  one time

 

And there was the time she’d brewed the Polyjuice, but she was fairly sure no adults other than Professor Snape knew about that.

 

She wasn’t  sporty , but that couldn’t be it, right? Surely being good at games didn’t weigh in choosing the prefects. Hardly  any  of the girls in any House played Quidditch.

 

A rather bitter feeling of ill-usage settled down over her. She had the best marks, she’d kept her nose clean, and it hadn’t mattered. She wondered, hating herself for even thinking this, if it was because she was Muggle-born or, worse, a Muggle-born in Slytherin. Had Dumbledore passed her over because of her birth? Because there were things about being a witch she never quite understood, never got quite right? Because she had to work harder than everyone else, people who’d grown up seeing their parents use magic to do all sorts of little things she had to be  told  could be done magically? Little things no one else thought about like cleaning a spill with their wand instead of a napkin or checking the time with magic rather than wearing a watch? Did the man think her own House wouldn’t listen to her, wouldn’t accept her as a prefect because her parents were Muggles?

 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t  fair .

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When they got to the train, Hermione cheerfully hugged Blaise, who’d been away all summer in Italy. “I missed you,” she said, and he grinned at her.

 

“Next year leave your pale Romeo behind and come to Italy with me,” he teased, and she laughed. 

 

“And spoil all your fun with the local girls? I couldn’t do that!”

 

Hermione turned to Draco, “Should we go find a compartment?”

 

“Uh, I have to go to a meeting in the prefect’s carriage,” he mumbled.

 

 “Right,” she said. 

 

“You’re a prefect  too?! ” Hermione cringed as she heard the excited squeal and turned to see Pansy barreling down on them, her shiny badge pinned to the robe she already had on. “That’s  wonderful !” Pansy began dragging Draco towards the end of the train, casting a sly look back at Hermione. “I’ll walk with you to the prefect’s carriage, Draco. We’ll be spending a lot of time together this year with all the late-night patrols and all.”

 

Blaise coughed into his hand and then said, “Well, should we go find a compartment while Pansy barks up that wrong tree? If we hurry, we can probably save a seat for Draco.”

 

“Not Pansy?” Hermione asked.

 

Blaise snorted. “You know perfectly well she’s going to patrol the whole time to make sure everyone knows she’s a prefect.”

 

They began to make their way through the train, Theo and Daphne at their heels, but they’d arrived a little late, and almost every compartment was already partially full. Finally, at the end of the carriage, they found a compartment that only had a girl with long blonde hair and very pale eyebrows. She looked up at them with a vague expression on her face as they came in.

 

“Do you mind if we sit here?” Hermione asked, and the girl shrugged, so they all stowed their trunks and settled onto the benches. 

 

“You’re reading that upside down,” Blaise observed, and the girl looked up.

 

“I know,” she said. “Can’t you read upside down?”

 

“I’m not sure I’ve ever tried,” he said and moved to sit next to her and looked down at the magazine – something called  The Quibbler  – in her hand. “I’m Blaise,” he said.

 

“A blaze of what?” she asked, and he blinked a few times before he smiled.

 

“What would you like me to be a blaze of?”

 

She considered for a few moments and then said, “Well, a blaze of light is too obvious. Maybe a blaze of shadow?” There was a pause while they all stared at her, and then she added, “I’m Luna.”

 

Hermione looked at the tie the girl had wrapped around her forehead and asked, “Ravenclaw?” in a tone that suggested  of course  this odd girl was in Ravenclaw.

 

Impropriety is the soul of wit ,” Luna agreed, and Blaise got a pleased smirk on his face as he put his finger on something in her magazine and whispered something into the girl’s ear. She gave him a rather measuring look but didn’t move away, and Daphne and Hermione grinned at one another. Apparently the little third year their budding resident Lothario been vaguely attached to last year had just been replaced.

 

“I bet this one gives him a run for his money,” Daphne whispered in Hermione’s ear. “That quote. Oh my God.”

 

“He’s in trouble,” Hermione agreed.

 

“What are you two on about?” Theo demanded, and Hermione grinned at him. 

 

“Girl stuff,” she said, and he narrowed his eyes at her but didn’t say anything more. 

 

Draco didn’t show up for over an hour, by which point the food trolley had come and gone, and Daphne, Luna, and Hermione had gotten into a detailed discussion on whether or not fairies had fashion preferences. 

 

“So,” Theo asked as Draco slouched in and everyone adjusted and shifted to make room for him, “who’re the other prefects?”

 

He groaned. “Weasley, if you can believe it.”

 

“Ugh,” Hermione said to a round of general agreement.

 

“And the Patil twin, whichever one’s in Gryffindor. I can’t tell them apart,” Draco added.

 

“Parvati,” Blaise said. 

 

“In Hufflepuff, it’s Ernie McMillan and Hannah Abbot and Anthony Goldstein and the other Patil twin for Ravenclaw.”

 

“So… no Muggle-borns?” Hermione asked.

 

Draco looked at her and said, voice quiet, “No. It’s all purebloods and half-bloods.”

 

“Oh,” Hermione said and pulled out a book and began reviewing this year’s basic spells.

 

“I’m supposed to go out and patrol,” Draco said, sounding a little miserable. 

 

Before anyone could say anything, they heard Ron Weasley outside their carriage. “I can’t wait,” he was saying. “We get to give out punishments when people aren’t behaving. I can’t  wait  to get Crabbe and Goyle and that Granger witch for something…”

 

“Well,” muttered Hermione, “the apple didn’t fall far from  that  tree, did it?”

 

Weasley slid the door open and looked gleeful when he saw who the inhabitants of the compartment were. “Hi, Granger,” he said. “How does it feel to be passed over for Pansy Parkinson?”

 

“Shut up, Weasley,” Theo said from his seat.

 

“Oooo – did that sting?” Weasley taunted. 

 

“You should leave,” Luna said, standing up and tilting her head to the side. She gave off an air of both dottiness and menace, and Weasley snorted.

 

“Looney Lovegood. Of course. Who else would be willing to sit with a bunch of snakes?” Still, he backed off with a laugh and Luna slammed the compartment door behind him.

 

“He can be mean, that boy,” was all she said.

 

“We can all be mean,” Hermione said, pulling out her robes. “We should get dressed.”

 

“You aren’t mean to me,” Luna observed, and Hermione shrugged as they all fished out their robes and began to wriggle into them. Luna took the tie off her head and draped it around her neck, giggling when Blaise made a show of knotting it for her. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hagrid was notably absent, and Hermione and Theo gave one another hopeful looks. “Where’s Hagrid?” Greg demanded as he joined them.

 

“Maybe we finally got lucky, and he’s been fired?” Hermione said and Luna, straightening a necklace of what appeared to be bottle caps, looked at her.

 

“You don’t like him either?”

 

“He’s a menace,” Hermione said.

 

“He’s a terrible teacher,” Luna said, linking her arm through Blaise’s as they made their way towards the carriages. “He’s a bit of a joke in Ravenclaw.”

 

“And here I thought everyone loved him,” Greg muttered.

 

“Oh, no,” Luna said. “Those blast-ended skrewts were really quite badly done. He didn’t ensure for large enough litters to compensate for the inevitable die-off as they eat one another in infancy.” She shook her head as Blaise handed her up into the carriage. “It was a bit of a breeding failure, don’t you think?”

 

Greg stared at her. That the problem with the blast-ended skrewts had been that there hadn’t been enough of them had never occurred to him.

 

“Draco,” Hermione yelled out, “stop shoving those second years and get over here.”

 

Look a little shame-faced, Draco trotted over and pulled himself up into the carriage sliding in next to Hermione.

 

“Try to control yourself,” Hermione said, glaring at him. “Prefect boy.”

 

He went to kiss her cheek right as she turned to look at something and Luna laughed as he got a mouthful of frizzy hair. He threw a glare at her that was tempered by the way Blaise glared back and tucked his arm around the blonde girl. Luna laughed again at them and said, apparently to no one, “Higher-ranking male baboons have increased reproductive success.”

 

Hermione laughed and then, when Draco looked confused, laughed again, and patted him on the leg. “Don’t worry, you’re hardly the omega wolf.”

 

“I thought we were talking about baboons,” Greg muttered.

 

Luna laughed again as the carriages took off and pulled them toward the castle.

 

Once they all settled at their table, after waving goodbye to Luna who drifted away to the Ravenclaw table without acknowledging she was leaving, Blaise leaned on his hand and said, dreamily, “She’s perfect.”

 

“She’s weird,” Greg said.

 

“Who’s weird?” Millie asked.

 

“Luna Lovegood,” Hermione answered.

 

“Oh, of course. Everyone knows that,” Millie said with a shrug.

 

“But  look  at her,” Blaise said. “And that comment about impropriety?” He sighed. “I wonder how naughty she gets.”

 

“Pig,” Millie said.

 

“It’s a woman this year,” Hermione said, ignoring Blaise and looking at the high table. At the blank looks she got, she pointed at a toad-like woman in a pink cardigan with a matching headband that would have been juvenile on a girl of five. “This year’s Defense teacher. I bet that’s her.” As they all regarded the new staff member with idle curiosity, last year’s substitute Care of Magical Creatures teacher joined the rest of the staff.

 

“No,” Draco breathed out with hope and malice equally coloring his tone. “Is the half-giant finally gone?”

 

“Apparently.”

 

“About fucking time,” Vincent muttered.

 

“How’s the flobberworm injury?” Hermione asked, and Vincent looked at his finger with an expression of exaggerated woe on his face.

 

“I  might  live,” he finally conceded. 

 

“Unicorns this year,” Greg said in a tone almost as dreamy as Blaise’s had been a moment earlier. When they all looked at him, he said, defensively, “What? I liked the unicorns.”

 

The first years were sorted, and Dumbledore began his usual speech, confirming that the substitute, Professor Grubbly-Plank, would be taking over Care of Magical Creatures and introducing the stubby woman as Professor Umbridge, their new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. He’d moved on to discussing the try-outs for House Quidditch teams when Professor Umbridge stood up and made a little coughing noise that sounded a bit as if she had swallowed a tiny frog and it was desperately trying to escape her throat.

 

Dumbledore looked surprised for a moment before he sat and gave the woman a look of delighted attention. Hermione merely narrowed her eyes at his dissembling, but there was a vocal rumble of displeasure from the Gryffindor table, and the staff members looked shocked and unhappy; Professor McGonagall gave the woman a look that would have scared any sensible person into sitting back down.

 

Umbridge, however, began to give a speech of her own. Her voice was breathy and a little overly perky as if she were addressing a room of young children rather than teenagers. When she made some absurd comment about how she was sure they would all be good friends, Daphne leaned over to Hermione and said, “I hope she doesn’t expect to share clothes now that we're friends and all because that sweater of hers needs to be binned.”

 

Hermione almost choked and gave Daphne a reproachful look.

 

The speech was, in a word, interminable. Hermione grimly listened to the whole thing even though around her, one at a time, her fellow students stopped paying attention. She glanced over at the Ravenclaw table and saw Luna had pulled her magazine out. Draco and Greg were drawing Quidditch plays on a scrap of parchment, and even the usually polite Hufflepuffs were talking to one another. When the speech was over, and Dumbledore applauded, people throughout the hall were startled into making a few quick claps.

 

“Well, that was interesting,” Hermione said.

 

“This must be some new use of the word interesting I hadn’t heard before,” Draco muttered, but Theo nodded.

 

“Wasn’t it, though?” he said very quietly.

 

“Is she…?” Hermione looked at him, letting her question trail off unvoiced, and he shook his head.

 

“Not as far as I’ve heard; not that I really know anything.”

 

“So.” Hermione studied the woman. “The Ministry has decided to stick their hands in. I wonder if that will make things better or worse.”

 

Theo shrugged. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Snape moved along the table at breakfast the next morning, handing out their schedules.

 

“Miss Granger,” he said when he came to her, “as you have yet to fail utterly, I shall schedule Thursday evenings for your extra Potions work this term. Maybe this year you can manage to prepare ingredients correctly by the fourth or fifth try instead of wasting my time for months though, frankly, I have my doubts.”

 

“Is he always that encouraging?” Theo asked as he looked over his schedule. 

 

“That was pretty positive, actually,” Hermione said. “Do we really have Defense Against the Dark Arts in a double class with Gryffindors this year?”

 

“Yep,” Daphne said. “Mondays are going to be brutal. Potions, Defense,  and  Divination.”

 

“No Divination for me,” Hermione said with a certain lamentable smugness.

 

Daphne looked at her schedule. “Runes. Arithmancy. No thanks. I’ll stick to making tragedy up; it’s boring, and the incense is a bit much, but it’s easy.”

 

Snape glowered at them all as they filed into Potions. “No, Miss Granger,” he said as she began to slip into a seat next to Draco, “I would prefer to be spared even potential adolescent dramatics. Go sit with Mr. Goyle, if you please. Perhaps you can keep him from being a complete and utter failure this year. Miss Greengrass, if you would be so kind as to join Mr. Malfoy.”

 

Greg grinned at Hermione as she slipped in next to him. “Thank Salazar. I might scrape by this year.” 

 

“Unlikely,” Weasley coughed under his breath from the next table, and Hermione glared over at the arse, but he didn’t meet her gaze, just began setting his materials up.

 

“As some of you might be aware, this is your O.W.L. year and, despite the lamentable fact that most of you are stunningly incompetent, I expect you all to manage at least an ‘Acceptable.’” He glowered at Neville Longbottom who swallowed hard and whose hands shook so much as he tried to open his book he knocked his cauldron to the floor.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Longbottom, for the timely illustration of the shortcomings of this class.” Snape stared at the boy who blushed and cringed as he shook in his seat. “Well, pick it  up , Longbottom,” the man finally said with disgust, and the boy scrambled down and gathered his things. “Most of you will  not  be moving on to Advanced Potions next year as I only take the best students into my N.E.W.T. level classes. Alas, we have another year together before that happy time arrives when we may say goodbye to one another, so let us begin down this year’s path of knowledge in the forlorn hope that one or two of you might not be utterly worthless.” He looked at Harry Potter. “Though, of course, some of you are, I’m sure, doomed to failure.”

 

Sneering at the class, Snape instructed them all on that day’s practical brewing: the Draught of Peace. Greg looked pale at the threat that, done poorly, the potion would throw anyone who drank it into a deep sleep from which they’d not awaken, but Hermione snorted at Snape’s dramatics. “You can’t take that stuff seriously,” she said in a whisper. “If it doesn’t come out right, it’ll be obvious, trust me.” He pulled out a mortar and pestle and began to grind the porcupine quills, and she cringed. “You know what,” she said, “let me do the prep work for both of us.”

 

Snape walked by and glowered at her as she worked the quills into a powder. “That’s barely sufficiently fine, Miss Granger. I do realize there’s always a bit of a backslide in student performance over the summer months, but I hardly expected to see you channeling Longbottom in your ingredient preparation.”

 

“Sorry, sir,” she said, not looking up.

 

“Do we have to do it again?” Greg asked nervously, looking at what, to him, seemed like perfectly even powder.

 

“No, it’s good,” she said. “’Barely sufficiently fine’ counts as approval. You just have to get used to him; he’s not exactly a lovey-dovey kind of teacher.”

 

“It does?” Greg looked from her to Snape and back again. “You do?” He shuddered. “I’m glad he doesn’t make me take extra Potions.”

 

At the end of class, Snape looked back at her cauldron and said, “Bottle and label it all, Miss Granger and set it aside for Madame Pomfrey, please.” He looked over at Ronald Weasley, who was eyeing Hermione’s silvery potion with disgust.

 

“You’re going to give a  student potion  to the infirmary?” Weasley asked.

 

“Indeed,” Snape said. “And maybe I will be so lucky as to discover that she has done it badly and, when the good mediwitch administers it, some of you will fall into comas, thus sparing me the utter drivel that comes out of your mouths.” He looked at the substance in Weasley’s cauldron, noting it reeked of rotten eggs. “I will not be taking your sample to the infirmary, however.”

 

He sniffed as he passed Draco’s cauldron but said nothing. At Potter’s, he stopped and stared at the dark grey steam the boy’s potion was emitting and sighed. “Can you read, Potter?”

 

Draco laughed as Potter flushed. “Yes, sir,” the boy muttered.

 

“Then perhaps you would be so good as to read me the third line of the instructions?”

 

Potter squinted across the room and, as Hermione watched, realized he’d skipped an entire step of the potion preparation. She’d done that in her tutoring once, and Snape had thrown a turnip at her head and ranted for at least ten minutes that she was an imbecile who was wasting his time. He’d used the words ‘obtuse’, ‘injudicious’ (twice), and ‘brainless.’

 

Snape vanished the offending potion with a quick  Evanesco  and assigned homework. As they filed out, Hermione tried to catch Potter to let him know that, as things went, he’d gotten off lightly and that she’d been there, but Weasley gave her a quick shove before she reached her fuming classmate.

 

“Coming to gloat, little miss know-it-all?” he demanded. “Go back to your snakes. We don’t want your kind around here.”

 

“Get lost, Granger,” Potter spat at her before he walked away.

 

“C’mon, Hermione,” Draco grabbed her hand and tugged her away. “Let’s go get lunch.”

 

“That was really not nice,” Hermione muttered as she sat down next to Greg and spooned some shepherd’s pie onto her plate. 

 

“Yeah, well, since when has that git been nice to you?” Draco demanded, and she shrugged.

 

“I guess I’d kind of hoped after the whole thing with Sirius a couple of years ago he’d, I don’t know, not be a total arse all the time.”

 

Draco snorted.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Professor McGonagall looked at Hermione’s bracelet, visible because her sleeves were pushed back, and said, “What a pretty little bracelet, Miss Granger. Did you know that in traditional pureblood families gifts very much like that were considered pre-engagement gifts, given to publicly cement an understanding between families?”

 

Hermione blinked at her a few times, not exactly sure how to respond to her.

 

“Not, of course, that that would apply here,” Professor McGonagall continued with a smile. “It just struck me how very traditional that was. Did your parents give it to you.”

 

Hermione smiled, a slow smile awfully reminiscent of Draco’s mean little snake grin. “No,” she said. “Draco Malfoy gave it to me.”

 

McGonagall made a quick, startled movement then said, her voice very kind if a tad condescending, “I’m sure you’re clever enough to realize that the Malfoys would never accept you and to not fall for any ploys that boy might use to try to take advantage of you, Miss Granger.”

 

Hermione just kept smiling. “Why is that, Professor? What, exactly, makes me so unacceptable?”

 

McGonagall’s smile tightened a little, but her voice stayed kind. “Surely you know that some families still hold on to old prejudices towards Muggle-borns?”

 

“I had noticed that, yes,” Hermione said.

 

“Well, then,” McGonagall said. “As long as you understand your position. I wouldn’t want you to be hurt by unrealistic expectations.”

 

Hermione gave her a measuring look. “I do; thank you for your concern, Professor.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When she entered Defense, Daphne was waiting for her. “I have to keep a dream diary,” she moaned. “For a  month . Tell me again why I took Divination?”

 

“Because you thought Runes would be too hard?” Hermione asked as they sat down. 

 

“I suppose,” Daphne said with a dramatic sigh as she pulled her wand out.

 

Once the whole class had been seated, Professor Umbridge smiled and said, her voice girlish and unexpectedly light when compared to her toad face, “Good afternoon, class.”

 

Not pleased by the scattered and desultory responses she chirped, “I think we can do better than that!” The class, exchanging amused looks, said in a chorus, “Good afternoon, Professor.”

 

“Much better,” she said. 

 

Hermione looked at Daphne, and both girls shrugged. So far they’d had a deranged lunatic, a werewolf, a fake, and whatever it was Quirrell had been teaching this class. A woman who seemed to think this was a preschool almost made sense in that context. 

 

The woman gave one of her tedious speeches expressing concern that their education in this subject had been so spotty and Hermione had to admit that, as smug and dull as the woman was, she had a point. Of course, this wasn’t the only class at Hogwarts that had what could be called poor instruction. Hagrid, that drunk in Divination… the hiring standards seemed pretty low. 

 

Wizards, apparently, didn’t have anything quite as formal as ‘teaching credentials.’

 

Hermione’s nascent sympathy for the woman’s aims ended, however, when it became clear her instructional methods involved having them read silently from what might be the least interesting book on Dark Arts Defense ever written. Hermione had already read the book. She’d taken notes and cross-referenced it against a few books she’d borrowed from the Malfoys that were, perhaps, less concerned with defense and more concerned with offense. Still, the theory was the same. She shoved her hand into the air, ignoring Theo’s glare and muffled hiss to stop it. 

 

Professor Umbridge managed to ignore her for twenty-seven minutes, but by the end of that time, all the Slytherins were openly watching her and the Gryffindors covertly doing the same. Finally, as though she’d just noticed the hand, Professor Umbridge said, “You have a question, dear?”

 

“I just wanted to clarify that you don’t plan to include any practical exercises in your curriculum,” Hermione said.

 

“Goodness, no,” the woman replied. “Miss… Granger was it?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Hermione said.

 

“I don’t think I know of your family,” Professor Umbridge said, her voice very sweet. “Are you the first to come to Hogwarts?”

 

“I’m Muggle-born, yes, if that’s what you’re asking,” Hermione said, her voice also still sweet though there was a slight intake of breath from several of her Housemates.

 

“Then you don’t have the proper context necessary to determine the appropriate course of study in this field, Miss Granger. Wizards from good families, wizards much older and cleverer than you, have devised this method to permit you to learn about magical defense in a risk-free way.”

 

“But that’s rubbish,” Harry Potter burst out. “If we’re attacked it won’t be in a ‘risk-free’ way!”

 

“Goodness!” Professor Umbridge sounded breathy and cheerful at the same time. “Surely you don’t think you’re going to be attacked in my class, dear child?”

 

Parvati Patil had her hand in the air. 

 

“Yes, dear?” Professor Umbridge turned to her.

 

“But there’s a practical section on the O.W.L. Defense test. Aren’t we going to practice those portions in class?”

 

“With proper instruction, I’m sure you’ll be able to do the spells under controlled exam conditions,” Umbridge said, dismissing the girl’s objection.   

 

Hermione sat back and smiled as a thread of rebellion ran through the room. Parvati, a girl she’d long considered one of the more sensible Gryffindors, had hit on the non-controversial problem with this asinine teaching methodology. All she’d have to do was let this play out, enough letters home, enough parents outraged their children weren’t being prepared for the O.W.L. tests and this ‘sit here and read a book all year’ nonsense would get amended.

 

Unless Potter screwed it up by insisting the Dark Lord was back. Unless the idiotic, blind, stupid boy had to make the confrontation political.

 

Which, of course, he did.

 

“I don’t think we’re going to be fighting Voldemort under controlled exam conditions,” he snapped.

 

“Oh dear.” Umbridge’s simper masked an implacable wall. She’d never back down now, Hermione thought with a sigh. Potter had had to go and make this about the Dark Lord. “I know you’ve been lied to, you poor boy, but there are no evil wizards out to get you. I can’t understand why you believe that to be true, a smart boy like yourself.”

 

Hermione, realizing the battle to get the woman to include practical exercises in the class had been lost, moved on to mocking Potter. “His headaches tell him,” she said under her breath to a round of snickers.

 

“If you have something to share, Miss… Granger, was it? Please share with the entire class.”

 

Hermione smiled. “Of course, ma’am,” she said. “Potter believes the Dark Lord is back because his headaches tell him so.” She paused and looked at the boy with an expression of false sympathy. “Or, at least, that’s what I read in the  Prophet .”

 

“You know he’s back,” Potter said, glaring at her and she smiled blandly at him while Draco laughed.

 

“I wish my headaches told me stuff other than I was about to get my period,” Pansy said.

 

“Thanks for sharing,” muttered Weasley

 

Pansy turned to him with a saccharine smile. “Oh, I’m sorry. Has no one told you yet how babies are made, Weasley? You’d think given how many brats your mother has pushed out she’d have covered that by now.”

 

“Are you offering to give him a demonstration?” snapped Dean Thomas and Pansy snorted.

 

“I wouldn’t touch a filthy blood traitor like Weasley if he were the last wizard alive.”

 

And with that, the class was totally out of control. By the time Professor Umbridge had wrestled order back out of the chaos, both Potter and Hermione had detentions.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When Hermione went to do her detention, Professor Umbridge said, in her honeyed voice, “You’ll be writing lines, dear.”

 

Hermione nodded and went to pull her quill out of her bag. “Oh no, dear,” the woman said. “I have a special quill you’re to use.”

 

Hermione took the quill and looked at it then, with a shrug, put it to the paper. When she felt the prick on the back of her hand and looked at the red ‘ink’, she put the quill down. “I think I’ll use my own quill,” she said.

 

“No, dear.” Professor Umbridge smiled at her. “You’ll use mine.”

 

“I don’t think so.” Hermione shook her head. “And if you persist in pushing me to use a blood quill, I’ll complain.”

 

“To whom?” Umbridge said with that smile still on her toad-like face. “To your Muggle parents, dear?”

 

Hermione lay her hands on the desk in front of her, her sleeves pushed up so her bracelet showed. “No,” she said, watching the woman’s face. “My parents wouldn’t know how to complain about how a teacher at Hogwarts was using an illegal dark artifact as a punishment in detentions; they wouldn’t even know what it was.”

 

 “That’s right, they wouldn’t. Muggle-borns don’t belong; you don’t know how to fit into our world,” Umbridge said. “Your Muggle parents can’t possibly help you.” 

 

“But Narcissa Malfoy can,” Hermione said, not reacting to the blatant prejudice.

 

There was a long pause before Professor Umbridge said, her voice slightly more cautious and that smile gone, “How would a girl like you know Mrs. Malfoy?”

 

“Oh, didn’t you know? I spend part of every summer with them. Narcissa has told me she quite thinks of me as the daughter she never had.” Hermione picked up her quill. “How many lines did you say you wanted me to write, ma’am?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“She tried to make me use a fucking  blood quill ,” Hermione said to Theo, the poise she’d mustered to confront the woman gone.

 

“A  what?”  Theo looked horrified, and Draco grabbed her hand and looked at the back of it, searching for marks. “No one’s used those for… not since the Middle Ages at least!”

 

“I know,” Hermione started to shake on the couch where they all sat. “She flat out told me I couldn’t go to anyone because my parents were Muggles. She said I didn’t belong because I was Muggle-born.”

 

“That  bitch ,” Theo said.

 

“There’s no wound,” Draco said, running his thumb back and forth across the back of her hand. “What did you do?”

 

“Told her I’d write your mother,” Hermione said, and Theo nodded, slowly.

 

“That would do it,” he said. “You need to be careful, Hermione. She’s…”

 

“Is that the Ministry stance?” Hermione asked, her voice low. “That Muggle-borns are… that we don’t  count ? That we don’t  belong ? McGonagall told me to be sure I knew my  position , you know. To not have  expectations .”

 

“I don’t know,” Draco said, pulling her into a hug. “It doesn’t matter what those arseholes think, though, not for much longer.”

 

“What if… what if your side thinks it too?” she whispered.

 

“Then we change their minds,” said Theo. 

Chapter Text

When Hermione arrived for her Thursday night Potions tutoring, Snape was bent down over a stack of essays, writing rapid comments in a tight hand. “I can’t quite decide,” he said to her without bothering to greet her, “whether I am more disturbed by the utter ignorance your school mates display or their flagrant disregard for conventional spelling and punctuation. Once you have passed your O.W.L., Miss Granger, I have every intention of making  you  mark these wretched things.”

 

He pushed the stack away from him with a sigh, and she was shocked to see that he looked more tired than irascible. “Are you okay, sir?” she asked, her voice hesitant. 

 

He rubbed his head and huffed out a laugh as he looked at her. “I do believe, Miss Granger, that you might be the first person to ask me that in over a dozen years.” He leaned back and shut his eyes, and when he opened them, he looked sadder than she’d ever seen him. “While I do thank you for your concern, you remain a child, and I would like you to try to stay focused on the concerns of childhood, at least while you can.”

 

’What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum’ ?’” she murmured, and he nodded.

 

“Yes, but the barbarians are not  quite  at the gates yet, Miss Granger, so take my advice and hold on to childish things for as long as possible. In adulthood, you see, you can find yourself alone in the dark wood, the straight path long since lost.” He shook his head as though to clear thoughts from his mind, and she watched him, worried, as he set aside his moment of openness. “After reading these essays, I feel I simply cannot endure watching you mangle ingredients tonight. Let us tackle the ongoing problem of your Patronus. I assume you remain unable to produce one, despite having worked on it for over a year?”

 

She smirked at him, delighted to have a chance to show off what she’d been afraid to share with her classmates; being able to do this  was  a trifle obnoxious. She held a happy thought in her mind, called out “ Expecto Patronum ,” and watched in delight as her Patronus emerged from the end of her wand, a sparkling animal in silver light.

 

Snape looked at it for a moment. The white cat - too large to be a housecat, certainly, so perhaps a snow leopard? – was not fully grown but it sat, its paws still too big for its body, and batted at a dust mote. When it pounced on nothing, it looked embarrassed, licked one of those giant paws and began to swipe at an ear as though nothing had happened. 

 

“That much?” he asked her quietly.

 

She didn’t pretend not to understand the question. “Yes,” she said.

 

“The problem with kittens,” he said, watching her watch her own Patronus, “however adorable they may be, is that they grow up into lethal predators.”

 

“I know they do,” she said. “I’ve met his father.”

 

“Yes, I suppose you have.” Snape regarded her for a moment before adding, “Predators kill things, Miss Granger.”

 

“I know,” she said again, her voice quiet.

 

Snape nodded. He suspected she did. 

 

“I must congratulate you,” he said at last. “I am very proud of you, Miss Granger. To produce a fully corporeal Patronus at the age of fifteen is a remarkable feat.” He looked back at the essays with a sense of despair. One brilliant student in a sea of mediocrity made the others seem even more painfully dim. She followed his gaze.

 

“If you wouldn’t mind, sir, perhaps I could help mark the errors in the first and second-year essays for my tutorial tonight? Reviewing basics like that might help me?”

 

He looked at her placidly disingenuous expression; kindness was not something he expected, not from anyone, and certainly not from one of the wretched students he abused.

 

He handed her a pile of essays on the uses of dittany. “Try not to faint if any of them consist of anything more than pointless rambles lacking any formal structure or logical arrangement of ideas.”

 

She smiled at him. “I’m sure they can’t be that bad.”

 

They were.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

When she got back to the common room, Blaise was surrounded by all the boys in their year and quite a few who weren’t. She heard, as she walked by, was “…so then the triplets and I…” and so she stopped to look at him, eyebrows raised.

 

“What?” he said, cutting off his story at her expression. “It was before I met Luna.”

 

She just shook her head and went the rest of the way to her room.

 

“Is Blaise still telling the story about the Italian triplets?” Daphne asked.

 

“I….” Hermione just shook her head. “Boys,” she finally said in a tone of absolute and utter disgust.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“I like the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher,” Draco said loudly as he leaned against the school building. He had slouched in a way he’d never admit to having practiced at home and was running his fingers through his hair where it had artfully (another thing he’d never admit to having practiced) fallen into his eyes. 

 

Hermione, who was sitting at the table near the wall and had her Runes homework spread out in front of her, was too head down in her work to appreciate his posturing but several other girls smiled at him as they walked by so his efforts were not wholly wasted. “Mmmm,” was all she said. “What did she do a lesson on?”

 

“Bowtruckles,” Draco drawled and, looking up Hermione realized who this performance was for. Potter and Weasley were in the yard, both looking furious. “I was talking to Father, Hermione, and I guess the Ministry is really determined to finally crackdown on substandard teaching at this place.”

 

“That’s good,” Hermione said, finger on one rune in her book while she flipped through a dictionary trying to find the translation for it. “Hagrid’s been a disaster since our first year when he was still just the groundskeeper. You know my opinion, though.”

 

“No one will ever be as good at Care of Magical Creatures as Hagrid,” Potter said loudly to the derisive snorts of several students in the courtyard; everyone at the bowtruckle lesson knew that Professor Grubbly-Plank was clearly a better teacher.

 

Lavender Brown, one of Potter’s fellow Gryffindors, actually sneered at the boy. “So says the boy who thinks the Dark Lord is coming to get him.”

 

“He’s a nutter,” Parvati Patil agreed, and both girls marched past Potter and into the castle.

 

Greg sat down next to Hermione. “Do you have the essay for Potions done?” he asked.

 

With a sigh, she pulled it out of her bag and passed it over to him.

 

“Hey,” Draco objected, distracted from his mission to annoy Harry Potter. “You wouldn’t let  me  copy it.”

 

“She’s tutoring me,” Greg said with an innocent look. 

 

“Not fair,” Draco said, and Hermione shrugged.

 

“I thought you wanted him to be eligible for Quidditch,” she said, and Draco folded his arms across his chest and stared at her, lower lip thrust out. “And you’re cute when you pout,” she added.

 

He slid behind her on the bench and wrapped his arms around her. “How much longer are you going to be working on Runes?” he asked and she leaned her head back against his shoulder.  

 

“A bit,” she admitted and he sighed. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Greg absolutely insisted she join the Slytherins at the Quidditch pitch Saturday afternoon. “You  know  how much you love Quidditch,” he said, and she rolled her eyes.

 

“I do, and so do you, which is why I want to know why you’re dragging me out there when it’s not even a game.”

 

“You actually don’t want to know,” Vincent said. “But if we don’t take you, you might get mad, and we both need you to pass Potions, so you are  not  getting mad at us.”

 

“Plus,” Draco said with a grin, “it’ll be fun.”

 

“You… you’re all planning to do something to Potter, aren’t you?” Hermione huffed at them as they herded her out of their common room and out towards the pitch. 

 

“We won’t lay a hand on his messy little head,” Draco promised and, after they’d settled onto some of the benches and he’d pulled her onto his lap, they watched the Gryffindor team come out to practice.

 

“Nice broomstick,” Draco called out and then glared at Hermione as she snickered. “Did your mother just put a flying spell on an old mop from your hovel or something?” he added and the whole lot of them burst into laughter, though, admittedly, it was more at the way Hermione was laughing at Draco than at Ron Weasley’s broom.

 

The Gryffindors started passing a ball from one player to another and Hermione watched Weasley drop it over and over again, each time to increasingly loud, raucous laughter from her friends. “How did he even get on the team?” she asked loudly. “Did his father cover up some scandal for the captain’s mother or something?”

 

“Any messages coming from your scar, Potter?” Draco called out. “Maybe some playing tips you could pass on to Weasley?”

 

Hermione laughed as the Gryffindor team fumbled more and more balls in what should have been just an easy warm-up. “We are going to  crush  them this year,” she chortled, and Greg laughed in delight at her enthusiasm. “This might actually be  fun  this year,” she added.

 

By the time the Gryffindor Chaser had to go to the infirmary for a weirdly persistent nosebleed, the entire audience of Slytherins were chanting, “Gryffindors are losers! Gryffindors are losers!”

 

“We,” Hermione said as they headed back to their common room, “are a bunch of right bastards, you know that?”

 

“Yep,” Greg said cheerfully. “Can I copy the rest of that Potions essay now?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco slid a letter he’d gotten from home over to Theo who started to read it. Hermione leaned over and read it as well.

 

Dearest Son,

 

I am pleased to hear from your teachers that you are doing well this year. Professor Snape, in particular, has praised your diligence thus far and, though I know he is your godfather, I suspect he wouldn’t hesitate to tell me if he thought you weren’t preparing to take on your future responsibilities. 

 

I wanted, however, to give you more than congratulations but also to pass along a little advice. When your father was at the Ministry earlier this week, the Minister let drop a few tidbits of information. There will be some changes at Hogwarts coming soon, coming from the Ministry, and it would behoove you to become a champion of those changes. The enemy of our enemy is, after all, our friend and only a fool fights a war on two fronts.

 

Give my love to Hermione. I look forward to seeing her over the Christmas break and hope the rest of your friends will be able to visit as well. Some people may have trouble seeing past her parentage, but never doubt that your father and I are not so limited and, in the end, those who seek to malign any one of ours will live to regret it. 

 

Your Loving Mother

 

“For your mother, that was blunt,” Theo said, handing the note back. “I take it we’re to do whatever Umbridge wants for now?”

 

“They’re setting the Ministry and Hogwarts against one another,” Hermione breathed, sounding impressed. 

 

“They?” Draco asked, and she laid her hand, almost idly, on the inside of her forearm before lifting it to brush some hair out of her face.

 

“Do you think it will work?” Theo asked, and Hermione shrugged. 

 

“I can’t say I like the idea of kowtowing to Umbridge,” she said, “but…”

 

“If she hauls that fucking quill out again you can tell her where to shove it,” Draco muttered, and she laughed. 

 

“I think she and I will just have to come to a détente. I won’t challenge her, and she won’t break the law to punish me, but just… be careful.” She looked at Draco who was making a face. “I mean it, impulsive boy. Control yourself and kiss her arse. She’s got it in for Potter so it should be easy enough for you, but she’s a – “

 

“If she goes for you, she’s dead,” Draco said stubbornly.

 

Hermione tapped his mother’s note. “ Eventually . For now, just… I’ll stay out of her way, and you suck up, okay?”

 

Draco gave her his snake-mean smile. “I can do that.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione passed Potter in the hall and caught a glimpse of an irritated, red mark on the back of his hand. She hissed and grabbed it and, before he could jerk it away from her, saw ‘I must not tell lies’ written on the back of his hand.

 

“Umbridge’s detention,” she said, “you fucking  did it ? Are you a total idiot? What the hell is wrong with you?”

 

He tugged his sleeve back down over his hand. “What the fuck do you know, Granger?”

 

“I know enough to bloody well refuse to allow myself to be tortured by that cow,” she snapped. She squatted down and began digging through her bag, finally hauling out a vial of dittany. “Here. Use this. It’ll control the pain and lessen the scarring.”

 

He didn’t take the vial, and she shoved it towards him. “I’m not trying to hurt you even more, loser. It’s dittany.”

 

“Why do you just carry this around?” he demanded, still not taking it.

 

“Friends with Greg,” she said shortly. “Vincent too. They do get cut up a lot, the tossers. And I’m in special Potions. I have access.”

 

He begrudgingly took the vial and dropped it into a pocket. “I wish I understood you,” he muttered. “You’re bitchy and awful, and then you turn around and do shit like this.”

 

“You owe me, Potter,” was all she said as she hoisted her bag back onto her shoulder. “Someday I may collect.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

They all discovered what Narcissa Malfoy had been alluding to the next day when the  Prophet  arrived. The Minister of Magic had appointed Dolores Umbridge as ‘Special High Inquisitor’ with the power to inspect teachers. Lucius was quoted as saying how reassuring he found the Ministry’s increased oversight of the school.

 

“So,” Theo said, setting the paper down and looking at Hermione. “It begins. That woman does have a flair for the medieval. I mean, ‘Inquisitor’?”

 

“Not very subtle,” she said, frowning at the paper before she began to grin, then giggle, then hold her hands over her mouth as though she might be able to physically contain her mirth. 

 

“What?” Draco asked, staring at her.

 

“Wait until she inspects Snape,” she said, and they all begin to grin wildly, and Hermione mimicked his voice, “’If you are quite done with your insipid observations, Dolores, I’d like to try to begin teaching these maggots.’”

 

Blaise picked up the thread. “’Surely you don’t call your students maggots, Professor?’”

 

“’I was referring to the subject of today’s lesson, Dolores, which if you had bothered to do the readings I sent you to prepare you to have the faintest hope of following my class, you would have known. I see the students are not the only ones in the room who simply cannot be bothered to follow instructions.’”

 

Greg picked up his books and said, “Well, maybe she’ll be there today. We do have double Potions.”

 

Dolores Umbridge did not, however, inspect their Potions class that day. Instead, Snape handed back their essays on the properties of moonstone.

 

“I have graded these as if they were O.W.L. work,” Snape said, looking around the room as though he couldn’t even be bothered to sneer at them any longer. “Most of you will probably find your failing grades an unpleasant surprise, though I cannot imagine why as your incompetence should hardly be news to you. However, if you cannot improve your performance, I shall start passing out detentions to people who earn Ds on their essays. Perhaps that will inspire you.”

 

“People got Ds?” Draco said. “Wow.”

 

“Miss Granger, I’d like to see you try to work on your tendency towards excessive verbiage,” Snape said as he handed her back her essay. “You needn’t always use the longest synonym possible and concision is not the enemy. While I was impressed by your ability to write a 15-line sentence that was not, technically, a run-on, if you do it again, I shall mark you down simply for being irritating.”

 

Weasley sniggered, and Snape handed the boy his own essay, the red ‘P’ clearly visible. “Oh, Mr. Weasley, would that your problems were as simple to fix as you knowing too many words and having a flair for the subordinate clause.” Weasley shoved his essay into his bag without looking at it.

 

“I’d think Weasley’d be good at anything subordinate,” Draco sneered, and Weasley flushed and glared back.

 

“Nicely done, Mr. Goyle,” Snape said, and Greg looked at his ‘Acceptable’ with a sigh of relief. “I was pleased to see you edit Miss Granger’s regrettable tendency towards wordiness down to a reasonable essay. If you can simply remember what you write out, you’ll pass your O.W.L.s.” Snape passed Harry Potter his essay. “Alas, that happy fate seemingly does not await all of you.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The Defense Against the Dark Arts class once again consisted only of reading the tedious text and watching Harry Potter insist the Dark Lord was back, thus earning himself another detention.

 

“You’re an idiot,” Hermione hissed at him as they walked out. “It’s like you want to martyr yourself or something.”

 

Draco glared at Potter as he walked away and Hermione sighed at him. “Don’t be so jealous,” she said. Draco hooked his arm around her and made grumbling noises that might have been ‘not jealous’ and ‘stupid Potter,’ but she ignored them and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You know I’m ridiculously fond of you,” she said, and he huffed but stopped grumbling.

 

Back in the common room she pulled her Defense book out and stood there and looked at it while biting on her lip. 

 

“You’re thinking,” Theo said, watching her from a couch. 

 

“I want to pass my Defense O.W.L.,” she said, hefting the book in her hand, “and I don’t see how that class is going to get me there.” She settled next to Theo, and Draco sat on the floor and leaned up against her legs. After setting the book to the side, she began to idly run her fingers through his hair. After a few minutes, she asked, very quietly, “Does the Ministry not  want  us to know Defense? Does… if I asked Draco’s mother, would she tell me that perhaps not learning Defense was a good choice?”

 

“The Ministry… I think yes,” Theo said, his voice even lower than hers. “I think they see this school as an… as the other side and they don’t want that side too well-armed.”

 

“I see,” she said. “And?”

 

“I think Draco’s mother would say that you can never know too much,” Theo said, and Hermione nodded, her eyes narrowed in thought. 

 

“Remember when you told me you’d learn to do a Patronus charm with me?” Hermione asked, and Theo snorted.

 

“You mean forever ago? There’s no way we can learn to do that, Hermione. I looked it up. Most grown wizards can’t even do one.”

 

“Oh, really?” She pulled out her wand and smirked at him though he noticed the smirk had a tiny bit of worried hesitation behind it.

 

“You didn’t?” he breathed, watching her. “Show me.”

 

Expecto Patronum ,” she said, her voice quiet but firm and her adolescent snow leopard leaped out of her wand and, in a trail of silver light, began gamboling around the common room on its big paws. Every student in the room, from first years on up, turned to watch the creature until it chased an imaginary fly through a wall and disappeared.

 

“I think,” Hermione said, “We should form a study group to pass our O.W.L.s.”

 

“I want to know how to do  that ,” a seventh year said, pointing at the wall where the Patronus had disappeared. 

 

“Yeah,” said a fourth year. “That was amazing.”

 

Pansy watched the Patronus with a sullen frown.

 

“It took me over a year of steady practice,” Hermione admitted. “I mean, it’s not something like levitating a feather you can get at once.”

 

“It took me a long time to levitate that feather,” Greg muttered.

 

“Still,” Theo said, “Patronus Charm aside, I think you’re right. I think we need to put together a group to start practicing what we need to know to pass that Defense exam in secret.”

 

Daphne made a coughing noise, and they all looked at her. “I don’t think we should just study Defense.”

 

The whole population of the common room, their attention having been caught by the Patronus, was shifting over to the couch where Hermione was sitting. “She’s right,” Millie said.

 

“Which one?” asked a third year.

 

“Both,” said a sixth year. “That Umbridge isn’t going to get you through your O.W.L.s. And….” They all looked at one another, a room full of students communicating via glances.

 

“Not Unforgivables, of course,” Hermione said, and glances were passed, and someone said, “Well, of course not those.”

 

“We need a name,” Daphne said and, at Hermione’s look, she flushed. “Branding is important,” she muttered. “Plus, it would be helpful to say, ‘we’re having a meeting of’ whatever it is and actually have a name to use rather than calling it ‘you know, the thing.’” 

 

“’Dark arts study group’ probably not something we want to openly post on the message board,” Pansy said with a snort.

 

“Slytherin Dark Arts Group,” someone quipped and from the suggestions got more and more inappropriate and blatant until Blaise said, “Delle arti.”

 

Hermione looked at him, and he shrugged. “Of the arts,” he said, “in Italian.”

 

“All in favor?” Hermione asked, and a general rumbling consensus passed the motion.

 

“Slytherin only?” someone asked, and Blaise made a slight coughing sound.

 

“What?” Theo asked.

 

“I’d like to include Luna,” he said quietly.

 

“She’s not one of us,” Draco objected.

 

“She will be,” Blaise said. “She’s… almost totally outcast in her own House and – “

 

There was a sound of disgust at that from several of the assembled students. 

 

“I know,” Blaise said, his voice grim. “They steal her stuff, make fun of her. She has to sleep in her shoes, or they disappear. It’s…”

 

“Her own  House?”  someone said, sounding aghast. “I mean, I know she’s weird but…”

 

“I know,” he said again.

 

“Still,” Theo said, sounding worried. “It’s one thing to bring her over to hang out; she’s your girlfriend, so no one’s going to object to that. But, Blaise, a Dark Arts study group… that’s… that’s not a secret you can trust her to keep just because she’s besotted with you.”

 

“A contract,” Hermione said, and everyone turned to stare at her. “We all sign a magical contract binding us to secrecy with some kind of jinx built into it.”

 

“That would make me feel better,” Draco admitted. “It’s not that I don’t like your girlfriend, Blaise. I mean, I don’t begin to understand her, and I think she might be daft, but she’s nice enough, it’s just…”

 

“She’s not Slytherin,” Blaise said, his voice a mixture of resignation and protectiveness. “I understand.” 

 

Hermione pushed herself off the couch and hugged the boy. “Does she know how lucky she is to have you?” she asked him and he shrugged self-consciously.

 

“Who knows,” he muttered. “I know I’m lucky to have her.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Their next Potions class was inspected. Hermione slid into her seat next to Greg and watched Draco try to rile Potter up with a resigned sigh. “Does he have to always be poking at that loser?” she muttered to Greg who laughed.

 

“The more you defend Potter, the more Draco’s going to try to make him look like an idiot; you do know that, right?”

 

Hermione made a frustrated sound as Draco said, his voice carrying throughout the room as they waited for Snape to arrive, “I wonder how long it will be before someone carts Potter off to St. Mungo’s for evaluation? I mean, he’s not quite stable. Can’t say I feel totally confident he won’t just go round the bend one of these days and mistake someone’s book bag for a Dark wizard. Father tells me they have a special ward for people whose brains were fried by magic.” Draco’s mean tone took on an aura of false concern. “I’m just worried about The Boy Who Lived. Such a sacrifice he made. He should really get the best care available, don’t you think?”

 

Neville Longbottom lunged out of his seat towards Draco who pulled back in clear shock before laughing as Potter grabbed Longbottom and held him back. “Don’t, Neville,” Potter hissed. “It’s what he wants.”

 

As Neville continued to pull against Potter, struggling to reach Draco, Greg stood up and casually walked over towards the struggling figure, as did Vincent. Hermione covered her face and cringed, waiting for the almost inevitable bloodbath as Neville spluttered almost incomprehensibly. “Not funny,” he was gasping out, and “You  bastard,   as Snape walked into the classroom.

 

“Fighting, Longbottom? Potter?” Snape looked almost delighted. “Ten points from Gryffindor. Release the boy, Potter, immediately, or you’ll find yourself scrubbing cauldrons for me again.”

 

Harry Potter released Neville Longbottom who stood, panting, still eyeing Draco with loathing. 

 

“Sit  down ,” Snape said. “Mr. Goyle, you as well. In your seats.  Now .”

