Draco is surprised when Daphne Greengrass laughs in his face.
“What?” he retorts, defensive, taking a vindictive swig of pumpkin juice while he’s at it. He isn’t sure what he said that was funny—in fact, he’s offended. Just like he’s offended by how everyone thinks bloody Granger is so bloody fantastic. He slams his cup down on the table, and the Ravenclaws jump a few tables over.
“Oh please,” Daphne says airily, glancing down her nose at him. “Sure she’s a terror, but don’t be a little boy about it.”
“I don’t follow—there’s too much stupid in what you’ve said,” Draco scowls.
Daphne rolls her eyes and gets up from the table. “Name one thing she doesn’t excel at.”
“Quidditch,” Draco replies immediately.
Daphne laughs again—it’s sudden, high-pitched, attention-grabbing. The Ravenclaws turn to see what’s so funny. Some Hufflepuffs look over, too. Draco clenches his jaw.
“Allow me to revise that,” Daphne gathers her bag from under the table. “One thing that matters.”
The girls follow Daphne, whether they’ve done eating or not. Draco turns to scowl at Crabbe and Goyle, but they might as well be in outer space for how well they’re doing at paying attention at the situation at hand—shoveling in food, peering helplessly at their Herbology notes. “Bloody idiots, the lot of you!” Draco rails. No one pays particular attention, though a group of Hufflepuffs cower when he matches gazes with them. He skips lunch, still riled. Skips dinner but cons some food out of the house elves just before curfew.
By the end of the day, he’s formulated a plan. He’ll show all those stupid, tittering girls. “Name one thing she doesn’t excel at”—
Well. Consider it done.
Draco doesn’t know Granger is terrible at Quidditch, not technically, though the fact that she doesn’t even attempt to play gives him a hint. But apparently that’s out. Also out are all the things adjacent to Quidditch, if Quidditch doesn’t “matter”—understanding the scoring, for example. He briefly considers “flying,” but then he thinks of his mother—she’s possibly never been on a broomstick in her life, or else only when she was very, very young; and she gets on perfectly without that skill.
School subjects he already knows about. Granger is horrible at Divination, but Trelawney is a quack, therefore: doesn’t matter. She’s been poor with some of the animals in Care of Magical Creatures, on occasion, but no one needs to be a bloody creature-whisperer these days. She’s had bad results in Potions, but honestly that’s mostly because of sabotage—Draco’s watched Professor Snape knock “accidentally” into her cauldron, watched the girls toss in an extra moth’s wing or errant drops of ink, watched the he-Weasley chop ingredients incorrectly and unwittingly sabotage the results himself.
Granger doesn’t excel when it comes to her blood, but on the other hand he has to admit it’s not something she can control. Blood isn’t something one excels at, he notes, just something one has. (There’s something in that statement that bothers Draco, that to him, but he doesn’t address it—not now.)
The last thing he thinks of is manners—the actual hallmarks of good breeding. It seems like a done deal, and easy answer—he’ll observe Granger eating in the Great Hall, give a lofty laugh to rival Daphne’s, and prove to everyone that he’s not to be laughed at. Daphne will concede, apologize, and feel properly shamed.
But after a bloody week of watching Granger eat; Draco’s convinced she has perfect manners. She knows how to properly dip a spoon into a bowl of soup, how to wield both a knife and fork when consuming a cut of meat, how to place her silverware on her plate when she’s finished eating. When she sits alone with a book, she is still careful; and though reading at the table is rude with guests, Draco can’t imagine it matters if you’re dining alone. He’s been waiting for her to slip up, but especially when put against the backdrop of Potter and he-Weasley, Granger’s poise and grace is immaculate.
The Yule Ball, it seems, will be Draco’s redemption. Granger will show up on the arm of the he-Weasley, wearing something Muggle and outlandish and horrifically out of style, and that’ll be the end of it. Still, there’s a wait, a number of weeks in which Draco bides his time. Some nights when he has trouble falling asleep he’ll imagine it, dream it—the supreme stupidity of the he-Weasley, the picture of Granger in some monstrosity she thinks is a dress.
Of course that’s not quite how things go, either.
As the champions enter the Great Hall for the Yule Ball, Draco isn’t paying attention—he’s scanning the crowd for Granger. The he-Weasley is here, but it appears he’s failed to return Granger’s rather obvious crush and asked someone else. In the weeks of watching Granger, waiting for her to slip up, Draco’s noted her terrible taste in men; not only does she count Potter as a friend rather than a suitor—when he is obviously the more attractive of her two friends—but she turns occasional adoring eyes on that horrible he-Weasley. As it is, the he-Weasley’s robes look like they’re falling apart; Draco can spot the moth holes in those terrible lace cuffs from halfway across the room.
He’s noticed other things, too, watching Granger for weeks—that she’d drink pumpkin juice with every meal, with every entrée, no matter how ill-suited it is. That she chews the dry tip of her quill while she’s taking notes. That she has a habit of fluffing her hair one-handed when she’s thinking—which must be part of what makes it so ridiculously wild and unruly. He’s noticed how her face changes when she notices a friend in the hallway, how she always helps Longbottom when he’s dropped or spilled or broken something. How her cheeks flare with a blush, ever-so-slightly, when she’s allowed to answer a question in class—
Beside him, Pansy gasps softly, and Draco glances briefly in the direction of the champions, wondering what’s happened. Krum has just made his entrance, escorting some lovely, model-esque girl in a periwinkle dress—
It takes a full minute at least for Draco to realize his mouth is hanging open, ever-so-slightly. He closes it with a snap, but nobody notices: the entire elder population is staring at that beautiful girl with Krum, the one who easily takes his shoulder and his hand as he prepares to waltz her with the other champions as the opening to the dance. Because that beautiful girl isn’t just some girl, some Hufflepuff no one’s ever really looked at or Slytherin royalty like Daphne—it’s Granger.
As Krum moves, Granger moves effortlessly with him. He leads and she follows as if she’s been waltzing all her life, as if dance comes as easily to her as breathing. Draco’s only ever danced with a few girls like that, only been that comfortable himself a handful of times. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. It’s downright bloody infuriating.
Krum speaks to Granger as he twirls her and she quirks her mouth at him softly, inclining her head upward slightly to reply. Krum leans in closer, and Granger is the picture of confidence, a sparkling jewel in a sea of mediocrity.
Draco seethes. When the dance breaks, Krum and Granger stay on the floor for the next and Draco grabs Pansy, dragging her out into it. As the night wears on Pansy complains—he’s not getting her punch, he’s not giving her compliments, he’s not even looking at her half the time. Meanwhile, Granger attends to Krum as if he’s the only person in the room, her composure only cracking briefly when Krum leaves to get her a drink and she notices he-Weasley rudely abandoning his date to come speak to her.
Draco watches the storm come across her face, the way she keeps it measured when speaking to the redhead—and how easily she turns then to Krum when he returns, picking up just where they left off, moving back onto the dance floor and away from he-Weasley as if he never existed.
As the night drags on, Pansy keeps talking about the after-party in the dungeons, about just how much alcohol they’ve secured to really help the evening along. Draco pretends to care, but only barely; so when Pansy insists on leaving for the party, Draco dismisses her in the most convincing way he can. He tells her has business with Professor Snape, hoping she hasn’t noticed that Snape isn’t even present. Pansy doesn’t appear to care, to even listen to what he says. She whines that he needs to have fun with the rest of them but hurries off with a pack of fourth-year girls.
As soon as Pansy is out of sight, Draco turns back to catch sight of Granger—only to realize he doesn’t see her anywhere, at which point he also becomes uncomfortably self-aware. What is he even doing? Why does it matter where Granger is and what she is or isn’t good at? It’s all Daphne’s fault, getting into his head like that. It doesn’t matter how lovely Granger looks in a delicate periwinkle dress—she’s still Granger.