 

Hermione pulled her books out and was setting out her things as Professor Umbridge walked into the room. She had another one of her remarkably unflattering pink suit jackets with an enamel kitten brooch pinned to one lapel. She held a clipboard in her hands and smiled at the class, a little simpering grimace that looked rather like she’d had too much frosting and the sugar was making her mouth pucker. Daphne turned around and made eye contact with Hermione, and both girls looked from Snape to Umbridge in anticipation.

 

“As you can see, Dolores Umbridge has deigned to grace us with her presence today,” Snape said. “I would request that you show her your best work, but I suspect that would cause her to retreat to her office and sob inconsolably for hours at the utter degradation of the Hogwarts curriculum your incompetence has necessitated, so I shall merely request that you attempt to refrain from blowing things up. Longbottom.”

 

“Yes, sir,” the boy stammered, still flushed from his fight.

 

“Take your things out, if it’s not too much trouble,” Snape said and, dropping only his book and only one time, Neville Longbottom complied.

 

“You will be working on your Strengthening Solutions today,” Snape continued, and with a nod, Hermione sent Greg to fetch their cauldron and began gathering the ingredients they would need. As she measured the salamander blood and added it to the cauldron she watched Umbridge make notes on her clipboard. After about thirty minutes the woman stood and walked towards Snape, who was bending over Dean Thomas’ cauldron and explaining the importance of using the correct ingredient, not simply one that had the same colour as the correct ingredient. 

 

“This class seems fairly advanced,” Umbridge began, but Snape cut her off without even looking up from Thomas’ cauldron.

 

“You are quite mistaken. I would normally expect a group of fifth years to be considerably more successful than this group has been. I am sure, however, that neither you nor the Ministry would want me to dilute my course simply because celebrities such as Harry Potter find it difficult to keep up. Or, ma’am, are you in the business of catering to the famous?”

 

“I am  surprised ,” she said in a lilting voice, “that you would have them work on a Strengthening Solution. Perhaps the Ministry would prefer that be eliminated from your curriculum.”

 

Snape straightened at that and looked at the woman. His eyes lingered for a moment on the kitten brooch and his lips curled in a sneer. “If the Ministry would like this potion removed from my curriculum, then it should not be on the list of things students are expected to know for their O.W.L. exam, Ms. Umbridge. Even in the face of intransigence and relentless stupidity, I, at least, cover all the topics of that exam.”

 

She made a note.

 

“How long have you been teaching?” she asked.

 

“Fourteen years,” he said, his voice lacking all expression. Hermione carefully added the next ingredient and began to stir her potion, batting Greg’s hand out of the way when he tried to help.

 

“You applied for the Defense Against the Dark Arts position?” Umbridge asked, and Snape nodded. “But you did not get it?”

 

“Obviously,” the man said. “Do you always ask pointless questions?”

 

“Well,” Umbridge said, “I just find with your background that it’s quite… fascinating… you would want that particular position.”

 

“Simple minds are easily amused,” Snape said. “Now, if you’re quite done grilling me on Dumbledore's staffing decisions, I would like to return to teaching.”

 

Umbridge smiled sweetly before turning to Pansy and asking her questions about the class.

 

“I didn’t know Snape wanted the Defense job,” Hermione said to Greg. “Other way,” she added as he started to stir in the wrong direction. 

 

“He’s applied for it every year,” Greg said. “Never gets it, of course.” 

 

Hermione scratched the inside of her arm with a questioning look, and Greg nodded.

 

“So instead we’ve gotten incompetence, a madman, and this woman,” Hermione muttered. 

 

“Former… you know… can’t be hired a lot of places,” Greg said under his breath. 

 

“Discrimination,” Hermione snapped as she began ladling their sample into a flask. “It’s not right.” She watched Umbridge question Pansy and thought about how much she’d know about Defense if she’d had a consistently competent teacher and tried to push down the bitterness. No one was going to listen to her opinions on how this school should be run, and she knew better than to expect anyone outside of Slytherin to be at all sympathetic to the employment problems of a supposedly former Death Eater, even if he was the best teacher she had.

 

Not the nicest, perhaps. But the best. The one she trusted.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

At their first DA meeting, they pushed the furniture out of the middle of the Slytherin common room after everyone signed the paper swearing them all to secrecy including Luna who said, as she signed it, “That’s a nice jinx you worked in there, Hermione.”

 

Several people turned to look at her at that, but she was already staring at their ceiling and leaning on Blaise who looked smugly pleased that she was so perceptive.

 

They started with  Expelliarmus.  “I know it’s basic,” Hermione said, sounding somewhat apologetic, “but I sometimes think something simple done well works better than something flashy you’re likely to mess up when you’re nervous.”

 

Knowing they were working on learning Defense, as well as the jinx she had rigged into the paper, made Hermione feel better about sitting through the pointless classes with Umbridge. She’d smile blandly at the woman and consider how best to turn the theory in the book in front of her into practical exercises. Daphne got copies of the last ten years’ exams (“Don’t ask,” she said, so no one did.) and they cross-referenced what were the most common practical exercises students were asked to do and began learning them in that order.

 

One night after they’d shoved the furniture back into place and Hermione was curled up on a couch with him, her eyes closed as he twined her curls around his fingers one at a time, Draco said, “You know, I wouldn’t want to be on any side of any conflict that opposed you.”

 

“Why?” she asked sleepily.

 

“Because everyone else just grouses about what a bitch that woman is,” he said softly, “or does that idiotic defiance thing like Potter does that lands him in detention after detention, but you just came up with a way to get what you wanted with no one the wiser. You’re so practical, it’s a little scary.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“You’re going to make me go, aren’t you?” Hermione said as Theo, Daphne, and Millie stood, tapping their feet and waiting for her to be ready to go out to the pitch. “I mean, it’s Quidditch.”

 

“Exactly,” Theo said, but they all knew her objection was merely pro forma. She’d cheerfully taken part in the campaign to intimidate Weasley all week, mimicking him dropping the Quaffle and asking if he were  sure  he didn’t think a kiddy league would be more his speed. If some of the intimidation had gotten a little more physical, well, no one had technically touched the boy even if they’d gotten very close to him while enumerating the myriad injuries he could look forward to during his first game on the team. She’d helped Blaise distribute the green crown pins he’d made for the whole House. She’d even helped Pansy with the rhymes for the ‘Weasley is our King’ song the girl had written, though she’d refused to go to the rehearsal. 

 

“I think I can manage to sing along in the stands without practicing,” she’d said.

 

Now she had on one of Draco’s green jumpers, a green scarf, a green and silver crown and a pin reading ‘Weasley is our King.’ She looked like a proper Quidditch-mad student, and she hadn’t even slipped a book into a pocket; Blaise had patted her down to check.

 

Luna joined them as they made their way to the stands. Rather than wear one of the crowns she’d made a large hat that looked like a green snake about to eat her head. “You look… umm… that’s a really interesting hat,” Hermione finally said after staring at it for a long and uncomfortable moment.

 

“My Housemates told me it looked ridiculous,” Luna said, tucking her hand into the crook of Blaise’s arm. 

 

“As long as you like it,” Hermione said with a shrug, and Luna smiled.

 

It was cold, and the game seemed as boring as usual, even with Greg and Vincent on the team. Hermione cheered for Draco – cheered for all of them – and joined the entire Slytherin section as Pansy led them in singing the song she’d written mocking Ronald Weasley. He really was a terrible Keeper, and Hermione yelled and jeered along with her Housemates as he let Quaffle after Quaffle through the hoops. 

 

The problem, of course, was that thanks to the absurd scoring system, if Potter managed to catch the Snitch they’d still lose. She clenched her fists and could feel herself willing Draco to find the thing first.  

 

He didn’t.

 

Potter spotted and was swooping downward toward the tiny golden ball as Draco followed, his fingers reaching out helpless to grab at something Potter had already caught, and Hermione almost screamed with rage. Vincent had sent a missile towards Potter a moment too late and, while it did ram into the wretched boy and send him off course, he already had the Snitch. They’d already lost. 

 

Again.

 

Hermione couldn’t hear the confrontation, though Draco relayed it in detail later, but she watched him fly down and taunt the winners. She could tell by the way his shoulders were set he was trying not to cry in disappointment at the unexpected loss. This was supposed to have been their year. Whatever he said goaded them into lunging at him and taking it past verbal taunts into a fistfight; Potter and one of the Weasley twins both started pummeling him.

 

She stood up and had her wand out and was about to start casting when Theo grabbed her arm and said, voice low, “Don’t.”

 

“They’re… it’s two on one…” she sputtered.

 

“Don’t be a fucking Gryffindor about it,” he hissed. “Hexing them in broad daylight like this? Have you lost your mind?”

 

She slowly put her wand away. “Which twin is it?” She asked, and Theo looked at her in some confusion. “I would hate to go after the wrong one.”

 

At that, he nodded. “I’ll find out.”

 

Madam Hooch had broken up the fight and was marching the miscreants off to the castle while Draco lay on the ground, curled into a tight ball. Hermione raced down the stairs of the stands and toward the crowd. Someone grabbed her arm, but she shook them off. Shoving her way past a couple of Gryffindors, she was only dimly aware that Vincent was in front of her, clearing her way as she dropped to her knees at Draco’s side. His nose was bleeding fairly heavily, and he was whimpering, and Madam Hooch was looking down at him with concern. “Get him up to the infirmary,” the woman said, and Hermione nodded and, with Vincent on one side and herself on the other, they began helping Draco up and into the castle.

 

“I’m sorry, Hermione,” the boy muttered through a swollen lip and – had those fuckers actually broken a tooth? – she tightened her grip on his arm.

 

“You have nothing to apologize for,” she said, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his nose with a handkerchief she had had in a pocket. 

 

“I did kind of say stuff – “

 

But she cut him off with a furious tirade. “I don’t care if you told them they fucked goats and zebras in their parents’ beds! ‘Fighting words’ aren’t a legal excuse, haven’t been since – oh, I don’t know - and for both of them to go at you at once is…”

 

She trailed off as she searched for the right word, and Vincent offered up, “Unsporting.”

 

“That works,” she agreed with a sharp nod. “Or cowardly.”

 

“What are ‘fighting words’?” Vincent asked as they made their way into the castle and down the hall right as Draco said, “I thought you had a soft spot for Potter.”

 

“’Fighting words’ are things you say on purpose to get someone to react, to start a fight. Used to be you could claim it was okay you went after someone, even killed them, because ‘them’s fighting words.’ Not true anymore, not in the legal sense anyway.” She stopped to readjust Draco’s arm to make it easier to support him, and he waved her off.

 

“I think Vince’ll be enough,” he said, and she nodded but stayed right at his side.

 

“I don’t think she has a soft spot for Potter anymore,” Vincent said, watching the grim and concerned look on Hermione’s face as she looked Draco over. 

 

“No,” she agreed, “I don’t.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The rest of the fall had mixed good and bad news. Potter and both Weasley twins had been banned from Quidditch.

 

“Both?” Daphne said in confusion as she worked on a small Dark hex she’d been practicing. “Why both? Only one of them beat up Draco.”

 

“Maybe she can’t tell them apart either?” Theo suggested with a shrug. “I think you’re pronouncing it wrong. Try putting the accent on the third syllable.”

 

Daphne shrugged and followed his advice than squealed with pleasure when the orange she’d been practicing on exploded.

 

“Next time,” Theo said, wiping juice off his face, “warn me what it’s supposed to do, okay?”

 

If the Gryffindor Quidditch ban was generally considered good news in the Slytherin common room, the return of Hagrid was less so.

 

“Oh NO,” Greg said when he heard the Care of Magical Creatures teacher was back. “I don’t think I can take any more of his monsters!”

 

The actual class, however, ended up giving hope to the ever-increasing number of students who didn’t care for Hagrid and who had much preferred Grubbly-Plank. The half-giant hauled the class back into the remarkably poorly named Forbidden Forest and showed them Thestrals. Umbridge, who had been doing his evaluation, was not amused.

 

“What are Thestrals?” Daphne asked later as they were doing essays at a table in the common room, and Greg and Draco were complaining about the class.

 

“Basically invisible horses that eat raw meat,” Hermione said with a shrug. “Seems kind of weird to me, though, to do a whole class on an animal hardly anyone would be able to see.”

 

“I can see them,” Theo said quietly. “I’ve always been able to.”

 

Hermione reached a hand out across the table and rested it on his arm. He looked up, his eyes a little wan, and smiled at her. “Thanks,” he said, and she sighed.

 

“Not to mention,” she added, “asking who’s seen them basically means asking who’s had some kind of trauma in their life.”

 

“Why?” Vincent asked.

 

Draco rolled his eyes and said, “Weren’t you paying  any  attention? Because you have to have seen someone die to be able to see them.”

 

“Oh.” Vincent looked at Theo and muttered, “Sorry, man.”

 

“It’s a totally inappropriate lesson,” Hermione muttered, “And probably not even on the O.W.L. exam so a waste of time too. I hope that horrible cow gets rid of him.”

 

“I don’t think her evaluation will be positive, no,” Draco said, leaning over to nuzzle Hermione’s neck.  

 

And then the term was almost over, and it was time to go home for break. “I’ll see you the day after Christmas,” Draco said to Hermione. “Theo and Daphne will be there so – “

 

“So I don’t need to worry about it seeming like we’re committing some awful impropriety, I know.” Hermione rolled her eyes. 

 

Draco looked up at the mistletoe someone had hung and nudged Hermione over until she was standing under it. She looked up and laughed and twined her arms around him, and they kissed goodbye until Pansy muttered, “Get a room, you two.”

 

Chapter Text

Narcissa met Hermione at the door when she arrived at the Malfoy’s home the day after Christmas. The woman took her hands and looked her over with a fond, almost proprietary glance. “We’re so happy to have you,” she said, leaning forward to brush her lips over each of Hermione’s cheeks. 

 

“I’m happy to see you too,” Hermione said, letting the elf that had appeared at her side take her bags. As Narcissa led her into the Manor, Hermione said, “Would it be possible for me to impose on you to borrow your owl to send some gifts out? I didn’t get a chance to do it using the school owls and haven’t been to Diagon Alley to use the public post.”

 

“Of course,” Narcissa said. “Our home is yours, child, and it’s no imposition at all. I don’t suppose you’ll indulge my curiosity and tell me what you’re getting your friends?”

 

Hermione smiled. “I got Greg and Vincent homework planners; if they’re going to make me drag them through Potions, they get planners.”

 

Narcissa laughed. “And the rest?”

 

“Candy for the rest of the boys; Daphne, Pansy and Millie all still love the Muggle makeup, though I’m not sure why.” She paused and bit her lip and then blurted out in a rush, “Could I ask you something?”

 

Narcissa hid her smile. She had a fairly good idea what Hermione was about to ask, but she just said, “Of course, sweet girl. I hope you think of me as a… well, a mother might be presumptuous of me but…”

 

“What do I get Draco?” Hermione was twisting the bracelet on her wrist with obvious nerves, and Narcissa had to work harder to suppress her smile. “I don’t know what’s appropriate and I don’t want to… and… there needs to be a class!” she finally wailed. “If I get him something to… will he think I don’t… but what if I push too hard.” She gave Narcissa a baleful look. “I think it’s easier for Muggles. There aren’t nearly as many rules.”

 

At that, Narcissa laughed. “I assure you, child, there are  just  as many rules for courting in every culture. You’re just confused because you’re not used to them being  quite  so codified or happening at such a young age. I understand Muggles tend to marry later.”

 

“Yeah.” Hermione scuffed her foot against the floor, the poise that came and went was now totally gone in the face of her elegant hostess. 

 

Narcissa put her finger under the girl’s chin and tipped her face up. “You handled the dance last year brilliantly. But maybe this year you should give the poor boy something a bit more formal. If you’ll let me be a  tad  forward, I have a selection of cuff links I’ve had set aside and perhaps you’d like to pick out one of them to give him?”

 

“I… thank you,” Hermione stumbled over the words. “You’re so good to me, Mrs. Malfoy. I… thank you.”

 

“Well,” Narcissa said, “if I hadn’t liked you before, the day you threatened to kill Moody for hurting Draco, you would have won me over.”

 

Hermione gave a quick jerk and looked at Narcissa, who had a bland smile on her face. Slowly, Hermione smiled back, but all she said was, “Promised.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“I didn’t threaten. I promised.” Hermione frowned for a moment, her expression a bit of a sulky pout. “But the Ministry got him first.”

 

Narcissa laughed at that, a full, delighted laugh that summoned Draco from wherever he’d been hiding. “You are the most darling child I have ever met,” Narcissa said before her son tugged his girlfriend away to someplace more private. “I suspect you’ll have a chance to indulge in your delightfully murderous streak eventually, but for now you’ll have to settle for our company and more peaceful pursuits.”

 

Draco was pulling on her hand even as he smiled at his mother with strained patience. 

 

“A moment, son,” Narcissa said. “We can meet later, Hermione, to go over that thing we were talking about. And we’ll be having a guest for dinner who’s interested in meeting you so, Draco, dress for dinner, please. All of you.”

 

“Yes, mum,” Draco said and, with that, Narcissa released them with a wave of her hand, and they ran up to the room that had become where the teens gathered when the weather was chilly. Daphne and Theo were already there, Daphne sporting a simple, sparkling stone on a chain that made Hermione widen her eyes and tip her head towards Theo in an obvious question. Daphne grinned, and both girls fell onto a window seat to gossip.

 

“She just gets here, and I’m already abandoned,” Draco groused.

 

Hermione looked up at him and grinned. “Never abandoned, you know that.”

 

“Not even a kiss,” he whined, and she pulled herself off the window seat and after he turned to Theo to complain in jest even more, she pounced on him. When he stumbled back onto a couch at the force of her attack, she pushed him all the way down, straddled him and, after brushing her nose against his, kissed him. 

 

“That,” he said, coming up for air after a few minutes, “is more like it.”

 

“Prat,” she said, and he laughed, sat up, and pulled her onto his lap so he could bury his face in her neck.

 

“I missed you,” he said. “I don’t like it when you’re not around.”

 

“Well, good,” she said, lacing her fingers through his. “’Cause I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

 

Later, after Hermione had chosen a set of cuff links from the oh-so-convenient selection Narcissa had provided, and after all the teens had dressed for dinner, she asked him, “Do you know who this guest is we’re all supposed to dress up for?”

 

“No idea.” Draco shook his head.

 

“My father’s here,” Theo offered, but they all rolled their eyes at that. 

 

“Someone important, I guess,” was all Daphne said as they made their way down the stairs towards the room Hermione thought of as the medium-sized-dining-room. It wasn’t actually that large, not really, but it was far more formal than the family dining area they took most of their meals when she was here. Narcissa was keeping it intimate  and  formal tonight.

 

Well, that was a bit nerve-wracking.

 

When they walked into the room, Hermione smiled at the Malfoys and nodded at Nott Senior. The only other guest in the room was a distinguished-looking middle-aged man, graying slightly at his temples, sitting to the left of Narcissa, who watched her with measuring blue eyes. He, Nott, and Lucius all stood as the teens walked into the room, though he looked amused at offering them the courtesy.

 

Hermione’s own eyes flickered around the table. The numbers were off; there weren’t enough women. That was… interesting. It wasn’t a party, then. It was a… meeting?

 

Draco held her chair for her, and she thanked him as she sat down across from the stranger.

 

Once Theo had seated Daphne, the men all settled back into their seats. Hermione laced her fingers in her lap and sat, her back very straight, as the man regarded her.

 

“You,” he said at last, “are rather a quandary.”

 

“Tom,” Narcissa said, “Let me introduce you to Hermione Granger. Hermione, dear, this is Tom Riddle.”

 

He watched the way she couldn’t quite control the slight stiffening in her posture, and he smiled. “So you know who I am?” he asked, his voice quiet.

 

“After being put into a coma by your basilisk I did some research,” Hermione admitted and Draco, who was watching them with a worried look on his face, paled utterly.

 

“And what did you discover?”

 

“Tom Marvolo Riddle. Head boy, regarded as a brilliant student with a bright future. Mother the last descendant of Salazar Slytherin. Father… who your father was seems less clear, but if the name is an accurate guide, he was a wealthy but unimportant Muggle.” Hermione struggled to keep her hands from twisting in her lap. “You disappeared after graduation. Returned with a new name as the leader of… well, what you were the leader of varies depending on which book I look at.”

 

“You are good at research,” Riddle said, sounding amused.

 

“I told you she was clever.” Narcissa was quite clearly smug, and Hermione felt a bit like a child put on display and told to show off what all those ballet lessons had wrought. It made her even more uncomfortable, which she hadn’t realized was possible in this already strained situation. There might be a book on how to handle pureblood courting rituals, but proper dinner table etiquette when dining with Lord Voldemort was something she was fairly sure no book anywhere covered.

 

“If you’ll allow a bit more tedious interrogation, what did your books tell you I was leading? I find I’m quite curious how the media portrays me these days.” Riddle was draping his napkin in his lap with a deceptive insouciance.

 

“Most called you a violent, unhinged terrorist,” Hermione said, her tone as bland as she could make it.

 

“Not all?”

 

“Some added the moniker ‘evil,’” she said and, at that, the man laughed.

 

“Oh, Lucius,” he said, “Where did you  find  this girl? No one’s had the stones to call me evil to my face in… oh, years.”

 

Lucius smiled. “She was meeting Draco to go shopping for school supplies. I hauled her to Borgin and Burkes, where she promptly identified a Hand of Glory and was offered a job.”

 

Riddle turned back to Hermione. “Oh, I think we can do better than that,” he said. “I worked there, and it’s quite tedious; you wouldn’t like it. I wonder, did you read anything that offered a different perspective on my little group?”

 

Hermione’s gaze flickered, against her will, to Theo, who was sitting watching her – they were all watching her. “One,” she admitted. “One described your organization more as a political group advocating… well, what you were advocating wasn’t wholly clear, to be honest. The book had a lot to say about how the Ministry was corrupt and how the ban on Dark Arts was oppressive, but even that book didn’t hide that you had no qualms using violence.” She stopped and swallowed hard. “Or that you rallied people around blood purity.”

 

“Which brings us to you,” the man said, pouring himself some wine and handing the bottle to Nott Senior, who did likewise. Hermione noticed the adults all seemed far more relaxed than her friends and, taking her cue from that, began, ever so slightly, to ease. “The Slytherin Muggle-born who’s threatened to kill two of my Death Eaters already.”

 

Hermione tensed again.

 

Riddle noticed that and smiled at her again. “You’re the first Muggle-born to be sorted into our House in… how long has it been Lucius?”

 

“Several hundred years at least,” the older Malfoy said, “though it’s quite possible that several people with obscure parentage were Muggle-borns whose ancestry was covered up to help the families they married into maintain the fiction of pure blood.”

 

“Do you plan on doing that?” Riddle asked, and Narcissa laughed.

 

“No. I have a feeling that in a few years, she’ll be a shining asset to the family tree.”

 

“Do dark things really shine?” Riddle asked and, when Narcissa waggled her wrist, draped in a bracelet of black opals, the man nodded. “They do indeed,” he admitted. “I would like, however, an explanation as to your slight altercations with my Death Eaters.”

 

The last was directed at Hermione, and she swallowed again, feeling her throat tighten.

 

“In all fairness,” she began, “I didn’t realize Moody was a Death Eater.”

 

“No, you thought he was a powerful, if slightly crazed, Auror and yet you threatened him anyway.”

 

“He hurt Draco,” Hermione said, her voice low. 

 

“And that’s not allowed?” Riddle sounded like he was trying so very hard to keep from laughing, but Hermione’s eyes flashed in the candlelight as she shook her head.

 

“No,” she said. “It’s not.”

 

“How about Peter Pettigrew?” Riddle asked.

 

Hermione hedged a little. “I didn’t know he was a Death Eater  either . And I didn’t threaten to kill him, I just asked Sirius Black to get it over with.”

 

“He’s not your biggest fan,” Riddle said, sipping from his wine glass. 

 

“I’m probably not his,” Hermione muttered.

 

“I’m not sure Peter  has  fans,” Nott Senior interjected, handing the bottle to Theo and nodding slightly. Theo, his hand shaking, poured wine into first his glass and then Daphne’s.

 

“What did you think of him?” Riddle asked Hermione, and she shrugged.

 

“Other than, even as a person, he looked like a rat with mange? Not much. We didn’t really have a chance to become acquainted.”

 

“He’s an idiot,” Narcissa said. 

 

“Agreed,” Riddle said. “And a sycophantish, groveling fool. But Karkaroff has fled, and Crouch is dead, and the Lestranges are all in Azkaban, not to mention probably mad as hatters by now. I have, at the moment, what one might call staffing problems.”

 

“We are utterly loyal, my Lord,” Lucius interjected smoothly, but Riddle waved a hand at him irritably and went back to regarding Hermione. 

 

“Well,” he said finally, “I can’t simply kill you over dinner. That would be rude, and I’m not sure Narcissa would forgive me if I got blood on her carpets. And Snape reports you’re a gifted student despite what he calls a ‘lamentably sloppy approach to ingredient preparation.’ Indeed, he tells me you can cast a Patronus.”

 

Hermione nodded, bristling a little at the criticism of her potions work.

 

“Show me.”

 

Hermione recognized the command and pulled her wand out and, with a quick incantation and a spin of the stick of wood that was almost an extension of her body by this point, she summoned her Patronus. The cat bounded around the room on its large paws, stopping to sniff at Riddle before it rubbed its head against Draco and chased a dust mote out the door and disappeared.

 

Narcissa looked from the cat to Draco and back again before smiling and leaning back in her chair, wine glass held between her fingers.

 

“Impressive,” Riddle said. 

 

The elves began serving the food and conversation briefly halted as everyone spread napkins in their laps and began to eat. Draco was cutting and chewing his food with wooden motions, and Daphne’s hand shook so much she clanked her wine glass against her plate as she tried to set it down. Hermione ate the surely excellent dinner without noticing what it was. When Theo also knocked his glass against his plate, Riddle set his fork down and looked at the boy and sighed.

 

“I’m not going to kill her.”

 

“You kill a lot of people,” Theo muttered, and Riddle laughed.

 

“Indeed I do, but generally not ones who are useful to me.” He turned to Hermione and smiled. “And you will be very useful, won’t you, my dear?”

 

“You do have staffing problems,” Hermione said, smiling somewhat nervously back at him.

 

“Give the current generation a few years to mature, and that problem will, I think, be solved,” he said. “No, I have a Dumbledore problem, and a Potter problem.”

 

“Not a Ministry problem?” she asked.

 

He snorted at that. “Weak-willed fools. They’d hand me the Minister of Magic position and be grateful I took it if it weren’t for the Order of the Phoenix, meaning, mostly, Dumbledore.”

 

“And the Weasleys,” Lucius said.

 

“Indeed.” Riddle leaned back and tapped his fingers on the table, evidently lost in thought. “Potter seems like the easier target, but he’s already evaded my clutches once. I can’t quite tell if it was dumb luck or if that blood ward his mother put on him as she died is slipperier than I thought.”

 

“Speaking of Lily Potter,” Narcissa interjected, “there remains the Snape issue to deal with.”

 

“Why couldn’t that man have fallen in love with someone who loved him back?” Riddle muttered. “It’s so tiresome dealing with his devotion to that woman.” He eyed Draco and Theo and said, “Try not to spend your lives in eternal servitude to a dead woman. It’s irritating to everyone around you.”

 

“Especially since they were totally estranged by the end,” Narcissa said.

 

“People and their messy emotions,” Riddle said in obvious disgust. 

 

All the teens looked confused, and Nott Senior rescued them. “Your Professor Snape was quite in love with a Muggle-born witch who had a wee problem with his becoming a Death Eater.”

 

“If by ‘wee’ you mean ‘so significant she totally rejected him and married the man who’d bullied him for years,’ yes, it was a ‘wee’ problem,” Narcissa said. 

 

“Harry Potter’s mother,” Nott Senior continued, and Theo and Draco looked at one another in obvious shock. So  that  was why Snape despised Potter so much. 

 

“Are you going to have a similar issue?” Riddle asked Hermione. “Because, really, I’m not sure I can take pretending not to notice another Death Eater is a spy for Dumbledore because his true love went and joined the other side and I had to kill her.”

 

“I despise the other side,” Hermione said in a low voice. Riddle made a politely inquiring noise, and she continued, “They’re prejudiced and… no one in Slytherin cares where I came from, only that I’m one of them. They’re… they toss insults my way and hate my House and… they may tell me that Death Eaters are violent radicals, but all I’ve ever seen are perfectly lovely people who’ve made me welcome in their home and their lives.”

 

“Well,” Riddle said, “in all fairness, we  are  violent radicals.” He set his silverware down, and an elf popped in and cleared the plate. “I do think, however, we can adjust the blood purity rhetoric to include, shall we say, a footnote about House affiliation counting more.”

 

“Sometimes you need violence,” Hermione said, her voice still quiet. “Sometimes change doesn’t come through… they aren’t fair. Dumbledore isn’t fair. Even if we held a vote and asked ever so nicely for things to be changed, they wouldn’t be.”

 

“Pragmatic little thing, aren’t you?” Riddle asked.

 

“She  was  sorted into our House,” Lucius said.

 

“Voting wouldn’t work anyway,” Narcissa said. “Not right now. We’re outnumbered and admitting to even vague Death Eater sympathies is a fast track to unemployment and possibly even a stint in Azkaban.”

 

“No, it has to be violence,” Riddle agreed. “Don’t you have  any  sympathy for the Muggle-borns in other Houses? Most people would think your fellow-feeling would lie with them.”

 

“Why?” Hermione looked at him, genuinely confused. “Why would I… House before Blood,” she said finally. “Do  you  have sympathy for the Weasleys just because they’re purebloods?”

 

Riddle looked at her for a moment and then leaned back and eyed Narcissa. “Bella is going to be a problem,” he said, and his hostess nodded in some resignation. 

 

“Aunt Bella’s in Azkaban,” Draco said, speaking for the first time; Hermione sent him a ‘try not to be an idiot’ look.

 

“She’s the savvy one in the pair, I see,” Riddle said, watching her, and Lucius sighed.

 

“You begin to see why we latched on to her so quickly.”

 

“He’ll have Theo as well,” Nott Senior said and, as the elves finished clearing the table, the adults turned talk away from politics to this season’s Quidditch rankings and Theo and Draco, hesitantly at first and then with more confidence began to join the conversation while Hermione watched Tom Riddle, also known as Lord Voldemort, pretend to care about sports.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

After dinner, the teens were shooed out of the room and, not needing to be told twice, they fled. 

 

“Tom Riddle,” Draco said once they’d reached the relative privacy of their parlour, his voice shaking. “You just got vetted by Tom Riddle.”

 

“I guess the blood purity thing’s not going to be an issue,” Theo tried to quip, but his pallor belied the attempt at humor. 

 

“That was intense,” Hermione agreed, her shoulders aching from how stiffly she’d been sitting for all of dinner. “I… I didn’t  think  he’d kill me outright but…”

 

Draco pulled her into a tight hug. “Logic said you were okay,” he admitted. “If the man had wanted you dead, he wouldn’t have waited to do it over a meal.”

 

“He broke bread with her,” Daphne said, the slow realization of what that meant making her sink down into one of the armchairs. “He broke bread with all of us.”

 

Hermione pulled away from Draco and looked from Daphne to Theo, who’d started to laugh, a relieved, hysterical sound. “This is some pureblood thing, isn’t it?” she finally said, waiting for someone to explain.

 

“Well,  technically  once you’ve eaten with someone you’ve… you’re….”

 

“You can’t just kill someone after that,” Draco said. “Historically.”

 

“Not,” Theo admitted, “that I’d put it past your mother to poison people over canapés.”

 

“A sit-down dinner, though?” Daphne asked.

 

“No,” Theo agreed, running a hand through his hair with a nervous laugh. “We’re in.” He looked at Hermione. “ You’re  in. And he’s prioritizing you over Bellatrix Lestrange.”

 

The last sounded almost wondering, and Draco said again, “But Bella’s in Azkaban.”

 

This time it was Theo who gave Draco a contemptuous look. “Not for long, I bet. But… our Hermione gets precedence. And your mother didn’t even object.”

 

“I would never have expected that,” Daphne admitted. “Even accepting her seemed like something we’d have to… but to… you’ve somehow really impressed him,” she said at last to Hermione. “That’s kind of scary.”

 

“That Patronus  is  impressive,” Draco said, sitting down and pulling Hermione on to his lap. 

 

“Maybe,” Daphne said. “I bet it’s the loyalty, though. She’s kind of fierce when people go after you, you know.”

 

“Bella’s loyal,” Draco objected.

 

Theo rolled his eyes. “Sure, but after twelve years in Azkaban she’s probably unstable and Hermione’s loyal  and  rational. She’s a better bet.”

 

“She does have that soft spot for Potter.” But now Draco was teasing, the tension of the dinner having drained away and been replaced by a slightly manic relief that the Dark Lord had accepted Hermione.

 

Hermione punched Draco in the shoulder. “Ow,” he muttered.

 

“Potter lost any sympathy I might have had for him when he beat you up,” Hermione said, “so you can stop with the ‘Hermione likes Harry’ crap.”

 

“But it’s okay for  you  to beat me up?” Draco asked, rubbing his shoulder.

 

 

“Do you see me ganging up on you two to one?” Hermione demanded, “or continuing to pummel you after you’re down?”

 

“I think that little fistfight might have lost Potter the war,” Theo said, pulling out a chess set and starting to set the pieces up. “Because they might have convinced our Patronus wielding Muggle-born her interests lay with them before that.”

 

“Never,” Hermione shook her head.

 

Theo shrugged. “Guess it doesn’t matter now whether they could have exploited your incessant need for things to be fair or how bad you feel about Potter’s shitty life; I still think that if Potter could have just kept his hands off Draco, Dumbledore could have tried to recruit you both. He’s nothing if not a manipulative old bastard who knows how to play people. Now?” Daphne joined him at the table and moved a pawn, and Theo groaned. “You are so bad at this game, Daph.”

 

“I’m good at games that matter,” she said.

 

“We all are,” Hermione agreed.  

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Narcissa summoned Theo and Daphne away later that night with a transparent excuse. Left alone with Draco for the first time since she’d arrived, Hermione suddenly found herself feeling far more awkward and tongue-tied than she had even with Riddle. A possibly evil would-be dictator exchanging niceties with her over dinner was one thing but…

 

“I have something for you,” she finally said, fumbling with the small box she’d had in her pocket since she’d wrapped it in Narcissa’s private sitting room. She shoved it towards him. “Happy Yule.” When he didn’t take the box right away, she started to stumble over her words even more. “I know it’s late, but I didn’t go shopping for anyone until after school let out and I don’t have an owl and…”

 

Draco swallowed hard and took the box off of her palm. “No, it’s cool,” he said. “Mine’s late too.” He pulled a small, rectangular wrapped box out of the drawer where he’d stashed it and held it out to her. She tripped on the edge of a carpet when she stepped towards him to get it and fell into him, and he caught her, and they both laughed nervously as he helped her back to her feet.

 

“At the same time?” she asked, and he nodded.

 

She pulled the ribbon off the box and carefully opened up the paper and set it aside. When she tried to pull the top of the box off it stuck and she had to wedge a finger under it to pry it off. By the time she’d gotten it, she heard Draco’s intake of breath and looked up, her own gift still folded in tissue inside the box, to see the goofy smile on his face. “So… for real then?” he asked, and when she nodded dumbly he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed so tightly she squeaked and he loosened his grip just a little. “I know it’s… Muggles don’t do this so young, do they?” he asked. “I don’t want to presume you…”

 

“Since we were eleven,” she said.

 

He let her go and wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. “Dusty in here,” he muttered. “Stupid elves.” He looked at the box still in her hand, paper still folded over what it held, and said, “Open yours.”

 

She pushed the paper back and looked at the bracelet. The beads were green this time and not glass. One bead wasn’t green at all but covered in small diamonds. Not, she thought, cheap. This was… this was a statement if ever she’d seen one.

 

“Jade,” Draco said, sounding nervous again, “but if you don’t like – “

 

“I love it,” she said, staring at the simple strand. “Draco, this… it’s…”

 

“I said I would get you a real one,” he said, setting down his own present and pulling the bracelet out of the box. “May I?”

 

“Is this… can I wear this?” 

 

“Yes,” he said softly, plucking the box out of her hand and dropping it on the table. “It would make me very happy if you would wear it.”

 

She held her wrist out, and he fastened the catch, fumbling a little with the hook until he got it to close properly. She turned her arm back and forth and watched the way the one bead sparkled as the light caught all the tiny, glittering stones. She swallowed as he watched her. “This is so much,” she finally said. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

 

“You don’t have to say anything until we graduate,” Draco said, and she pushed herself forward and buried her face in his chest. “Then I’ll give you a ring, and you’ll say yes, and my mother will plan a wedding for the ages, and we’ll get married and live happily ever after.”

 

“You’re forgetting that minor matter of the brewing war,” she said with a nervous laugh, and he held her close.

 

“Well, we won’t be inviting Potter, what with him surely being dead by that point, no.”

 

“Or the Weasleys,” she said.

 

“No,” he agreed. “Not them either.” They stood for a long time until he said, “It’ll be okay, Hermione.”

 

“War is never okay,” she said. “People die. People get hurt.”

 

“I won’t,” he said.

 

“You don’t know that,” she objected. “You  can’t  know that.”

 

“I have you on my side,” he said. “Best weapon ever.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

At breakfast, Daphne looked at the bracelet and smothered a gasp. 

 

“Damn,” Theo said. “You’re making me look cheap, arsehole.”

 

 Draco smirked and began digging into the plate of eggs and tomatoes an elf had slipped in front of him. 

 

Hermione tugged her sleeve down over the bracelet with a self-conscious twitch, and Theo laughed. “It looks good on you,” he said and kissed the top of her head. “Green’s your colour.”

 

“Get used to being stared at for that,” Daphne advised as she poured herself some juice. Hermione shot a look at Draco who cheerfully refused to make eye contact until Hermione nearly growled.

 

“You told me this was okay,” she said, and he made a faux-innocent shrug.

 

“No one would expect anything less from a Malfoy,” Lucius said coming into the room and running a hand fondly over Draco’s head. The boy pulled away from the caress with an embarrassed motion, and Theo laughed. “It will be fine, Hermione,” Lucius added. “We have no intention of steering you wrong.”

 

“And,” Daphne added, “it’s not like Theo exactly got me junk. This is  normal  Hermione.”

 

“It really is,” Theo said. “We’re just teasing you.”

 

“Forgive them,” Lucius said. “You fit in so well they forget you don’t have the same frame of reference they do. I would expect to see quite a few of your peers sporting pretty little baubles when you go back, especially with the war brewing. People are clinging to what makes them happy, and young love makes everyone smile.” 

 

“Thanks,” Hermione mumbled.

 

Lucius placed a hand on her shoulder, and when she turned to look at him, he said, “We think of you as a daughter, Hermione. You can trust us.”

 

“I know,” she said, flushing, “it’s just… this is all…”

 

“Different, I know.” He smiled. “When you’re done, Riddle would like to see you. He’s in the library.”

 

Hermione dropped her scone and started to push back from the table as Lucius laughed. “You don’t need to rush. He’s reading the  Prophet .”

 

Riddle was sitting in one of the armchairs by a window with the light behind him, making it hard to see his expressions when Hermione entered the library.

 

"I'll have to remember that," Hermione said without thinking. 

 

"What?" he asked, and she immediately wished she'd remembered whom she was talking to and had kept her mouth shut.

 

"Sitting in the window," she said, trying not to gulp. He made one of those polite inquiring noises that were obvious commands to continue, and she said, "The way it makes it hard to see your face, hard to read you. It's a good way to limit the... the... the information you give out."

 

Riddle smiled - she thought he smiled - and leaned towards her in a gesture in anyone else she would have taken as an attempt to establish a connection between them. From this man, it scared her a little, and she had to force herself not to step backward.

 

"You mentioned the book you read that was a little more in favor of my - shall we call them activities? - was unclear on my goals. I thought before bringing you into the fold I'd give you a chance to ask questions."

 

"Really?" Again she spoke before she thought and Riddle laughed.

 

"Yes, really."

 

Hermione clasped her hands in front of her, feeling rather like she'd been brought into a Professor's office, and thought about what to ask. "I thought your original goal was immortality," she said at last, and he nodded. "Well," she continued, "you seem to have accomplished that."

 

Tom Riddle laughed again, and she felt like she'd pleased him and amused him and wanted to charm him again. "I have," he admitted, "though that bit about being nearly incorporeal for a while and having to be reborn out of a cauldron was... unpleasant. Be grateful you don't remember your birth."

 

"So... what now?" she asked.

 

"Killing Potter," he said bluntly. "He's the only person who is a challenge to that immortality, and I am quite interested in avoiding another bout of being a barely alive spirit."

 

"And after that?"

 

"Taking over," he said. "I have... opinions... about how our society should be run. Opinions you might share, my dear."

 

"The Ministry," she muttered.

 

"Quite," he said. "Prejudiced, filled with influence peddlers, no interest in even appearing fair much of the time." He eyed her and added, "Doubly prejudiced against you, I suspect: once for your blood and once for your House."

 

Hermione nodded, a sharp movement, but she also squinted at him and said, "Are you telling me you'll eliminate all corruption?"

 

"Of course not," he said easily. "I'll simply direct it in directions I find more desirable."

 

"People have to have trials," she said, her voice low. "It's not fair to send someone to Azkaban without a trial."

 

"Not even Sirius Black?" he asked, sounding amused.

 

"No," she said stubbornly. "Not on your side, not against your side. It's not fair."

 

He laughed outright at that. "You are delightful. After Pettigrew falling at my feet and telling me he'd like nothing more than being kicked in the face, it's a refreshing change to have someone not afraid to speak her mind."

 

"Oh, I'm afraid," she muttered, though she was considerably less so now. "Everyone's afraid of you."

 

He smiled again. "Narcissa's not," he observed. "And I think you'll be following in her footsteps, another delightful viper people will underestimate: her because she's nothing but a society wife, you because you're nothing but a Mudblood."

 

She narrowed her eyes at him at that, and he smiled, that charming, cruel smile. "You know it's what they think. Oh, your own House doesn't, but even Dumbledore likely thinks of you that way, though he probably feels a certain liberal guilt when he hears the slur in his own mind. Doesn't mean he doesn't think it. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t expect you to be less."

 

"What does my House think of me?"

 

"That you're a Slytherin. That you've been practically adopted by the Malfoys. Soon enough, they'll know you're one of mine. I assure you, none of them would dare think anything that disrespectful of you. They know too much. Others?" He shrugged.

 

She smiled back at him at that, mirroring his expression until he pulled something out of an inside pocket and said, "I have something for you."

 

He tossed her a box, and she opened it and looked, first confused and then concerned, at the necklace inside. "I... I don't think I'm supposed to take jewelry from anyone other than Draco."

 

Riddle rose from his seat and plucked the necklace from the box. "I may look old enough to be your father, but I am quite old enough to be your  grand father so, even if I weren't the Dark Lord, it would be quite acceptable for you to accept a gift from me. As it is, you simply cannot refuse."

 

Hermione looked at the simple charm hanging from the chain. "What is it?"

 

"A Dark Mark," he said as though he were somewhat disappointed in her. 

 

"I can see  that ," she said. "What  else  is it?"

 

He looked far more pleased at that. "It's protection. Any of my Death Eaters who see it will know you're one of mine. Anyone else will see this - " the charm shimmered in his palm until it was a heart, " - unless you consciously choose for them to see the Mark."

 

"A heart?" she looked up at him, sounding horrified. "You had to make the innocuous version a  heart ?"

 

"What wrong with a heart?"

 

She made a wholly aggrieved adolescent face. "It's lame," she said and Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord, burst out laughing as he fastened his Mark around her neck.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It was in the papers. The breakout. Hermione read it over breakfast and looked at the Death Eaters, looked at what Azkaban had wrought in their haggard faces, and worried.

 

These people were not stable.

 

She read their crimes and could hear Riddle’s voice in her head. ‘In all fairness, we are violent radicals.’

 

Even allowing for the inevitable sensationalism of the  Prophet , it was clear he’d rather understated the case.

 

Bellatrix Lestrange, the woman she’d apparently been prioritized over, looked out at her. Prison had stripped what was probably once not inconsiderable beauty from her visage, but she still looked striking. She looked like she’d like to strike everyone looking at her in the paper. She looked  mad , Hermione thought to herself, though now she knew why Neville had launched himself at Draco with such utter ferocity. 

 

Tortured his parents into insanity. 

 

She’d be upset too.

 

She wondered what it was like for him to read this and know his parent’s attackers were out, free. Were flocking, surely, even now to Malfoy Manor to drip their insanity all over Narcissa’s carpets and drape their lunacy on her lovely chairs. 

 

Staffing problems, indeed.

 

She handed the paper down to Theo and looked up at the high table. Professors were reading the news with expressions ranging from grim to angry. 

 

She ran her fingers along the lines of her necklace and worried.

 

They pretended, all day, to be caught up in adolescent things, telegraphing warnings to be silent, to be discrete for once in your life, Draco, from face to face. Luna studied their expressions and said, “So that’s how it is,” and, when Blaise tensed, asked Hermione whether she liked the necklace Blaise had gotten her.

 

So she was okay, Hermione thought. Side chosen. 

 

Umbridge sounded terser than usual in their next class, ordering them again to read their books silently. Hermione wondered how the woman managed to pretend that no one might ever need practical skills in defensive magic when ten lunatics had escaped from a supposedly flawless prison but pretend she did.

 

The DA met with renewed vigor. Even Pansy suddenly cared about knowing Defense. “I thought these people were on our side,” Hermione said to Theo, voice very low after their study group one night. “Why is everyone -?”

 

“Just based on that photo, would you want to be alone in a room with Rastaban?” Theo asked and, when Hermione shuddered, he said, “Me neither.”

 

“Why are they out?” she asked, and he sighed.

 

“You can’t really leave your supporters in prison. Loyalty goes both ways.” 

 

She nodded at that.

 

She was bent over a cutting board in special Potions when she looked up to see Snape staring at her necklace.

 

Of course.

 

Of course, he could see the charm for what it really was, not the insipid heart that had made Pansy snicker and ask whether she’d picked that one out for herself because it was clear that it was Draco’s taste that had dictated the design of her bracelet.

 

“So,” the man said. “You’ve picked a side.”

 

She wiped her hands and tucked the necklace back inside her shirt with a quick, self-conscious thrust. “Was there ever a question?” she asked.

 

“For you?” He sighed. “I suppose not.”

 

She crossed the room and pulled a stool up to his desk where he was grading essays. Snape opened his mouth, but before the inevitable stream of condescending put-downs could begin, she said, “He knows.”

 

Her professor stopped and looked at her, his eyes narrowed.

 

“Riddle knows,” she said again. “He knows you’re a spy for Dumbledore.”

 

“Betraying your master already?” Snape sneered.

 

“Trying to save one of them,” she countered.

 

The man sagged for one brief moment at his desk before leaning back and saying, the words so rapidly they almost ran together, would have been incomprehensible if it weren’t for his perfect articulation. “He killed Lily. Did he tell you that before he strung that little chain around your neck? Probably not. He kills so many people, after all, what’s one more? What’s the one I loved? I asked him not to – begged him not to – but she got in the way when he went for the Potter brat, and there was nothing to be done. Not that he would have even tried to spare her.”

 

Snape paused and regarded Hermione with profound bitterness. “Muggle-born, you see, and not the delightful little contradiction you are, with your Slytherin sorting and your Malfoy connections. No, she was Gryffindor through and through, and brave and brilliant and beautiful, and he  killed  her.

 

“I begged Dumbledore to protect her, sold myself to the Order of the Phoenix to ensure her safety, promised I’d spy just so he’d protect her.”

 

When Snape stopped to take a breath, Hermione said, “He didn’t, though, did he?”

 

“No.” 

 

There was a world in that word.

 

“You’ve been teaching for fourteen years,” Hermione said. “In a position you don’t even want. That you  loathe .” She leaned forward. “You sold yourself and got  nothing  in return.”

 

“He kept me out of Azkaban,” Snape said.

 

“Greg’s father stayed out of Azkaban without Dumbledore. Draco’s father stayed free. Theo’s. Vincent’s. Dumbledore’s done  nothing  for you,” Hermione insisted, leaning forward as if by decreasing the physical distance between them she could convince him.

 

“He also didn’t kill Lily,” Snape said. “There’s no side for me, child.”

 

“Even no side would be better than spying for Dumbledore,” she said.  

 

Snape inhaled and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he said, “I fail to understand why you are lecturing me on politics, Miss Granger, when you should be working on your potion preparation. I want to see that Occamy eggshell perfectly ground. Your sloppy approach to ingredients is going to be your undoing.”

 

. . . . . . . . .