But when Draco exits the Great Hall, he nearly collides with Potter and he-Weasley. Snapping something vaguely rude at them, he continues on toward the corridor that leads to the Slytherin dungeon when he hears a faint sound.
It is inaccurate to say that Draco acts out of anything like compassion. No, he certainly doesn’t feel a tug, doesn’t feel guilt when he hears a woman crying. He turns and walks in the opposite direction because he wants to see who is pathetic enough to hole up crying in a corridor. He casts a spell to muffle his footsteps so that he’ll have a good view, tell the story later with a good laugh—not because he hopes to help. He feels something when he sees Granger because—because it’s scorn, that’s all it is, for how pitiful she is.
She’s sitting on one of the half-steps at the bottom of a tight spiral staircase, just in the shadows, her arms around her knees. She’s trying to be quiet, to be discrete, but she wasn’t even able to make it to the Gryffindor tower without breaking down—Pitiful. She sits up just slightly to wipe at her eyes, and a soft gasp alerts Draco to the fact that she’s seen him.
“Go away,” she calls, her voice wavering from the tears.
“No,” Draco defies her, though his response holds a lot less malice than he meant it to.
“What do you want,” she tries next, spitting the question like a statement, uninterested in the answer.
“I can’t imagine the great Krum doing something so rude as to disappoint you like this… who could it be, hmm?” Draco wonders aloud as he advances toward her. He’s convinced he’s finally got her, he’s finally got something on her—but just what isn’t clicking yet. He keeps talking. “Potter? But no, that doesn’t seem right…”
“Shut up,” Granger sits up, letting go of her knees.
“Perhaps that Weasley—”
“Shut up!” she’s on her feet, now, her hands clenched at her sides. She reaches for her wand, only to see it isn’t there—she’s left it on the stairs behind her.
In her moment of hesitation, Draco has grabbed her by the shoulders, stopped her in her tracks. “What a fool,” he mutters.
Granger wrenches free, raises a hand to strike him. He avoids the blow easily, catching her wrist. “Weasley, I mean,” he continues.
“What?” Granger furrows her eyebrows. She goes to move her hand again, but Draco holds her easily, his other hand still on her shoulder. “Well why don’t you insult Harry, too, and then you’ll have the whole set!”
“You make me crazy,” Draco says softly. It’s not the way he meant to say it at all—he meant to let go of her, to leave, to go drink with the other Slytherins.
Granger freezes, trying to read his face.
“I’ve been trying to find something you do poorly—you know that?” Draco says, releasing her wrist. “Something you don’t excel at, something that matters?”
She doesn’t move away. He keeps his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure you have plenty of material,” Hermione says faintly, for all the world resembling a deer in the headlights.
“To the contrary,” Draco replies, his hand sliding along her shoulder toward her neck. It’s as if he’s not in control of his body anymore, and yet as if he’s finally arrived at the right conclusion, the one that was there all along. He moves his hand into her hair, brushing at the curls of her delicate updo, and Granger leans into his touch, her mouth falling slightly open.
It’s all instinct now. Draco leans down and kisses her, capturing that lip between his, soft—but she doesn’t react, doesn’t lean in or even move against his lips. She’s stiff, surprised. Draco gently pushes his tongue between her lips, trying to gain entry, and suddenly her mouth has widened, too soft and spitty, sucking—
Draco pulls back, blanching a little. He should feel triumphant, because he’s found it—he’s found the thing that Granger doesn’t excel at. She’s completely rubbish at it, really—her instincts are all wrong, her mouth positioning is off—
“I—I’m sorry, I haven’t… done this,” Granger says, trying to step back out of his grasp.
Let’s face it, Draco tells himself. I’m never telling Daphne about this. He smooths her hair, shushes her gently. “Here,” he leans down. “I’ll teach you.”