 

Harry Potter gave an interview to the  Prophet.  Somehow he managed to come across as sounding mostly rational as he insisted the Dark Lord was back. Hermione read it when the paper arrived over breakfast and looked over the Gryffindor table where his red and gold Housemates were congratulating the boy. He must have felt her stare because he looked over at her and flipped a V at her. Weasley looked over at her as well and smirked. 

 

“I wonder what they think it will accomplish,” Hermione said, throwing the paper down in frustration. 

 

He’d named names; claimed people were Death Eaters.

 

Well, he was right, she admitted to herself. They  were  Death Eaters. But by the afternoon Greg and Vincent were wavering between wanting to physically attack everyone who looked at them as though they might start casting Unforgivables any moment and wanting to go hide in their rooms, Theo looked like he was about to fold in on himself, and Draco had his shoulders braced in that way she knew meant he was trying to keep from crying. It wasn’t  fair  for Potter to turn the whole school against them.

 

Even  teachers  were clearly thrilled with Potter, favoring him even more than usual.

 

She could feel herself bristling whenever anyone looked sideways at any of her boys.  They  weren’t Death Eaters;  they  were just students these judgmental arseholes had known since they were eleven. Draco could be a bit of a bully, but Theo had never even said boo to anyone, and she watched people pull away from him all day anyway as if he might be contagious or violent or  evil  and by dinner, she was so angry she was shaking. 

 

“I hate them,” she hissed when they were back in their common room. “I hate them  all .” She had her arms around Draco who had his face buried into her shoulder after a long day of pretending not to hear whispers or see people pointing at him. Theo had pulled a bottle of firewhiskey out of somewhere and was working on getting very drunk with Greg and Vincent; Daphne wasn’t even trying to stop them.

 

“Give me some of that,” Hermione said and, with a surprised look, Theo poured her a shot of her own.    

 

“I hate them,” she said again. “I hope they all fucking  die .”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

At least the DA was going well, and they’d moved on from the list of things they were likely to be asked to do on their O.W.L. to the Patronus Charm. Not everyone could do one, but Luna’s rabbit hopped around the Slytherin common room and twitched its nose and made everyone laugh. 

 

They needed laughter these days.

 

“Why is mine an  otter ?” Draco asked for the fifth time as his Patronus turned happy somersaults in the air. 

 

“’ Cause it’s cute?” Hermione suggested, and he made a face.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

“You simply cannot allow students to go about giving interviews.” Hermione stopped in the corridor when she heard that horrible hag’s voice. Umbridge’s voice always grated, but today she sounded extra smug. “Especially interviews that are in direct violation of what the Ministry has declared to be true.”

 

She pressed herself back against the wall and listened. She could hear Umbridge, McGonagall, and…  Fudge?  The Minister of Magic in the  hallway ?

 

“Well, well, well,” Fudge said, sounding pleased. “You’ve gone too far this time, Dumbledore.”

 

“What have I done,” the headmaster was saying, sounding more amused than anything else.

 

“You’ve lost control of your school, that’s what,” Fudge said. “You’ve allowed that Potter boy to tell the world that he-who-must-not-be-named is back. He named names! Upstanding citizens who’ve long since been found not guilty of their participation… last time.”

 

“But he is back, Cornelius,” Dumbledore said, and Hermione wondered why on  earth  they were doing this in a  hallway .

 

“He is  NOT!”  Fudge shrieked, and Hermione reached up to touch her necklace. 

 

“Do you plan to arrest me for telling the truth, Cornelius?” Dumbledore asked. “Is that what it has come to?”

 

“It’s a violation of decree…” Umbridge had to rustle through her piles of paper trying to find exactly which new law Dumbledore had broken.

 

“That’s quite all right, Dolores,” Dumbledore said. “I’m sure you’ll find it eventually.”

 

“You’re trying to destabilize the Ministry,” Fudge was still nearly shrieking.

 

“Yes,” Dumbledore said thoughtfully. “I suppose I am.”

 

“Did you get that?” Fudge sounded joyful, and Hermione heard some lackey say, “Yes, sir, I’ve got it all.”

 

“We’ll bring you back to the Ministry, file charges in the morning and have you in Azkaban by noon.” Fudge could barely contain his glee and, despite her general dislike of Dumbledore, Hermione was horrified to hear all the worst abuses of the wizarding justice system laid out so blatantly.

 

Dumbledore sighed. “You poor man. You are clearly under the impression I’m going to, what is the phase, come quietly?”

 

“I beg your pardon?” Umbridge interrupted. “You can’t simply resist arrest!”

 

“I’m afraid that is exactly what I’m going to do, Dolores.” He sounded as if he were turning down an invitation to a party he’d never had any intention of going to, polite regret in his voice but no actual sorrow. “I could break out of Azkaban of course – there seems to be quite a bit of that these days - but such a nuisance. Easier to simply leave now and spare myself the bother.”

 

There was a loud bang, and then Dumbledore was striding down the hall past her as she shrank back into the wall. He stopped briefly to look at her and said, “I’m sorry to see that, Miss Granger,” before continuing on his way.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco read the summons to Professor Umbridge’s office with dread. “Bring trustworthy friends,” it read. “From good families.”

 

“I suspect that means not me,” Hermione said, reading over his shoulder.

 

“I’m from a good family,” Pansy said rather smugly. When Theo threw something at her, she added, “doesn’t mean Umbridge isn’t a vile cow.”

 

“We have to keep that bitch distracted,” Cassius Warrington, one of the seventh years, said. “We don’t want her finding out about Delle Arti.”

 

“Your mother said to play along,” Theo said.

 

Cassius looked surprised they’d discussed this with Narcissa Malfoy but said, respect in his tone, “If Mrs. Malfoy said to play along, we have to play along.” He raised his voice, “Volunteers for dealing with the Umbridge cow?”

 

Blaise shook his head. “I hate that woman. There’s no way I can pretend to suck up for whatever project she’s got in mine.”

 

“Me either,” Daphne admitted.

 

“I’ll do it,” Greg said, and by the time they’d sorted volunteers, weeding out people too young, Greg, Vincent, Theo, Pansy, Millie, Cassius, and Graham Montague all joined Draco as they trooped to the woman’s office.

 

“Try to stay calm,” Theo was muttering. “No matter what the woman’s provocation, kiss her arse.”

 

“Are you talking to me or yourself,” Draco asked.

 

“Both,” he said shortly.

 

She was sitting behind her desk when they arrived, lined up with hands clasped before them and placid expressions on their faces. Pansy managed to control her shudder at the woman’s pink cardigan – some things really were beyond the pale – but she and Millie exchanged glances that communicated their mutual disdain for the horrible woman’s clothing.

 

Later Pansy would say to Daphne, “I hope when I’m that old, I don’t lose all sense of what looks good. Merlin. That pink. And those kittens. I just… there are no words for the awful.” Now, however, like the rest of her Housemates, she stood there, smiling her little Slytherin smile and thinking about how stupid this woman was to trust the children of a bunch of Death Eaters. 

 

“There are going to be changes at Hogwarts,” Umbridge said in her breathy little girl voice. “Exciting changes! And I want you students to be at the forefront of the change.”

 

She paused as if waiting for a response, and Theo jumped in. “We’re honored, ma’am,” he said.

 

She smiled at him and looked like she wanted to pat him on the head. Theo had often wondered whether this woman had any experience with teenagers at all as she seemed to constantly confuse them with either toddlers or dogs. “I need students who are loyal to the Ministry,” she continued, “and this school is simply rife with people who seem to believe Harry Potter and his nonsense.” She paused. “Rife means – “

 

“We know what ‘rife’ means, ma’am,” Millie said. 

 

Umbridge flashed an annoyed look at the girl. “Don’t interrupt, dear. Rife means full of something undesirable and undesirable is exactly what Potter is.” She smiled again. “Can I trust you children to be loyal to the Ministry? I know I can trust you, Mr. Malfoy. Your father is quite the figure in the main office.”

 

“Our loyalty is absolute and without question,” Theo said, and Umbridge smiled at him again.

 

“Good, dear.” She looked around at them and said, “One thing I wanted to talk to you about before we proceeded. I know many of you have a friend or two who is… beneath you. Sometimes the Sorting Hat can make a mistake, you know, but I trust you to recognize quality where you see it and muddy blood where you see it.”

 

Greg narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying that – “?

 

Vincent stepped on his foot. Hard. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. 

 

“Mr. Malfoy, I know your family can be very kind to the… less fortunate,” Umbridge continued, “but I’m sure your mother would want you to remember that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to encroach.”

 

Draco forced a smile onto his face by contemplating what Umbridge’s head would look liked severed from her toad-like body. “I can assure you, Professor Umbridge, that Miss Granger knows her place. Her exact place. My family has been quite careful to make that clear.”

 

“That’s good to hear.” Dolores Umbridge almost licked her lips at that bit of information. “Let me tell you students about the Inquisitorial Squad I want to form…”

 

After they were back in their common room, Theo shoved Draco. “Knows her place?” he asked.

 

“How about ‘our loyalty is absolute,’” Draco retorted.

 

Theo shrugged. “I didn’t lie. If she can’t outwit underage Slytherins, she shouldn’t try to use us to form a group designed to oppress students she doesn’t like.”

 

“I hate that woman so much,” Greg muttered.

 

“Taking points from Weasley’ll be fun, though,” Draco said. “Where’s Hermione?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

By morning the notices that Umbridge was Headmistress had gone up around the school, as had the far more delicious gossip that the Headmaster’s office had refused to open to her.

 

“I bet she couldn’t wait to sit up in the Head’s office,” Parvati Patil said viciously as she crossed the courtyard with Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Ernie McMillan, shivering in the winter air. “Stupid, puffed-up, power-crazy, old – “

 

“I wouldn’t finish that sentence if I were you,” Draco said, lounging against the door to the castle. Vincent and Greg stood behind him, smirking at the other students. Parvati narrowed her eyes.

 

“Look at the junior Death Eaters,” she said.

 

“Look at me docking a few points from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff,” Draco drawled.

 

“Don’t be an idiot, Malfoy,” Ernie snapped. “You can’t take points from fellow prefects.”

 

“Try to keep up, Macmillan,” Draco said. “Prefects can’t, no, but members of the Inquisitorial Squad can.”

 

“The  what?”  Parvati demanded, and Draco pointed to the silver I on his robe right below the prefect’s badge. Hermione had sighed when she’d looked at it and muttered fairly unpleasant things about the middle ages and abuse of power and font choices but, to be honest, he was looking forward to finding a reason to dock points from everyone who’d sneered at the ‘junior Death Eaters’ since Potter’s article had come out.

 

“It’s a select group of students,” he drawled, “handpicked by the new Head. She trusts our loyalty, you know. Something that can’t be said for you lot. Anyway, members of the Inquisitorial Squad  do  have the power to deduct points so, let’s see, five points from you, Patil, for being rude about our new Head. Macmillan, I’ll take five for contradicting me and, Potter, five for those naughty lies you published in the paper. Weasley, look at that. Your shirt’s untucked. That’ll be five more. And, oh yeah, I forgot. You’re a blood traitor, Weasley, so ten more for that.”

 

Weasley pulled out his wand, but Parvati Patil hissed, “Don’t.”

 

“You are one of the handful of smart Gryffindors, aren’t you?” Draco said with a sneer before he sauntered off, Greg and Vincent at his heels. 

 

Once they rounded the corner, they all started to laugh as quietly as they could. “Fucking wankers,” Greg said. “Did you hear her: ‘Look at the junior Death Eaters’?”

 

“I could get used to this,” Vincent admitted.

 

The rest of the day was nearly as fun as their first morning as petty tyrants because the Weasley twins launched what appeared to be an entire stockroom’s worth of firecrackers off and not only did they all get to enjoy the sparkling dragons and bats they got to watch Umbridge run around and struggle to contain all the chaos as the other professors wrung their hands and claimed to be unsure of what they ought to do.

 

“This was the best day ever,” Greg said that night.

 

“Where’s Montague?” Theo asked, and Draco shrugged. 

 

“Getting lucky with some girl impressed by his big, silver I?” he suggested.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The next night Draco sauntered into the common room looking ridiculously smug and pleased with himself.

 

“What did you do?” Hermione asked, looking up from an essay, her eyes narrowed. This level of smug was never good and almost always corresponded to Draco having done something mind-numbingly stupid to Potter.

 

“I found something out,” he said. “Two things, actually.”

 

“And they are…”

 

“Well, they found Montague. He was in a toilet on the fourth floor, all jammed in and confused.”

 

“That’s weird.” Hermione put her quill down. “Does he know how he got there?”

 

“No.” Draco shook his head. “But that’s not the good part.” He looked absolutely gleeful. “The good part is that when I went to tell Snape, they needed him to help with Montague, Potter was there and it turns out Potter is taking remedial potions.  Remedial potions .”

 

Hermione looked at him. “No, he’s not.”

 

“No.” Draco looked at her. “I was just there. Snape  told me  Potter was there for remedial potions.”

 

Hermione shook her head. “Then he was lying to you.” Draco looked stubborn, and she sighed. “Draco, I’m in that room and that lab  all the time . I know every class Snape teaches, the curriculum, and the materials he goes through. I grade half his essays, for crying out loud. Potter is not doing remedial potions. Did they even have a cauldron out?”

 

Draco seemed to be trying to think back. “Noooo…” he admitted at last. “But Snape said – “

 

He looked at the expression on Hermione’s face and deflated. “Then what the hell was he doing in there?”

 

“That sounds like a very good question.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The Weasley twins managed to put a  swamp  in a hallway. Draco and his Inquisitorial Squad made what looked like a good faith effort to capture the wankers, but the pair accioed their brooms and zoomed off before they could get them.

 

“That’s impressive spell work,” Hermione admitted. “They’re arseholes, but they can cast.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The Inquisitorial Squad was being attacked on all sides. Graham Montague was still in the infirmary after being found in the toilet, and no one was quite sure what was wrong with him other than he was confused and not getting better. Cassius Warrington was hexed with something that made him look like he was covered in corn flakes. Pansy sprouted Antlers. 

 

“Sucking up to that woman is getting riskier every day,” Theo muttered to Hermione. “Please tell me we have a plan for dealing with her.”

 

Hermione was watching Montague’s parents, who had arrived looking very angry. “I need to go talk to someone,” she said.

 

“I… what?” he asked, but she was already gone, stalking out of the common room and down the halls. She found Potter in the courtyard rubbing his scar and pacing while Weasley leaned up against a wall and watched him.

 

“What did you all do to Montague?” she asked. He looked confused for a moment, then smug.

 

“Why do you care?” Weasley asked. “He’ll recover.”

 

“It’s more trouble for Umbridge, isn’t it?” Potter asked in a satisfied tone.

 

Hermione drew her wand and shoved it into Harry Potter’s neck. “You owe me, Potter, and I’m collecting. Tell me what you fuckers did to Montague so I can go tell Pomfrey what happened to him and she can try to fix the poor bastard.”

 

Weasley drew his own wand and Hermione said, her voice totally calm, “You think you can hex me before I destroy wonder boy here? Really?”

 

Potter glowered at her, but when she mouthed “Sirius” at him, he jerked his head and muttered, “He tried to dock points from Fred and George, and they tossed him into a broken Vanishing Cabinet.”

 

She stepped back, wand still out, and looked from one of them to the other with obvious disgust on her face. “And you didn’t tell anyone? What the fuck is wrong with you two?”

 

“He was docking points,” Weasley said sullenly, and she stared at him.

 

“So you thought it was okay to just shove him into a broken magical device and not tell people. That was bloody well dangerous; he could have died. Who knows how he got out, and he’s still not right. Over points. You two have some pretty fucked up ideas of right and wrong.”

 

“Who cares,” Weasley said, crossing his arms and glaring at her. “He shouldn’t have tried to take all those points from Gryffindor. And besides, we didn’t do it; it was Fred and George.”

 

Hermione started to walk away, and Potter said, “Where you are going?”

 

“To tell Madame Pomfrey what happened.” She stopped and looked back at them. “Points. Arseholes.” She spit the last out in disdain and left them in the courtyard, Potter rubbing his scar again while Weasley fussed with some book he was pretending to study. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

As O.W.L.s drew near no one had time to make mischief. Hermione goaded even Greg and Vincent into studying, and she and Theo worked on Runes and Arithmancy so late that more than once Draco stumbled down the common room in the middle of the night to find her asleep on the couch mumbling about subjects he couldn’t follow. He’d wake her and wait until she went into her own room to go back to bed. He was grinding away pretty heavily himself as his father had made it clear that he was expected to make a “more than respectable” showing on his exams.

 

He tried to amuse himself by suggesting where Potter could hear him that the head of the Wizarding Examinations Authority was a family friend, but he could tell that didn’t quite take and with all the time he was spending going over his subjects he didn’t have the energy to try anything else.  

 

When the examination schedule was posted he let Hermione make up a study schedule for him. He even followed it.

 

“We get results in July,” he said one night taking what passed for a break on the couch to bury his face in her hair and dream of when this would be over. “All we have to do is get through this and then we can go home and sit in the sun and do glorious nothing all summer.”

 

Hermione was chanting a series of Arithmancy formulae she was trying to memorize and didn’t respond.

 

The first exam was in Charms and, when Hermione tried to go over it afterwards, Theo put his hand over her mouth. “Stop,” he said. “I’m begging you.” The rest of the exams passed in much the same way. They all worked themselves into nervous jitters, took the exam, and then afterward tried to keep Hermione from talking about it. 

 

“Why do you do that?” Daphne finally demanded.

 

“It makes me feel better,” Hermione admitted, twisting her bracelet around and around on her wrist. 

 

The one exam they all quite enjoyed was the practical portion of Defense Against the Dark Arts. “It was great,” Greg said. “That old bat stood there and watched me, waited for me to fail, and I could do  all  of it.” He hugged Hermione in glee and relief. “My dad’ll be so proud.” Hermione and Draco both demonstrated their Patronus Charms, Hermione watching the angry set to Umbridge’s eyes with delight. Take that, you old cow, she thought. We learned it all despite you. 

 

Hermione came out of Runes ranting she’d bungled her translation and Theo shook his head at Draco and mouthed, “I’m hiding” before heading up to their room so she couldn’t follow him. A post-examination Hermione who was convinced she’d done badly was a Hermione to avoid.

 

Astronomy went badly for everyone as, right near the end, Umbridge tried to capture Hagrid and her henchmen ended up stunning McGonagall as Hagrid ran off. The examination was totally disrupted.

 

“That foul woman,” Hermione muttered. “I swear, I’m going to…” But she stopped talking and narrowed her eyes in consideration and after a week and a half of her talking non-stop about everything she had just written and was it right or not everyone was so grateful she was quiet no one asked her what she was going to do.

 

The History of Magic written exam was also disrupted, this time by Potter who suddenly fell to the floor clutching his scar and shrieking. Hermione glared at him as he was helped from the room by one of the examiners. Like she needed that kind of interruption.

 

She was walking with Draco, relieved the whole ordeal was over, when Warrington came running up. “Umbridge,” he gasped, “something about catching Potter in her office. Needs us to round up the lookouts.”

 

Draco sighed in obvious exasperation, but when Hermione rolled her eyes and said, “Just do it, I’ll follow along,” he tagged after Warrington as the Inquisitorial Squad pulled Ginny and Ronald Weasley along with Neville Longbottom from where they were directing traffic away from the hallway outside Umbridge’s office and dragged the lot of them into the woman’s presence, Hermione behind them.

 

“Now,” Umbridge said as they all watched her, fascinated, “you wanted very much to talk to someone. Who was it? Dumbledore? Can’t be McGonagall. After the four stunners she took to the chest she’s still not exactly coherent.”

 

Draco laughed nervously at that and Potter glared at him.

 

“Tell me,” Umbridge demanded.

 

“It’s none of your business who I talk to,” the boy said, nearly spitting at her.

 

“Very well, then I shall force you to talk,” she said. “Draco, go fetch Professor Snape.”

 

With a jaunty wave, Draco headed out the door. Hermione studied Professor Umbridge while fingering her necklace, her eyes going from the toad-like woman to Potter and back again. No one said anything as they waited; Vincent’s arm was wrapped so tightly around Neville he was struggling to breathe, Ginny was held tight by Millie, and Ron lay on the carpet, pinned by Warrington with his lip bleeding, but Umbridge just stood placidly, a half-smile on her face as she waited for Draco to return with Snape.

 

“I need more Veritaserum,” she said as soon as he came in the door.

 

The man looked at her, his habitual sneer on his face. “I already gave you all I had for you to use to interrogate Potter last time; I told you that you only needed three drops. Did you fail to follow instructions, Dolores?”

 

Hermione looked at Potter. Veritaserum was a controlled substance, and it was quite illegal to use it on students without a parent present. Why did she think this Ministry hack had overlooked that little safeguard?

 

“Can’t you make some more?” Umbridge said, her voice becoming even more of a grating simper than usual and Hermione had to keep from laughing.

 

“Absolutely,” Snape said in a bored drawl. “Miss Granger, how long does it take to brew Veritaserum?”

 

“One moon cycle, sir,” she said, and he nodded.

 

“Very good, Miss Granger.” He looked. “About one month then, in case you were having trouble following what ‘one moon cycle’ means. It’s not a potion you would have covered in school, I’m sure, Dolores, as it’s a N.E.W.T. level potion. Miss Granger is a truly remarkable student, working well beyond her years in this subject. A wise person would follow her advice.”

 

“I need to question Potter,” Umbridge said, dismissing Snape’s apparently praise of Hermione. “He was trying to talk to someone outside of the school, and I need to know who it was!”

 

Snape shrugged. “As I have told you, you’ve already used my entire stock of Veritaserum. Unless you’d like me to give you something to poison the boy – a deed I’d be most sympathetic too – I simply cannot help you.”

 

Snape turned to leave, and Potter shrieked, “He’s got Padfoot! He’s got Padfoot in the place where it’s hidden!”

 

Snape looked at Umbridge. “Have you already given him some kind of babbling potion? Not that it matters, of course, since I don’t have any Veritaserum to give you, but you really shouldn’t mix the two. The results can be unpleasant for the user.”

 

“So what he said means nothing to you?” Umbridge pressed.

 

Snape looked at her and then at Vincent and merely said, “Crabbe, if you do not loosen your grip that tiresome boy will likely asphyxiate and I would be most displeased by the paperwork that would generate.” He nodded at Umbridge. “Dolores,” he said and left the room.

 

Umbridge looked at Potter, rage, and frustration battling for dominance on her face. “Very well,” she said. “You leave me no choice. I shall have to use the Cruciatus Curse.”

 

“That’s not legal,” Hermione said, her voice low.

 

“It’s for the good of the Ministry,” Umbridge was nearly panting, and Draco stepped away from her and towards Hermione as if to put himself between the nearly manic woman and the bushy-haired witch.

 

“It’s not right,” Hermione said, her voice louder now. “The Minister wouldn’t want you to break the law.”

 

“What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over,” Umbridge said, pulling her wand out and turning towards Potter. “I sent the Dementors after the boy last summer to give the Minister a chance to expel him, a chance he was happy to take.”

 

“You sent the Dementors,” Potter gaped at her, his mouth wide enough to catch flies.

 

“Someone had to stop you,” Umbridge said. “They all talk and talk and talk, but no one does anything. I… I was willing to do something. I’m willing to do something now.”

 

“But you don’t need to break the law, that’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Hermione said her voice very loud this time, so loud it brought Umbridge up short, and Draco slowly turned her face towards her and narrowed his eyes. “I know who he was talking to,” Hermione said.

 

“Who?” Umbridge demanded.

 

“How?” Greg asked as Vincent stepped on his foot. Hard.

 

“I mean, I don’t know how he thought that would work,” Hermione said, pointing to the fireplace, “but he knows where Dumbledore is, don’t you Potter?”

 

Harry Potter eyed Hermione and said, “How do you know that?”

 

“I overheard you talking to your worthless Weasel sidekick,” Hermione said, scorn in her voice. “Try to keep up, Potter. Honestly, you are about as subtle as a rock.”

 

“Where?” Umbridge demanded.

 

“I don’t know  exactly  where,” Hermione hedged as she looked at Potter who mouthed “Forbidden Forest” at her, “but I know  they  know where he is, and they can take you to him. He was hurt when he escaped the castle, and they’ve been taking care of him, bringing him potions and stuff.”

 

“He’s… not well?” Umbridge didn’t even try to hide her eagerness.

 

Hermione shook her head. “Based on the potions they’ve been stealing – you know I do all the extra Potions work with Professor Snape, right? – he’s barely conscious. Of course, it’s not like Potter is a very good Potions student so – “

 

Umbridge cut her off. “Where  is  he, you… my dear girl?”

 

“Somewhere in the Forbidden Forest,” Hermione said. “You’ll have to have them show you exactly where, though.”

 

Umbridge patted her on the head – “Quite as if I were a dog,” Hermione said later to Theo in exasperation – and turned on Potter.

 

“You’ll lead me out there and show me. Now.” She waved the bleeding Ron off the rug and gestured for Neville and Ginny to come along as well. As she marched them out of the room, Harry Potter turned to Hermione and mouthed, “Thank you.”

 

After they were gone, Draco asked, “I thought you didn’t have a soft spot for Potter anymore. What the  hell  was that all about?”

 

“Revenge,” Hermione said. “Try to make me use a blood quill, will you? Be all snotty about my not being good enough? Bitch.”

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“Look,” she said, sounding exasperated. “What pair of students have been going into that forest since first year with their half-giant friend?”

 

“Potter and Weasley,” Draco said. “Still not following you.”

 

“Why is the forest forbidden?”

 

“Giant spiders,” said Warrington, watching her with an amused glint in his eye.

 

“Centaurs,” Theo offered.

 

“Unicorns,” Greg said, mostly managing to hide the dreaminess in his tone. When the others looked at him, he said, “What? They can run you through with those horns, and they’re very territorial.”

 

“Exactly,” said Hermione. “Who wants to bet that our little Gryffindor friends, the ones who know that forest so very well, will lead her into certain doom before they go off and contact whomever they were trying to call?”

 

“Sometimes,” Draco said, “You’re really fucking scary, you know that?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Sir,” Hermione was scuffing her foot against the floor, and Snape looked at her with some annoyance.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

“I wanted to ask you,” she mumbled, and he gritted his teeth.

 

“Spit it out before I die of old age, Miss Granger.”

 

“Why-didn’t-I-get-to-be-a-prefect?” she got out in a jumbled mess. 

 

He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re taking Runes  and  Arithmancy and this was your O.W.L. year. I told you before I don’t believe in letting students in my House work themselves into nervous breakdowns. Miss Parkinson does not have an academic schedule that even begins to rival yours; she had the time to wander the halls looking for your idiotic classmates and catching them in their pointless shenanigans.”

 

“Oh,” Hermione released tension she hadn’t even been aware she was holding.

 

“You didn’t think it was a blood status thing, did you?” Snape asked with a sigh, and when he saw an expression on her face that confirmed his guess, he pointed to the door. “Get out before you find some new way to insult me, Miss Granger.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

They heard the news when they were in the common room. Theo got it first. “There was an… incident,” he said to Hermione. “Get Greg and Vince and Draco.” When she looked at him, he nearly choked out, “Now!”

 

She was hammering on the dorms and screaming for them immediately, and Theo told them.

 

“There’s been an incident,” he said. “A battle. In the Ministry.”

 

Draco pulled Hermione into his arms and began to shake. The look on Theo’s face said everything he needed to know but the boy went on, relentlessly, his voice level and unfaltering as Daphne took his hand in hers, as Mille held onto Greg. Hermione reached out and took Vince’s hand as they stood there.

 

Potter had gone to the Ministry, lured by vision the Dark Lord had sent him. He’d been meant to go. That had been part of the plan.

 

He was supposed to fetch a prophecy, the one that named him the Chosen One. The Dark Lord had wanted to hear it in its entirety. 

 

They had all been there. The recently escaped Death Eaters. Their fathers. The Dark Lord himself. It hadn’t mattered. Potter had destroyed the prophecy, Dumbledore had appeared, and their side had lost. “They’re all in Azkaban,” Theo said. 

 

“I did this,” Hermione said, her voice low and guilt-ridden. “I sent them out of Umbridge’s office to do this.”

 

“No!” Theo’s voice was anguished but insistent. “He wanted them to go there, you did what He would have wanted.”

 

There was more. Theo turned to Draco. “Your cousin, Sirius, the one Hermione rescued years ago.”

 

“Yes?” Draco asked.

 

“Your Aunt Bella killed him.”

 

“But…” Draco sounded lost, “he was family. Mum said he was family. How could she do that?”

 

“I’ll kill her,” Hermione said, clutching at him, trying to will strength into him with her murderous promises. “I’ll kill all of them. Everyone who… your fathers and Sirius and… they all die. All of them. I’ll kill them all.”

 

“You can’t,” Theo said. She looked at him, and he met her furious gaze with his own. “You have to save some for me.”

 

They saw Potter one more time before school ended. He was, for once, without his sidekick.

 

“You’re dead,” Draco said, and Potter laughed and checked his arms as if seeing that they still worked.

 

“Seem all right to me,” he said.

 

“It’s just a matter of time,” Hermione said, wrapping her arm around Draco and leaning against him, every curve of her body proclaiming her solidarity with the pale and angry boy at her side. “More people sent to prison with trials. I’d think you’d be somewhat against that after Sirius, but I guess you think Death Eaters don’t deserve rights.”

 

“They don’t,” Harry said, glaring at her. 

 

“The Dementors have left Azkaban,” Hermione said, her voice quiet. “They’ll be out soon, home with their families.”

 

“You don’t have to be part of this,” Potter said. “They aren’t your family, Granger. You aren’t evil, not like they are. Not like he is.” Potter jerked his head towards Draco. “Just walk away.”

 

“They are my family,” Hermione corrected him. “And you just sent a member of my family to prison without a trial, and that’s not right.”

 

“Well, I’m shaking,” he sneered at her. “I’m sure you’ll be very tough compared to Voldemort.”

 

If Potter was waiting for her to flinch at the name the way most people did or bluster defiance, he was disappointed because she merely shrugged and repeated her threat. 

 

“Be very careful, Harry Potter,” Hermione said. “Your blood wards will run out, and I’ll be waiting. We’ll all be waiting.”

 

Chapter Text

Hermione didn’t stay at what was nominally her own home that summer; she just dropped off her things and greeted her parents. “I have some independent Potions research to do,” she lied easily, “and the Malfoys have a lab in their house. It’s okay if I stay with them, right?”

 

“Remind me what Potions is?” her father asked.

 

“Sort of wizarding chemistry,” she said, “with a dash of pharmacology thrown in.”

 

“Science then,” he said approvingly. “Have a good time, sweetheart.”

 

“Be polite to Mrs. Malfoy,” her mother said.

 

And that was that.

 

“It’s weird that your parents are so comfortable just letting you run off and stay with me,” Draco said, and she shrugged.

 

“They were never exactly the smothering type even when I was little. They were both busy in their practice and anything that made me more independent they liked. Now? The idea that I’m off doing independent science research is all good. If I were a Muggle, they’d probably have shipped me off to some kind of school-y summer camp anyway so…”

 

“Still weird,” Draco said.

 

He’d been subdued since they’d gotten the news his father was in Azkaban. In between flashes of rage, he sat staring out windows for hours at a time. “We’ll get them,” Hermione would promise. “We’ll get them all.”

 

Malfoy Manor was a tad less comfortable this summer than it had been in the past. Tom Riddle was there most days, surrounded by what Death Eaters weren’t in prison, making plans. This meant Hermione saw little of him at first; she couldn’t quite decide whether that was a relief or a disappointment. The man was terrifying, true, but charismatic. That he’d built a following of people who’d go to prison for him – who’d die for him – wasn’t hard to believe after you spent any time in his presence.

 

He also had a way of making it seem, when he turned his attention onto you, as though you were the cleverest, most interesting person he’d ever met. At dinner one night, after plates had been cleared, he leaned back and regarded Hermione and said, one of those amused half-smiles on his face, “Did I tell you Dumbledore rescued Dolores Umbridge?”

 

Hermione set her wine glass down and prepared to fence. “No,” she said, smiling back. “How disappointing.”

 

Riddle laughed, and Bellatrix Lestrange glowered at Hermione across the table. “Yes, though she’s apparently been traumatized and mostly lies there in her bed without speaking.”

 

“I suppose that’s better than nothing,” Hermione said, “Though I admit I’d hoped she’d never come back.”

 

“Let it be a lesson,” Riddle suggested, “however clever your plans are to eliminate someone – and that was well done indeed, having Potter do your dirty work for you, especially unknowingly – if you really want them dead you have to do it yourself.”

 

Hermione tipped her head to the side as Draco watched them both, his eyes going back and forth from Hermione to Riddle in nervous flickers. “What about delegation?” she asked.

 

“What had she done to you?” Bellatrix interrupted, earning her a slightly annoyed look from Riddle.

 

Hermione glanced at Riddle for tacit permission to respond before she spoke. “She had some issues with my heritage,” she said, her voice sweeter than the cakes the elves were bringing out. “And there was a minor incident with a blood quill.” She patted her mouth with a napkin and thanked the elf who’d slid a dessert plate in front of her. “Really, I just had a problem with her attitude.”

 

“I look forward to seeing into how lethal a weapon I can turn you,” Riddle said. 

 

“It would be my privilege to do anything you might request,” Hermione said, her eyes on Bellatrix, not Riddle. “Though I do hope you don’t totally discourage initiative.”

 

“Indeed not,” Riddle said. “Assuming I think you’re competent.” He picked up a fork and poked at his cake. “To truly please me, you should learn to anticipate what I want. To read between the lines, as it were. Less Peter, perhaps, and more Narcissa if you were seeking models.” He looked up from his cake at her. “But do keep in mind that killing Potter is mine to do.”

 

Bellatrix tittered, a mad cackle that earned her another narrow-eyed glance from Riddle before he began eating the dessert.

 

“You two scare me,” Draco said when they were back in their sitting room. “I can’t tell what he wants from you.”

 

“The same thing he wants from all of us,” Theo said. “Obedience. He’s just giving her a long leash.” He and Daphne were cuddled up on a couch. “You and me, mate, we’ll be soldiers. Elite ones, maybe, but that’s all. You’ll be Minister of Magic someday, and I’ll be your loyal assistant, and we’ll do what Riddle tells us. It’s the drawback of immorality, I guess; you have to use puppets, so you don’t scare the masses too badly. Hermione’ll be…”

 

“Your wife,” she interrupted them. “Just your wife, Draco. A society hostess. Harmless and charitable and a leading figure in non-controversial causes, like feeding children.” She grinned at Daphne, who smiled back, even if her smile was a little wan. Daphne was not quite as comfortable with these high wire dinners as Hermione.  

 

“He wants us to take the Mark this summer,” Draco said. 

 

“Both of you?” Hermione asked, and he nodded.

 

“I’m scared,” he admitted. “It’s supposed to hurt and… I mean, I  want  it.” His voice got lower and harder at the same time. “I’ve wanted it for years and now that Dad’s… I want to… Potter has to pay. They all have to pay.”

 

“It’ll be okay,” she said, pulling him over to her. “I’ll be here when it’s done.” 

 

He reached over to her and fingered the necklace that still looked like a heart to him unless she consciously shifted it. “How come you get jewelry, and I get a scar?” he teased, and she smirked.

 

“Guess he likes me better?”

 

“Or not as much.” Bellatrix was standing in the door. “Probably doesn’t want to actually put his Mark on a Mudblood.”

 

Draco’s fingers curled into a furious claw, but Hermione just smiled and leaned, rather languidly, against the arm of the couch she was on and let her head tilt to the side. “You go on and tell yourself that, Auntie Bella, if it makes you feel better.”

 

“Filth,” the woman snarled again, and then snapped at Draco, “He wants you.  Without  the girl.”

 

“The  girl  has a name,” Draco hissed at her, but Bellatrix just shrugged and waited for him to get up and answer Riddle’s summons. 

 

“You make a good messenger girl, Bella,” Hermione said right before the older witch closed the door with a slam.

 

“I’m curious,” Theo said, “Do you actually like playing with fire or something? Because that woman’s –“

 

“Mad as a sodding hatter,” Hermione said. “I know.”

 

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘don’t poke the crazy’?” Theo asked.

 

“I’m just waiting for permission,” Hermione said, watching the door Bellatrix had exited through. 

 

“Draco’s right,” Theo said, shaking his head. “You are fucking scary.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Riddle summoned them all to one of the lawns one afternoon and tossed a book at Hermione. “ Spelles Moste Fowle?”  she read, a question in her voice.

 

“Practice them away from the house,” he suggested. “I understand you had a little study group last year as you prepared for your O.W.L.s?”

 

Hermione nodded. 

 

“It’s time to expand on that,” he said.

 

“Are any of these  not  banned?” Hermione asked, flipping through the book with rapid movements.

 

“It’s possible,” Riddle admitted. “I don’t really bother keeping up with Ministry rules and regulations.” He turned to go back toward the house, tossing one last comment over his shoulder. “I expect you to know all of those by the start of school, Hermione. Don’t disappoint me.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When Draco and Theo took the Mark, their screams echoed in the Manor. Daphne and Hermione sat with Narcissa and Bellatrix in Narcissa’s private parlour having been absolutely ordered away. Riddle, however, didn’t bother with Silencing Charms and they all heard the sounds.

 

Taking the Mark, as it turned out, was neither painless nor quick.

 

Narcissa sat, her hand clenched around the edge of a chair, her white knuckles the only sign she wasn’t wholly relaxed. Hermione and Daphne played a game of chess, their hands shaking as they moved the pieces. Bellatrix alone displayed no signs of tension at all, laughing wildly as the screams started.

 

“Their first sacrifice for our Lord,” she said between giggles. “How proud you must be, Cissa, how happy that your only child has been found worthy. Would that I had a son I could give to the Dark Lord.”

 

A loud, anguished sound pushed its way into the room, and Narcissa’s hand tightened still further. “But why this worry, Cissa?” Bellatrix asked. “The boy wants it. He, at least, is eager to prove his worth! Those are the sounds of devotion you hear; you should rejoice in them. You should wish for more!”

 

“Get out,” Narcissa said, her voice even and calm and Bellatrix cackled.

 

“You’re cracking, dear Cissa.  Cracking . You’re not worthy to kiss our Lord’s –“

 

“If you do not get out, I will throw you out,” Narcissa said, her tone unmoved by Bella’s accusations. Something in that level tone, however, pierced Bella’s manic glee and the witch glided to the door. 

 

“As you will, Cissa. Rejoice that your son –“

 

“Now,” Narcissa said, her already tone implacable becoming a tad more vicious, and, hearing that, Bellatrix finally left; the door closed silently behind her as another scream filled the air. Hermione immediately crossed to Narcissa’s side and, kneeling in front of her, took her hand.

 

“It will be okay, ma’am,” she said. “Their fathers both endured it, and they were fine. They’ll both be fine, and we’ll take care of them when it’s done.” She squeezed the woman’s hand. “It will be fine. I’m sorry your sister –“

 

“She is no sister of mine,” Narcissa said, almost absently. “My sister died in Azkaban. That… thing… walking around in her body is a broken mirror, reflecting fragments of what once was back at us. But what was once is no more.”

 

Hermione looked up at Narcissa, and the two witches made brief eye contact before another scream rent the air and all three women in the room shuddered.

 

“How long is it going to take?” Daphne finally cried out, releasing all the fear and worry she’d suppressed while Bellatrix was prowling about. “This is  terrible.

 

“Probably several more hours,” Narcissa said.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

When Draco came to, he turned his head, somewhat cautiously, and the lack of pain was a pleasant surprise. “Hermione,” he croaked and the girl, who’d been sitting in a chair by his bed, jerked awake and stared at him for a moment before stumbling forward and flinging herself down to the floor at the side of his bed. She reached out toward him, as though afraid he might break, and he slipped the fingers of one hand into hers.

 

“How long have I been out?” he asked, his voice clearer now.

 

“A few days,” she said, and his eyes widened.

 

Days ?” he asked in horror and looked over at a table that had been set up with potions and what looked like a bowl to catch vomit.

 

Hermione squeezed his fingers. “You seem all right now,” she said. “And you’re a Death Eater. Congratulations.”

 

He watched her face, looking for some sign of bitterness, analyzed her tone, looking for sarcasm. There was none. “Still like me?” he asked very quietly.

 

She pulled herself up, sat on the edge of his bed, and turned his arm over, so the Mark was visible. She looked at it for a bit, as did he. It was a dark stain that went deep into his core, tying him to this movement forever. Her eyes traced it, then her fingers, stroking the lines of the snake and the skull very lightly and Draco could feel himself harden at that soft touch on his arm. He began to think desperately about Quidditch scores, and how much pain he’d been in to get that Mark she was touching, and he was struggling to will the arousal away, and he was so focused on his efforts that he almost missed her words.

 

He would never have forgiven himself if he’d done that.

 

“I love you, Draco Malfoy,” she said. “I will never, ever stop loving you. Through rain and fire and war, never  ever  doubt my love for you.”

 

“I love you, too,” he said, watching her face in wonder.

 

She broke the intensity of the moment by adding, “I’m glad you survived. Riddle decided to tell me at dinner last night that not everyone does.”

 

Draco shuddered. “What did you say?”

 

Hermione grinned at him, and he shuddered again. The way she and Tom Riddle spoke to one another made him want to crawl into a cave and never come out. “I suggested he improve his screening process because that seemed like a lot of effort to put into a potential follower who didn’t even make it.”

 

“And?”

 

“And he laughed, of course, and your Aunt Bella did that thing where she looks at me like she wants nothing more than to start chopping me into tiny bits.”

 

Draco sat up and looked around and realized, in horror, that he was in his actual bedroom. “Hermione, you can’t be in here,” he said frantically. “You need to get out before anyone… fuck! I’ve compromised you. You need to –“

 

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

Draco twisted, following the sound of that voice.

 

Narcissa spoke again from the corner where she’d been sitting in the shadows. “She’s been properly chaperoned every moment she’s been with you. 

 

“Oh.” Draco sagged down in relief.

 

“I will assume your momentary fear I would permit anything untoward to happen under my roof has been brought on by the disorientation of your ordeal,” Narcissa said, coming forward to kiss him lightly. “Now, after several days abed, you’ll want to shower. Come, Hermione.”

 

The woman gestured to Hermione, who obediently stood to follow her hostess. As she did so, her necklace hung down, and Draco reached out and put the tip of his finger on it. The charm was a perfect, miniature copy of the Mark on his arm. “I can see it,” he said in awe.

 

More than see it, he could  feel  the warning in that charm telling everyone who had eyes to see it that the wearer was untouchable. No wonder Bella hadn’t just killed her out of hand.

 

“Of course,” Hermione said. “You’re a Death Eater now.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Over breakfast the next morning, a rather strained affair with Theo and Draco both nibbling at toast as though they were afraid any sudden infusion of solids would return them to the miserable state that had not quite enjoyed over the past few days, Riddle quizzed Hermione on the progress she’d made through the spellbook he’d assigned her. Finally, he leaned back and smiled at her, obviously pleased. “And to think I’d considered killing you.”

 

“A decision you could always reconsider,” Bella muttered.

 

“I’m sorry, Bella, that sounded like you doubted me,” Riddle said, turning to her, his voice light and pleasant as he reached across the table for another scone.

 

The woman said, “I would never doubt you! No one has been as true to you as I have, my Lord. I am your most loyal, your most faithful –“

 

“Yes,” he cut her off, sounding bored. “Unfortunately, you are not also my most  effective , Bella. After that fiasco at the Ministry, I am considering that perhaps if I want mindless, slavering loyalty, I should simply get a dog.”

 

“If Lucius –“ Bella began.

 

“Don’t try to pass your failures onto another,” Riddle said. “The Ministry was a disaster on every side and, since that time, I’ve decided I have to occlude my mind, and rather than feed Potter visions, keep him from any knowledge of my thoughts.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “I’ve come to the conclusion that attacking that boy before the blood ward dissipates is simply not going to work. Lily Potter, whatever her myriad failings, protected him too well.”

 

“Your magic is greater than his, my Lord –“ Bella tried to begin again, and this time Riddle sighed.

 

“Bella, your devotion really is… adorable… but if you could try to stay in the same reality as the rest of us, it would be more helpful.  Obviously , the warding on that boy has stayed my hand multiple times. Simply announcing what is is not isn't loyal. It’s idiotic.”

 

“He is nothing compared to you,” Bella protested, and Riddle began to rub at his forehead.

 

“Bella, leave us,” he said. She sat, frozen, in her seat until he looked at her and said, “Do I need to repeat myself?” at which point, glaring at Hermione as though her banishment from breakfast could be laid at the younger woman’s feet, Bellatrix Lestrange pushed back from the table and stalked out of the room. 

 

Draco and Theo had been watching the exchange with wide eyes.

 

“Do we know when his birthday is?” Hermione asked.

 

“July 31,” Riddle said, watching her.

 

“So, you kill him on August first,” she said with a shrug, “When the ward expires. Do you have a book you can recommend on warding like that? It’s clearly impressive and slippery, and I’d like to see if one could do it without needing to fling oneself in front of a deadly curse as the final seal.”

 

“I’ll have Narcissa track a book down for you; the library here at Malfoy Manor is sadly disorganized.”

 

“I’ll do that,” Narcissa said, smiling as she took the empty seat next to what had been Bella’s place. “What did you do to upset Bella? I passed her in the hall, and she was trying to pull her hair out by the roots.”

 

“Pointed out she was tiresome,” Riddle said.

 

“She’s never cared for that,” Narcissa said as she poured herself some tea. “Did you children know your O.W.L. results are expected today?”

 

Hermione’s face became immediately filled with utter terror. “I know I bungled Runes,” she moaned. “That translation. And Astronomy with that horrible woman trying to… and Potter’s little meltdown during History of Magic… and…”

 

“Honestly,” Theo muttered, “will you shut up? You’re not the only nervous one, you know.”

 

“Don’t,” Hermione moaned, burying her face in her hands. “I know I’ve failed all of them.”

 

“What happens if we did fail everything?” Daphne asked, her face pale.

 

“We meet with Snape to ‘discuss what few, unappealing options will remain to you.’” Hermione said with despair. “I asked him at the end of last term.”

 

Narcissa and Tom Riddle exchanged amused glances. “I’m sure that, no matter what your results are, you’ll all go on to lead happy and productive lives,” Narcissa said. “Though, of course, I hope you’ve all made a respectable showing.”

 

“Go and wait for your results someplace else,” Riddle said, despite looking amused. “Your adolescent hysteria is almost as annoying as Bella.”

 

They all rose and fled the room to the sound of Narcissa and Riddle’s laughter.

 

When the owls did arrive, Hermione refused to open her own envelope. Draco had to take it off the leg of the increasingly impatient owl as she just stood in the entry hall and shook. Daphne was able to untie her own results though she just stood looking at the envelope for several long minutes. Theo just muttered, “It can’t possibly be worse than getting that Mark,” and opened his right up.

 

“How did I get an ‘Exceeds Expectations’ in Divination?” Daphne was the first one to speak. “I made everything up. Everything. All of it.”

 

“Eight O.W.L.s,” Draco nearly sagged with relief as he looked over his sheet. “And an ‘Outstanding’ in Potions and Defense.”

 

Theo yanked Hermione’s unopened envelope out of her hand and, prying it open said, “Why did you only get an ‘E’ in Runes?”

 

She said, her voice very small, “It was that translation. I knew I bungled it.”

 

Theo rolled his eyes and handed her the sheet. “You… you utter  git ,” she said, reaching out to hit him. “I got an ‘Outstanding’ in Runes. And you knew I was worried about that one. I take back every nice thing I’ve ever said about you!”

 

He dodged out of the way and grinned. “You’ve said nice things?”

 

Draco came up behind her and read the sheet over her shoulder. “Merlin, Hermione. Nine ‘Outstanding’s. I knew you were a swot, but that’s insane.”

 

She was folding up the paper and slipping it back in the envelope and Draco, looking at her, said, “You’re not disappointed, are you?” She shook her head, but he grabbed her and pulled her into a hug. “You idiot.”

 

“So… now we’re N.E.W.T. students,” Daphne said, looking relieved and worried at the same time.  

 

“Let’s go swimming,” Theo said. “Summer’s lease expires and something about a short date and all.”

 

“What?” said Draco.

 

“He means summer will be over soon, and we’ll be back at school dealing with all those jerks,” Hermione said, “so we should go to the pool now.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

They were at Madam Malkin’s getting fitted for the year’s school robes when they had the not exactly delightful experience of running into Potter again. Draco was up on the platform while Madam Malkin took up his hem. 

 

“Ow,” he muttered. “Watch where you shove those pins!”

 

Hermione, who had several blood spots of her own from the woman’s vigorous pinning, flinched in sympathy.

 

“I simply cannot permit you children to wander off alone,” Narcissa was saying from the back room as the door opened and Potter and Weasley came into the shop. 

 

“Honestly, Mum,” Draco muttered, “I’m not six. I’m perfectly capable of going shopping without you. I’ll bring Hermione with me to make sure I stay out of whatever trouble it is you imagine I’m going to get into in broad daylight.” He looked over at the pair of boys standing in the doorway and sneered, “And if you wondered what the smell was, a blood-traitor just came into the shop.”

 

Madam Malkin said, spitting all the pins out of her mouth, “There’s no need for that.” She looked over at the boys in her doorway who both had pulled their wands and were pointing them at Draco and added, “and no wands drawn in my shop.”

 

“Always violence and bad choices with you two, isn’t it?” Hermione drawled. “Do you have any response to words and point taking other than lashing out this way?” She turned to Draco and said, in a stage whisper, “I think they might have problems with self-regulation, kind of like toddlers.”

 

“That’s quite enough,” Madam Malkin said. “Madam, please…” she called out to Narcissa who appeared from behind a rack of clothing and eyed Potter and Weasley with disdain.

 

“Put your wands away. If you attack my son again, I will make sure it is the last thing you ever do.” She glanced at Hermione. “Assuming there’s anything left of you after she’s done.”

 

“Really?” Potter walked up to Narcissa and stared her in the face. “Going to get a few Death Eater pals to do us in?”

 

Hermione stepped between the two as Madam Malkin squealed and gasped and sputtered at the mention of Death Eaters. “Tick tock, Potter. That blood ward’s going to expire eventually.”

 

Potter did not lower his wand though he took a step back. “Being Dumbledore’s favorite has given you a false sense of safety,” Narcissa said quietly, “but he won’t always be around.”

 

Potter made a show of looking around. “Gosh, he’s not here now. Why don’t you have a go at me? I bet they could find a nice double cell for you and your Death Eater husband in Azkaban.”

 

“Don’t speak to my mother like that,” Draco hissed and took a step towards Potter, tripping on the hem Madam Malkin hadn’t finished pinning up and stumbling off the platform and into Hermione.

 

Narcissa put a hand on his shoulder, and the three of them stood there, facing down the two teenage boys who still had their weapons drawn. “It’s quite all right, Draco,” she said. “I suspect Potter will be reunited with dear Sirius before I am reunited with Lucius.”

 

Harry raised his wand higher.

 

“Do you really want to do that, Potter?” Hermione whispered. “You really want to shoot a woman down because you don’t like the way she spoke to you? Even Dumbledore can’t protect you if you do that.”

 

Narcissa watched Potter as he held his wand on her without moving. She might have been watching an uninteresting play at a theatre she’d gone to as a favor to a friend.

 

“I don’t think I want these anymore,” Draco said, stripping off the robes and tossing them to the floor.

 

“You’re quite right,” Narcissa said. “Now that we know who shops here, I think we’ll be better served elsewhere.” 

 

She gestured toward the door, and the three of them walked out, Draco managing to ram into Weasley as hard as he could as he passed.

 

Once outside, Narcissa took a deep breath. “I think,” she said, “after that little altercation I might want a glass of wine before we go on to our next stop. Run off, you two, and do whatever illicit shopping you have in mind. Draco, no rings. Your father would be devastated if he were not there to take you ring shopping.”

 

“Yes, Mum,” Draco said, trying not to glower back at Madam Malkin’s.

 

“I’ll meet you at the restaurant,” Narcissa said. “Hermione, keep him out of trouble.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Hermione said. “You can count on me.”

 

Narcissa leaned forward and kissed Hermione lightly on one cheek. “I know, dear girl.” She made a shooing motion with her hand. “Now, go. It doesn’t take me that long to drink a single glass, so be quick about whatever it is you’re doing.”

 

Once Narcissa turned toward the restaurant and a glass of wine to settle her nerves, Hermione looked at Draco. “Borgin and Burkes?” she said, and he nodded, and the two of them set off, glancing back toward the robe shop to make sure they weren’t being followed.

 

Once inside the shop, Hermione pointed at the cabinet and said, “That. We want that.”

 

Mr. Borgin looked at her and said, his voice oily, “It’s broken, but perhaps I could interest that lady –“

 

“And we want it repaired,” Draco added.

 

“If I knew how to repair it, Mr. Malfoy, I assure you it would be. But you can’t repair just one half of a vanishing cabinet set. Let me –“

 

Draco slid his sleeve up, careful to keep his arm out of sight of any passers-by on the street and, looking at the Mark, Mr. Borgin swallowed hard. Hermione leaned against the counter and said, “We want it fixed, and we want you to keep it safe here, and we want you to forward us any information you find on repairing them.”

 

“But, like I said,” the man was starting to sweat, little beads of moisture at his hairline, and he was stammering out his refusal, “you just c-can’t fix one half of a –“

 

“We have the other one, you idiot,” Draco said. “That’s why we want this one fixed.”

 

“Y- yes. I… if you have the other one, there are things I can try… “

 

“We’ll take this necklace too,” Draco said, pointing to a display of a cursed bit of jewelry.

 

“Draco,” Hermione hissed. “That is not going to work; we’ve talked about this.”

 

“And I still think you’re wrong,” he muttered as Mr. Borgin tried to hide how interested he was in this conversation.

 

“Fine,” she said. “When it doesn’t work, which it  won’t,  you owe me a foot rub.”

 

“What will you give me if I’m right?” Draco asked with a bit of a leer, and she rolled her eyes. 

 

“Dream on,” she said. “Let’s get back to your mother.”

 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

 

When they settled into their train compartment to return to Hogwarts, there were so many of them it was crowded.

 

“Friends,” Hermione said with a happy sigh as she sat down. Draco sat next to her, taking up far more than his fair share of space, and laid his head on her lap. She began running her fingers through his fine, pale hair marveling, as always, how each strand was translucent, but when they layered onto each other, they became the fair blond hair he was known for. 

 

Greg sat across from them with Vincent, who’d pulled out a comic book and, slouching down, was losing himself in the adventures of a superhero and his villainous nemesis.

 

Millie squeezed in next to Greg, and Blaise shoved Draco’s feet to the floor, sitting down next to him, pulling Luna onto his lap, and burying his face into her hair. Theo took one look at the full compartment and said, “I’ll find someplace else. I like you people but not enough to sit on a lap.” 

 

Daphne, her hand tucked into his, laughed but said, “Shouldn’t you be off doing prefect things, Draco?”

 

“I have other things to do this year,” he said dismissively. Daphne and Hermione made quick eye contact before Daphne made a lewd gesture towards her mouth with her hand and both girls snickered. Greg swallowed a laugh and Vincent looked up, confused since he’d missed the whole thing.

 

“He wishes,” Hermione said. “See you at school, Daph?” 

 

“Absolutely,” the other girl said as she and Theo waved and headed off to find another compartment.

 

They’d barely gotten themselves settled before a third-year girl opened the door and, before Draco could yell at her, thrust a scroll tied with ribbon towards Blaise. “I’m s-supposed to give this to you.”

 

He took it from her with a word of thanks and a smile that made her blush and trip over her shoes on the way out. Once she was gone, he opened it, groaned and, at Greg’s curious look, tossed it over to the other boy.

 

“What is it?” Draco asked from his place on Hermione’s lap.

 

“An invitation,” Greg said. “Why would anyone want to have lunch with a teacher?”

 

“Power,” said Hermione softly. When Greg looked at her, she said, “He’s making connections, I bet.”

 

“But why  Blaise ?” Greg asked. “Why not  Draco ?”

 

“I do realize I’m not quite as close to wizarding royalty as his blondness over there,” Blaise drawled, “but my mum  is  a fairly famous beauty.”

 

“She  is ?” Greg asked, and Hermione sighed.

 

“Yes, Greg,” she said. “Elora Zabini is a celebrity.”

 

“Wow,” the boy said, looking at Blaise with wide eyes.

 

“Don’t be that impressed,” Blaise said with a snort. “All she is is pretty and conniving.”

 

“Like you?” Luna suggested, and he put his mouth on her neck and, as he nipped her with his teeth, she squeaked.

 

“I think I’ll try to avoid her habit of marrying very wealthy men who, inevitably, tragically, develop some kind of fatal illness shortly after the wedding.”

 

“Well, you don’t like boys,” Luna said logically, and he bit her again.

 

“Find out what he’s doing,” Hermione suggested as Blaise rose to go. 

 

He blew her a kiss. “I’ll do that, principessa.”

 

When he returned, the door to their compartment got stuck and wouldn’t shut all the way, and Blaise muttered, “What is wrong with this thing?” as he grabbed it and tried to force it closed. As he was slamming it repeatedly into whatever was jamming it open, the door suddenly flew open, and Blaise was thrown into Greg’s lap. 

 

“Well, hi there,” said Mille, giggling at him as he swore and sprung up. Luna stood up and managed to get the door closed while Draco stared at the seat she’d vacated as if he’d seen a ghost. Blaise got himself settled back into his own seat and pulled Luna back onto him. Vincent grunted in evident annoyance at the ruckus and flipped a page of his comic and Hermione went back to running her fingers through Draco’s hair.

 

“How was it?” Hermione asked, and Blaise snorted.

 

“He’s a walking definition of a sycophant, not that he found a lot of people to make up to.” He looked at her. “I told him all about you. ‘Brightest witch of our year,’ I said. The first Muggle-born sorted into Slytherin in centuries. I even told him you’d been doing Potions work with Snape. I expect you’ll get an invitation to the next one.”

 

“That wasn’t nice,” she said, sending a mock glower his way.

 

“Hey,” Blaise said, slipping his fingers under Luna’s shirt and resting them against her skin, “if I have to put up with that nonsense, so do you. You escaped having to do the Inquisitorial Squad last year –“

 

“As did you,” she pointed out.

 

“– so now it’s your turn to take one for the team.”

 

“Who else was there?” Draco asked.

 

“Potter, of course,” Blaise said. “McLaggen –“

 

“His father’s big at the Ministry,” Draco admitted.

 

“- Belby from Ravenclaw –“

 

“Really?” Millie wrinkled her nose.

 

“- and Longbottom and the Weasley girl.”

 

“Longbottom?” Even Hermione sounded confused about that one.

 

“The  Weasley  girl?” Millie asked. “Why her?”

 

“She’s pretty,” Luna said.

 

“Not as pretty as you,” Blaise said.

 

Draco sounded sullen and aggrieved as he muttered, “Maybe he didn’t know I was on the train. I’m sure once we get to school – “

 

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Blaise cut him off. “He asked about Theo’s father, and as soon as I mentioned he’d been caught at the Ministry, he looked very unhappy. I don’t think he wants anything to do with Death Eaters.”

 

“But…” Hermione said, and Draco shoved an elbow into her side, and she stopped talking. 

 

“Who cares what some old has-been thinks of me,” Draco’s voice had become clearer and louder as if he wanted to make sure everyone understood every word he said. “Things are changing and who cares how many O.W.L.s or N.E.W.T.s you get? It’s going to be all about –“

 

“Connections,” Hermione cut him off. “And loyalty. Anyone who refuses to associate with… you know… will find themselves out in the cold.” She glanced over at Blaise, who puckered his lips and blew another kiss at her over Luna’s shoulder.

 

“Keep me warm?” he suggested.

 

“You are such a lech,” she muttered as Luna said, “The beds at Hogwarts are too small for three people.”

 

As they pulled near to Hogwarts, they all stood up and started hauling their trunks down. There was a gasp as Greg yanked his down and Hermione and Draco exchanged a glance but didn’t say anything as they began pulling on their school robes. When the train halted, Greg threw the door open and shoved his way out into the corridor, pushing some second years out of the way and gesturing with his arm for Millie to exit. Blaise and Luna also took advantage of the path he’d cleared and Vincent followed them. Hermione stopped at the door, looked at Draco, and said, “Don’t make any mistakes.”

 

He nodded and said, “I’ll see you inside.”

 

She slipped out the door and watched as he lowered the blind on the window.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

When Draco joined her at the Sorting Feast, Hermione just raised her eyebrows, and the boy smirked at her. She pressed herself up onto her toes and kissed him on the tip of his nose.

 

“Could you two try not to be so sickeningly cute all the damn time?” Pansy muttered as they found seats at their table.

 

“Sorry, Pans,” Hermione said, leaning her head on Draco’s shoulder. 

 

“Looks like this year’s new Defense teacher is a man again,” Daphne said, pointing up at Slughorn with her fork. “Glad we’re rid of Umbridge.”

 

The first years were sorted, and the Hat made more noises about working together in the face of a common enemy; noises all of Slytherin ignored. They  were  the common enemy as far as much of the school was concerned, so there wasn’t much point in paying even lip service to the idea of mutual cooperation. When Potter came in late, hauled by Snape and covered in blood, Greg looked at Draco and said, “What did you do?”

 

He mimed breaking the boy’s nose, and their section of the table laughed. 

 

Vincent looked down the table. A girl with way too much black eyeliner was staring at him. “Daphne,” he hissed. “Is that your little sister?”

 

Daphne looked down the table and sighed. “Yes,” she muttered. “Do  not  encourage her.”

 

“Why is she staring at me?” Vincent said nervously.

 

“Lord Voldemort has returned,” Dumbledore was saying, and the whole Hall fell silent as he reassured them the castle was impregnable but that, just in case, they should follow any increased restrictions on their movements without complaint.

 

“Nothing like a threat to justify stripping people of even what few freedoms they have,” Hermione muttered. Draco was just balancing his fork in the air above his plate, ignoring the speech.

 

When Slughorn was introduced as  not  the Defense teacher but as the new Potions teacher, Hermione looked up sharply at Snape. Dumbledore’s confirmation that Professor Snape would be taking over the Defense position made her smile but pulled a clearly involuntary but very loud, “No!” from Potter. 

 

“Manners clearly not big in his household,” Theo observed as heads throughout the hall swiveled to look at the Chosen One.

 

“Nor common sense,” Hermione said. “Remember last year with Umbridge? It’s as if his goal is to antagonize everyone with the power to make his life unpleasant.”

 

“No self-control,” Theo agreed.

 

Hermione smiled at him. “Weaknesses are for exploiting.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

The first Defense Against the Dark Arts class could be politely described as interesting. Professor Snape didn’t prevent Hermione from sitting with Draco this time though the warning look he shot her was clear. He’d hung grisly pictures along the wall and drawn the curtains turning what had been a terrifyingly cheery room filled with kittens and sunshine into a gloomy place with looming shadows.

 

Hermione thought of Tom Riddle, the epitome of Dark Arts, sitting in Narcissa’s sunny breakfast room and had to suppress a smile as she reached down into her bag.

 

“I don’t recall asking you to take out your book, Miss Granger,” Snape said, and she dropped it as fast as she could.  

 

“You have had five instructors in this subject,” Snape began, prowling around the room, “each less competent than the last. I am shocked that any of you managed to so much as pass your O.W.L.s, much less do well enough to begin N.E.W.T. level work. Nevertheless, here we are. Whether you will be able to keep up remains, of course, unknown though I have my doubts. I shall not enforce attendance; if you wish to, I believe the term is ‘skiv off,’ and spare the rest of us your inept struggles, please do so.”

 

The class stared at him in silence as he glowered. “The Dark Arts,” he went on, “are not the simple little things you cretins have learned thus far. They are not  creatures  and  charms . They are fluid and dynamic, ever-changing, and indestructible. Darkness is part of magic and cannot be eradicated any more than you could have the day without the night. Darkness,” he looked over the room, “is part of you.”

 

Potter hissed in a breath and seemed about to speak when Snape went on.

 

“Therefore, if you wish to fight it, you must be as supple as darkness itself. You must be creative. You must be inventive.” He took a deep breath and strode back toward his desk, his robes billowing like wings behind him. “We shall start with non-verbal spells. You are, I am sure, complete novices in this area. Who can tell me the advantage of wordless casting?”

 

Hermione shoved her hand into the air, and Snape sighed.

 

“Must it always be your hand in the air, Miss Granger?” He looked around, and when no one else seemed willing to hazard a guess, he said, “Very well. Try to use small words, Miss Granger. I am not as impressed by your vocal excesses as some of your other professors.”

 

“Because your adversary has no warning about what kind of magic you’re going to perform, you have a split second advantage,” she said.

 

“Quoted almost exactly from  The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Six ,” Snape sneered at her. “Correct, but also illustrating exactly the kind of hidebound, conservative thinking that will get you killed on a battlefield, Miss Granger. You do not need, in magic, to always follow the rules. You are a witch;  make  the rules.”

 

She flushed, and Draco sniggered at her side. Her sharp elbow to his ribs shut him up, and he rubbed his side and glared at her.

 

“Not all wizards can do this, of course.” Snape was glaring at Potter now. “It takes the ability to control your mind and focus your will. Divide into pairs and attempt to jinx your partner in silence as your partner attempts to repel the jinx, also in silence.” He paused, and when no one moved added, “It would be best if you started before class has ended.”

 

With that, they all sprang to their feet, and Hermione and Draco faced off against one another. Snape didn’t know – or maybe he did – that all the Slytherins were quite competent in Shield Charms though the additional complication of silence meant it took her ten minutes to repel Draco’s muttered Jelly-Legs Jinx. “You’re cheating,” she said with a grin. “You’re supposed to not say it out loud at  all,  not just say it quietly.”

 

“Harpy,” he muttered. “You try it.”

 

Snape was hovering over Weasley and Potter as they struggled to jinx and shield in silence. Weasley, predictably, was failing and Snape finally said, “You are pathetic, Weasley. Let me demonstrate.” 

 

He tossed a silent jinx at Potter, who yelled out, “ Protego .” The whole class turned at the sudden shout, and Snape, who’d been knocked into a desk by the force of the Shield Charm said, very quietly, “You do recall you are supposed to be practicing nonverbal shields, Potter?”

 

“Yes,” the boy muttered.

 

“Yes,  sir ,” Snape snapped.

 

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ Professor,” Potter said.

 

Hermione stepped back a few feet in shock as she sucked in her breath at the sheer and utter cheek; even she, who Snape  adored , would never have dared speak to him that way. Draco wrapped an arm around her and waited, in obvious pleasure, for the response. 

 

“Detention, Potter,” the man said, his eyes glittering.

 

Potter scowled, but Hermione thought he’d gotten off rather lightly. Of course, her other mentor took even less kindly to sass than Professor Snape. Or so she assumed; she wasn’t stupid enough to test him.

 

“Miss Granger,” Snape said. “I will see  you on  Thursday evenings. I do not intend to let your Potions work falter.”

 

“Yes, sir,” she said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The sixth-year Slytherin boys sat around in Draco’s room. Theo and Draco had shown off their Marks and, when Greg asked how much it had hurt to get, Theo had turned pale and Draco had momentarily looked like he was going to throw up.

 

“That bad, huh?” Blaise asked. 

 

“Worse,” Theo said shortly. 

 

“And we’re all going to have to do it,” Greg said, swallowing hard.

 

They all stared at one another and then, eager to change the subject, Vincent reached into his trunk and pulled out a stack of magazines. “As requested,” he said. “Muggle magazines.”

 

Draco snatched one off the top and opened it. “The way they don’t move is a little weird,” he said. “Still…”

 

Men’s World .” Theo read the title of one and opened it. “Vincent, you’re a good man.”

 

Greg held one out towards Blaise, who said, “No, I’m good.”

 

“Too posh for girlie mags?” Draco sneered, and Blaise laughed.

 

“Have you  met  Luna?” he asked. “I’m not exactly going without and if I need wank material, well, trust me, she’s provided plenty.”

 

They all stared at him, and he laughed again. “Sorry you sad bastards have girlfriends who –“

 

“Watch it,” Theo said.

 

“Hey,” Blaise held his hands up in apparent surrender. “Good girls, all of them. Following the quaint little pureblood codes about saving themselves. Very sweet. Very nice. I’ll take my Luna, thanks.”

 

Four boys glared at him with resentment and envy in their eyes before Greg broke the silence. “I’ll take this one,” he said, picking up a copy of  Mayfair

 

 

Chapter Text

Hermione walked into the first Potions class of the year feeling faintly melancholy. Potions had been - since she’d come to Hogwarts - the place she’d felt most at home outside the dormitories. Snape had insulted her, thrown things at her, sneered at her, even, to some extent, confided in her. She trusted him absolutely. Now, this odd sanctuary was going to be invaded by a man who liked to acquire students who might be powerful later, and students who were related to the powerful.

 

If Blaise had played his cards right, her.

 

It left a bad taste in her mouth.

 

She watched the students slip into the room. Only twelve of them had progressed to N.E.W.T. level Potions work, and she gathered at a table with Draco, Theo, and Blaise. The Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff students sat together, leaving Weasley and Potter to sit alone. The room was already filled with bubbling cauldrons, and wonderful smells, and Hermione inhaled deeply.

 

Professor Slughorn waddled into the room and smiled genially at all of them but far more warmly at Potter and Blaise. “Welcome, welcome,” he said. “N.E.W.T. Potions is where it starts to get interesting, and I thought we’d explore a few of the draughts you’ll be learning to make this year plus one more that is really far too complicated for you to tackle but, oh, worth discussing anyway because I want to make this first class a little, well, sporting shall we say.

 

“Please take all your things out and don’t forget your copy of  Advanced Potion Making, ” Slughorn continued, and Potter raised his hand.

 

“Harry, yes m’boy?” the man asked, and Hermione looked at Theo, whose expression mirrored her own feeling of disgust at the cheerful, ingratiating familiarity. 

 

“Ron and I don’t have, well, anything because we didn’t realize we’d be able to take Potions until we got here.”

 

Well, Hermione knew who  hadn’t  gotten ‘Outstanding’s on their Potions O.W.L. She felt a tiny bit ashamed at how smug she felt that she and hers had done better than the two Gryffindors on the exam. Slughorn was nattering on about that was quite all right, and he was sure that they had some old books around the pair could use and, fishing some out of a storeroom and handing them over, and, at last, the class was ready to begin.

 

Slughorn pointed to a clear liquid boiling away. “Now then, let’s see who can identify these.”

 

No one responded and, at last, Hermione put her hand up. He nodded at her, and she said, “Veritaserum. Colourless, odorless, and forces the drinker to tell the truth. Shouldn’t be mixed with Babbling potions.”

 

“Well done Miss…” he glanced down at his roster. As the only girl in the class, she was easy to identify. “Granger.”

 

He moved on to the next potion, a bubbling mud-like substance. Draco, Theo, and Hermione all smiled at one another. They recognized Polyjuice from their adventure brewing it in their second year. When no one responded, Theo nudged Hermione and, with a sigh, she put her hand into the air again.

 

“Polyjuice Potion,” she said when Slughorn acknowledged her. 

 

“Well,” he said, “I suppose I might as well simply ask you outright what this third one is, Miss Granger.”

 

She looked at the potion with its mother-of-pearl sheen and the spirals of steam rising into the air. “Amortentia,” she said softly. “A powerful love potion. It’s different for each person; it smells like what they love most in the world.” She paused and inhaled. “Like a broom handle, maybe, and herbs, and...” She trailed off and flushed.

 

“A  broom handle ?” Theo asked under his breath. “You  hate  flying.”

 

“Shut up, Theo,” she muttered.

 

“Miss Granger,” Slughorn regarded her with great interest. “Could you possibly be related to Hector Dagforth-Granger, the founder of the Most Extraordinary Society of Potioneers?”

 

“I doubt it, sir,” Hermione said. “I’m Muggle-born.”

 

She waited for the usual quickly concealed recoil, but Professor Slughorn did no such thing; instead, he seemed to become even more excited. “Of course! Mr. Zabini told me about you. You’re the first Muggle-born sorted into our illustrious House in much too long. Welcome, my dear girl. Such a delight to meet you. I’ll expect great things from you this year! Great things! For now, twenty points to Slytherin for your good work in identifying all those potions.”

 

He turned to the class and said, “Shall we begin?”

 

“Sir?” Ernie Macmillan had his hand up. “You haven’t told us what that one is.” He pointed to a small, black cauldron in which a golden liquid bubbled and frothed.

 

“Oh,” Slughorn said, and Hermione was quite sure he’d waited to be asked about that one so he could reveal it with a showman’s flair for timing. “That is Felix Felicis.”

 

Draco stiffened next to her, and Hermione immediately knew that he wanted it. This year – their task – would be made easier with liquid luck on hand.

 

“Yes,” Slughorn continued, “A difficult potion to make – certainly far more than we’ll tackle this year – and hugely problematic if you get it wrong but if it's done right… oh, if it’s done right, you can take it and have a perfect day. Addictive, I’m afraid, and dangerous in large quantities, but a little bit once or twice in a lifetime is… perfect.” He smiled dreamily as though recalling such a perfect day.

 

Hermione fervently hoped he didn’t begin reminiscing.

 

“Now, to make today’s potion-making a bit of a sporting challenge, whoever makes the best Draught of Living Death shall get this potion as a reward.”

 

“In the bag,” Theo whispered. “We’ve got Hermione.”

 

Except it  wasn’t  in the bag. She followed the instructions in her book, and yet the potion didn’t turn the right color. It stubbornly stayed a dark purple when it should have turned lavender. She got more and more frustrated as the class went on, and soon she was pushing steam soaked hair out of her face and bottling in the urge to swear.

 

She’d failed. 

 

Failed .

 

Failed when making the potion could have mattered, could have gotten them a prize that would help in their real assignment. An assignment they  couldn’t  fail. 

 

The only consolation was that everyone else seemed to have failed as well. Draco, Blaise, and Theo – excellent potioneers all – had dark purple potions identical to hers. The Ravenclaws all looked furious, as did Ernie Macmillan. She didn’t even bother looking at Weasley and Potter; they’d gotten into the class by the proverbial skin of their teeth, and if no one else had managed the draught surely they hadn’t either.

 

Only… Potter had. She almost dropped her wooden spoon into her cauldron when she heard Slughorn congratulate him on a perfect potion. “Just like your mother,” the man exclaimed. “She was a dab hand at Potions, she was.”

 

Hermione looked up slowly. Potter was grinning like a fool as the Professor handed him the vial of Felix. He saw her staring at him and gave her a cocky smirk.

 

“How did you do that?” she heard Weasley ask as they left the classroom. She lingered because it was  exactly  the question to which she wanted to know the answer.

 

“Just lucky, I guess,” Potter said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

She dreaded her first Potions meeting with Snape. 

 

“Failed?” He looked at her as she huddled in her seat in his office. “You  failed  to make the Draught of Living Death correctly?”

 

“I followed the instructions,” she whispered as he paced in front of her.

 

“Years of private instruction and the first chance you have to demonstrate your skills to one of my colleagues, and you  fail ?” Snape hissed. “Have I wasted my time? Are you the same, worthless dunderhead all your classmates are?”

 

“I… I’m sorry,” she whispered.

 

“And, worse,” Snape continued, “ Potter  succeeds.” He stopped right in front of her chair as she stared at the floor. “What do you have to say for yourself, Miss Granger?”

 

“I followed the instructions,” she repeated, and Snape snorted with outright derision.

 

“That is what keeps you from being truly extraordinary, Miss Granger. You continue to think if you just ‘follow the instructions,’” his tone twisted the words into a veritable insult, “you’ll somehow come out on top. You need to  stop  reciting textbooks at me and  stop  believing the answers are all in books. You need to be  creative . You need to  think .”

 

“I’m sorry, sir,” she whispered again, huddling further down into her seat. 

 

He huffed out a loud breath and glared at her. “We shall begin this year by analyzing the steps involved in making the Draught of Living Death. Pull out your textbook and read the ‘instructions’ to me.”

 

Her hands shaking Hermione did as she was told. When she got to the part about cutting the sopophorous bean, Snape stopped her. “Why,” he asked in a tired voice, “do you cut the bean up instead of throwing it in whole?”

 

She said, her throat tight around the tears she was holding back, “to get more of the… the bean stuff –“

 

He cut her off. “Be more specific. What ‘bean stuff’?”

 

“The juice?” she asked.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

She thought for a moment and nodded. “The juice. If you wanted the solids, it wouldn’t matter if you threw it in whole.”

 

“Exactly. Now, if you want the juice of one bean pod, is slicing the beans the  best  way to release the juice.” He watched her think and added, “Consider garlic.”

 

She looked up, a spark of excitement in her eye for the first time. “Crushing garlic works better. You… you  crush  the beans?” Her voice got faster. “You  do . You have to crush them to get all the juice you need to… but why isn’t that in the book?”

 

He shrugged. “If you have fresh beans, it doesn’t matter. If you have the kind of old, dried up stock you find in a school, it can. I suspect Slughorn didn’t bother to get you fresh ingredients. How many times, you stupid girl, have I told you ingredient preparation is the absolute key to potions work?”

 

She studied his face. He was watching her with a hint of pride back in his face, and she sniffled. “I’ll get it,” she said. “I promise. I’ll be the best potioneer you’ve ever taught and -”

 

Snape looked at her and sighed, cutting off her stream of promises. “You are going to be the death of me, child.”

 

“I just want to make you proud,” she said, still huddled down in her chair.

 

“Well,” he said, “your performance in your first class with Slughorn certainly didn’t but… your ability to think through the cause of your failure did. We’ll talk about clockwise and counterclockwise stirring next week and why you’d choose one over the other and, I swear, if you even think about answering ‘because the book said to’ I will actually hit you.”

 

“Professor Snape?”

 

“What?”

 

“How come Potter could do it?”

 

Snape looked at her and said, “I have no idea.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“They searched the house again,” Draco said over breakfast.

 

“What?” Pansy asked.

 

“The Ministry,” Hermione answered for Draco. “They did it once this summer. Broke a fucking vase and laughed, pulled things out of drawers and left them strewn all over. Trashed the whole place. Looking for Dark artifacts.”

 

“They find any?”

 

“Don’t be insulting,” Draco said with a glare. “Stupid Arthur Weasley showed up this time, acting on a ‘confidential tip.’”

 

“Harassment,” Hermione muttered.

 

“’ This second search of the Death Eater’s residence does not seem to have yielded any results,’”  Draco read the article from the  Prophet  aloud. “Of course it didn’t. Idiots.”

 

Hermione put her hand on his arm. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

“Fuckers,” he muttered and closed the paper, tossing it across the table.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

School was exhausting. Hermione and Theo spent hours working on Arithmancy and Runes, and they all stayed up late most nights writing essays. Hermione stared, resentfully, as in class after class Potter demonstrated a newfound mastery of Potions that made no sense to her whatsoever. 

 

Her own Potions work was… good. It was getting better. Snape no longer just set her to brewing and chopping; he made her analyze every recipe and tell him  why  things had to be done a certain way while pushing her to figure out how to make it better. It was the hardest work she’d ever done, and she broke down crying afterward at least half the time. It was worth it, though, for the rare times he’d say, “Yes. Good insight.”

 

The first time he did it, she flung herself at the man and actually hugged him. He stood stiffly under her embrace and finally said, “Let. Me. Go.”

 

She did, but she grinned at him as she pushed her hair out of her face.

 

“You need to tie that hideous mess back for the lab,” he said.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

How Potter was making even more progress on his own baffled her.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Vincent was leaning up against the wall of the castle, passing a joint to Greg when he realized Daphne’s weird little sister was staring at him again. She had a black notebook out and was writing something. Greg waved her over as Vincent hissed, “What are you doing?”

 

“Making sure she’s not up to something,” Greg said in an undertone. “She’s practically become your stalker.” Then, when she came up to them, slouched and tossing hair out of her face, he said, “Hey… it’s Tory right?”

 

“Yeah,” she said. 

 

“Whatcha doing?” he asked, and she tossed that hair – had she dyed it black? Why? – out of her face again and reached for the joint.

 

Greg threw an annoyed look at Vincent, who just gave him a ‘this is your fault’ glare. Greg shrugged and passed it over.

 

“I’m writing,” she said, inhaling and then coughing several times. “I write poetry.”

 

“Oh,” Vincent said, flicking a glance at Greg who was covering a smile as he took their joint back. “What about?” 

 

“Stuff,” she said.

 

“Oh,” Vincent said again.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione and Blaise were invited to Slughorn’s Slug Club parties. That Draco was not continued to rankle the boy, but the way Hermione and Blaise groaned every time they got an invitation appeased him somewhat.

 

“The food’s good,” Hermione admitted. “It’s just…”

 

“Who wants to sit around fawning on some old teacher?” Blaise demanded. “I mean, I  do  it. I flatter him, and you should see Hermione do the pureblood girl flirty thing.”

 

“I’d rather not,” Draco muttered.

 

“No, it’s genius,” Blaise insisted. “You’d think she’d been raised to these awful things. She smiles and flatters him and is just sassy enough to be charming without ever crossing a line.”

 

“I pretend to be Daphne,” Hermione admitted. “I copy the way she always acts with Theo’s dad. Acted, before, I mean...” She trailed off in embarrassment. They all tried not to mention the detainees.

 

“Sounds great,” Draco said in a tone that suggested he didn’t think it sounded great at all.

 

“At least Potter’s never there,” Blaise said. “Keeps scheduling Quidditch practice to coincide with the little parties I think.”

 

“Idiot,” Hermione muttered. “Not that they’re any fun, but trust Potter to be so short-sighted he loses the chance to make connections that could help him in order to play that stupid game.”

 

“I miss Quidditch,” Draco said and she instantly looked repentant. 

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, and he sighed. 

 

“Can’t be helped,” he muttered. 

 

“You’ve got your detention with McGonagall all set for the Hogsmeade Saturday?” Hermione asked, and Draco nodded. She looked at Blaise with a grin. “Guess I’m your date, handsome. It’s been a few years since we’ve gone to Hogsmeade together.”

 

He rolled his eyes. “I’m with Luna, remember?” 

 

“I’m sure she’ll share,” Hermione said, then flushed as Blaise laughed and, lolling back against a wall, eyed her. 

 

“I’m sure she would too,” he said.

 

“Zabini,” Draco growled Blaise just laughed again.

 

In Hogsmeade, Blaise bought her a sugar quill and presented it to her with an elaborate bow, pulling the feathery part along her cheek as she blushed  again . “Prat,” she muttered as he held the door for her. “You’re trying to make me feel awkward.”

 

“Would I do that?” he teased as they walked to the Three Broomsticks. 

 

“Yes,” she said. “Buy me a drink.”

 

They set up camp at a small table in the corner of the room with two butterbeers. After a bit, Hermione excused herself to use the loo. When she came back, Potter was having a public fit that someone was stealing Sirius Black’s stuff.

 

Hermione wondered, for a moment, who would inherit all of Sirius Black’s things. “Blaise,” she whispered, “if Sirius had no heirs, who gets all the Black holdings?”

 

He thought for a moment. “A cousin, I guess? I think the oldest sister was stricken from the family tree so… I guess Bellatrix is the next one? I think Draco’s mom is the youngest. But Sirius was cast out too so… I dunno.”

 

“Pureblood stuff is so hard,” Hermione said, drinking her butterbeer. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.”

 

“Do you think this is going to work?” Blaise asked when Katie Bell, Gryffindor Quidditch player - and their target - left. 

 

Hermione snorted. “No. But when it doesn’t Draco owes me a foot rub.”

 

“And if it does?”

 

“We should be so lucky,” Hermione said, but she pulled out her sugar quill and sucked on the tip of it while smirking at Blaise. “But if I have to pay up I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

 

Blaise laughed at that, and they sat for a while, making sure that Katie was all the way back to school before they stood up to head out themselves. 

 

Predictably, the cursed necklace they’d bought at Borgin and Burkes did not make it all the way to school or into Dumbledore’s hands. “Merlin,” Hermione said as Draco pushed his thumbs into the soles of one foot. “You’re an idiot, but you are good at this.”

 

“How was I to know she’d open the package?” he asked as she moaned a little at his touch. “Maybe you were sloppy with the  Imperius .”

 

She opened her eyes and looked at him. “You know who taught me how to do that and you think I might have been  sloppy ?” She closed her eyes again as he turned his attention to the other foot. “The plan relied too much on other people. Too many variables. Which I told you. You should listen to me.”

 

“Fine,” he said. “Then tell me how to fix the bloody cabinet.” In his frustration, he dug his thumb in too hard, and she yelped. “Sorry,” he muttered. 

 

“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “Snape’s started me brewing Felix. If we have to, we’ll use that.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“How do you want to handle this?” Hermione asked Draco as she passed the invitation to Slughorn’s Christmas party to him. 

 

He swore. “We’re running out of time, Hermione.”

 

“I don’t know how to get out of it, though,” she said, leaning on her hand. She was so tired. So very tired. Between schoolwork and extra Potions and trying to figure out how to fix the cabinet, she was so tired she could barely think. “If I don’t go with you, it’ll look weird. If I don’t go, it’ll look weird. But we need to be bloody well working on that cabinet.”

 

“I’ll be sick,” he decided. “And then you go make an appearance but leave early, and we’ll meet in the Room to work on the cabinet.”

 

“Okay.” Hermione folded her arms on the table and used them to pillow her head.

 

“Hey,” Draco reached out and touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?’

 

“I’m just tired,” she said, not lifting her head up. “We’ll get it fixed, and everything will be fine, I’m sure. I wish I could just curse him. D’ya think that would work? By myself? I’m so tired. I just want it all over with.”

 

“We need an exit plan if we do it directly,” Draco said, stroking her hair. “But if it comes to that, well, better to fight our way out than go back empty-handed.” He pulled her off the table and nudged her across the room until he had her at one of the couches. He glared at two second years who’d been sitting there until they skittered away then sat down and pulled her into his arms. “Rest, Hermione. It’ll seem easier when you’re not so tired.”

 

She closed her eyes and nestled against him. “I should be working,” she murmured, but she let herself be lulled by the feel of his hand in her hair and the sound of his heart against her ear; soon she was asleep.

 

Greg sighed as he pulled up a chair. “That project’s taking it out of both of you,” he observed.

 

“Don’t have a choice,” Draco said shortly, closing his own eyes. “You up to playing lookout again this afternoon after she wakes up?”

 

“Do I have to be a girl again?” Greg asked with a grimace. “I hate that.”

 

“But you’re so cute as a girl,” Draco said, eyes still closed but a hint of his old snake-mean grin on his face.

 

“Fuck you, arsehole,” Greg grumbled as he stood up. “I have to go do homework. Come get me when she’s up.”

 

“Will do,” Draco said, letting himself just listen to her breathe. “Will do, my friend.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Daphne and Hermione had decided they had to – had to – talk to Luna. One too many overheard conversations and…

 

“You  are  using Contraceptive Charms, right?” Hermione asked again as Luna sat on her bed, spinning her wand in circles, leaving little trails of sparkles in the air. 

 

Daphne was flipping through a Muggle book. “Luna,” she asked, “why do some of these pages have check marks?”

 

“As long as nollywhatsits are gathered around my cervix, I’ll be fine,” Luna said.

 

“Luna!” Hermione nearly shrieked. “You can’t let Blaise be a father at sixteen! Not  Blaise !”

 

“He’d drop the baby on its head or something,” Daphne agreed. She held up the book. “This doesn’t even look comfortable.”

 

“That’s why there’s an X on that page,” Luna agreed. “I don’t want to do that one again.”

 

“You  did  this?” Hermione yanked the book out of Daphne’s hands and stared at the line drawing. “Damn. Blaise is more flexible than I would have thought.” She looked at Luna. “You too.”

 

“All the yoga,” Luna said. Daphne looked blank, so Luna explained. “It’s a Muggle exercise. Very spiritual.”

 

Daphne grabbed the book back from Hermione and looked at the cover. “Yes, I’m sure the  Kama Sutra  is all about being spiritual.”

 

“Gah!” Hermione wavered between wanting to shake Luna and wanting to ask her to prove she really could do  that . “You can’t rely on nollywhatsits! The idea of Blaise as a father is horrifying!”

 

“He’d be seventeen,” Luna said complacently though there was a spark of mischief in her eye.   

 

“What?!” Now it was Daphne’s turn to shriek.

 

“I mean, if you allowed for gestation time by the time there actually was a baby for him to drop he’d be seventeen.”

 

“You hold her down,” Hermione growled, only half in jest, “and I’ll do the charm.”

 

“But I did the charm. Do it.” Luna said.

 

“But… you said… nollywhatsits,” Hermione stammered.

 

“Contraceptive Charms are known to attract nollywhatsits,” Luna said.

 

Hermione hit her with a pillow. “You had me scared to  death ,” she said.

 

“Did you really do this one?” Daphne was holding up a page with a checkmark but no X, a speculative look on her face. “Talk to me about this ‘yoga’ thing.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Where’s Vincent?” Draco growled as they got ready to go to the Room of Requirement and work on the cabinet.

 

“Detention,” Greg muttered.

 

“Oh, for the love of…” Hermione glared at Greg. “Can’t you keep him out of trouble?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione headed up the stairs to Slughorn’s office for the Christmas Party. She wasn’t sure whether he’d used magic or not, but his office was quite a bit larger than Snape’s, something that made her feel a bit put out on behalf of her favorite professor. He’d draped garish hangings over the walls and ceiling, so the room looked a bit like a tent. Well, it looked like a garish tent decorated by someone with more money than taste. Along with the students in the Slug Club, he’d invited quite a few notables and dragooned the house-elves into preparing and serving refreshments.

 

The only social gatherings Hermione had been to in the Wizarding world had been orchestrated by Narcissa Malfoy who, if she was going to make a mistake, preferred to err on the side of the simple and the elegant. Slughorn didn’t appear to share Narcissa’s feelings on that matter.

 

She blinked a few times at a vampire who hovered near one of the guests but didn’t approach him. Harry was there, of course, Parvati Patil in tow. “Potter,” she said with resignation as they approached. “Parvati, you look beautiful.” She did, too. “I wish I could wear a sari,” Hermione said, and the other girl preened at the compliment and spun.

 

“Granger,” Harry Potter said, his voice clipped and almost, but not quite, courteous. “Where’s your evil sidekick?”

 

“Sick, last I knew,” she said. “Didn’t know you cared.”

 

“I don’t,” he said, and they glared at each other while Parvati shifted from one foot to the other. Finally, Potter offered his date his arm and said, “Let’s go get some punch.” Before they could escape, however, Slughorn bore down on them, Snape in tow, and flung an arm around Potter’s shoulders and boomed, “I have to give you credit, Severus. Never have I seen a child as talented in Potions as this one.”

 

Snape looked at Slughorn in utter disdain and some perplexity. “You’re referring to  Potter ?” he asked after a moment, looking from teacher to student, clear incredulity in his voice.

 

“Yes, of course, who else?” Slughorn hiccupped a bit then beamed down at Harry who looked like he wanted nothing quite so much as to escape.

 

Snape looked at Hermione who stood, shoulders tensed against the reminder of her unexpected Potions rival, then at Potter. “Harry Potter?” he asked again. “Fascinating, Horace. I never had any inkling he had any talent for potions whatsoever.”

 

“Natural talent, Severus. Maybe it just didn’t come out until he was challenged with N.E.W.T. level work,” Slughorn said. “He reminds me of his mother. Ah, Lily Potter, now  there  was a witch who could do Potions. But no one, not even you, Severus –“

 

“Really?” Snape asked, staring at Harry Potter with growing fascination. 

 

Hermione looked from her mentor to her rival and began to smirk. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, was going on but Snape looked the way he did when he was unraveling a complicated ingredients problem. After a moment, however, he turned away as though bored by the entire question and, with a word to Slughorn, stalked away towards another section of the room. Having made her appearance, she stammered out her own apologies as well. Her boyfriend wasn’t well, she was afraid she might be coming down with something too but wanted to come by and thank him for the invitation.

 

At the possibility she might be ill, Slughorn stepped back and hastily accepted her excuses to leave. Potter frowned but said nothing as she slipped out the door.

 

She hadn’t made it to the corner of the hall before Snape, coming up from behind her, grabbed her by the ear, hauled her into an adjacent classroom, and shut the door. Draco was leaning up against a desk, sullen and obviously equally caught.

 

“What, pray tell, are you two up to?” Snape said, his voice a low sneer. “You’re obvious and sloppy and about as subtle as a brick to the head. The necklace was idiotic in the extreme. Clumsy. Foolish. You cannot afford to make mistakes. If you are expelled –“

 

“The necklace wasn’t my doing,” Hermione cut him off. “And we’re not going to be expelled.”

 

“Draco has already been accused – “

 

“By whom?” Hermione demanded. “Potter? He’s biased, and everyone knows it. No one’s going to take any accusation from him seriously and, besides, Draco was in detention with McGonagall the day Katie Bell picked up that necklace.”

 

Snape snorted at that but didn’t bother to pick apart the alibi. Hermione glared at him and then stepped back in shock as he pushed against her with Legilimancy. “That won’t work,” she said.

 

“No,” he said slowly. “I see not. And you’ll have had the best teacher, of course.” He rubbed at his forehead. “Do you need help, you foolish child?”

 

“I… I don’t think so,” Hermione said. “Professor,” she looked down at her feet. “You know why I can’t trust you with this.”

 

He put his hand under her chin and lifted her face. Before he spoke, there was a shuffle outside the door, and Draco pointed to it with one finger over his lips. Snape frowned and cast a quick spell neither had heard before.  Muffliato , Hermione quickly memorized.

 

Finally, Snape sighed and leaned over and kissed her very lightly on the forehead. Draco froze in evident shock at the affectionate gesture, and even Hermione stilled. “You can trust me, child,” he said.  

 

“But… Lily,” she said, very softly.

 

“Is dead,” Snape said. “And you are not. And I’d rather like to keep you that way.”

 

Still, she shook her head. “We have to be the ones to do this. I need him to  trust  me.”

 

Snape stood as if frozen and looked at her. 

 

“What did you have to do to get him to even partially trust you?” Hermione demanded.

 

“Horrific things,” Snape said quietly. “Things I’d rather you not have to experience.”

 

“I’m going to have to experience this one,” she said.

 

“Then you need to be more cautious,” Snape insisted, stepping back from her. “You’ve already been followed tonight leaving that party, first by me, then by -.” He gestured to the door. “Go back to your rooms and be the sick children you claim to be.” He released the charm and began to speak again. “I am utterly disgusted by you both, creeping about at night like this for some adolescent assignation. Fetter your vile, hormonal urges and return to your rooms – your separate rooms – straight away. No, Miss Granger, I think you’ve had quite enough time at the party tonight and, Draco Malfoy, what would your father say if he knew you were behaving so badly?”

 

Snape grabbed Draco by the ear this time and, flinging open the door tossed the boy out into the hall. Hermione followed, giving the professor an only partially feigned sullen glare. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Christmas came, and again Hermione went to the Malfoys. Bella greeted them at the door and looked Hermione over with a sneer before kissing Draco on first one cheek and then the other. “Nephew,” she said, “I see you’ve yet to rid yourself of that.”

 

“Lovely to see you too, Auntie,” Draco snapped and pulled his trunk into the hall. “Do you even own a hairbrush?”

 

Narcissa brushed past Bella to greet her son and then kiss Hermione as well. “Theo will be here shortly,” she said, “though Daphne will be spending the holiday with her family.”

 

“Maybe her family would prefer she not associate with filth,” Bella said, twirling in place. She stopped and looked directly at Hermione and cackled.

 

“Fucking loon,” Draco muttered under his breath before asking, with faux courtesy, “Will your husband be joining us this holiday, Aunt Bella?”

 

“Rodolphus is already here,” Narcissa said, no hint of censure in her voice though her eyes flashed a warning at Hermione. “He and Rabastan are meeting with the Dark Lord at the moment, but you’ll see them at dinner.”

 

“I can hardly wait,” Draco said. 

 

“We are his most loyal followers,” Bellatrix said, her eyes gleaming.

 

“I’m sure he appreciates your many sacrifices,” Hermione said. “Draco, will you walk me up to our sitting room? I’d like to do a little reading before dinner; your mother owled me that she’s set aside some materials that may help us with our little project.”

 

“Of course.” He offered her his arm and led her up the stairs as Bella snickered behind them.

 

Hermione flung herself onto the couch as soon as they were behind a closed door and groaned. “That woman is going to make me as mad as she is.”

 

“Dinner should be delightful.” Draco collapsed into a chair and pushed his sleeve up to stare at his Mark. “I think I’d prefer Potter’s glaring looks of accusation and Weasley’s perpetually confused sneer to Bella and her delightful spouse.”

 

They passed books back and forth and argued about things that might work to fix the cabinet until Theo arrived. He opened the door, slammed it behind him, and stood, wide-eyed with his back braced against the wood.

 

“I think I just met Rabastan,” he said. “He was trying to catch a fly or something in the hallway. With his mouth.”

 

“Did he get it?” Draco asked without looking up from the book.

 

“There wasn’t anything  there ,” Theo said. “He makes your aunt seem downright rational, Draco.”

 

“Bloody hell,” Hermione said, slamming the book she was looking at shut. “And  these  are what passes for ‘most loyal’ in this movement? No wonder you people bungled it the first time around.” 

 

“Hey.” Theo held up his hands and looked offended. “I was a baby when the last go-round failed. You can’t blame me.”

 

“I’m going to pretend I think Azkaban did a number on them,” Hermione muttered, “because that’s kinder than admitting I think they were probably a few cards short of a full deck even before they spent all that time with Dementors.”

 

She got up and stretched, and Theo crossed over to her and gave her a hug. “How’re you holding up with these… people?” he asked.

 

“So far we’ve just holed up in here,” she admitted. “Bella’s gotten one filth comment in along with the usual barrage of glares and cackles. I’ve yet to deal with the Lestrange men.” 

 

“Flies,” Theo said with a shudder. “Invisible flies.”

 

Dinner was predictably tense. Tom Riddle held court at one end of the table, bantering with Narcissa and Hermione while Bella looked on in growing rage. Theo and Draco sat in the middle of the table, smiles plastered across their faces as they tried not to look terrified at the way Hermione spoke to Riddle with a combination of sass and respect that seemed to charm him. Rodolphus and Rabastan were nearly gibbering at their end of the table, batting at things in the air that only they could see and periodically letting forth pained snickers.

 

Azkaban had not done their table manners any favors. At least Bellatrix still used a knife to cut her meat.

 

Riddle looked at them only once and then rubbed his forehead in what seemed to be resigned aggravation before ignoring them for the rest of the meal.

 

As Hermione asked Riddle a question about a spell she’d seen – one that pulverized the victim’s heart and lungs – Bella suddenly interrupted her with, “No one cares about your stupid questions, Mudblood.”

 

Riddle turned to look at her, and Bella started to preen under his gaze until she saw the expression on his face. “Bella,” was all he said but the tone of his voice was cold and dark; it was a knife covered in blood being stroked against a whetstone. 

 

Hermione, who moments before had been leaning towards Riddle with a sparkle in her eye, shrank back into her chair. Theo and Draco, already stiff and nervous, froze utterly in their seats. Narcissa sipped from her wine glass and watched the confrontation with a slight smile on her face. 

 

The Lestrange brothers did not appear to notice anything was happening.

 

“I am your most loyal,” Bella was nearly begging. “I am, my Lord.”

 

“Come here, Bella,” Riddle said, and she rose from her seat and moved towards him. As soon as she was within arm’s reach, he grabbed her throat and pushed her down to her knees as she gasped. With no change of inflection Riddle said, “I realize you were in prison for a long time and it was probably difficult to remember niceties of etiquette while dining on slop in a cell, but we are at dinner and I expect you to behave with civility.”

 

Bella was making gasping sounds as she struggled to breath. Riddle watched her, no change in his dark eyes, and when she finally sagged in his grip, he tossed her to the floor. “I am not interested in your loyalty, Bella, except in how it benefits me. Bring me recruits. Infiltrate the Ministry. Do something useful for a change. Don’t just sit here insulting Miss Granger and touting your worthless loyalty.”

 

“What has she done?” Bella gasped from the floor. “She’s done  nothing , my Lord. She’s a stupid school girl.”

 

Riddle turned to Hermione and, his voice still cold and dark, said, “Well. What have you done?”

 

Hermione swallowed and said, her voice small in the room, “We continue to work to fix the cabinet, my Lord, so we can bring your Death Eaters to Hogwarts and –“

 

“Nothing!” Bella said triumphantly. “She’s accomplished  nothing!”

 

“– and if we are not able to fix it by the end of the year, I will do it myself with no backup, even though I probably won’t survive the escape,” Hermione continued, her only acknowledgment of Bella’s interruption a slight increase in volume.

 

“How?” Riddle said, his eyes gleaming as he watched her.

 

Hermione reached up to touch her necklace. “He saw this, my Lord, when he fled Umbridge’s takeover. He saw it for what it was.”

 

“Interesting,” Riddle said.

 

“I’ll go to his office and tell him I’ve seen the error of my ways, beg him to help me, to hide me. And as I sit there in his office, weeping, I’ll stun him and then kill him.”

 

“He’ll read your mind, you stupid girl,” Bella said, still lying on the floor. “He’ll know you’re lying.”

 

Hermione frowned at that and lifted her own wine glass, controlling the shake in her hand with a force of will. “No, he won’t,” she said and took a sip. “I’ve had the good fortune to have been taught Occlumency by the best Legilimens the world has ever known. Dumbledore may be suspicious he can’t read me easily, but I’ve worked hard to make the walls seem like a natural block rather than a magical one.”

 

“Liar,” Rabastan said, though whether it was in response to the conversation was not quite clear. 

 

“No,” Riddle leaned back, looking amused again. “She’s a hopeless Legilimens. I doubt she could read the mind of a horny fifteen-year-old boy, but she’s very good at suppressing her own thoughts.”

 

Draco twitched at the reference to horny teenaged boys but didn’t say anything.

 

“So,” Riddle said, turning his attention back to Hermione. “You’d die to rid me of my Dumbledore problem?”

 

“I’d prefer not to,” Hermione said, forcing the dimpled smile back to her face. “But I will accomplish the task you have set out for Draco and me, my Lord, whatever the cost.”

 

“I would die for you too,” Bella was nearly shrieking now from the floor.

 

“And I’m sure before this is all over, you’ll get the chance to do so,” Riddle said. “Won’t she, Hermione?”

 

“If that’s my Lord’s will,” Hermione demurred.

 

“Not, of course, until you’ve had a chance to kill me for me” He held his glass out, and Narcissa filled it without speaking. “All things in the proper order, don’t you agree, Narcissa?”

 

“I would never presume to argue with you,” Narcissa said as she set the bottle down. “Get up, Bella, before the elves think you’re trash and try to haul you away.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Riddle looked at the reports Bellatrix handed him, her worthless, gibbering husband and his equally worthless brother hovering behind her. Was it too much to ask that people muster a baseline level of competence? He wasn’t asking for brilliance, just basic, workaday functionality. 

 

He eyed the gleeful woman who clearly expected him to praise her for this current bout of idiocy and contemplated how, as things were now, he wouldn’t even hire her to scoop ice cream.

 

Speaking of ice cream…

 

“You brought me an ice cream shop owner and a wandmaker?” he asked, his voice totally level. “And news that the Ministry has made a series of false arrests?”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” she said, nearly dancing in place.

 

“Bella,” he sighed. “You used to be so… lovely. So… sane.” He closed his eyes. “What, exactly, do you think I am trying to do here? I want you to think very hard and try to stay focused.”

 

“I… kill Muggles, my Lord?”

 

Tom Riddle resisted the urge to stand up and throttle the woman where she stood. It hadn’t helped last time, after all.

 

“What do you think I gain from killing Muggles? Just because that might be a perfectly nice hobby, doesn’t make it the end game. And, you mind-numbingly stupid woman, even if that were my final goal, how do you think a fucking ice cream shop owner shoved into the basement is going to help with that?”

 

“I… I don’t know my Lord,” she stammered. 

 

“Let me try to spell this out for you, my dear.” Riddle looked at Bella and wondered how and when Hermione would kill her. “I want power. I want Dumbledore dead because he’s the only person in the way of my rise to power. I want to live, and therefore I want Potter dead because he’s the only person who, if that half-heard prophecy is right, can kill me. He’s the man not born of woman, do you understand me?”

 

“I thought his mother was that Lily Potter Mudblood,” Rabastan said and Riddle inhaled and closed his eyes.

 

The staffing problems would have given him a heart attack if he weren’t immortal. He needed to get the next generation Marked and soon. He simply couldn’t work with these people any longer. Evil was one thing. Amoral, disgusting, and evil he had no problem with. Stupidity, however, was really unbearable. 

 

Was it really too much to ask that these people keep up with him? Narcissa had no problem doing so. Hermione managed it, and she was just a bloody teenager. Even Nott’s boy, for all that he seemed in a perpetual state of frozen terror in his presence, seemed to be able to follow along.

 

Which reminded him, he needed to get the rest of his people out of Azkaban before they became as worthless as these idiots in front of him. At least the Dementors weren’t there anymore so he could hope that Nott and Malfoy and the rest remained reasonably functional.

 

“Yes, Rabastan, his mother was Lily Potter,” Riddle said at last. “And as soon as her annoyingly effective blood ward expires, I’m going to kill him, and then we’ll take over the Ministry.”

 

He paused.

 

“Perhaps we’ll take over the Ministry first,” he mused. “But I really do need Dumbledore out of the way to make that happen. I’ll put your nephew in, Bellatrix, as my puppet Minister with the Muggle-born wife he so obviously dotes on and -”

 

He stopped when Bellatrix made a kind of choked ‘gack’ sound.

 

“You have a comment?” he asked, voice courteous.

 

Bella nearly growled, “They’re not married.”

 

Tom Riddle shrugged. “A niggling detail that’s easily fixed once they graduate.” He smiled at her, a mean, amused smile. “Perhaps you can be the maid of honor.”

 

“I’d sooner die,” she muttered.

 

“Also an option,” Riddle said with genuine indifference.

 

“You can’t let him marry that Mudblood,” Bella hissed. 

 

Riddle looked at her for a moment. “I’m curious how you plan to stop me,” he said at last. “Even the oldest of family trees, Bellatrix, can become weak. A graft can… strengthen things. Can certainly strengthen the public perception that the Death Eater movement is inclusive and… welcoming.” He savored the last word as if it were a bit of fine dark chocolate. 

 

“But… we aren’t inclusive,” Bella protested.

 

Tom Riddle made a mental note that Bellatrix, on the off chance she survived the next few months, was not to be put in charge of propaganda or public relations.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Rabastan and Rodolphus Lestrange went in and out of coherence. When out they wandered around batting at things and shaking, which was bad enough. When in, however, they were worse. It was clear that only the obvious warning on her necklace that Tom Riddle would kill anyone who touched Hermione were keeping them from torturing her to death, and that warning didn’t keep them from verbal abuse. Over breakfast, when they passed her in the halls, and in the gardens, they kept up a steady stream of leering insults. They started with Mudblood and, when no one reprimanded them for that, moved on to suggestions of what they planned to do to her as soon as Riddle lifted his protection. Riddle eyed them, eyed her, and seemed to be waiting to see how this would play out.

 

The Lestranges were creative, specific, and detailed in their threats. They were also smart enough, at least for a few days, to ensure neither Draco nor Theo heard them. Hermione gritted her teeth and buried herself in research; she seemed to have decided to simply ignore the pair until she went back to school.

 

Then Draco and Theo, rounding a corner, heard the brothers. They had stopped Hermione in the hall and were delineating the various things they could do to her smart Mudblood mouth to teach her her place. Draco stilled, his body growing more and more tense as Theo muttered, “We can’t just kill them, not without permission.”

 

Hermione finally cut off the Lestranges’ diatribe with, “You’re boring me. Get new material and get out of my way.” Draco heard her slam a door behind her and he and Theo exchanged glances.

 

Within ten minutes they’d sought and been granted an audience.

 

“Let me kill them,” Draco begged. “They’re barely sane –“

 

“They aren’t sane at all,” Theo muttered.

 

“– and they’re a liability.”

 

Riddle steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair, looking at the two boys standing before him. “Well,” he said. “It’s about time you two began to take a little initiative. Don’t get blood on your mother’s carpets.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The last breakfast before the teens headed back to school was set out as a large buffet, and Hermione looked around confused when she walked into the room. That the Lestrange brothers had been mysteriously missing for several days was something she hadn’t commented upon, though Theo had noticed Draco looking a little awestruck the day after they’d killed the crazy pair. 

 

Apparently, Hermione had discovered what they’d done and had found a way to thank Draco he’d rather liked.

 

The reason for the buffet was explained when Marcus Flint walked in, looking a little queasy. He took a plate but only put a single piece of toast on it, sat at the table, and, swallowing hard, poured himself a cup of tea.

 

Hermione looked at him and said, her voice hesitant, “Marcus? Are you…”

 

He nodded.

 

“Can I see?” she asked, and he rolled up his sleeve with a flinch, waiting for the pain to come back. She looked at the Mark. “Congratulations,” she said, and he shuddered.

 

“I remember when Draco took it,” she said quietly. “Can I get you anything?”

 

He shook his head. “It… it doesn’t really hurt anymore,” he said. “I just… it was… it took longer than I’d thought it would.”

 

She walked around the table and kissed him on the cheek, and he eyed the charm around her neck. “Damn,” was all he said. 

 

When Adrian Pucey walked in, Hermione ordered him to a seat. “Let me fix you a plate,” she said. He blanched a bit, and she said, “Just toast, I promise.”

 

“Thanks, Hermione,” he mumbled. 

 

“How many of you are here?” she asked as she set the plate in front of him and poured him a cup of tea. “Sweetened?” she asked. 

 

“Please,” he said. “Just four that I know of.”

 

She was about to ask who else when Cassius Warrington and Graham Montague walked in, both looking pale. She spooned sugar into Adrian’s cup and stirred it before Montague grabbed her into a hug, not even favoring his freshly Marked arm. “I never got a chance to thank you,” he said. “I talked to Draco, but not to you. Pomfrey told me you came storming into the infirmary when I was still out of it. She said that you knew I’d been shoved into that cabinet and that gave her the information she needed to treat me. I might be in St. Mungo’s drooling in a corner if it weren’t for you.”

 

She hugged him back. “Those fucking Weasleys,” she said. “Who does something like that and doesn’t even tell anyone? And they say we’re the bad guys?”

 

He snorted at that. “Blood-traitor arseholes.”

 

“Sit,” she said. “Let me get you a plate.”

 

“You don’t have to wait on us,” Cassius said, moving towards the buffet but she glared at him with a ferocity that made him step back.

 

“I wouldn’t get used to it,” she said, “but your first day up after being Marked? I think you can do with a little pampering.”

 

Draco came in and wrapped an arm around her. “I’d do what she says. This one’s scary when she’s on a tear.”

 

When they were all seated, the newest Death Eaters staring wanly at their toast, she raised her juice and said, “To the next generation; may you – may we - accomplish what our elders failed to do.”

   

Chapter Text

When the new term started - when they returned to tackling the problem of the Vanishing Cabinet - there was one pleasant surprise: a notice had been pinned to the common room notice board that all students over the age of seventeen by August 31st could sign up for Apparition Lessons. Hermione wasn’t sure she should take the time away from the cabinet issue, but being able to Apparate away from Hogwarts as soon as she’d cleared the grounds would be too useful not to learn.

 

She signed up, ignoring the nagging thought that she’d have to take classes with Weasley and Potter.

 

Of course, they were in her Potions class too, which continued to be maddening. How was it possible that Potter continued to excel at every potion that they made, while she spent so many hours in private lessons with Snape and could barely keep up.

 

After the day they were told to make antidotes to poisons, she went back to her common room and cried while Theo, Blaise, and Draco looked on helplessly. Slughorn had asked what Golpalott’s Third Law was, and, of course, she had known.  The antidote for a blended poison will be equal to more than the sum of the antidotes for each of the separate components.   Slughorn had praised her, had given ten points to Slytherin, and then had gone into a long-winded but fascinating explanation of antidote brewing.

 

It had been clear no one in the class had followed him but her, and she’d thought that at last –  at last – she’d show Potter up, show Slughorn she was more than a walking encyclopedia but was instead a talented potioneer in her own right. She’d brewed and incanted – silently, of course – and her antidote was brilliant. It was actually bloody brilliant, and she was so excited, so eager to be praised, and she thought that maybe this time Slughorn would talk about  her  in the teacher’s lounge, talk about how brilliant  she  was instead of stupid Potter.

 

Okay, she hadn’t finished, but she’d made excellent progress, and she knew it would work.  Knew  it. And so would Slughorn.

 

Merlin, she could hardly wait. 

 

Maybe Snape would even say something to her, something to let her know how proud she’d made him. How she wasn’t a waste of his time. How she’d made him look good to a colleague.

 

When time was up, Slughorn walked through the room. He gave her half-finished antidote a nod and a smile. He made a face at Weasley’s putrid mess, almost retching. But when he reached Potter the frown, the realization that Potter couldn’t possibly do it didn’t come.

 

Instead, Potter held out something in his hand, and Slughorn started to laugh. “What cheek,” he called out. “A bezoar would certainly do it, m’boy.” He held the little brown lump up for the class to see. “Now this,” he said, “this is the spirit of a true potion-maker. Intuitive. Instinctive. Just like your mother, young Mr. Potter, just like your mother.” He clapped Potter on the back with another laugh. “Ten points to Gryffindor for sheer nerve!” 

 

She hadn’t realized it was possible to hate anyone as much as she hated Potter at that moment.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“What the  fuck  did you do?” Hermione hissed at Draco. He stared back at her sullenly. “Oh, don’t even try to pretend you had nothing to do with this,” she said. “Ron Weasley poisoned? Bloody Merlin on a broken broomstick, have you lost your mind? That worthless prat is up in the infirmary and… what were you  thinking ?”

 

Draco slouched in his chair, his skin grey and dark shadows under his eyes. The work on the cabinet had not been going well, and both of them were tired and snappish. “I was trying to end it,” he muttered. “I’d slipped that bottle to stupid Slughorn before Christmas. He was  supposed  to give it to Dumbledore, not share it with a student!”

 

“Do you just really like plots that rely on tons of external people doing exactly what you want them to?” Hermione demanded. “First, the necklace and now this. Stop – just  stop  – with all this crap. We fix the cabinet. We storm the tower. We kill the old man, half a dozen reinforcements at our back, and then we get the hell out of here. This is a  good  plan. This is a basic, simple plan; surprise plus overwhelming force equals success. These ‘I’ll get someone else to give him a thing and then for some obscure reason he’ll do exactly what I want with the thing’ plans are idiotic.”

 

“Well, you go fix the cabinet if you’re so smart,” he snapped at her.

 

“Fine, I will,” she snapped back. “Vincent,” she called out and the boy, who’d been pretending not to hear their argument, rose with heavy reluctance from a chair.

 

“Shite, do I have to be a girl again?” he said. Hermione narrowed her eyes at him and, with a tired sigh, he held his hand out for the Polyjuice.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When the next Quidditch game rolled around, Weasley was still in the infirmary. Draco slunk off, Greg and Vincent at his heels, to try  again  with the cabinet. Hermione’s threat that she’d just kill Dumbledore outright with no backup scared him – the probability she’d die doing that seemed fairly high – which meant he was skipping  another  Quidditch game.

 

“Watch her,” he’d muttered to Blaise on the way out of the common room door. “I want to try some things without her there.”

 

“Will do,” the boy had nodded. He’d tossed Hermione a jumper and said, “It’s just like old times, love. You and me and Quidditch.”

 

“Where’s Draco?” she’d asked, already suspicious. 

 

“Cabinet,” he said shortly. “And I’m supposed to keep you out of his hair.”

 

She sighed. “Where’s  Luna ?”

 

“Would you believe she’s been asked to do commentary for the match?” Blaise asked and, at Hermione’s incredulous look, he laughed. “No, really.”

 

“As long as she doesn’t bring up nollywhatsits,” Hermione muttered.

 

“Nolly what?” Blaise asked as they made their way to the stands.

 

“As if you didn’t know,” was all Hermione said.

 

“Last week Ginny Weasley flew into Smith,” Luna said, “and there he is with the Quaffle. I wonder if she flew into him on purpose? It quite looked like it, and he was being rather rude so I shouldn’t blame her if she had. I wonder if he regrets that rudeness now that he’s playing Gryffindor? Oh look, he’s lost the Quaffle. Well, karma does that sometimes… oh, that Hufflepuff player who spilled his juice this morning has the Quaffle now. I can’t ever remember his name. Bibble or Babble or…”

 

“Cadwaller,” Professor McGonagall hissed.

 

“Professor McGonagall says his name is Cadwaller and I suppose she would know, though I think the name Bibble is quite nice too.”

 

“She’s marvelous,” Hermione said to Blaise, who just smirked. “No, really,” Hermione said, hitting him in the arm. “This is the best commentary I’ve ever heard.”

 

“Harry Potter seems to be having an argument with his Keeper. Not his regular Keeper, of course, because Ron Weasley is still in the infirmary after drinking some poisoned wine which he really shouldn’t have taken in school because he’s underage, but I suppose if you drink wine in school, you deserve what you get. I wonder why Harry Potter is arguing with his Keeper. Do you think it might be a clever ploy to distract the other Seeker? Has anyone else noticed that the cloud right over the goalposts looks quite a bit like a flying badger? I suppose that might be a good sign for Hufflepuff or it might be a random cloud formation that has no predictive value whatsoever. Still, it’s quite pretty to look at and seems far more serene than Zacharias Smith who so far has not managed to keep control of the Quaffle for longer than a consecutive minute. I’m forced to question whether he’s any good at this game. Perhaps he’s suffering from Loser’s Lurgy.”

 

“The score is seventy-four Hufflepuff!” McGonagall barked.

 

“That’s quite a nice number. Not a prime number, unfortunately,” Luna said, her voice serene, “but it does only have two additional factors, so it’s quite close. Oh, look, the Gryffindor Keeper has a Beater’s bat. That’s interesting.”

 

The replacement Keeper  did  have a bat, which he used to smack the Quaffle right into Harry Potter.

 

Hermione cringed and turned her face into Blaise’s shoulder as the boy fell from his broom and was carried off the field to the infirmary. 

 

“You’re going to have to get a bit less squeamish,” he said quietly. 

 

“I just hate Quidditch,” she said, a little embarrassed. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Greg was bent over his essay, nearly crying. “I hate school,” he finally muttered, pushing it away from him. “We all know what I’m going to do with my life and it’s not writing bloody essays.”

 

“Let me see that,” Hermione said, pulling the parchment away from him. She read it over and sighed. “Your ideas are fine,” she said at last. “Your spelling is awful. Give me a clean sheet.”

 

He handed her one and watched in obvious gratitude as she began copying the essay over.

 

“Thanks, Hermione,” he said. “Merlin, I love you.”

 

“Don’t let Millie hear you say that,” she said with a grin. “Or Draco.”

 

“Don’t let Draco hear what?” the blond in question asked, coming up behind her and leaning down to kiss her shoulder. 

 

She batted a groping hand away from her breasts and said, “Watch it.”

 

“When’ll you be done?” he asked, pulling a chair up. “I need a break.”

 

She glanced up at him and said, “As soon as I’m done making a clean copy of this for Greg, I’m all yours.”

 

Draco smirked at her and winked at Greg, and she turned bright red.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Potter showed up late to their next Defense Against the Dark Arts class. Hermione had her ankle hooked around Draco’s, and he was drawing little circles on her leg with his thumb when the boy walked in as Snape was collecting their Dementor essays. 

 

“My hope that these will be better than the drivel you turned in on resisting the Imperius Curse is surely in vain,” Snape was saying as Potter threw himself into his seat with a sullen glare. “How good of you to join us, Potter. Ten points from Gryffindor for your tardiness. If you can’t be on time, don’t bother to come. Please open your book to page – what it is Mr. Finnegan?”

 

“Sir, could you explain the difference between a ghost and an Inferius?” Seamus Finnegan asked. “There was an article in the paper and it –“

 

“No, it didn’t,” Snape said. “Page –“

 

“But I heard people –“

 

“And if you had actually read the article, Mr. Finnegan, assuming you can read, you would have noticed it was  not  about Inferi but rather about a petty thief named Mundungus Fletcher.”

 

Potter was mumbling something to Weasley as Hermione batted Draco’s hand away. His circles had been getting higher and higher on her leg, and she gave him a look and pulled herself away from him a bit. “Mr. Malfoy, keep your hands to yourself,” Snape said. “Mr. Potter, you have something to say about Inferi, do you? Please share with the rest of the class. Perhaps you could elucidate the difference between an Inferi and a ghost for Mr. Finnegan. Mr. Malfoy, I’m warning you.”

 

Draco pulled his hands away from Hermione and put them in plain view on top of their desk; he slouched down and, biting the inside of his cheek in obvious sullen boredom, waited for Potter to fumble his way through what an Inferi was.

 

“Well,” Potter mumbled, “you can see through a ghost.”

 

Snape rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. “Six years of magical education and you tell me that you can see through a ghost. It’s so good to see how knowledge just pours out of your head, Potter. Sometimes I worry I might be wasting my time here, working to educate the next generation of wizards, but you have put that worry to rest.”

 

Hermione suppressed a snicker.

 

“No problem, sir,” Potter said.

 

“Your ability to recognize sarcasm is clearly as well developed as your ability to explain to the class ways we can determine whether something is a ghost or an Inferi.”

 

Potter glared at the professor.

 

“Don’t let me stop you, Potter. Please go on and explain what an Inferi is.”

 

“An Inferi is a body, so it’s more solid,” Potter mumbled.

 

Snape narrowed his eyes as Parvati Patil asked, a thrill of horror in her voice, “Is…. Is he-who-must-not-be-named using Inferi?”

 

“Miss Patil, yes, in the past the Dark Lord did use the reanimated corpses of his enemies – which is the proper definition of an Inferi, Potter –“

 

Weasley mumbled, “’snot like you need to know the ‘proper definition’ to fight it.”

 

“– so it is quite possible he will use them again. And, Mr. Weasley, your dedication to knowledge is an inspiration to us all. Now, please turn to page 212 and read about the Cruciatus Curse.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione looked over at the Montgomery sisters, who looked miserable.

 

“What happened to them?” she asked.

 

Theo sighed and hoisted his book bag higher on his shoulder. “Didn’t you hear?” When she shook her head, he said, “Their little brother – all of five years old – was killed. Their parents wouldn’t cooperate and the people sent to convince them got… over-enthusiastic.”

 

Hermione stopped walking and Theo turned to look at her when he realized she’d frozen in place. “Who?” she asked.

 

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” he said.

 

“Who got ‘over-enthusiastic’ enough to kill a child?” Hermione’s voice was calm and level, and anyone who didn’t know her would think she sounded almost uninterested.

 

Theo knew her quite well, and he felt a chill begin in the base of his spine. “You can’t – “

 

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do. Tell me who killed the child.”

 

He swallowed nervously. “Fenrir Greyback. A were –“

 

“- wolf. Yes. I know.” Hermione started walking again. “Thank you, Theo.”

 

He had to hurry to catch up with her, and all he could think was, “Shite.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

It started when Hermione saw Professor Snape helping Draco towards the infirmary. Snape looked at her, saw the blood drain from her face at the way Draco’s clothing was shredded and said, “He’s fine. Miss Granger, listen to me, he will be fine.”

 

Draco, however, could barely stand; he couldn’t walk to the infirmary by himself. He looked up at her and mustered a weak smile. “I’m okay, ‘ione,” he said, but the very act of speaking seemed to exhaust him, and as he slumped further into Snape’s grip she spun towards the direction they’d come from, her wand out, looking for the source of the attack.

 

Because it had very obviously been an attack.

 

She didn’t even hear Snape speak, but her wand was out of her hand and in his, and she twirled back towards him. “I can’t let you do that, Miss Granger,” he said very quietly. “He’d kill you.”

 

“Potter,” she breathed out and then said, “I’ll kill –“

 

“You will  not ,” Snape said but she was already tearing down the hallway toward the bathroom. Water was seeping out from under the door, water tinged with pink, and when she opened the door Harry Potter was standing there, wand still out, staring at the floor with shock and horror on his face.

 

“What did you do?” she demanded, and when he didn’t respond, she threw herself at him and grabbed his arms and began to shake him. “What did you  do?”  she demanded. She could feel the water soaking into her shoes, the water that Draco’s blood had tinged with swirling red and pink, and Harry Potter just stood there as she shook him, unanswering.

 

She pulled her hand back and slapped him as hard as she could. “You sodding  bastard ,” she said. “ What did you do?”

 

“I… I didn’t know what it did,” he stammered out. “I… I didn’t mean… there was so much blood, Granger. I thought… but he’ll be okay.” Potter seemed to be regaining some control of himself. “Snape… I thought he was going to Crucio me. I… I hexed him. I didn’t know what it did, but you have to believe me, Granger, I would never have… I would never have done this if I knew…”

 

She reached for her wand, but it wasn’t there.

 

“I would,” she said, her voice low in the soaked room. “I’d kill you, Potter. I’d do it now and to hell with my… to hell with the things I’m supposed to do and to hell with… you have no idea how lucky you are Snape took my wand.” 

 

She willed her necklace into revealing its true shape and bore down on him, her hand cradling the charm. “Do you know what this is?” she asked, watching his eyes, seeing the moment they traced over the Mark around her neck.

 

“Granger?” he said, his voice horrified. “You -”

 

“Oh yes,” she said.

 

“But they  hate  you,” Potter said as if he thought he could somehow save her. As if he thought she needed saving. “They’re  evil , Granger.”

 

She looked down at the blood and water-soaked floor, at her shoes, stained now with Draco’s blood. “Really? You attack someone and nearly kill him and you tell me  he’s  the evil one? Let me tell you, Harry Potter, what I see.” She took another step closer to him, and he backed away from her. She stepped forward again, and he stepped back once more, and then he was pressed against the sink, and she began to speak, her voice low and intense. “You see villains. I see a political group pushed out of the process, their members locked away with either no trial or show trials until they’re driven mad by Dementors. I’d think you’d be a little sympathetic to that problem after Sirius Black, but maybe not. I see people who are discriminated against on every side because of a school House affiliation. I see anyone who dares to admit a sympathy for their goals blacklisted, unable to get work. I see abuses by Aurors who attack so-called Dark wizards with impunity. And do you know what I see on your side? The supposed good guys?”

 

Harry Potter shook his head and said, “They kill people, Granger. The kidnap and torture and –“

 

“And your side doesn’t?” she asked. “Don’t make me laugh. Don’t be so  fucking  naïve. They tell me Bellatrix Lestrange was a brilliant woman once. Now she’s a shell of a human being barely able to string two thoughts together. Her husband was reduced to swatting at things that weren’t even there. How is that not murder?”

 

“They tortured people into insanity,” Potter whispered. “Granger…”

 

Your  side,” she said, implacably, “has told me to mind my place. Has told me not to have  expectations Your  side cheats and lies and steals, and the only reason they aren’t killing in the streets is that  they are on top . They aren’t  heroes , you stupid, stupid fool. They aren’t noble. They’re just in power.”  

 

“We aren’t perfect,” Potter said, reaching a hand out to touch at her Mark. “But, Granger, this is not the answer.” His hand was shaking. “You don’t have to -”

 

“I want to,” she said, and he swallowed hard as she stared at him, her eyes as hard as they’d ever been. “Your side,” she continued, implacably, “has raised you since infancy as a pawn. You’re going to be sent to die against a wizard so much more powerful than you are that it’s as if you’re trying to extinguish the sun with a single bucket of water. The only hope you have is you are the only one who can kill him; you’re the Achilles heel. That’s why you’ve been groomed, you know; that’s why Dumbledore has made you into his pet.”

 

“Are you offering to save me?” Potter finally spit out, the dig at Dumbledore clearly too much. “Are you going to say, ‘just come to the Dark Side, and I’ll keep you safe?”

 

Hermione stepped back and laughed at him. She gestured around the room. “I don’t think so. No. You did this to Draco, and so I’d hold you down while the Dark Lord slit your throat if only he would let me.” She smiled for a moment. “Maybe he will. He rather likes me.”

 

“Miss Granger.” Snape was standing in the doorway, and she backed further away from Potter. “Mr. Malfoy is asking for you in the infirmary.”

 

“Give me my wand,” she said, but he shook his head.

 

“Go and look in on your intended,” Snape said. “I’ll return your wand to you when I’m sure you have control of yourself.”

 

Potter’s eyes widened at the word ‘intended’ and he looked from Snape to Hermione and back again as though putting pieces of a puzzle together. 

 

“Whatever they’re telling you, Granger,” Potter said, “no Death Eater is ever going to let you marry their son. You’re –“

 

“Not good enough, yes, Professor McGonagall was also kind enough to share that information with me. Though the only people who seem to think that are either the ‘good guys’ or the batshit crazy people who are going to die soon anyway. Or both.” She looked like she wanted to spit at him, but all she did was nod her head towards Snape, a sharp, angry gesture that mimicked respect. “Professor,” she said, and then left the bathroom.

 

Once the door had shut behind her, blocking out the low voice of Snape interrogating Potter, she began to run towards the infirmary, her feet leaving a trail of wet footprints in the halls.

 

When she reached the infirmary, Draco was sitting propped up in the bed, looking paler than usual. A plethora of vials sat on the table next to him, and he smiled at her when she flung herself down onto the bed and wrapped her arms around him.

 

“Tell me you didn’t kill that stupid boy,” was the first thing he said.

 

“Snape still has my wand,” she muttered.

 

“Thank Merlin,” he said, “I do not want to imagine what would have happened if you’d killed him.”

 

“I was so scared,” she said, and, finally, as all the adrenaline of her confrontation with Potter drained away at once, she began to shake. “I thought he’d –“

 

“I told you I was okay,” he said, running a hand over her hair. “A little weak and I’ll probably have a bit of a scar, but Snape fixed me right up, and Madam Pomfrey put some dittany on it and dumped a bunch of foul Blood Replenishing Potions down my gullet.”

 

She straightened up and sniffled and realized, for the first time, how very uncomfortable her wet shoes were. She hooked a finger around his. “Cabinet works,” she said quietly. “I’ve sent inanimate objects through, and small animals. I was coming to find you to tell you. It’s done.”

 

He sucked in his breath.

 

“And the Felix is ready.” 

 

“When?” he asked.

 

“Soon,” she said. “I want to talk to Snape first.”

 

Draco nodded, and she touched the edge of the cut on his shirt. “Hasn’t anyone gotten you a dry shirt?” she asked, and he shook his head. 

 

“Didn’t want to take this one off because –“

 

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll go get Theo and have him bring you some dry clothes.” She stood up, and her shoes made a squishing sound as she stepped. 

 

“Hermione,” Draco said.

 

“Yeah?” she asked.

 

“I love you.”

 

“I love you, too,” she said. “I’ll get those things for you.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

She stood there for a moment before he said again, “Thanks. I mean, about the…”

 

She smiled at him, a funny little smile. “My pleasure,” she said at last. “Taking care of you is one of the things I do.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“He got detentions?” Hermione’s voice was level. She didn’t even look up from the essay she was writing. Vincent swallowed and looked over at Daphne, who was twisting her sweater between her hands.

 

“He can’t play Quidditch,” Daphne offered.

 

Hermione raised her head at that and looked at Daphne, then at Vincent, and finally at Theo. “He nearly kills a fellow student, and he gets  detentions ? I just want to be sure I understood you.”

 

“You understood,” Theo said, his voice grim.

 

“So... summoning a Patronus in front of Muggles, something else the boy did, gets him a full hearing of the Wizengamot, but near murder gets the same punishment as setting off dung bombs?”

 

“I swear to Merlin, if you say ‘it’s not fair’ I will hit you,” Theo said. “Hard. He’s  Dumbledore’s pet . He’s –“

 

“Untouchable.” Hermione set her quill down and blew on the ink on her essay. “I know.” She tucked her work away and stood up. “I have to go get a potion I’ve been working on all year and talk to Professor Snape. See you guys later.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Snape watched her bottle the Felix Felicis and waited for her to say something about the detentions, about Potter, about Draco. When she didn’t, he had to admit to himself that he was impressed; six years in Slytherin and summers spent with Narcissa Malfoy and the girl who’d shoved her hand into the air, eager to show off every bit of knowledge she had, had been tempered, at least a little. She no longer demanded to know why things weren’t fair, no longer laid every card she had out on the table.

 

She didn’t even hint she wanted praise for brewing a notoriously tricky potion though he knew she was so eager for it she was nearly quivering. He wondered what she’d be like after ten more years. He suspected, if she lived, she’d be terrifying.

 

“The cabinet is fixed,” she said at last. “We’ll be doing it and escaping soon. Do you plan to stay here or come with us?”

 

“He’s asked me to step in,” Snape said. “Protect Draco’s soul and do the dirty work myself.”

 

“I wouldn’t have expected quite such resignation on his part,” Hermione said, her tone carefully neutral.

 

“He’d dying,” Snape said. “A slight accident with a bit of cursed jewelry.”

 

“Still,” Hermione said, “It’s a lot of ask of you.”

 

“You’ve been asked to commit murder,” Snape said, watching her. 

 

“I’ve been asked to prove myself rather dramatically by killing a man who’s nearly nothing to me. You’ve been asked to kill a man who has, in theory, been your friend and protector for years.” She was not looking at him, and Snape found himself wondering whether she’d be able to do it. He’d killed his share of people in his original stint in the Death Eaters, and he didn’t like the idea of any sixteen-year-old girl, much less this one, taking that burden onto herself.

 

“I’d think you’d quite approve of protecting Draco,” Snape said.

 

“From murder?” Hermione looked up at him, and he was surprised to see she was smiling, her eyes crinkling up in genuine amusement. “But he’s already killed someone. He and Theo had a brief and unpleasant encounter with the Lestrange brothers over Christmas which resulted in the pair shucking off this mortal coil.”

 

“That’s a bit more like putting down a mad dog than killing a man,” Snape said dismissively. 

 

“Well, it sounds like our little task is a bit more of hurrying along a natural process,” Hermione said. “Though I have a few external projects to take care of at the same time.

 

“Do I want to know?” Snape asked.

 

She smiled at him. “Probably not.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Are we set to go?” Draco asked her.

 

She nodded as she looked the little vial in her hand. 

 

“We didn’t end up needing it,” Draco said.

 

“Won’t hurt to take a little before the… you know.” Hermione paused. “Ask to have Fenrir sent through with the backup team.”

 

Fenrir Greyback ?” Draco gaped at her. “The  werewolf ?”

 

“That’s the one.” 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

They passed the Felix Felicis around the common room. Hermione had brewed enough for everyone to take two tablespoons.

 

“Aren’t you going to save any for the people you’re bringing…” a little first year asked.

 

Hermione smiled at her and knelt down to talk to her. “I’m much more concerned about making sure you stay safe than trained adults. They should have skill; they won’t need luck.”

 

Theo muttered, “Plus, you don’t want them too lucky.”

 

Hermione shrugged. “Things happen in a firefight. I plan to be the lucky one.”

 

“Stay here,” Draco ordered. “All of you. Everyone has homework.”

 

“Actually,” Blaise said, “we’re having a House chess tournament.” He pointed at the notice board where a signup sheet had appeared. It seemed to be a bit ratty as if it had been there a bit. “You were supposed to play Greg, so he’s getting a buy out of the first round.”

 

“Lucky bastard.” Draco grinned at his friend who shrugged.

 

“No one will go anywhere,” Blaise said, his arm wrapped around Luna. “Though someone may end up with detention for being out of her own common room late.”

 

“No one will notice I’m not there,” Luna said. 

 

“I’m scared,” a little second-year boy said to the scoffs of several of his mates.

 

“It’ll be okay,” Hermione promised him. “Probably a bit loud but as long as you stay here, you’ll be fine. Draco and I probably won’t be back for a bit, but that just means we’ll be eating home cooking instead of too much cottage pie.”

 

“Be careful,” Theo said, pulling her into a hug.

 

“I will,” she promised him. “We’ll be sitting out by the Malfoy’s pool drinking lemonade before you know it.”

 

“You ready?” Draco asked. He had a knapsack with various tricks they’d thought might be useful, from Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder to a rather nasty Hand of Glory. His fondness for overly complicated plans hadn’t abated, and Hermione hadn’t stopped him.

 

“Let’s go,” she said.

 

They let the Death Eaters in. Hermione greeted Bellatrix with grave courtesy, and the woman cackled in manic glee. “Let’s see what you’re made of, little Mudblood,” she said. Draco stiffened until Hermione’s hand on his arm reminded him to stay focused.

 

Hermione was pleased to see Draco’s request had been honored, and Fenrir Greyback stepped out of the cabinet. He sniffed at her and licked his rather disgusting, yellowing teeth. The others were people she’d met only in passing. The Carrow twins, Gibbon, Rowle, and Yaxley. Not the worst the Dark Lord could have offered her but not exactly Lucius Malfoy either.

 

Of course, he was still in Azkaban. Would be, she suspected, until she and Draco had pleased the Dark Lord with tonight’s escapade.

 

“Give us a head start, please,” she said. 

 

“I’ll be happy to give you time to fail, filth,” Bellatrix sneered.

 

They fired the Dark Mark into the sky above the Astronomy Tower and waited for Dumbledore to appear. He did, looking tired and drained and Hermione smiled at the way luck did, indeed, appear to be on her side. The man pulled a wand but hesitated briefly and, in that lucky moment, she whispered “Expelliarmus,” and grabbed his wand from the air as it flew toward her.

 

“Well,” Dumbledore said, “Miss Granger. I cannot tell you how sad I am to see you here tonight. Who else is with you?”

 

“I’m here,” Draco said. “Did you think I’d let her do this alone?”

 

“No,” Dumbledore acknowledged. “Your partnership has been a delight to watch. I would never have expected the Malfoys to be so accepting of your friendship – your understanding. It gives me hope for the future.”

 

“There are also several Death Eaters in the castle,” Hermione said. “Backup, you understand, and an escape plan.”

 

“Impressive,” Dumbledore said. “Might an old man ask how you brought them in?”

 

“We repaired a Vanishing Cabinet right under your nose,” Draco said, nearly panting as a loud crash came from below them, followed by quite a bit of shouting.

 

“That was clever,” Dumbledore acknowledged. “I do have to wonder where they are now. It seems rather unsporting of Voldemort to send two children against me unsupported.”

 

“We asked for a bit of a head start,” Hermione said. “Though, based on the noises, they might have gotten into a spot of trouble. Sought it out, most likely. I’ve noticed a lot of the old guard seem to have impulse control problems.”

 

Incredibly, Dumbledore laughed. 

 

They both stared at him.

 

“Well, do get on with it,” he invited them. “You have a job to do, threats, I’m sure, hanging over your heads.” When they hesitated, he added, “I’m afraid it sounds like your backup might have gotten into trouble. Are you afraid to proceed without them?”

 

Hermione turned and frowned at the door. When neither she nor Draco made any move to kill him, Dumbledore continued, “You aren’t killers.”

 

“Honestly,” Hermione said, ignoring Dumbledore as he continued to speak warmly of how they could reject the Death Eaters and seek protection. “Is it that much to ask that these people follow instructions? ‘Give us a head start,’ I said. Did I say, ‘engage the whole school in a pitched battle’? I did not.”

 

Draco frowned at her. “You did specifically ask for two people who aren’t stable. What did you expect?”

 

“Mostly, I had an ulterior motive,” she muttered, “But I did hope for competence.”   

 

Draco laughed at that. “You’re going to have to wait until our lot takes over for that, I’m afraid.”

 

“Why are there two brooms here?” Hermione asked, prowling around the room as Dumbledore slipped lower against the ramparts as if he were too weak to stand any longer. When no one answered her, she paced back to the door. “Where  is  that woman?”

 

“Here I am,” Bellatrix presented herself rather dramatically at the door, Fenrir Greyback, and the others crowding in behind her.

 

Dumbledore seemed startled to see the werewolf. “Draco, I’m surprised at you,” he said. “Inviting that particular individual into a school with your friends and classmates.”

 

“It was Hermione’s idea,” Draco muttered. 

 

“Can we proceed now?” Bellatrix drawled. “Or is the little Mudblood afraid to go through with it?”

 

“Language, Bellatrix,” Dumbledore said. 

 

Snape pushed his way into the room. “What is going on here?” he demanded even as Hermione walked across the room and whispered something into Dumbledore’s ear.

 

He closed his eyes and sighed. “Is that supposed to comfort me, child?”

 

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do,” she said. 

 

“Severus,” Dumbledore said, opening his eyes.

 

Snape shook his head. “It is out of my control,” he said.

 

Hermione leveled her wand at Dumbledore, and a bolt of green light hit him. The headmaster tumbled backwards out of the Astronomy Tower.

 

Bellatrix began to laugh with utter, disbelieving delight. “You did it,” she crowed. “You actually did it!” She rushed forward and grabbed Hermione’s face and kissed her on each cheek. “Welcome to the family, girl.”

 

Hermione stepped back and said, her voice low, “I don’t think I care for the way you treat family, Bellatrix. I went to some trouble when I was thirteen to save Sirius Black for Draco, and you killed him.”

 

“Blood traitor,” the woman said with indifference. “Not family.” It was the last thing she said before Hermione, her wand relaxed in her hand, sent another Avada towards Bellatrix.

 

“Ooops,” she said, tilting her head to the side in a remarkably apt mimicry of the other woman as the other Death Eaters stared at her. Fenrir took a step towards her, and she shot him down too. “Battle can be so confusing, don’t you think,” Hermione said, eyeing the remaining adults in the room. “Any other casualties?”

 

“Rowle hit Gibbon,” Alecto Carrow said.

 

The man who had to have been Rowle looked nervous as Hermione pointed her wand at him. “Battle is so confusing,” was all she said, repeating herself. “Friendly fire kills so many, doesn’t it? But the main goal has been accomplished; Dumbledore is dead. Shall we get out of here while we still can?”

 

Thorfinn Rowle smiled at her and said, “I’ll lead the way.”

 

“I’ll take rearguard,” Snape said. “Keep the children alive so they can report to the Dark Lord.” 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Riddle sat on a leather armchair in the Malfoy library, Death Eaters arranged in a semicircle behind the approaching children. “So,” he said, “is Hogwarts mourning Dumbledore’s death?”

 

Hermione dropped to her knees before him, a supplicant before the throne and, following her lead, Draco did so as well. “They are, my Lord,” she said.

 

“How did you do it?” he asked, his tone deceptively idle.

 

Avada Kedavra , my Lord,” she said, and he nodded.

 

“A classic,” he said with approval. “But have you brought me proof?”

 

Hermione swallowed hard. “I haven’t quite brought you a body, my Lord. He… he fell off the Astronomy Tower when I cursed him and… but I brought you his wand.”

 

Riddle tensed. “You brought me the wand of Albus Dumbledore?” he asked.

 

“Yes, my Lord,” Hermione said, confused at his sudden intensity.

 

“How did you get it?” he asked her.

 

Expelliarmus ,” she said flushing. “A simple spell but it worked.”

 

“Indeed,” Riddle said as she held the wand out towards him, laid across both her palms. “And you’re giving this to me of your own volition?”

 

“Yes, sir?” she said, now clearly asking a question, so he repeated himself.

 

“You’re giving me the wand of Albus Dumbledore, a wand you took from him by force, of your own will?”

 

“Yes, my Lord,” Hermione said.

 

He Accioed the wand from her outstretched hands and hefted it with an inscrutable smile. “Rise, child, and approach me,” he said. When she did, he rose and, very formally, kissed her first on one cheek and then the other. “Be it known,” he said, “that you are the most favored of my followers.” He settled back down and regarded her. “Pity you serve me better as Draco’s wife than as a Death Eater in your own right, but so things are. You shall be as a daughter to me henceforth.” He glanced at Draco and said, “Be grateful I’m as old as I am.”

 

“I… yes, my Lord,” Draco said, stumbling over the words.

 

“Go,” Riddle waved a hand at them, his eyes on the wand.

 

“My Lord,” Hermione said, “There’s more.”

 

He was still looking at the wand. “More than this?”

 

“I… I’m afraid that in the chaos of the battle I might have… cursed a few of your Death Eaters,” Hermione said, still standing but her head down. 

 

“How many?” Riddle asked her.

 

She swallowed hard. “Bellatrix. Fenrir Greyback -”

 

“Not a Death Eater,” Riddle said with casual disregard. “Is that all?”

 

“Yes, sir,” she said, her eyes not moving from the floor.

 

“I shall let Narcissa deal with you as regards to Bella; the woman was her sister, after all.” He paused, and she waited for the dismissal that did not come. Instead, he said, “Hermione,” and, hearing the command, she looked up.

 

“Well done,” Tom Riddle said.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord, and Severus Snape watched Draco and Hermione as they giggled and flirted in the gardens. Draco threw a handful of fallen leaves into her hair, and she shrieked and swatted at him while he laughed.

 

“You’d never know she killed a man,” Snape said, his tone carefully neutral. “You’ve turned her into an impressive weapon.”

 

“She’s quite a girl,” Riddle said. “And not just one person but three, assuming we decide to call Fenrir a man.”

 

“Not a moniker I’d apply to werewolves myself,” Snape said with a hint of a sneer.

 

Riddle shrugged.

 

Snape was examining a small scar on his thumb. “Cut myself,” he said idly. “It’s the problem with using knives. You have to hone them, make them sharp enough to do the task you need them for, but, if you aren’t careful, if you lose your grip on them for a single moment, they turn on you.”

 

“Indeed,” Riddle said, still watching the laughing teens.

 

“Hermione’s an easy girl to control,” Snape said. “She cares about fairness. She wants to prove herself; that Mudblood thing will haunt her forever, of course. And, she’s fierce about the people she loves. Clever of you, really, to Mark Draco so young. You’ll never need to do anything else to hold her to you; she’d do anything for that boy, take down anyone who hurt him. His parents too, to a lesser extent, but she adores that boy, has since she was eleven.”

 

At that moment, Hermione and Draco came rushing onto the terrace. When they saw the adults, they stopped, and both quickly murmured, “My Lord,” at Riddle. He waved his hand at them in obvious dismissal, and they shifted carefully around him as they went towards the house. Hermione stopped to give Snape a quick hug as she passed him, and he stiffened under her embrace. “I’ve asked you not to do that,” he muttered, and she stood up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek.

 

“And I listen to  almost  everything you say,” she said fondly before Draco, with a roll of his eyes, grabbed her hand and tugged her into the house.

 

Riddle eyed Snape for a moment and then said, “I wanted to discuss some long term changes in the Hogwarts curriculum I’d like you to implement now that we’ve named you Headmaster.”

 

“Of course, my Lord,” Snape said.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Does it still count as won if she gave it to you rather than having you wrest it from her by force?” Narcissa asked as Tom Riddle fondled the Elder Wand.

 

“It still counts,” he assured her. “Though much of its history has been bloody, a person  can  simply hand the wand over.”

 

“Are you quite sure?” Narcissa pressed.

 

Riddle smiled. “I tested it on a household of Muggles. I can assure you, this wand is… extraordinary, and it’s fully mine.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione sat down at the dinner table, smiling politely at Yaxley, warmly at Rowle, and with absolute delight at Flint. Draco slipped into his own seat across from her as Narcissa made a pro forma apology for the unbalanced numbers. “Tom had so many people over today it seemed easier to simply feed you rather than sending you out hungry.”

 

“I assure you, none of us will write into the  Prophet  complaining about your table,” Lucius said, stopping to kiss her on the forehead as he walked into the room.

 

Hermione gaped at him and flung herself out of her chair and into a fierce hug. She knew, unofficially and in passing, that he’d escaped from Azkaban, that they’d all escaped, but his return home had been kept quiet and she’d not seen him yet.   

 

“It’s good to see you too, my dear,” Lucius said as he disentangled himself from her arms. “Sit, child, before Draco challenges me to a duel on your behalf.”

 

“As if he’d dare,” Hermione said, dimpling at him, but obediently settling back into her place. 

 

“Never underestimate the power of young love,” Lucius recommended as he sat next to Narcissa. Tom Riddle, who had followed him into the room, took a seat at the head of the table.

 

Draco nodded to his father, his throat convulsing as he swallowed hard but, despite the tell, he retained far more of his dignity than Hermione had. Lucius was pale, even for a Malfoy, and thin, and deep bags had settled under his eyes, but he seemed wholly sane despite his ordeal in prison.  

 

“How are…” Hermione trailed off, not sure whether she was allowed to ask about the other detainees.

 

“All at their own homes,” Tom Riddle said as he spread a napkin in his lap and poured himself some wine. The bottle was passed around the table, and there were a few moments of silence as everyone obeyed the obvious - if unspoken - command to fill their glasses. “To a grand year with Potter’s death, the subornation of the Ministry, and a wedding all to look forward to as well, of course, to the safe return of our fellow travelers and comrades in arms.”

 

The Death Eaters around the table, as well as the two women, all raised their glasses towards Riddle.

 

“A wedding?” Rowle asked after everyone had sipped. “Should I wish you – “

 

“Not  my  wedding,” Riddle said, looking amused at how Rowle immediately began to squirm. 

 

“I don’t believe they’re technically engaged yet,” Narcissa said with amusement.

 

Riddle flicked a slightly annoyed glance at Draco. “Well, get on with it. I want the wedding directly after graduation and your election as youngest Minister, ready to heal the wounds of the nation with your loving Muggle-born wife at your side, immediately after your honeymoon.” He eyed Hermione. “An attractive tot would be a good public relations move. People seem to like babies for some unfathomable reason.”

 

“I assume you’d prefer I wait long enough after the wedding ceremony we avoid embarrassing incidents of people counting backwards on their fingers?” Hermione teased, and Riddle smiled back at her as Draco flushed a deep shade of red. 

 

“I trust your judgment in such matters absolutely,” the Dark Lord said. 

 

“In general we have a far lower rate of what I shall call ‘accidents’ in Slytherin than the other Houses at Hogwarts,” Narcissa said as the plates filled with food. “Apparently our cunning and pragmatic children manage not to bungle the contraceptive charms.”

 

Draco had, by now, turned a shade of scarlet to rival Weasley’s hair.

 

“Now that you are out of school, Marcus, do you and your parents have any thoughts on your future,” Narcissa transitioned the conversation.

 

“My father’s suggested Pansy Parkinson,” the young Death Eater mumbled, and Narcissa clapped her hands together in apparent delight.

 

“An excellent choice,” she said. “Are you two fond of one another?”

 

Marcus shifted in his seat, casting a look over at Draco, who was still flushed from his mother’s acknowledgement that students at Hogwarts had sex, and finally said, “She seems to not regard me with abhorrence.”

 

Yaxley muttered, “Aiming high, then, I take it.”

 

“Oh, Lysander,” Narcissa said, “It’s practically an arranged marriage. The children don’t need to love one another. From what I know of her, Miss Parkinson is eminently practical, and she’ll be very supportive of Marcus’ work.”

 

“If we could turn our attention away from Mr. Flint’s love life for a moment, as fascinating as it is,” Riddle said, “I’d like to congratulate our dear Yaxley on his promotion, with the elimination of Rufus Scrimgeour, to head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”

 

Yaxley smiled blandly.

 

“I wasn’t aware you’d successfully rid yourself of Scrimgeour,” Hermione said, her fork stabbing into the large scallop on her plate.

 

Riddle sighed as he watched her. “Try cutting it,” he suggested. “And it’s merely a matter of days until the Ministry is ours. I do like to have my team in place, ready to take over. A long transition would just destabilize things.”

 

“Excellent news,” Hermione said.

 

“Severus will be taking over at Hogwarts, of course. He’s the most familiar with the place.”

 

“You trust him, my Lord?” Hermione asked with great care.

 

Riddle smiled at her. “I have a most excellent lever to control him,” he said. “A lever that has, I think, convinced him that the other side is not the warm and loving place he had, perhaps, hoped it might be.”

 

Hermione was making a face at her scallop, which kept slipping away from her knife in its pool of butter. “I really do know how to eat,” she muttered, and Yaxley laughed. 

 

“Miss Granger,” Yaxley said as he used a quick hex to cut his own scallop into meticulously identical pieces, “I’ve been meaning to ask you your opinion of Muggle Studies. What with you being, if not exactly a Muggle than certainly the closest thing to one I’ve ever spoken to, I thought your views on the matter might be interesting.” 

 

Hermione glanced at Riddle, who raised an eyebrow. So encouraged, she said, “It’s a waste of time.”

 

Narcissa let out one of her trilling laughs, and Draco sighed. He’d heard Hermione’s near rant on Muggle Studies more than once.

 

“Do go on,” Riddle said, pulling out a copy of the  Daily Prophet  folded over to an article, “and let me know what you think of this.”

 

Hermione skimmed the article. It was an enthusiastic defense of Muggle-borns written by the Muggle Studies professor. She sighed when she was done and put it down. “May I be honest, sir,” she asked Riddle.

 

“Always, my dear,” he said.

 

“I don’t know Professor Burbage well,” she hedged, “and, certainly, I agree with, uh, the most salient point she makes, which is that discrimination against Muggle-borns remains a persistent problem in our society and one that needs addressing, but, umm, well, she writes badly and her class isn’t going to help fix anything.” 

 

“Explain,” Riddle said, toying with his knife. 

 

“About her class?” Hermione asked, and he nodded. “Well, it… it presents Muggles as this kind of fascinating alien, like they’re, I don’t know, clever apes or something. It’s filled with pointless trivia and… I mean, really, do most wizards even  need  to know how to pass in Muggle culture? I guess I’m not sure what the point of the class is. Is it to be able to buy biscuits at Tesco? Because that’s stupid. Is it some kind of anthropology thing? Because if so it’s… imperialist and tainted with a kind of colonial mindset.” She muttered the last as if she were embarrassed and Riddle laughed.

 

“It’s also an easy O.W.L.,” Draco added, “which is why most people take it.”

 

“Losers,” Hermione said under her breath.

 

“Two fascinating issues,” Riddle said. “Whether Muggle Studies is a valuable class – “

 

“It’s not,” Hermione interrupted him.

 

“ – and what to do about Muggle-borns in general.” 

 

Hermione threw him a look, and he raised his wine glass towards her. “Not  you  my dear. Your… fellows.”

 

“They aren’t my fellows,” Hermione said. “I’m not sure why everyone assumes I’d be naturally so sympathetic. The last time I had any significant contact with another Muggle-born was…” She had to stop to think.

 

“Colin Creevey,” Draco said after a moment. She looked at him blankly. “The kid with the camera.”

 

“Yeah,” she agreed. “A kid who wanted to do portraits of all the Muggle-borns at Hogwarts for some project and got offended and nasty when I wasn’t interested. Apparently, I owed him some kind of portrait sitting because we had so much in common or something.” She shook her head. “Still,” she looked over at Riddle, “that doesn’t mean I think you should go out killing all the Muggle-borns like you did last time.”

 

“It was useful last time,” he said, smiling at her. “I needed an emotionally charged issue to rally people around to get done what I needed to get done in order to achieve immortality.”

 

“This time?” she pushed him, and he looked at her so steadily she had to struggle to maintain eye contact. The almost instinctive urge to back down, to protect herself, screamed at her from every corner of her brain. 

 

“This time I’m interested in power,” Riddle finally said, “and it’s difficult to maintain power when you’re too obviously oppressive. I like to think I learn from my mistakes. Don’t they say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.” He looked up at Yaxley. “Which means no wide-spread purges, you understand?”

 

Yaxley smiled calmly and sipped from his wine. “I live to serve you, my Lord.”

 

Hermione tried to control her relieved exhale. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Mrs. Malfoy,” Hermione said, stumbling over the words, “I wanted to tell you how sorry I am that your sister –“

 

Narcissa cut her off. “She isn’t suffering anymore.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"They're moving Potter this Saturday at dusk," Snape said as Riddle sat in the casual library chair that became a de facto throne whenever the man lounged in it with his deceptively casual grace. He disdained obvious displays of power as befitting only lesser men, but the aura of danger and authority he carried around with him imbued even a worn antique with symbolic import.

 

Since Riddle had begun using that chair no one else had sat in it.

 

"Where do they plan to hide him?" Riddle asked.

 

"In the home of an Order member," Snape said. "One they've apparently layered every protection they can around. It is my opinion, my Lord, that we will not be able to take him from inside that building. Ideally, we should bring him down during the transfer."

 

"They aren't using the Auror office?" Riddle asked.

 

"They feel we might have infiltrated the Ministry," Snape said, his tone somewhat dry.

 

"Such impressive perception," Riddle snorted. "It's as if they finally hit upon the obvious."

 

"Indeed. They are planning to avoid Floo and Apparation travel because they fear all such would be monitored."

 

"I remain astonished that people I generally consider idiots have figured that out."

 

Snape shrugged. "As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day," he said, and Riddle allowed a small smile to pull his lips upward. 

 

"Well, it is heartening to realize they plan to move him through the open air. It leaves him vulnerable." Riddle bit his lip and gazed off above Snape's head. "Still, I plan to deal with him myself. Based on even what we know of the prophecy, it's clear there are some things that I simply cannot outsource."

 

"As you wish, my Lord," Snape said politely.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Tom Riddle had politely asked Hermione is she'd like to be part of the team that would go with him to attack Harry Potter. He'd laughed at the way her eyes had glittered as her mouth had curved up in a slow, cold smile.

 

"I heard you had a bit of a soft spot for the boy," Riddle said. "Abusive Muggle home and all."

 

"He attacked Draco with sectrumsempra," was all Hermione said, and Riddle nodded. That would, he knew, do it for her. Nevertheless, he’d add a few extra layers of control around her before he’d let her near Potter at an event meant to murder the boy.

 

"I appreciate you not slaughtering him on the spot," he said, not revealing his minor concern she would object to such, and she gave him a look of pure, guilty petulance.

 

"Snape snagged my wand, so all I could manage was a hard slap."

 

Riddle laughed and chucked her chin. "You are a delight," he said. "Make sure you get fitted for robes and get a mask. Normally I would reserve such for the actual Death Eaters, but it wouldn't do to have you recognized and, besides, after your flawless handling of my Dumbledore problem you deserve a little reward."

 

"My Lord is most gracious," Hermione said, "but your favorable regard is all the reward I desire." She paused, then added, "Although..."

 

"Yes, child?"

 

"I know that Potter, of course, is reserved for you hands alone but if I should happen to curse any other Order members who were there..."

 

"Extra helpings of pie would be forthcoming."

 

"Well," Hermione said, "the Malfoy elves do make good pie. I'd hate to lose out."

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Snape stopped Hermione before he left Malfoy Manor. “Did I tell you I discovered the source of Potter’s sudden excellence in Potions?”

 

She caught her breath.

 

“He was cheating,” Snape continued, voice devoid of any expression. “He’d found a book that had notes in it that improved on the standard recipes and he was using those.”

 

Hermione thrust out her lower lip in what she knew was a childish pout. “So all that time he –“

 

“Exactly,” Snape said.

 

“It’s not fair,” Hermione muttered.

 

“Try not to be as much of an idiot as that loathsome boy,” Snape said with a narrowing of his eyes. “If I asked you why you should stir clockwise when brewing on a full moon even if the usual way would be anticlockwise would you know why?”

 

“Of course,” Hermione said impatiently.

 

“Well, Potter wouldn’t. He was only following instructions.”

 

Only Snape, Hermione thought, could make the phrase ‘following the instructions’ seem like a brutal condemnation.

 

“You, you ridiculous child, actually learned something.”

 

“Professor Slughorn,” she began, but Snape stopped her.

 

“Horace has become even more of a fool in his old age than he was in his youth which is, frankly, a significant accomplishment.” He paused. “ I  am proud of you.”

 

Her mouth dropped open.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

They waited in the sky above the Dursley house for the Order of the Phoenix to move Harry Potter. Hermione had to muffle her snort of disgust as the boy's guardians were hustled away, Order members chatting away at the obviously horrified Muggles.

 

"Tell me again how Muggles are as good as wizards," Adrian Pucey said, hovering on his broom next to her.

 

"Shut up," she muttered. 

 

"I thought you hated to fly," he said. "Why're you here, anyway?"

 

"It's a bit in the way of a reward," Hermione said, "getting to see Potter struck down."

 

"Where's Draco? No offense, but he's a much better flier than you, and he's actually a Death Eater."

 

Hermione sighed. "Draco's at the Manor making sure I'm just here to watch Potter struck down, not keep you all from striking him down."

 

Adrian gave her a confused look. "He's a hostage to my good behavior, Adrian," she clarified. "His job is to make sure my well documented soft spot for Potter doesn't rear its head."

 

"Oh." He gave her a measuring look.

 

"It  won’t ," she muttered.

 

The event became significantly more complicated, however, when seven Harry Potters came out of the tidy house. Hermione had to admit, if you knew the Dark Lord had a fixation about having to kill Potter himself, it was a brilliant plan. If it didn't matter who took the boy out they would simply have killed them all but, as the matter stood, they'd have to identify the right boy.

 

"Fuck," Adrian Pucey said, and Hermione had to agree. "Bloody, buggering  fuck ," he added for emphasis.

 

"Why does it have to be so damn hard to kill one sixteen-year-old boy?" Hermione demanded, scanning all the Potters.

 

One of them was climbing into the sidecar of a motorbike next to Hagrid, the groundskeeper turned Care of Magical Creatures professor, an owl cage clutched in his hands. "That one," she whispered and reached out to grab Adrian's arm. "That one," she said louder and, once she had his attention, she pointed to the Potter in the sidecar.

 

"No way," Adrian Pucey said. "Potter's got a lot of flaws, but that boy can fly. No way they wouldn't put him on a broom."

 

Hermione kicked her broom forward, searching for a way to test her theory that  that one  was the real Potter. As the seven Potters rose into the air on multiple brooms, one Thestral, and the enchanted motorbike, the Death Eaters circled around them shooting curses wildly at the Order members who obviously weren't Potter. 

 

The motorbike rolled over in the air as the Death Eaters attacked, and Hermione flew towards the boy she knew had to be the real Potter. She shot a curse at his owl, and the bird screeched and collapsed, dead in its cage, and the boy screamed his grief. "Hedwig," he cried out. " Hedwig !"

 

"Got you," Hermione said, her suspicion absolutely confirmed. 

 

The seven Potters and their guardians had split up, and Hermione knew she wasn't a good enough flyer to keep up with the motorbike but she grabbed Rowle, who was, and hissed, "It's that one, the one with the owl cage in the motorbike," and the man looked at her sharply and then nodded. 

 

She fell behind and felt the Dark Lord rising behind her. Unlike the rest of them, he didn't rest on a broomstick - or motorbike - but glided through the air unsupported.

 

While the rest of the Death Eaters wore masks, he had glamoured his face into that of a monster, pale and serpentine. It was a terrifying sight.

 

"The motorbike," she gasped at him. "That's the one, my Lord."

 

He stopped to caress her face. "My dearest child," he said, his voice almost a hiss. "Again, you exceed all expectations. Now go play with some of the false Potters."

 

She followed the slowest moving of the Potters, one who was accompanied by Remus Lupin. She wondered who the Potter was as she launched curse after curse at him. He was clearly a better flyer than her, and he ducked and bobbed and avoided all her spells. Still, at last, she landed one curse, and the line of magical energy severed the boy's ear. 

 

It was as good as she was going to get, she suspected, and so she settled down to the ground and apparated back to Malfoy Manor where Narcissa met her on the front steps with a quick hug and a shout towards the house for Draco.

 

Hermione stripped off her robes and mask and handed them to an elf, who took them and disappeared. Draco came running and flung himself at her and ran his hands over her arms and shoulders. "Are you okay?" he demanded.

 

"I'm fine," she said.

 

"You're a shitty flier," he muttered. "I worried the whole time."

 

"I'm not  you ," Hermione said with evident annoyance, "and I'm never going to go flying for  fun,  but I can  do  it. Why does everyone have to assume I’m incompetent just because I’m not a Quidditch player?"

 

Narcissa asked, "How did it go?"

 

"I'm not sure," Hermione admitted. "I couldn't keep up with the fastest fliers, so I fell back and cursed a random Order member."

 

"Land any curses?" Draco asked.

 

"Well, nothing fatal but I think I can have an extra helping of pie," Hermione smiled at him, and he laughed.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

They failed to get Potter. The Dark Lord struck down Mad-Eye Moody but, with the exception of the curse Hermione landed on one of the false Potters, no one else was even hurt.

 

“You got the wrong one,” Theo said after coming out of a meeting with Riddle. 

 

“What?” Hermione asked, confused. 

 

“You hit George Weasley. It was the other one – Fred – who pounded on Draco last year.”

 

Hermione laughed. “Well, it’s not like I can tell them apart even when they aren’t being Potter.”

 

“You can now,” Theo said with a smirk, and she laughed even harder.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Still, even with Potter unfortunately alive, the plans to take over the Ministry continued along an otherwise smooth and untroubled path. Yaxley Imperioused a man named Pius Thicknesse and, with his help, they brought a team into the Ministry.

 

Rufus Scrimgeour, even under torture, refused to reveal Harry Potter’s whereabouts. Hermione wasn’t asked to attend those sessions; she served tea to the handful of Death Eaters who returned to Malfoy Manor afterward and asked no questions. Thicknesse became Minister, and the Ministry was theirs.

 

“Though,” Riddle said as Hermione handed him a cup of tea and a plate with some fresh biscuits, “I’ll prefer it when it’s you and Draco. Working with the imperioused is always tricky; they’re agreeable enough, but you have to spell everything out for them. I find it time consuming and tedious.”

 

“I shall endeavor to assist you in any way I can, my Lord,” she said.

 

The Death Eaters spread out and visited the homes of all the known members of the Order of the Phoenix, questioning residents – sometimes quite roughly – in their quest to find the boy. They burned down the house of a man named Dedalus Diggle, but he wasn’t home at the time. They crashed a wedding at the Weasley house but no luck there either.

 

It was as if the boy had vanished into thin air.

 

Ron Weasley was similarly missing.

 

“We’re just very concerned,” Thicknesse said in a press conference. “We have good reason to believe Harry Potter was there when the esteemed Albus Dumbledore was killed and, well, that he refuses to come in and give a statement certainly doesn’t look good for him, now does it? Right now he’s our prime suspect in the murder case; all citizens should consider him armed and dangerous. Do not try to approach him yourself. Should you spot him, alert the Ministry at once.”

 

Cassius Warrington was assigned to the  Daily Prophet,  and the paper began, without even a hint of protest, printing what it was told.

 

The coup was smooth and silent and almost flawless. People whispered to each other, perhaps, that the Ministry’s policies had changed, but no one challenged them openly.

 

“Of course,” people said, “the Death Eaters are really just the Knights of Walpurgis with a new name.”

 

People nodded knowingly at that.

 

If some people murmured, “I never liked their blood supremacy stance, there’s nothing wrong with being a half-blood,” when there was no overt sign of oppression people began to relax and life went on and power was quietly accumulated by a man who wanted it very much, wanted it far more than he cared about pureblood rights and privileges.

 

That the bulk of the traditionally powerful pureblood families were on his side and set to benefit by the new arrangements, well, that wasn’t about  blood , that was just about what side you were on. After all, the Weasleys were purebloods, the Macmillans were purebloods, and they weren’t getting anything from the new Ministry policies favoring Death Eaters, far from it. Didn’t that show it wasn’t about blood, people said to one another. After all, anyone could apply to join the Death Eaters.

 

Look at that little Muggle-born the Malfoy heir is with, people said to one another. Surely if it were about blood, no one would give her the time of day.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hogwarts became mandatory. No longer would wizards and witches of Britain be permitted to send their children to Durmstrang or Beauxbatons or school them at home; Riddle wanted total control of their education. “Let me control their past and control their education,” the man said over tea, “and I will control the future.”

 

To Hermione’s great annoyance Riddle decided Muggle Studies would be mandatory for first and second years, and that the bulk of the curriculum would focus on how unfortunate Muggles were, how much less they were than wizards. Such Muggle-born students as attended Hogwarts would also have to take a wizarding customs class every year through their O.W.L. year and would be ‘encouraged’ to find a wizarding family to visit over the holidays. Riddle wanted all ties to the Muggle world cut as thoroughly as possible.

 

“I do love my Muggle parents,” Hermione protested when Riddle revealed that decree. She’d been sitting at his side, assigned to fetch tea and spare quills and extra parchment as necessary. Running an evil empire took rather a lot of paperwork. 

 

“Yes,” the man said, not even looking up from the parchment he was writing on, “but you love them from Malfoy Manor. Their world is not your world and never will be. You can’t even invite them to your graduation, Hermione. They won’t even be at your wedding.” He glanced up at her at that. “Will they?”

 

“I’m sure Narcissa will take care of the guest list,” Hermione said, blinking at the sudden command. “I realize it’s more traditional for the bride’s family – “

 

“Exactly,” he said, cutting her off. “Run along and play with Draco before you have to go back to school. Send Montague to me. He can be my errand boy for the next few hours.”

 

“As my Lord wishes,” she said, then paused. “My Lord?” 

 

“Yes,” he asked, somewhat impatiently.

 

“Might I trouble you to ask a few questions about pureblood inheritance?”

 

Riddle was about to tell her to go bother Narcissa with her interrogation when he saw the way her eyes glinted. “I am always pleased to help you navigate our world, Hermione,” he said.

 

“Sirius Black died without heirs,” she said. “And I heard Harry Potter complaining that a man named Fletcher was ‘nicking’ Sirius’ things, things which apparently Potter felt he had inherited.”

 

“Unlikely,” Riddle said, watching her. “Most pureblood estates are entailed. You can’t just pass them off to whomever you want.”

 

“But if he could, would that make Potter the owner of Sirius’ childhood home?”

 

Riddle smiled. “Yes, Miss Granger. Yes, it would. Conversations with you are always so edifying. Run along, now,” he ordered, and she did as she was told.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Montague,” Riddle said when the young Death Eater joined him. “Get me the address of Walburga Black’s house and set up a watch there.” He paused. “You might not see it. I’d expect it to be covered with a Fidelius charm, but I want a round-the-clock guard watching where it  should  be. I think we might have a lead on where Potter’s gone to ground.”

 

Riddle looked back at the copy of the  Daily Prophet  on the desk in front of him, and something he saw made him hiss, a low, furious sound that made Graham Montague step back in sudden, obvious fear.

 

“Montague,” Riddle said, jamming his finger against a photograph in the paper, “before you go would you be so kind as to identify the woman in the bad suit for me?”

 

Montague sidled up to the desk warily and looked down at a photograph of a toad-like woman trying to wiggle away from the finger holding her down. “Umm, that’s Dolores Umbridge, sir,” he said. “Just like the caption says.”

 

“Thank you, Montague,” Riddle said. “You’ve been most helpful.”

 

Graham Montague fled.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione didn’t mean to listen at keyholes, she really didn’t, but she couldn’t help but overhear Narcissa Malfoy who had, rather shockingly, raised her voice.

 

Narcissa was probably the only person who would raise her voice at Tom Riddle.

 

“You want me to invite  that woman  to my home?” she was saying, obviously displeased. “She tried to make Hermione use a blood quill, and the idea of extending hospitality to her is vile.”

 

“Hospitality doesn’t technically begin until we sit around the table,” Riddle said, sounding amused. “Surely you can swallow your loathing long enough for cocktails.”

 

“She’s a disgrace,” Narcissa muttered. “Hidebound, prejudiced, narrow-minded – “

 

“Rather like your sister?” Riddle cut her off.

 

“My  late  sister,” Narcissa corrected. “Times have changed. Walburga and her ilk have passed on – “

 

“And not a moment too soon. That woman’s voice was shrill.”

 

Narcissa laughed at that. “She did support you unstintingly.”

 

Hermione could hear Riddle snort. “She thought I was a trumped-up Johnny-come-lately, and the only reason she was even middling polite was that she was afraid of me.”

 

Fear of her own that she’d be caught lingering outside the door pushed Hermione down the hall and into the little sitting-room the teenagers used. “Problem?” Draco asked when he saw the expression on her face. 

 

She schooled herself into a far blander countenance and said, “No. I’m just tired, and I think your mother might be planning to entertain again.”

 

Draco groaned at that. 

 

Hermione was, of course, correct. “Dress formally,” Narcissa said when the event in question approached. She’d looked at Daphne as she said that and the girl had nodded; keeping Hermione on track for all the little details of pureblood etiquette had become her unspoken job much as Theo was clearly meant to be Draco’s confidant and political counselor. The Malfoys were the aristocrats, and they would be the public ruling face of the Dark Lord’s regime. The Notts would be – already were – the people they trusted in a world filled with potential enemies.

 

When Hermione, her fingers laid on Draco’s arm, entered the ballroom, the room was filled with men she recognized. She was the only flash of color in the room, and even her dress was a green so deep it was as moss in a forest at dusk. She counted the numbers and slowly smiled, a cold smile that Draco, watching her, frowned at.

 

“Do I want to know what has you so pleased,” he asked.

 

“This isn’t a party,” she said quietly. “Not even close. Look at the numbers.”

 

Draco counted quickly: three women and over a dozen men, all Death Eaters. “Why is that a good thing?” he asked.

 

“You’ll see,” she said as Marcus Flint came over to her and she held out her hand. 

 

He brushed his lips across the back of her hand and glanced up at Draco. “I shall die mourning that you had the unfair advantage of being in her year,” he said gallantly, and Draco smirked as he led Hermione to a seat near one of the columns in the room. Within moments he stood behind her as she bandied and flirted with their schoolmates turned Death Eaters, one of his hands casually resting on her shoulder.

 

That hand tensed when Tom Riddle approached and bowed over her, a smile playing around his lips. “I see, Miss Granger, you have my Death Eaters dancing attendance on you already.”

 

She smiled up at him and said, “You’ve selected such excellent young men to join you, how could I possibly resist their flattering attentions?”

 

“Minx,” Riddle said, fondness evident in his tone. “Will you forgive me for stealing one of your swains away? I need to speak to Mr. Flint in private.”

 

“I would forgive you anything, my Lord,” she said, “so long as when you send him back you send him with a glass of punch. It’s a bit warm in here.”

 

Tom Riddle took her hand and kissed the tips of her fingers and said, “I can deny you nothing, my dear. Punch it shall be.”

 

He turned to Flint and, with a sharp jerk of his head, indicated the man should follow him. As the pair walked away, Draco exhaled sharply, and Graham Montague said, his voice shaking, “Do you always talk to him like that?”

 

Draco muttered something under his breath as Hermione said, “He’s in a good mood, and that means he wants to be treated like any other aristocrat.”

 

“And when he’s in a bad mood?” Graham asked.

 

“Then I try not to cringe because that irritates him.”

 

Graham shuddered, and he and Draco exchanged glances. “I find I suddenly envy you your lovely prize far less,” Graham said. “I’ll be much happier not attracting too much attention.”

 

Draco was watching Hermione watch the door. “You know something,” he said. “It makes me nervous when you know things.” That was the moment Lucius Malfoy walked into the room, Dolores Umbridge on his arm.

 

“Still with the pink?” Adrian Pucey said, looking at the woman with disgust and amusement.  

 

“Technically a pink dress is still formal,” Hermione said. “I’m not in black, after all.”

 

He snorted at that, and their cluster watched as the woman paraded across the room, clearly thrilled to have been invited to this gathering, mincing and simpering at first Lucius Malfoy, then at Tom Riddle. Lucius glanced over and caught Draco’s eye, and the boy nodded slightly before walking around Hermione’s chair and offering her his arm. 

 

“We’re being summoned,” he said.

 

She took his arm and rose, and they moved across the room to join Riddle while Narcissa, holding Nott, Senior’s arm, drifted from the corner of the room where she had been holding court among the older Death Eaters towards her husband, Umbridge and Riddle as well.

 

“I’m not sure you’ve met my wife,” Lucius said, not actually introducing Dolores Umbridge to Narcissa.

 

Dolores Umbridge fawned on her elegant hostess. “I’ve admired you for years, Mrs. Malfoy,” she said. 

 

Narcissa eyed the woman and said, her voice cool, “What a lovely necklace, Miss Umbridge. Should I be offering you wishes for your future happiness?”

 

Tom Riddle nearly choked on his wine.  

 

Umbridge touched the locket around her neck and said, “Oh, no. This is a family piece.” She eyed Hermione but forbore to do more than curl her lip at the girl. Draco stiffened at the sneer but said nothing.

 

“It is, indeed, a family piece,” Tom Riddle said. “I do think, however, you might be a trifle confused as to whose family.” He turned to Hermione. “What do you think of it, dear?”

 

“It’s quite nice, my Lord,” she said. 

 

“Would you like it?” he asked.

 

Hermione eyed the locket around Dolores Umbridge’s neck and controlled the shiver that went through her soul. “Your generosity is too kind, my Lord, but I prefer the necklace you’ve already given me.”

 

“I thought you said it was ‘lame’?” he teased her with a wicked smile.

 

Dolores Umbridge opened her mouth at that. “Surely you don’t let the little Mudblood speak to you that way? Criticizing any gift you’d deign to give her?”

 

Tom Riddle reached out and ran a hand possessively over Hermione’s hair. “Hermione has yet to disappoint me,” he said. “Clever. Loyal. Discreet. The Sorting Hat knew what it was doing when it placed her in our House.” He raked his eyes over Umbridge. “I am considering, however, that your placement might have been more in the manner of a peculiar joke.”

 

Umbridge stiffened and looked around. A room full of men in black had casually circled their little group. Lucius Malfoy had dropped her arm and taken Narcissa’s. 

 

“You do know that, historically, Slytherins have never  ever  turned on their own,” Narcissa said, her voice lilting in her ballroom. “I’ve always wanted to ask you what made you think trying to force my future daughter-in-law, a Slytherin girl, to use a blood quill was a good idea.”

 

“She’s a Muggle-born,” Umbridge said, looking around the room at the hard-eyed men. Thorfinn Rowle laughed at that, a low, dark sound. Graham Montague looked like he’d happily tear the woman’s throat out on the spot. Even Yaxley looked as though Umbridge’s reasoning made him tired.

 

“She’s a Slytherin,” Riddle corrected her, “and you’re wearing my mother’s locket.”

 

Umbridge put her hand over the locket, and her fingers clutched at it spasmodically. 

 

“Where did you get it?” he asked, “because I’m quite sure it’s not a family piece. Not in  your  family.”

 

“I… I took it from a man who was trying to sell it,” Umbridge whispered. “I think his name was Mundungus something.”

 

“Fletcher,” Hermione said. Riddle looked at her, and she made a graceful little shrug. “I overheard Potter complaining one day that a man by that name was stealing Sirius Black’s things and selling them. I think I’d mentioned it to you and, really, how many Mundunguses can there be?”

 

Riddle looked over at Marcus Flint and said, “Find out how he got it and then kill him.” Flint nodded, and Graham Montague fell into step beside him as the two left the ballroom. Riddle held his hand out, and Umbridge stared at him, her wide eyes blinking and her throat bobbing as she swallowed. 

 

“He wants you to return his mother’s locket,” Hermione said, her voice the tone you’d use to speak to a small child.

 

Umbridge threw a hostile look at the young witch, dressed in satin and on Draco Malfoy’s arm. 

 

“I would recommend doing what he asks,” Hermione added.

 

Dolores Umbridge fumbled with the clasp and, almost dropping the locket, handed it over to Tom Riddle. He closed his fingers around it and smiled before tucking it away in an inside pocket in his jacket. Then he drew his wand and pointed it at Umbridge.

 

“But I did what you asked,” she said, taking a hurried step backwards. “I’m on your side,” she said, her voice changing to a panicked whimper. “I want to help you purge our world of vermin like her,” she pointed at Hermione. “Muggles and Mudbloods are filth, they – “

 

As Umbridge ranted on, her tone getting higher and more frenzied, Riddle said to Narcissa, a hint of irritation entering his voice, “It’s as if Walburga were back amongst us.”

 

Narcissa sighed. “I did say I didn’t want to invite her over, but you insisted. You could have just sent someone over to her flat to kill her and take the locket but, no, you had to be dramatic.”

 

Umbridge continued to flail about verbally as more and more Death Eaters looked amused and Riddle said, “I just enjoy your hospitality so much, my dear Narcissa, that I cannot resist any excuse to attend one of your parties.”

 

An elf popped into the room and made a nervous little gesture.

 

“Dinner is ready, Tom, so, if you’d just kill her, we can all be seated,” Narcissa said. 

 

“Of course,” the man said and cut off the shrill protests with a quick  Avada .

 

“I do appreciate you not staining the floors,” Narcissa said as she gestured towards the dining room and the people in the ballroom moved to eat. “Blood is very tricky to get out without damaging the wood.”

 

“Anything for you, my dear,” Riddle said. “Mr. Pucey, go fetch Miss Granger some punch before you join us for dinner; I fear I had promised to have Mr. Flint get her some and then had to send him off on a small errand.”

 

Adrian Pucey nodded and with a slightly wide-eyed look at Hermione went to get her some punch as ordered.

Chapter Text

Draco and Hermione laughed as they boarded the train to Hogwarts for their seventh year. They laughed as students from other Houses pulled away from them in fear-laced contempt. They laughed as they greeted Theo and Daphne, and as Blaise opened the door to a compartment for Hermione. 

 

“Principessa,” he said with a smirk.

 

As she was entering, giving him an elaborate curtsy, Ginny Weasley approached them. “You have a lot of nerve,” she said in a low hiss. “How dare you show your face after what you did?”

 

“It’s a new world, Ginevra,” Hermione said, standing in the doorway. “The time when you could release a monster onto the school, throw multiple students into a coma, and be sent on your merry way with no consequences because you were a favorite is over.”

 

“No, now you can murder a Headmaster and come back and flaunt yourself,” Ginny said. “Death Eaters’ whore.”

 

“Watch your mouth, bitch,” Greg said.

 

“The wards have expired, Ginny,” Hermione said. “Potter’s on the run, isn’t he? Did your brother go with him? The ever faithful, if a tad simple, sidekick? Do they think they can conquer the Dark Lord, a man who’s conquered Death itself, with only love and friendship?”

 

“Yes,” Ginny said, her eyes narrowed as she stared at the woman who smirked back at her with a cool amused smile.

 

“So… love and friendship conquer all?” Hermione persisted.

 

“Yes,” Ginny repeated.

 

“Wonderful,” Hermione smiled at Blaise, who laughed back at her. “Because we have  lots  of love and friendship on our side. Loyalty too. There was one other thing, what was it. Help me out here, Draco, my love, I can’t quite remember it...”

 

“We know what the fuck we’re doing?” he asked, rather dryly. “We’re not stupid enough to play fair?”

 

“Yes,” Hermione nearly cooed. “That’s it. We certainly didn’t rely on the Hogwarts staff to teach us but went out and learned things on our own. Books, and cleverness, and a really quite excellent tutor.”

 

“An evil tutor,” Ginny muttered. “I know what it’s like to have that monster in your mind, Granger. He’s  evil .”

 

“You’ve had the Dark Lord in your mind?” Hermione looked at Ginny with amusement.

 

“Possessed, released a monster - you were in a coma, I know, but try to keep up,” the girl snapped.

 

“It’s just so  funny ,” Hermione said. “I mean, you think that means you’re  special . Who among us  hasn’t  had the Dark Lord in their mind? I mean, Draco has. Theo has. I have.”

 

“I haven’t,” Greg offered, and Blaise laughed and sank his face into his hands as if in despair.

 

“Oh Greg,” Hermione said before turning back to Ginny. “Take your naïve mewling about evil and go away, little girl. You’re outclassed, have no idea what’s really going on, and the one thing you hold up as your special weapon is hardly unique to you.” She turned her back on the ginger girl and lounged down in the seat of their compartment, Draco immediately lowering himself to her side and Blaise shutting the door in the girl’s face.

 

When the candy cart came by, Hermione pulled out a handful of galleons and told the woman, “Give a treat to all the Slytherins in their second and third year, on us.” The woman snapped that she couldn’t be expected to know who was who until Draco rolled his sleeve up and the woman paled. “Figure it out,” Hermione suggested, and the woman nodded, her head bobbing like a cork as she backed away, the money slipped into a pocket by her shaking hands.

 

“Bully,” Draco said fondly.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Before they launched themselves, still laughing, into the carriages to go to the castle, Hermione patted the nose of one of the Thestrals. It snuffled about her palm, looking for raw meat, and gave her baleful look when none was forthcoming.

 

“I’ll come out to feed you once we get settled,” she promised as students stared at her with trepidation.

 

“It makes people nervous you can see them,” Luna said as Blaise handed her up into the carriage.

 

“Gentle steeds, visions of death,” Astoria said as Daphne made a face behind her back.

 

“Go find your own carriage,” Daphne ordered her little sister. “Weirdo.”

 

Astoria just smiled and sat next to Vincent, who gave Daphne a look that was half apologetic and half nervous. He shrugged and mouthed, “Sorry?”

 

When they got to the castle, the Welcoming Feast seemed a bit subdued, but the first years were dutifully placed in their houses and sat, scared and small, at the end of each table. Severus Snape noted that Horace Slughorn would be serving as Slytherin Head of House to polite applause. He ignored the glares of his fellow professors as he moved on to remind students of places they shouldn’t go and about Quidditch tryouts. 

 

“You know,” said Theo, “I think I miss Dumbledore’s random words. It always added a bit of playful confusion to the tedium of being reminded to keep out of the Forbidden Forest.”

 

Blaise laughed. “How about ‘we win’?”

 

“That’s two words,” Greg said.

 

“Paladin?” Pansy offered.

 

“Potentate?” Hermione suggested.

 

“Are those even in English?” Greg asked, and Millie buried her face in her hands and sighed. “What?” he asked. 

 

“I love you, Greg,” was all she said, patting him on the arm.

 

“Sultana,” Draco murmured very quietly, kissing Hermione’s fingertips.

 

“Nice bracelet,” said Pansy flashing her own. All the girls immediately tuned out Snape’s explanation of the changes to the Muggle Studies curriculum and introduction of ‘the lovely Alecto Carrow’ – a phrase he sneered his way through with such venom his opinion of the new teacher was more than clear – to converge on Pansy and ask her questions about who had given her the emerald tennis bracelet she was wearing.

 

“Marcus Flint,” Pansy said, trying not to look too smug. An already Marked Death Eater -- despite that awkward bit about having to retake his N.E.W.T.s -- was not a bad catch.

 

Millie hugged the other girl, and Hermione gave a low whistle. “Nice,” she said.

 

“Congratulations,” squealed Daphne, hauling some bridal magazine out of her bag and flipping immediate to an editorial section on modern short dresses and, within moments, she, Millie, and Daphne were debating whether their mothers would ever allow them to wear anything like what the models had on.

 

Theo looked at Greg with obvious fellow feeling. 

 

“Do they ever get tired of this?” Greg asked.

 

“Not so far,” Theo said.

 

“Did it have to be the Carrows?” Hermione muttered as Snape introduced Amycus as the new Dark Arts teacher and invited the students to explore the new course offering and the new spells that were now open to them. 

 

“At least it’s not the Lestranges,” Draco said, and she smirked at him until she made a face and looked back at the thick-featured, gloating new professors.

 

“No, they’re just stupid and thuggish, not actually crazy. I still don’t like it.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

‘Stupid and thuggish’ quickly became an understatement. Most students resisted the call to learn the Dark Arts at first; the only motivational technique Amycus Carrow knew was terror and, when faced with intransigence from all but his Slytherin students, he began to push at the boundaries of what he could do to students.

 

“He’s not a very good teacher,” Luna observed in the Slytherin common room, another understatement. The DA had continued on, and Luna had offered to take a group of first-year students and work them through the practical exercises Amycus was utterly unable to explain. The group had started as Slytherin only, but every week a few more children from other Houses showed up; everyone in Slytherin pretended not to notice the interlopers. “Imagine,” Luna said to them, “that there are tiny creatures making up your orange, and you want them to all fly away from each other as fast as possible. You just have to encourage them all to move outward, like a balloon.”

 

“Is that supposed to be clear instruction?” Draco whispered to Hermione, but one of the littlest girls said, with a tiny lisp, “ Oro Impendo ,” and her orange exploded, splattering them all with juice and bits of rind. She squealed with delight, and Luna clapped and spun her around. 

 

“Does it bother you, teaching them the Dark Arts?” Hermione asked Luna later after all the little ones had gone to bed and the Seventh Years were sitting around sipping the fire whiskey they no longer bothered to hide. 

 

“The free mind is no barking dog,” Luna said in her usual serene, slightly distracted voice. That Blaise had his mouth on her neck might have had something to do with her distraction, or it might have been her usual airy lack of concern for making sense to anyone but herself. “Ten foot chains, you know.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Hermione said, leaning back against Draco on the couch. “As long as it doesn’t bother you.”

 

The older Slytherin students had rapidly come to regard Amycus Carrow with barely concealed contempt. The man was vicious and a zealot but not a subtle thinker, and, as Snape had pointed out the year before in the  defense  against the Dark Arts class, a fluid mind was essential to excellence in the subject no matter what direction you approached it from. Further, for all that he’d watched Hermione shoot both Bella and Fenrir down in cold blood, he seemed to think she existed only as Draco Malfoy’s arm candy, there to dress up the Death Eater movement with a veneer of inclusive respectability. His subtle put-downs in class, his suggestions that she’d only managed a spell because Draco had helped her on the sly, grated on all her Housemates.

 

Hermione just watched him with a level, calm gaze, and thanked him courteously for his assistance each time he gave her some unnecessary – and often wrong – bit of advice.

 

“Biding your time, are you?” Draco asked one day as they drifted out of the classroom, his arm around her waist.

 

“You’re the impulsive one,” she agreed, reaching up to brush her nose against his.

 

“Also, the cute and hot one,” he said with a smirk.

 

“That’s funny,” she said, “because last night I could have sworn you said, ‘oh Merlin, you’re so fucking hot when you –‘”

 

Draco clapped a hand over her mouth as Blaise walked past them, and she laughed up him though his muffling palm as he groaned. 

 

He was right, however: she was biding her time. She stopped biding when one of the second years came back to the common room shaking because Amycus had ordered students in detention to practice the Cruciatus Curse on one another. After the next Dark Arts class, she asked Draco to wait for her in the hall. “I have a question for Professor Carrow,” she said, pulling one of Luna’s oranges out of her bag.

 

Draco kissed the back of her hand. “Of course, love,” he said.

 

Hermione smiled, her placid expression lulling Amycus Carrow. “Did you know,” Hermione asked, “that you can freeze all the liquid inside a body with just one spell?” She tossed the orange in the air towards Amycus and murmured, “Solus Constringitur.”

 

When the man caught it though the peel remained pliable, the orange was, otherwise, a block of ice.

 

“Very impressive, Miss Granger,” Professor Carrow sneered. “I did actually know that. It’s one of the basic lessons of  Spells Moste Fowle . Try not to catch your betters out with your insufferable know-it-all –“

 

“It can be done to a human, of course,” Hermione continued as though the man hadn’t spoken.

 

Again he sneered at her. “Yes, I know.”

 

“And if you make students practice curses on one another in detention again, I shall do it to you,” Hermione said.

 

There was a long pause. Finally, Amycus Carrow said, “Are you threatening me?”

 

“Yes,” said Hermione with a smile that suggested she was pleased he’d understood her at last. “Have an excellent day, Professor.”

 

She heard the orange hit against the door with a solid thud after she’d closed the oak barrier behind her.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Vincent and Greg shoved another smudged “We Support Harry Potter” poster in front of Snape, and the man regarded them with a tired sneer.

 

Hermione, carefully grating tubers because, as Snape had informed her at some length, there was no excuse for her inability to grate evenly, and if she didn’t improve her technique, he’d force her to scrub cauldrons with the first years for Slughorn, pretended not to eavesdrop.

 

“What, exactly, do you gentlemen, using the term with unwarranted looseness, want me to do about this?”

 

“Potter is Undesirable Number One,” Greg sputtered.

 

“No one should be supporting him!” Vincent said. 

 

“Nevertheless, some of your classmates do support the tiresome boy, and I’ve better things to do with my time than tracking down and punishing miscreants who can’t even manage to duplicate posters with any degree of skill.” Snape picked up the poster and regarded it. “Pathetic,” he said after a moment and binned it.

 

“Why has no one caught him yet?” Greg asked sullenly. 

 

“Presumably because he hasn’t left his little hidey-hole in Grimmauld Place for months,” Snape said. “Do you wish me to convey your dissatisfaction with his progress to the Dark Lord?”

 

Hermione had to smother a snicker at that. They were all terrified of the Dark Lord.

 

“Uh, no. That’s okay,” muttered Greg.

 

“Then, get out of my lab and stop wasting my time. I’m trying to teach your marginally less dunderheaded classmate the fine art of potioneering, and you are in my way.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Go for a walk?” Draco asked after he watched Hermione read the same page in her textbook seven times. She sighed and shook her head, and he quietly closed the book and said it again, his tone firmer this time. “Let’s go for a walk.”

 

He held his hand out and, looking resigned, Hermione put her hand in his and allowed him to lead her from the common room and out towards the lake.

 

“I love autumn,” Draco said after a bit. “It has a promise of rest and quiet. A time to let everything settle down for a few months.” He stopped and broke an aster off and tucked the stem behind her ear then ran his thumb over her mouth. “What’s bothering you?”

 

She sat down on a fragment of what had once been a low stone wall and bit her lip. “I keep seeing him,” she said at last. “I keep seeing him falling off the tower, his face filled with resignation, knowing I killed him.”

 

He sat next to her and took her hand and traced a finger along and around her fingers, going up and down each digit as they sat there. “Bella too?” he asked, and she nodded.

 

“Even Fenrir,” she admitted, “though the world is better off without him.”

 

“Better off without Bella too,” Draco muttered, and she laughed a little at that.

 

“Do you see – “

 

“Rabastan?” he asked, cutting her off, and, at her nod, he said, “Yeah. Every night. I’d do it again, though.”

 

She leaned her head against his shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around her as she twisted her bracelet round and round. “I wish there didn’t have to be killing,” she said. “Before… before the Tower, it seemed like a chess game. Now… I don’t know. I’m scared. And I threatened Amycus this week and…”

 

“He’s a menace,” Draco said shortly. “I bet he likes pulling the wings off flies.”

 

“I bet he likes pulling the arms off babies,” Hermione muttered. “Where did Riddle  find  these people?”

 

“My guess is St. Mungo’s Ward for the Criminally Insane,” Draco suggested and tricked a half guilty laugh out of her. She hit him in the shoulder, and he grinned at her. “Abuse,” he complained, and then, when she started to sniffle, pulled her tightly against him. “It’s okay, love,” he whispered. “We’ll get rid of the crazy ones, I promise. I’ll help you. Theo’ll help you. I know it hurts, I know, but think of it like lancing a boil. And Riddle’ll kill Potter as soon as the idiot pokes his nose out of hiding and we’ll, well, we’ll run the world.”

 

“How?” she sniffled.

 

“Umm… I’ll be Minister, and you’ve got your –“

 

“No.” She cut him off with a sniff and a clumsy swipe of her damp eyes. “How will Riddle know Potter’s out of hiding?”

 

Draco smirked at her as he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and began wiping her tears away. “There’s a Taboo on his name. Say the scary ‘lord’ version and Snatchers will be on your doorstep before you can say Salazar.”

 

“Snatchers?” Hermione asked, getting back to her feet and brushing bits of dirt and leaves off herself. 

 

“Looking for Order of the Phoenix members, mostly,” Draco said, standing and offering her his arm with absolute formality. He grinned as she took it without even thinking; six years spending time with Narcissa and the rest of the motley crew at the Manor, and she didn’t even realize how well she’d been absorbed into their world. “Mine,” he murmured as he kissed her hair.

 

“Always and forever,” she agreed. 

 

As they walked the rest of the way down to the lake, they talked about the Snatchers, their mission to find hidden Order members and haul them before the Ministry’s UnWizarding Activities Committee for questioning, and the limited success they’d had. The Order had always been secretive, and their membership wasn’t exactly written down on a tidy roster. Mundungus Fletcher, captured by Flint and Montague after the incident with Umbridge and Riddle’s locket, had spilled names, spilled them long before anyone had even gotten to torture, but all those people had seemed to have disappeared.

 

“He named Snape, of course,” Draco said with a shrug. “But everyone knew that. And Snape’s given a list of names that includes all of what Fletcher gave up and a few more besides, but they’re all missing.” He squeezed her hand. “Arthur and Molly Weasley were on both lists, of course, but the only Weasley who seems left in the world is Ginny and Snape insists no one allowed underage children to know anything. Underwent questioning under Veritaserum and everything so, as horrid a bitch as that girl is, no one’s going to haul her off.”

 

“That’s good,” Hermione said. “I guess.” They’d reached the lake, and she bent down and picked up a rock and threw it in.

 

“They’re recruiting too,” Draco said, and at her blank look, he added. “The Snatchers. They’re recruiting too. Trying to find people. Once we get rid of all the nuts, there’s going to be a bit of a – “

 

“Staffing problem,” Hermione said with a smothered half-gasp, half-giggle, and Draco laughed with her as he bent down and kissed her. 

 

“I wish it hadn’t hurt you so much to get the Mark,” she said. “I hated that.”

 

“Me too,” Draco said. 

 

“I don’t like people hurting you,” she said in a low voice.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Theo stopped Blaise before he could leave the dinner table one night. “I’m not exactly sure what the ‘kama sutra’ is, but thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for giving a copy to your girlfriend.”

 

Blaise smirked at him as he scooped up his bag. “She gave it to me,” was all he said. 

 

“Page 394,” Theo said reverently. “My life will never be the same.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When Hermione rounded the corner she wasn’t looking where she was going; her hand was down in her bag as she rummaged through the contents searching for the Muggle novel she’d been trying to convince Draco was really much superior to all the trite slop that passed for literature in their world. “It’s the greater numbers,” she was saying, “more writers means more –,“ when she almost tripped over the body of a student who was slumped against the wall, his legs stretched out into the hall and stopped talking. Both Carrows had their wands pointed at the boy on the floor, both were cackling like deranged idiots.

 

“What are you doing?” Hermione asked.

 

“Not your problem, little girl,” Amycus said in a low voice. “You just keep walking.”

 

Hermione looked down at the boy – Ravenclaw she assumed by the color of his tie – and stepped over one leg as though she was moving on and then hesitated. 

 

Behind her, Draco began to swear under his breath. 

 

“What did he do?” Hermione asked, her tone filled with the kind of idle curiosity that always made Theo start to sweat.

 

Alecto snarled, her lips curled in a sneer unpleasantly reminiscent of the late Fenrir Greyback, and said, “He unchained a kid we’d stung up to punish. Some nothing of a first-year and this fool decided –“

 

“I’m sorry,” Hermione cut her off. “I must have misheard you; did you say you’d  chained up  a  first-year ?”

 

“Bleeding heart fucking Mudblood,” Amycus muttered, almost, but not quite, inaudibly. 

 

“You need to leave now,” Hermione said, and both Carrows stared at her, matching incredulous expressions on their thick faces. “I mean it,” she said, “you just walk away now.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Alecto said, trying to throw a quick curse around Hermione. The light of the hex brushed against Hermione’s shoulder, and Draco took a furious step towards the brewing confrontation only to stop as Alecto grabbed at her own shoulder in shock and obvious pain. Her brother turned to her in immediate concern.

 

“What did you do?” Amycus demanded, and Hermione tipped her head to the regarded Alecto with curiosity.

 

“Interesting,” she said. “I guess the necklace is more than just a warning.”

 

Draco started to laugh. 

 

“What?” Amycus demanded. “What’s funny?”

 

“Do you think he’d tell me how he did it?” Hermione asked Draco as Amycus Carrow looked, with growing fury and confusion, from one of them to the other, and Draco continued to laugh. At last, as Alecto tried to staunch the blood oozing from her shoulder, Hermione took something resembling pity on the pair. “It would seem the pretty necklace the Dark Lord gave me is more than a warning that Death Eaters such as yourselves need to keep their hands off me; it’s a bit of an active defense system as well.”

 

Amycus still looked confused, so Draco filled him in. “The curse your lovely sister hit Hermione with affected Ms. Carrow instead of Miss Granger.”

 

“You need to move on,” Hermione said again. “Now.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Amycus hissed. “And don’t think I won’t be telling the Dark Lord how you’re trying to interfere in the way we handle students at this school.”

 

“Go ahead,” Hermione said in an unconcerned voice. “And then I’ll thank him for the extra layer of protection he built into my little charm, tell him how I learned about it, and ask if he’d be so kind as to share the technique. I’m sure he’d love to know you cursed me despite clear and obvious instructions not to.”

 

Amycus took a step back. “You won’t always be his favorite, little girl,” the man snarled. “I’ve seen favorites come and go and –“

 

“Yes,” Hermione said. “But right now I am, and if you don’t move along, I may ask for your heart on a platter as a Yule present. Do you want to risk finding out whether or not that request would amuse him enough to grant?”

 

Amycus snarled at her but grabbed Alecto by the arm and hauled her away, both turning to glare back at the pair of privileged and seemingly indifferent students standing over the body of their tortured classmate. The moment the Carrows had disappeared around a turn in the corridor, Hermione dropped to her knees beside the nearly unconscious student and snapped, “Go get Luna,” at Draco.

 

“Luna?” he asked.

 

“I think we might need her help getting into the Ravenclaw common room,” Hermione said. “And bring Blaise to help moving him.”

 

Draco looked down at the body, nodded, and took off at a run.

 

Hermione pulled a potion out of her bag and, propping the unknown boy’s head up, held it to his lips. “Come on,” she muttered, “be aware enough to swallow.” When he did, he began to sputter, his eyes opening and staring at her in almost unseeing fear. “They’re gone,” Hermione said. “I’ve got you.”

 

“That’s what I’m worried about,” he muttered. “Death Eater.”

 

“Technically, I’m more of the Ladies’ Auxiliary,” Hermione said, starting to heal what she saw of his injuries; it was enough to keep her busy. “What did they do to you?”

 

“Mostly crucio,” he said. “Do you have more of that?” he asked, waving somewhat feebly towards the now-empty vial.

 

“Not on me,” she said. “Once we get you moving towards your common room I’ll get some more, but I’m not leaving you alone in case they come back.” She sighed. “Crucio mostly just takes rest to recover from, though. Figures they’d use that one. Unimaginative.”

 

“Why do you care?” he asked.

 

She sat back on her heels and looked at the boy as he struggled to pull himself to a more upright position against the wall. He met her gaze steadily, and she sighed. “The old guard is all so fucking incompetent. What kind of winning side manages to stay in power, long term, if they torture children?”

 

The boy looked at her, a slow smile splitting his face. “You’re rather interesting,” he said.

 

“I’m just playing to win,” she said as the sound of running feet got louder and louder.

 

“I see that,” he said, holding out one hand. “Michael Corner.”

 

She took it. “Hermione Granger. Nice to meet you, Michael.”

 

She stood and let Blaise and Draco pull Michael up between them. “Get him back to the safety of his common room,” she ordered them. “I’ll go get more potions, enough so he can dose himself and anyone else who needs it for a while, and meet you there.”

 

“I’ll go with you,” Luna said. At Hermione’s look, she laughed. “You’ll never find it without me. Michael can get them in. He’s coherent enough.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Why would they want the sword?” Pansy asked, passing the bottle of firewhiskey back to Daphne, who poured herself a shot and passed it along to Millie and Greg. 

 

“Damned if I know,” Daphne said and then glared up the stairs to their dormitory rooms at the shadow of her sister. “I can see you, Tory. Go to bed and leave us alone.” She slouched down against Theo, who was nuzzling her neck and had his hands out of sight, tucked into her jumper. “I swear, she’s going to make me mental.”

 

Vincent swallowed his whole shot and held his hand out for the bottle; Millie handed it to him.

 

“What did they even plan to  do  with it? Fence?” Hermione asked with a snort, her head tilted back against Draco’s shoulder. “Stab one of us in the foot?”

 

“Who brings a sword to a wizard’s duel?” Theo asked, lifting his head from Daphne for a moment.

 

“Gryffindors?” Draco suggested with a sneer, and they all laughed.

 

“Not the best planners, that’s for sure,” Blaise said. Luna was sitting in front of him with her legs crossed, doing some complicated puzzle while he braided her hair. “But the punishment was lame; being sent out to do work in the not-all-that-Forbidden Forest with Hagrid? For Ginny Weasley and Neville Longbottom? That’s like recess for those two.”

 

“Better that than detention with the Carrows,” Hermione muttered.

 

“True that,” Blaise agreed. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Politics couldn’t be allowed to interrupt sport, and the House Quidditch rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin built until fistfights were almost breaking out in the corridors before the first game of the year. Gryffindors hissed “Death Eaters” at Slytherins, who retaliated by congratulating the other House on having misplaced Weasley and Potter. “Maybe with a captain who doesn’t favor his friends and a decent Keeper you’ll have a chance,” they’d sneer.

 

“We’ve always beaten you,” Ginny snapped at Draco one day as the blond smirked down at her. “And we always will. Filthy, disgusting, branded cheaters, all of you.”

 

“C’mon Draco,” Hermione said, hauling him away. “She can eat her words after you catch the Snitch and she’s left empty-handed, riding that piece of crap broomstick she’s got.” Hermione looked back and added, “Though maybe she’s smart enough to have replaced it with something better by now.”

 

Ginny stiffened and glared after the couple but didn’t say anything.

 

The day of the game was bitterly cold, if dry and sunny, and Hermione muttered and swore and grouched as Theo and Blaise, their hands tucked away into Daphne and Luna’s, herded her out to the stands. She, Millie, and Pansy huddled against the wind and cast warming spell after warming spell, trying to make the temperature bearable. The boys had all been so cheerful that morning that their bouncy enthusiasm had made her tired. “Why are you all so happy,” she’d muttered over tea and toast.

 

“It’s Quidditch,” Greg had said, his tone the closest thing to a chirp she’d ever heard from his mouth. “We get to play Quidditch again, with Draco as Seeker. This is… this is the best day ever.” 

 

She’d buried her face in her hands and tried not to laugh. Finally, all she’d said was, “You’re really great, Greg.”

 

“You’re great too,” he’d said, obviously confused. 

 

The commentary at the game was as biased as usual. No lurking fear of the Carrows prevented the student Professor McGonagall had chosen from her House from noting any unsportsmanlike conduct from the Slytherin team while utterly failing to see that Jimmy Peakes and Richie Coote were trying to fly parallel to Draco so they could crash into him from each side at once.

 

“Is that legal?” Hermione hissed at Pansy, who followed Quidditch far more closely than she did.

 

“Not sure,” the other girl admitted. 

 

Whether it was legal or not, no foul was called, and Draco ducked away from their aggression without harm and returned to flying high above the pitch, sweeping across the expanse as he looked for any spark of gold from the Snitch. Ginny was at the other end of the playing area, similarly occupied, but neither of them had any luck. Instead, it was a game of slow, painful scoring as first one team and then the other managed to get the Quaffle past the Keepers. Ten to nothing. Ten to ten. Ten to twenty. 

 

“I wish he’d find that stupid ball,” Hermione muttered, huddled down into Vincent’s jumper, her cloak and a blanket. Even with the warming charms, it was cold, and she stamped her feet to try to keep her toes from hurting. Millie nodded, her eyes on Greg as he knocked a Bludger away from Draco. “I hate this game,” she added, and both Pansy and Millie laughed.

 

“You’re stuck with it forever, you know that, right?” Pansy said. “Marcus plays in a rec league, and I’m sure Draco will too.”

 

“Lucky me,” Hermione muttered. The game dragged on and on and on with no one spotting the Snitch until even Millie was making noises about how she should have brought a book. Theo, though he didn’t actually untangle himself from Daphne, started quizzing Hermione on their Arithmancy homework. No one looked too closely at Blaise and Luna, though Millie snorted something about how they needed to remember there were little kids here too, and maybe no one actually wanted a sex-ed class this afternoon.

 

Hermione had stopped even following the game when she caught sight of a tiny flicker of gold. The Snitch was hovering in front of the stands where it waited for a moment before flitting upwards into the sun.

 

Draco spotted the Snitch a moment after she did, and she watched him measure how far away it was from Ginny before he just bent low over his broom and began to fly straight towards it. The ginger girl almost immediately saw him move with purpose and aimed herself in the same direction, scanning the sky for gold even as she flew at top speed in a collision course towards Draco. Hermione could tell when she spotted the prize because the Gryffindor changed the angle of her approach ever so slightly and pushed her broom even faster. Bludgers moved to attack the Seekers, and each team’s Beaters flew in, trying to keep their respective Seekers safe, and for a moment, it looked like every person in the field was converging on a single spot. Hermione couldn’t see what happened, and she was on her feet, on her frozen toes, trying to tell whether Draco or Ginny had grabbed the little golden ball first.

 

“Draco Malfoy catches the Snitch,” the commentator said with obvious disappointment. “Slytherin wins, 420 to 550.”

 

“Yes,” Hermione shrieked, hugging first Pansy and then Millie. “We won! We  won!

 

She nearly flew down the steps, her blanket abandoned behind her in the stands. Draco was standing in the center of the pitch, the Snitch held in his hand, his eyes wide as he looked at it. “You did it,” Hermione squealed as she flung her arms around him. “I’m so proud of you. You’ve worked so hard for this.”

 

Ginny dropped down beside them, a scowl on her face. 

 

“This is when you say, ‘good game,’” Hermione said with a smirk.

 

“This is when I say, ‘fuck you,’” Ginny snapped. “You may have won, but you’re all still a bunch of worthless Death Eaters.”

 

Dean Thomas landed next to her, and Hermione looked at them both. “It’s a game,” she said.

 

“Death Eaters’ whore,” Ginny said.

 

“For which you should be grateful,” Hermione said, her voice level. “Let’s go, Draco. I happen to know someone who has a bottle of 18-year-old firewhiskey waiting for just the right occasion.” When Draco looked like he was going to hurl himself, fists first, at Ginny, Hermione muttered, “Let’s  go , Draco. The stupid bitch isn’t worth it.”

 

The party in the common room had already started by the time they got there. Bottles of butterbeer had appeared from nowhere and two bowls of punch, one labeled ‘no first years’, were sitting on a long table, which was also loaded down with enough junky snacks for the whole school, not just one House.

 

“How did this happen?” Hermione asked Millie in delight as Draco was swept away from her into a crowd of adoring classmates. 

 

“When the Hogwarts elves like you, all sorts of things happen,” the girl replied smugly. “Oh, by the way, I draped your blanket over Blaise and Luna and told them to bring it back when they come in.” She paused. “You may want to wash it, though.”

 

Hermione wrinkled her nose. “I may let them keep it,” she said. 

 

The party lasted late with younger students slowly dropping away until finally only the sixth and seventh years – and Astoria Greengrass, who had found a way to sit right next to Vincent, who looked both trapped and pleased – were left. Hermione had had too much to drink and her head lolled against Draco’s shoulder, her eyes half shut. “You okay, little lightweight,” he teased, and she made a murmuring sound and just snuggled herself into him.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione threw the Muggle Studies book across the library. Madam Pince glared at her from her desk but didn’t get up to shriek about defamation and destruction the way she would have about any other book. Madam Pince, as it turned out, had a fairly good-sized weakness for both Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and, once she’d seen how the new textbooks described both women as ‘scribbling monkeys’ she’d decided they were “wastes of paper.” 

 

The little first-year who had asked Hermione whether it was true Muggles didn’t bathe stared at her, wide-eyed. “I think you would be better off asking someone else for a description of Muggle culture,” Hermione said as if the words were being choked out of her.

 

“Afraid to contradict what your masters have declared to be true?” Neville Longbottom asked her from where he was lounging against a nearby bookshelf. Hermione narrowed her eyes as he slid into a seat at her table and shooed the first year away. 

 

“Nice cut,” Hermione said, looking at the healing slash on Neville’s face. “Walk into a door, did you?”

 

“No,” he drawled. “I asked Alecto Carrow how much Muggle blood she had in her.”

 

He watched her as she tried not to laugh and finally gave in to the honest mirth she felt imagining that confrontation. “I’m sorry,” she finally gasped out. “I shouldn’t laugh when the stupid bitch hurt you, but… I’m sure she was unthrilled to be asked that.”

 

“You don’t like her,” Neville observed, and Hermione shrugged.

 

 “Does anyone like her?” she asked. “I suspect even her twin brother thinks she’s an idiot and a brute.”

 

“Then why are you supporting her?” Neville asked. “Why are you supporting any of them, Hermione? They think you’re… that you come from people who don’t even  bathe . I know we’ve never been friends, I know you and Draco have an understanding, but you can’t really think the side you’re on is the right one. That…”

 

“Because there are limits to what I can do,” she snapped, cutting him off. “I’m trying… I killed them, you know. Draco and I killed all of them.”

 

“Who?” Neville said, looking at her, his hand twitching down towards his wand.

 

“The people who tortured your parents. They’re all dead.” She stood up and turned to leave, clenching her jaw to try to fight back the burning in her eyes. “I can’t stop the Carrows from hurting people if I’m busy being noble and pure and fighting on the side of the light.”

 

“Is stopping them what you think you’re doing?” Neville asked very quietly.

 

“You should pay closer attention,” she whispered, her back still to him, unwilling to see whatever condemnation she was sure she’d find there. Then she walked out of the library.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

 

Draco could always tell when Hermione had had a rough day. Whether she’d endured the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, slurs from their classmates who knew that the Dark Lord was back and knew whose side she’d picked, or the sullen glares from the Carrows who resented her ongoing threats, if the day had been particularly bad she’d slouch into the Slytherin common room and sag onto a couch, too worn out to even open a book.

 

He worried.

 

He worried enough to corner Professor Snape and play the godson card to get the man to meet with him, something Draco simply never did. 

 

“She’s getting it from all sides,” he said to the man in frustration. “Why can’t you – “

 

“Because I can’t,” Snape snapped. “Your lack of confidence in my concern for her is typical, but insulting nevertheless. My hands are as tied as yours, probably more so. I do wonder, Mr. Malfoy, what you’d like me to do. Shall I announce over breakfast that everyone is to love Miss Granger and send her heart-shaped balloons? Should I kill the Carrows out of hand? No? Then what do you suggest?” 

 

Draco stopped pacing to stare sullenly at his godfather, who sat in the Head’s office in front of the portraits of his predecessors, all of whom were feigning sleep, even Albus Dumbledore though he had one eye open and was trying to be surreptitious as he watched Draco.

 

“So a teenage girl just has to – “

 

“Yes,” Snape said. “She does. She decided to walk this high wire all on her own. If she’d consulted me, I would have told her she was a fool.”

 

“Fool seems harsh,” Dumbledore’s portrait roused itself enough to say.

 

“Coming from you that is hardly encouraging,” Snape sneered. “Noble fools were always your favorites.”

 

“What do I do?” Draco begged at last.

 

Snape sighed. “Give her a safe place to land,” he suggested. “Don’t complain when the compromises she makes aren’t the ones you’d prefer.” That last seemed directed at Dumbledore, who slouched back down in his seat and closed both eyes with vigor.

 

“I can do that,” Draco said, sounding hopeless. “I just wish –“

 

“Get out,” Snape said to Draco. “I do not have time for your adolescent ineptitude, and I am the wrong man to ask for relationship advice.”

 

Draco pulled Hermione into his room that night when he found her collapsed onto one of the common room couches, the Runes book she was nominally studying covered in tears. Theo and Blaise cleared out after one quick glare.

 

“I can’t stay here,” Hermione mumbled as he pulled her shoes off and tucked her into the bed. “Rules and your mother and you have roommates and –“

 

He put a finger over her lips. “As Blaise would say, principessa, let us take care of you.” He wore far more than he normally wore to bed lest she wake up and assume a naked body next to her meant he had expectations and spent the night carefully, chastely, tucked around her. Sometime in the dark, she pulled off most of her school clothes and turned to face him, and he woke to find her burrowed into him, her wrinkled top and skirt tossed to his floor, the rather glorious feel of her skin along his.

 

Woke, also, to the agonizing frustration of a morning erection and to Blaise sitting on his own bed, watching him with an amused smirk.

 

“What do you want, wanker?” Draco muttered.

 

“Unless you want the whole House to know where she spent last night, you need to cut short your little lie in and rise before the sun,” Blaise said with obvious amusement. “You have about 20 minutes before people start moving around, and I would suggest getting her back into her own room in that narrow window of safety. I mean, unless  you  want a Howler from your mother.” 

 

Draco shuddered, erection wilting at that thought, and began trying to shake Hermione awake.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

On the way to breakfast, Hermione passed Michael Corner, head down in a conversation with Neville Longbottom. Both stopped talking when she walked by, and she tensed her shoulders against what she assumed was their denunciation of her as a Death Eater’s, well, whore was the word Ginny Weasley had been using. 

 

No good deed goes unpunished, she thought as she passed them in silence.

 

 

Chapter Text

Hermione stopped by her parent's house just long enough to drop off presents and kiss them. They seemed surprised to see her. "Don't you usually stay at school over break?" her mum asked. "We've been planning on taking a 6-month tour through the Australian outback to start our retirement off with a bang, and we were planning on leaving tomorrow, but…"

"No, that's fine," Hermione said, kissing her mum on the cheek. "I'll stay with friends."

"Good, good," said her father, and, with that, they went back to double-checking their packing list and, with a resigned laugh, Hermione apparated to Malfoy Manor. It was the first time since Riddle had resurrected himself out of a cauldron – "Awfully Welsh of him," Hermione had once said to Draco who'd stared at her in horror that she was making a joke about the Dark Lord – which the man wasn't at the Malfoy Manor over the holidays.

Theo and Daphne had been summoned, of course, back to play their roles as chaperones to Draco and Hermione. As much as she enjoyed having her friends there, the logic that four teenagers couldn't possibly get into trouble escaped Hermione.

"Social codes don't make sense, child," Narcissa said fondly when Hermione asked her about it. "Just trust me that as long as there are multiple children here, no one will assume any of you are doing things you oughtn't."

It was a bizarre thing to have a woman whose sister you'd murdered say to you.

They spent their time reading fashion and Quidditch magazines and bandied with Narcissa and Lucius over dinner and exchanged gifts on Yule. It was a relief to get a break from the tensions of school, and Narcissa kept them sheltered from the rest of the Death Eaters until Draco and Hermione were summoned to the Ministry.

When Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord, also known as Lord Voldemort, bids you attend a hearing at the Ministry, you don't say no. This basic truism resulted in Hermione Granger hiding a rather petulant sulk as Draco held a chair out for her in the visitor's galley of a small chamber in the Ministry. She wanted to be reading, or shopping with Daphne, or kissing Draco, or seeing how much more than kissing they could get away with before a house-elf popped into the room with a plate of biscuits or a pot of tea.

House-elves, as it turned out, had a sixth sense for hanky panky and a strangely vested interest in not having Draco compromise Hermione on their watch. "Why do they care so damn much," she'd hissed after yet another sudden arrival of biscuits, but Draco had been too busy sullenly zipping his trousers to answer.

Now she smiled that polite, empty pureblood smile she'd mastered somewhere along the way and prepared to sit through an afternoon session of the UnWizarding Activities Committee, a session, she couldn't help but notice, that Riddle himself had opted not to attend.

The hearing room was small, with Dementors hovering in the back corners and filling the room with their faceless despair. Lysander Yaxley sat on a slightly raised dais with a court clerk at a small table next to him, preparing to transcribe the day's proceedings. A patronus in the form of a hunting hound sat between them looking lazy and bored as it kept the despair away from the pair of officials. Hermione met Yaxley's eye, and with a quick flick of her wand, summoned her own patronus. Bad enough to have to spend the afternoon sitting here; she didn't want to spend it miserable as well. Yaxley smiled at her indulgently and whispered something to a waiting aide who left the room and returned with the first case.

"Dedalus Diggle," the aide read as the man sank, white-faced, into a chair that promptly encased his wrists in chains. "Accused of being a member of the Order of the Phoenix. How, sir, do you plead?"

"This is a travesty," the man tried to shout, though the creeping sense of unhappiness had already started to grab hold of him, and it came out as more of a whimper. "You have no right! I'm a pureblood, you can't do this to me." The last sounded like a plea rather than a demand.

Yaxley looked over some notes in front of him. "You've been named as a member of the Order of the Phoenix, an Order which has been found to be contrary to the rights and feelings of all proper wizards and witches, named by both a Mundungus Fletcher and a Severus Snape. You have been asked to sign an affidavit that you are not a member of such a group, and you have refused."

Diggle drew himself up as much as he could with his wrists chained and said, "It is an affront to my dignity, to my freedom, to be asked to sign such a thing."

Yaxley eyed the chains on the man's wrists and said, "Your freedom, yes. Are you a member of the Order of the Phoenix?"

"A member of an organization dedicated to freedom? To the overthrow of that foul man you call Lord Voldemort, but who is nothing more than a trumped-up half-blood? To equality and – "

"That would be the one, yes," Yaxley interrupted the man's diatribe. "I am aware of your propaganda; you needn't waste the court's time repeating it to us."

"Come to a meeting and see if I'm there," Diggle said with a jeer. "But I'll not answer your question."

"Do you know Emmeline Vance?"

"I'll not answer this!" Diggle was able to muster the energy to shout at last.

"Do you know Elphias Doge?"

"You have no right!"

"Do you know Sturgis Podmore?"

"I am not going to name names! You are the ones who are UnWizarding," Diggle cried out and then began to laugh. "This is too absurd. You work for a madman! You are trying to beat down decent people with your – this is not right!"

Hermione reached over and took Draco's hand. He lifted her fingers to his lips and smiled a little bleakly at her. "You did ask for trials," he whispered.

Yaxley looked bored. "So you deny being a member of the Order of the Phoenix?"

"Do you deny working for a racist madman?" Diggle said and slumped down again, his burst of energy having been bled away. "Do you deny it?"

"We are not here to question me," Yaxley said smoothly as the clerk at his side worked frantically to check the accuracy of the recording quills. "Though I am happy to take a brief moment to note that I do, indeed, deny that I work for a racist madman. I work for the Ministry of Magic, which has declared the Order of the Phoenix to be an unlawful organization. Members are subject to immediate detention and questioning and may be remanded to Azkaban at the discretion of the court. Things would go better for you, Mr. Diggle, if you worked with us to help identify other members of your little terrorist group."

"I will do no such thing," Diggle muttered. "I am no fink. You ought to be ashamed."

"I ask for the final time, Mr. Diggle. Are you, or are you not, a member of the Order of the Phoenix."

"I am," he said. "And better to be that than to be a worthless, foul Death Eater."

"Thank you for sharing your opinion," Yaxley said. "And you decline to identify any other members of the Order of the Phoenix."

"I do," Diggle said.

Yaxley shrugged. "Very well. Azkaban, it is." He gestured towards the aide who'd brought Diggle in and who proceeded to haul the man out, presumably, to prison. "Next on today's docket, we have…" Yaxley looked down at his papers. "One Hestia Jones."

. . . . . . . . . .

There was an incident Christmas Eve, though Hermione didn't hear about it until her last night at the Malfoys. Harry Potter, who'd been lying low all fall, poked his head out of hiding.

"He went to Godric's Hollow," Riddle said to Lucius. They were all gathered in a sitting room, a quaint family grouping out of a painting. Hermione and Draco were on a settee, bent over a book of wizard love poems, and pretending they were enjoying nothing more than gathering with the adults and listening to political conversation they weren't actually allowed to participate in other than to answer direct questions. Daphne had recently taken up knitting and was glowering at a pattern book as she ferociously stabbed her needles at one another and worked her way through one lumpy row of stitches after another. Theo stood with Lucius, Narcissa, and Tom Riddle as they clustered in front of a fireplace, silent and respectful as he listened.

"I'm just…" Riddle shook his head, trying to control his evident fury. "I'd laid a trap for him, of course. It was one of the places I thought he'd try to go. Visit his parent's grave, ask old Bathilda about Dumbledore." He swallowed some of his firewhiskey and gritted his teeth. "That old man did the boy no favors when he turned him into one of his mindless, worshipful followers. Potter was sure to find out eventually about Dumbledore's pesky venture into the ideology of wizard supremacy as a young man and how the death of his unfortunate, mad sister scared him away. I counted on his tracking down old Bagshot and begging her to tell him it wasn't true."

"It was, of course," Narcissa said. "I've always wondered whether it was Dumbledore or Grindelwald who actually killed that girl. Irritating, really." She shook her head. "History would have been very different if she'd lived."

"Or not been driven mad by her assault at the hands of brutish Muggles," Lucius added.

Riddle took another swallow of whiskey. "And he did, damn it, and the snake I left in that woman's corpse did exactly what I wanted it too. And I was on my way, and the slippery little bastard escaped again, back into that cursed townhouse at Grimmauld Place." He glanced over ay Draco and Hermione. "I'm starting to think I should have just let Miss Granger off him while he was at school. I wonder if the blood wards would have permitted that."

She looked up. "I would have been happy to try, my Lord."

"The only good news in the entire disaster was that when his incompetent ginger friend started shooting off curses right and left – and I grow more and more concerned about the quality of instruction at that school – he managed to break Potter's wand before apparating them both out of there." Riddle downed the rest of his drink. "It's probably too much to hope for that they splinched themselves into pieces, but at least the wretched brat is down a wand." He set his glass down and sighed. "There was always something peculiar about that boy's wand."

Daphne suddenly muttered something under her breath and held up the long, green thing she'd been working on. "What does this look like to you?" she asked Hermione. "I think I'm doing it all wrong."

"I think it looks like a scarf Theo will be happy to wear at school," Hermione said. "Doesn't it, Theo?"

Theo glared at them both, and Riddle, briefly distracted from the frustration generated by his ongoing inability to kill Potter, laughed.

. . . . . . . . . .

Back at school after the holidays, the Slytherins started tuning into a program called "Potterwatch." Produced by what passed for an underground, it was regularly hilarious and, of course, appealing because it was totally forbidden.

They set up lookouts in the hall when it was on and gathered around the radio. Sixth and Seventh years sometimes played a drinking game that involved taking a swallow whenever anyone called Harry Potter the Savior of the Wizarding World.

One week Vincent had had to go to the infirmary for suspected alcohol poisoning. Madam Pomfrey had tut-tutted him but, other than giving him a pamphlet on underage drinking which, based on the fashions of the students pictured, had been printed thirty years earlier, didn't do anything. Daphne had snagged the pamphlet and, after cooing over the clothes, tucked it away in a folder she kept of design ideas; she suggested to Vincent that next time he take smaller sips and if Pomfrey had a similar handout on drug abuse could he get her that one the next time he was in the infirmary because she'd like to take a look at it.

"It's like you don't even care he could have died," Astoria had said. "All you care about is stupid clothes."

"It's time," a fifth-year called out one night. "Password was 'Albus'"

"Figures," Draco said.

"…So sorry we had to take a break from broadcasting," the announcer said. "We've been having a slight problem with Death Eaters capturing our staff – " a cheer went up through the Slytherin common room at that, " – but we've found a new location and are set to start up again!"

They booed at that, but the boo was laced with laughter. "Anyone recognize the voice?" Hermione asked.

"Lee Jordan," Millie said. "Remember, he used to do all that biased Quidditch commentary?"

"I'm happy to say that we have some regulars here tonight. Evening, gentlemen!"

"Evening, River!"

"Honestly," Blaise said. "The code names are so stupid. Do they really think no one recognizes their voices? Plus, if your name is 'Jordan,' taking 'River' as a code name is pretty damn transparent."

"Gryffindors. Not the sharpest tools in the shed," someone muttered.

"So, let's get right to the news," River continued. "Dedalus Diggle had been found guilty of being a member of the Order of the Phoenix and sentenced to Azkaban, as have Emmeline Vance and Hestia Jones. All three refused to name any other members of our brave resistance. Let's take a moment of silence to honor their sacrifice."

There was a pause, and Hermione held her glass out to Draco, who poured her some firewhiskey. "Sips," he said, and she grinned at him.

"The body of Bathilda Bagshot was found in her home in Godric's Hollow. Our brave Order members were able to inspect her remains, and they tell us it is clear she was killed using Dark Magic.

"Now let us turn to Royal, who you all know from earlier broadcasts. Royal, what can you tell us about the current state of affairs in the Ministry?"

The deep voice that answered was, indeed, the voice of a regular contributor, but none of them could tell who it was. "Things are grim, indeed, River. The UnWizarding Activities Committee continues to try innocent citizens who are guilty only of working for everyone's freedom and, I'm saddened beyond measure to say, the vast majority of our citizenry don't seem to be able to rouse themselves to care. The Death Eaters are the enemy here, and, though they aren't blatantly murdering people in their beds this time, we all know they did before, and it's merely a matter of time until they start up again. I beg your listeners, River, to consider what happens when these people have consolidated power. They're already putting 'Death Eater First' policies into place, and Marked members of that group are being given preferential hiring at the Ministry. Joining the Death Eaters may seem like a good career move, but this is not a fraternal organization; these people are murderers."

"Indeed, Royal. What can you tell us about Harry Potter, the hope of the Wizarding world, our savior?"

Blaise raised his glass. "Bottoms up, everyone!" he called out.

"Harry Potter is still alive," Royal said.

"Well, duh," Hermione said.

"How can you be sure," River asked.

"If the Death Eater scum and he-who-must-not-be-named – "

"C'mon, be stupid enough to say it," Greg urged.

" – had captured and killed the savior of the Wizarding world – "

"Drinking time," Daphne chirped.

" – they would announce it from every rooftop. They know it's only our hope in Harry Potter that keeps the resistance going. He's the Chosen One, the symbol of everything good in this world, and he will defeat Lor… he-who-must-not-be-named – "

"So close," Greg said in disappointment. Every week he hoped for the show to end with a Snatcher raid.

" – and with his help, we'll keep these barbarians from our gates."

Hermione snorted. "We've already stormed the gates, you nitwit. Now we're just tidying up."

"And now for our regular updates on the Friends of Harry Potter," River said. "Ronald Weasley remains out of sight, and most people assume he is safe with the savior of the Wizarding World – "

"Drinking!" Vincent called out.

" - as they look for a way to defeat he-who-must-not-you-know. Rubeus Hagrid, the well-known groundskeeper at Hogwarts School, just escaped arrest today – "

"Was that what that fuss was about?" Pansy asked.

" – after he was accused of throwing a 'Support Harry Potter' party at his house."

"I'm hurt I didn't receive an invitation," Hermione mock pouted. "Draco, that's it. Hagrid is off the wedding invite list."

"I'll be sure to mention that to my mother," Draco said with a grin.

The broadcast went on for several more minutes, urging the listeners to resist the Dark Lord, to support Harry Potter and on and on. Finally, they were told that next week's password would be 'Mad-Eye' and to keep the faith.

"Short this week," Pansy said. "That sucked. Three lousy sips." She drained the rest of her glass. "So much better last week."

"I agree," Vincent said. He eyed Astoria. "Want to go for a walk?"

. . . . . . . . . .

"Nice scarf," Neville Longbottom said as he and Theo passed in the courtyard.

"Shut up," Theo muttered, but he took the note from Neville as they brushed by one another anyway and tucked it into his pocket without missing a beat.

. . . . . . . . . .

Invitations arrived by owl over breakfast. Narcissa had taken it into her head to throw a little Easter ball for the graduating Slytherins and such dates as they might have from out of House. Draco groaned when he looked at his; he'd had hopes of long, silent days away from the horrid Carrows and the measuring glances of Longbottom and his ilk and, instead, he was getting a formal party.

Pansy squeaked when she opened hers. "I've already confirmed with the Dark Lord that Mr. Flint will be available to escort you," Narcissa had written on a note she'd folded into the invitation. "I look forward to seeing you both there."

Draco glanced over her shoulder. "It's funny we call these 'invitations,'" he muttered. "More like an order to appear if you ask me."

"Don't be such a grouch," Hermione said. "Some of us haven't been to a dance since that Yule Ball."

She and Pansy made brief, uncomfortable eye contact at the mention of that Ball, and then Pansy said, "I wonder if we can get a weekend off campus so we can go shopping."

Hermione looked at the date on her invitation. "It looks like she's put it at the end of the holiday, so we'll have plenty of time to go to good shops, not just Hogsmeade." She grinned at Daphne. "Muggle shopping," both girls breathed in unison.

Pansy looked nervous. "Are we allowed to do that?" she asked. "You know, with - "

"We'll take you," Daphne said. "You have not lived until you've been in Harrods." She sighed in absolute pleasure. "The shoes, Pansy. Wait until you see the shoes."

"What is it with you and shoes," Hermione muttered.

"Shoe heathen," Daphne retorted. "Good shoes are like... ambrosia."

"Whatever," Hermione muttered.

Blaise folded his invitation up into a paper crane and blew it across the Hall to Luna, who opened it and grinned as she read it. She scrawled something on it and sent it back and, when Blaise read it, he laughed but refused to say what about, just folded it up and tucked it away. "I," he said, "am the luckiest man alive."

"Wrong," Draco said, wrapping an arm around Hermione.

"Page 394," Theo murmured, and Blaise laughed again while Daphne turned bright red and gave Theo a look that suggested it might be a long time before he partook of the delights of page 394 again.

Astoria smiled at Vincent and, swallowing hard and looking and the 'plus one' written on his invitation, he mumbled, "Would you like to come to the Easter Ball with me, Tory?"

"Oh, fuck no," Daphne said.

Astoria ignored her sister and gave Vincent one of the smiles she meant to be seductive and said, "That would be nice."

. . . . . . . . . .

Potions, Runes, and Charms were almost forgotten in discussions of who would wear what. Luna, as the only girl outside of Slytherin who would be attending what had rapidly become the most desirable party in the history of parties, was the target of more than one envious look and not a few catty comments.

"Someone explain to me why I'd be moved to dump my girlfriend and invite the harpy who insulted her to this dance thing?" Blaise complained.

Greg shrugged. "Women are crazy," was all he offered.

Narcissa had Hermione leave what seemed to be a lost page from a longer note where it could be found, and it ignited rumors that the Malfoys planned a similar Ball for the entire graduating class when the year was over.

Hermione admired Narcissa's wiles as Slytherin went from being the despised House to the envied few; that anyone who targeted one of the elect would find him or herself not welcome at the Graduation Ball didn't need saying.

Snape removed more than one fashion magazine from the hands of his students. "Why are you wasting time looking at this tripe?" he demanded when he yanked a copy of French Elle away from Hermione. "That boy would adore you in rags."

"It doesn't mean I want to wear rags," Hermione said with a look of sullen longing at the magazine he incendioed in front of her.

"Go brew more pain potions," Snape said. "For reasons I don't understand much of my stock disappeared last fall." Hermione looked at him, and he added, "That's only a short term solution."

"I don't know to what you are referring," Hermione said, her jaw still thrust out in a stubborn pout.

"It's unfortunate that with my increased duties as Head, I am unable to keep proper inventory this year," Snape said. "Nor can I keep up with ordering. Perhaps I can add that to your tasks, Miss Granger."

"Great, one more thing," she muttered, and Snape put one hand on her shoulder.

"It will be over soon," he promised. "I am impressed, Miss Granger, by what you are trying to do."

"Potter has to die," she said, her voice low. "I can't - "

"I know," he said. "I told my besotted fool of a godson not to complain if you make compromises that aren't the ones he'd prefer, and I shall take my own advice." He exhaled. "And I shan't try to stop you."

Hermione looked down and pretended not to understand, a pretense Snape permitted. "I shall, however, continue to stop this absurd reading of exploitative trash in my presence. Go and brew. I'd like to see you try to adapt the pain potion to decrease the required dosage while maintaining the same efficacy. That should keep your mind off eyeliner and shoes and the women who seem to have only recently recovered from major illnesses wearing them."

"Daphne's the one who's nuts about shoes," Hermione muttered as she flounced off to the lab to start brewing.

Quidditch rivalries. The Carrows. Long, measuring glances from Neville Longbottom. Hostile asides from Ginny Weasley whenever they passed in the halls. Studying. Brewing. A DA study group that expanded to include first the second years from all the houses, and then the third years, and which they moved from the Slytherin common room to the Room of Requirement. By the time Easter Break arrived, Hermione wanted to think of nothing more taxing than shoes.

"I knew I could get you to like shoes," Daphne said as they looked through magazines in their parlour at Malfoy Manor.

"All it took was her being driven nearly to the point of a nervous breakdown," Draco said with a sneer at Daphne.

"Don't be a prat, Draco," Daphne said without looking up.

. . . . . . . . . . .

The day of Narcissa's Easter Ball arrived, and the matriarch stood at the door of the Manor greeting each teen couple as they arrived with utter seriousness. Marcus Flint bowed over her hand and pulled the smallest of smiles to her face before Pansy pulled him out of the foyer and into the smaller of the Malfoy ballrooms where the musicians had already started to play.

Astoria, dressed in a long black dress with droopy triangular bits at the sleeves and hem, gave Narcissa a rolled parchment tied with a black ribbon and a dead rose as she thanked her for her hospitality.

"You're welcome, dear," a somewhat bemused Narcissa said. "What's this?"

"I wrote you a poem," Astoria said.

After all the guests had barricaded themselves away from the adults, Narcissa and Lucius locked themselves into the library and threw up sound barriers.

"Are you sure that's music?" Lucius asked with a grimace.

"More sure than I am that this is a poem," Narcissa said, handing him Astoria's literary attempt.

He read it once, and then again. "What is this?" he asked at last.

"I think it's a hostess gift," Narcissa said.

"Fascinating," Lucius said. "I never would have thought to rhyme 'clown' and 'frown' and 'tragic' and 'magic' in the same quatrain."

. . . . . . . . . .

"You look nice," Vincent said to Astoria, who drooped even more than usual at his compliment. "What?" he asked nervously. "What did I say wrong?"

"I was going for funereal," she said.

"Oh," he said. "At Easter?"

. . . . . . . . . .

The Snatchers didn't show up until the elves were rolling out the candy bar.

"I'm sorry," one of them said, looking around the Malfoy foyer. "We didn't quite know where to bring them."

Narcissa and Lucius looked at the group of dirty, rough men, and Lucius said, "We're having a party for our son and his friends. I'm not sure why you think we'd want to see today's collection of possible Order members. Just take them to the Ministry."

"That's just it, begging your pardon, sir," another man said, twisting a cap in his hands. "We think they might be… you know. Them. But we ain't sure, and I dinna want to bother him if I weren't sure, you know?"

"Them?" Narcissa asked with a disdainful sniff. "Them who?"

"Potter," the man whispered. "And Weasley."

Narcissa looked with more interest at the boys on the floor. Beaten and dirty, they huddled there, trying to hide their faces. "You know," she said, "I've really only seen them once or twice. We don't move in the same social circles."

Lucius snorted, and she gave him a quelling look.

"However, with the children all here for the party, I'm sure, if either of these two went to Hogwarts, someone can identify them." She snapped a finger, and an elf appeared and, after a whispered consultation, popped away again. The doors to the ballroom opened, and the children streamed out, pastel party dresses, one droopy black dress, and dark suits filling the hall.

"Draco, darling," Narcissa said. "Can you, or any of your friends, identify these two?"

Draco looked down at the boys, and Hermione moved to stand next to him. He nudged one with a foot, and a resentful, freckled red face turned to glare up at him. "Ronald Weasley's my guess," Draco said.

"Fucker," the boy gasped out.

"Finally came out of your hiding place?" Hermione asked. "What made you stupid enough to do that?"

The other boy turned to look at her, vague hope entering his eyes at the sound of her voice. "Potter," she said very politely as if welcoming him to the party. "It's been a while."

"We have to get to the locket," he said. "Granger, you have to understand. That monster –"

"The Dark Lord?" she asked with grave courtesy, and Potter nodded.

"- he can't be killed until we destroy, well, a lot of things but one of them's the locket. You-know-who's mother's locket. We've been in Sirius' house, just hiding, only left the one time, but we got an old Prophet, and it showed that Umbridge woman wearing the locket and we thought –"

"You came out of hiding to track down Dolores Umbridge and take a locket from her?" Hermione asked, "based on an old newspaper article?"

"We made a mistake," Potter muttered, "said his name, and these bastards were on top of us before we could get away."

"Nice work," Lucius said to the Snatchers. "Flint?" he said sharply, and the man dropped Pansy's hand with a gracefully apologetic smile and strode forward. "Get these men's names and give them a reward." He turned back to the crew who had brought the boys in. "We'll be sure the Dark Lord hears of your service."

"Thank you, sir," one of the men mumbled, and they all backed towards the door, Marcus Flint following them.

"You two are idiots," Hermione said as Lucius pressed on his Dark Mark to summon Riddle. "That paper was at least nine months old; Umbridge has been dead since the end of summer."

Potter looked at her, his mouth gaping.

"It's true," Theo said, looking down at the boys. "I watched the Dark Lord kill her myself."

"You really should make sure your intelligence is up to date before you act on it," Hermione said, her tone sickeningly sweet as she stepped back.

The room became darker, colder; the air nearly shimmered with power as Riddle apparated onto the front steps and walked with calm deliberation towards the people gathered in the foyer. Most of the party guests edged backwards towards the ballroom, a mass of people moving as one while trying to stay as inconspicuous as possible.

"You rang, Lucius?" Riddle said.

"I think, my Lord, that we have a present for you," Lucius said, indicating the pair of boys on the floor.

Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort, began to smile as he bore down on the pair, pulling his wand from a holster at his hip with a slow, graceful motion. "I have waited for this day for seventeen years, Harry Potter. You are the last thing between myself and immortality."

There was a loud crack.

"You shall not harm Harry Potter," a voice screeched out from above them and Hermione, along with everyone else, looked in confusion at a house-elf who was perched on the chandelier, sawing at something with manic passion before it popped out of sight, only to reappear before the boys on the floor.

"Kreacher," Harry Potter cried out in obvious relief as the elf grabbed both boys and disappeared again.

The chandelier, swaying from the force of the elf's first disapparation on a cord weakened by the elf's cutting, plummeted towards the group of people standing under it. Draco grabbed Hermione and pulled her towards one wall as Lucius did the same for Narcissa. The rest of the crowd scattered on their own. The glass of the crystals shattered as the massive light fixture hit the ground, and the whole crowd flung arms up to protect themselves from the flying shards.

"What was that?" Theo asked in the heavy silence that followed the rescue and crash.

Riddle looked around in disgust and fury and vanished.

Hermione stared at the place where Potter and Weasley had been, now covered with the shattered remains of the chandelier. "Why is that one boy so damn hard to kill?" she asked of no one in particular.

. . . . . . . . . .

Severus Snape, potions master and Head of Hogwarts School, looked over the order form Hermione Granger had given him to sign off on.

She'd buried her main goal between flobberworms and tubers, and when he saw it, he closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed. She was actually going to try it. Common sense – and love - told him to stop her because it was a nearly suicidal idea.

He wasn't sure he'd ever been so proud of someone in his life.

He signed the requisition form and put it in his outbox.

. . . . . . . . . .

Once they were back at school, the information filtered to Hermione through Theo, who always seemed to have some kind of mysterious way of knowing things before everyone else. Hermione had asked Daphne about it once, and the girl had become very animated about nail polish charms, and Hermione had taken the hint.

Now what Theo knew about was Snatchers, specifically Snatchers who'd overstepped their bounds and gone after Mudbloods, much, to their obvious shock, to the Dark Lord's displeasure. He'd been overheard to say - inasmuch as his words could be made out over the screams of the man he'd been speaking to - "What gave you the impression I was more concerned with ideological purity than with people following instructions? Your job is to do what you're told, not to think. I have people I trust to think for themselves; endeavor not to make the mistake again that you are one of them. I might not be so forgiving next time."

"They got your uncle," Theo said quietly to Draco, who looked confused.

"We killed my uncle," he said, "last summer."

"Not Rudolphus," Theo said. "Ted. Ted Tonks. Hurt him pretty badly; he's not expected to make it."

It took Draco a moment. Andromeda Tonks née Black was not spoken of in his home. She was the Black sister who'd just disappeared when she'd married the Muggle-born. His Black grandparents had been much less liberal in their opinion of marrying out though, of course, Ted Tonks had also been a Gryffindor rather than a Slytherin. Draco sometimes wondered if the hard line Druella and Cygnus had taken with respect to Andromeda had led to his mother's own quick acceptance of Hermione.

"Is he okay?" Draco asked. "Don't they have a daughter?"

"You have a cousin you've never met?" Hermione sounded horrified.

"Andromeda was disinherited," he said. "Like Sirius. Burned from the tree."

"But still family," she said. "According to your mother, Sirius was…"

"I know," he said. "It's just… hard."

"Nymphadora," Theo confirmed. "Married to our former Professor Lupin. The werewolf." He mostly controlled his shudder at the word 'werewolf.'

"How do you always know everything?" Draco asked, and Theo just looked at him until Draco sighed. "Fine," he muttered. "You just do. Like magic."

"I am a wizard, after all," Theo said smugly. He glanced over at Hermione. "What are you doing?"

She shrugged as she pulled a sheet of parchment out of her bag and bent down over it. "I just realized I had to get something written," she said. "Not a big deal." She also handed Theo a book, one whose cover he looked at and quickly tucked away. "Look that over for me, would you?" she asked him. "I have an idea I want to talk to you about."

. . . . . . . . . .

Neville looked at a different book Theo had left on the library table. "Don't need it," he said.

"You will," Theo said, but Neville shook his head as he knelt down and fussed with his shoelace.

"Started teaching myself third year," he said. "And been working on it since. When your parents have their minds shattered, you have an incentive to figure out how to not have that happen to you."

Theo smiled as he turned, so his back was to the other boy, looking through books on the shelf. "I think I like you more and more, Neville Longbottom," he said.

. . . . . . . . . .

Remus Lupin pulled the note off the owl and frowned while reading it.

"What is it?" his wife asked, struggling to get the baby to latch on properly instead of spending all her time looking around.

Lupin passed the note over.

Dear Professor Lupin,

Please forgive my impertinence in writing to you this way. I wanted to urge you and your wife, whom I hope to someday have the honor of meeting, to go into hiding. As you know, some of the Dark Lord's less perceptive followers have slipped the leash, if you'll pardon the metaphor, and I am afraid, because of your connection to a certain Order as well as your wife's family, that some of them may target you. The Dark Lord will win, I am sure of it, and anyone who stands against him will be destroyed. Don't, I humbly beg you, allow yourself to be so destroyed.

Sincerely,

Hermione Granger

P.S. Please do me the favor of burning this.

P.P.S. Sirius' death has been avenged.

Tonks looked up at him. "What does she mean, 'Sirius' death has been avenged'?"

"Bellatrix was killed on the Tower last spring," Lupin said. "The official story is that her death was unexplained, an accident during combat."

"Not such an accident, then," Tonks said.

"Apparently not," Lupin said, taking the note back and tossing it into the fire where it sat for a moment before curling up at the edges and bursting into a quick poof of heat and flame.

"One of your students, I take it," Tonks said, looking back down at the baby who'd finally latched on and was settling in with his eyes closed.

"Yes," Lupin said. "Muggle-born. Clever girl but a bit… she's got an understanding with your cousin, you know."

"With Draco?" Tonks said in utter bemusement. "My aunt Narcissa condoned an understanding between her precious Draco and a Muggle-born?"

Lupin shrugged. Ron and Harry's virulent dislike of Draco and his girlfriend had made for some long and tedious conversations after Order meetings. He had never thought the girl especially interesting but had appreciated the way she'd helped spirit Sirius away years ago. Now, apparently, she was trying to spirit him away as well or, he admitted to himself, Tonks. He suspected he was little more in this particular play than Draco's cousin's spouse. Still, it was interesting she was trying to warn them off. "Do you think we should hide?" he asked, expecting Tonks to say 'no.'

She looked down at Teddy, however, and said, "I think so, yes. I think you-know-who is going to win this time. I don't want our child to… Harry's childhood was… it was not good. James is dead. Sirius is dead. I don't want you to be dead as well." She paused. "Fuck fighting the good fight; they're targeting Order members." She looked around. "Is that owl still here?"

Lupin nodded. The owl was rooting around in a tray of treats and showed no sign of wanting to leave.

Tonks penned a quick note back.

Thank you , it said. That and, I would very much like to meet you and Draco and even his mother when this is all over. ~ T

 

Chapter Text

Harry Potter didn’t emerge from hiding again until May. Hermione was just as glad. A Tom Riddle thwarted again in his plan to kill the only person standing between himself and immortality was an angry Tom Riddle.

 

An angry Tom Riddle was dangerous, and they all fled back to school after Narcissa’s Easter ball, happy to only have to deal with the Carrows and hostile sneers from Gryffindors. The Carrows continued to be thuggish and stupid, and every time Hermione stopped them from hurting students in one way, they found another. She kept brewing pain potions and passing them to Michael Corner, who distributed them as he saw fit. Hannah Abbot showed up outside the Slytherin common room one day with a basket of homemade biscuits. “Just because,” the girl said.

 

“Thank you,” Hermione said.

 

“Not everyone believes –,,“ Hannah said, and Hermione shrugged, cutting her off. She wasn’t sure what Hannah believed she was doing and suspected the idealistic Hufflepuff saw the world the same black and white way Potter and his Gryffindor fan club did. 

 

“I love you,” Draco said, popping one of the biscuits into his mouth, “but you can’t cook the way that girl can.”

 

Blaise hit him, and Luna laughed. 

 

Snape asked Hermione to take over ordering supplies for his private lab, claiming to be simply too busy to handle such trivial matters with his responsibilities as Head of School. 

 

And so the spring passed in relative peace, and they went to classes and studied for their N.E.W.T. exams and waited for something to happen. “Do you think he’s just going to stay in that house until he dies of old age?” Theo asked in frustration one day. 

 

“If he never comes out, can we do anything?” Hermione asked.

 

Draco made a show of yanking on his hair. “If that fidelius charm was breakable –“

 

“- it’d already be done,” Hermione finished for him. “Ugg.”

 

“Why was he after that locket, anyway?” Theo asked. 

 

“Magical artifact,” Hermione said, remembering the way the thing had made her very soul shiver. It was powerful and slimy in a way she didn’t want to go near though, she supposed, she’d eventually have to. She flicked a glance, and Theo and his eyes briefly widened before they shuttered completely.  

 

“I guess,” Theo agreed. 

 

“I wouldn’t pursue it,” Hermione said, her eyes on Draco. “Anything the Dark Lord wants that much is something I don’t want to play with. Or touch. Or anything. He killed Umbridge just for owning it and sent people off to kill the man she got it from. He likes me, but there are limits to his tolerance, you know?”

 

Theo nodded. “It’s best to not get caught being too curious about some things,” he said.

 

“What if there are more?” Draco asked, and, at their cautious looks, he added, “What if there are more artifacts the Dark Lord cares about that much? Would Potter come out of hiding to get those too?”

 

“Probably,” Hermione said, drawing the word out. 

 

“Maybe I should write Mother?” Draco asked, and Hermione smiled. 

 

“I’m sure she’s always happy to hear from you,” was all she said.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Tom Riddle read the note Narcissa handed him. “I’m glad your son is having a good year, ‘Cissa,” he said. “I’m sure he’d enjoy having a visit from long lost friends.”

 

“Friends?” The woman raised one elegantly shaped brow.

 

Riddle shrugged. “Or whatever. I have something tucked away at Hogwarts I’ve been meaning to pick up. Perhaps a few dreams will inspire Potter to leave his safe little house and go look for it.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

When Harry Potter emerged out of one of Hogwart’s endless secret passages, Neville Longbottom, at his side, the first person that saw him was Luna Lovegood. She blinked a few times and tilted her head to the side. “You’re back,” she said. “Why?”

 

“Luna,” Harry said, then stopped as Hermione, who’d been around a corner, caught up to her friend.

 

“Luna,” the girl was saying, “We’re running out of oranges, and the elves tell me they’re so out of season they can’t get any more. What do you suggest we use to practice –.“ She stopped talking when she saw Harry.

 

“Potter.” Her voice was flat and cold, and her hand was already on her wand. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

 

“Granger.” Harry Potter pulled out his own wand, and they stood there, eyeing one another. “You don’t dare kill me,” he said at last. “You’d have done it at the Malfoy’s if you could; your master wants that privilege for himself, doesn’t he?”

 

“He does,” Hermione agreed. “Though I doubt he’d mind if I maimed you.”

 

“Wanna take that risk?” Potter asked.

 

“Not if I don’t have to,” Hermione admitted. “Why are you here?”

 

Harry eyed her and then asked, “What do you know about Horcruxes?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione had let Luna lead Harry Potter up to the Ravenclaw common room so he could find out what the lost diadem looked like. “It’s a piece of his soul trapped in an object,” Harry had said. “If we destroy all of them, I can kill him.”

 

Hermione wasn’t sure why Potter thought a woman mentored by a Dark, immortal wizard wouldn’t know what Horcruxes were, but Neville had stalked off towards the Gryffindor common room to spread the word the boy hero was back, and Luna had just started towards Ravenclaw. “Are you coming?” she’d asked and Potter had followed her and then, with a shrug, Hermione had followed him.

 

She wondered if Potter knew he was one of the Horcruxes. 

 

“What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything,” an eagle doorknocker asked.

 

“Forty-two,” Luna said serenely.

 

“Amusingly answered,” the eagle replied, and the door opened.

 

Harry Potter pushed his way into the room and stood before a large portrait of Rowena Ravenclaw, studying her. He was so intent on his task he didn’t notice Alecto Carrow emerging from the shadows.

 

Hermione watched Potter face off against Alecto Carrow, the woman cackling with barely restrained glee. “We’ve got you, Potter,” she said, pressing the Mark on her arm. “The Dark Lord knows you’re here now and –“

 

“It’s probably not going to be that easy,” Hermione drawled from where she and Luna were leaning against the wall. “It never is with this one. And you’re spitting when you talk. Try not to do that. It’s gross.”

 

“You won’t be the favorite anymore,” the woman leered. “Once he knows I’ve handed him Potter, you little Mudblood, you’ll be –“

 

“Oh, for the love of Merlin,” Hermione muttered. “Avada Kedavra.” She looked at Potter as Alecto Carrow stumbled and fell to the floor. “I may blame that one on you.”

 

A huge smile bloomed on Harry Potter’s face. “I knew it,” he breathed. “I knew… you helped me all those times. Helped Sirius. I saw you kill Bellatrix Lestrange and… I knew you had to be on the side of the good even if you and Malfoy were together.” He rushed forward and embraced her, not seeming to notice how she stiffened and pushed herself back out of his arms. “Neville told me, Granger. Told me everything. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him, but… you’ve been on our side all along, haven’t you.”

 

“Fuck, you’re simple,” was all she said.

 

“I’m going to go check on the little ones,” Luna said and disappeared towards the dormitories.

 

Then the doorway to the common room opened again, and Professor McGonagall stood there, contempt on her face, as Amycus Carrow pushed his way into the room. Amycus looked around and spotted Potter with glee and went to press his Mark.

 

“Already done,” Hermione said as McGonagall sank into an armchair and eyed the body on the floor without speaking. “You might not want to nag the man.”

 

“Why should I believe you,” Amycus sneered, pressing his Mark.

 

She shrugged. “Thorfinn Rowle would. Lysander Yaxley would.” 

 

“They haven’t had to deal with your filthy insubordination all year,” Amycus said. 

 

“True enough,” Hermione admitted as Potter looked from Amycus to her, triumph in his green eyes. “Of course, Yaxley has dined with the Dark Lord and myself and seen us interact, and he might have a wee bit of a better understanding than you of just how much of a favorite I am and why.”

 

She added, “By the way, your sister’s dead.”

 

Amycus didn’t believe her at first. He nudged the woman’s body first with his foot, then knelt down and shook it with his hand. “Allie?” he whispered, the word choking in his throat. “Sis?” He rolled her over and looked at her slack face, the staring eyes, and doubled over for a moment, shaking next to his twin. Then he looked up at Potter from where he was bent over Alecto, raw hatred in his eyes. “You did this,” he said. “You fucking Muggle-loving bastard whoreson, you murdered my sister.”

 

“I didn’t,” Potter said, stepping back.

 

“I don’t think Potter is the murderer,” McGonagall said from her seat. Amycus stood up and approached her, glaring down before he spit in her face. “Ignorant bitch,” he said. “Who else could it have been? Malfoy’s Mudblood doxie? She’s smart enough not to go around killing Death Eaters; she knows that’d get her tortured to death as a cocktail hour entertainment. One of your soft little students who are cowering in their bedrooms right now? No. Only Potter’s got quite the right combination of boldness and idiocy to do this.” He raised his arm to backhand the elderly woman sitting in front of him, and Potter finally reacted, driven to a response by the threat against his favorite teacher.

 

Crucio,” the boy said, pointing his wand at the remaining Carrow.

 

Amycus stood for only a moment, enduring the pain before he collapsed to the ground beside his sister. 

 

“You might consider doing it again,” Hermione suggested. “They were having eleven and twelve-year-olds practice that on one another in detention.”

 

Potter looked at her in horror. 

 

“No, I’m not joking,” she said.

 

“I can’t just hurt him now,” Potter said. “He’s already –“

 

“He’d do it to you,” Hermione said impatiently. “The only reason neither of them killed you is the Dark Lord has a thing about having to kill you himself.”

 

“It’s also the only reason you haven’t killed him yourself,” McGonagall said. “You’re as Dark as they are, Miss Granger. You murdered that woman in cold blood, didn’t you?”

 

“You,” Hermione nearly spit at the older woman. “You’re just like Potter. At least he has the excuse of being young, but you? You want to live and die in your oh-so-superior purity? It’s better to let the world burn than to get your hands dirty, is it?” She turned towards the unconscious Amycus Carrow and snapped, “Avada Kedavra.”    

 

Potter had to brace himself against McGonagall’s chair as he stared at her. “You killed him,” he whispered. “You killed him when he was helpless. Granger, what are you?”

 

Minerva McGonagall leveled her own wand at the girl in front of her. “Death Eater,” she said with disgust.   

 

“Better that than what you are,” Hermione retorted. “Run away, Potter. Let the old woman cover you while you go and do me a favor by destroying what brought you back to Hogwarts but, Potter, the Dark Lord is coming for you, so make it quick.”

 

He stared at the portrait of Rowena Ravenclaw as if memorizing it and then took off at a sprint, and Hermione sighed and glared at Professor McGonagall. “Lower your wand,” Hermione suggested in a low tone. “The Dark Lord is coming, and I am a favorite, and I can absolutely guarantee he will not be happy with you if you hurt me and, if my experience with the Carrows is any guide, you might not be able to anyway.” 

 

“You were such a bright girl,” McGonagall said. “I rue the day you were Sorted into Slytherin and corrupted.”

 

“I’m still a bright girl,” Hermione said. “My corruption didn’t make me stupid.” She leaned slightly towards the stairs. “Luna,” she yelled. “We need to go.”

 

“Miss Lovegood,” McGonagall pleaded with the blonde girl as she came down the stairs trailing first and second years in her wake. “You are a brilliant child. Don’t –“

 

“Don’t what?” Luna asked, tipping her head to the side in the way that Hermione can come to recognize meant she was about to say something unexpected and painful. “Don’t fight against people who’ve never had a kind word to say to me? You want me to betray the people who took me in and made me one of them?”

 

“This is more than your personal feelings,” McGonagall said, “this is about justice and freedom and –“

 

“Balderdash,” said Luna. “This is about power.” She turned to her little flock. “Stay here and you should be safe.”

 

“She’s dead!” one of the little ones said with delight, poking at Alecto Carrow with a cautious foot.

 

Michael Corner emerged from the back of the group. “Ravenclaw is neutral,” he said to Hermione. “We voted two weeks ago.”

 

“Mr. Corner,” McGonagall gasped.

 

“Can I help you back to your office, ma’am?” he asked her very politely, and Hermione smiled a snake-mean smile that Draco would have recognized from his mirror.  

 

“I can still walk on my own,” Professor McGonagall snapped as she rose to her feet. Michael, with impeccable manners that would not have been out of place in Narcissa Malfoy’s ballroom escorted her to the door of the Ravenclaw common room.

 

“Do you have any preferences for what we do with them?” Michael asked Hermione, giving a disgusted glance to the felled Carrows. 

 

“Dump them in the hall?” she suggested. “I doubt you want to wall yourself in here with them for the duration of whatever’s about to happen.”

 

Michael nodded and, as Luna and Hermione headed off to round up their side to be prepared to meet Riddle when he arrived, the Ravenclaw boy began levitating the corpses out of his common room.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

That Luna looked slightly less than completely serene when she and Hermione entered the common room set all of Slytherin on edge. 

 

“Potter’s here,” Hermione said shortly. “He’s looking for the lost diadem of Ravenclaw. The Dark Lord’s been called.”

 

“Sounds like it’s showtime,” Theo said. “I’ll handle the coordination from this end.”

 

“The Carrows won’t be attending opening night, I’m afraid,” Hermione said, and Theo smirked at her. 

 

“Pity,” he said. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Astoria, the fair roots showing in her imperfectly dyed hair, clutched at Vincent’s arm. “We could die,” she said, “I don’t want to die, Vincent. I don’t want you to die.”

 

“I’m not going to die,” he said a bit gruffly.

 

“I don’t want to die without having ever –.“ Astoria swallowed and blushed, and Vincent’s eyes widened as he processed what she meant.

 

“Astoria,” he said, “I have to… Draco’s going to come find me to do some damn fool thing or other, you know he is.”

 

“Please,” she said, “Vincent.”

 

Upon due reflection, Vincent considered that it would be downright ungentlemanly to say no when she asked so nicely. Still, there were practical considerations. “My room is the first place he’ll look for me,” he said.

 

“My room?” she asked.

 

“Second place,” he admitted.

 

Astoria looked at him, and a shy smile crept onto her face. 

 

“Closet,” she said, and when he looked aghast, she said, impatiently, “There’s a closet by the girl’s bathroom. It’s where they keep all the extra towels, and it’s big enough and…”

 

“Are you sure you want your first time to be in a linen closet,” Vincent asked her.

 

“I just want it to be with you,” she said, and, even if he hadn’t already decided that some offers were far too good to turn down that plaintive little tone would have brought him around to her way of thinking.

 

Once they were in the closet, a place not quite as big as she’d implied, and were tugging off their clothing Vincent stopped long enough to tug his family ring off his finger. “Astoria,” he said, turning redder than he’s have believed possible, “I know it’s not a fancy bracelet like Hermione and Pansy have, but…”

 

Astoria looked at the ring he was holding out to her and had to remember to close her mouth. “I, Vincent, I…” she stumbled over the words.

 

“I’m being stupid,” he muttered, “overdoing it, you don’t want – “

 

“No, I do,” she snatched the ring away from him. “Put it on me,” she said, a little breathlessly and, trying to look at her hand and not her breasts or her pink cotton knickers, Vincent did as she asked, shoving the big ring onto her finger and trying to remember the sizing charm.

 

She remembered the charm, and the ring obediently shrank down to fit her hand.

 

Vincent decided sex was the best thing that had ever been invented.

 

Ever.

 

He really really couldn’t wait for this stupid battle thing to be over so he could do it again and, this time, not in a linen closet.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Hermione had tucked herself against the far wall of the hall, out of sight within the shadows, and she waited as the battle lines were drawn.   

 

The Slytherin students, and, she noted, Luna, had arranged themselves in a deceptively informal grouping. The slightly curved line was staggered, giving them all a clean line of attack and covering almost the whole room. She raised an eyebrow, and Theo smirked. “We did a little light reading in small battle tactics while you and Draco worked on that cabinet last year. Nothing fancy and, Merlin knows, none of us are experts, but at least we aren’t squabbling with each other while we wait.”

 

“Where are the little ones?” Hermione asked.

 

“Dungeon,” Theo said shortly. “Daphne’s little sister refused to be locked in, so she’s somewhere in the way back but, other than that, they’re all safely tucked away, and Millie is keeping watch over them. I think she coaxed a bunch of cakes and juice from the house-elves, and they’re having an actual party.”

 

Hermione huffed out a laugh. “Millie and her in with the elves.” She looked around. “Where’s Draco?”

 

“I left him with Greg and Vince,” Theo said, and she nodded.

 

The Order of the Phoenix had arranged themselves near the high table, a motley group of ginger heads and worn soldiers. Recruitment had not, it would seem, gone well for the side of the light and, though Hermione saw some of the older Gryffindor students and the entire school faculty join the combatants, their ranks were thin. She was pleased to see Professor Lupin wasn’t among them. He and Draco’s cousin really had taken her advice to flee.

 

“That one’s Fred,” Theo whispered to Hermione, pointing to a ginger boy with shaggy hair and two ears.

 

 “I can tell,” she said. “Do you think he remembers pounding Draco into the dirt, two-on-one?”

 

“Does it matter?” Theo asked.

 

“No,” she admitted.

 

Molly Weasley, identifiable by the bright hair, was arguing loudly with her daughter. “You’re too young,” the woman snapped. “This is a war, Ginevra, not a social club. Go up to the Tower and lock yourself in.”

 

“You need me,” the girl insisted. “There aren’t enough of you.”

 

“You aren’t of age, and you have to listen to me,” Molly said and continued a harangue that called the girl’s sense, respect, and self-discipline all into question. Ginny appeared unmoved by the tirade and simply waited it out.

 

“As delightful as it is to observe your clearly stellar parenting, perhaps you could stop berating the girl now.” A cold voice filled the hall, and the Order members stiffened, pulling themselves up to their full heights and turning to face the dark-haired man who strolled in, an army behind him. 

 

“Not what you expected?” Tom Riddle seemed amused as he surveyed the side arranged against him. “Perhaps this will suit your preconceived notions more?”

 

He transformed himself into his snake mask, his skin losing all color and his eyes turning red. Hermione closed her eyes. She was never quite sure whether the handsome man or the monster was the real Dark Lord. She supposed it didn’t matter.

 

“Contrary to what your teachers might have told you, I have no interest in spilling magical blood.” Riddle surveyed the room. “Except Harry Potter’s. Give me Harry Potter, and I will leave peaceably.”

 

“After you kill him, you mean,” snapped Ginny Weasley.

 

“I see you take after your mother,” the Dark Lord – Lord Voldemort in this guise, Hermione supposed – said. “Yes, after I kill him.”

 

“He’s not here,” called out a girl Hermione identified as Katie Bell.

 

There was a crash from somewhere above them in the castle; it sounded as if an entire room had fallen in on itself.

 

“I do think I hear the dulcet sounds of the boy approaching, however,” Voldemort said. “Shall we wait for him calmly, or would you prefer to fight?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Fasten your trousers,” Draco said to Vincent as they strode down the hall. “You’re a mess.”

 

“Arsehole,” Vincent muttered, but he fumbled to do as Draco had suggested while Greg laughed. 

 

“I mean, did you have to go and deflower the girl now?” Draco asked with some exasperation. “We’ve got things to do.”

 

“In life,” Vincent said as ponderously as he could, “you should stop and smell the roses when you see them.”

 

“What does that mean?” Greg asked. “And what does that have to do with you screwing Daphne’s weird little sister in the closet?”

 

“It means he didn’t want to turn down a chance to get laid,” Draco said with an annoyed snort. “Though Merlin, why you couldn’t wait until after this is all over, I’ll never know.”

 

“I was afraid she’d change her mind,” Vincent admitted. “What are we doing now? And can we get it done in a hurry?”

 

“While you were busy discovering the wonders of the flesh,” Draco said, “Luna popped in to let us know Potter’s after the Ravenclaw diadem. He went up to their common room to look at a painting to find out what it looked like. Damned if I know why, but it’s why he came out of hiding and came back to Hogwarts, and if he wants it, we’re going to get there first.”

 

“Isn’t that thing missing?” Greg stopped in the hall, and with a huff of irritation, Draco stopped too. 

 

“Potter thinks it’s in the Room of Missing Things,” Draco said. 

 

 

“Where?” Vincent asked.

 

“Merlin. The room I spent all of last year in with that fucking cabinet, that’s where.”

 

Vincent groaned. “Did you really pull me out of that closet so we could go to that room filled with junk and look for some whatever-the-fuck-a-diadem-is when the thingy you’re looking for has been missing for… how long, Greg?”

 

“Since Hogwarts was founded,” Draco said with a sigh. “And we don’t need to find it. We just need to chase that idiot out of the Room and back to the Hall so the Dark Lord can kill him. Then you can go back to your girlfriend, okay?”

 

“I’ll be a war hero,” Vincent said, his eyes lighting up. “Girls like that.” Then he added, “I wouldn’t have expected her to have pink knickers, would you?”

 

Greg’s jaw dropped open. “Pink?” he asked. “Astoria? Are you sure you had the right girl?”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

 Draco got to the room he thought of as the Room of Lost Things only shortly before Harry Potter. When the boy walked into the room, Draco, Greg, and Vincent were lounging against one of the shelves crowded with junk, waiting for him.

 

“Looking for something?” Draco asked. “I know someone who’s looking for you.” He studied his nails as if he were bored. “This is a good place to find items that have gone missing, but, really Potter? The Lost Diadem of Ravenclaw? Isn’t that a bit like looking for the Holy Grail?”

 

“Sod off, Malfoy,” Potter said, leveling his wand against the three boys. “I know you don’t dare actually kill me because your evil monster of a master wants that privilege for himself, so unless you plan on defying him and facing those consequences, you just back off and let me look.”

 

Vincent growled, but Draco held his hands up. “We’re just here for the show. You don’t need to worry about us. We don’t plan to so much as leave a bruise on your pretty skin.”

 

Potter glowered at him but began ransacking the room as the three boys just watched him. 

 

“Let him find the damn crown thing, whatever it is,” Theo had said, “and let him destroy it if he can. It’ll give him a false sense of security and then herd him down to the hall; that’s where I’ll have our side waiting for him. He’s a hard prick to kill, so let’s get him cornered with overwhelming force and give him to the Dark Lord like a Yule present.”

 

Draco just leaned back with insouciant ease and waited for the prat to find the diadem. Greg tried to mimic his relaxation and mostly succeeded. Vincent, however, wanted to leave. “Why can’t we just kill him,” he finally muttered as they continued to watch the boy search the room. “Why does it always have to be some hard thing? Why can’t it be easy?”

 

“Because it can’t,” Draco said. “Because we’re doing it my way, and my way involves not having a powerful Dark wizard out for my head.”

 

Greg laughed at that. 

 

“This is boring,” Vincent muttered as Potter continued to ransack shelf after shelf. “How hard can it be to find one stupid crown?”

 

“It has been lost for centuries,” Draco said. “It really is a fool’s errand, but look who’s doing it.”

 

“Fuck you, Malfoy,” came from the back of the room.

 

“I don’t think Hermione would like that,” Draco said with a sneer.

 

“I wouldn’t cross that woman,” Greg said. 

 

“That’s because you’re a smart man,” Draco said, then, nudging Vincent, he added, “I think the Chosen One might have found his tiara.”

 

That’s when everything went to hell. 

 

Vincent cast a fire spell to try to herd Potter to the door so they could chase him down to the hall. Draco swore he was an idiot and tried to cast a water spell to put out the flames, but Vincent had overdone it, and the room was filling with Fiendfyre. Potter bolted towards the door, a crown in his hand, and then turned and threw it back into the flames. The crown screamed as if the damned themselves were trying to escape through it back into the mortal realm. Draco shoved Greg toward the door after Potter and reached back to grab Vincent, but Vincent, in some mindless panic, tried to grab the crown, and it was as if the inferno itself had pulled the boy into it.

 

Draco never told Hermione how Vincent died terrified and screaming though he woke from nightmares of that vision for years. 

 

Now he backed away from the room. “We’ll deal with this later,” he hissed at Greg as they shut the door behind them and let hell burn itself out in the Room of Lost Things. “We need to get that boy to the hall.”

 

“Why is nothing ever easy around that bastard?” Greg asked, struggling not to cry. 

 

“Pull yourself together,” Draco snapped, fighting back his own emotions as well. “We deal with this later.”

 

Greg swallowed hard and then nodded Wand they followed Potter back through the corridors, pushing him towards the hall with their chasing and the boy, not even realizing he was being herded, rushed away from them in a bid to escape the castle, one diadem destroyed. When he, trying to elude them, entered the hall where everyone was gathered waiting for him, he skidded to a halt and stared.

 

Their goal accomplished Draco and Greg slumped against the wall in the corridor outside the hall. “Vince,” Greg said and then let himself be overtaken by great, wracking sobs, not caring who saw him.

 

“I don’t know what that fucking crown was,” Draco said, “but I hope it was worth a life.”

 

They sat there, lost in grief, until Greg said, wiping his nose on his sleeve, “I hate that Potter.”

 

“Me too,” said Draco. 

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

“Harry Potter.” Lord Voldemort tipped his head towards the teenage boy who had run into the hall. “You’ve looked better.”

 

“So have you,” Potter snapped, looking at the snake figure before him with loathing and disgust. “I liked the mask you had on at Easter better.”

 

Lord Voldemort shrugged. “You have to give the masses what they ask for when you’re in politics. I’m afraid your Order of the Phoenix prefers me as a monster. It’s easier to try to kill someone, you see, if you dehumanize your victim first.

 

“Of course, I don’t have that limitation.”

 

“That’s because you are a monster,” Potter said. “The monster.”

 

“If you like,” Lord Voldemort agreed. “We’ve been waiting for you. I would like to offer you the honor of single combat.”

 

Harry Potter narrowed his eyes and asked, “What’s the catch?”

 

“No ‘catch,’” Voldemort said easily. “I try to kill you, and you try to kill me, and the winner of that fight decides the war. If you lose, your side submits to me. If I lose, my Death Eaters will lay down their wands and admit defeat.”

 

“That sounds –“ Harry began, but Ron Weasley, who hadn’t gone to Ravenclaw with Potter, or to find the diadem, pulled out his wand and shot a curse off at Lord Voldemort.

 

Perhaps he had hoped to take the Dark wizard down when he was not paying attention. Perhaps he had had fantasies of being the hero. It didn’t matter. Once the first curse was shot the battle spread from one person to another, faster than a rumor, and one wand was out, then another, then five, and then all the children and all the Order members and all the professors and all the Marked Death Eaters had their wands out and were firing curses at one another.

 

Hermione targeted Fred Weasley. “You shouldn’t have attacked Draco,” she said her voice lost in the clatter and shouting and banging that filled the room. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

 

Fred couldn’t have heard her, but he turned to see the woman, her wand leveled at him, and, with eyes narrowed, shot off a hex. It was a good one; for all that he was primarily a jokester, he was a talented wizard, and he’d modified something harmless and fun into something that was neither. It didn’t matter, though. Once she’d engaged the man in a fair battle, Hermione killed him. She’d been mentored by Riddle, taught the basics of the Dark Arts to her Housemates. He was good, but she was better, and she shot to kill rather than to disable.

 

Their unwillingness to kill crippled the Order. They were creative in their spell work, and many of them were masterfully powerful, but it didn’t matter against foes unafraid to slaughter everyone in the hall.

 

The Order’s refusal to kill could be funny. Percy Weasley turned Pius Thicknesse into a sea urchin, and Hermione watched, trying not to gasp with inappropriate laughter, as the man shrank down into a spiny, purple crustacean. 

 

Lord Voldemort sighed as someone accidentally stepped on what had recently been the Minister of Magic. “I’d wanted him to last a few more months,” the Dark Lord said to Lucius Malfoy. “Now, we’re going to have to get another one.”

 

“I’ll take care of that problem, my Lord,” Lucius said, and Voldemort nodded.

 

“Do that,” he said, a calm figure around whom a battle raged. Order members tried to attack him, coming even in groups of two and three, and he simply flicked them away. Death Eaters ranged before him, striking down anyone who came within their reach. Yaxley left Lee Jordan bleeding on the floor. Graham Montague and Cassius Warrington had doubled up against Hagrid, and the half-giant was stumbling back before their relentless onslaught. Luna had perched upon a windowsill, making herself a target, except every curse that reached her fizzled out as she practiced a tricky Dark magic shielding technique she’d read about.

 

Only Luna, Hermione thought, would see a battle as a place to try something new.

 

Neville Longbottom, she noticed, was standing off to the side. He hadn’t excused himself from the event the way the whole of Ravenclaw had, but he wasn’t participating either. Well. That was interesting.

 

Despite Neville’s lack of participation and despite the total absence of Ravenclaw, the Order did manage some victories. Professor Trelawney leaned over a balcony and dropped crystal balls onto the heads of any Death Eater foolish enough to walk beneath her. Augustus Rookwood, a man Hermione had only met once but whose mask she recognized, crumpled under a perfectly aimed ball. Professor Flitwick cursed Antonin Dolohov, and the Death Eater fell to the ground. Hermione suspected he wouldn’t get up again. 

 

Hermione looked up to see Draco slip into the back of the hall, Greg at his heels. He was covered in soot, and even from where she was, she could see that he was upset about something. She took a step towards him, but he shook his head. Whatever it was, he didn’t want her running to his side. She nodded at him, and he looked relieved. 

 

Daphne was battling Molly Weasley and, seeing the girl was struggling against the experienced Order member, Hermione work her way across what had become a battlefield, almost slipping in a patch of blood more than once. She and Daphne working together could barely hold Molly off, and Hermione’s eyes widened at how vicious the woman was; she began to see where Fred and George had gotten their magical talents from. Molly Weasley pushed them back across the floor and, one curse at a time, they gave way before her until they were spending all their energy on shielding and blocking spells, and Molly lifted her wand for one final curse.

 

Hermione heard Narcissa Malfoy’s voice from behind her.

 

“Not my daughter, you bitch,” the woman said, and a Killing Curse sailed between Daphne and Hermione and, shaking with exhaustion, Hermione lowered her wand and watched Molly Weasley stare with a wide-eyed shock that never left her face even as she fell.

 

Hermione turned and flung herself into Narcissa Malfoy’s arms, and the woman held both her and Daphne Greengrass as they sobbed with relief. “It’s okay,” the woman murmured. “She was one of the best they had. You did well, you really did. I’m proud of you girls. You held her off, and she fought in the last war. She was so much more experienced than you and prepared, and you both did so well.”

 

Hermione pulled herself away from the woman and, swallowing hard, said, “Thank you.”

 

“Anytime, my dear,” Narcissa said, tucking a strand of hair behind Hermione’s ear. 

 

Behind them, the battle continued, and Hermione turned to see Theo curse Ronald Weasley with a simple Avada Kedavra.

 

“Not many Weasleys are going to be left,” she said, reaching out for Daphne’s hand.

 

“They backed the wrong horse,” the girl said, the fingers clutching at Hermione’s giving the lie to her calm tone.

 

“To me,” Hermione heard a deep and resonant voice cry out, and she looked up to see the Order members gathering at the side of a tall man. “We must shield Potter!”

 

“It’s Royal,” Hermione said, turning to Narcissa. “From Potterwatch, the radio show. I don’t know who that is, but I recognize his voice.”

 

Narcissa kissed her on the forehead and said, “Excuse me while I go and tell the Dark Lord of his secret identity.”

 

Hermione and Daphne watched Narcissa slip away and, shuddering, Hermione said, “I don’t suppose you’d like to go back to the rest of our - “

 

“Only if you do,” Daphne said, already shrinking back to the wall where their classmates had originally grouped.

 

“Maybe just for a moment to catch our breath,” Hermione suggested, and they both nearly ran to shelter against the wall. Blaise took one look at them and called out towards Greg, and the man came over, looking just as shaken as Draco. 

 

“Pull it together,” Blaise hissed, “and help me guard them.”

 

Greg squared his shoulders, and both boys stood, wands drawn, between Hermione and Daphne and the rest of the hall. Hermione, hating herself for her cowardice, let them shelter her and watched as a team of Death Eaters, Draco and Theo among them, crossed the hall, covering one another, as they approached the group of remaining Order members and began disabling the fighters one at a time. “What are they doing?” Hermione whispered, and Blaise looked back at her. 

 

“Taking out the leader is my guess.”

 

“’Royal,’” Hermione said, shivering. 

 

After the Death Eaters took out the man, losing several of their own in the process, Lord Voldemort apparently decided it was time to move things along.

 

“Harry Potter,” he called out, his voice filling the hall. “I offered you the honor of single combat, and this is how you respond? You permit your friends and allies to die as they shield you? Stop letting these fools fight your battle and face me.

 

“He’s right.”

 

Hermione was genuinely shocked to hear Potter’s voice respond though, of course, it had always been coming down to the two men. One, a masterful Dark wizard who’d spent a lifetime delving into magic; the other, a seventeen-year-old boy who was good at flying, cheated at Potions, and had managed to conjure a Patronus even younger than she had.

 

She wondered how Albus Dumbledore had convinced himself this would work. Did he think Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort, the Dark Lord who’d conquered Death, would be defeated like a nearly mindless wraith?

 

He must have, she guessed.

 

He’d certainly convinced Harry Potter he had a chance. She wondered, briefly, if he would have if he’d just had better friends. Ronald Weasley wouldn’t have been her choice for a partner if she wanted to overthrow the Dark Lord and his pet Ministry. 

 

Not that she did.

 

She was happy to work within the system.

 

“He’s right,” Harry Potter said again, stepping forward from the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix. “I have to do this. The prophecy – the prophecy this madman wanted to hear so badly – has said it has to be me. I am the only one who can kill him.” He brandished his wand. “And now I will.”

 

Silence fell over the hall as the two men faced off, Lord Voldemort making a sweeping bow to his opponent that Potter did not return.

 

“Rude,” Hermione heard Blaise mutter.

 

“Try for some remorse,” Potter called out. “It’s the only thing that can save you, can put your soul back together.”

 

Voldemort sighed and pointed the Elder Wand and Harry Potter and said, “Avada Kedavra.

 

The faces of the whole of the Order of the Phoenix rivaled the boy’s look of shock when he fell.

 

Lord Voldemort gestured to Narcissa, who walked forward and dropped down gracefully next to the body, lowering her cheek to his face. After a few moments, she rose and said, “He is, indeed, dead, my Lord.”

 

“Well,” Voldemort regarded Harry Potter. “One can never be too careful.” After Narcissa had stepped back, he quickly cursed the body again, and it burst into flames. Hermione flinched back from the heat and bright light, but, in a moment, it was over, and there was only a pile of ash where Lord Voldemort’s Achilles heel had been.

 

“Well,” Lord Voldemort said, “Now that that’s taken care of, it’s time for all of you to decide whether you want to lay down your wands and live in a world where I am powerful and unkillable.” Hermione dropped immediately to her knees, as did the rest of their side. She looked out at the other side of the hall and watched them look from one to the other, unsure of what to do.

 

“The other option, of course, is to die.”

 

As he was saying that Neville Longbottom walked forward and knelt, wand on his outstretched palms.

 

There was an audible gasp from Minerva Longbottom. Hermione saw an elderly woman she didn’t know crumble against the Arthur Weasley’s side.

 

“And who are you?” Lord Voldemort asked the boy, and Hermione narrowed her eyes. This was theater. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but this was much too scripted and perfect to be happening by accident.

 

“Neville Longbottom,” the boy said.

 

“I am surprised you would wish to join my side,” Voldemort said. “Your parents, after all, held a different view, as does your grandmother.”

 

“Your side has proven to be effective,” Neville said. “Your people have accomplished things I wanted done.”

 

“Pragmatic,” Voldemort commended him, then called out, “Who will vouch for this boy?”

 

“I will, my Lord,” Theodore Nott said, rising from his knees. 

 

Definitely scripted, Hermione thought. She glanced over at Daphne, who looked back a little guiltily. 

 

“Come,” Voldemort waved Neville over to their side, and he went and stood next to Theo.

 

“Traitor,” a girl’s voice hissed across the floor.

 

Lord Voldemort paused for a moment and then said, “Yaxley, be so good as to take their wands. They can petition to have them returned later and, if we are so inclined, we might even do so. In the meanwhile, they can live wandless.” He glanced around, and as he did so, his snake glamour faded away, leaving the distinguished-looking man. “Snape, this hall is a mess. Get it cleaned up.”

 

“Of course, my Lord,” Snape said.

 

“Don’t be shy about pressing the defeated into labor,” Tom Riddle said as Lysander Yaxley tweaked wands away from one stunned member of the losing side after another. “They’ll be forced to do the work without magic, of course, but I understand manual labor is good for the purification of the soul or some such.”

 

Snape nodded.

 

“Narcissa,” Riddle turned to the woman standing with her husband. “I do hate to impose, but could I trouble you for dinner?”

 

“It would be my pleasure, my Lord,” she said.

 

People were beginning to stir from their places and to mill about, uncertainly, as Snape strode across the floor and with obvious irritation began directing the professors who had fought against the Dark Lord to return to their apartments; he was ordering the students to go find cleaning materials, begin carrying the bodies to a makeshift morgue, and to clean the blood from the floors when Draco crossed to Hermione.

 

She flung herself into his arms and held on. War, true war, had left her shaking the way the Battle of the Astronomy Tower had not. He was singed, ashes and soot clinging to him, and she could smell smoke in his hair and on his clothes, and she wondered, in sudden horror, what he’d been doing when he’d been away from the Hall.

 

“I’m okay,” he said into her hair as she started to hyperventilate. “I’ll tell you about it later but, Hermione, I am fine.”

 

She nodded and sniffled against his chest, and slowly her breathing returned to normal; finally, he gently pushed her away and, before she even had a moment to be confused, dropped down to a knee and pulled a small box out of a pocket.

 

Hermione looked around in sudden panic. Theo had his arm around Daphne and was watching this play out with the smug air of a man who knew what was about to happen. ‘Theater,’ a voice whispered in her brain. ‘He’s doing this in public on purpose.’ She glanced over at Tom Riddle, who was waiting for this to play out, an enigmatic smile on his lips, before looking back at the boy kneeling in front of her, waiting for her to bring all her attention back to him.

 

“I adore you,” he began. “I would walk through fire for you, into hell and back. Would you do me the honor, give me the infinite joy, of accepting my unworthy hand in marriage?”

 

Hermione let her lips curve up into a smile as she counted to a very slow ten while Draco waited, hand outstretched. Finally, just as he was starting to look a tad less cocky and a bit more nervous, she said, “Of course.”

 

He exhaled and stood up, pushing the ring onto her finger. “Merlin,” she gasped when she looked down at the ring on her hand. Two large diamonds surrounded a smaller one, and the whole thing glittered with a timelessness she’d never seen in jewelry before. He hadn’t picked this up at a shop.

 

“A family piece,” he murmured. “Belonged to my great Aunt Dorea.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” she said as he pulled her back to him, and she looked up from the ring to his face.

 

“Almost as pretty as the woman wearing it,” he agreed and then she was kissing him in the Hall, heedless of the friends and enemies on every side, and he had his hands tucked up in her hair and was saying, “I love you, Hermione, more than my life. I love you, I love you, I love you,” and she was trying to stop him from talking and, finally, he did and turned his attention to returning her kiss with equal fervency.

 

“Whore,” she heard someone say, the voice low and vicious. “Death Eater’s whore.”

 

“Have that removed,” Tom Riddle said without looking in the direction of the speaker, and there was a scuffle as one of the masked Death Eaters hauled a ginger girl out of the hall.

 

Later Graham Montague would laugh about how she’d never stopped spitting at him, even when he tossed her into her own common room and slammed the portrait shut behind her. “Like a wildcat,” he’d say. “And pretty as fire.”

 

“As likely to burn you too,” Theo would mutter, but Montague was quite quite lost to warnings by that point. 

 

That, of course, is another story.

 

In this story, once Ginny Weasley had been dragged away, Tom Riddle smiled at his near-daughter tucked against the chest of her fiancé and said, “Well, it’s about time. Narcissa, don’t go over there and fawn on the boy; I’m sure they’d like some privacy to celebrate.”

 

A loud laugh greeted his words, and Hermione turned bright red.

 

“Don’t bungle the contraception charm, Hermione,” Riddle continued. “I’d be very disappointed in you.” He looked around. “Some of you need to make appointments to get Marked after graduation. Greg. Blaise. Vincent. Where’s Vincent?”

 

“He didn’t make it,” Greg said, his voice rough, and, from the back of the group of Slytherin students, Astoria let out a loud, disbelieving wail and began to sob.

 

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Riddle said, “but such is life. Or death. Neville Longbottom, schedule your Marking as well.”

 

Neville paled but stammered out, “As you wish.”

 

Riddle smiled at him. “You’ve heard, I’m sure, the adage about making sure to use a long spoon when you dine with the devil?”

 

“Only a short one was available,” Neville muttered.

 

“Make sure you schedule your Markings around the wedding,” Riddle said. “I’m sure you’ll want to be recovered enough to enjoy the celebration. Narcissa? I think we were going to get dinner. I find that slaughtering my nemesis gives me a healthy appetite. I hope you’ll have pie.”

 

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Theo and Hermione were sprawled out on the grass by the lake, enjoying the sun; Theo was reviewing his Arithmancy, and Hermione had her head buried deeply into a book. “What are you reading,” he asked her. “I would have expected you to be studying for your N.E.W.T.s with near hysteria.”

 

Hermione laughed. “You know,” she said, “after a year dealing with the Carrows, and all the extra potions brewing, and an actual battle with that Weasley woman trying to kill me, I’m finding it hard to work up any real anxiety over exams. I think I’ll enjoy my little biography of Catherine de Medici instead of getting all fussed.” 

 

Theo reached over and tugged on her hair. “I finally got you to skiv off,” he grinned. “And all it took was a war and a total regime change.”

 

Hermione leaned over onto one elbow and set her book down. “It’s not like we don’t both know what my future holds, whatever my N.E.W.T results,” she said. “I’ll just be the charming society wife of the Minister of Magic.”

 

Theo snorted.

 

“What was the final casualty count on our side?” Hermione asked.

 

“The Carrows,” Theo said, “and Vincent.”

 

They both paused for a moment.

 

“Do you want to count Thicknesse as one of ours?” he asked, and at the roll of Hermione’s eyes, he said, “Then, other than Dolohov, that’s it.”

 

“Dolohov didn’t make it?” Hermione asked. “I had no idea crystal balls could be so deadly; we should send that Trelawney woman a thank you note.”

 

Theo smiled at her. “Well,” he said, “It's possible I was a tad rough when I moved his body afterwards and I might have broken his neck.”

 

“Oops,” Hermione said.

 

“One more of the old guard down,” he said very quietly. “Soon, it will be just us and ours.”

 

There was a long pause, and Hermione turned a page in her book, then another, before she said, her tone idle, “Did you know that prophecy could apply just as much to Neville Longbottom as it could to Potter?”

 

“I had noticed that,” Theo said. “And soon, he’ll be Marked.”

 

“Not a curse scar, but we can work with it,” Hermione said. She still wasn’t looking up from her book. 

 

“What do you know about Horcruxes?” Theo asked.

 

“Ring,” Hermione said. “Diary. Locket. Cup. Snake. Diadem. Potter.”

 

“Dumbledore took care of the ring,” Theo said. “I’ve confirmed that with Longbottom.”

 

“The diary was destroyed our second year,” Hermione said, “and Potter’s dead.”

 

“And Vincent destroyed